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Music Learning Theory: A Different Approach to Learning

Music Learning Theory

Music Learning Theory is quickly becoming a buzz word in music education.  But, what is it?  And, what does it look like in the studio?

According to GIML (The Gordon Institute for Music Learning), Music Learning Theory “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!

What It Looks Like In My Studio

While I’ve been hearing & reading about Music Learning Theory for at least the past year, it wasn’t until I implemented aspects of it into my studio that I understood.  Honestly? 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!”

Rhythm Warm-Ups

One of our first studio activities was using whole body movement to learn short, 2-measure rhythms each week.  Initially, students experimented with swaying from side to side smoothly.  Then they did 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. 

Each week students did a warm-up in lesson, reviewed the rhythm during the week with ‘bonus points’ given to students that could write it out by memory at the next lesson.

After several weeks of this warm-up, my students were able to:

  • Use Kod├íly-inspired counting to say the pattern (i.e. “half note” instead of “ta-ah”)
  • Articulate when a pattern repeated while learning it (we don’t look at any notation to start)
  • Recognized when aspects of a pattern came up in previous weeks
  • Kept a steady beat while improvising 1-5 note melodies on the piano using the given rhythm
  • Wrote out rhythmic patterns with correct notation including time signature & bar lines (this was true of even my students in primer books that didn’t have time signatures for their ‘regular’ songs).

Students listened, imitated, spoke the rhythm, read it during the week & wrote it out.  Not bad for a 5-minute warm-up if I do say so myself!

More confident students through rhythm warm-ups

My students really enjoyed having a new type of warm-up that was off-the-bench.  They saw they ARE capable & can do SO much more than they originally thought.  Plus, I learnt that almost every one of my students was able to tap their head, rub their tummy & sway at the same time … not that it relates to Music Learning Theory.  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.

Body Rhythm Ideas

Singing Chord Warm-Ups

Another favourite warm-up that has made a world of difference are chord warm-ups.  With elements of Solfege, these chord warm-ups continue exploring concepts both on AND off the bench. By pairing this with a technique challenge, the warm-ups became an extension of the on-the-bench work students have already done & approach the same concepts in a different way.

Idea Map of Singing Chord Word Sets

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 isn’t 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 is not going to be a fan of Music Learning Theory as it takes time away from the bench.  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 Music Learning Theory 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 Music Learning Theory in your studio, tell us about the activities you use with your students!

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