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Which came first: the rhythm or the melody?

Ah, the age-old question.

The first time I realised that this was a matter of contention was when I was on a student placement (as a classroom teacher, not a music teacher). The music teacher was talking about how she never introduced pitch until Grade 3 (age 8), because children simply didn’t understand it before that. According to what she was saying, she only worked on rhythm with children in the first few years of school.

Now, in her defense, she did in fact do a lot of singing with her students. What she really meant was that did not teach the western structures surrounding scales, melody and harmony.

Was she right?

At the time, I was horrified. And I have to say that I hope you’re a bit horrified too.

Why, I wonder.

You, as a music teacher yourself (or an enthusiast, anyway) will probably already have an answer.

To state it plainly, to teach rhythm without any mention of melody, would be like telling a child to only eat the skin of an apple, and leave the rest of it.

Musicians and teachers are responsible for spreading the same idea beyond just rhythm and melody; we separate timbre from melody and rhythm as though they are not entirely dependent on one another.

I’ve mentioned before that students are excellent listeners. Even if we are not teaching them about either melody or rhythm, they will most certainly hear it. And independently play with it, and wonder about it.

Music is not a science experiment that can be separated into discrete parts without destroying the whole. It’s the interaction of sound that goes beyond the labels that we put on it.

Now, this might make you feel a bit overwhelmed.

Does this mean I have to teach everything all at once?!?

Yes, and no. Don’t overthink it. You are not teaching something that doesn’t already exist. When you sing a simple tune with your students, they’re already hearing rhythm, melody, tone, expression, all of it! And as excellent listeners, they will understand a lot by being exposed to music in a variety of forms.

One particularly useful tool in covering multiple elements of music at once is teaching a canon, such as ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. I’ve created a simple (and cheap!) resource and guide to use in music lessons to play with combining melody into harmony, altering rhythms and giving some creative license on the way. Find it here.

Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

Why I Discourage Perfect Pitch

I’ll never forget the look that I shared with a friend of mine after one of our first University music tests.

It wasn’t even a high stakes situation. It was simply a pre-assessment to determine what class we should join for our aural studies. As you learn really quickly in a music degree, it’s not about where you start, it’s about how hard you work to get where you want to go. So even though the test wasn’t easy, we all left free in the knowledge that it didn’t determine any of our final grades.

We all went to get the obligatory midday coffee, and one student just couldn’t resist it. He had to have his moment of glory.

“I know he didn’t ask for it, but on that final transcription, I included that it was in A Major, just to show that I knew it.”

Now, to give context, many of the rest of us had struggled on the final task. It was 5 bars of piano music, with no key signature, time signature or starting note. I don’t remember managing to get much beyond the base line. (Remember, where you get to, not where you started).

He then went on to talk about his perfect pitch.

And that was just one of many times I felt like I was an insufficient musician because I didn’t have this one magical thing. Because the assumption is that perfect pitch equals an astoundingly brilliant musician.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

As a short disclaimer, there are those people who have what is scientifically described to be perfect pitch, where they can identify what I will hear term ‘pure’ notes. They are a very rare subset.

What is usually meant by perfect pitch is that you can hear any sound, and say what pitch it is without any further support.

It essentially means having a perfect memory for sound.

Here’s the problem though: what sound are they remembering?

More often than not, the sound of a piano. The sound of one flawed tuning system, that itself admits to not being ‘in tune’.

The sound of one instrument that is not used by the entire globe, that informs whether sound is ‘correct’ or not.

The sound of one scale, that is not a natural phenomenon, but rather has been developed by only certain countries in a musical history that itself only remembers a small part of what happened. Because the politics, the racism, the knowledge holders at the time didn’t in fact record everything, or even know everything.

You can hear that I’m passionate about this; it even sparked the founding of an arts collective. If you want to hear more about it, check it out here.

The point is that sound is not perfect. The note that you might call ‘wrong’, or the scale that you would call ‘incomplete’ forms the foundation for a whole genre of music you have never heard.

So I discourage perfect pitch. I insist on singing without the piano, often starting on a different note to the piano, just to expand the concept of what sound is.

If you have perfect pitch, I am not here to tell you that you don’t have a skill that can be useful. But I am here to challenge you, and how you teach.

Perfect pitch is not the end game.

Adaptable, effective musical skills are what we are all after. Expand the sound world, build the tools to use it, and you will produce incredible mini musicians!

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C or Do?

The title of this certainly is challenging to read.

I can assure you that I do not mean ‘see or do’.

The question I am asking is whether or not we call a note ‘C’ or ‘Do’, or anything else for that matter.

This raises so many questions for people. We live in a world where we belong to schools of thought. Are you Kodaly trained, Orff trained, Suzuki trained? Or do those names make your eyes hurt?

I have received extensive training in aural studies, sight singing and piano/music teaching. And what I have arrived at is that it is important to know what other people think, and why they think it.

The programs I have listed have lasted for a reason; they are effective.

So then why doesn’t everyone do it exactly the same way?

The short answer to that is that music is a cultural product; it is intrinsically connected to language, communication and, in many cases, national identity.

I learned the music notes as C,D,E all the way up to my final years of school, where suddenly we were attempting to sight sing using a system I only knew from the Sound of Music. And I am happy with the way I was taught. But it is no longer the way I teach.

Apart from being a music teacher, I am also a general classroom practitioner, meaning that I also (very happily) teach maths, reading, writing, science… the list goes on. I’ll never forget my first lesson in teaching students how to read, when I realised how confusing it must be for a 5 year old to be told that the letter C says ‘k’ by one teacher, only to be told it makes a pitched sound by another.

And I have changed the way I teach ever since. To a certain point.

You see, the problem with only ever using one program is that music is always going to be bigger than one program. Movable Do has many instances where it simply doesn’t work, as does Fixed Do. As do tuning systems, as does staff notation. To be an effective teacher, you need to be willing to expand your vocabulary and understandings to suit different situations.

When I teach students how to read music, I often use the names ‘do, re, mi’. But I also tell them that they have more than one name. Because that is all it is; a name. A name that helps us to know what we’re talking about.

So then which name is best?

All of them. And none of them.

The note is not the name. The note is the sound it makes.

So when I’m teaching students who are learning to read, I use ‘do, re, mi’. When I’m teaching older students, I use both. Because the names are only the labels that make the sound easier to understand.

So back to our first question: C or Do?

Simply put, the answer is up to you. Just remember that no system is perfect, or absolutely right all the time.

(And please remember that children can also be learning how to read).

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Why singing?

I have been a piano teacher since I was 15 years old. Safe to say that my first students had to deal with my teething problems. But thankfully when I graduated school and moved, they graduated me, and got the variety we all need for a good music education.

One of the regrets I have from that time is that I did not sing with my first students. Instead, I taught the way I had been taught, by playing scales, exercises and pieces.

Now, more than a piano teacher, I consider myself a music teacher. Whenever you have a student, you are teaching the whole child. They might end up specialising in the instrument they happen to be studying, they might switch musical specialties, or they might pursue an entirely different career. So the question that needs to be asked is: what skills do you want to leave them with?

That brings us around to singing. Apart from the fact that aural skills are part of every music examination, they are also an indispensable musical skill. And the wonderful thing is that children are excellent listeners. I’m not saying they are good at listening to you; we all know that’s not true. But they are constantly learning new sounds, and music is no exception.

Music is the creation of sound. We learn that that picture on the page means that we make a certain sound. That when you move your hands a certain way, you can make the sound that is being requested. The mistake that is often made here is a reliance on muscle memory instead of auditory memory. Rather than learning that middle C sounds like middle C, we learn that middle C is that note on the piano, or that finger on the violin, etc. And while muscle memory is useful, by itself it limits you to your one instrument.

So, we sing. At the start of every music lesson, instrumental or classroom. And for my instrumental students, I expect them to sing as part of their practice time. I do not create virtuosic singers. That’s not the point. But over time, they notice their mistakes before I tell them. Because rather than just remembering how their hands move, they know what sound to expect next, because they have practiced it in every way that they can.

This can seem daunting. You’re not a vocal teacher, why would you sing with your cello student? Start simply. Sing a major scale. Sing a minor scale. Sing intervals. Sing chords. You will be amazed by what your students can do, and how it develops both of you as musicians.

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Welcome to the music educator website! I am Jenny Guilford, an educator with over 12 years experience as an instrumental teacher, and 4 years as a classroom practitioner. I’ve taught everything from a tantruming 3 year old, to a classroom full of 10 year olds preparing a flashy dance number.

I made this website to establish a community of music educators. As co-founder of the (In)Equal Temperament Project, I am passionate about decolonising the music classroom, and interrogating how we were taught. We should be willing to adapt how we teach, to include more people in the wonder that is music education.

On this website there will be resources, including original sheet music, units of classroom work and all sorts of other resources designed to make your life simpler. You are the busy teacher, after all.

Let’s get this education party started!