Relax, It's Island Music

I'll admit that the first time I thought about doing a genre study on "Island Music" it was because I was excited about an upcoming vacation to Hawaii, and couldn't resist getting in the vacation state of mind by spending all of July immersed in the sounds of the Islands! As it turns out, Island and Calypso music lends itself nicely to learning and practicing key concepts in music. 

One of the first things I like to do when exploring any genre of music, is talk about what kinds of instruments help give the genre it's unique sound. One main ingredient in Calypso is the Steel Drum. I happen to own a small, portable steel drum, and every time I bring it in, it's a hit! The children get to see, hear, and touch the steel drum, so it's already a rich experience. When they get a turn to play it, they begin to understand how each different part of the drum makes a different sound or "pitch". They engage their fine motor skills to hold the small mallets and gently tap the drum to find the best sound.


Then we listen for the steel drum in some recorded music. This is huge. Being able to listen and pick out a sound among other sounds promotes "ear training" which helps improve pitch reference and articulation. Your ears can be trained just like many other muscles in your body. When you practice picking things out of a group of sounds you are focusing, recognizing, and recalling. So much exciting brain activity! We do this type of ear training with specific instruments, and then we take the entire genre and A/B it with other genres. Once we have picked out what kinds of instruments and characteristics make "Island Music" unique, we can pick that style out of a group of styles. 

Another way we work on listening and recognizing is to listen to two versions of the same song in different styles. For this particular lesson I used a ukulele version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and compared it with a classic Judy Garland version. The children recognize right away which is an "Island" song and which is not, but more importantly, I want them to understand the similarities too. I want them to hear that the melodies are very similar and the lyrics follow a very similar pattern.

My favorite part about this theme is doing the Limbo! We have some fun and get our gross motor skills rev'd up by seeing "how low we can go!". The kids get a kick out of it, and the joy the music brings helps them experience a bit of the fun and relaxed nature from which the music is created. On this particularly fun occasion, I had a guest come in and teach us Hula Dancing! It was the best! 


All The Feels about Major and Minor

It may be a bit lofty of a goal to try to teach the theory of major and minor chords or modes to preschool students. So I don't try to do that. However, young children CAN learn the difference between major and minor chords by how the sound makes them feel! We all know by now that these young minds and hearts have all the feels, right? They know when they feel sad, happy, scared, or excited, and we can use what they know to help them understand the concept of major vs minor in music. I start by explaining the terms as simply as I can. I use the classic "happy face/Sad face" symbol, picture an emoji. The happy face says Major on it and the Sad face says Minor on it. Most of the children I teach can't read yet, but they sure know what the happy and sad face represents. Every time I hold up the happy face, I say "major" and sad face, "minor". We do this several times so they begin to associate the icons with those terms. 

My piano doesn't get used much in the class as I play most of our sing along songs on the ukulele, but I find this lesson works well with a keyboard. I play them a major chord, and let them know it's a major chord. We all recognize that it sounds pretty "happy" then I alter the third in the chord to make it minor. Now it sounds a bit sad. I play several chords like this as we practice listening and making the distinction. I find that it's super helpful to take a song we know and love, "You are My Sunshine" and play it once through normally, with all major chords. Then I play the same song with all minor chords. So tragic I tell ya! The children immediately notice how sad that familiar song can become when we change the chords to minor! 

Throughout the rest of the month we do activities that promote listening and expression. Week two we colored on a sheet that was split in half: happy face/sad face. The children listened to a medley of different pieces of music. They chose to color on whichever side that corresponded with how the children felt when they heard it. Then we incorporated a bit of drama when we used our face and body to depict how the music was making us feel. It's fun and keeps them engaged!

We finished up the month with a guest musician on the mandolin. Our guest even talked a bit about major and minor and the children were able to pick out which songs were major and which were minor! They had a blast learning about and listening to the mandolin



Dynamically Different

Dynamics is where it all began for me. It's the first lesson I ever developed for this age group and I think it's one of the more engaging themes that we do each year. I think it came to me first because it's an easy concept to learn. Loud, soft, getting louder, getting softer. These are things that children can understand and then easily apply to music.

We start with learning a couple of terms: forte and piano. Forte in music means loud. Now, there is a whole spectrum of dynamics and we only touch on a few of them, but for teaching purposes, we learn Forte (loud) and Piano (soft). I show them the actual symbol that is used in sheet music so that they can associate the icon with the term. This kind of "icon association" is a developmental standard starting at the young toddler age. We practice by shouting FORTE!! when we see the forte symbol, and whispering "piano" when we see the piano symbol. I hold up the signs and try to trick them... it becomes a fun game! Then, I let the children hold up the sign themselves for their friends.

Once we fully understand the Forte/Piano concept, we can apply it to music. I let the children hold up the sign while we sing a song. The child can change the dynamics of the song while we are singing and the rest of us react by singing loudly or softly. 

Later in the month, I introduce the terms crescendo and decrescendo. These are the musical words for getting gradually louder or softer. There's a symbol for these too! With these I like to incorporate our hands and arms. We start with our hands close together and we sing a note "laaaa" and as we get louder, our hands grow further apart, demonstrating that the volume is growing. We do the same with the reverse, decrescendo. 

The children are now ready to identify these dynamic occurrences while listening to music. I try to find some classical music that is very dynamic and we use our bodies to show that we can hear when the music is soft or loud or getting softer or getting louder by crouching down and standing tall. We are incorporating their gross motor skills into their cognitive learning to reinforce the concepts. It's a lot of fun, and really effective! I think the favorite this year was listening to the opening theme of Star Wars! LOTS of dynamic changes in that one!

I think my favorite part about this theme is seeing the teachers use it in their classrooms for volume control. Now, instead of telling everyone to be quiet or that they are too loud, They can say, "let's all speak at a piano level", or... "I can hear you crescendo as you play with your friends, now let's try a decrescendo back down to piano". Now it becomes an activity, or a transitional aide instead of a command. I used it a bunch as a full time teacher in the toddler room! 

The most fun part is when I bring in the drum set and we all practice playing dynamically! The children were able to use what they had learned and apply it as they created music on the drums! 

I hope that you find ways to use and have fun with dynamics in your home. Dynamics are everywhere and it's so beneficial, at any age, to take the time to notice and listen to the changing dynamics around us. 


I've Got Rhythm

Teaching young children about rhythm can be tricky. Many are barely learning to count and the concepts of subdividing a measure can sometimes be a little over their heads. In the past I have always used fruit to help children remember note values. For example, "grape" would be a quarter note, one beat. "Apple" would be 2 eighth notes, half of a beat. And we would clap out these fruit names and I would show pictures to reinforce these ideas. It worked to a certain degree, but I wasn't sure we were really grasping it completely. This year I tried something new.

As a private lesson teacher for piano and ukulele, I know that the books designed for early learners tend to use simple vocal sounds to emulate each note value. For instance "Ta" is said for every quarter note. For a half note (two beats) you simply say "ta-ah". I decided to use this method for the class and I think it went pretty well! 

For the visual aspect of the learning process, I created a felt "measure". I divided my measure into four squares which represented each beat. then I created felt notes of varying values that we could stick in the squares to create different rhythms. We started with the quarter note and the quarter rest. We practiced saying "ta" and whispering "rest" as I let each student create their own 4 beat rhythm. The next week we moved on to half notes, whole notes and then of course the "big fat whole note" which the kids love to say! The children got the hang of it by week three and were becoming pros at chanting and clapping the rhythms. Not only were they correctly assigning value, but they were chanting and clapping in a much more steady beat than when we first started!


This kind of chanting, clapping, tapping, and learning will stay with them and help them in many other areas without them even realizing it. Clapping and chanting are all helpful contributors to literacy and increasing vocabulary! Children will begin to hear the natural "rhythm" in their speech. They will be better prepared when they begin reading and can use these tools for years to come! Not to mention, when they start learning about fractions down the road, we've already done some work! We had a lot of fun! We closed out the month with a special visit from some very talented musicians!



Kids and Celtic Music

I suppose my own Irish heritage predisposes me to being super excited about Celtic music, but I still think it's a fun genre to explore with kids regardless! The style of music is very different than a lot of what children hear on a regular basis. With it's unique instrumentation, driving 6/8 feel and the corresponding cultural aspects that come with it, Celtic music is such a rich style of music to study. It allows for a lot of new sounds and experiences for early learners! 

As with most genres I introduce in Music U, I like to start by going over what instruments make up the sound of that genre. For Celtic music, we learn about the harp, accordion, bodhran drum, Irish Tin Whistle, fiddle and flute. I show them images, and then I like to show them videos of people playing these instruments in the Celtic style. This allows the children to see how the instrument is played. It also can help them see that perhaps instruments we have seen and learned about in other genres are producing a completely different sound or feel in this particular style. Each week I will review the names of these instruments so that by the end, the children know all the names by looking at the instrument without any help from me! I also like to try to bring in a guest musician that plays one of the instruments we've talked about so they can experience it first hand! I lined up a flute player for this month, but he had to postpone, so we will experience that a little later! I did however manage to get my husband to come play a few Irish folk tunes on our tin whistle!

I think Irish dancing is amazing. From a purely entertainment standpoint, I thinks it's pretty incredible what Irish dancers can do with their feet! They are creating intricate, triplet based rhythms.... with their feet! So, I find it essential to show the children this amazing dance style that is unique to Celtic music. I show the children a few videos, they are typically pretty mesmerized by it all, then we give it a shot ourselves! I love to point out that the dancers don't move their arms much, an do a lot of quick work with their feet, and occasionally some leaps and jumps. It's fun to watch the children listen to the music, express themselves through dance, and use the template of Irish dancing they have just observed to create their movements. And, it's actually quite impressive what they can pick up on! It gives them a way to feel that dominant 6/8 feel even if they don't exactly know what that is. It's different, and they are aware of it. 

Lastly, we busted out the rhythm sticks and tapped along to some upbeat Celtic tunes. Rhythm sticks are always a good idea because it just helps them in so many ways beyond what you might be working on in the moment. We try to stay on a beat, and while that's tricky for these little ones, it helps to hear a constant beat coming from the teacher over and over again so that eventually they catch on. Studies have shown that rhythm play and singing in percussive phrases can help children be better readers and communicators later on! 

So here's to Celtic music and all it has to offer! We had a blast this past month!


Song Surfing

As a songwriter, I have a vested interest in the different parts that make up a song. While there are always exceptions to the rule, a typical song consists of 3 parts: verse, chorus and bridge. While melodies, rhythms, chord changes and variations in lengths of each part are what create the originality of a song, most songs we hear on the radio are comprised of these 3 segments. As young children are observing and experiencing the world around them, I find it most beneficial to expose them to all sorts of new things and then point out patterns and contrasting elements. Dissecting a song is a great way to demonstrate these patterns and contrasts and there is, of course, a wealth of examples available to us.

As we learn about "song form" I use metaphors and visual aids to help them understand the different roles that the parts of the song are playing. One of the metaphors I like to use is surfing. Of course, children from Tennessee may not have the same understanding of the sport  as I do, since I grew up on the beaches of Southern California, but, it was the first thing that came to my mind, and it actually works quite well! I describe the verse of the song as paddling out to the waves. I have an image that I show the children of a child on his knees on a surfboard in the ocean as he paddles out. I describe that the verse typically starts the song and begins the "story". The chorus is when we actually get to surf the wave. I describe this as the fun part that everyone usually knows and sings along to! We use the next verse to paddle back out to catch another wave while we hear a little more of the "story". We surf another wave and then it's time for the bridge. The bridge doesn't sound like any of the other parts. It's completely different and I just use an image of a bridge to help them remember. We typically will just march "across"  the bridge. Once the general concept is there. I don't have to use the images anymore and the children begin to listen to, sense, and identify the changes in the music as they come. We dance with scarves, choose different activities for each part and get our heart rates up song after song!  One fun way we practice is by dividing into teams. One team is "team chorus" and gets to stand up and dance only during choruses while "team verse" dances only during verses. I of course provide massive amounts of entertainment as I show off my dance skills during the bridge. It's fun to watch as the children are sitting in anxious anticipation of their turn to dance. They are listening intently to the music to hear the change in feel that signifies it's their turn to dance! Your child may listen to songs completely differently after learning these general concepts. I once even had a 3 yr old class help me write a song based on what we knew about the different parts! You should give it a try too!




3 Things Children Can Learn About Jazz

Every January I get the joy of teaching children about Jazz. I specifically chose January to teach this genre so that I can refer to the month as Jazzuary, because I'm just that clever! Here are 3 things that I have found children love to learn about Jazz.

1. Instrumentation

Every time I teach about a certain genre of music, I make a point to introduce all of the instruments that are typically used in that particular style. With pre-schoolers, learning about the names and sounds of new things is not just fun, it helps them broaden their understanding of the world! For Jazz, I have photos of an upright bass, piano, drums, trumpet, trombone, electric guitar, and a saxophone. There are obviously more instruments that can be found in jazz music, but this is where I start. I show them the photo and play little sound clips of each instrument. I also act out how each instrument is played. If I can, I try to bring in a real one for them to see, touch and hear. They learn new words, and experience the sounds coming from each instrument and begin to associate things like how the size of an instrument effects how low or high the pitch is. We play games where the children listen to an instrument and pick which photo corresponds to the sound. Then we listen to Jazz music and see if we can pick out some of the instruments we've learned about. Ear training at this age goes a long way, and not just for use in music. By listening for specific things, children are focusing their attention to more detail and picking out specific sounds, a skill that can absolutely help with speech and literacy as they grow.

2. The Hi-Hat

I like to bring in new instruments on a regular basis to expose the children to as much as I can. With Jazz, I bring in a hi-hat and play a Jazz cadence for them. Not all, but a lot of jazz has a very specific "swung" beat that plays an important role in why jazz sounds different than other kinds of music. I let the children each have a turn playing the hi-hat and exploring the foot pedal as they hit the cymbals. I then show them a familiar song like "Old Mac Donald" in the traditional version, then I play a jazz version of the song and we listen to how the "beat" is the most obvious difference in the two styles. The beat is the foundation of jazz, and a hi-hat is just fun to play!

3. Scat

Most of what we do in Music U is meant to be exploratory, improvisational, and fun. The art of scatting is about as improvisational as you get, and it's easy to have fun with because we get to use our own voices! A built-in instrument! I like to show videos of some of the best scatters in jazz so that they can actually watch their mouth move as they make the rhythmic sounds. Then we just try it ourselves. It's fun to explain that you can just make any sound that you feel sounds good, and give it a try! The kids come up with some great stuff. Some children need to warm up to the idea, and them come out of their shell a bit to sing a few nonsensical words. But once they've tried it, they're hooked! So easy! They begin to create jazz all on their own just like the greats!

At Music U, exposure is a foundational element to the learning process. My goal with each new theme is to expose the children to something new, something different, something exciting and something that keeps them wanting to learn more about music! It's good for the soul!