Music Notes: Teaching Musically and Musical Teaching

by H. Ellie Wolfe
Assistant Professor of Music Education, Drake University
Early Childhood Chair, Iowa Music Educators Association
Secretary, Early Childhood Music & Movement Association

As a music specialist, I had one four-year-old student—we’ll call him Keyshawn—who came to music class with a lot of uncertainty. Keyshawn’s uncertainty and discomfort initially manifested in behaviors that were disruptive to himself, his classmates, and our learning activities. And so, like many teachers, I began choosing songs and activities I thought might appeal to his interests or harness his exuberant energy, but Keyshawn did not respond consistently to any of these activities. As teachers can adjust the content they offer students or the procedures with which students interact with that content, they can also engage in learning activities to address many different goals. My music classroom was not ready for Keyshawn until after I adjusted my goals to be relational. Through singing a lullaby to a stuffed animal he was cradling, Keyshawn developed a sense of belonging and comfort during music class, a sense to which he could return when feelings of uncertainty resurfaced. Music has the ability to foster many different kinds of growth, including but not limited to musical development.

In her book Musical Parenting (2020), Dr. Lisa Koops writes about different approaches parents take in utilizing music with their children and encouraging their children’s development through music. I believe the framework she builds to better understand how a diverse group of parents use music with their children can also suggest ways to conscientiously balance a teacher’s approach to using music with students in the classroom.

Koops notes that parents use music to support non-musical goals they have for their children—she calls this parenting musically—or they might support children’s musical development through musical parenting. At the same time, the ways parents engage children with music might support goals that are relational, practical, or some combination of the two. My goals for Keyshawn, for instance, demonstrate teaching musically—to adapt Koops’ term—with a combination of relational and practical goals: I hoped that singing a lullaby to a stuffed animal would help Keyshawn develop his comfort and ability being part of the music classroom through building a feeling of connection with the stuffed animal and with me (a relational goal), and through practicing connection he could come back to this activity when he needed a “reset button” at other times (a practical goal). Though the activity also supported Keyshawn’s musical development, this was a secondary goal.

There are many ways to address relational and practical goals through teaching musically. Many teachers utilize music to support practical goals related to achieving or feeling the rhythm of routines. For instance, students might sing a song that describes the steps of the task they need to complete, or that lasts the amount of time they need to do something like wash their hands. A teacher might put on a recording as a non-verbal cue that it will soon be time for snack. Or perhaps the teacher enlists the students to help tell a story, further illustrating the story’s form through the sound and movement of playing musical instruments.

Music is often tied to relational goals. Students likely develop a stronger sense of belonging to the class when the teacher sings or chants a song that can include each student’s name. Similarly, students can help choose songs that are meaningful to them to play in the background during part of free play or lunch time. The teacher might ask students directly (if developmentally appropriate) or ask parents/guardians what songs their child seems to really enjoy. I fondly remember one preschooler who had a penchant for heavy metal because her father was in a metal band. Parents can be such a phenomenal resource, helping a teacher find something meaningful for building a relationship with the child and their family while also meeting expectations of the school setting (e.g. “appropriate” lyrics).

Teaching musically is an important part of teaching, takes on many forms, and can support the students and teachers in a classroom, but teaching musically alone is not sufficient to support children’s musical development. Some learning experiences should be grounded in goals specific to supporting children practicing and developing musical skills and knowledge. The goals of musical teaching may be more relational or practical. For instance, a practical goal may be served in teaching children how use a hand drum, egg shaker, or bell in a way that avoids breaking the instrument and creates a desired sound. A teacher might aim to address a relational goal by having students explore and share a way to express their name or their mood with their hand drum, egg shaker, or bell.

Koops, L. H. (2020). Parenting musically. Oxford University Press.