Singing the Praises of Early Musical Training
Parents can choose among a variety of methods from Dalcroze Eurythmics to Suzuki - or just the school chorus
BOSTON — Plato once said that music "is a more potent instrument than any other for education." And scientific research shows that musical studies can promote greater high-order thinking and enhance a child's ability to reason.
Parents and educators alike are coming to recognize that, far from being an expendable frill, music is an essential enrichment to children's lives and that introducing music early on is important to the development of a well-rounded child.
A variety of methodologies or philosophies are available for teaching very young children (and their families) and offer a valuable forum for learning and for making music with others. Whichever method parents embrace, educators agree the rewards are great.
Children with musical training scored 80 percent higher than their classmates in studies on spatial intelligence, which later translates into complex math and engineering skills.
Parents' observations include not only higher test scores but also a more organized and disciplined approach to learning in general.
"I've found that it really gives kids a sense of what it takes to become better at something, that when you practice regularly and work at something with care, you improve - that's a life lesson," says Brookline, Mass., mother Amelie Ratliff.
Clarinetist Elizabeth Gustin, a high school senior concurs. "The discipline music requires has an effect on your life. It's given me the discipline to study, to have goals and standards. Music also has given me great confidence."
According to a June 1996 Louis Harris poll, 9 out of 10 Americans say that children become more creative and imaginative, developing greater speaking and writing skills and an overall sense of accomplishment through involvement in music and the arts in general.
And children naturally respond to music, some say even before birth.
Great way to unwind
For many, it becomes a primary form of recreation. "When my son gets really wiped out or stressed, he often plays his instrument to unwind," says Ellen Franco, mother of two.
The ideal age for starting children with musical training, is between 3 and 10 years old. So the time to get music strongly entrenched as a part of a child's general education is earlier than many previously believed.
Some private schools, such as the international system of Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf) schools, integrate music so thoroughly that it is a natural part of every school day. Parents participating in the national network of Home Schooling are also advised to include music as part of daily activities.
Since many public school systems, however, lack funds to adequately integrate significant music studies into the daily curriculum, the responsibility for most children's music education rests squarely on parents' shoulders. Yet many parents, especially baby boomers with a lack of musical education in their own backgrounds, may be at a loss as to how best to offer their children meaningful musical experience at an early age.
Most music educators agree that simply throwing a child into formal lessons on an instrument without some sense of basic musical understanding and appreciation is not the most effective approach.
In the past half century, a number of philosophies have emerged that introduce music into a child's life through a classroom approach. Some begin in infancy, and nearly all stress the importance of parental involvement, which transforms the process from a solitary endeavor to an integral part of family life.
Following are descriptions of some of these philosophies:
Dalcroze Eurythmics is a system for teaching music first codified by the Swiss musician Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, considered by many to be the father of modern music education. The concept hinges on the relationship between music and movement, based on the premise that the body is an ideal instrument for understanding rhythm and other basic musical concepts.
Through improvised movement, children experience and physically internalize the music as a means of both understanding its inherent qualities and as a means of self-expression. Eurythmics, solfge (sight-singing), and improvisation are the three hallmarks of the philosophy. Classes begin as early as 18 months and can continue through the adult years.
"It's a theatrical and playful approach," explains Lisa Parker, chairman of the Dalcroze Department at the Longy School of Music (Cambridge, Mass.). "It's enormously nourishing to the creativity of the student as well as the teacher. In the process, the student develops understanding of musical phrasing, notation, pitch, harmony, all the different elements."
The Kodaly philosophy, which originated in Hungary, is based on the assumption that the most effective entree into music is through the instrument available to us all - the human voice. The movable "do" system of using solfge syllables to understand musical construction is part of this system. Music in the earliest stages is introduced through folk songs and nursery rhymes, and the method includes a movement component as well.
"Music education should begin with the parents singing and playing music and games with their children - that's the primary philosophy," explains Mary Epstein, associate professor of music education at the New England Conservatory and a Ringer Fellow in Kodaly. "Kodaly uses indigenous folk material and develops the culture from the inside. As children grow older, they begin to connect to classical music."
Unlike some methods, which delay certain aspects of musical knowledge, Kodaly stresses a whole music approach. "Musical concepts are never isolated - rhythm and melody are tied together, for example, and all the musical skills are developed from the outset," Ms. Epstein explains.
The Orff approach, developed by composer Carl Orff just after World War II, uses rhythm in speech (word patterns, rhymes) and movement to explore the musical basics of note values, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, etc. In contrast to Kodaly, however, Orff is more experiential (through actually playing instruments), and most of the music itself is improvised.
A special set of Orff percussion instruments give children the gratifying experience of creating their own melodies and harmonies in fairly short order, and the method also uses soprano and alto recorders as primary instruments.
"We teach sound and listening skills almost immediately," explains Orff expert Edna Geary, chairman of music education at the Boston Conservatory. "Children are taught to play instruments sensitively. We might make a setting of a poem and use instruments as sound effects. We might go around the room and ask what each child would like to do, and we all try it. Children really begin to listen and their imaginations take over. By third grade they learn to write music and really appreciate musical structure."
The 10-year-old Music Together program is another class-oriented series held mostly in community music schools or other community-based institutions. Music Together combines a variety of compatible philosophies to engage young children in music through singing, games, and movement. Classes can start at infancy and go through kindergarten.
In addition to these general music philosophies, there are two specific methodologies that immediately involve the acquisition of skills on a specific instrument.
The Suzuki method is the most well-known. Developed in Japan by Shinichi Suzuki, this approach (primarily for string instruments, piano, and flute) is based on learning by rote. Just as children learn to speak before they can read, the Suzuki method centers on getting children to play with good tone, posture, and musical technique by imitating an adult before teaching them the musical symbols for the sounds they produce.
As he outlines in his popular book "Nurtured by Love," Dr. Suzuki believes every child has the potential to achieve at a high level given a commitment to practice and listen to music daily. Lessons can start as early as age 3, and parental involvement is crucial, with parents learning the instrument alongside the child.
Repetition in playing and in listening to music is key. Children learn ensemble skills in group lessons.
The Yamaha method of reed organ builder Gen'ichi Yamaha evolved just after World War II as a way of learning music on the keyboard by copying. "Just as children learn to speak by mimicking, they learn music the same way, first by singing and copying patterns to gain pitch memory," explains Karyn Barry, who has taught the method for the past 14 years. "That then is taken to the keyboard and they add chords to melody and learn keyboard harmony. The object is to take a song and change it with melodic variations or new harmonies."
Unlike Suzuki, the method incorporates reading music, harmony, transposition, composition, and improvisation all from the beginning.
Yamaha is taught in a class setting, with students participating alongside their parents. The method stresses an ensemble approach.
There's always the chorus
Another invaluable venue for general musical experience is participation in a children's chorus, whether sponsored by church, school, or the community.
"Singing in a children's chorus is often the best way for a child to experience the fun and challenge of ensemble performance," says Johanna Hill Simpson, director of Performing Arts of Lincoln School (PALS), the prestigious after-school chorus in Brookline, Mass., which has become the children's chorus of choice for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
"Music lessons, like piano lessons, can be fairly isolating," she adds, "but choral music is an ideal situation to apply the readiness and musical skills learned in lessons. A well-organized children's chorus takes a child to interesting places, introduces them to repertoire of many genres, and teaches them to listen carefully to each other. Most of all, it's fun."
"Socialization is part of the process of learning music," Epstein believes. "Singing and musical games are by their very nature a form of introducing ourselves to each other and of playing, which is natural to the human spirit. And learning as a group in choruses and bands is an opportunity to interact with one another, a chance to learn how to be citizens."
For high school clarinetist Gustin, the impact will undoubtedly last a lifetime. Though she has chosen not to pursue music as a career, she says, "I can't imagine life without music. It's definitely enriched my life."
KEY PHONE NUMBERS
Dalcroze Institute of America (Pa.)
National Office of Kodaly (N.D.)
Orff Association of America (Ohio)
Kodaly Institute of America (Ohio)
Suzuki Institute (Wis.)
Yamaha Music Education Institute
Music Together (N.J.)