Get on Your Feet: A New Way to Teach a Song to the Class (part of the Getting Started with Gordon Series) —

Usually when teaching a new song, many teachers (including myself) start by having the class echo you in small pieces, gradually adding more until they sing the whole song. This can be efficient, but it can also be problematic. Do you ever have a song you are trying to teach to your kids, but they […]

via Get on Your Feet: A New Way to Teach a Song to the Class (part of the Getting Started with Gordon Series) —

Learning to Play with Music

Not just play music, but play with it. Make it fun. Make it approachable.

P1000485There are always children in my early childhood music class who are not comfortable participating in the singing or activities that we do. For some, they are just shy, others feel too much pressure to “perform” in front of others, still others use the time to absorb what is going on around them and then replicate it after their brains have had time to process it.

Almost all children get involved in free instrument time- something about all those instruments is just too much fun to ignore. Even so, there are children who prefer to play with the instruments, like toys, rather than play the instruments like, well, musical instruments!

If you are the parent of one these children, don’t despair! It’s not that they are unmusical! Some are just focused on how the instruments work or how they look. We can meet them half way, so here’s a few ideas.

  1. Mirroring or echoing- make a game out of taking rhythmic or short melodic phrases and have the children repeat them. It doesn’t matter much at an early age if they get it exactly right. They are learning to listen, audiate, and expanding their musical memory. Even older children (and parents!) often stop listening at the end of a pattern because they are getting ready to repeat, so make sure that you incorporate at least a beat of silence and a preparatory breath so that they have a better chance of repeating the whole pattern.
  2. Conversational instruments- Use instruments to have a rhythmic conversation. Castanets work well for this because they already look like clams with mouths! Have one castanet talk to the other and have the child join in the conversation. By using your voice, too, on a vocable such as “baa,” the castanets can even ask questions by having last syllable end on a slightly higher pitch. “Baa, baa baa, baa baa, BAA?” Your child will likely recognize it as a question.
  3. Drum with me- Play the same drum at the same time. With young children, use both hands at the same time to the beat. You can put their hands on top of yours for infants, or have toddlers sit across from you. As they get confident, you can can do left-right-left-right patterns.
  4. Shaky egg hide and seek- Take turns hiding a shaky egg in the room. As the seeker gets closer to the egg, shake faster, and shaker slower for farther away. Littler children might not understand the “hot and cold” shaking, so they can find the match to their egg and shake the egg they still have with you while they look for the egg.

Just make sure you and your children are having fun! And if your little engineer is still more focused on how it works than making music, don’t worry- she’s still learning and absorbing so much music and will perform when she’s ready!

Teaching parents the value of struggle – and how it’s helping

While parents need to support young children in their piano practice at home, I think the way they should support is through reminders to practice, giving opportunity to practice, and helping keep children organized. I think it’s very empowering for students to be independent musicians, and that requires parents taking a step back to let them flounder so they can learn to get themselves on the right track. That’s a lesson that no amount of parent input can achieve.

Make time for silence.

Make Time

I know I’ve mentioned the importance of silence before, but now I’m going to dedicate a whole post to it!

If you are someone in a care-giving role to young children, you know just how precious (and rare!) silence is!

We know, because of researchers like Edwin Gordon, that the first six years of life are the most important in developing music aptitude, so that is why we should take the time to develop those skills in our children’s rapidly maturing minds. However, one of the most important aspects of developing musically is learning to audiate. You can think of audiation as the act of thinking in music:

Consider this analogy; in cable television, visual images are readily available for any channel; however, to see them you need a cable box to unscramble the images. During primary music development, children create a “box” or mental representation to unscramble the aural images of music. This multifaceted, complex mental representation is known is “audiation”. Audiation is paramount in importance because it is basic to all types of musical thinking. Without audiation, no musical growth can take place. – Music Together

So, just as children learn to speak and read by being read to, they learn to sing and read music by being sung to. Just as researchers say to raise your child in a language-rich environment, you need a music-rich environment.

Here is the caveat- that doesn’t mean bombarding your child with language or music constantly.

Yale researchers have found that young mice exposed to more than 10 hours of continuous noise a day (something as low as a television in the background) developed fewer blood vessels in their maturing brains. This is most crucial for babies younger than two.

Think about it- when there is a ton of noise and distraction and you can’t seem to concentrate, what do you say? – “I CAN’T HEAR MYSELF THINK!”

Your child needs silence in order for their brain to make the leap from hearing music to thinking music. The human brain is a marvelous machine, and it takes things that we have experienced, and then begins to experiment with them. Anyone who has watched young children knows how creative they are naturally. They use things in ways we could never imagine as adults.


Photo by Paul, licensed under creative commons.


Deep silence is the mother of creativity. – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

For them to be able to do this, they need silence. A time without direction, and without distraction. Some children will look quietly at books, some will build with the couch cushions and loudly re-enact their favorite story (with minor alterations!), and some will sing their favorite songs, changing the words to fit their game, or even make up their own tune to fill in the silence of undirected play. Unfortunately for us adults, especially those that covet calm and quiet, this rarely results in actual silence!

So shut off the radio, stop reading aloud books, Mom or Dad, and encourage quiet play. Shut down the distractions so that your child’s mind can grow and their creativity can flourish. You will all find some peace, but if your children are very young, probably very little quiet!


Want to boost your child’s musicality and IQ? Here’s what you do.

Jam with your toddler.

Aurimas Mikalauskas Licensed under Creative Commons

Aurimas Mikalauskas Licensed under Creative Commons

That’s what the study in this article says.

Does that advice sound familiar? Hmm… is about making music with your children in a cooperative environment. This is the type of environment that best fosters learning, especially with pre-school children. It’s no accident that the activities I recommend are fun, easy, and integrated into your day. Music classes are fun, but your young child doesn’t need a music expert or for you to be an expert musician- they just need you. You aren’t necessarily an English Literature professor, but you are already teaching your child reading by reading to them things that they love. So, sing to them songs that they love. Play with them.

The more you engage with music, the more they will, too. If you aren’t comfortable making up tunes, just change the words to songs or make up silly rhymes. After all, we don’t just read to our children, we speak to them, make up stories, and even have fun with language. Don’t your children make up words? Eventually they will make up songs, too. When they do, join in with them and share your understanding of improvisation, whether you can label what you are doing or not.

So, sing with your kids tonight! Play “Twinkle, Twinkle” on the piano, even if it’s the only thing you can play and share the joy of making new lyrics to the song! Science says it’s good for their brain! And I’ll bet it’s good for their hearts, and yours, too. 🙂

What Should My Children be Listening to?

This is probably one of the most-asked questions I’ve received.

Grammar aside, it’s simply not a good question. Why? It assumes that there is something to which your children shouldn’t be listening. This leads me to my answer:


From Peanuts by Charles Schulz

From Peanuts by Charles Schulz

Yes, I mean it. Children should be listening to as much musical variety as possible from as early as possible. That may mean that you don’t like everything that they are listening to, but if you want them to have broad tastes, it is necessary. If you asked a culinarian how to make sure that your children develop mature tastes and learn to appreciate food, they wouldn’t recommend a certain cuisine, but they would recommend variety. The earlier you start exploring, the easier it is to make trying to new things less scary.

Children love what is familiar to them. They crave the same old foods, the same old songs; and we give it to them because it makes them happy. I certainly wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t be indulging that tendency, but at the same time open their ears to new possibilities. It may mean one new song played during their favorite album that they’ve heard played a thousand times. They might say they don’t like it, but keep sneaking it in, especially if it is something that YOU like.

I have to make my kids listen to classical music and I do it mostly for myself. I love classical music and want to listen to it and sometimes listening to the Frozen soundtrack for the billionth time will put me over the edge. Sometimes they like what I pick and sometimes they don’t, but when we have to share auditory space, there needs to be compromise.

If you set up an environment in your household where you can listen to new music, or even music that you don’t like, and find a way to make it a positive experience, you will have children who are more educated about the world of music, have a broader taste in music, and most importantly will learn what they like and why they like it. In our house, we have forcefully eliminated the H-A-T-E word, especially when we talk about things that don’t suit our tastes. Kids say it because adults say it, but they don’t know what it really means and when we say it, we don’t even really mean it. When an adult says it we don’t think anything of it, but when a child says “I hate this music!” it becomes to harsh a word to be talking about something like music.

Even young children can attempt to tell you what it is about the music they don’t like. Prompt them with possible attributes about the music that don’t align with their tastes:

  • Is it too slow/fast?
  • Is it too loud/soft?
  • Does it sound too sad? (or does it not match how you feel?)
  • Are the lyrics about something you’re not interested in? (don’t say boring!)
  • Do you not like the sound of certain instruments/ voices?

Children gravitate toward songs that they can sing, like ones they know or that are repetitive, so they can pick up on them quickly. They also like music that they can dance, too. Luckily, those traits exist in at least some songs in just about every culture. Pick music that features something that your child has shown interest in and they may be more receptive to the novelty of it. For example, if you have a little one that love to bang on drums more than anything else, maybe try introducing them to the tabla found in Hindustani classical music, like in the first part of this youtube video.

If you’re interested in finding music from all over the world, the easiest place to go is the Smithsonian Folkways site. They have many recordings from all over the world, most of which you can listen to before you buy, with single tracks as inexpensive as $.99 to download.

Pandora Internet Radio is a great way to introduce a variety of music to your children, and there is very little effort involved in curating it. Try their world music station at the link above. Some moms from Portland created this Pandora kids station with kid-friendly songs. If you find a song, album, or artist you like while listening, there are links to buy it from iTunes or Amazon, allowing you to expand your go-to favorites playlist, making for less repetition during long car trips.

And don’t forget folk-songs! If you need ideas, or even sheet music, you can search or browse the Kodaly Center’s Folksong Collection.

Happy singing and dancing! Remember that variety is the spice of life! And music!

If you have any recommendations for songs or artists that are your family’s favorite or must-listen, please comment!

P.S.- The lyrical content of some music may prove inappropriate for certain age groups. For the very very young who can’t understand lyrics, I don’t think it is worth worrying about and you should listen to whatever YOU like. While some genres, like hip hop and pop have many songs with words that you wouldn’t want your children to repeat, there are also many songs that do not, and I would challenge you and myself to try to find them, so as to not rule out an entire genre music from our children’s listening opportunities. Just use your parenting extincts on this one.

“The brain grows most by getting questions wrong, not right.” Failiure Part 2

Salman Khan of Khan Academy wrote the above statement, and also, “If society as a whole begins to embrace the struggle of learning, there is no end to what that could mean for global human potential,”


Picture Courtesy of Knight Foundation, licensed under Creative Commons


In this Huffington Post article, the author cites research on how we praise our children and the effect it has on our children. The researcher Carol Dweck, has been working on this research since the 1960s, and this information probably isn’t new to you, but here is what we know: when you praise children for being smart, they attribute their skills to innate ability, but when you praise them for their hard work, they attribute skills to perseverance and practice. Children who do the latter are more likely to keep trying a task until they get it right and can accomplish more throughout their lives because of their mindset.

Next time you are ready to praise your child or student: stop and think- what are you praising? Instead of saying “you’re so musical,” “I like how you practiced playing some parts softly and some loudly. The dynamics you added made your performance more musical.”

Challenge your music student- let them experience failure- and then praise them for their work and diligence, not their skill or accomplishment. This way you will grow a musician.

How to Guide Children’s Improvisation and Composition

How old do you have to be to compose music? 18? 12? 5? Younger?

Mozart was only five years old when he wrote these first compositions.

My son isn’t yet five and he writes compositions, too… but he’s no musical prodigy. He is not as proficient in music playing or writing as Mozart was. He can’t yet articulate his musical thoughts on paper, but he can improvise musically with words, rhythm, and melody.

Everyone who has been around music and is allowed to experiment with music has the ability to do this. With proper encouragement, every child can improvise. So, how did we get to this point?

  • SING. All the time. Play instruments or just play rhythms by clapping or patting or beat-boxing. What you will find is that your child will start repeating the things you do at different times.
  • Let them experiment, even if it is annoying. Sometimes they will sing loudly or sing the same word over and over. Try to put up with it. You can try to redirect their efforts or ask them to try it more softly, but don’t tell them to stop!
  • Start by giving them ideas to riff on- start a silly song about what you are doing and give them a turn to improvise. They will probably start by changing the words to a tune they already know, which is ok.
  • Provide an accompaniment for them or have them provide an accompaniment for you. Beat-boxing is a fun way to do this. This shows them you can improvise something without words and is an easy way to practice ensemble singing/playing.
  • Make any time a good time to improvise! Do it in the car, in the bathtub, at dinner…
  • Let them play at conductor and tell you what the song or piece should sound like. Have them try to describe it to you as best as they can and try to make their composition come to life.
  • As they get older, start introducing technology to record themselves. They will spend so much time playing back their songs, and with programs like the iOS’s Garageband, they can add drums or other instruments to their recordings and have fun making it sound new and different.
  • As children progress in their musical learning, they can make composition maps- that can be anything from crayon drawings of what it sounds like, to prompts like “high, major, duple, du de du de, soft, fast.”
  • When your children learn music reading and writing, you can have them compose on free printable staff paper, like that found on this webpage:

The most important thing is to find time to make music together and have music-making be fun and feel judgement-free. Perfecting a composition or figuring out how to express verbally or visually what you hear in your head can be frustrating. Make them feel safe and not on-the-spot when composing and improvising. Allow them to see you make mistakes and laugh it off. Music-making at home doesn’t need to be perfect to be enjoyable.

How do you improvise or compose with your family?

The Lessons of Failure: Sometimes you win, Sometimes you lose.

There’s of course truth and a lesson in this song by the Shins from Yo Gabba Gabba.

But it’s okay, you try again… Do your best so you hold your head up high.

Like all worthy pursuits, especially those where the word “practice” comes into play, failure is a part of the journey. Practicing music can be full of small and large failures; the failure to execute a particular phrase in the music, or getting flustered and forgetting your solo in the middle of a recital. Small and large, failure brings with it many lessons, and those lessons benefit us in all facets of life. For those who are amateur musicians, learning those lessons while having fun with music can soften the blow, while for professionals it can come with many more ramifications, like losing a chance for career advancement or the ability to support yourself.

Let us concern ourselves with the amateurs, ourselves and our students or children in this scenario. What are they learning about failure? What should they be learning?

Failure is another stepping stone to greatness- Oprah Winfrey

  • It’s ok to fail. I’m putting this first, because I think it is the most important. Everyone fails at something some time. If you don’t, it’s either because you are one of those one in a billion people who are geniuses who are good at everything, or, more likely, you never try anything you think you may fail. In my students, and even my own children, I see us becoming a culture that is failure-adverse and it is stifling creativity and possibility. No one who has ever created anything good or beautiful got it right the first time. Authors have editors, inventors have multiple iterations of the same device, and computer programmers issue patches for their programs. If your students can sight read everything you put in front of her, you are not challenging her. You are holding her back; holding her back from failure, but also holding her back from success.
  • Failure teaches humility. It’s good to be reminded that we are not perfect and that other people may be better at something than we are. It shows us what we should work on or what we could accomplish with more work. It sometimes shows us that we may have chosen the wrong path. Humility is not shame. Failure that comes despite hard work should make us proud, but ground us in reality. Maybe I choked in my piano recital and played horribly, despite the hours of practice I put in. I should be proud of my practice, but there is a lesson I have to learn- maybe I didn’t practice enough to feel confident in my playing, or maybe I need to practice being confident (the latter is much more difficult!). No matter what, especially if I am comparing my performance with someone else’s, I should come away humbled by their success, but not jealous of it.
  • Practicing failure teaches grace. Just using the word grace seems antiquated, but it is a quality that is rarely focused on, but when you meet someone who has it, it is inspiring. By grace, I mean the ability to act in a controlled, polite, and smooth way, without awkwardness. A good musician never gives away their mistakes; don’t make a wrong note worse by adding a grimace or a shake of the head. THAT takes control. Control of the body and control of the mind. When you don’t pass the audition, you don’t pout, or complain- you learn and move on. Sometimes we have to grieve our failures, but we have to learn to do so in way that is mature and appropriate. Children have trouble with this, and we understand that, and try to comfort and calm them, and teach them skills to control and focus their reactions. When this skill has not been learned in adulthood, we get inappropriate comments on Twitter that shame the author, or millionaire rap moguls embarrassing themselves on national award shows.
  • Failure teaches determination. How many people are admired for their stick-to-it-iveness? You can’t have that trait if you don’t often fail. Failing often is a good teacher. It helps us grow, it helps us get things done. Your child is learning that at the piano right now while she is practicing that same measure over and over and continually missing the last note. Then- ah ha! She gets it! And misses a different note in the process. No matter, she is learning to stick with it until it is right. That’s a good quality to have in an employee, but an even better one in an employer. She is willing to put in the work to make herself better, which is what it takes to be successful. It’s a small lesson now, but it will pay off as the stakes are higher and she is willing to put in the work and try again and again for what she wants.
  • Failure teaches problem-solving. Every time a music student fails to play her piece correctly, she has to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Music teachers teach many different methods to practice to refine pieces in as little time as possible. Teachers teach and students learn how to prioritize musical goals, and that is a skill that translate into prioritizing other assignments at school or work.
  • Failure teaches what success means. The better we know failure, the more we are able to recognize success in its many forms. That means, small successes, not just ones that are accompanied by awards and people telling us “good job!” There’s a satisfying feeling to perfecting the piece you are working on, even if you never play it for the audience and hear their applause. The perfection is not the gratifying part, it’s the accomplishment of overcoming the struggles that challenged us.

As parents and teachers, it is important for us to put failure into perspective for children. No one likes losing or not being able to do something that they are striving for, but it’s a part of living and learning. Children should be given opportunities to fail and succeed; they should be sheltered from neither. They need developmentally appropriate challenges so that they can grow into adults who are not afraid to reach and fail in order to succeed.

How do you talk about failure with your children?

Why do you keep hearing ‘Shut Up and Dance’ everywhere you go? Here’s the scientific answer. – The Washington Post

Why do you keep hearing ‘Shut Up and Dance’ everywhere you go? Here’s the scientific answer. – The Washington Post.


Any music teacher can tell you that children love repetition. It’s how we learn. Who knew that we all liked to be so lazy, though? I guess I better go write my hit song!