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5 New Tips on Teaching Music the 21st Century Way

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

I often hear music teachers of older kids talking about how they can’t do music games now that their students are older. I call BS! There’s no age when music shouldn’t be fun.

It’s strange that when people reach a certain age they decide that things just don’t have to be fun anymore. That’s just culture, it’s not actually based on what happens to our brains as we get older. The truth is, we all need more play in our lives.

When I was at Tufts, I took a class as part of my child development major on schools and education. One of our assignments in that class was to play for 30 minutes and then write a reflection. Sounds simple enough. Turns out, none of us remembered how to play. We emailed one another frantically asking if anyone had any ideas for what to play. The concept of play had been squashed out of us over decades of ‘growing up.’

Play is the first way that we learn. Through play, kids explore their environment, learn about how the world works, practice life skills, develop relationships, and process new concepts. But somewhere along the line, we forgot about the power of the imagination and playfulness to help us remember and learn. In the last 20 years, especially, the amount of time kids spend playing has taken a nose dive.

I was drawn to occupational therapy in part because of the way OTs found a way to turn everything into a game. Practicing picking things up? There’s a game. I can think of about 10 games to teach writing the letter ‘A’. Anything from strengthening random neck muscles, to practicing visual perception all become obstacle courses, swings, crafts, or other activities.

So, why do OTs turn work into play? Because the outcomes are better! Kids are actually more focused, less time is wasted, more skills are retained, and it motivates them to keep trying and honing difficult skills.

Playfulness is making a comeback in education. Books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Sleepy Little Alphabet, Alpha Oops!, LMNO Peas, etc. bring the alphabet to life and help kids connect with the letters. In the past few years, Kickstarter has also had a boom of new authors writing imaginative storybooks to teach lots of new topics including: computer coding, periodic elements, foreign languages, and more.

Now music education is falling behind. Still, the only way music educators teach is through small black notes. That would be like only teaching the alphabet with Times New Roman 12-point font. The 21st century has opened up a lot of knowledge and research, and it’s time to use that research to improve music education. Because children deserve better.

If something like music isn’t fun, kids give up. How many students have to needlessly quit, thinking they don’t like music, before we realize that the problem is with the teaching resources and not the students! We need to develop the tools that get kids beyond the beginner stage faster, so they can start playing what speaks to their souls sooner, and we can retain lifelong musicians.

What are the keys to 21st century music education?

FableNotes brings music education into the 21st century, bringing the notes to life through lovable characters and memorable stories.

1. Open your mind to different types of students

People have told me many times that they’re surprised that I’m willing to take students “so young,” but I don't believe there is as such thing as too young for music. People also wonder how I could teach piano to kids with disabilities. My studio acceptance is based on one simple question: does the child have an interest in music?

If you decline students based on their disabilities, you may have been that child's last chance to access music education. I believe that any teacher can teach a child with the right tools. I hope this blog will serve as a resource for music teachers looking to adapt their teaching style to become more inclusive.

2. Put away your timeline

Fellow teachers often tell me there’s not enough time for play. So they don’t reserve time in kids lessons for learning games. But, are you really ‘saving time’ if your music student ends up dreading music and quits within a few years?

When I’m teaching students, whether or not they have disabilities, I meet them exactly where they’re at. Some kids do best when they stick with colored music for a while, but this makes it so that even a 3-year-old can begin playing real repertoire that interests them, like Bouree by Teleman. Children this young aren't developmentally supposed to be able to read music! Their visual skills are really still developing. But if all we had to do was put some sticky notes on the keys and color the music, then why note make it accessible and fun for her. By teaching the old-fashioned way, young kids get stuck in the beginner stage, as they can only play what they can read.

Other kids might be able to read standard music notation by the second lesson. Regardless, we work our way through each step, breaking down tasks into the next most manageable chunk, so that I know they’re able to confidently move through the ranks as a musician. But on our journey, I always make lots of time for games. Which brings me to the third tip for teaching music the 21st century way:

3. Make it fun:

I use the FableNotes learning materials to teach where to find the notes on the sheet music.

  • Piano keys- we move little characters and race up the piano to whatever note you roll on a dice.

  • Rhythm- We use dice to randomly generate a series of music note lengths, then we explore how it fits into a time signature.

I use games to teach lots of other concepts as well, like sharps and flats, hand position, finger numbers, composition, skips and steps, triads, etc. There's still plenty of time to drill the tough parts of the songs they're working on, but I know that when it's time to buckle down, they'll be totally efficient and focused.

4. Don’t just teach notes- teach music

Have you ever heard the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”? Playing an instrument goes deeper than just playing each note. The sum of music is greater than each note that goes into a song. It goes much deeper, involving the relationships between the notes, and the way we play the notes in relation to one another.

When kids read Here Come the High Notes, they start to reflect on the relationships between notes as they read about how the notes interact. The characters' personalities and unique relationships help students to begin to understand concepts like musical intervals and chords.

5. Prepare their whole selves for music

Music, like any learning, involves the whole body. It begins by making sure the core of the body is stable. I use a stool that's really adjustable so that my students from ages 2+ can always have their feet on a firm surface. I change the height for every student so that their knees are at 90 degree angle. My stool is about like this one (*not an affiliate link).

There's a saying in occupational therapy that goes "proximal stability leads to distal mobility." That basically means that if your trunk is stable, it'll be easier for you to focus on small movements of your fingers or mouth to play an instrument or sing. But if your feet are dangling, you'll be wasting too much brain energy on struggling to stay upright, and it compromises your ability to focus on learning littler movements.

But sometimes it's not just posture you have to consider, but sensory needs. Some of my students benefit from getting lots of sensory input during their piano lessons. Sometimes during my lessons we read Here Come the High Notes, or go through workbook pages on a swing or while rocking them in a rocking chair. Other times we might do rhythm exercise while bouncing on a ball or mini trampoline.

Kids might need sensory supports for a variety of different reasons. Some of my students who need movement games incorporated into their lessons have sensory processing disorder, seizures, autism, ADHD, chromosomal disorder, or they may have no diagnosis at all. More than 1 in 20 children have sensory processing difficulties, so it's important for teachers to be aware of all the ways to make music more accessible for these students.

With the right tools, everyone can learn and/or teach music.

Special needs is just that, special needs. I'm exited to be a part of helping teachers to learn some of those needs so that we can welcome any new student with open arms. You can always contact me via the contact page for specific advice on making music accessible for a child you know. Sign up for the email list to get blog updates and more ideas for accessible music education.

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