Dispelling the myth of the exclusivity of musical literacy
From the very beginning, my parents showered me with music. Having read about the calming benefits of classical music, my mother would spend hours holding speakers to her belly so that I could snooze to the Moonlight Sonata. When I was restless as an infant, my father would sway me in his arms to Fur Elise. Before I knew what it meant, I had discovered the lover’s longing in Ukrainian folk songs; and the melancholy minor keys of Russian Romances that created a strong preference for minor keys in all future piano repertoire. Advanced hand coordination came about as a result of combining The Internationale in the right hand with Chizhik-Pyzhik in the left. My sister and I were fortunate to have a mother who would sing and draw frogs to represent La and turnips to represent Re. All major life events were accompanied by classical music: our migration to Australia was marked with Oginsky’s Polonaise – Farewell to the Native Land; Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor announced the dawn of teenage musical stardom; and as I performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 a few years later, accompanied by an orchestra, before an audience of thousands, I was acutely aware that each note marked the dusk of my brief career as a classical concert pianist.
Though my sister and I were each awarded an Associate Diploma in Music by the Australian Music Examination Board, and music was the highlight of both our young lives, neither of us pursued music professionally. Nadia went on to become a research physicist, and I – a business consultant within the financial services industry.
There is no doubt that learning the piano provided the foundation for focus, coordination, emotional depth, mathematical ability and language skills, that my sister and I needed to pursue our other intellectual interests. The parents of my students today also appreciate the brain development that comes with learning a musical instrument, especially the piano. One mother, who was a professional opera singer, sought piano education for her older child to help with physical dexterity, discipline, memory, academic and emotional intelligence, and general knowledge. For her sensitive ten-year-old daughter, she feels that music provides a source of self-confidence and relief from anxiety. She reflects on the link that musical education creates in a child’s mind between hard work and results, as well as improving the child’s ability to listen and think creatively.
The benefits of musical education are well known, but musical literacy remains the domain of the fortunate few, partly due to the myth of its exclusivity. Perhaps parents tend to be over-reliant on having concrete evidence of a child’s musical aptitude before investing into the child’s musical education. Drawing from their own struggle to “make it” in this world, such parents may regard the financial security of a musician as dubious at best, and prioritise limited resources toward the mainstream skills of mathematics, language and sport. The latter, in particular, is highly popular in Australia. Their child may not aim to become a professional sportsman, but the benefits of physical education are widely appreciated. In its advantages, musical literacy can be likened to sporting abilities. A child does not need to become a concert pianist to reap the benefits of musical education. Where the challenge lies is in addressing the misconception that somebody is either sporty or musical. Sporting clubs and activities are easily accessible, widely supported, highly social and physically rewarding. A boy can kick a football around with his father in the backyard or hit a wicket at the beach; but how can a parent, without musical training, help develop a child’s ability to play and enjoy a musical instrument?
When my first students appeared, aged eight, six and three, I had no prior teaching experience – only a musical education and a love of children. Interested in emerging learning techniques, I recalled with curiosity a Youtube video, posted by a childhood friend, of her five year old daughter playing the piano with tiny fingers and a serious expression on her tiny face. The kid had been using Soft Mozart (a training program for children learning the piano), for six months, and had made significant progress. I researched Soft Mozart and discovered Hellene Hiner’s book, You CAN be a Musician. What a captivating book! The book addresses the mysteries of traditional musical education, and likens musical literacy to mathematical and language literacy. Hiner suggests that, given the right tools, learning to read music should be no harder than learning to read books; and yet, musical literacy remains the domain of the gifted and fortunate few, while most children can read and write by the age of seven because of freely available support in a child’s home.
Equipped with the Soft Mozart program, I started teaching piano. Responses have been positive from parents and children. “It’s easy and fun,” says a five year old girl. “I love playing games, I want to win and get the trophy at the end.” The older students easily prefer the computer to sheet music. They can play around with harder levels to challenge themselves, and respond to the instant feedback. My students enjoy learning independently, and rely on Soft Mozart to help them distinguish between right and wrong notes when I am not around. The simplicity of Soft Mozart masks, but does not muddle, the complexity of what the child is learning. At such young ages, they are already over-committed to educational and recreational activities, but they continue to look forward to the “fun” lessons.
Sometimes an iPad will compete with the piano for a child’s attention. To address this, I like to supplement the practical teaching with educational iPad games; activities that masquerade as a “break from the piano” can continue to expand a child’s musical horizons. These entertaining applications are great for creating a pervasive musical environment for a child; however, the innovative use of the vertical staff with real piano connectivity and progressive stages of learning remains unique to Soft Mozart.
The aim is not to cultivate a concert pianist; if Mozart were to be re-incarnated, I suppose he would find his own way to the piano. The aim is to help our society to become musically literate and reap all the concomitant benefits from doing so. As a business improvement specialist and an advocate for musical literacy, I believe there are many opportunities to improve the delivery and popularity of classical musical education in Australia. Key approaches to this include:
- simplifying the approach to learning to read music
- removing the stigma of exclusivity, complexity, and talent searches from musical education
- enhancing traditional teaching models with modern discoveries in cognitive development
- utilising new emerging learning techniques and technologies
- increasing access for children of various socio-economic backgrounds to learning the piano or keyboard, as a foundational instrument
- enabling children to associate piano practice with positive emotions and reward, while providing a stimulating environment similar to that offered by a tablet, a computer or play station.
These are the kinds of improvements we discussed when I visited the creator of Soft Mozart in Houston. Notwithstanding the critical role that the best professional musical teachers play in society, I believe it falls to all musicians and lovers of music to make our world more musically literate and allow the future generations to discover the magical and logical world of music. All that is required for a person to do this is to have patience, love for children, and support from modern software-based learning tools.