Why do so many kids quit music early?
Over 50 years ago Rudolph Flesch pointed out that the loss of phonics in the schoolroom meant Johnny couldn’t read. Since then smart parents and teachers have insisted on a comprehensive program that teaches children the sounds of the letters first, then how to blend those sounds into words.
But there is more than that, because an integrated phonics program not only uses the sight and auditory senses to teach reading, but kinesthetic activity such as writing to reinforce what the students see and hear. The result has been outstanding success for students who have been taught to read and write using a simple phonics methodology.
That same student who responded positively to the multi-sensory reading program, however, will quite often quit music in his teens. Why? For the same reason that kids used to give up on the three Rs: Some of the ‘Rs’ are missing. And in the case of music, two of the ‘Rs’ are missing: Reading and ‘Riting – especially the ‘Riting part.
In music slow learning results in bored students, And bored students don’t progress rapidly, not because they are incapacitated in some form, but because they don’t know how to do something. And the something in this case, is read music – fluently.
Why can’t they do this? Because their reading skills are not developed in a systematic fashion when the student first learns music.
Students go to piano lessons, are given a few pieces to learn each year and expected to play them to perfection. They memorize the piece in the first week, then repeat it over and over, week after week, aiming for perfection.
Instead of perfection, though, comes boredom. Because even though they memorized the piece in the first week, the remaining five weeks they were on that program meant they never had to read another new note. This is much the same way a child will memorize a story and pretend he is reading. Pretending to read, however, is not how you develop reading fluency.
What I am suggesting is that fluent reading skills are the missing element in the teaching of music that causes many students to quit. They quit in their teens because at that age students are seeking peer recognition. But they certainly won’t get recognition for their music skills while they are still playing elementary pieces of music. And they are at this level because they are intimidated by the number of notes on the page in the more advanced compositions. If they cannot get recognition for their violin or trombone skills, they’ll drop that for something else – a football, a basketball, or maybe nothing, and simply hang out with their friends. Idle time.
And parents begin to say to themselves, “Why on earth did I spend that money on music lessons? It was just a total waste.”
Prodigy musicians, such as Mozart, certainly had a special aptitude. But they also had something else when they were young: they were taught how to write music. Not when they were 18-years old, but when they were five or six. And that’s what enabled them to become extraordinarily successful.
It is now recognized that “talent” is the outcome of diligent work, at least 10,000 hours of practice at something – anything. If it is piano, it means 10,000 hours at the keyboard. If it’s golfing, it’s 10,000 hours on the course and range, day in and day out, with clubs and putter.
In other words, you take aptitude and apply constant practice, and you end up with “talent.” The prolific composer J.S. Bach, when asked the secret of his genius, replied, “I was made to work; if you are equally industrious you will be equally successful.” It took 46 years to collect his output into 60 volumes. That’s talent.
The sooner students get those 10,000 hours under their belt, the sooner their “talent” displays itself, because now they are well-honed, well-developed thinking students who have the mental and physiological disciplines for their instrument, sport or occupation.
Just as in literature children are taught first to write letters then words, joining words to make sentences, combining multiple sentences into paragraphs, then on to short stories, so too they need to be taught the musical alphabet which, unlike language, has only seven letters spread out across five lines and four spaces.
Add to the letters the range of octaves, the use of measures (units of rhythm), blend in the grammar rules of good melodic writing, of which there about eight, develop first the short phrase, the 8-bar then 16-bar melody, then move on to form which allows longer compositions in a structured environment.
To write music requires the ability to read music. Many music students quit in their teens because they cannot read accurately, quickly translating a mass of notes on the written page into productive music. And they can’t read because they can’t write. Reading and writing go together like love and marriage.
So they hand in their notice: “I’m out of here.” Because Johnny or Mary or Sally or Peter cannot read very well at all. The home school or classroom music student can overcome this problem with the right tools of learning. And it’s time parents and teachers demanded not only phonics for literature, but music programs that teach kids how to read and write – fluently and early.
Then it will no longer be said, Johnny can’t read music. And if he can read fluently, perhaps it will never be asked, “Why did Johnny quit music?” — because he’s still hard at work, heading towards that 10,000 hour goal when he, too, will be recognized as “talented”.
Ian Hodge, Ph.D, lives in East Lansing, MI. A musician and business consultant, he is the author of a self-teaching creative music program that teaches students how to read and write music from the very beginning. Click here for more information.
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