What would happen if you tried to read a book in German but didn’t know the language? You might be able to pronounce some words, and even with practice come to have a convincing German accent. You might even get so good that you could give an entire speech (written by someone else, of course) and nobody would know that you don’t actually understand a word of what you’re speaking.
This sounds absurd, obviously, but it is not too different from what many approaches to music instruction entail. Music is its own language, but many times, teachers try to force reading and writing on students before they even have a vocabulary, so to speak, of the music they’re trying to read! Entire generations of pianists, in particular, have learned how to decode music into the right keys but when asked to improvise or play by ear, they are helpless.
A holistic approach to music education helps students gain a vocabulary of music and then applies notation and other abstract concepts later on. According to Edwin Gordon, noted music education psychologist, music aptitude (that is the raw materials any individual has for learning music) is in flux until age 7, which means that early exposure and environment for music is essential to give students the raw materials they need to really master an instrument and become musicians.
I try to give my students a healthy and continuous introduction to music that incorporates ear-based learning at first, with an eventual use of notation. My teaching philosophy derives from the research of Edwin Gordon, notably from his seminal work, Learning Sequences in Music. I use Marilyn Lowe’s lesser known method series, Music Moves for Piano, which incorporates Gordon’s work, as well as the work of other notable innovators in music education, such as Kodaly, Suzuki, and other piano pedagogues. Each lesson consists of learning pieces by ear and rote, gaining a vocabulary of pitch and rhythm patterns, and improvisation.
As students grow and advance, I choose music for them based on their personal preferences. One student may like jazz, another Bach. Each will be exposed and challenged to try other styles, but a student’s own preferences are the easiest gateway to enjoyment and success at music.