Hoffman Academy Blog

Acquiring Fluency In Music: Listening, Performing, and Improvising

Music has been called the universal language. In an interesting article on this topic in “Psychology Today,” Dr. David Ludden says that even though music doesn’t convey abstract thought the same way words do, music is exceptional at expressing emotion. When humans listen to a conversation in a foreign language, even if they don’t know the details of the conversation, they can tell how the speakers are feeling by the tempo, pitch, and volume of their speech. These same cues convey emotion in music. The language of music taps into a natural, primal way to share the way that we feel. That makes it a powerful form of communication.

Native Language Acquisition

As a young music teacher, world famous music educator Shinichi Suzuki had a life-changing realization. Young Japanese children speak Japanese with astounding fluency! How do they do it, he wondered. Even in countries where the language is considered extremely difficult to learn by non-native speakers, children born there will have no difficulty in mastering their native tongue. If this was true, then could children learn music in the same way?

Think about how young children acquire language. Even before they are born they experience the tone and rhythm of speech. From birth they are surrounded by others who speak. Their first efforts at speech are encouraged, often with great delight, by parents and other family members. Adults speaking to them will use simpler language to help them understand, but babies will also hear the complexities of advanced language spoken around them. As their language skills grow they get plenty of feedback on their efforts. They spend every day immersed in opportunities to hear language and to practice using it themselves. After only a few years, they’re getting pretty good at it!

Suzuki’s idea was to immerse children in the language of music the way they are immersed in their native spoken language. Then learning music should be as natural as learning to speak.

Music from Birth

Kids don’t just grow up surrounded by speech. They also grow up surrounded by music. Parents and other caregivers sing to them. Music plays in the car, at home, even at the store. Television, movies, and games all have music too. There will be music at church, at preschool, and then (hopefully) in elementary school. But if this is the case, then why don’t kids all turn out to be great musicians?

Think back to how children learn to speak. Children aren’t just surrounded by others who speak their language. They actually practice speaking themselves. Some of them practice a lot! In order to become fluent in the language of music, children have to do more than listen. They have to make music themselves.

A Foundation for Fluency

As a parent, you can do a lot to help your child acquire fluency in the language of music. From the beginning, pay attention to what kind of music your child is surrounded by. Choose a variety of great music to listen to, from many different time periods and cultures. Let your child see how much you enjoy music by sharing your favorites, and also let your child choose to listen to music they love. Help your child use their emotions and imagination to understand the music they hear. Ask them to close their eyes, listen, and say how the music makes them feel. Does it remind them of an animal, like a big loud lion or a tiny quiet mouse?

Also encourage your child to make music of their own. Even a baby can clap. Encourage toddlers to dance and to sing by dancing and singing along with them. To help children understand the concept of a steady beat, have them run or jump up and down, then stop and put their hand on their heart. There’s no better way to feel the beat! Greet every effort your child makes in music with the same delight you’d greet a first word or sentence. For more ideas on fun things you can do to develop a very young child’s music ability, read these posts:

Creating a Musical Culture at Home

10 Things to Do Before Your Child Starts Piano Lessons

Beginning Music Training

At a certain point in a child’s language development, it’s time to start school. Here’s where a child learns to read and write the language that they can already speak. In time, they’ll expand their vocabulary, learn the rules of grammar, and read great literature. They’ll truly master their language through study in a way that they never could just by picking it up from daily conversation.

Think about how effective it would be to start the first day of kindergarten by putting a whole unfamiliar sentence on the board and teaching the class how to read it. This is exactly what happens  in many first piano lessons. The teacher opens up a method book to a written piece of music, simple as it may be, and starts teaching it. It’s just overwhelming to a child to begin that way.

Instead, Kindergarten starts by introducing the alphabet. In time, the children learn how letters go together to spell familiar words. Remember that children are already able to understand and speak their language very well before they ever encounter these symbols of written speech.

The earliest piano lessons should begin in the same way, by first learning to hear and play simple songs by ear, and then comes an introduction to the musical alphabet. When music notation is introduced, it should be with songs that students already know. That way the abstract symbols of written music are attached to something concrete, to sounds and rhythms that the child already understands.

Growth in Performance

Even as children learn to read music and understand the complex language of music notation, it is still their ear that guides them to develop the nuances of musical performance. This is why it is so important to develop their listening skills. This isn’t just so that they can hear and copy other performers, but so that they can hear their own performance, evaluate it, and shape it.

When a child is learning to play a song, they should already know what the song sounds like. That way, if they play and make a mistake they will know it at once. No need for anyone to correct them. On the other hand, if they don’t know what the song sounds like, they might not notice a mistake until a teacher or parent points it out. By then the habit of playing it incorrectly might be difficult to fix.

As a child advances in performance skill, it is likewise helpful for them to know what great piano playing sounds like. Just as no screenwriter can write every nuance of emotion the actors should have into a movie script, no composer can put everything that ought to be in a great piano performance onto the page. The performer must do a lot of interpretation on their own. Learning to interpret and perform music in a deeply meaningful way takes a lot of listening to great performances. Then, with the help of a teacher, a pianist can listen to their own performance and find ways to improve.

Musical Conversation Skills

Would you consider someone fluent in a spoken language if they could only read aloud or recite from memory, but couldn’t say anything original or carry on a conversation? When we only teach music students to play by ear and to read music, we’re missing out on something very important and fun. The ability to improvise.

Improvising music is a lot like carrying on a spontaneous conversation. The sounds form in your mind only a few moments before you play them. Just like in a real conversation, sometimes the sounds don’t come out as you intended, but that’s part of the fun! Remember, there are no wrong notes when you improvise. Sometimes you’ll play something that sounds better than you could have imagined.

Most young kids will love to improvise on the piano. One favorite childhood game at our house was to get together with a sibling and improvise a thunderstorm. One of us would play high notes for the wind and the rain, the other would play low notes for the thunder. The storm would start soft, then grow louder, until we were really banging away at the keys. Gradually, the storm would get quieter again, and fade off in the distance.

This kind of experimental playing with sound seems to come naturally to young children. However, as time goes on, if music studies focus entirely on learning already-written music, improvisational skills lag behind and might be forgotten.

Developing Improvisational Skills

Just like children need opportunities to practice their conversational skills, music students need to take time to improvise at the piano. One unique thing about the Hoffman Method is that it invites to improvise as part of their music practice every single day. This helps keep their improvisation skills at pace with their playing and reading ability. It also gives them an opportunity to enjoy creativity at the piano!

For example, the very first song in the Hoffman Method, “Hot Cross Buns,” comes with a backing track that leaves room for improvisation. Kids will play along with the track once through the song, and then the track gives them eight measures to improvise using the same three keys on the piano that they used for “Hot Cross Buns.” To finish up, they play “Hot Cross Buns” one more time. They learn to take those eight measures in-between and explore on the piano.

Music isn’t just about playing the right note. It’s also about being creative and finding new ways to express yourself musically. With the Hoffman Method, this focus on improvisation continues up through more advanced units until students are freely improvising chords in one hand and melody in the other. Improvisation is so important, and really fun for kids. When kids create their own music out of their own imagination, they feel amazing. They’ve made some music that no one else has ever made before, and that’s part of what being a musician is all about.

Learning Music like Learning a Language

No one learns a language, whether it’s their first language or not, without many years of study and practice. Learning the language of music can be as natural as learning a native language for children who are surrounded by music from birth, given early opportunities for singing and rhythmic movement, and introduced to an instrument through listening, imitation, and improvisation. The process takes years, but then when children are finally introduced to the musical alphabet and music notation, they have a strong foundation in the language of music and will be eager to take on this new challenge. I’ll talk more about learning to read and write music in my next post.

Resources for Early Music Learning

Here are some resources that can boost your child’s music fluency from birth:

Wee Sing books: The Wee Sing books include many of the best-loved folk songs for children. They make great sight-reading practice for beginning note readers too!

Call and response songs: “Down by the Bay” and others are wonderful for teaching kids to hear and imitate music. Here’s one of my favorites: The Echo song from Sesame Street

Movement for Toddlers: There are many recordings of movement music for young children. I love Hap Palmer’s “Learning Basic Skills Through Music” series.

Early Music Programs: Check and see if there’s a KindermusikMusicgarten, or similar program in your area. These can be fantastic for developing music skills in very young children.

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