Because I am a naturally curious person, my path in life has led me on a strange magical journey. In particular, three events have brought me a new view of teaching music: 1) my work as an information designer for Fortune 500 clients, 2) becoming a father and 3) my son’s separation anxiety that forced me to spend months in the preschool classroom. This has allowed me to bring new ideas to the area of teaching music to young children (or anyone).
As I set out to teach music, first to my then four year old son and then his classmates, I realized I had some parameters:
- It must not rely on words. This is a mostly pre-literate audience.
- It cannot involve highly abstract concepts like fractions, which are beyond comprehension at this age.
- It must rely on direct labelling (more on this below).
- Each activity must have a five minute focus time as you will lose their attention soon.
- It needs to be as intuitive as possible.
- It needs to account for lack of fine motor skills. Many four year olds still have trouble holding a pencil or writing their name.
I didn’t set out to invent a new music teaching method, but that’s what happened because I couldn’t find anything that properly addressed these issues. I spent about a year researching and buying hundreds of dollars in method books on Amazon, and I visited the library weekly. Most of the highly regarded method books were clearly addressing an older age group. Many even started with reading music on the traditional staff!
Traditional music notation is a wonderful thing. It has lasted over a thousand years! Hard to believe! And it has been refined over the centuries. It is a highly abstract and data dense infographic. Translating sound from pictures is basically an information design problem. This was a big epiphany for me! It has to be understandable to the audience and my audience was clearly different than most music teachers. When I started talking to other teachers, I discovered most would not even accept a student until they were at least in kindergarten and many not until they were eight years old. And now I knew why. They just didn’t have a way of reaching the younger age group. In the last eight years, I’ve used my teaching studio as a curriculum lab and have discovered what works and what doesn’t.
Here are a few things I found:
Music is written on a staff of five lines. The dots represent how high or low the pitch is. But translating the pitch to a key on a piano or a fret on a guitar requires an abstract label of thinking. Adults know that we can say this is C and this is what it looks like, and this is where it is on your instrument. That is already a disconnect for a child (and even many adults)! We need a direct label between the visual and the physical which will produce the aural. To do that, I use color.
Color is instantly recognizable to children. I can say play the red note and they can instantly find it on the instrument. (Of course, you’ll need to prepare it in advance.)
So I created a color scheme to teach a limited set of notes and then mapped them out on the piano keys. (We’ll focus on the piano for the rest of this article, but I’ve used this on string instruments as well.)
I used five colors to label C- D- E- F-G. Why five? I wanted to limit the data set of information to a manageable number and because every child at this age can count to five.
Most traditional piano methods assign a finger number with the thumb being one and the index two and so on. I did the same, but knowing that this was not a direct labelling, I also added color. So we traced their hands, and labelled each finger with colors.
To make it even more direct, I would even “paint” the nails of their hands with the corresponding color with washable markers. They loved this! Especially since the markers had fruity scents.
Now it was only a matter of showing them a song that would allow them to make music. To do this I would do a direct demonstration on the piano and sing along. In addition I created a visual notation using color that any preschooler could “read.” Instead of using a staff, I would start with just colored boxes.
So why boxes and not note-heads? Well, I was using colored tape on the keys of my piano. It looked like little colored boxes. So again, to make it a direct correlation, I made the notation the same.
My original color scheme was somewhat chosen at random. I had assigned C – red, D – green, E – pink, F – yellow and G – blue. But as I experimented with my color schema, I remembered reading some articles and books about the link between color and sound. There was quite a lot of information about synesthesia, which is when someone can hear a pitch and see a corresponding color. This was interesting, but it seems it wasn’t always a universal correlation. Some saw middle C as red and others saw it as blue. But in reading Sounding the Inner Landscape, Music as Medicine by Kay Gardner, I was blown away by the idea that sound and light are linked.
If you think about it, everything is a vibration. Light is measured in frequency as well as sound. Sound is a slower vibration than light. But if you sped up the sound, say many, many octaves higher, it would turn into light! And we as humans can perceive specific colors based on the frequency of light.
The ancient mystics knew this and there are charts showing the chakras, or energy centers of the body, assigned to specific colors.
And there it was, the rainbow. The rainbow is a natural progression of colors that corresponds to different frequencies. Plus, every kid has seen a rainbow! So after a few years, I shifted all my colors to map out like a rainbow: C-red, D-orange, E-yellow, F-green, G-blue. Now I’m not sure if anyone can feel the difference, but it’s nice to know I’m aligned with the universe! Good vibrations all around.
In the process of developing these insights, I also learned a huge amount about how to present these ideas using the same principles of information design. I learned many of these principles from Edward Tufte’s books and live courses, such as how and when to use principles like the “smallest effective difference”, “parallelism”, the “use of whitespace”, etc.
Right now, I am in the middle of preparing an online training course to teach these methods. It is based on the principles outlined in this article and will include a 12 week curriculum (for piano to start and I will add more instruments later) with detailed lesson plans, activities, games and even what kind of notes to send the parents. I’m anticipating a launch date of October 31, 2015. As I am teaching this for the first time, I want to have a lot of feedback and will be opening a limited number of slots for a VIP Charter Class which will have the benefit of personal Q&A sessions with me on a bi-weekly basis for three months. This will enable me to address the real-life needs of my teaching fellows. If you would like to apply for this first class, please join my invitation list: VIP Charter Class
One of the side effects of having a clear and direct method of teaching young children is that the success of my students has brought me many more students. I would love this to happen for you too. Let’s spread the joy of music together.