For the past few weeks, you may have noticed your children leaving the classes clutching drawings. In the spring of the year, I usually begin to focus the children’s attention on ways that musical events and phenomenon can be visually represented. However, the longer I teach, the more I find myself delaying the introduction of standard notation symbols for younger children.
This is not because young children are not able to hear rhythmic relationships in music. Studies have shown that babies are able to perceive complex musical features that we consider quite sophisticated. (For more on this, see the work of University of Toronto researcher Sandra Trehub.) As they become accustomed to the music of their particular culture, these perceptual abilities are pruned away. And while 4 year olds may have lost some of this natural perceptual ability, I am very wary of reducing their experience to symbols too soon.
One of the main goals of a Dalcroze class is learning initially through discovery and experience, rather than conceptual explanation and visual representation. I can tell a four-year old that eighth notes are twice as fast as quarter notes, but what will those words mean to a young child who has had only limited experience using numbers to add, subtract , multiply and divide? And if the conceptual ground is not solid, emphasizing the symbols seems for these young musicians seems to be the wrong way to go. By this point in the year, I know that they can already perceive the difference – they easily change from running to walking as the music changes.
If I show them a quarter note and tell them that this is for walking music, a great deal of their experience will have been disregarded (not to mention the many ways quarters are used as symbols in music, not always for ‘walking music’ by any means). I would rather ask them questions: How could you draw walking music? Then: How could you draw soft music? Fast music? Heavy music? The fact that something that you see could possibly represent something that you hear is not necessarily obvious, or even logical, to a four-year old mind, and so as I ask these questions I let them draw what they like. I invite them to tell us about their drawings, and, the accompanying sounds that go with them with using percussion instruments or their voices.
And so, while I do now and then show them quarter notes, eighth notes and the like while we play and sing, I don’t make a big fuss over them. The tools of notation, with all of their inherent freedoms and limitations, will be available to them as needed. But until then, I hope as much as possible to preserve their direct connection with their essential experience of music as we begin the process of mapping sound to visual representation.