When introducing children to visual art, teachers tend to let them run wild: wacky self-portraits in charcoal, imaginary monster collages, and the most wonderfully chaotic medium of all―fingerpaint.
But when it comes to music, we tend to take a different approach. We want children to perfect their technique and learn hundreds of songs before they create anything on their own. You could even say that the way we teach children music is more like athletic training than expressive art.
But what can we do? Kids have to learn to play their instrument, and they have to learn the fundamentals of music before they can do anything expressive on their instrument, right? Otherwise, you would be left with chaos—and a very loud chaos at that. The fact is that we can get kids to start finger painting with music without all the noise if we put a few simple guidelines in place.
Space and Materials
Any good art project begins with two very clear parameters: materials (paint, crayons, pencil, etc) and space (usually a piece of paper). Music teachers can do the same.
Good art teachers limit the colors available to students, so that they don’t end up using every color available to them and getting a giant sheet of brownish-purple scribbles.
In music, we can limit the materials available to students by only giving them a few notes to work with. Limiting the number of pitches to choose from prevents compositions from turning into an amelodic mess. And you can make great music using as few as three pitches!
Art teachers have a real advantage over music teachers when it comes to limiting space. Even if they use butcher-block paper, at some point kids physical space is limited. But since music unfolds over time, it is easy for young people (and jam bands) to meander on endlessly with no sense of beginning or end.
Limiting the space of a musical composition means limiting time. But unnatural time restrictions, say play for thirty seconds, are fairly unmusical in nature. A more effective way to limit musical space while preserving a natural sense of phrasing is to use langauge. Come up with a short spoken phrase, “I like mac’n’cheese,” for example. Then build your melody only using that phrase. This will give a natural ebb and flow to the song.
Taken from Book One of Awesome Guitar for Kids, this is an example of how we can limit musical materials and space in order to create a unique musical composition.
21st Century Music Education
One of the more interesting points of the National Association for Music Education’s national music standards is the emphasis placed on composition and improvisation. While some of this is written into the curriculum that general music teachers use at the Elementary school level. These teachers rarely have the instructional time to effectively engage kids in fingerpainting with music. So parents and teachers, what are some ways you have found to add composition and improvisation to your children’s music practice?