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Music Learning Theory: A Different Approach to Learning

Music Learning Theory (also known as MLT) is quickly becoming a buzz word in music education.  But, what is it?

According to GIML (The Gordon Institute for Music Learning), MLT “is an explanation of how we learn when we learn music [that] focuses on the teaching of audiation …. [which is] hearing music in the mind with understanding“.

Amy Chaplin’s guest article entitled “Audiation: The Foundation of Music Learning Theory” explains more about audiation & MLT.  Her examples are phenomenal in demonstrating the different aspects of this theory & I would highly recommend reading it!

Music Learning Theory - A Different Approach

What It Looks Like In My Studio

While I’ve been hearing & reading about MLT for at least the past year, it wasn’t until this fall that I implemented aspects of MLT in my studio.  To be honest, I got tired of repeating the same concepts years after year while feeling that my students weren’t necessarily moving towards independence in the way I wanted.  (Perhaps this sounds familiar?)  Like they say on Shark Tank, “There had to be a better way!”

So far this year, we have used whole body movement to learn short, 2-measure rhythms each week.  Initially, students experimented with swaying from side to side smoothly then doing what I called the “contemporary dance” version which had no set, steady beat.  Every student said the sway with a steady tempo was much easier … which then opened up the conversation to why a steady beat is important in music.  Since that initial lesson, students have done a warmup with me in lesson, then had a week to review the rhythm (including swaying with different motions to solidify the start of each beat) with ‘bonus points’ given to students that could write it out by memory at the next lesson.

After several weeks of this warmup, my students are able to:

  • Use Kodály-inspired counting to say the pattern (for example, we say “half note” instead of “ta-ah”)
  • Articulate when a pattern repeats while learning it (we don’t look at any notation to start)
  • Recognize when aspects of a pattern have come up in previous weeks
  • Keep a steady beat while improvising 1-5 note melodies on the piano using the given rhythm
  • Write out rhythmic patterns with correct notation including time signature & bar lines (this is true of even my students in primer books that don’t have time signatures for their ‘regular’ songs).

Students listen, imitate, speak the rhythm, read it during the week & write it out.  Not bad for a 5-minute warmup if I do say so myself!

My students have really enjoyed having a new type of warmup.  It’s fun to get off the bench & do something different.  They have seen that they ARE capable & can do SO much more than they originally thought.  Plus, I learned that almost every one of my students is able to tap their head, rub their tummy & sway at the same time … not that it relates to MLT, but I was amazed at their dexterity & wondered how we could transfer that to their playing.  Once I have that figured out, I’ll be letting you know.

In the next few weeks, we will be moving into chord warmups with elements of Solfege to continue exploring concepts both on AND off the bench. Each year, we start off with a technique challenge.  The chord warmup will be an extension of the on-the-bench work students have already done & approach the same concepts in a different way.

But, What Do Parents Think?

Honestly, parents seem to fall into 2 general categories.

  1. Want a ‘traditional’ approach without the woo-hoo newfangled stuff that “doesn’t prepare them for the exam”.
  2. Are a little unsure at first perhaps, but willing to give it a go.

The first group is not my target client.  They realize very quickly that my approach is not a good fit for them.  However, I let them know there are many great teachers in our city that use the approach & activities they want.

The first group probably is not going to be a fan of MLT or anything that takes away from on-the-bench time.  In the past, I’ve tried to change these parents’ minds.  I’ve learnt the hard way that it just isn’t worth it.  They generally quit a few months in & the student is left getting used to yet another new teacher.

The second group IS my target client.  I tell prospective clients that we are always exploring new ways of doing things in my studio.  There will be times that we will be loud, off-the-bench, & perhaps looking kind of funny … but, there will always be a sound educational reason behind it.

The second group realizes very quickly that their kids are laughing within lesson AND  actually WANT to play their songs during the week.   They have become my biggest supporters & often share with their friends how happy their kids are.

Decide what type of clients YOU want in your studio.  Remember, there is no wrong answer here.  But the type of client you choose determines, to a certain extent, the types of activities you can offer in your studio.

To Learn More

If Music Learning Theory (MLT) is something you are interested in, I would recommend reading the information at GIML.  If you are more interested in a blog format, Amy Chaplin (Piano Pantry), Joy Morin (Color In My Piano), & Leila Viss (88 Piano Keys) all have written great articles on this topic as well.

I feel like I am just getting into the beginning stages of MLT within my studio, but I am already seeing great changes in both the confidence & knowledge my students are bringing to the music.  As I explore this more, I’ll share what we are doing in the studio &, hopefully, inspire you to add elements of this as well!

If you already use MLT in your studio, I would love to read some of the activities you use with your students to guide them in their learning!

Have a great weekend!

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