Monday, September 26, 2016

The Music Is In Me: A Picture Book About Music Class

The Music is in Me, by Kathy Wells
For students in the Let's Play Music and Sound Beginnings classes, attending class becomes a significant part of their world and perception of self. Finally, here is a picture book portraying a child having these experiences. 
Ever since Mommy sang me All the Pretty Little Horses
when I was a baby, I've heard music!
  Such lovely lullabies as she rocked me to sleep.
The music was in her!

Daddy sang in the shower, boisterous and bellowing.
I heard him all through the house.
The music was in him!  

So begins the picture book, The Music is in Me, by author and Let's Play Music teacher, Kathy Wells, illustrated by Whitney Staheli. 

This endearing picture book follows a girl as she experiences music in the world all around her. Her mother makes music, her father makes music, the trees and crickets and nature make music. She finds musical sounds everywhere in the expansive musical world. She begins to wonder, "is the music in me, too?"

Shortly thereafter, she attends the Red Balloons semester of Let's Play Music and begins to discover that she has music inside herself as well. She plays the autoharp, helps puppets dance to classical music, and plays tone bells with a mallet.  She begins to gain confidence in her ability and to view herself as a musician.

I had a chance to interview Kathy and find out more about the book.

Gina: Why did you write this story? Does it have anything to do with your childhood? 

Kathy:  As a young child I was very shy and had a difficult time feeling confident. I am grateful for my parents, who encouraged me to try things and work at things so I could grow in confidence. 

Thankfully, they enrolled me in piano lessons at age six. I never had formal music class before that (parent-tot classes didn't really happen back then.) I loved lessons immediately and discovered music was my niche in life. I went on to also play the violin and organ, and to sing in choirs all throughout college. 

I found the music inside myself, and it has been an immensely powerful influence in my life. I really wanted to connect to young readers through this book, and encourage them to aspire and have confidence in their own abilities.

I also wanted to write a book for children about this amazing experience they're having in their life. For many students, Sound Beginnings and Let's Play Music class is memorable and pivotal. It becomes a huge part of their self-view. Finally, here's a book about someone experiencing music the way they are.

I often wished I could have had LPM in my childhood, because when I took music theory classes in college it was overwhelming.  My LPM graduates are not going to have the same overwhelm that I did.

Although I wasn't in LPM, some parts of the story are similar to my childhood.  When I was a girl, I would sleep out under the stars at my grandmother's farm in Vernal, Utah. I would listen to the sounds of the night and recognize how musical they were. I was able to recreate that experience in the book.

Gina: What about the artwork? Is it special?

Do you recognize the story of "The Red Balloon?"
Kathy: I hoped the pictures would convey my message just as well as the words, especially so children can look through the book and enjoy it even if they are not reading yet. I hunted for an illustrator who could capture that vision. When I discovered Whitney Staheli and saw her work, I knew she was the one.

The artwork invites imagination from the readers. I hope they imagine themselves going to music class and doing these same things.

Gina: Is this your first book? Is literature perhaps your other niche?

Kathy: Yes, this is my first book. I had such a fun time writing this book. I am grateful to Shelle Soelberg, creator of Let's Play Music, for helping my dream come true by being supportive of my idea and helping it come to fruition. I always wanted to write a children’s book, but didn’t get my muse until I became a Let’s Play Music teacher in 2011 and saw how this inspired curriculum enriches and changes young lives! It is truly remarkable and I love teaching this curriculum. 

I always loved children’s literature and always loved curling up with a good book as a child. I guess it is my other niche.  Reading with a child is so important! From a young age, reading together not only enriches family bonds but prepares children to succeed in school. Exposing them to a rich and vibrant vocabulary is an easy and powerful gift to give.

I hope that many children will get to experience this book as they move from Sound Beginnings into the Let’s Play Music program.

You can PURCHASE A COPY HERE. If you would like to order multiple copies or get a bulk discount, contact Kathy directly (

Friday, September 16, 2016

One More Time: Podcast featuring Let's Play Music

Musician, teacher, and podcast producer, Art Moore, recently hosted Let's Play Music teacher, Kara Olson, on his podcast show for teachers, 'One More Time.'  

After taking Kara's son, a Let's Play Music graduate, as a guitar student, Art noticed musical skills his student had gained from Let's Play Music. Art was curious to know the inner workings of the program - do students like learning solfege? Do students learn to read music? Why the focus on self-accompaniment? and how does LPM consistently turn out musicians who have a complete set of musical skills?

Listen to the complete program here or read the show below:
Art: Tell us what you do and why you're here

Kara: I'm a teacher for Let's Play Music- a music program for kids. I'm nervous because I'd like to be able to adequately express myself and explain this program because it really is a wonderful program for music education for kids.

I was introduced to it about five years ago. I went to a sample class when my oldest was about four. I was really impressed with the curriculum and it looked SO FUN to me. I was thinking of signing my daughter up, but really what I was thinking is "this looks like SO MUCH FUN... I want to teach  this." 

I went to school and graduated in elementary education. I always loved teaching kids and loved music- so this was a perfect program for me to use my love for kids and music, and do this in my own home.

This is a program I teach in my home. It's a three-year curriculum. The foundation is based on proven philosophies and research about the way children learn. It's a comprehensive course that develops a complete musician.  It's not just a piano course or just for singing: it's designed to complete a complete musician.

Art: As you teach kids, you're working with them not only on piano, and voice, and rhythm- it's attacking all of those at once?

Kara: Exactly. One of the biggest fundamentals is using solfege

Art: Which I LOVE. I'm a huge fan of solfege, but I have no idea about how to teach it. I use it in my life all the time. I learned it in college and I use it all the time, but I have no idea how to teach it.

Kara: I learned a little bit about it, but I never solidly learned the hand signs or learned how to use solfege well until I trained for Let's Play Music. Now I'm really seeing how it can benefit kids and help them to visualize and feel pitch relationships.  We do the solfege right from the very beginning.

Art: Can you describe what solfege is? For listeners who don't know?

Kara: Solfege is a teaching method developed by Zoltan Kodaly. He's one of the music masters that Let's Play Music bases their practices on. Solfege is basically using hand signs and syllables for each tone in the major scale. It really helps to develop those pitch relationships and to be able to sing it in tune.

Art: A good example is from the Sound of Music? I listened to that for years and had no idea what that was. When I went to college I finally got it. They really did a good job with that.

Kara: Exactly. I learned the history behind solfege at our teacher's symposium. The syllables were based on a chant. Those syllables have changed a little bit over time.

We use solfege to teach the major scale, and we use the Do Re Mi song... I'll sing it for you. 

Do, a deer, a female deer.  Re, a drop of golden sun. Mi, a name a call myself.
Fa, a long long way to run. Sol, a needle pulling thread. La, a note to follow Sol.
Ti, a drink with jam and bread, and that brings us back to Do.

So, we teach them going up and down. We also include a lot of movement. One of the ways we use solfege in addition to the major scale is in teaching patterns.

We start off in class each week singing the Let's Play Music song:

Let's play music, music, music
Let's play music, here we go...
We're gonna have a good time,
good time, good time,
We're gonna have a good time
Mi Re Do.

I'll show the students the hand signs and they'll mimic. They'll get a feeling for how it feels and how it sounds. We use our bodies, we even have a floor staff they learn to move up the scale with. We'll sing songs that have those melodic patterns in them, like:

Three blind mice, three blind mice...

I'll say, WAIT! What does that sound like? It's Mi-Re-Do.  We use folk songs to teach these melodic patterns. They'll pick them out. They're training their ears and brains to be musicians.

Art: That is brilliant! Especially the part where you identify it in the songs you'll sing throughout the day.

Kara: 'Do' is strong and stable, like the fist shape. We teach them Do is home. We teach perfect pitch and relative pitch. The more we teach solfege, the easier it is to sing in tune and to master relative pitch.

Art: I've noticed with the hand signs, they move up as the scale moves up. It helps me hit those pitches when I'm singing if I move my hands.

Kara: Using my hand signs, really does help you feel where those pitches are.

Art: How do kids react to this? Do they enjoy solfege or doing it grudgingly?

Kara: I think it's a gradual thing. They like it because it's actions. It's a little tricky but I encourage them. When we're singing the first song, we tap to the beat, too, to make the songs fun for them. I feel like they gain a love for it, and later they're able to play the solfege on the tone bells and then on the piano and then how to dictate it later...

Art: That's so cool! What are some other main ideas beyond solfege?

Kara: We also do a lot of movement. Full-body involvement. The move we involve the body, the more children will internalize these concepts. Experience precedes learning, so they don't really realize what they are learning until later when we label and identify it.  So, we are big on doing movement and games to teach concepts. Every song that we teach has a reason behind it. We do a lot of that.

We teach rhythm in a fun way with BUGS. Our chant goes:

I like bugs, every kind of bug I see. I like the big ones and the flat ones and the fuzzy purple flat ones. People think they're yucky, but I just don't agree, no you can't bug me!

Art: That's brilliant. An accidental way of learning all those rhythms, to later on be identified for the notes they are. That's brilliant.

Kara: And it really helps them to feel it. We do a lot of games. We feel like rhythm is something that needs to constantly be taught. We have emphasis on steady beat in songs. The first semester of the first year, we focus on steady beat. They listen to a lullaby and feel the steady beat of their heart and the steady beat of the song. Or I'll play a tambourine and say make your feet match the beat of the tambourine. It helps them get an idea of what beat is and then we add in those bugs to develop that rhythm.

Art: So at this point there's no introduction of music notation? Is that correct?

Kara: Notation- so, when we introduce the bugs, we show how the bug has one body and looks like the quarter note- there's a quarter note on the other side of the flashcard. The beetle has two body parts in the picture, and they look very much like the notes they really are (the eighth notes). So that's how they're introduced to rhythmic notation.

For melodic notation, I have a magnetic staff board that I use. We actually sing a song about a red balloon, it goes:

up up up up, up up up up.
And it floated and it floated and I wanted it to come back
down down down down, down down down down.
I caught it!

They see how my balloon magnet goes up the staff and down the staff, like our bodies go up and down. Later we use black magnet notes, and we teach what a baby step or a skip look like.  A baby step is from a line to a space...

Start on a space and you can go just to the next line
Or from a line back to a space is really just as fine
We go line space line space line space line

And we have a song about skips...

From a line to the next line, that's a skip, that's a skip
Or from a space to the next space, that's a skip!

So again, they're feeling it, reading it on the staff, seeing how it works.

Art: So you have songs for EVERYTHING?!

Kara: Yes!

Art: That's, of course, THE BEST way for kids that age to learn things. I still remember little songs my mom taught me. I still remember to this day.

Kara: This really is a great way to internalize the concepts. I feel like they'll remember the songs forever. I have a ten year-old who graduated, and she loved it. And my eight year-old graduated and they still love the songs and those help them with their music training now on piano and guitar. They remember these songs that teach them these concepts.

Another thing Let's Play Music emphasizes is staring a lot younger than when kids would be ready to play a music instrument. They start at age four or five, when their fingers are not ready to play the piano, and they're probably not able to read.  Music learning starts young, I mean, really from birth.

Art: It's almost innate in every person.

Kara: Yeah, it starts when you're born. Or even in the womb.

We take advantage of the music learning window by teaching the younger child and helping them develop those concepts when they are four or five. The next year we introduce them to the keyboard and they actually learn beginning with chords.  They don't learn melody first, they learn to accompany themselves singing by playing chords.

We actually have songs about chords starting in first year. They learn red, blue, and yellow chords. Those are the I, IV, and V chords in music. So, they learn them with colors first and that's a beginning for reading music. They'll learn how they're notated and how the chord shape looks. In third year they'll learn what chords are actually called so when they graduate and go to traditional lessons...

Art: Forget traditional lessons! I don't want traditional any more- I want to do the Let's Play Music method!

Kara: They do this program for three years and then we refer them to music teachers like yourself, and those teachers help them continue to progress. That's why we like to give teachers background on how they've learned music, so teachers can help them go forward.

We have a program called Connections where we connect with music teachers and help them learn how we teach music so that they can our graduates and then they can refer their very young kids to us. We take them for three years and send them back to the teachers.

Art: I wish I had known more about this! I will continue to refer people to you all the time. People ask me "how early do you teach music?"  I'm familiar with the Kodaly method, and I was taking students who were four or five, and we were doing some similar things, but not nearly as well as you guys.  They would eventually grow into their traditional lessons, but I don't think they got nearly as much value as they would have out of Let's Play Music. It's amazing.

Kara: And it's really fun for kids to learn in a group setting. They're with their peers, having fun. It really does make them feel comfortable. It's a great environment for learning music.

Art: Is this program available nationwide?

Kara: Pretty much. It started in Mesa, Arizona. The founder majored in music and she was looking for a music program for her kids. She had in mind what the perfect program would be she wanted for her kids. She found one she really liked, but it didn't have solfege in it. Basically, she developed her own perfect program that she wanted for her kids, and that's where it began. It started with a few teachers and has grown so much. There are lot of teachers in Arizona and here in Utah now. It really is growing fast. The program's only about fourteen years old.

Art: So it's very young, but built on principles that have been around. Kodaly was a prestigious educator of music for children. To see his methods used in a cool way - I get excited about that. How do you find your students do when they transition into regular music lessons?

Kara: I've been teaching for four years. It varies. If they jump right into private lessons right when they are finished with Let's Play Music, they continue to progress and do really well. There are some that may take a break, and sometimes they forget things, and that's natural. I feel like they do have a really strong foundation when they go on to music lessons.

I actually have one of my graduates, he accompanied a song at a church function and that was so exciting for me because we emphasize that- the ability to accompany other musicians, which is not easy to do. And he was able to do that.  I do feel like it's helped them succeed at music lesson and develop more skills that just piano.

Even now, I have come across pianists that don't have the best sense of rhythm or can't lead music. There are a lot of skills that you don't necessarily learn...

Art: There are skills that every musician should learn at some point, but not everybody has them for some reason or another.

Kara: And being able to sing and sight-sing, those are great skills.

Art: I also teach brass instruments. I find that being able to sight-sing greatly improves their ability to hit pitches. In college my instructors says that every tuba player should be an opera singer and every opera singer should be a tuba player! Hilarious, but the principle there is true. If you can sing it, you will be better be able to play it on your instrument. Especially instruments that require that tuning by ear.

The solfege and sight-singing just become very important at that point. Very cool.

So, just a couple more questions. Tell me more about accompaniment and how you introduce that to kids.

Kara: Well, we start off with that in the first semester. We use an autoharp in class.  We sing:

This is the Red chord, Blue is next I said, Yellow is the chord that leads us back to Red.

So we're teaching those chords and we're teaching their function. Red is stable and dominant. Students are learning how chords progress.  Later on, they play these on the piano, and then they learn how to improvise using chords.  They have to figure out which chords sound good with that song as they sing it.  So, they have to develop that ability to harmonize and improvise.

Art: So, playing by ear. That's a skill that is hard to teach.

Kara: In the second year they're doing more accompaniment with piano. In the first year they're doing that with the harp. We have several songs with chord maps they read to know which chord to play. The autoharp is really easy because they just push a button and play. In the second year, they play those simple chords and learn to feel those shapes well, and they're able to transpose easily.

Later they'll add the right hand and add melody to it, but in the beginning it's just playing chords and singing. In the recital we sing and they all accompany the kids while we sing our songs.

The songs we do have those three chords. They read them and play them and they sing along while they are practice so they are accompanying themselves.

Art: That would help with timing as well. That's amazing. That's a different kind of focus. So many times we focus on melody and the accompaniment part just never comes together. Once I taught a girl, about age sixteen, about inversions, and she just about went crazy. I can do that!? 

Well, this has been the best half hour. I've been wanting to talk to you about your program for a long time. I do teach your son guitar and I see this training come through.  Where do we go to find out more and find teachers in our area?

Kara: The website is  And when you get to the website there's a box for finding a teacher in your area. A bunch of teachers will pop up, hopefully. You can see what their schedules are. You can contact them. You can watch videos of music class.

There's another program, not required, but like a preparation for Let's Play Music. It's called Sound Beginnings and it's for kids ages 2-4 and younger siblings. It's giving them even more music exposure. We do a lot of preschool concepts through song. They learn colors and numbers and nursery rhymes. A lot of games and activities. They'll listen to classical music and do actions and dance around. It's really a lot of fun and it's really a good introductory course. I do a little solfege with them and they'll do a little bit of rhythm and instrument recognition. So that one is also on the website.

Art: I teach a lot of adults and older teenagers who are just staring out. While they can develop and grow and have amazing musical lives, there's something great about starting so young and seeing that progression in kids. It's worth the time and effort to find the right program for that. 

Kara Olson is a Let's Play Music and Sound Beginnings teacher in South Jordan, Utah. You can find out more about her classes by searching here.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Seven Foundational Elements of Sound Beginnings

The Sound Beginnings music program prepares children for success in kindergarten and Let's Play Music. That's fantastic! How is it done?
Today's post will walk you through the seven research-based elements that stimulate growth in the areas particularly crucial to the development of your young child. These elements make up the foundation of the Sound Beginnings curriculum and help us get to the heart of an effective class.

Literacy and Kindergarten Skills

Sound Beginnings not only teaches music, it also introduces children to kindergarten concepts like colors, rhyming, manners, telling time, shapes, calendars, name recognition, counting, adding, literacy, and sequencing. 

Research has proven that music has a powerful effect on language learning. As children sing songs and recite nursery rhymes during class, they learn new vocabulary, develop auditory discrimination, enhance phonemic awareness, and improve their memory skills. Sound Beginnings classes also prepare children to read by teaching tracking left to right, verbal sequencing, and concepts about print during musical story time.

I imagine (I have an active imagination) that the creators of Sound Beginnings had a conversation like this:

  "Let's select songs to use in class. We'll definitely need plenty of simple melodies that are easy to learn and in the correct pitch range so the students can internalize musical patterns."
  "Okay, we have tons of options here. What do you want the words to be about?"
  "Oh yeah, words. Kids just love words."
  "Well, as we all know, music is a powerful tool for teaching just about anything. I passed my college chemistry class by singing the solubility rules song, so I'm sure we could teach kids about kindergarten skills like telling time, calendars, colors, days of the know... and they'd be learning music at the same time."
  "That's super efficient! I'm so excited I feel like singing about it right now!"

Hey parents: you can use this music-class superpower to your life: anytime you want your toddler to learn a skill or behavior, add a song! Here's the song I sing (over and over and over) until my kids get their seat belts on. As you can guess, my teenagers get buckled before I finish the first word:

Whenever I get into the car
I put on my seat belt before we go far
'Cuz Mom will not drive until she hears 'click'
so put on your seat belt, and please be quick!
Rhythm and Beat

Keeping a steady beat is the precursor to all accurate rhythm-making. In class we clap, pat, stomp, jump, flap our arms, and play simple instruments to the beat. We imitate rhythmic patters with our voices, on instruments and with our bodies. We incorporate eurythmics (movement-based rhythm training) that is perfect for toddlers.

Curious to see if you can keep the beat? Take a simple test like this one. You'll listen to the drum to find the beat, then you'll tap along to match the beat, and then... all by yourself... you'll play a steady beat. (Post in the comments and tell me what your score was) Wahoo! 

Once your child internalizes these beat-basic skills, she'll really be ready to make music.  The American Council of Piano Performers, in a post on how to perform, says "the audience will rarely notice an error in pitch, but they will ALWAYS notice a disruption in rhythm."

Getting the beat right is fundamentally important, so we spend plenty of time on practicing with our toddlers.

Voice and Pitch Development

The singing voice is the foundation of music education. Sound Beginnings channels the young voice into beautiful singing by providing proper vocal modeling in the correct range. Solfege hand signs are used to teach pitch relationships. Ear training is emphasized and a minor third (SOL-MI) pattern is used to teach in-tune singing.

I just love solfege. It gives us words to talk about what we're singing and gives us a tactile way to feel in space what we're hearing in our ear. It takes challenge of singing and makes it a whole-body learning experience. In these articles (Part I, Part II, Part III) I explain what solfege is, why we love it, and how you can use it.

My active imagination thinks the creators of Sound Beginnings and Let's Play Music had a conversation like this:

"Alright folks. What tools are we gonna use for teaching these toddlers to sing?"
"Um, well, I have an's something we did in all of our college voice classes and sight-singing classes. You know... solfege."
"Are you crazy? Toddlers don't go to college. Young children learn through full-body involvement and integrating as many senses as possible. Young children need to be active and physical to learn. Give me something I can use, people."
"Well, that's just it- solfege is a way to use your hands and body to better focus on what you are hearing, and involve more of your body into what you are making your voice do."
"In that case, we'd be fools not to use solfege with toddlers and children! I'm so excited I think I'll start singing about this!"

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills involve hand and finger use and play a valuable part in higher-level learning skills like writing. As students participate in finger plays to favorite nursery rhymes and American Sign Language (ASL) they gain finger dexterity. As they manipulate instruments and tactile props in class they develop stronger muscles in their hands and wrists.

Looking for more fun ways to strengthen little hands? Check out this post with (piano and non-piano) ways to encourage growth and strength. Not to worry: Let's Play Music class is designed to let your child's ear and mind develop as fast and awesomely as they can, even though we know finger strength will take a few years to catch up. That's one reason we use bells and autoharp in year one.

Gross Motor Skills

If you peek into a Sound Beginnings class, you will see skipping, crawling, dancing, and playing. Children learn best by doing! Full body movement builds muscle strength and hand-eye coordination while developing balance in young children. Gross motor development also aids in brain hemisphere development.

The basis for the importance of movement and sensory experiences was derived from studies which compared brain structures of animals raised in various environmentally normal, deprived, and enriched settings. The enriched settings provided the opportunity to interact with toys, obstacles, and treadmills. Research led to the conclusion that stimulation is a significant factor in overall brain development; animals from enriched environments had larger brains with more synaptic connections. It is suggested that physical activity is a significant determinant in early development of the overall brain, not just development of motor skills.

Whatever you are doing with your child, take her to activities where she can move around and be active while learning.

Classical Music Experience

Sound Beginings classes teach intelligent listening and understanding of classical form in a fun and interactive way. Each semester we study the timbre of specific instruments and how they are divided into family groupings. Our 'smart moves' dances involve the whole body in an enjoyable classical music experience.

Really great dancers (and aerobic instructors, right?) use their body to follow the beat of the music, listen to the patterns and form of the music, and create movement that "feels like" the music itself. This awareness of how music is put together means your child will learn to anticipate what comes next in classical songs and enjoy them even more. When the Orange semester of Let's Play Music comes around, he'll be composing his own songs using the same concepts of form and pattern!

And why should you be interested in the fact that little Johnny is developing a love of listening to the classical genre? Loads of recent research shows that listening to classical improves memory, boosts creativity, lowers blood pressure, boosts brain power, fights depression, improves productivity, and makes you taller. (My active imagination came up with the part about being taller.)

Parent Bonding

A child learns when a child feels loved. In Sound Beginnings we teach parents how to play with their child in an educational and nurturing way. Purposeful touching, eye contact and partner activities develop the highly significant parent/child relationship.

In our blog post on creating relationships, we give some tips for having a strong relationship with your family, and for how to grow closer together through music.  In class, your actions teach your child, "This is a fun thing I like to do. I like to play with you. I like to be with you. You're important to be. This is something we can learn and have fun with together." 

When music is a venue in which you build a positive relationship and make memories of happy moments, students love music and are more willing to work at becoming musicians!

Now that you know the seven foundational elements of Sound Beginnings, find a teacher for your youngster, or forward this blog post to someone who has a child ages 2-4 so they can reap the benefits of this great program.  See you in class!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music and Sound Beginnings Teacher


Friday, June 24, 2016

The Core Values of Let's Play Music

Let's Play Music is a company that builds, teaches, inspires, and enriches. Based in Mesa, Arizona and started in 1998, we begain with a desire to teach music to children in the best way possible. Today, over 300 teachers across the United States and Canada work with this same passion using the Let's Play Music method.

Our Purpose: 
We enrich lives through the power of music.

Vision Statement: 
Let's Play Music is the paramount program for developing the complete musician. We incorporate the best of all musical and educational methodologies and discoveries. Let's Play Music provides its teachers, students and families with an enriched experience that holds the power to change lives. We increase confidence, develop talent, enhance intelligence, and bond parent to child by providing an outstanding music educational experience for children, using premium materials and lessons, taught by superbly trained teachers.

Core Values:
The following Core Values shape our daily decisions and define our culture. Click each link to read more about them on this blog.
Our People: Meets Some Students and Teachers

Becky Johnson (Kansas): Children learn through experience
Lindsey Judd (Illinois): The first teacher has impact
Katie Wilson (Virginia): From hating lessons to loving music
Celeste Stott (Montana): How do you teach the Karate Kid?
Jen Ellsworth (Minnesota): Teaching advance theory through play- sneaky!
Kim Seyboldt (Colorado): Let's Play Music in the News
Gina Weibel (recently Wisconsin): Let's Play Music on the News
Lisa and Joanna (Alberta, Canada): More than Just Piano Lessons
Darlayne Coughlin (Middleton, WI): Drumline, Band-leader, and LPM Teacher!
Ann Cue (Madison, WI): Exuberant Grandmother
Maura Brewer (Vancouver, WA): Music time is for loving and learning
Heather Ann Johnson (Pittsburgh, PA): Prepare for music, prepare for life 
Melissa Ashby (Hillsboro, OR): This is how music is meant to be taught
Rosalyn Ellsworth (Mapleton, UT): LPM fills a need in my soul 
Sara DeVries (Charlotte, NC): High Adventure and Music Class
Bonnie Slaughter (Utah): Making Practice Fun
Becca Smith (Knoxville, TN) :Fulfilled in teaching my children 
Brooke Stevenson (Portland, OR): This program does it all! 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why Group Lessons?

Maybe you just attended a sample class of Let's Play Music and are trying to decide if you should enroll in our group lessons or head straight to private lessons.  Or maybe you are already loving Let's Play Music and wonder how your child's group experience compares to his friends who are in private lessons.  In this post, let me share with you why we love group lessons and dispel some common myths about group v. private lessons!

Serious Business, Right?
Way back when my first son was 4 years old, he attended Let's Play Music classes for two years before something shocking happened- we moved! We were in a new place with no LPM teachers so I decided to help him finish his LPM education myself.  I tried getting family members to join us for some of the games, and enthusiastically presented some new ear-training activities and theory, but everything seemed flat. The bulk of the charm and fun of LPM was missing.  My son's enthusiasm waned quickly because Let's Play Music classes are meant to be fun, and learning happens through play. We just couldn't be as playful without a group!

The story has a happy ending because I realized I should become a certified LPM teacher and teach group classes. My son re-joined classes with a group and everything was playful again. Way better!

Laugh, dance, and learn music!
So the first point is: learning happens when kids are having fun and groups offer an easy environment for playing fun games. It's natural to plan fun and playful games when you have friends there to play with!

So, I've had several parents let me know that they are aware of several group music classes for toddlers and preschoolers, but every piano teacher they know exclusively teaches private lessons.  Why is this? Are group classes by definition babyish?

I suspect the reason most teachers opt for private lessons is in large part because of tradition. We have a tradition of "playing" with music, in groups, with very young children, at an age when play is a widely accepted way to spend time.  As soon as a child turns five years old, though, and wants to learn to "really perform," it's common to expect that class should be serious. More focused. Less fun. More learning. Let's unravel that expectation; it's just fact that 'more serious' does NOT equal 'more learning'!

Work Now, Joy Later?
Plenty of children love the idea of being able to play an instrument, but judging from the numbers who drop out after a short stint of lessons, it's clear that children are interested in playing their instrument, not learning their instrument.

You adult readers, who may have attempted and stopped music lessons yourself, know that building the dexterity, muscle memory, ear, and knowledge to acquire a level of competency so you can happily play your instrument is a gradual and arduous process.  If we say to a child, "you're going to have to work really hard for five or six years and you probably won't like much of it, but eventually it will start to seem fun," he's not going to stick around to find out.

It's important that your child's first music experience is one of work now, joy now. I love the way we teach note reading and use chording in LPM, because it gives students an opportunity to experience immediate success. (I may only know ONE chord, but I can play a couple of rockin'and rich-sounding songs!) Working in a group is another way to deliver an immediate sense of achievement: students feel they are a successful part of the group 'performance' a dozen times during every class in each musical game or piano drill. These micro-performances are hugely meaningful and motivating. The student senses, "I'm not just practicing a random skill for future-use, I'm helping my team perform this challenging feat." The class format helps instil attitudes for musical success: "I practice because I see that I improve. I find joy in creating music. I contribute because I am a musician. In every class I see myself as an integral part of my musical community."

If students graduate with attitudes like these, they are set up well for lifelong musical pursuitsGroup music lessons help instill an attitude of joy and pleasure in music-making.

This is All Very Different 

Well maybe the old masters always taught private lessons because they thought it was the best way, right?  No. Several notable experts chose group piano lessons, Franz Liszt being one of those esteemed teachers. So, it can be done. Most of us have never experienced it, though, so we wouldn't be sure how to start teaching that way. Conceiving a way to set up a home studio with several pianos or keyboards is also daunting if you haven't seen it done before!

In the same vein, since 95% of piano teachers only teach private lessons, chances are that if you know a famous and successful pianist, s/he is probably a product of private lessons.  Does that mean private lessons are uniformly the best? No. It means they are available.  Don't forget that of all private students taught, 90% failed to actually learn to play piano and maintain the skill. (MANY of my LPM parents tell me that they are part of the illustrious 90% that gave it a try as a kid, but never "got it.")

Piano pedagogue, Dr. Robert Pace, explained that when he began teaching piano at Julliard, he taught only private lessons. Why? Simply because he had only ever taken private lessons.  How could he imagine teaching groups when he had never seen it? 

When his students' parents had a carpooling conflict and strong-armed Dr. Pace into teaching two and more students, he quickly realized several benefits of the group format.  After years devoting research to piano groups, he concluded:

"In general, higher levels of music accomplishment and understanding are being achieved today through group teaching than in the individual lesson, regardless of the level of advancement. Group instruction is proving to be a more effective and efficient  use of both students' and teacher's time."

We know that when you graduate from LPM, you'll either play another instrument, use the Connections Book and transition to a private piano teacher, or, if you are the rare 10%, find a teacher who offers a mixture of group/private lessons! A fantastic teacher can't be defined just by the type of lessons she teaches, but one who experiments with group activities demonstrates that she is open to new ideas and keeping abreast of current topics in piano teaching. Her studio might well be worth a visit.

Private Lesson Myths 

You might be thinking, "if so many teachers only offer private lessons, it must be because they are BETTER." Let's look at some of the myths behind that idea that Dr. Pace also had to debunk:

MYTH: Each student learns at his own pace, so it's impossible to keep a group together.
REALITY: Students do proceed at different rates, and this positive factor can be put to good use in a group setting! Each child brings his own skill so the children strengthen one another. One student may be a great sight-reader, another has a great ear for pitch, others compose easily, and another can identify chord progressions in a snap.  In Let's Play Music, the teacher uses students as success models for others to emulate. 
Each student has strengths to add.

I think of our theory lessons in a circle around my magnet staff.  I explain how to find the root of the chord, then we play a game to let each student try putting the knowledge into practice. It moves quickly and they stay super-focused on how their friends are answering. They glean ideas from their peers' attempts.  In the end, they all had more practice than if it had been one-on-one, and the experience cost me very little total teaching time!

Too often, students working alone settle for less than they could and should accomplish. In LPM, members of the class have a healthy influence on each other and provide role models within reach.  When I bought bicycles for my two sons, one was six and the other was only three.  My three-year-old was unimpressed by watching me ride a bicycle. (Of course mom can do it, she's a grown up!) But when he saw his brother, someone only slightly older and larger, ride without training wheels, he was empowered to rise to the challenge and master cycling himself.  

LPM students don't just pay tuition for attention from the teacher. They pay for a variety of learning experiences to help them become musically literate, and that includes taking cues from better musicians and encouraging weaker ones.  Critically listening to peers perform helps the student critically evaluate his own playing, a skill we hope he'll be using every time he practices!

MYTH: Students need individual attention, and only private lessons can give that.
REALITY: Each person in a group lesson receives ample attention accumulated from the teacher and peers. When we say the child "needs more attention from the teacher", we might mean he can't independently overcome the dozens of small challenges that arise during lesson time

Where do I put my hands for middle C position? How does this bug rhythm sound? Does this say sol-fa-mi-re-do or sol-la-ti-do? What page should I turn to? What am I supposed to be doing right now? When am I supposed to come in with my part?   

"Individual attention" can be a vicious cycle: if you spoon-feed the student too often, he may come to assume that he can't  figure out what to do without direct help. This is one reason I scold parents who sit by their child and repeat-whisper my instructions to their child during class: "She said turn to page six, here, I'll do it. She said look for the red chord and point to it, see it's right there." After five minutes, the child stops trying to listen to the class discussion or figure out what to do. He just expects Mom to help him with everything! Oh no!

With a little coaching, the same student is seen observing classmates trying, guessing, making mistakes, and eventually succeeding in class games and keyboard performance. It gives him courage to embrace the learning process and become an independent learner.  In Let's Play Music, we embrace mistakes and encourage experimenting as part of the learning process.
Individual help when needed!

I'm sometimes asked what a successful outcome looks like, or what skills I'm hoping my students gain.  One skill is definitely confidence for learning. In a conversation recently, my LPM-graduate son told me, "Mom, when I want to learn a new song, I know how to figure it out by ear, I know where to get and print the sheet music if I need it, and I know how to work through it. But if I get stuck, will you come help me?Will all the confidence, he also has confidence to ask for help when he recognizes he really needs it. I love any music program that pushes my kid to learn to be a self-starter, solve problems, and know just when to ask for help.

MYTH: Group instruction is good enough for average students, but really talented students will need private lessons.
REALITY: Hey parents, I have great news: musical talent can be taught! All of my students are either talented or pre-talented. :) After three years of Let's Play Music training, every student should possess the basic skill-set that musicians will identify as talent. Every student needs a rich and broad learning situation that educates the whole musician. This is what beginners need and this is what talented students need: the opportunity to expand into being a complete musician who can hear, understand, perform, and even create music.   

You can find a group class or a private teacher offering such an excellent education; talk to teachers to find out what they value. If your child is motivated, hard-working, and learns easily, he will soak up every drop of goodness from his group classes and his teacher may present him with extra challenges. Students can walk away from the same semester of LPM with different levels of mastery, after all. It would be a shame to take away all of the learning opportunities of a group class in fear that the child would learn it too quickly.

One more thing: music is a social art and a form of communication. Chances are good that a 'really talented' musician will want to interact with other musicians. Maybe he'll start a band, or a quartet, or join a symphony. Having ample opportunities to play in piano ensembles opens doors to a world of opportunity for 'really talented' musicians. Don't miss out by insisting on isolation. Actually, if you do have private lessons only, you might decide it's time to seek out opportunities to play in ensembles or ask your teacher to create some.
MYTH: Group lessons don't work for my child's personality.
REALITY: Okay, I'll concede that there are some real cases where it might be necessary to have a student take lessons privately, but most concerns arise because a child doesn't like competition or is too shy for group classes.

My child doesn't like competition: In quality group programs, like LPM, teacher's don't play up competition among students. Rather, we try to develop a spirit of constructive cooperation. Students derive pleasure from both helping others succeed and from their own musical growth. Many of the games are cooperative skill-builders. Even games with a race element have a positive effect when the teacher emphasizes improvement in skills, individually and collectively, rather than assigning winner and loser labels. This student might be nervous at first, but positive conversations about what goes on in class can help him feel more comfortable. Your child doesn't have to change his nature to grow into a role as a group musician.

Group lessons may be a solution for helping shy children
My child is too shy: Shyness is real and can be painful, but the same person who says, "I just can't perform in front of people," is likely also thinking, "I wish I could perform in front of people."  I've had about three excessively shy students in all my years. To help them ease into participation, I tell students that if they are uncomfortable joining in activities, they may watch respectfully from the sidelines.  Only one student held firm for three entire years of watching!  His mom told me that he would sing at home, and his regular progress and final composition was a brilliant testament to the fact that he was definitely learning his stuff.  

If you notice your child is shy and are looking for a way to help him become more confident, group lessons may actually be a solution for you.  What better way to start to use your voice than to meld it with a roomful of singers? And for those nervous to perform on piano, ample experience in the class helps playing start to feel normal and less stressful.  Again, your performance is blended with six or seven other pianos: a brilliant way to give you increasing confidence in your playing while providing the safety of relative anonymity. My shy student would turn down the volume on his keyboard so it wouldn't stand out, but he eventually built up the confidence to perform beautifully on pass-off days and of course, recital day.  What an amazing achievement for someone who was nervous about being in the spotlight!

Well I hope you'll think of group lessons in perhaps a new and positive light, and if you're a private piano teacher reading this, perhaps you'll occasionally invite your students to come to group 'theory party' classes or form small ensembles! It can be done, and your students (and you) will love it.

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher