The Challenges Of Teaching Pre-literate Preschool Music Students
“Most music method books are confusing, cluttered, and just plain suck!”
If you take a look at the way traditional music publishers present information, it makes little sense. There’s too much visual noise on the page, along with confusing notes intended for different audiences. Nevertheless, this is how so many music teachers begin the first lesson with their students.
Music As A Visual Design Problem
About 10 years ago, my son began to express some interest in learning to play the piano. Even though I had been teaching music on and off since a teenager, I had never taught a young preschooler music. At the time, I was heavily involved as an information architect and web designer. I’d spent over a decade at the forefront of the industry, even co-founding the first digital marketing agency in Asia. So initially I tried to find a teacher with experience in this age group. To my surprise there were none, outside of a Suzuki program which was far too stringent. They wanted me to take two lessons per week, alongside my son’s two lessons. Not to mention, I needed to commit to purchasing an acoustic piano. It just seemed out of touch with the demands of modern parents.
I realized there was a gap in the market. It’s not very hard to find a “Mommy and Me” type music program for 1 to 3 year olds. But hardly any music teacher was willing to take on a private music student before age 6; and sometimes 8!
I finally gave in and decide to teach him myself. I began diving back into textbooks from my studies at the NYU music education program. This opened the door to a long acquisition and review process; involving method books from bookstores, neighbors, friends, and of course the library. However, most of what I found was rather disappointing.
Multiple Audiences On A Single Page
It seems publishers put out books that are trying to communicate different things to different audiences simultaneously: teachers, parents, and students.
But these three audiences have very different needs.
- The teacher wants to understand what it is they are expected to explain. Whether it’s a new piece, a new technique, or a new concept.
- The parent wants to be able to understand the goal of the lesson, and be able to help their child practice at home.
- The student (as in my case…a preschooler) is simply trying to remember what they were shown in the lesson. The printed page is nothing more than a mnemonic device to bring back the lesson.
To communicate clearly, one first needs to be cognizant of the audience. It is imperative they communicate to them in a clear and concise manner, without any unnecessary distractions. This same rule applies whether you are speaking to an adult audience or preschool age children.
Because publishers are often trying to save on printing costs, they cram all of this information onto a single page. The end results of these methods are that, no single audience feels completely satisfied.
Visual Design Matters
Information designers working in public transportation, have a much higher standard than music publishers. Their communication has to be clear, concise and understandable. Confusing signage can lead to accidents and even death. Luckily, we as music teachers are not in life or death situations with our lesson plans! But the same visual communication principles need to apply.
As music teachers, we are creative and no matter how bad your handwriting or drawing skills are, you can communicate a lot through a single page. I often will hand draw a music notation for a song we make up right on the spot. Because the music is being created right before their eyes and ears, there is a natural curiosity and engagement. My students love to see my doodles, even if they are just silhouetted stick figures or especially when they come out pretty bad and we all get a big laugh. Still, they always remember this piece as they experienced it’s creation.
And, if you pay attention to not trying to address multiple audiences, but really hone in on the student in front of you, then you are miles ahead in effectiveness and transfer of knowledge.
Teaching preschoolers and children with specialized learning styles and needs as made me so aware of seeing things through their eyes. It is okay to leave a lot of blank space. In fact, it’s necessary. Keep it short and simple.
Another thing, make it large! I print out giant scores using Sibelius where only 4 measures are on a page. Or I hand draw a simple piece in my unique color notation. A song like Hot Cross Buns is an ideal length for most preschool children’s first or second lesson.
Music Should Be For Everyone
Music is a joy, and the expression of spirit is deep within us. It shouldn’t just be exclusively for those who attend conservatory. Neither should it be a “required suffering” before you get to the good (fun) stuff. So many times, I’ve had parents of my students tell me “I wish I had you as my teacher when I was a music student…you make it seem so fun and simple”.
What do you think? Do you experience similar frustrations with method books? I welcome your questions and comments below.