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Learning Matters: Music instruction hits the right notes

September 20, 2013|By Joylene Wagner

After a five-year hiatus, I have returned to work, once a week, as a musicianship instructor for an established children's choir.

Though the students I teach are lucky to have passed the auditions for this challenging choral program, I consider myself lucky to be working among the musician-educators who have devoted their lives to children's music. I am a hobbyist among professionals, a lifelong singer who became a student of music when I found myself, 26 years ago, unexpectedly directing a children's choir.

After years of workshops and summer courses, on-the-job training, and close observation of these and other professionals, I have skills adequate for my limited role.

Most importantly, I've learned what music makes possible for children, what it can offer for all, not just for those with special talent. Our school district is fortunate to have credentialed music teachers who travel among our elementary schools to teach instrumental music — but only to those relatively few students who, with parent support, choose to sign up for it.


Unfortunately, most of our elementary students don't receive regular musical instruction. What they miss out on is not just the music. They miss the ways music education can support other areas of learning.

Music teaches listening skills. Often, in and out of school settings, where non-musicians lead group singing, they begin songs just by plunging in, or with the spoken cue — "ready, begin" — as if beginning the Pledge of Allegiance.

In many classrooms, if students sing, they sing with recordings, without attention to whether they're singing with the recorded pitches. Often they are not. You don't see or hear this in choirs where singers are taught to listen for the starting pitch, then match it. The aim isn't being louder than the rest or out-singing the others. The goal is to sing in unison or achieve harmony. What better way to learn about discipline, listening and patience, teamwork and participation?

Believe it or not, music teaches math. When students clap whole notes and half notes, quarters and eighths and dotted rhythms, they're learning division and fractions. When they complete a measure of music to match the meter of a song, they're experiencing algebra.

I'm happy to recall the time a second-grade student — at one of the few schools in our district that has music for all primary students — interrupted my beat-counting exercise with her realization, "Mrs. Wagner, this is math!"

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