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.

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