MUSIC IN THE HOME SCHOOL
By Pamela Asberry Geyer
In developing my educational philosophy and methodology, I have been heavily influenced by the writings of Charlotte Mason. On the subject of music, she said, “A human being is endowed with an ear attuned to harmony and melody, with a voice from which music may issue, hands whose delicate action may draw forth sounds in enthralling sequence With the ancient Greeks, we begin to realize that music is a necessary part of education.” I have a master’s degree in piano performance and pedagogy, and I home educate my three children while operating a piano studio out of my home. With my background and experience, music study has always been a natural part of our lives. My children have been surrounded by classical music from their earliest days, and have had ready opportunities to learn to sing and play the piano. But it isn’t that way for all home educators, and many people ask me for suggestions as to how to incorporate music into the home school curriculum. Hopefully this article will answer some of those questions.
There are really two aspects to the study of music: music appreciation and the study of singing or an instrument. First, let us consider music appreciation.
On the subject of music appreciation, Charlotte Mason said, “It would be hard to say how much that passes for inherited musical taste and ability is the result of the constant hearing and producing of musical sounds, the HABIT of music, that the child of musical people grows up with.” But many home educators do not consider themselves to be “musical people.” They feel that they do not know enough about classical music to be able to teach their children about it. If that is the case, then learn about classical music alongside your children! Music of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh and The Gift of Music by Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson are great resources for parents. Both provide information on general music history, more detailed information on the individual composers and their works, and recommended listening lists.
Choose one composer to focus on at a time. Begin with a biography of the composer. The Music Masters series is a great place to start. In these cassettes or CD’s, a narrator discusses a composer’s life, and representative music is used to illustrate his growth as a creative artist. I also like the biographies of Opal wheeler. Although they are out of print, many are still available through the public library. Other possibilities are listed under Additional Resources at the conclusion of this article. Note the dates the composer lived, in what style period he composed, and what types of compositions he wrote (symphonies, chamber music, songs, solo piano music, etc.) Then select one major work of the composer to focus on each week. Identify the name of the work, the type of work, and the instruments used in it. By spending six or eight weeks (or more) listening to the music of a particular composer, a child will become familiar with that composer’s individual style and will be able to recognize not only the works studied directly but also to identify other works by that same composer. Charlotte Mason confirmed this when she said, “Many great men have put their beautiful thoughts, not into books, or pictures, or buildings, but into musical score, to be sung with the voice or played on instruments, and so full are these musical compositions of the minds of their makers, that people who care for music can always tell who has composed the music they hear, even if they have never heard the particular movement before. Thus, in a manner, the composer speaks to them, and they are perfectly happy in listening to what he has to say.”
To document their studies, my children keep music appreciation notebooks. In their notebooks, they include a rendition of the composer’s portrait (Bellerophon Books publishes a series called A Coloring Book of Great Composers which is helpful here), a narration of the composer’s biography, and a list of the music they listened to.
The value of listening to classical music is inestimable. As Smith and Carlson express it in The Gift of Music, “The more people acquaint themselves with what is truly great and beautiful, the more they will dislike and turn away from that which is shallow and ugly.” In addition, there is compelling evidence demonstrating that music study has many positive effects on cognitive development—improving everything from fine motor control, creativity, and self-discipline and motivation. Try spending just a few minutes a day listening to great music with your children. It will make a difference that will last a lifetime.
Next, let us consider the study of singing or an instrument. We are all born with the desire to express ourselves through music, and it appears that the development of our neurobiological systems is dependent upon fulfilling this desire. Neurobiologist Mark Jude Tramo of Harvard Medical School says, “Music is biologically part of human life, just as it is aesthetically part of human life.” 2 Study after study confirms this connection. “Musical arts are central to learning. The systems they nourish (which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacity processes) are in fact, the driving force behind all other learning.” 3 The benefits of music study are difficult to quantify due to the nature of the process; the results are not always immediate or easily measurable. Some may take months or even years to surface. But this difficulty in no way diminishes the importance of music study in a child’s education.
As a piano instructor, I highly identify with this statement: “The common misconception that music is a fringe activity—that it is less than a ‘major discipline”—represents a societal ignorance of sorts.”4 I have always believed that the musical arts should be an integral part of a well-rounded person’s education. And while music appreciation is essential, learning to sing and play an instrument, especially the piano, is perhaps even more important. “Music impacts the brain and body in many… ways, some temporary, lasting only minutes, and others more permanent. The arousal effect in listening is an example of the temporary, but powerful, impact music has on us, while brain changes as a result of long-term keyboard playing provide an example of music’s more permanent influence. The neurobiological value of music is derived when the system is activated repeatedly over time.” 5
Charlotte Mason believed that all children should be taught to sing—“the art of singing is entirely a trained habit… every child may be, and should be, trained to sing”—and play the piano, using a piano method which is “worked out, with minute care, upon the same lines; that is, the child’s knowledge of the theory of music and his ear training keep pace with his power of execution, and seem to do away with the deadly dreariness of ‘practicing.’”6 She was also a great advocate of teaching children to sing using the “tonic sol-fa method,” in which the were taught not only to read music, but also to make the proper Kodaly hand signals for, the notes of a passage sung, thereby reinforcing both ear and vocal training. Although this is difficult to implement in a tutorial setting, I believe in the wisdom in this type of instruction, and desire to provide my piano students with more opportunities to develop these skills.
The best age for beginning formal music instruction is difficult to identify. Much depends on the child’s interest and level of maturity. But most experts agree that between the ages of five and nine is optimal. However, music mastery can be attained even when lessons are started as late as age ten or so, especially if the child has been raised in a musical environment. Even adolescents or adults can become competent on an instrument with good training and attentive practice. And the nonmusical benefits of music study (relaxation, creativity, self-discipline, motivation, self-esteem) may be more important that the performance skills acquired.
While it is immensely rewarding to assist my students in developing their keyboard skills, it is perhaps even more satisfying to watch them grow in confidence and creativity. I witness these benefits daily. For example, a young child might resist tackling a new piece of music because “it looks too hard” and then beam with delight when he discovers he can do it. There are numerous occasions when a student bounds into my piano studio eager to share with me an original composition or the chorus of a popular song that he has picked out by ear. And there are those magical moments when a carefully practiced musical selection—anything from a simple beginner arrangement to a challenging classical piece--is practiced so carefully and performed so exquisitely that I am moved to tears. These are the times when I know that music study is worth all the effort expended by my students, their parents, and myself.
The importance of music in our schools is often debated. But Richard Dreyfuss, star of Mr. Holland’s Opus, said in 1996 at the Grammy Awards ceremony, “I believe that a a nation that allows music to be expendable is in danger of becoming expendable itself.” 7 And as home educators, we have the option to incorporate music into our children’s educations on a daily basis. From the time they are very young, we can surround them with the best music ever written; later, we can seek out qualified teachers to help them develop their ability to sing and play a musical instrument. Then we can see that their academic schedules actually allow them time for thoughtful practice. “The message with music education is start early, make it mandatory, provide flexible instruction, and support it throughout a student’s education.” 8 The time to begin is now!
1 Charlotte M. Mason, A Philosophy of Education (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1989), p. 329.
2 Eric Jensen, Music With the Brain in Mind (San Diego, California: The Brain Store, 2000), p. i.
3 Eric Jensen, Music With the Brain in Mind (San Diego, California: The Brain Store, 2000), p. 4.
4 Eric Jensen, Music With the Brain in Mind (San Diego, California: The Brain Store, 2000) p. 3.
5 Eric Jensen, Music With the Brain in Mind (San Deigo, California: The Brain Store, 2000) p. 17.
6 Charlotte M. Mason, Home Education (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1989),
7 Don Campbell, The Mozart Effect (New York, New York: Avon Books, 1997), p. 175.
8 Eric Jensen, Music With the Brain in Mind (San Diego, California: The Brain Store, 2000), p. 110.
Lives of the Musicians by Kathleen Krull
Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers series
by Mike Venizia (Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky,
Copland, Gershwin, Ellington)
Masters of Music series (Bach and Baroque Music, Mozart and the Classical Music, Beethoven and the Classical Age)
Famous Children series by Barron’s (Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky)
Classical Kids cassettes & CD’s (Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, Hallelujah Handel, Mr. Bach Comes to Call, Mozart’s Magic Fantasy, Mozart’s Magnificent Voyage, Beethoven Lives Upstairs)
Copyright 2004 by Pamela Asberry Geyer
All Rights Reserved