Young children have an amazing ability to soak up information like a sponge. For example, a child who grows up in Southern France will be able to speak French with all the special nuances and inflections of the dialect in Southern France. Anyone who didn’t grow up there would be hard put to mimic it in a way that could fool a native.
We lose this skill to absorb nuanced auditory information as age increases, but children are programmed to pick up on subtle things that can’t even be expressed or written. This is as true for music as it is for language. We have written language, but our everyday methods of writing don’t capture how certain letters sound in a dialect. Likewise in music there are things that can’t be adequately captured on the page. That’s why it is so important for musicians to learn how to listen.
The Importance of Listening
The Hoffman Method emphasizes listening as an essential part of music education. Yes, we want our kids to learn to sight read, but just like a child learns to speak before they learn to read, we want students to experience, hear, and create music before they are asked to learn to read music.
Even after children learn to read music, we don’t stop developing their ear. We want them to learn to hear phrases, voicing, balance between the hands, dynamics, articulation, and many other things that are only hinted at on the page. True, you can put a marking for staccato or legato on the page, but there are so many shades of staccato, or ways to execute legato. You can only master all these variations by training a keen ability to listen.
Fortunately when kids are young it doesn’t take much effort to develop a good ear for music. Just like children imitate the accent of their parents, imitating the nuances of musical performance can happen with relatively little effort if children are surrounded by great music.
When a child listens to a song before learning to play, this develops an important musical skill called audiation. Audiation is the ability to hear music in your mind, especially while you’re performing. Just like in sports when kids are told to visualize themselves shooting a basket or kicking a goal while they’re doing it, in music you want to hear what you’re trying to create while you’re playing it. If what you hear doesn’t match the music playing in your imagination, then you can make a correction. Listening is an important step in training kids to audiate while they play. You want them to make a recording of the song in their mind that will play as they physically play, and then they will be constantly doing their best to imitate that mental recording.
When a child comes to me for a lesson and plays a song with an incorrect rhythm or note, the first thing I think is, “They haven’t been listening to their listening album.” Kids usually won’t tolerate playing something wrong if they can hear their own mistake. They will naturally fix it. So many problems in a child’s playing can be fixed simply by spending more time listening to the way a song should sound. This leads to self-correction rather than teacher or parent correction. And that keeps everyone happy!
Ideally, a child will have heard a song dozens or even hundreds of time before they play it. As they play, their brain or ear will be giving them constant feedback, letting them know how their playing compares to their own clear mental picture of the song.
How and When to Use the Listening Tracks
You can play the listening tracks any time. Your child doesn’t have to be concentrating on the music in order to absorb it. Listen while eating breakfast, driving in the car, falling asleep, or even while doing homework. The music just needs to be part of the environment. As mentioned before, it works best if children can hear songs well in advance of learning to play them. You can even purchase a unit ahead of where your child is in the lessons in order to start listening early.
Take some time for active listening as well. Encourage your child to sing, dance, or drum along. You can also talk about the music. Ask your child, how does the music make you feel, what did you like best, did you hear the flute or other instruments? It’s like going for a nature walk with a child. Teach your children to appreciate details by appreciating them yourself. Point out things you notice, have your child point out what they notice. Commenting on details with curiosity and interest will spark attention to detail in a child’s mind. You may be surprised to see that your child is even more attentive to details than you are.
We want kids to fall in love with the songs they’re going to learn, so we’ve put a lot of effort into making the Listening Album tracks fun and enjoyable to listen to. For most songs there will be a vocal and instrumental arrangement track as well as a piano solo track that lets kids hear exactly how it will sound when they play on their own. We hope these listening albums will be something your kids will want to listen to over and over again.
Growing Up with Music
In addition to the Listening Tracks that go along with our Hoffman Academy lessons, I hope you’ll inspire your child by listening to great music of many genres in your home. Learning music really begins with listening.