Reasons One Curriculum Does Not Work for All Students – A Guest Post by Neil Hanks

Piano man and American songwriting legend, Billy Joel, said that music is an explosive expression of humanity. It is something we are all touched by and no matter what culture you’re from, everyone loves music. Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, said that music can change the world because music can change people. And guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix called music his religion.

With something as universal, powerful and uniting as music, it’s no wonder that music education has a firm root in our educational systems from the elementary level right through to post-secondary and doctoral studies.

According the Ontario government, its music curriculum is intended to help students develop an understanding and appreciation of music, as well as the ability to create and perform it, so that they will be able to find a lifelong source of enjoyment and personal satisfaction in the art form.

Music not only helps develop practical artistic skills but also enables students to sharpen their ability to reason, to think critically, and to explore their emotional responses.

But having a single curriculum or rigid approach to teaching does not always work for everyone. As such, it is essential that a balanced approach to music education is offered and that students are given a chance to develop musical literacy through a range of activities like singing, playing, moving, performing, creating, and listening actively.

“Children learn to love music when they have opportunities to experience it in the context of a rich and varied curriculum,” the Ontario elementary arts curriculum outline states. “Teachers need to provide options to accommodate different learning styles and intelligences.”

Why one approach might not work for all?

Different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, varying degrees of exposure to music and formal education, as well as distinctive learning styles or intelligences are all reasons why one curriculum or teaching style might not work for all students within a music classroom.

The theory of multiple intelligences was introduced in the early 1980s by Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of education at Harvard University, and establishes seven distinct intelligences and keys to the way people learn. The different types of learning styles outlined by Gardner are:

    Linguistic: the intelligence of words.
    Logical-mathematical: the intelligence of numbers and reasoning.
    Spatial: the intelligence of pictures and images.
    Musical: the intelligence of tone, rhythm, and timbre.
    Bodily-Kinesthetic: the intelligence of the whole body and the hands.
    Interpersonal: the intelligence of social understanding.
    Intrapersonal: the intelligence of self-knowledge.

With these concepts in mind, educators can begin to craft an effective strategy for student success. While “musical intelligence” is one of the intellects that Gardner identified, this does not mean students who fall into a different category can’t appreciate and excel at music. Whether it’s singing, playing drums, guitar lessons or some other aspect of music, teachers simply need to learn how to incorporate different students’ strengths into their lessons.

Karen Lonsdale a music teacher with the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Bracebridge, Ontario, faces the challenge of providing a music curriculum that is effective and engaging for all 527 of her students that range from kindergarten through to grade 8.

“Depending on the students’ needs or abilities, as a teacher I have to change the curriculum all the time,” Lonsdale said. “The curriculum in the arts sometimes doesn’t work, [and] as a teacher you have to be really flexible and creative.”

Mix in a set of students that have learning disabilities or special needs and a whole new series of challenges arise. Lonsdale teaches a number of students with developmental delays, autism, and other learning challenges and she continually has to reevaluate the way she approaches the curriculum so that she can connect with her entire classroom.

For example, Lonsdale currently has a grade 5 student that faces certain physical challenges and she has had to give special attention ensuring the student can participate.

“Her hand and eye coordination is not good, so I might put her on a percussion instrument,” Lonsdale said. “Because she does have good rhythm, she can keep the beat, but she’s physically not going to be able to play an instrument.”

After 27 years of both private and in-class teaching, Lonsdale said one of the most important factors in making a music curriculum work is making it fun.

“I have kids that will be so excited to come tell me that they’ve started guitar lessons but after a month or two they stop. And I know why… it’s because they’re not excited,” she said. “They’re not excited about the music the teacher is teaching them, it’s not what they want to learn.”

“When I was young you learned what your teacher told you to learn, whether you liked the song or not. But today, if you don’t make it fun, act excited yourself and do things that are relevant to them, you’re going to lose them.”

Neil Hanks is a business and music enthusiast. His passions, among other things, include playing and teaching music to people of all ages. When not working, you can often find him a pawn shops and garage sales looking for classic Gibson Guitars to fill his collection.

When Teaching Beats Doing Laundry

I really appreciate this quote that I came across this morning by Carol Barnier, one of the featured speakers at our local homeschool convention:

“It’s always been important to me to give people something they can take home and use right away. Whether it’s teaching fractions to a distractible student or reconnecting with the heart of a prodigal who is walking away. . .if you don’t take away something that makes a difference in your life, you may as well have stayed at home and gotten the laundry done.”

~Carol Barnier

The more I teach, the more I realize that it’s impossible for me to give every student everything they need musically. If that is my goal, I will fail every time. But if our aim as teachers at every lesson is to give the student something they can take away that makes a difference in their lives – musical or otherwise – we can truly make a lasting impact.

Computer Woes

In case anyone is wondering about the lack of posting around here…my computer crashed a little over a week ago and has been out of commission ever since. It’s definitely slowing things down around the studio, but I’m hopeful that either it will be up and running again soon or I’ll be able to get a new system. We’ll see what transpires in the next week or two!

Consecutive Club

In the latest e-mail from Yellow Cat Studio, Sarah shared her idea for the Consecutive Club, a simple way to keep students (and herself!) accountable for spending time at the piano every day. I really like this idea, and may try to incorporate something similar into my practice incentive theme next year! We did something similar quite a few years ago with The Box Club theme, but I’ve gotten away from an emphasis on/incentive for practicing every day and I think it’s something I need to reinstate. There’s just nothing that can take the place of consistent, daily practice!

Music Education and Therapy – Guest Post by Marcela De Vivo

My oldest son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a toddler, and ever since we’ve tried countless treatments and alternative therapies to help him live as rich a life as possible. Our most recent exploration was into the world of music therapy, and it was astonishing how well he responded to it.

Since the Mozart Effect was made popular in the 1950’s, parents everywhere have begun to expose their children to classical music. It is said to help improve brain performance and even raise a child’s IQ.

As time has passed, all types of music have been accepted as part of music therapy. Music therapy is used to help children in the classroom, at home and even in hospitals, regardless of whether or not they have special needs.

Music Therapy for Children with Disabilities

Music therapy has been shown to improve speech and language deficits and cognitive abilities. It can also help build your child’s social skills and sensory motor functioning – especially in children with Autism.

Music therapists are board certified trainers who have learned to facilitate specific music activities to help your child’s brain develop. Other advocates of music therapy say that it can also provide a huge boost to a child’s self-esteem.

Imagine a happy child smiling and bouncing around as you help them dance to the music created by the therapist. This will also help you foster a healthy non-verbal relationship with your child. So much love and adoration can be expressed as they experience the music around them with you.

My son’s physical limitations prevent him from learning an instrument, but the music therapist comes to play music for him and he loves every second of it. Being able to participate in this is only an added benefit. It’s almost as if the music therapy is for both of us. Seeing his smile is priceless.

Music can also be incorporated into all kinds of activities with your special needs child such as getting dressed, at bedtime, and when they are throwing a tantrum. It can help significantly calm them down and focus on something more positive than whatever is frustrating them.

Music Therapy for All Children

Research shows that music therapy has helped many a student achieve higher test scores in school. Even years later when children are taking the SAT and applying to colleges their test scores are slightly higher than their peers who did not participate in music therapy or education.

Some Charter schools in the United States are allowing children to wear their headphones during the day while they are doing class work because it helps them concentrate better. Music can be used to motivate your child in all kinds of situations – and this is definitely still considered therapy.

Young minds can be heavily shaped by music in many different ways. A large number of children find it easier to fall asleep at night time while listening to soothing music, like Mozart. This also helps their brains process their thoughts from throughout the day and has been shown to reduce nightmares and night terrors.

After seeing the benefits for my son, I would highly suggest anyone who is interested or considering music therapy to try it. The positive benefits to them are truly endless.

[Photo 1 courtesy of]
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Marcela De Vivo is a freelance writer and proud mom of three in the Los Angeles area. She specializes in health, tech, and marketing, and currently works with David Anderson Pianos, who first sparked her interest in music therapy.

Friday Film Find

With Easter this past Sunday, the song “The Holy City” came to mind so I looked it up on YouTube and found this gem:

What an impressive example of embracing any environment or equipment to present a beautiful musical experience! (I probably would have complained to no end about having to play such a piece on an electronic keyboard with no music rack…) This should be an inspiration to every music student to work toward musical artistry and excellence!

The Inaugural World Pianist Invitational

Destined to take its place among the world’s premier international classical music challenge events, the World Pianist Invitational is a two-part competition.

Phase I – which officially launches this week – is an online entry activity through which aspiring competitors, aged 5-29,will submit a video recording of their classical piano performance to a blue chip panel of international judges. From those submissions – and we are capping the entries at 2,500 – five finalists across five age groups (25 performers total) will be invited to participate in Phase II – a live concert performance at the world renowned Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Washington, D.C.

Sounds like a pretty exciting new event for pianists! You can find out more on the World Pianist Invitational website.

Monday Mailbag – How to Develop an Internal Sense of Pulse

I want my students to feel an internal beat; it seems that any kind of external beat (counting, tapping, metronome, etc.) can be  “warped” or ignored while concentrating on note location, etc.  But, I’m having trouble with some students who never seem to get it (it doesn’t matter what song it is). When approaching a new song,  what do you teach first – note locations or rhythm? And do you have any ideas to move a student from external to internal beat?

This question is very apropos right now because I have a young student struggling with the exact same thing, so I’ve been trying to come up with some ideas to address this issue. In my experience, students who are strong visual learners tend to struggle more in this area because they are very focused on reading the notes on the page and tend to not be as aware of the sound they are making. And I should know because I was one of those students! Thanks to the patience and creativity of my dedicated teacher, though, I think I have developed a pretty good sense of pulse and rhythmic flow. So, some of these ideas that I share will be ones that she used with me. I thought I would use this as an opportunity to do a brainstorm post and just bullet point every idea that comes to mind that could be used to help a student develop a better internal sense of pulse:

  • Incorporate elements of Eurhythmics into the lesson. The basic idea is to use large motor movements to express the pulse and the rhythms, whether walking, dancing, swaying, marching in place, etc. (Don’t be afraid to make the student get off the bench and feel a little ridiculous if necessary. Even if they hate it now, it will be worth it!)
  • Grab a baton and teach the student basic conducting patterns.  I have a whole collection of kids batons and use them often with students to learn conducting patterns. They love it!
  • Listen to recordings of upbeat music and tap, clap, or play a rhythm instrument along with it. The Let’s Have a Musical Rhythm Band book and CD set is great for this!
  • Give the student a djembe and have them beat a steady pulse while you play or improvise a piece of music. I have this Toca Djembe and use it all the time in my studio – it’s a favorite for both the students and me! I especially like to have them emphasize the downbeat by hitting the drum harder or in a different spot to make it distinct.
  • Improvise duets together. Anyone whose been around here long knows I can hardly go a whole week without a reference to improvising! I use the Pattern Play series every day in my teaching, and it’s a great way to free students up from having to read musical notation to just listen and express themselves musically. Very helpful for cultivating more of an awareness of musical pulse and flow.
  • Record (audio or video) the student playing their piece, then listen to the playback and tap along with the beat. Have them keep a tally of how many times they hesitated or got off beat.
  • Find a book of duets at their level and have them learn one part to play with either you or another student. Ensemble playing does wonders for learning to keep the beat going!
  • When learning a piece (to address the other part of your question), have the student improvise whatever notes they want to, but play the rhythm as written. Sometimes to make the point that I really don’t care what notes they play, I’ll have them move onto the black keys and just play everything on random keys, but still keeping the rhythm accurate. The goal is to capture the character and flow of the piece, then later we will work on learning the written notes.

So, there are some of my ideas. I would LOVE to add to this list, though, so if you have other suggestions of how to help a student develop an internal sense of pulse, please let me know!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!