A radically different approach to piano teaching: Music Moves by Marilyn Lowe, learn by listening, moving, playing, singing, chanting!
n 2005 as a fairly new piano teacher I enrolled on a 2 year distance learning post graduate diploma course at Reading University called Music Teaching in Professional Practice (Mtpp) (sadly now defunct). I'd been teaching a couple of years and felt sure there must be more to music teaching than I was then doing, but I just didn't know what it was. I taught in the way I'd been taught, starting with Middle C and using notation from day one.
The Reading course started with a week long summer school when we were exposed to dozens of new ideas including singing and moving as ways to teach music, the ideas of significant music educators such as Kodaly and Dalcroze. From this first week my teaching was transformed. I sought out new information and ways of doing things and as soon as term started in September I was ready with an entirely new approach. My students were introduced to playing by ear, singing before and as they played, improvisation and many other new activities. Over the next couple of years I went on both the Kodaly and Dalcroze summer schools. My and my students' enjoyment rocketed and my studio became very successful. These experiences made me into the teacher many of you know today.
I learned so much on the Mtpp at Reading it kept me going professional development wise for many years, until The Curious Piano Teachers (CPT) came into being in May 2015. Still being keen to learn new approaches I became a founder member. Membership of the CPT refreshed my teaching and exposed me to yet more new ideas!
One of these new ideas is Music Moves for Piano by Marilyn Lowe. Marilyn's teaching and tutor books are informed by the research of Edwin Gordon, a music educator and researcher who passed away a few years ago. He devoted his career to studying how children learn music and developed a theory of music learning called Music Learning Theory (MLT). Music Learning Theory brings together the ideas of all the great music educators including Kodaly, Dalcroze and of course Gordon himself.
Gordon found children do not learn music best through reading notation from day 1. I stopped using notation from day one in 2005 and did from a few weeks to a few months without notation however Gordon takes it much further and only introduces reading once it is developmentally appropriate and many fundamental musical skills such as keeping a beat, understanding rhythm, singing and learning to listen have been developed.
In the MLT approach, before reading is introduced children learn music the same way as they learn language. Think about your child's acquisition of language. What process do they go through? Well, they:
In many areas of the world (think Scandinavia) children don't start to learn to read until they are 7 or 8 and research shows they read just as well and with less of a struggle than those who learn to read earlier.
Music is a language that needs to be acquired in the same way as spoken language. But traditional music teaching does not follow this approach. It starts at the last stage of language acquisition, with the written symbol. Is it any wonder that many (is it most?) children learning the traditional way struggle with their instrumental lessons? Well meaning teachers are expecting them to read without having developed all the skills necessary before the reading can be successful, enjoyable and pretty easy. Children are also not able to easily understand abstract concepts (such as reading music) before the age of about 9. Of course this depends on the child; this year I have had a couple of 8 year olds very able to grasp music reading but some younger ones have found it more difficult and reinforced my belief that using Music Moves in the first couple of years of learning is something I will do with all children aged 4-7.
During my time at Reading University I read Teaching Music Musically by Keith Swanick that made the point that the eyes are a stronger sense than the ears and when a child is struggling to interpret notation their eyes take over and their ears are not used. So the musical experience is lost in the struggle to read. There is a real risk that this leads not to a love of music but resistance to it.
I have long believed that there is more to playing the piano than simply reading notation and for years have tried to put this into practice through improvising and playing by ear but as soon as reading is introduced the lesson focus tends to become largely about reading and other areas are pushed aside. These other areas are what makes true musicians and, as well as playing by ear and improvising include:
When reading is introduced too early these other vital aspects get pushed out because there just isn't time for everything. And learning to read takes time, especially when the listening, moving, improvisation and playing foundation hasn't been laid.
Since April 2020 I have been piloting Music Moves material in online piano lessons with two 6 year olds and have seen for myself that this method brings music to the forefront of the child's experience. Children learn to listen to music, move to it, sing, chant, improvise vocally and at the piano and learn to play short pieces, sometimes solo often accompanied by the teacher. I have watched these two girls, who started from very different places, flourishing. In a few short months they have become independent, accomplished musicians, able to remember and play all the pieces they have learned. They are developing a natural pianist's hand shape and technique (without even realising it) while having fun, musical experiences at all times. Their imaginations are inspired, they play musically and they love their piano. I feel emotional when I see how well they are doing and how engaged they are with the process. This is not how my music lessons were!
Music Moves is a programme that can be done in groups of 3 and once social distancing is no longer necessary Surrey Music School will be enrolling children aged 4-6 into this new programme which will give children the best introduction to music you could possibly wish for them. If you want your child to fall in love with music, then this is the programme you need.
To get on the waiting list for when face to face teaching resumes please submit your email address below and I'll be in touch. If you want to know when face to face teaching may resume please read the blog post about it!
Director of Surrey Music School.