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Music Literacy is Not What You Think

I have some unique perspectives when it comes to music instruction, and that’s because after being classically trained as a pianist, I became an OT (school-based occupational therapist). That opened up a new realization that instruments can be taught or played in unconventional ways and for different (but valid) reasons.

As incredible as our brains are, there’s no one part of our brain that was built for reading music. It takes lots of connections between areas all over the brain. When you add playing the instrument at the same time, your head gets a real workout. So many teachers notice that their students have the same problems when they try to read piano music. So what exactly is going on? And more importantly, what can teachers do about it?

Reading music starts just like learning to read words. The first part is being able to name and find all the notes. This is a really important part, but if we had to name every note individually, we’d never become fast sight readers. So that’s where the second part of reading music comes in: understanding the relationships between the notes. When you put it all together, you’re able to accomplish the third part, which is putting meaning behind the notes. You have to know the notes to be able to notice intervals, understand the direction of the melody, and then shape the phrase. So it sounds like three easy steps… but there’s so much that goes into it.

Why is music so hard?

Heads up: there’s some science in this paragraph…  Vision is one of the most important factors in reading music and playing piano. But vision isn’t just whether or not you need glasses. You can have eyeballs in perfect working order, but if your eye muscles or the visual part of the brain isn’t just right, you’ll have a tough time learning to play the traditional way. Visual skills help you do things like read a high E by seeing that it’s in the top space. You might even have to remember the notes you saw long enough to look at keys and play them in the right order (called visual sequential memory). Piano takes a lot of muscle coordination to be able to move just one finger individually (called isolation) or make them all work together. Sometimes your hands have to be doing different things at the same time, which takes lots of hand-eye (called visual motor) and bilateral coordination.

That’s a lot of work! Are you impressed by your students yet? Because I’m in awe of mine every day just knowing how hard their brains are working! When all these skills become automatic, it gets much easier to play with musicality- the ultimate goal. Here is how you can help students develop a foundation so that these skills can become automatic more quickly.

Developing a Music Literacy Foundation:

There are lots of ways to start honing pre-music-literacy skills and an ear for music, but my rule of thumb is to try not to force skills too fast. It’s most important to develop a love and excitement about music first, so put away your timeline and have fun.

1. Listen and explore:

Typically, the first exposure to music is through listening and exploration. This can build a foundation for understanding how music works, especially if learners can be immersed in music from lots of cultures and instruments. Playing around on an instrument or singing is actually a great way to begin music participation (even if it doesn’t sound so great). I also like to turn rhythm into a game by having my students jump on a trampoline, bounce on an exercise ball, swing on a swing, or even just march in place. That way, kids begin to see rhythm in the world all around us.

This is a great stage to introduce music literacy in a playful way. I hate to see teachers and parents drilling music notation flashcards and sucking the life out of music. I introduce music notes the same way we show kids fun alphabet books from an early age, using FableNotes to grow a familiarity and joy surrounding the ideas of music reading. Here Come the High Notes from FableNotes is the first music literacy book that works the same way children’s books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom work. When you read the book to children, they’re captured by the fun characters and find themselves learning each note through the rhyming stories without it ever feeling like work. This makes them even more excited to be a part of that musical world and ready for the next step:

2. Hear and play

Audiation is a key skill for any musician: it is our ability to ‘think’ a song inside our heads without making any actual sounds. This is the heart of truly musical playing, when you crave the piano for no other reason than for the joy of creating music. But like always, I recommend you start small and make it fun. The most common activity for audiation is B-I-N-G-O, where you don’t sing (but continue to think) chunks of the song. (Remember that one? Like, *clap* I-N-G-O”?) You can also sing a favorite song together, and pretend to press mute while you audiate a part of the song, then ‘un-mute’ and see if you’re still singing the same part of the song together. As students become more musically literate, I ask them to audiate how a hard measure should sound first before practicing it. The FableNotes curriculum gives a framework for talking about audiation, because it gives visual imagery for what audiation feels like in the first pages. That can be helpful for kids who have a harder time catching onto abstract concepts.

The last part of developing a strong music literacy foundation is improvising. You can teach the beginnings of improv starting with two keys an octave apart (usually D’s, because those are easiest to find visually). I like to use the orange FableNotes characters (Friendly D and Clever D) for this one, because it makes it easier for them to understand the octaves and get into the improv. I show them how they like to sing to each other by playing alternating low and high D’s with bouncy rhythms, then I ask them to give it a try. While they play around with ‘chatting octaves’ I play chords that go along, and we jam out! You can also teach improv using the black keys, which make a nice pentatonic song. Through improv, they start to understand what it feels and sounds like to play different intervals and rhythms.

Oftentimes, teachers work on all of these foundation skills in order, but having taught piano to kids with disabilities, I’ve found that sometimes you have to break the mold to fit the child. A strong music foundation can look different for those with disabilities or different learning styles.

Audiation and improvisation on an instrument is (basically) coming up with musical thoughts. And they play a big part in helping a musician to fully understand and create music. But, some kids with disabilities have low ideation and motor planning skills, which basically means it’s difficult for them to come up with new or creative ideas and then use their muscles to accomplish it. So, coming up with and playing musical ideas of their own is a big challenge, and traditionally recommended steps to music literacy are inaccessible.

For these kids, thinking of music in their heads is too abstract, so we might start with ‘push button playing.’ (Here’s where the OT in me comes out.) This is often the concrete, visual, and experiential learning that they need to be able to begin to understand audiation and composition.

In fact, piano can be a really helpful tool for developing all kinds of skills. Music doesn’t care what it sounds like or why it’s played, so why should anyone else? So alongside teaching a love of music participation, sometimes I use the piano to help students achieve their OT goals like improving ideation (creating new ideas), fine motor (finger movements), and visual skills. And I usually do this through a reading-first method.

I’ve found that the FableNotes book and workbook are the best tools out there for kids who still have a hard time with the abstract, including kids with disabilities and the youngest learners. Here Come the High Notes is the perfect way to bring excitement and curiosity into music for all kinds of learners. You can read it to babies and toddlers who will begin to hear the musical language and think about relationships between notes. You can use it to give kids with ideation difficulties a framework to understanding the notes before developing improv and audiation skills. Or you can introduce it once they’ve moved through the typical progression of pre-music literacy, and they’re ready to read music.

Doctors recommend reading books to infants long before they can read, to give them a language and literacy foundation before being in school. The same way, you can teach note reading while exploring music and working towards audiation and improv. Then, by the time their brains can hear how music works, they’ll also be fluent readers in our music notation system.

So take your time in teaching, and follow your student’s lead. If you meet them at their developmental level and work your way up, no matter how unconventional your teaching, they’ll develop a strong foundation in music literacy.

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