General Music Today
23(1) 24 –26 © 2009 MENC: The National Association for Music Education
Kenney begins her article with an example of a primary music classroom. The teacher is demonstrating the new song by rote and students are echoing each line as she sings it. Afterwards she introduces a game based on the song and explains the rules. The students play the game while she reminds them to use their light singing voice.
The author cites the book Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, which believes that fragmenting content is the biggest mistake schools make. When we teach bits and pieces of a song the meaningful connections in the brain are interrupted. The brain is able to process parts and wholes simultaneously and in our attempts to simplify the learning process we are not allowing the brain to extract patterns on its own.
Towards the end of the article we revisit the primary music classroom. This time the teacher simply starts into the game with no explanation of the new song. The children watch her actions as they join in the game, correcting their own mistakes while making an attempt to understand. Through repetition, the children gain enough confidence to sing along. They become conscious of their own voice as well as the voices of others and the collective quality and accuracy improves.
Even though each child grasps the game, song, and social challenges at different times, it provides an opportunity for every child to find all of the patterns. This method of teaching allows the brain to problem solve as well as learn through bodily movement. The brain needs a great deal of input to detect patterns as well as time to interpret them, so the repetition of the game is key for understanding. If an understanding is not reached, then the emotional excitement from the experience will prepare the brain for further learning next time. During this process clear singing from students is not immediate and the teacher must be willing to wait and trust that the children will self-correct.
In my own classroom I teach new primary songs by rote. I follow the “one phrase at a time” method where the students echo what I sing or play. This is usually the quickest way to achieve results and move on to the next learning expectation in the lesson. This was also how I was taught and what I thought was the easiest way to absorb information.
I think as teachers we identify “success” with product rather then process, and reading this article has caused me to re-evaluate my methods of rote instruction. Do I correct students too early rather then letting them figure it out on their own? Am I too concerned with teaching the “correct” way of singing instead of letting them explore different pathways? And ultimately, am I breaking down the song into phrases because I don’t think their brains handle the whole thing?
After this reading I started to incorporate whole song instruction into my pedagogy. At first students were confused, but it was interesting to see their faces as their brains tried to make sense of the patterns. They were no longer passive participants because now there was a puzzle for their brains to solve. I think this article is valuable for music educators because it asks us to think about how we teach music beyond reaching curriculum expectations. It asks us to incorporate brain development into our practice, which could benefit the student in a non-musical way.