Sunday, February 15, 2015

Language, Music, and Teaching

[For this assignment, I was to study the the implication of language in my teaching.  I was particularly excited by this assignment because music is a language unto itself, but it also impacts how children learn in their native tongue.  I was actually very disappointed by the feedback I received for this essay as my peer reviewers felt that music isn't academic and implied that I was not a real teacher because I teach music. Such is the way of anonymous peer review, I guess.  Regardless, this topic still excites me and I think merits further research.]

“Music's function in the developing child is to help prepare its mind for a number of complex cognitive and social activities, exercising the brain so that it will be ready for the demands placed on it by language and social interaction.”1 Music teachers not only have a language all their own, they are partly responsible for shaping a child's cognitive abilities and their understanding of language. Indeed, studies such as the one performed by the National Association for Music Educators (NafME)2 show that children who participate in formal instrument or voice training attain higher academic achievement. A more recent study3 shows a link between a child's ability to distinguish musical rhythm and his or her capacity for understanding grammar. “There is little doubt that regular exposure to music, and especially active participation in music, may stimulate development of many different areas of the brain...Music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.”4

Music can be intimidating to the uninitiated. It is the epitome of Basil Bernstein's “restricted code”5. In order for music to enhance our language centers, we have to understand the language of music! We talk of rhythm, pitch, intonation, and a myriad of other terms, and it takes time for a new music student to master the terminology – sometimes years. My job centers around not only conveying an intellectual understanding of the terminology, but also teaching students how to tap into their innate sense of music to feel and embody these terms.

Elaborating the code goes beyond simple definitions and discussions. It encompasses physical exercises that help the student learn to feel rhythm, position their faces for clear sounding tones and learning to breathe in a specific manner. It becomes a learned set of behaviors and habits that at the onset feel unnatural because they are not necessary for normal everyday functions. It takes time for the student to adopt this new skin – some never feel totally comfortable wearing it. While we are working on these habits, we are learning the notation of music – the note names and values, the musical markings that indicate how it should be performed – the actual musical language.

I am lucky that I have a well established music studio with low student turn over. Additionally, I work with a youth choir which regularly attracts new singers, but most of these singers arrive with a solid education in the basics. Sometimes I forget how restricted the musical code really is when I have a new singer who is not well-versed already. With one-on-one students, this is easier to accommodate because of the constant dialogue that my student and I share. Even if he or she does not ask, I usually know when they do not understand the concept we are working on and I can adjust.

In a group setting, this is not as easy for me. This year, I have many new singers in my choir who do not have a solid background in the basics. During one afternoon rehearsal, after working through a piece, one brave soul raised his hand and asked a question about the music. This opened the flood gates with the others, showing me that I had underestimated their musical understanding. Shortly after this, I watched the video lecture for this course specifically about restricted and elaborated codes which drove the point home. Not only did I need to rethink my language, but I also needed to restructure my learning environment to make it easier for my new choristers to get the information they required.

I have since quickly adopted a few new strategies with my new choral singers, who are eager learners. Most importantly, I make room for questions in our rehearsal time. Using a series of open and closed ended questions, I make sure they are clear on the terminology and what the music piece asks of them. I'm also recreating the culture in the group that allows them to ask questions. My established singers are now mentoring the newer members – it is exciting to watch them teach other. Not only does it reinforce concepts, it is creates camaraderie. I take more time to teach the habits and behaviors of a good singer – even the experienced singers need reminding of this from time to time. I am excited to see where all of this takes my chorus – I believe we will be better and stronger for it!

1. Levitin, Daniel, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Plume (2006), p264
2. Wallick, Michael D., “A Comparison Study of the Ohio Proficiency T
est Results between Fourth-Grade String Pull-Out Students and Those of Matched Ability.”, from Journal of Research in Music, Summer 1998, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp239 - 247
3. Batcheldor, Matt, “Researchers explore links between grammar, rhythm”,, 10/30/2014
4. Sacks, Oliver, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Vintage Books (2008), p102

5. “Basil Bernstein on Restricted and Elaborated Codes”, New Learning: Transformational Designs for Pedagogy and Assessment, (2012)

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