Learning the Language of Music

Learning the Language of Music

Last week I participated in a marimba camp with David Alderdice and Arlyn Deva of Embodying Rhythm. What I learned during the week of afternoon marimba lessons was much broader than the melody and chord lines to each of the three songs we worked on; I learned the importance of listening, following the pulse, and playing within the musical framework or grid, as Arlyn calls it. These elements of my musical experience reminded me a lot of some important elements of language acquisition: listening to comprehensible input, using well-chosen vocabulary and grammatical structures, and following discourse rules. The comparison between learning a new musical instrument and learning a new language extended to instructional strategies as well. David and Arlyn taught the three-hour music class using many of the best practices for language teachers: they chunked the instruction for each new piece, modeled each part and coached us individually, and provided plenty of repetitions and practice opportunities. Their teaching strategies supported beginners, like me, and challenged more advanced players.

As in language acquisition, listening to the sounds and rhythms of the music before trying to play them was essential. David would usually play the pattern we were going to learn a few times and then have us clap just the rhythm before we ever played the melody or chords. This made the melody more comprehensible to me and enabled me to begin hearing how I should play the notes. Before he introduced each new part of the piece, he would have the class listen to how the parts fit together noting how the melody, the chords, and the harmony meshed. What at first seemed like a simple pattern, revealed a deceptively complex and intricate part in the polyrhythm. Like learning a new language, I needed lots of listening practice to understand. When David pointed out the pulse, called out the first note of the pattern, or drummed along, he made the rhythms easier to follow. Language teachers also need to provide learners with plenty of comprehensible input to help students understand key vocabulary, language patterns, and an entire discourse. Language, like music, has layers of meaning that demand focused listening.

When I began to play the beginning patterns on the marimba, I first focused on the notes and playing them in the correct order, but I struggled to play the pattern in the correct rhythm. Sometimes I completely missed the musical pulse. Like language learners who focus on saying new words or phrases with correct grammatical structure without a native speaker’s intonation or stress, I lacked prosody. David and Arlyn patiently chunked the learning into short phrases that we could quickly master at tempo. Sometimes they had to coach me during the song, showing me where to place my sticks or modeling the rhythm for me. Watch how David’s subtle coaching in this clip helps me find the right rhythm and move from hesitant participation to confidence.

 

Once David noted that we had the correct musical ‘grammar’, he worked on the rhythms and musicality. By showing us how to emphasize different notes in the sequence, the whole feel and pulse of the music shifted. To help the class embody the structure and rhythms, David led the class in a variety of practice activities. Beginning language learners also need lots of repetition and practice using new vocabulary and structures in meaningful ways. Jazz Chants are just one way to teach beginners the musicality of language. Practicing vocabulary in context is as important for language acquisition as practicing notes within a rhythm. Without context, words have little meaning; without rhythm, the notes have little musicality.

Like disconnected chunks of language, each individual musical phrase is just a piece of the complete song. In an academic discourse, conversation partners have to listen and respond to each other following certain rules of communication. To create a complete song, our ensemble needed to learn how to play each part together. When some students mastered the chords or melody, David introduced additional parts to the more advanced players. Some of these players’ parts actually led the music and drove us to play faster or slower, louder or softer. As these parts were added to the song, I realized that just hitting the correct notes in the correct order without the right rhythm didn’t work. If I didn’t maintain the rhythm, my part no longer fit into the ‘conversation’ with the other players. To help us understand how to communicate with the other players within a framework, David taught us to improvise. We were given a scale or notes that would work together and a pulse to start the improvisation. Then each player would take a turn adding a line to our improvised song. If we followed the ‘rules’ and listened to each other, we almost always created a new, fascinating song. Like the support that sentence frames and graphic organizers provide language learners, the scales and organizing pulse enabled even beginners like me to participate in the ‘conversation’.

I hope to continue learning marimba throughout the school year as it reminds me to chunk instruction, model skills, coach students during practice, and provide lots of repetition through a variety of engaging activities. I encourage all educators to spend some time this summer learning something completely new. Notice your learning process and notice how the teacher structures the learning experience. What works for you? What lessons can you take back to your classroom?  Listen to what David and Arlyn’s expert instruction and coaching enabled us to create by the end of the week!

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