Sunday, March 27, 2016

Teaching Music: Using Your Ears

An old post found in my draft folder, which I'm publishing a couple of months later (4/08/2016).

After probably a year of our music teachers advising me to do something, I've finally done it, and it is so clever that I'm sharing it with you so that you can do it--next week, or next month, or next year, when you get to it!

I put all the songs our children are learning to play on YouTube playlists for listening purposes.

We have three children taking piano lessons, one of whom also takes violin lessons, and they're often learning songs with which they're unfamiliar or only a bit familiar. Children need their ears trained to hear the music before they can play it well, well being the operative word. The teacher can teach the notes to the child, and teach the technicalities of how long to hold each note, but the result will remain a bit stiff, like a native Japanese speaker singing an aria in German: no matter how exquisite the vocal singing, the words sound 'hollow' because the vocalist doesn't actually know what they mean.

Our teachers kept pointing out this phenomenon to me: that our children could learn the technicalities of the songs, but the songs weren't "in their souls" (my words).

The point was driven home one day recently when we were picking a Christmas song for Mary (7) to play on violin. As they chatted through options, Jingle Bells was mentioned--a song with which Mary actually is very familiar--and Mary picked up her violin, her teacher distractedly shuffling through papers, and inquired, "Like this?" She played Jingle Bells without sheet music and never having been taught just because the music is "in her soul," she knows from her ear what notes make up Jingle Bells, and she knows how to make those notes on her violin. Combine those three factors and you've got Jingle Bells on the violin and one shocked mama.

The teacher pointed out the power of using one's ears and reminded me to make up their play lists, which I promptly stayed up late that night completing. It was actually a fun process to pick what I considered excellent examples of the songs (and with lyrics whenever possible because knowing lyrics helps playing a song immensely), such as this amazing 'natural' version of El Condor Pasa, Harry Belafonte's original Banana Man Song, or John Williams himself directing Star Wars Main Theme.

We have been playing the YouTube play lists in the background during our school mornings. I put the computer on another screen so the children do not get distracted by watching the videos.

I was fascinated to learn that my children often (half the time?) did not recognize the songs they were hearing: these are songs they have learned, memorized, and can play on piano or violin, but they did not recognize the song when played to them. That shows the huge disconnect when the music is not "in the soul"! Their fingers were trained but not their ears.

Immediately, and I mean the first day, I noticed a new vigor in the children's songs as they played practice. For example, it was like Mary's violin piece of "Over the Rainbow" went from sounding dead to sounding alive!

This is such an easy trick and one I couldn't find time to implement for so long, but the results are great so I want to encourage any other "music parents" out there to try this technique.

Technical note: one could use YouTube, load these onto an mp3 player, burn a CD, or other technological options. One danger to note on YouTube is that there are commercials that pop up and play automatically.

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