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How do you teach theory to four-year olds? It was my assignment. We had fifteen rather ordinary children from 4 to 6 years of age. They were having fun and so were we. We took them to the mall for Christmas and they sang nearly in tune and danced almost together. They were cute enough to get away with it and we wanted to be sure that they learned something from this chorus.
One of us was the director, one was the choreographer, one was the accompanist, and I was the teacher of theory. I did understand music well enough. I had gone to college as a music major. But I had married and started having these children. So I had not formally taught.
I did have experience with little children - after all, four of the chorus were mine and I had two children older than our chorus. I knew that the best way to get them to understand concepts was to have a way for them to move things around. My children learned to count by setting the table with spoons and cups. With 6 kids and two adults, you can count all the way to eight. Once you get that far, ten is an easy reach.
I made a staff and wooden notes they could move around. (I had a wood shop on the side so I could make those kinds of things.) Teaching pitch was relatively easy. The children could see that when the note was higher, they sang higher. Once they could sing the scale (do, re, mi etc) they could learn how to make the scale on the staff. (We didn’t complicate things by talking about half steps and whole steps or sharps and flats at this level.)
I needed to find a way to let them hold rhythm the same way they could hold and move the pitch around.
I thought about it over a week. I hadn’t come up with anything until I dreamed it. I am a believer in ideas that come from other places besides myself. I had made the notes for the staff out of wood. Could I make the rhythms from wood as well? Why couldn’t the time dimension be height? Maybe it would work. Maybe not. Since we had nothing else, it wouldn’t hurt to try.
I cut notes of different heights to identify the note values and painted them different colors just for fun. The whole note was 1 ½ " tall because that is the size of the 2x4. A 1x2 is 3/4 “ high so that worked for the ½ note. I made the quarter note from the 2x4 and sliced it to 3/8 “ and the eighth note was 3/16" tall. I also cut rests to match. The heights weren’t perfect, but the idea worked. The children understood the relationship of the notes. They could make rhythms and clap them. We used only the half notes and quarter notes that first time. They could arrange the rhythms themselves and clap it after only one fifteen minute session. It was exciting to see how easily the NoteBlocks (I called them that from the beginning) allowed them to grasp the difficult concept of note values. The other teachers liked it too.
Some time later, I started teaching. My first experience was a class of 65 beginning violin students from 6 to 12 in the same class with only two teachers. I don’t know how much the children learned, but I learned a great deal. From that first class in late 1979, I have taught almost continuously. I haven’t retired yet. At present, I teach 30 private students and 6 classes.
Over the years, I have tried many teaching tools to convey the concepts that rhythm encompasses. I wanted to compare other methods with the NoteBlocks. I have used rhythm cards, note flash cards, washers and popsicle sticks and any other thing that has been suggested to me. Some children have learned from each method. However, in all my teaching, I have found nothing that teaches rhythm more effectively than the NoteBlocks. They are very visual. The pieces look like notes. After using the NoteBlocks, students can easily identify the note values when they see the notes on the printed page. They are manipulatives. The students make their own rhythms after the first lesson.
They are made of plastic now, and as I saw the need, other very helpful pieces have been added. Using the beat mats has been a real boon that enhances the visual learning immensely. Making the time signatures the same height as the proper number of beats was also an enormously helpful addition. The set became self correcting leading to the use as a tool for discovery learning. The dots in each value have been added and have made it easy to teach the value of the dotted notes.
Other helpful things have been the ability to visually teach 6/8 in two and 6/8 in three. I still use the sets that we have and have never found anything better.
The greatest difference between NoteBlocks and any other teaching tool I have used for this purpose is that every student understands the concepts. With other tools, some could learn with one method and some with another.
Four year old Rachel walked in to the studio for her first violin lesson. We started by unpacking her little 1/4 sized violin and tuning it. I showed her how to hold the violin on her shoulder keeping her back straight and supporting it with her chin. And how to hold the bow for her little fingers. Then we slid the bow across the strings and she was delighted with the sound as most children are. But after about 10 minutes of standard lesson, she was finished.
As her lessons are the standard 45 minutes long, her mother wondered what I was going to be able to do to keep her attention long enough. She started talking about shortening the lessons for awhile until Rachel knew enough.
Then I got out the NoteBlocks. Rachel was hooked. I had thought about going back to the violin that lesson but she would have none of it. By the end of the first lesson, she could make and clap rhythms with quarter notes and half notes in 4/4 time and 3/4 time and do it all un-aided.
Rachel is a talented violinist now. She is nine years old and playing grade C and D material. She is not atypical. She knows how to write her own music and does not make rhythmic mistakes.
She is not alone. At present, I have 5 small private students 4 and 5 years old. And I have a class with 5 and 6 year olds. All can read and play rhythms with no difficulty because they understand rhythm. NoteBlocks works.