Jennie Khan

Freelance Cellist and Teacher

Jennie Khan is an Auckland based cellist and cello teacher. She has a variety of experience performing both here and in Europe and has been teaching students of all ages for many years.

Music Literacy for all

I had the great fortune recently to have some training in the Kodaly approach to music teaching. Now I am often quite skeptical of anything calling itself a "method", I find they can be contrived and rigid; good for young children to quickly learn to play an instrument, but in the same way a lemon juice and cayenne diet will shed pounds fast - it's not really a long term solution.

I discovered Kodaly is sometimes wrongly referred to as a "method" but practitioners expiate this misunderstanding, explaining that "approach" is a more accurate word.

Zoltan Kodaly pulled together many elements from musical traditions, education traditions, his own and others experiences. Because learning music has multi faceted developmental advantages, it teaches discipline, reading, writing, arithmetic, artistic expression, and so on; learning as a child helps develop effective thought processes, learning as an adult, it helps to reevaluate your thought processes.

Learning this new approach, I was challenged to reevaluate my own thought processes, both as a player and as a teacher. It was encouraging to see I had already been adopting some of the techniques, and others that had always shied away from, seemed ot make sense and have their place. 
To me the Kodaly approach to music teaching is wider, and more inventive than traditional theory, which, lets be honest, can be very dull, particularly for kids (I used to dread Sunday afternoons, the theory books would come out as my mother dragged my brother and I unwillingly through the next chapter).
By breaking it into movements, sounds and other basic elements we are familiar with, often based around folk songs our mother might have sung to us, the theory of music becomes something we can relate to.
Kodaly is quoted to have said,

Regarding when to start music education ‘Nine months before the birth of the child,’ ..moreover.. ‘nine months before the birth of the mother.’

Music is steeped in tradition, and tradition is steeped in music. Every culture has musical roots that are entwined in the history of those people. Often times today in busy lives of a digital age, many of those traditions start to get lost.

I have spoken a lot about the music as sound in previous posts, practicing, listening, accuracy, feel ect. But not much about the music as a thing.
Most classical musicians will learn to read music before or in parallel with learning their instrument. But it can be quite challenging, there are so many new and unfamiliar things to be thinking about. So, sometimes it gets lost, the theory bit that is. Many, especially the younger ones, just want to get on with the 'fun' bit - Playing. But as with many things, without some theoretical foundation, most people will be limiting themselves in the long run.

Here are some examples, in my experience, of how understanding the music can be an advantage and improve your performance:

Sight Reading - the better you understand the written music the better you can read it. Producing rhythms more accurately, pitching intervals. You can play a piece of music without the laborious task of transcribing it by ear, and by memory.

Improvising - of course you can do this by ear, but unless you're fairly extraordinarily talented it will be a lot of trial and error. At least for me, it's a whole lot easier to read a chord chart and understand what notes can go where and how the chords fit together in a sequence.

Ensemble playing - if you can understand what is written on the page and structure of the music you can be much more sensitive and effective as an ensemble player, knowing when to bring out important bits or stand back and let others take the lead.

Composing - If you can understand the technical side of how music is written, you are better equipped to compose more interesting and complex pieces of music, to get the sound you want just right.

As I mentioned, in learning how to learn music, and therefore how to teach it, I have been thinking a whole lot more about what the music means, seeing what I hear, hearing what I see. I have become much more sensitive to those fundamental building blocks of what makes up the music.

So getting back to Kodaly: 

  • Start simple, gradually building on each component, rhythm, pitch etc. so that the whole thing is not so daunting. Folk songs are the ideal place to begin, simple melodies and nursery rhymes that we are familiar with and are easy to pick up.
  • Don't necessarily begin straight away with the music as it is written on paper. Using different shapes and colours, physical items you can use to build the music, other props, 'toys' and games to allow us to literally feel the music, and to see it written as something we can relate to. For example hearts indicating the beat, tugging on lycra that little arms can feel the pulse or passing a ball around the circle to show the need for a steady beat.
  • Repetition. Using the same song to demonstrate at different times various aspects of the music, one time you might simply look at the pulse, another time perhaps the rythm and a third time the pitch. Equally, doing the same or similar activity with different songs. Always reinforcing the ideas, until they are second nature.

You can read more about the approach at these interesting links:

Kodaly's intention was primarily to teach children, but of course it works for almost everyone. We all have different learning styles and being varied and diverse in our approach allows us to connect with the concepts regardless. Some of my adult students have been pleasantly surprised when playing with coloured ice-block sticks, rhythmic notation has suddenly made so much more sense.

I believe everyone can benefit from some music theory, no matter what your experience. Don't get put off by the thought of 'theoretical' study. There are so many ways to approach reading and understanding music. And if you're teaching think outside the box and let your imagination run wild. You will be amazed at what you can achieve.

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