Please welcome our guest poster, Amy Allen! Amy Allen has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and a certified Harmony Road Music teacher and opened her own authorized Harmony Road Music Education Center in Western KY. Amy has spent many years serving others through her gift of music.
Years ago, as a college graduate with a degree in music education, I began a private piano studio with about 20 students. Within the first year, I began to notice that not all beginning music students were alike. It’s not that I expected that they would be, for we are all individuals with our own separate personalities and learning styles. But the differences in students really didn’t have as much to do with the students’ personalities, intelligence, or their amount of practice time—and that’s where I was surprised. The differences in the capabilities of my students to learn music had more to do with their rhythmic readiness for piano lessons.
The students who could more easily and readily learn to play were the ones for whom music flowed. They performed with a seemingly innate understanding of rhythm and a sense of the steady beat in music. Where did this come from? Upon further investigation, I realized these students grew up in families that loved music and shared that love through movement. For some, it had been a parent that danced with them, and for others, it was a parent who put on a CD and played along with pots and pans. At any rate, this realization that the ability to rhythmically play begins many years before the start of formal lessons “put me on a mission” to explore teaching preschool music classes. If I wanted all my piano students to be successful, they would all need to be ready.
Rhythm is one of three main aspects of music, the others being pitch or melody, and awareness of steady beat. The actual act of producing a rhythm requires movement. Since children learn best by doing, they must be moving to music at an early age to lay the groundwork for understanding rhythm. Research from The Center for Music and Young Children has explored the idea of movement as a “vital developmental tool for children.”1 To paraphrase an article in their parent newsletter, it would be very unnatural for an infant to sit quietly and still, never moving his legs, turning his head, or reaching with his tiny fingers. These movements are part of the process by which a child learns to coordinate his mind and body. By moving, an infant is stimulating both his muscles and the connection of neural pathways in his brain. When music is added to this mix, and a child experiences the movement in response to the music rhythms, there is an exchange of information between the body, mind, and emotions. In other words, the act of moving provides the experiences a child needs for rhythm learning, and this movement becomes imprinted in his muscles and neural pathways. A greater capacity for understanding and loving music is being created.1
So what should parents of preschoolers be doing? Sing to your infant and gently move his arms or legs to the steady beat. Turn on your radio and dance with him. “On a very unconscious, brain-wiring level, he will associate this tactile stimulation with the music he’s hearing. Similarly, with a toddler who’s experimenting with an egg shaker or a drum, just patting the steady rhythm on her back can help her internalize the beat and organize it in her body. Then, as she grows, you may see her own movements become more steady and rhythmic in response to this tapping.”1 Take a music class with your child. When you become involved with your child in a class filled with movement and song, you become the best model he can have. In addition, a class will equip you with the materials, ideas, and tools for moving and singing on a daily basis at home, and that’s what readiness is all about. In later stages of rhythmic development, your child may begin to move less. He is beginning to “replace concrete doing with imagined activity and abstract thought.”1 Older children are able to “audiate, that is, to hear and understand music in their mind when it is not physically present.”1 At this stage, a child is ready to respond with accuracy to a steady beat of music, and to correctly perform a rhythm pattern. He is more than ready for piano lessons!!
My “mission” to explore preschool music classes for prospective piano students has been a growing process, resulting in the opening of the Harmony Road Music School. The aim to provide rhythmic readiness activities for preschoolers has broadened to include tonal readiness as well. It has also expanded to encompass teaching piano to groups of students, including age-appropriate movement and tonal readiness activities in the curriculum that fits naturally with a group teaching approach.
You would never expect a child to talk who has not heard language or experienced it through babbling. The babbling stage in learning the language of music should include experiences with movement, responding both to rhythm and to pitch. This is readiness, and readiness will ensure success.
1(All quotes are from articles or letters written by Susan Pujdak Hoffman and Kenneth Guilmartin in “Play Along,” a family newsletter from Music Together and The Center for Music and Young Children. Many thanks for their information and inspiration.)