Musical Memories are Deep Memories

I teach “formal” music to older children, kindergarteners through high schoolers (and adults!). Music lessons to guide the development of skills with an instrument are quite different from our music classes together, even though in both cases I am focusing on getting the same results—making music! I get to work with children on both sides of the development divide (preschool and, um, post-preschool) and I am continually fascinated as I connect the dots between these two worlds that our children progress through, on their way to consumerhood—I mean adulthood.  Children in the “before school” realm: infants and toddlers and, yes, preschoolers get to enjoy: picture books read to them by their favorite celebrities (you); babbling as much as they like, anywhere they like; jumping on the couch (yes, I’ve seen it happen in Zoomland); taking care of baby (baby doll, that is); sanctioned dinosaur squabbles in every room in the house—even the living room; countless (I mean countless) hours of roping mom and dad into playing Candyland again; drawing/painting/coloring artwork to hang on refrigerator doors, front doors, bedroom doors, garage doors….and super-fun family music classes and family-led sing-alongs! Once children start formal schooling, all that foundational play morphs into chapter books and memorizing multiplication tables and socializing with friends and problem solving and discovering what history is and writing and spelling (not the preschoolean make-up-whatever-sounds-good way of spelling that Shakespeare got away with, but actually following generally accepted spelling rules) and emotions and judgements (The first time your child shouts “It’s not fair!” is one of those major developmental milestones.) and catching/throwing/kicking balls while adults cheer—and working through the process of making a musical instrument sound, well, musical. Before, they were children. Now they are students.

What fascinates me most with my formal music students, at least today as I write this, is that every child is a unique story (duh), but for me to be an effective teacher, I must figure out each child’s unique profile of strengths and weaknesses; not to make judgements, but to assess and develop a teaching approach for each of my young charges. I get to play detective and guess at what pertinent experiences came before I met my young musical friends. For example, one easy set of experiences to deduce is whether a child I am working with is new to music—that is, whether said child has experienced some active music-making in their preschool lives. I imagine my insights here are similar to those of a grade school teacher assessing which students have spent significant time with books in their childhood versus those who missed out.

Sometimes, my educated guesses are confirmed by my students’ musical memories. These are deep memories in that they suddenly surface in my students’ thoughts and they are vivid. When a child is learning new piece of music with me, they often (with my continued entreaties) play through it slo-o-o-w-ly. Eyes and brain and fingers must do a lot of coordinating, and slow-and-steady wins the race as they say. Often, the melody of the piece of music under examination is unintelligible as a melody because it is moving along so slowly. Once it reaches “critical” speed, though, occasionally a student will suddenly, and happily, exclaim “I know this song!”  Recent examples: a fourth-grader playing through Brahm’s Lullaby (which is in a MT song collection) suddenly realize that it was the same song her mom used to sing to her—that would have been at least six years ago. A teenager playing My Favorite Things (from The Sound of Music) suddenly recalled that his father used to sing that song to him as a child, at least twelve years ago! (It’s not often I get to see an adolescent get animated in a lesson. He had to go tell his dad right after we were done.) These deep musical memories are the foundation of a person’s musicalness, the stored examples of music that help each of us build out our musical vocabulary and our sense of how music works. Children with these building-block memories can then call upon them to help with their musical development later on, whether in formal music lessons or dance classes or sharing music they like with like-minded friends or idolizing their favorite musical performers or just enjoying being musical.