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How I Developed The Musicolor Method®

How a stay-at-home Dad stumbled across a new way of teaching music.

The story of how I developed the Musicolor Method.®

Because I am a naturally curious person, my path in life has led me on a strange magical journey.  In particular, three events have brought me a new view of teaching music:

  1. my work as an information designer for Fortune 500 clients,
  2. becoming a father and
  3. my son’s separation anxiety that forced me to spend months in the preschool classroom.  This has allowed me to bring new ideas to the area of teaching music to young children (or anyone).

Solving A Problem

As I set out to teach music, first to my then four year old son and then his classmates, I realized I had some parameters:

  • It must not rely on words.  This is a mostly pre-literate audience.
  • It cannot involve highly abstract concepts like fractions, which are beyond comprehension at this age.
  • It must rely on direct labelling (more on this below).
  • Each activity must have a five minute focus time as you will lose their attention soon.
  • It needs to be as intuitive as possible.
  • It needs to account for lack of fine motor skills.  Many four year olds still have trouble holding a pencil or writing their name.

Accidental Discovery

I didn’t set out to invent a new music teaching method, but that’s what happened because I couldn’t find anything that properly addressed these issues.  I spent about a year researching and buying hundreds of dollars in method books on Amazon, and I visited the library weekly.  Most of the highly regarded method books were clearly addressing an older age group.  Many even started with reading music on the traditional staff!

Traditional Music Notation

How I Developed The Musicolor Method

Traditional music notation is a wonderful thing.  It has lasted over a thousand years!  Hard to believe!

And it has been refined over the centuries.  It is a highly abstract and data dense infographic.  Translating sound from pictures is basically an information design problem.  This was a big epiphany for me!  It has to be understandable to the audience and my audience was clearly different than most music teachers.  When I started talking to other teachers, I discovered most would not even accept a student until they were at least in kindergarten and many not until they were eight years old.  And now I knew why.  They just didn’t have a way of reaching the younger age group.  In the last eight years, I’ve used my teaching studio as a curriculum lab and have discovered what works and what doesn’t.

Here are a few things I found:

Music is written on a staff of five lines.  The dots represent how high or low the pitch is.  But translating the pitch to a key on a piano or a fret on a guitar requires an abstract label of thinking.  Adults know that we can say this is C and this is what it looks like, and this is where it is on your instrument.  That is already a disconnect for a child (and even many adults)!

Direct Labelling

We need a direct label between the visual and the physical which will produce the aural.  To do that, I use color.

Color As Scaffolding

Color is instantly recognizable to children.  I can say play the red note and they can instantly find it on the instrument.  (Of course, you’ll need to prepare it in advance.)

So I created a color scheme to teach a limited set of notes and then mapped them out on the piano keys.  (We’ll focus on the piano for the rest of this article, but I’ve used this on string instruments as well.)

Limit The Data

I used five colors to label C- D- E- F-G.  Why five?  I wanted to limit the data set of information to a manageable number and because every child at this age can count to five.

Most traditional piano methods assign a finger number with the thumb being one and the index two and so on.  I did the same, but knowing that this was not a direct labelling, I also added color.  So we traced their hands, and labelled each finger with colors.

To make it even more direct, I would even “paint” the nails of their hands with the corresponding color with washable markers.  They loved this!  Especially since the markers had fruity scents.

How I Developed The Musicolor Method

Now it was only a matter of showing them a song that would allow them to make music.  To do this I would do a direct demonstration on the piano and sing along.  In addition I created a visual notation using color that any preschooler could “read.”  Instead of using a staff, I would start with just colored boxes.

So why boxes and not note-heads?  Well, I was using colored tape on the keys of my piano.  It looked like little colored boxes.  So again, to make it a direct correlation, I made the notation the same.

Sequence Of Colors

My original color scheme was somewhat chosen at random.  I had assigned C – red, D – green, E – pink, F – yellow and G – blue.  But as I experimented with my color schema, I remembered reading some articles and books about the link between color and sound.  There was quite a lot of information about synesthesia, which is when someone can hear a pitch and see a corresponding color.  This was interesting, but it seems it wasn’t always a universal correlation.  Some saw middle C as red and others saw it as blue.  But in reading Sounding the Inner Landscape, Music as Medicine by Kay Gardner, I was blown away by the idea that sound and light are linked.

How I Developed The Musicolor Method

 

Everything Is Vibration

If you think about it, everything is a vibration.  Light is measured in frequency as well as sound.  Sound is a slower vibration than light.  But if you sped up the sound, say many, many octaves higher, it would turn into light!  And we as humans can perceive specific colors based on the frequency of light.

The ancient mystics knew this and there are charts showing the chakras, or energy centers of the body, assigned to specific colors.

How I Developed The Musicolor Method

A Rainbow

And there it was, the rainbow.  The rainbow is a natural progression of colors that corresponds to different frequencies.  Plus, every kid has seen a rainbow!  So after a few years, I shifted all my colors to map out like a rainbow: C-red, D-orange, E-yellow, F-green, G-blue.  Now I’m not sure if anyone can feel the difference, but it’s nice to know I’m aligned with the universe!  Good vibrations all around.

Design Thinking Influences

In the process of developing these insights, I also learned a huge amount about how to present these ideas using the same principles of information design.  I learned many of these principles from Edward Tufte’s books and live courses, such as how and when to use principles like the “smallest effective difference”, “parallelism”, the “use of whitespace”, etc.

You can learn more in our Musicolor Masterclass.

One of the side effects of having a clear and direct method of teaching young children is that the success of my students has brought me many more students.  I would love this to happen for you too.  Let’s spread the joy of music together.

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Best practices Music Teacher Secrets

Keep Students Interested By Starting With Rhythm

An interview with Wendy Brentnall-Wood, a music teacher in Australia.  (Part 1)

Website:  Wendy’s Music

Wendy and I connected on a LinkedIN Music Teacher’s group and got to talking.  She has a successful music studio and will soon launch an online training program.  She is a wealth of information and so I have broken up our interview into several parts.  This is the first of three.  Enjoy!

Andrew

 

What do you think makes you unique as a teacher?

Writing my own teaching program is something that not many teacher get around to doing and mine covers currently 6 instruments with more underway.

What frustrated me early in my teaching career, was firstly the number of children or adults I saw who wanted to learn to play an instrument who were being turned off learning music because it was too hard for them or too boring and so they dropped out of lessons. Secondly they weren’t being taught to read and understand making music or exploring improvising,creating and the other facets of music in an easy to understand way. When I started teaching, it was very traditional. So I ended up putting together my own method. The method encompasses reading and playing technique, theory, performing, improvising,listening skills. But it’s put it together in a structured system so it’s very easy to follow.


So what makes it different than other methods out there?

The simplicity and variety of activities that cover all the different areas of musicianship,listening,playing, reading,creating,understanding,technique and so on. I broke down every musical concept beginners will use in their first two or three years of learning and structured a lesson plan that works with every concept. Both students and teachers have an easy to follow and interesting routine of activities on which they can place more or less emphasis as needed or according to their interest.
For example the first notation reading a student learns is the semibreve or whole note. This squashed circle or egg shaped symbol which tells us to “make a sound” and hold that sound for 4 musical heart beats. Play – hold-hold-hold.
 
We start with rhythm on its own, without pitch or staves and not using  traditional counting with numbers as they are just too confusing!…..

So we don’t count in numbers like 1-2-3-4 for a four beat note.

So what do you say?

We say “play”, as they play it and make a sound and then they hold and hold and hold. Then they go on the next one. And when they do a two beat note, it’s just “play” and hold. And a rest is “rest” or if it’s a two beat rest, it’s “rest rest.”  This simple language is actually describing WHAT they have to do.

Students usually learn one concept each week such as the semibreve or whole note and we do exercises together in class exploring the concept, then they have some tunes they go home and play with backing trax.  Each concept has a flash card, a homework theory or writing page and we have some creative improvising they can do to backing tracks. It’s a package of different activities all related to semibreve. And then the next week, after their homework review we’ll do the same activities using the minim or half note concept.

These are all private lessons, one on one?

Currently I do shared lessons as well. Two students coming to a class together. In the past, I’ve also done small group lessons of 3- 5 children.

In the next part of the interview, Wendy shares some great tips on running a successful music studio and the business of administering and managing employees.  Stay tuned.

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Lesson Plan Ideas

How To Make Practicing Fun For Your Music Students

 

Years ago I began to  notice a problem with some of my students:  Some of them would only retain the last one or two songs we were working on in the music lessons.

No matter how many times I tried to explain that it was important to retain a “repertoire” of pieces they could play at any time, (say when Grandma came for a surprise visit, or an audition, or even just a family concert) nothing seemed to work.  As soon as we moved on to a new piece, the old ones went right out the window.  This was hardly a good thing when someone says, “So I hear you’ve been taking piano lessons for 2 years now, can you play me something?”  And then, they only play half the piece that they’re currently working on and can’t remember anything else.  Not good for student self-esteem or proof of your teaching skills!  After all, your students are the shining example of your teaching services.  

Good students beget more students.

I started to think how could I “game-ify” a solution to this problem.  How could I make going back and playing these old songs fun?

Here’s two games that really are variations on the same idea and for some reason are considered so much fun by my students, they don’t want to stop!

The Hat Game

To play this:

  1. Write a number on the top corner of each piece of music you want them to review in a repertoire
  2. Write corresponding numbers on slips of paper
  3. Put the slips in a hat (or box or other container)
  4. Have them close their eyes and pick out a slip
  5. Whatever number is drawn, they have to play it now from memory.
  6. If they can’t remember, you can take the time now to review it

Variation:  you can have a family member like parent or sibling or grandparent do the drawing of the numbers.

How to keep your music students practicing a repertoire of pieces

The Dice Game

To play this:

  1. Number all the pieces you want them to review in their repertoire
  2. Choose either a single die (1 to 6) or two dice (2 to 12) to roll.  Younger kids should use one die to start.
  3. Let the student roll the die or dice.
  4. Whatever number comes up on top they have to play.
  5. Review the piece if necessary.

Again, involving family or friends is a great way to keep this fresh.

This game can reinvigorate practicing the repertoire for a while.  It won’t last forever, but for a while, you will get them interested because it’s a game.

I’ll cover more practice tricks and tips in future articles.

Hope this helps.  Let me know if you have any favorite tricks or questions about these games in the comments below.  And feel free to forward or share with your music teacher friends and colleagues.

TheDiceGame

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Lesson Plan Ideas

The importance of listening to the right music

It’s All About Choosing The Right Music At The Right Moment

As a music teacher, your job is not only to educate but also to inspire.  To truly connect your student to music, you need to know a bit about them.  What kind of music do they like?  Do they have favorite artists or genres?  But what about the earliest experiences of music?

Be The Guide For Your Students

Preschoolers and young children are usually blank slates with little music exposure and are looking to you to introduce them to the world of music.  It’s your job to play, perform and recommend playlists for them at home.  The huge success of the Suzuki method is driven by the use of the pre-recorded music that you “program” the child from an early age, just like listening to a language tape.

Playlists for Music Students

I created some suggested listening and singing songs for young children a long time ago.  These were all songs I sang to my son when he was a toddler and what they share are simple melodic structures and very simple harmonies, often just two chords, the tonic and the dominant.  They are also just great for introducing early students to listening to music and eventually learning these tunes on their instruments.

Order of Listening

After folk songs, an introduction to early Classical and Baroque music is a great choice.  Actually, following the full history of music makes a lot of sense as it is builds upon itself developing greater harmony, color tones, length, etc.   And, you are doing a wonderful history of music in a nutshell, whether the student knows it or not.

Songs To Sing To Your Toddler – Some Suggestions

  • Hush Little Baby
  • Swing Low Sweet Chariot
  • Kum Ba Ya
  • Dinah
  • Kookaburra (usually thought to be an Australian folk song, it was written by a camp counselor in 1932)
  • Michael Row The Boat Ashore
  • Greensleeves
  • Lightly Row
  • HoneyBee
  • Cuckoo
  • French Children’s Song (Petit Papa)
  • Oh How Lovely Is The Evening
  • Summertime (Gershwin)
  • Silent Night
  • You Send Me (Sam Cooke)
  • Zippity Doo Dah (By The Sherman Brothers for Disney)
  • The 59th Street Bridge Song (Simon & Garfunkel)
  • Under The Boardwalk (The Drifters)
  • This Little Light of Mine

When MTV Used To Play Music!

I used to be a VJ for MTV. (That’s Video Jockey for Music Television for those of you who weren’t around when the television channel actually played music videos all day, everyday.)   What most people didn’t realize, I had no influence on what was played and when.  It was all done by the “programming department” who decided which videos to play and what order to play them in and how often.

Programming Your Child/Student

“Programming” is what you are actually doing by introducing great music to your students.

A real DJ (or VJ) would be making song selections based on mood, audience and the emotional arc desired.  I’ve done this a few times in my life, and it’s a thrill to see how you can shape the crowd based on song selections and timing.  You can really bring a crowd to a frenzy!

Student Preferences Lead To Enthusiasm

Well, the same thing happens when you are planning your lessons.  After a while, say a few months, you are going to have a good feel for who your students are.  You should be noticing what types of pieces they really respond to and start offering more in that direction.

Older students are usually beginning to show real preferences and some may have a favorite artist, rock band or Broadway Show with songs they want to learn.

Music Teacher As DJ

This past week, as I’ve been prepping for lessons, after many students took the summer off, I’ve gone through my past lesson notes to see what could be that perfect next song for the student?  What song would offer a new challenge that is not too overwhelming?   And I realized, it’s just like being a DJ, only on a longer macro scale.

Song Selection Examples

My 11 year old piano student K was learning “Titanium” by David Guetta which led me to “Flashlight” performed by Jesse J as heard in the movie Pitch Perfect 2.  A perfect segue!

My 8 year old piano student L was so into “Maps” by Maroon 5 and “Happy” by Pharell Williams…what should come next?  Hmm.  Still programming that one for later today.

What songs have you used to inspire and what did that lead to?  Please share in the comments below.

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Resources Technology For Music Teachers

Small Piano For Small Hands?

Martin Guitars At The Metropolitan Museum
Some of the Martin guitars through the ages at the Met Museum

As a music teacher, I’m also on the lookout for new ideas, technologies and techniques to help teach my students.  As a guitarist, my hands are rather small, and I love the fact that I can now buy high quality half and 3/4 sized guitars from makers like Martin, Taylor and others.  The sound quality is amazing and the action and finish on these guitars are wonderful.

Most children who study violin or other classical string instruments begin with tiny 1/4 sized instruments.  But one thing has always been missing, a quality piano experience with smaller sized keys.

I love visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where they have a whole room dedicated to musical instruments, mostly pianos and harpsichords through the centuries.  And you can see for yourself, the makers were experimenting with all different sizes and designs.

 

 

One of my students with a Baby Taylor guitar
One of my students with a Baby Taylor guitar

So I’m thrilled to have discovered that there is a movement to make high quality 7/8 sized keyboards for pianos.  The new (Sept/Oct 2015) issue of Clavier Companion does a great job explaining how we got stuck with this arbitrary standard sized keyboard.  Ah, blame it on old white guys from Europe!  (I’m kidding, but it’s true)

Well, the good news is that you can go to Steinbuhler’s website and either just order the action (the keys) for your grand or upright piano or a full on upright with this 7/8 keyboard made by the Walter Piano Company for about $10,000.

There is a movement to push for more acceptance of alternate sized keyboards.    You can get involved at this website.

Walter-Piano-Web0202
A Walter Piano with a smaller size keyboard.
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Music and Science

The Effect Of Music On Our Brains

If you haven’t seen this awesome animated video from the TED-Ed series, you’re in for a treat. Highly recommended and shareable to your students and parents of students too.

How Playing An Instrument Benefits Your Brain by Anita Collins.

 

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Announcements

Our Webinar Was A Success

We had our first webinar today on Friday, September 4, 2015.  There were some great questions and I revealed some cool tips and tricks especially regarding lesson structure and a better beginning alternative to guitar.

For a limited time, can watch a Replay Of the Video Webinar

 

Screenshot 2015-09-04 16.17.08

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Announcements

Webinar For Music Teachers On Friday

I’m so excited to share this information with you.

For years, I’ve been humbled with an over-abundance of happy, engaged students that I’ve had a waiting list two years long and have given away many students to other teachers.

I want this to happen for you too.  

Why?
It pains me to see kids struggling, or giving up after only a few lessons, or worse, hating music lessons for the rest of their lives!

I really feel I’ve figured it out –  a unique way of teaching music that combines elements from so many of the best approaches out there combined with my unique experiences and crazy career path which I will tell you more about on Friday.

I’m sure you have teaching methods you love too and I’m not saying this is the ONLY way.  I’d just like you to know there’s an option.

So please join me at the webinar on Friday.  It’s at 12 noon Eastern (9am Pacific and 5pm GMT).

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Lesson Plan Ideas Music and Science

Teaching Special Needs Kids Music

In product design, having the most difficult use-case scenarios usually creates wonderful results.   What do I mean?

Apple originally worked on creating the computer interface to make it easier for non-technical people to work on a spreadsheet.  They also added a whole subset of features for the visually impaired.  By forcing the designers to think about these special needs, it lifted the whole project to create such magical results as the iPad, a device a 2 year old can operate.  Heck, even a cat!  (Have you seen those cat games on iPad?)

When I set out to teach kids music, I discovered a gaping hole in the marketplace.  There were no methods devoted to starting kids on playing an instrument until they were much older, say 8 or 9 years of age.  The books were cluttered with useless facts that only an adult could interpret, or colorful pictures that were meant to attract the child, but instead ended up distracting from the real information.

Over the years, out of my hundreds of students, I’ve had about a handful of children who could be described as being on the autism spectrum.  While I didn’t intend to seek out these students, they naturally gravitated to me as my methods have been so successful with just about any child.

Yes, there are greater challenges in focus.  I have to limit my activities to 3 minutes instead of 6 or 8 minutes.  I may need to ask them to change positions more often moving them about in the physical space.  Or I need to give them something physical to hold or do.  These learnings I have incorporated into the Musicolor Method™, lifting the results f0r everyone.

Here’s a few articles I’ve found helpful in understand the positive effects of music on autism.

Music therapy has a positive effect on children with autism
http://fhands.com/nURrHDc (examiner.com)

130905202851_1_540x360

Music therapy improves behavior in children with autism
http://fhands.com/FpEWj32 (sciencedaily.com)

Music and Autism Research
http://fhands.com/1W2QlzU (coastmusictherapy.com)

EFFECTS OF MUSIC ON VOCAL STEREOTYPY IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
http://fhands.com/IEorLgY (nlm.nih.gov)

The Sounds Of Learning: Studying The Impact Of Music On Children With Autism
http://fhands.com/bgvbIml (sciencedaily.com)

 

 

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Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset Music Teacher Secrets Practice Tips

My piano students keep quitting

I’ve been talking to a lot of music teachers all over the world.  A common complaint is that there’s “too many distractions” in students lives nowadays.  They blame the Internet, or the video games, or soccer or Instagram or other social media.

In my 8 years of running my kid-focused music studio, I have rarely experienced anyone quitting due to distractions or other things.  Maybe it’s because I interview the parents and make them know what the expectations are.  Maybe because I charge more than a lot of other teachers.

What I think it really is, is having a plan.  Having a clear plan of what to teach each and every child every lesson.

Because I focus on such young children starting at 3 1/2 or 4, I really had to invent a lot of my own methods.  Over the years this method has grown and my teaching lab of daily lessons has honed it to a codified, powerful, and engaging system of teaching.