Why do kids want to do music and why do teachers want to teach it

Friday, October 26, 2007 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 7:10 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Trentynne Davis, 9 of Ridgeway Elementary School tries a half-size violin with the help of MU senior Justin Frieda during the open house for the Missouri Stings Project at MU's Fine Arts Building on Sep. 8. Frieda has been an instuctor with the project for the past three years.

On a Tuesday afternoon in Whitmore Recital Hall, MU piano professor Julie Knerr gave a performance to a rapt audience of two. Sidni Jones, a first-grader, and Grace Kirk, a second-grader, watched as Knerr’s fingers deftly alternated between two high-pitched keys on the keyboard of an elegant black grand piano.

“What animal does that sound like?” she asked of the resulting trill.


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The girls took a moment to think. Grace raised a timid hand.

“A cat?” she said. Indeed, it brought to mind the animal’s tip-toe walk.

Sidni’s hand soon followed. “A mouse?” Now the sound evoked the skittering gray creature that sends so many to kitchen chairs.

Knerr said that these were good answers but that they sounded to her like a bird’s song. She played the keys again, and both girls smiled as they agreed that the quick major second sounded like a twittering bird.

Grace and Sidni were setting off on what will be a semester-long “Piano Safari.” The MU School of Music program will teach the girls the fundamentals of piano playing and music theory. Some experts think teaching children the fundamentals of music will also teach them the fundamentals of life.

Research suggests that music increases other skills besides those involved solely with counting rhythm and singing on pitch. The Web site of MENC, the National Association for Music Education, states the benefits of music education include success in society, school and learning, developing intelligence and life.

“Young children who take music lessons show different brain development and improved memory over the course of a year,” said Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, as cited by the MENC Web site.

However, Wendy Sims, director of studies in music education at MU, questions the applicability of such studies. She said that while music may aid development in other areas, children shouldn’t learn music just to get better at math. Children should learn music to learn music.

“It fulfills people in ways that are important to their humanity,” she said.

Music is everywhere, she pointed out; it’s impossible to go a day without hearing some form of it.

At elementary schools around Columbia, children do more than just hear music — they get the chance to participate. At Blue Ridge Elementary School, children have two half-hours a week dedicated to learning musical concepts.

JoAnna Hoeppner, the school’s music teacher, was encouraged by how much the children remembered after the summer.

On a Monday morning in the fourth week of school, third-graders played a game to help recall lessons from the previous year. Sitting in two facing rows, the children read rhythms and then pitches of songs they’d learned in the previous year. The teams took turns remembering the name of the songs based on the melodies.

First they’d read the song’s rhythm from the projector screen, and then the melody. Then the teammates whispered among themselves, trying desperately to remember the song’s name. Finally, they arrived at an answer and belted it out, after which the whole class sang the song through. The game ended in a tie.

Students at Lee Elementary School get more exposure to music than most. Lee is set up as an expressive arts school, meaning that music and art are used to teach concepts such as math or science.

Susan Altomari, Lee’s music teacher, works with other teachers to instruct the students in song. In one instance, she used an adaptation of the work song “Weevily Wheat” to teach Susan Twenter’s fourth-graders how to multiply. Laughing children danced; singing the multiples of five replaced the typical glazed faces caused by too much staring at multiplication grids.

In their regular music classes, students also play percussion instruments. In one class period, fourth-graders learned about rhythm from a limerick about Chopin. They started by snapping, clapping and using hand gestures for certain words in the song. One child then started playing a timpani to keep the beat. Other instruments gradually took the place of the hand motions until the group of school children became a young percussion ensemble intent on playing on the right beat.

For some children, just learning rhythm and notation in school isn’t enough. Piano Safari is one program that offers instruction for children as young as 6 or 7. Each child receives a half-hour of private lessons and one 45-minute group lesson per week.

Sidni and Grace, students at Ridgeway Elementary School, are in the same group class. Together they’ll learn piano technique and music theory.

In their first group lesson, Knerr used animal analogies like the one about the trilling bird to teach them the range of the piano. Later, the three clustered on the floor to learn correct hand positions. The girls arched their fingers to create a house for a small animal figurine. Changing their finger position would make the animal uncomfortable in its house, and, more importantly, make piano playing more difficult.

Piano and string instruments are the typical instrument choices for young children. Brasses and woodwinds, such as the trombone or clarinet, are too physically demanding for most children.

String instruments are made in sizes from three-quarters and half the normal size all the way down to tiny violins, violas and cellos sized appropriately for 2-year-olds, said Leslie Perna, director of the Missouri String Project. These pint-sized instruments play the same range of notes as the full-sized instruments but aren’t as loud as their full size counterparts.

But for brasses and woodwinds, changes in size create a different range of notes and challenges. Smaller versions, like the piccolo trumpet and E-flat clarinet, have a higher range and a degree of difficulty that requires mature musicianship to play.

The Missouri String Project offers third- and fourth- graders around mid-Missouri the chance to learn to play a string instruments.Perna said that the three-fold mission of the String Project is to teach children to play and enjoy string instruments, give college student-teachers hands-on experience before they teach in public schools or in their own private studios and address the nationwide shortage in string teachers. The String Project hosted an open house to give third-graders a chance to try child-sized violins, violas and cellos, and parents had the chance to talk to the owner of a music store about rental options.

Selah Jordan came with her mother, Lisa, and sister, Jeanelle, because of a presentation given by String Project at her school.

“I like how the violin sounded when they played the high note,” said Selah Jordan. To her, it sounded like a plane without wings that could float.

Taha Sultan came because he likes Beethoven. His mother, Wanda, said that one day he just turned on the radio and started listening to classical music. He said he likes the music better when it’s just the instruments playing and picked the violin because of the peaceful sounds.

Other children came because of family members who play instruments. Kristy Workman was there that morning with her grandparents, Nancy and Del Workman. Her curiosity about strings stemmed from her grandfather’s guitar-playing. However, in the end she decided that playing violin wouldn’t be close enough and opted for guitar lessons instead of the String Project.

Jennalea Heaston, 8, came with her mother, Karen, and a violin. Her older sisters, twin 10-year-olds Alyse and Amelia, already play violin and viola. Her mother hopes that her younger sister Laura, 7, will choose cello. Then the four sisters could form their own family string quartet.

“Watch out for the famous Heaston sisters,” Karen Heaston said, laughing.

It took trying all three instruments for Selah Jordan to make her choice. Before declaring her instrument, her eyes flashed wide open and her face tensed like a coiling spring before proudly announcing, “Viola!” To her, it sounded like spreading butter on bread.

Students that share Selah’s excitement are the music teacher’s ideal.

“Building that love for music is what we’re all about,” Hoeppner said.

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