Daily Sonic Riddles Yield Great Results

Myth:  Scale-based warm-ups are the most efficient, effective way to start class.
Truth: Audiation-based challenges are the most efficient, effective way to start class.

-An Effective Start to Music Class-
 New Techniques, Better Results, and Intrinsic Appreciation

“OK, guys, move like an octopus caught in chocolate syrup,” I said.  Shaad’s relaxed smile vanishes, and the arch in his right eyebrow seems to exclaim, “He’s got to be joking.”  After all, it’s not just Shaad’s first day in our school, it also happens to be April Fools Day.

As I start to sing an odd wordless melody [ex.1], Shaad’s classmates begin to move their torsos and arms in weirdly flowing ways.   Shaad surveys the scene curiously.   Disjointed patterns of notes are echoed [ex.2].  Something called ‘Mixolydian’ is mentioned.  New movements are combined with strange syllables in toneless chants [ex. 3].   As these and other seemingly unrelated activities get interspersed rondo-style with my melody, Shaad looks steadily more perplexed.

Ex. 1:

“Now think it, and raise your hand when you reach the resting tone.”   The room goes silent.  Some students spontaneously resume those odd flowing movements.  Others close their eyes.  About twenty seconds pass, then suddenly virtually every hand shoots up just as I play a single tone on the piano.  The students quietly cheer themselves.   Two boys in the back ‘high-five’ each other.

Ex. 2:   

By this point, Shaad’s posture practically shouts, “What’s Mixolydian?  Why aren’t there words in this song?  What’s a Resting Tone?  And what the heck are they cheering about?  They didn’t do much of anything!! ” Trust me, Shaad its going to be fine!!

Ex. 3:  

Now the students sing the melody while I listen.  Shaad scans the room:  it’s not just the girls—the boys are singing too “Wow, they learned that tune in under ten minutes and they sing really well.”  His face hardens a bit, thinking (WRONGLY, OF COURSE!!) that he can’t do what they just did; he’s not ‘talented’.

“Raise your hand if you really love learning music.'' 22 of 23 hands go up. ''Now, keep your hand up if you didn’t before you started learning this way.” Eleven hands remain up. Nine are boys.   The relaxed smile gradually returns to Shaad.  After all, Shaad is among kids his age, and if they can learn music this way, then so can he.

Since we implemented new methods a year-and-a-half ago, we’ve seen exciting results.  Some highlights:  school-wide test scores on standardized music literacy tests have skyrocketed, 7 year olds routinely sing in tune and in time in Phrygian mode & Triple meter. 9 year olds aurally identify tonic and dominant harmonies, and 11 year olds accurately transpose the mode and meter of familiar songs without needing to check the tones on an instrument.   Try it yourself:  sing ‘’This Old Man,’’ but in Minor and Triple.
These methods empower students to comprehend the intertwined languages of tone and rhythm.  That comprehension then grants students access to richer literature.  Richer literature then rewards them with a richer musical experience which in turn whets their musical appetites for more, and so they come to class motivated to learn.  We call it intrinsic appreciation; they just call it fun!

Teachers who spend a day watching my students invariably comment on the attention, commitment or focus of my students.  They are also charitable with comments about me and my teaching.  And while DAA undoubtedly has great kids, and I certainly do try my best to be useful, it’s the methods of MLT resting on the research of Edwin E. Gordon which deserves the lion’s share of the credit. 

You see, most musical activities have goals of sameness and consistency.  Long tone warm-ups, scales, and repertoire get repeated again and again in rehearsal in an effort to achieve consistency in tone, time or technique. And while these are important performance outcomes, they can dull enthusiasm.  Always remember it is difference—not sameness—that sparks learning

The combination of unfamiliar music and these interspersed tone and rhythm activities form ‘open questions’ in the musical mind.  These questions act like magnets in the subconscious, pulling in information, until they solve themselves—inside or outside of the music classroom. 

This ‘learner-constructed musical meaning’ then rapidly generalizes, applying itself automatically to other similarly constructed music in two ways.  One, by strengthening the sense of tonality and meter, and two, by adding new patterns into the child’s tone or rhythm vocabulary.

While this may sound like heady stuff, keep in mind that from the students’ perspective, they are simply getting a new sonic riddle each day without the dullness of repetition or any pressure to ‘get it right.’

So while it is true that from the outside looking in, some aspects of this method can initially seem puzzling, the impact on student learning and enjoyment is clear, compelling, and worth the work.  It doesn’t happen immediately, but it does happen—reliably, predictably, and measurably.  But as Shaad will testify, those first ten minutes can seem a bit…well, odd!

This article was written by:
Ron Malanga—DAA Music & GEMS Learning Network Leader
And approved by:
Shaad Feroze—5DH

P.S.  This is an old article from when I was teaching at DAA and was concurrently the Music LNL for GEMS.  It was featured in the 'Momentum' Magazine over here in Dubai.  I figured since that magazine has since, erm...lost it's momentum, I'd risk publishing it.  Let's see if the lawyers for a defunct magazine scour these dark corners of the internet!!

P.P.S.  A choir culled from this group of students, after only 2 years with this new approach, had the musicianship to beat Jumeirah College's Senior Choir in a competition.  Read about it here!

P.P.P.S.  Now, having taught in the same manner at Horizon School, we've documented (via objective standardised test scores and subjective music making that these methods are potent musician-builders!