Resurrecting the Fallen

Writing is a tough business.  I can't tell you how many times I've had someone approach me about writing for them and still not gotten the thing published.  Sometimes they're too busy to edit it.  Sometimes the managerial staff changes.  Sometimes there's no explanation; they just drop off the face of the earth, or at least the face of e-mails and phone calls.

And sometimes the publication goes out of business, which is what happened when Topic Magazine asked for a submission about Music Mind Games.  You've heard me plug MMG here before, and I know I will again: it's the best way to teach kids to read music, period.

Anyway, it occurred to me the other day that I now have my own forum to publish whatever I want, and I won't blow myself off or refuse to answer my e-mails.  So, enjoy!

Playing Right Into Their Hands:

How Games Help Kids Become Better Musicians

Think back, for a moment, to the way you learned to read.  In all likelihood, it began the moment you were born, when you were surrounded by cooing voices that issued from adoring, blurry faces.  Other humans spoke to you constantly until you learned to speak yourself, bungling your first pronunciations to the delight of everyone around you.  Your friends and family read you books, and sometimes they’d point at key words on each page: “ball,” “cat,” “mommy.”  You learned to speak in short words and phrases, each memorized for the effect they had on others (Remember what fun “no” could be?)  You began school, and your teachers made signs for everyday objects: “door,” “desk,” “goldfish.”  Gradually, slowly, you began to understand the way these sounds and symbols worked collectively, and you pieced together a language of communication.

It would have been absurd, on your first day of life, if your parents had placed a book in front of you and expected you to learn how to communicate.  As the black print swam on a white page before your eyes, you probably would have burst into tears (and not just because you were hungry.)  Yet for most music students, their introduction to reading is just that harsh.  Up goes the theory book; intimidating black notes stare out at them, and they try to make some sense of the signs, symbols and words that must all translate into artful, passionate sound.

My students are lucky.  By the time they see their first theory book, they have the tools to break down a line of music into something more easily digestible.  They have traced the treble and bass clefs with tiny fingers and placed them on the staff, paying careful attention to the way the dots of the bass clef sit on either side of the F line.  They have dropped colorful plastic dots onto a staff, calling out gleefully, “Space!  Line!” as the notes land in their places, and collected them with a “magic” magnetic wand.  They have curled up into tiny balls on the floor, whispering “pianissimo” amid stifled giggles, and gradually stood as their voices swelled: “mezzo forte . . . forte . . . FORTISSIMO!”  On this last one, they leap wildly into the air, acting out the dynamics with their whole bodies.  They have practiced rhythms with fun, silly words like “pineapple” and “gooseberry,” forming abstracted shapes with their fingers as they learn to keep a steady pulse while they repeat the words. So, when they see a piece of “real music” for the first time, they’re ready, and even eager, to put this knowledge to good use.
Students of Music Mind Games don’t just read music; they absorb it.  They act it out, sign it, speak it, and play it – and this last verb most accurately describes their state of mind as they learn some of the most difficult and complex musical concepts in existence.  For them, it’s all a game.

(Read the rest below.)

Inspiration strikes at odd times.  For Michiko Yurko, it was during one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies. She had been using games to teach her Suzuki students to be better, faster readers of music, and was on the verge of publication of a book and accompanying materials, but she lacked a name that was simple, easy to remember, and identified her philosophy about learning. During a movie, her youngest son, Andrew, started to make noise in the theater, and she took him outside to quiet him.  “I walked back in, and Shredder said something to one of the turtles about ‘mind games.’  I was standing at the back of the theater, and I thought, ‘That’s it!  Music Mind Games!  That’s what it’s all about.’”  Music, because that was the framework within which learning takes place.  “But it’s not just learning music theory; it’s about helping the child to learn how to think better, how to learn information more smoothly, and how to recall it more quickly . . . and all of that is camouflaged by games.  The children think they’re playing games; they’re really not.  They’re playing little tests.  Every one of the games is a test for me to see, as a teacher, how they’re doing.  So it’s all sort of a trick, in a way” – here she laughs – “but it works, because I’m constantly evaluating; I don’t have to wait for the exam.”  By judging how quickly they move their pieces or place their cards, by reading their expressions and hearing their dialogue, you can judge whether they’ve got a good grasp of the material.

Take the musical alphabet, for example.  At a child’s first lesson, I always ask if he can recite the alphabet for me; it’s an easy success experience.  But when he reaches “G,” I say, “Stop!  That’s all you need to know to play the piano.”  His eyes widen in surprise.  “On the piano, those seven letters repeat over and over.  Here, let me show you,” I say, and I take his finger and poke the keys one by one, starting at the bottom.  By the time we reach the top, he is shouting out the letters with confidence and pride.  Seven letters?!  This is going to be so easy.

The thing is, it’s not.  Ask a trained musician to go through the alphabet backwards, and she will most likely stumble.  Ask her to do it skipping every other letter (in musical thirds) and she will look uncomfortable for a moment before haltingly proceeding.  We don’t know our musical alphabet nearly as well as we think we do.

The Alphabet Cards were Michiko’s first development.  She had just returned from Dr. Suzuki’s institute in Japan; he was pioneering a new method of teaching that revolved around ear training and a deep, profound love for both children and music.  Students of the Suzuki Method were able to play far above their age level in terms of musicality and technique.  The one criticism was that they sometimes weren’t as proficient in sight reading, a necessary skill for any musician.

In Japan, Michiko explains, children learn to read music in school, so private teachers don’t have to spend much time keeping up with that skill.  So many European and American teachers, observing that Dr. Suzuki himself didn’t spend a lot of time teaching students to read, falsely assumed that it wasn’t important.  “But I wanted my students to be good readers,” says Michiko. “Everyone was so uptight about [how to teach theory], and I just thought – huh!  Well, let’s use some games.  Maybe that will help people relax . . . and because Suzuki himself had more of a playful attitude toward life, that sort of gave me an entry point.”

The Alphabet Cards helped her students to have a more fluent knowledge of the musical alphabet. “I sat through so many college classes where we just didn’t know our alphabet well enough,” she remembers. Next, she attacked dictation.  She had encountered it for the first time in college, when she realized it was just a simple memory exercise at which most children could excel.  Listen, repeat; and later, listen, repeat, write.  Her first dictation slates were lines on which pennies could be placed to represent notes.  Later, these were replaced by the bright, plastic pieces she calls “Magic Notes.”  The “magic” part is that each one has an almost-invisible wire around its edge, so that a “Magic Wand,” containing a magnet, can lift them off the page in a second.  This has nothing to do with music, but everything to do with the pleasure of play.

There are many more aspects to her method that incorporate a child’s natural love for games.  One is her approach: unhurried, unrushed, completely at ease.  Michiko remembers an encounter with Dr. Suzuki in Japan that taught her the value of such an attitude: she was with a group of other violin teachers, and Dr. Suzuki was making the rounds, asking each teacher to play a passage from the Vivaldi A-minor Concerto.  Though she had been an excellent violinist in her childhood, she hadn’t played for years, and she had never studied that particular piece.  As he drew closer to her, she started to panic, sensing imminent disaster.  But when he got to her chair, “I stood up and started playing, and I could sense two things: he was going to stand there until I got it right – he wasn’t going to pass it off by saying, “that was close enough” – and he was not going to put any pressure on me; it was going to be a very relaxed moment.  He was going to wait  – not patiently, because patience implies restrained frustration – but just wait until I got it.  So within that space of those two things, I was able to totally relax and do it, and in the end, my turn was really no longer than anybody else’s.”

Another playful feature in many Music Mind Games is the concept of a surprise.  The first time I asked a child to close her eyes while I switched two cards, I expected resistance – distrust or cynicism at the worst, uneasiness at the least.  What I found was exactly the opposite: students will obediently, even delightedly, close their eyes in anticipation of a surprise.  When they open them, I have made the puzzle harder – just hard enough for them to have to think for a moment before they can fix it.  When they do put it right, they are thrilled with themselves and beg for more turns, more games, more fun.

The materials themselves are fun, too.  A meticulous designer, Michiko uses the psychology of play even in her color selection: she prefers bright, fun colors in small quantities, usually as a border, which helps students focus.  The cards are clear and simple, not fussy and distracting, putting forth only necessary and relevant information.  Often, she’ll use a coding system: warm colors for sharps, cool for flats (because hot air rises, as sharps rise in pitch); blue cards for treble clef notes, green for bass clef (representing the sky and ground, the way the clefs sit on the staff.)

Several years ago, she moved from larger group-oriented materials to smaller, personalized sets.  Now each of her students has his own set, which they bring to class each week in a plastic carrying case.  They take great pleasure in manipulating the materials: unfolding the staff cards, shuffling the decks, and even cleaning up the pieces at the end of class.  In addition to providing visual and oral stimulation, the materials appeal to the kinesthetic sense as well.

A study of Michiko’s past reveals several key factors that led to her development of Music Mind Games.  One was the love of working with her hands; she always loved crafts, she says, creating villages out of sugar cubes and knitting with toothpicks to create clothes for her dolls.  And, since her siblings were much older, she lacked a constant source of social interaction from her peers – the framework from which most games arise. “[My siblings] would occasionally indulge me, but not very often,” she remembers, “So usually I spent time playing Solitaire games, and I would also play Monopoly by myself.”

Here I begin to laugh.  I’ve heard this story before, and it strikes me awfully sad and sweet at once.  “I really thought everybody did this,” she says, smiling.  “You’re laughing, but this was totally logical to me.  So I would set it up, and I would sit on the floor or at a table, and move from chair to chair – and I would play myself.  There would be four of us.”  She laughs with me now.  “And I promise, I wouldn’t cheat.”

“And now the inner child in me is so happy, because all these little children come and play with me, all the time!  And teachers come and play with me!  And the parents sit down and want to play with me, too!  So the fact that I can combine a worthy career, that’s going to help these children, and play games with them – how much more fulfilled could I be?”

It is, despite some frustrations, a wonderful career.  Once when I was young, I asked my mother to take me somewhere and was turned down.  I don’t remember the circumstances, or even my age, though I was probably somewhere in those magical middle-school years when I hated myself and everyone around me.  What I remember is that my mom said no, she had to work.  I remember this because of my response: “Mom, you don’t work.  You stay at home, and little kids come over and play with you all day.”

I meant to be patronizing, and probably to hurt her feelings – that’s what middle school is all about, right?  But the delicious irony is that, like her, I am now a piano teacher, and kids come to play with me all day.  And it’s wonderful.