No doubt you have heard that music is good for you. In fact, you may often say this to the folks that matter (parents or the those that control the budget) to persuade them of the multiple positive spin-offs of music education. Theories like ‘The Mozart Effect’ (the idea that listening to some kinds of music makes you clever) are still touted (although they have largely been disproved), but there are still plenty of reasons why music is an immensely positive thing in education.
I want to zoom in on coordination – something that is crucial to learning and something that music is deeply tied to. Chances are if you have marimba groups you will have students who just don’t seem to have any. Music can help coordination, and it’s needed if you’re going to play an instrument. The importance of coordination goes way beyond the music room. Kids between 4 and 11 years of age with good eye-to-hand coordination are more likely to achieve well in other areas like reading, writing and maths. So the link between physical coordination and cognitive development is close. Healthy children develop good coordination by moving their bodies. This should just be a normal part of growing up and playing, running, rolling, skipping, climbing trees… but lots of kids might not get enough of this kind of activity and perhaps spend too much time indoors, watching a screen. Some may have deeper problems that need to be addressed by occupational or physical therapy.
We’re talking basics here – bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body at the same time in a controlled action) is necessary for basic movements like walking, crawling and marching. Unless you are teaching special needs kids, it’s likely that your students can walk, crawl and march. But give them a pair of marimba mallets, and suddenly they’re not so comfortable. In almost all of my marimba teaching – spanning an age range of 5 – 18 years old, there would inevitably be kids who resisted using both hands. Their non-dominant hand is completely useless to them. Then there are those that can use their non-dominant hand, but only if it does the same thing as the dominant hand. It has no independence. In this way, marimbas can be a diagnostic tool to identify kids with learning difficulties. And the good news is that they can also be part of the therapy that can improve bilateral coordination. It’s worth noting that many students opt to use one hand, and all that’s needed is a bit of encouragement for them to get their non-dominant hand working. They don’t have any real problems with coordination, they just need exposure. But then there are students whose poor coordination is really in need of a bit of extra attention.
There are two important things you can do as a teacher to encourage bilateral coordination. Often the most important job is to support the ‘one-armed-bandits’ so that they can participate more fully with their peers. The longer-term task is to work on bilateral coordination in all of your classes, starting with the youngest kids you teach.
Help for one-armed-bandits: Use warm-up exercises. You can make these up on the spot – play C with your right hand 4 times, then play it with the left hand. Slowly reduce this to 3 times on each note, then 2, then 1. Play a pattern with your dominant hand – then with your non dominant hand. Practice is the only way to get those neural networks connected. Kids struggling to coordinate their hands can be given harmony parts with chords that are played using both hands together (not alternately). This should be easier for them. Keep the parts very simple and repetitive. If they’re playing C and E as part of a C chord, then stick to that rather than alternating with a G, for example. Limit the musical material they have to play. Be aware of the need to move those individuals forward by giving them simple parts with alternating hands too. Without these, they won’t develop independent hand control. Another way to support them is to give them lighter mallets until their strength and coordination improves.
If you have some marimbas that are played sitting down, rather put the strugglers onto instruments where they must stand to play. Sitting down it’s just too easy to slouch and getting the core muscles stronger supports whatever the arms are doing. It’s important to work both sides of the body so marimbas are a perfect tool. In any class the fast learners will need to be kept stimulated while you give a bit more time to the slower learners. For players who have no problem coordinating their hands, add some steps too. Get that whole body moving. Kids (usually) love this kind of challenge. It can be a good idea to appoint a ‘dance coordinator’ from one or two of the band members. That gives the responsibility to them, and allows you to spend more time with those that need it.
Apart from time spent on the marimbas, aim to include activities that encourage bilateral development in all your classes. Short warm up sessions can include body percussion games/songs, or drumming, or an imitation game like ‘Simon Says’. Using different kinds of games gives differently abled children opportunities to develop. So, depending on the kids, different kinds of activities can work well (clapping games, stone games, cup games, drumming, body percussion, dancing). Stick to one activity for long enough to give time to those who need practice, and for the class to get stuck in and enjoy the game.
All of these activities are essential for younger learners in general class music. The younger you can get kids started on them the better. Musical games are fun and challenging, even well-coordinated students (and teachers) need to keep alert to get them right. Music classes that include plenty of body movement – using the arms and legs independently, moving right and left, turning around, remembering where you are in space – are opportunities to improve coordination. It’s essential for learning, but it also lays the foundation for fine motor control too – a great outcome if students are learning other musical instruments.
So be aware of bilateral coordination in your students. Your marimba classes can be transformative in this crucial area. It’s another chance for that magical experience of the lights going on for a child – when they go from ‘I can’t… I have bad co-ords’ to:
‘YES! I CAN!’