Thoughts on teaching music to children

The following are some thoughts on teaching music and instruments to children. As I have mentioned before I did not understand music as a child. I've been thinking about why this happened and how it could have been avoided.

Accounting for learning styles

Music can be taught in multiple ways:

  • Theoretically based on music theory, patterns and note names.
  • Visually by watching other players and replicating
  • By ear, listening to melodies and figuring them out on an instrument.
  • Through physics, such as observing the slow oscillation of a bass guitar string.

People learn in different ways and none of these are inherently correct or wrong, just different. For something to be understood it must align with an individuals learning style. Not catering to this will lead to a subset of students thinking "I suck at music". This was a big obstacle for me as my learning style leans toward physics and theory. If an approach isn't working try something else.

The education system is quite poor at catering to learning styles. Classes are typically assigned to a single teacher who will have a preferred way of teaching. By comparison, adults can browse different explanations in books/on-line and try multiple teachers to find a method that works for them. Some students failing to understand does not imply that someone is a bad teacher, just that their approach doesn't work for the learner. I don't think anyone can teach in a way that makes sense to all students.

Passive learning should not be underestimated either. My interest in technology started from watching my dad making model ships and doing general DIY. Unlike music, I picked up those skills quite intuitively. I was exposed to things years before they came up in school and was among the best in class in these subjects. Perhaps teachers should allow and encourage students to observe experienced players.

Teaching muscle memory effectively

When some muscle movements such as the fingerings of an instrument are repeated frequently they become automatic. This is called muscle memory and is absolutely critical to playing musical instruments. Developing muscle memory requires regular practice, far more than the one lesson a week typically given to music in schools.

I suspect it would be better to have a lesson every day for a few weeks in the beginning. This directly shows the learner how muscle memory develops if they practice regularly and doesn't require them to take that on faith. Simply telling them to practice is unlikely to be effective as they have no context to understand that. Obviously it isn't practical to maintain this indefinitely but it should be enough to plant a seed.

Beyond this pairing with a parent or guardian who also plays or is simultaneously learning is a good idea. Practicing with someone else is a lot more enjoyable, especially for young children with a short attention span. Plus while a child can understand something in a lesson, when they come back to it after a day or two the context is lost and they may not understand anymore. Pairing solves this as the adult can explain things when it is needed.

Music may also be promoted as a fun social thing, encourage the children to form bands and get them to show off their skills to each other. This creates a natural competition which encourages practice. Make sure that making mistakes is socially accepted and encourage them to point out each other's errors.

Teaching technique

Playing an instrument is technically complex and there are numerous errors that can be made in technique. In the case of the ocarina one has to:

In each of these cases there are many ways that things can go wrong. Just holding the instrument offers mistakes like covering holes using the fingertips or forcing the thumb to bend backwards. It may be best to teach initial lessons one to one as it is easier to notice and quickly correct mistakes.

Environmental teaching may also be a solution. In this technique instead of telling the student what to do, they are placed in an environment in which the solution is obvious. This is frequently used for teaching mechanics in video games, for instance this episode of game makers toolkit shows its use in half life 2.

For music, this would involve visual demonstration combined with verbal cues and some hands on adjustments. The latter is required as students can come to the wrong solution — it can be difficult to connect a verbal instruction with a physical action. Playing with accompaniment, a form of environmental teaching, is the most intuitive way I know of developing a sense for intonation.

Don't assume that children will intuitively correct postural errors. I experienced a similar problem with my pen grip for writing. I have hitch hikers thumbs and for a long time folded my thumb back while holding a pen/pencil. This causes joint pain and made me avoid writing until I got a computer. Writing by hand is still difficult for me because of this.

Using individual interests

I strongly believe that music should be taught using an individuals interests as a hook. Often someone wants to learn music because they have heard a song or tune that resonates with them. They want to learn how to play it. Build on this and show them how to play it; don't bog them down with technical exercises. If that means making vast simplifications and playing really slowly, that's OK. New players have not yet learned to hear details, so even a loose facsimile can resonate and build confidence. From their point of view they are playing their favourite song.

As someone progresses, they will notice their technique limiting them. At this point, show them how to improve it through subtle hints and guidance. A good way to do this is to make technical exercises from tune fragments. Having this connection enables the student to see how the exercise relates to the music they want to play, it is no longer an abstract thing. I think pure technical excesses should be avoided with complete beginners. They want to play their favorite song and lack the context to understand how technical exercises help them do so.

Avoiding confusion from simplifications

Making simplifications is fine if it helps someone to progress but it may also be misleading. While learning a simplification it is easy to assume that it is the whole story. Suddenly revealing additional complex layers can be really off-putting and cause a student to give up. Consequently, where simplifications are made, it should be made obvious to the learner that they don't have the whole story. I cannot recommend ocarina tabs for this reason, as there is a huge volume of missing information and little indication that it is missing. By comparison, if you ignore rhythm and focus on the note heads while learning sheet music, it's blatantly obvious that you don't have the whole story.

If a student asks a question about omitted details, at least try to answer it. At one point in my school music class, the teacher introduced the basics of keyboard and sheet music, and I asked, 'What are the black keys for?' While this is a perfectly natural question, it was shrugged off. That response caused me to falsely assume that it's extremely complicated. If instead they had shown me another scale or introduced the major scale formula, I may not have abandoned music.

In closing

Much of the skill in playing an instrument is separable from the instrument itself. Melodies can be played on any Western instrument with enough range. I think music teaching should focus on how music works in a general sense rather than focusing too closely on a single instrument.

I don't think that everyone has to enjoy playing music. Some will take to it immediately, some will come back to it years later and some may never do so. This is OK—people have different strengths and weaknesses. Children should be allowed to explore and discover what there's are. If someone isn't grasping something try a different approach or let them give up, forcing things usually just results in resentment. If it is instead left open they may come back to it in the future.