New tactics pair music with words

The Education Beat

Pedagogy: Today's elementary school music classes take a brighter, more interdisciplinary tone than those of previous generations.

October 28, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IF YOU HAVEN'T visited your child's music class lately, do so before the snow flies. If you're lucky - that is, if your district hasn't downgraded music as an unnecessary frill - you'll find it's not your father's Oldsmobile. In fact, it isn't even your Oldsmobile.

In my day, the music teacher rolled around once a week or so and sat at an out-of-tune piano. We sat at our desks and sang "Sweet Betsy from Pike" until we hated it and would for life. The teacher might try to teach us something about the notes in a scale, and that was about it. Music was a nice break from reading and math - for the kids and for their regular teacher.

These days, kids as young as 4 are reading notes, tapping out rhythms, playing triangles and xylophones, singing nursery rhymes, and learning the complicated patterns of the universal language of music. Music is fun, but it's also as much about reading and math as it is about the art.

I asked around last week for the names of some of the Baltimore area's best elementary school music teachers, then visited their classrooms in Dundalk and Reisterstown. I interviewed music instructors in Carroll and Howard counties.

I called Gordon Shaw, the California professor whose research in the early 1990s led to what became known as the "Mozart effect" - the enhancement of college students' reasoning skills as a result of exposure to a Mozart piano sonata.

Shaw said most research on music's effects has concentrated on mathematics. But in recent years, brain studies have shown that exposure to music can help children's reading skills. It helps them form mental images and see patterns in space and time, exercising their "spatial-temporal" skills.

"We think the window of opportunity is roughly from birth to age 10," said Gwen Pelsis, who teaches music to 4-year-olds in Title I, high-poverty schools in eastern Baltimore County.

"Music is one of the first intelligences that develops - and one of the last to leave us," said Pelsis, who noted that people with Alzheimer's sometimes won't talk but will light up and sing a Christmas carol or a childhood song after weeks of silence.

One morning last week, Pelsis was demonstrating to 13 pre-schoolers that music "has a steady beat." She marched the children around her classroom at Sandy Plains Elementary School in Dundalk, and had them stamp and tiptoe to the rhythms of a metronome, the nursery rhyme "Hickory Dickory Dock" and a recording of a Haydn symphony.

The cadences and rhymes of music parallel the cadences and rhymes of spoken language, said Judith Ferencz, a former president of the Maryland State Music Teachers Association. That, she said, is why music is so useful for developing the "phonemic awareness" children need before they begin reading. And, as it happens, English and music are "wonderfully rhythmic, although in the English language we take it for granted," she said.

Reading English and music "is similar physically," said Chrystie Adams, a music teacher at Elkridge Landing Middle School in Howard County. "We read both music and English text from left to right with rhythm and pitch. Music often tells a story, and little kids love to hear musical stories over and over again," said Adams.

"It's all in the decoding. Reading music is decoding symbols, just like any reading. The children who can't read never learned to decode," Adams said.

The teachers said the mathematics of music lend a hand to the teaching of reading - it's a case of the third "r" aiding the first.

Music is based on divisions of time that must be performed instantaneously, not worked out on paper. Drawn-out notes correspond with drawn-out words. And children notice that held notes often correspond with long vowels, never with consonants: for example, "siiiiilent niiiiight."

Pelsis translates nursery rhymes and other rhythmic phrases to musical notes. "Pepperoni pizza," for example, becomes four sixteenth notes followed by two eighth notes.

Kevin Wiedel, a music teacher at Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City, said reading music differs from reading text in one respect: The two intellectual processes are based in different parts of the brain.

"But this is often a big help," said Wiedel. "Sometimes when kids are having trouble reading, we can help them when the text is put to song. It's another intelligence put into play, and it often works."

I leave it to Confucius' words to explain why Gilbert Meerdter so enjoys his job as vocal music teacher at Cedarmere Elementary School in Reisterstown. "Music," the Chinese philosopher said, "produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without."

During a 50-minute music class, Meerdter put a group of first-graders through several paces. They played the notes A and D on xylophones. They sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and drew chalkboard pictures of the sounds at a baseball park.

They concluded with the singing of "It's a Grand Old Flag," accompanied by Meerdter on the piano.

It was a virtuoso performance, far different, the teacher said, from the "dull palette" of his childhood music instruction at Randallstown Elementary School. "We sat at our desks," Meerdter remembered, "and sang `I'm a Little Teapot.'"

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