Many come to the conclusion that we begin learning our native language when we say our first words. But it actually starts much earlier than that! You began learning when your ears could hear their first sounds (at some point in the womb). Soon enough, listening is paired with imitation. Early on, the imitation is just babble, but soon the sounds start to contain meaning and begin corresponding with feelings, objects, and people.
So much of learning a new language (or learning anything new, to make a broader point) is done through listening and imitating people who are fluent. Being able to hear and understand the words you want to say before you say them is the first step to being able to express yourself clearly. And eventually, the respective acts of thinking and speaking occur so closely together that they’re nearly simultaneous!
This same fluency can be attained in music through exploring, creating, and improvising with your instrument.
Let’s break down the meaning of exploring, creating and improvising in the context of music:
As stated by the esteemed educator Edwin Gordon, EXPLORING is defined as performing with little to no awareness or expectations of what sounds will be produced. Exploring usually occurs the first few times a student plays an instrument, figuring out how to make the instrument sound.
CREATING uses the experiences gained in the exploration stage and manipulates them to create something unique and personal. Once a student learns how high and low sounds differ, he/she can create something novel with these elements.
IMPROVISING occurs when “creation is combined with restrictions imposed on the performer from an outside source.” Think of playing in a band in a specific time signature, or playing over a predetermined chord progression. In order to truly improvise, the player needs to be able to call upon and put together strings of patterns in which he/she will know their sound and function before or as they are being performed. This is what you do when you are speaking, fluently improvising in the English language.
In almost every case, a student will follow this progression of exploring, then creating, and eventually improvising.
There are countless ways to facilitate exploration and the early stages of musical creativity. Here are some fun activities you can try to help your child or any student of music find their musical voice!
Everyone loves to make noise, so try some rhythm games. Put on an instrumental backing track and trade rhythm solos with your child or student! “Patsching” (patting thighs), feet stomping, and other large movements will be more effective for younger students whose gross motor skills are more developed than their fine motor skills.
As these fine motor skills become more developed, playing on a drum with sticks can be introduced. Gently encourage through your own playing how you can make different sounds with your performance (fast vs. slow, loud vs. soft, etc.), but as long as the student is participating and having fun, rest assured that they are learning! Their solos and performances will be unique and creative in their own time.
Mimicry to Melody
Similar games can easily be done on a pitched instrument as well. Try some call and response and/or some “copycat” games with a young student to get them familiar with commonly used patterns. Play a short melody using a confined group of notes (a group of 3 black keys on a piano, for example) and ask the student to imitate you. Then switch roles and let the student invent a pattern for you to imitate! Most young children love this. Getting to be the “teacher” and “in control” is really refreshing for them.
Backing tracks can also be used for this activity. Look on Youtube for one in F# Major, Gb Major, or Eb minor (the black keys on the piano sound the best in these keys) and trade solos or just explore the entire range of your instrument. Hear how different notes sound over the changing chords of the instrumental track.
Again, for clarity’s sake, very little is “wrong” at this stage. With enough playing and experimenting, a child will begin to discriminate between what they hear in their head and what actually comes out on their instrument.
Another way to familiarize a student with regularly used musical patterns is teaching them songs by rote (through repetition). Classic folk songs like Mary Had A Little Lamb or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (to name two) are great options. Famous movie themes like those of Star Wars or Jurassic Park are also sure to get them excited and interested! And I would recommend the book “Repertoire by Rote: Seven Pieces to be Taught Without Traditional Notation.” It is filled with great songs for piano that utilize easily identifiable melodic patterns and do not require traditional music reading skills.
Knowing how to perform some familiar tunes provides a solid foundation and can be a good bridge to the creative stage. Once a child can perform a song with some confidence, ask them how it could be played differently! For example, “How would a bird sing this song?” or “How would an old man sing this song?” As long as the child changes something about their playing (faster, slower, higher, lower, maybe even filled with wrong notes, etc.), they have created something and expressed their thoughts through music! It is always exciting to get a peek into the creative mind of another person.
Discovery & Experimentation
These skills can be advanced and refined much further through any number of activities, a few of which I will list here (some of these are more standard for older students, but can be applied at any age).
Listen to as many different genres of music as you can, even those from different cultures around the world
Discover and experiment with new scales. Hear how different intervals (spaces between notes) sound and incorporate them into your compositions or solos. Try transitioning from one key to another.
Actively listen to solos and melodies by great improvisers and songwriters
Find patterns or “licks” that you like the sound of, try them in different keys and contexts until they become a natural part of your musical language
These activities, games, and suggestions only scratch the surface of possibilities in guiding your child or student towards musical independence. The earlier a child can start these activities, the better, but the best time is always now! Exploratory music classes like Tot Rock in West Chester lay a wonderful foundation for infants and toddlers. And as children grow, so does their ability to develop musical fluency with techniques and activities like those discussed above.
Treat this discovering of musical voice just like learning a native tongue. Mistakes happen and certain words and phrases are new and intimidating. But through listening, patience, and the help of a loving teacher, all of those learning experiences come together to make something that is totally unique and totally “you.” Happy exploring!
The Ways Children Learn Music - Eric Bluestine
Learning Music Through Improvisation - Christopher D. Azzara and Richard F. Grunow