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Building a Musical Foundation at Wellan

Everyone learns to speak before reading. The idea that everyone learns how to speak their native language easily—because it is a natural part of their environment—is called the mother tongue. Shinichi Suzuki realized that you could also apply this approach to learning how to play an instrument. The mother-tongue approach has become a large part of my philosophy on how best to teach music to students at Wellan.

The Beginner Level: A Foundation for Loving Music

Beginners experience many different songs and also many of the same songs week after week so that they can start to master the lyrics and experiment with their voices. I will often revisit rhymes or songs that we sang earlier in the year, because so much growth has already occurred in students’ musical development. The main goal of the Beginner music program is to start building the foundation of the love of music. While that is happening, they are also exposed to keeping a steady beat, singing with others and by themselves, and moving to music.

The Primary Level: Tuneful, Beat-ful, Artful

During their Primary years at Wellan, students really have the opportunity to master all of the ideas that were presented in the Beginners program—as well as prepare for the Elementary curriculum. When a child is tuneful, beat-ful, and artful with their voice and body, they will be able to transfer those skills to any instrument. Every Primary class starts by moving to music and warming up our bodies using Anne Green Gilbert’s Brain Dance. We go through a series of movements that help to wake up our bodies and let our brains focus for the longer music class. Primary students spend a majority of music class doing rhymes and fingerplays, singing with others and by themselves, and moving their bodies “how the music sounds.” The additional Kindergarten music class gives students an opportunity to sing by themselves, have more creative movement, and also play on the Orff xylophones. During these classes, I can give more individualized help with matching pitch and keeping a steady beat if those skills haven’t fully developed.

Above, Kindergarten friends use hummingbird finger puppets to have musical "conversations" with one another. This encourages children to explore their singing voices, improvise, collaborate, and begin composing!

It is important to give students the opportunity to try something multiple times until they are successful. This week, I taught the more difficult fingerplay “These are Mother’s Knives and Forks.” Multiple students commented that they weren’t able to do it last year, but now they can!

The Elementary Level: Complexity and Collaboration

In the elementary program, students are given many opportunities to play unpitched percussion, drums, xylophones, recorders, and ukuleles. Students continue to sing more complicated songs including rounds, and simple two- and three-part harmony. We also learn many different partner and circle dances. These dances give students the opportunity to enjoy moving to music, dancing with friends in a way that is incredibly engaging, learn how to work together as a large group, and have so much fun!

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything about reading or writing notation yet. Once a student has a full understanding of the ABC’s, then they are ready to start reading. It is imperative to have a musical foundation that includes tuneful singing, finding the beat in music, and moving to music in a way that is artful before learning notation. Wellan students generally have this foundation as they move into elementary, and we can then start to work on decoding and writing notation separately from learning different instruments.

This musical foundation will absolutely help your child learn an instrument, but it will also give them the confidence to sing “Happy Birthday” with a large group of people and dance at a wedding or social gathering. They will have this confidence because they have had the experience of moving their bodies musically, dancing with friends, and enjoying the experience of singing.

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