Aptitude vs. achievement

In the academic world, there is a lot of noise (i.e., research and discussion) around musical aptitude - in other words, capacity or talent. They're working on the idea that before the age of ten, whatever musical potential you have is set and you won't be able to achieve anything beyond that. Indeed, evidence suggests that most of a child's formative musical experiences occur by the age of five.

I won't speak to the validity of these assertions - I have no reason to believe that they aren't true. However, there are some dangerous and inaccurate conclusions that could be drawn.

A person might decide that because they had little early musical training, they have no hope of learning to play an instrument as an adult.

A parent might conclude that more is better and enroll an eighteen-month-old in formal music lessons, burning the child out by age four.

The fact that one's musical aptitude apparently stabilizes in childhood does not mean that one's musical achievement must take place by this time. It's also worth noting that few of us are able to achieve our complete potential in a lifetime of study in any field - there is always room to keep learning and growing.

The diagram below shows the musical aptitude and achievement of four fictional people.

Persons A and B are twins raised in the same family. As children, their parents took them to the symphony as well as jazz and bluegrass festivals. Their parents, both amateur musicians, sang and played music with the children at home, and also played recordings. The children participated in toddler music classes and enrolled in violin lessons at age four.

Both children played in orchestras in middle school and high school. Person A discontinued lessons at age fourteen, while continuing to play in the school orchestra. Person B played in elite youth orchestras and took lessons with a college professor. Person B was accepted to a well-known conservatory following high school, while Person A went to a liberal arts college to study English. Person B became the first-chair violinist of a large orchestra, earned a doctorate in violin performance, and took a position as a university professor, while Person A plays bit of bluegrass fiddle and participates occasionally in a community orchestra.

Person C's parents sang at home and played recordings. In third grade, Person C began singing in the school chorus, and took piano lessons from fourth grade until ninth grade. In college, Person C wrote songs and performed at open mics. Person C continues to play at home, and now Person C's children are taking lessons.

Person D listened to music occasionally at home and participated in general music classes at school. Neither of Person D's parents sang much at home. Person D took piano lessons briefly in third grade but did not practice - lessons were discontinued in less than a year. Today, Person D listens to the radio on the way to work and is thinking about taking guitar lessons.

As you can see, even if you believe that one's capacity for music becomes set in stone in childhood, it's not as dismal as it sounds. Both Person A and Person C have a lifetime of musical enjoyment ahead of them even though they are not at the pinnacle of musical achievement like Person B. And that window of white showing that Person D has untapped potential: that is very important! That's the difference between wishing you could play and actually playing.

These graphs are obviously reductive - the risk is that you'll walk away thinking that you have less potential than Person D when really you're in C territory. Personally, I believe that some things can't be quantified, and one of them is desire. If your heart is set on learning an instrument and you are willing to put the work in, you will succeed. My point is that musical success does not have to mean being Person B!

Musical aptitude, like athletic aptitude, becomes most relevant at the very highest levels of achievement. On any sunny Saturday morning you will see a ton of runners out and I promise you that they are not trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials. So let's not pin our Juillard hopes on our toddlers. Instead, let's show them that music is joyful, worthwhile and soul-renewing at any age. It's never too late.

On not giving people their money's worth, and also benevolent dictators

I think I know where my tendency comes from, as a teacher, to try to fill every moment chock-full with Productive Learning Experiences. When I was a freshman public school teacher, it was fear of the administration, and as a teacher of one-on-one piano and guitar lessons, it's the whole being-paid-by-the-hour thing.

Now, I'm the administrator of my own school, and I have a bunch of preschool kids attending a group "music camp" where the primary purpose is either:

having fun through learning music, or

learning music through having fun.

Whichever way you think of it, it's not appropriate nor effective to try to manage every second of the kids' time.

Instead, it's desirable to create an environment that has a strong framework, and then trust the kids to fill in that framework with their own choices, ideas, and actions.

I know that sounds like a concept you'd find in an education textbook that would never work in the real world. But student-centered learning really does work. I learned about it through Peggy-Jo Wilhelm, my amazing music education professor at the University of Maine.

I discussed in a previous post some of the specific activities and techniques I use with young children. This morning at camp, we incorporated the rhythm cards, resonator bells, and several other activities into our centers, where kids get to move from one activity to another at their leisure. Sometimes you will find three or four kids on one center; sometimes a child moves restlessly from one center to another; sometimes a child spends the entire time on just one activity, mimicking the way I did it and then adapting it into a different, equally valid game. I steal their ideas all the time.

Behavioral issues disappear (no "sitting still" is required). Other behavioral issues crop up, usually related to sharing. It is so fun as a teacher to sit back and witness the kids independently explore rhythm and  melody, sound and pattern. You become a facilitator not a dictator.

Of course, the dictator role is important, too.

"My turn is next!"

"Who's in charge?" I say.

They point to me. It is so important that I be in charge. It is vital that I have enough adult and teenage help so that I don't become frazzled, so I can maintain the benevolence in my benevolent dictatorship. It is crucial that I have the power, so that I can set the pace and foster the culture that allows me to share that power.

So I decide whose turn is next. But once that understanding is in place, we can go beyond turn-taking. I might present a new song, a new instrument, or new idea, and then just wait. Stretch the moment out. I leave little spaces where the kids can chime in, making suggestions, asking questions, relating the new thing to their own life in a way that often seems nonsensical to adults.

In classroom management, one of the first things I learned was to keep a fast pace. Don't allow any downtime, and the kids won't have a chance to get into trouble. Well...yes and no.

As a beginning teacher, a slower pace meant I was looking at my notes, or trying to remember the melody of a song, and generally creating a petri dish for mischief. But I've learned that activities need breathing room. Sometimes I can let the kids see me thinking, deciding. Sometimes I can try something new that I haven't planned out, allowing the kids to lead me. Sometimes we can take a few minutes to rest, singing a quiet song or having a quiet conversation. Doing that with a bunch of five-year-olds is incredible - it is such a different use of their energy.

Looking around Swiedler Hall, you might think the kids are running the show. No - at best it is a federation with the occasional illusion of democracy. And ideally, the ruler does not have to demonstrate her power.

Moments ago, a child of six came into the room, sobbing. Tara to the rescue: "Are you ok? What happened?" He could barely speak, so she went to investigate. She came back and said, "Uh...Smoothie King cleanup on Aisle One." Apparently he had dropped his smoothie all over the rug, and his teenage sister hollered at him.

his afternoon workshop was beginning, but the child was inconsolable. I led him away from the scene of the crime to a cool leather couch in the back room. "Here, this is a comfortable couch. Just relax, and when you're ready, you can join the camp. Here's some Kleenex."

I went back to work, keeping my eye on the boy. His sister came and went. Tara came and went. In the meantime, the kid stretched out and took a twenty-minute nap or so. Presently, he came to, and went of his own accord to join the session in progress.

My mind went to that neurotic place ("His mom is paying for this camp! He shouldn't be napping! Too much downtime!"). But as I continue to detox from all that school- and work-related baggage, I'm uncovering the sweet truth: the joy of leadership is to build the trust that allows the sharing of power, and the joy of sharing the power (i.e., teaching!) is to go beyond time, lesson plans and even subject matter to the core: discovering and celebrating our mutual humanity.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clean up the remains of what appears to be a strawberry smoothie, and then teach a piano lesson or four. Thanks for reading.

A few extra beats

All of us learn by making connections between what we are learning and what we already know. This sometimes happens overnight or over a period of weeks, and sometimes it happens in a flash. The important thing is for the student to have the opportunity to make these connections, and with small children, I do this by allowing a few extra beats.

I had the privilege of working with a bunch of small children this week in our new intensive program and in some group classes. Besides the fact that they are pretty darn cute, it was fun because I got to try out some new activities and bring back some old favorites, including the following:

  • Bells - I recently acquired some resonator bells that can be arranged in various ways. I laminated six index cards with the numbers 1 through 6 and placed one number in front of each of six bells (C, D, E, F, G, and A). I had each of the kids roll dice and then play the bells with the corresponding numbers. This worked extremely well in both the group class and the private lessons.
  • Rhythm Cards - I took index cards, each with a quarter note, half note, pair of eighth notes, or a quarter rest, and arranged them into various patterns. I did not explain anything to the kids - rather, I just demonstrated each of the notes using certain words corresponding to each note value and let the kids go from there, words which I learned from Gina Branagan at Village Elementary School in York, Maine during my student-teaching experience.
  • Pattern Echo - In private lessons, we did a call-and-response activity where I played a melody pattern and the student played it back.

Throughout all these activities, as well as the spontaneous moments in between, I allowed the students to dictate the pace as much as possible. This can be a little disconcerting for the parents, who are paying a lot of money seemingly to watch their kid tinker around with some bells or tap the piano keys a little bit. In reality, however, there's a lot more going on.

For example, suppose I've handed the child the mallet for the bells. Before I play the dice game or say anything about the numbers, I've got to let the child explore the bells. In doing this, she is internalizing the relationships between the tones, working on her gross motor ability, engaging in creative experimentation, and developing her rhythmic ability and sense of pitch.

After a couple of minutes, she might run out of stuff to do on the bells and be interested in my game. But if I were to skip over her exploration time, she would have trouble following the more structured rules of my game.

In the rhythm card activity, I give the kids a few extra beats by sitting silently for a moment after I put out the cards. Each child is in his or her own little world, thinking out loud, trying the pattern, clapping, and tapping. I wait until everyone has tried the pattern (some kids do it a few times), and then I count off so that we can all do it together. When the kids are incorrect, I do not try to fix it - I simply model the correct pattern, and let them make the correction themselves. By doing it this way, every child has the opportunity to process the rhythm pattern, not just the quickest child. Furthermore, the focus is not on "did I get it right?" but on the process of solving the puzzle.

When working with small children, certain actions might seem willful or disobedient but they are not. A small child walking into a new environment will put a lot of energy into exploring it and processing it. This can't really be rushed - if you tell him it's time to go sit down and focus, he wil not be able to do this.

Today when I was working with one little boy, as I was playing a musical pattern for him to echo, he appeared disengaged but was able to play the correct pattern by ear. He looked like he was distracted, staring out the window, but in reality he was completely involved in what we were doing. His vacant expression was actually one of concentration! In this case, taking a few extra beats allowed me to realize what was happening and why, instead of reprimanding the child for not paying attention.

Small children are learning constantly - everything is so new for them, and learning is still joyfully process-oriented rather than product-oriented. Allowing a child (and yourself) a few extra beats after every question, or at various points in an activity, will teach you both a great deal.

Teaching isn't explaining: it's listening, observing and adjusting, and that goes both ways.