Another September has come to an end. After so many years as a student and then faculty member, fall always feels like the real beginning of the year to me. My two children are now old enough to also be plugged in to this annual cycle; so it was an especially busy month in our household as we adjusted to the new and continuing programs for both of them. Among these my eldest, 9-yr-old Sarah, has resumed piano lessons for what will be her third year. Naturally, with her increasing capability the material is becoming more complex and the expectations higher. Witnessing Sarah’s more formal entry into the world of music gives me pause for reflection about some of the steps along the way.
Being a music therapist who works with children, I have routinely engaged in spontaneous music making with my own kids; mainly playing and singing with my guitar and improvising with percussion instruments. But as for lessons, other than a short-lived, rather idealistic notion of teaching Sarah to play myself (a desire quickly put to rest by a succinctly delivered dose of counter-will: "No Dad!") I have not wanted to push her along too soon. I have been content to sit back, watch, and wait for the signs that signaled it was the right time to sign her into music lessons. Well, okay, not always exactly "content"; sometimes I felt a bit like a cat bunched up ready to pounce. But the signs eventually came along, and they stand out in my mind as a series of ‘steps’ with the song "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".
Among the various instruments I keep around the house is a Melodica, a little keyboard that you blow into, rather like a harmonica with keys. When Sarah was very young she would walk around honking the rhythm of "Twinkle" (or any song for that matter, for she confidently played anything at this stage - on one note).
Occasionally I would introduce the notion of changing notes...
"But I can do it like this!" And away she would march, honking as happy and self- satisfied as can be.
Eventually she entertained the idea of changing notes. Twinkle is a good one for this because after the first "big jump" the melody proceeds in an even step-wise manner. And sure enough so began the next phase where she played the song - many times - with the "correct" note changes - starting on any white note! (Except perhaps "B"; I think the locrian mode was too much even for her).
In due course the inevitable: starting the song, a dawning realization, stopping, and then re-starting on a different note. The correct one! (In this case either "C" or "G") Not that anything previous was "incorrect"; for there was simply no objectivity about it. At this point the meaning of the song when played by Sarah was derived solely from its rhythm and her perception of the sequence of note changes in the physical world.
And then eventually a big leap:
"Hey Dad, listen to this (as opposed to "watch"). If I hold down this low note (i.e. low "C" on the Melodica to create a drone) and then play Twinkle over top, it sounds really good."
With this there began a whole new level of discernment. Sarah was no longer so closely bound up with what she was doing and perceiving. She could now mentally step back and appraise the situation with some objectivity to the degree that she could simultaneously bring in something else altogether, something complimentary to the main focus. With the drone, she brought in a component which, while being part of Twinkle, was not by itself Twinkle. In this Sarah demonstrated the ability to hold two things in her mind at once; the ability to conceive of both part and whole. This was the point at which I thought Sarah had quite naturally graduated from Twinkle, and I found a piano teacher to help her take further steps into the world of music.
As the fall season settles in we are getting increasingly into the groove of the new school year routine. Sarah’s lessons are going well and the new material is requiring some real practice. An emerging challenge will have to do with striking a balance between preparing for the lessons and associated recitals on the one hand, while preserving her spirit of playfulness and her tendency towards experimentation with the instrument on the other; that precious spark of curiosity and the pleasure derived from discovery that lead her into music in the first place.
Howard, M, (2008). Steps Into Music. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colhoward061008