Perhaps you have had experiences where your most carefully planned lesson has left some kids completely dumbfounded – well it has happened to me, and whenever it happens, I consider it a great lesson to self. Our students have individual learning styles, musical experiences, levels of confidence, and musical tastes. One of the things that motivates me as a music teacher is figuring out what it is that can help different students to learn. I think it’s part of a teacher’s job to crack the code of the different students we teach. If you teach one-on-one, then you’re in a fairly comfortable space to try things out with individuals without the risk of the other 20 plus kids in the room starting to go wild. But class music presents its own challenges.
Some students are natural readers – notation does not phase them. Others will do absolutely anything to avoid having to read notation. Some have a finely developed sense of pitch, or a secure sense of the beat (we love these kids because they are so easy to teach). Some will remember a melodic phrase, a rhythm, a chord sequence with no problem, others just don’t know where to start when you ask them to repeat a short melody. I am always baffled when students ask how many times to play each note…. My brain doesn’t count the notes because I hear musical phrases. As teachers, we have learning styles too – and although we may have spent time learning how to teach music, it’s sometimes difficult to recognise our own preferences and how they can prevent us from understanding a student’s learning preferences. It’s also worth remembering that students might have no problem recalling a musical phrase, but they may not be able to play it because their coordination lets them down. As a teacher, it can be difficult to know exactly what is going on and which problem needs addressing. (Similarly, kids who cannot sing in tune may just need practice, or a bit of help to find their singing voice. There’s no need to write them off as tone-deaf).
Music education in general, and marimba education in particular provides a space where various learning styles can be accommodated. You can make space for the kids who have got too much energy and want to move all the time. For those who learn best by seeing things written out, that’s also possible, even if it’s writing a very simplified version of a tune using letters, not staff notation. The aural learners should be in their element in the music room, but musical sound is not the same as language (even if there are connections that can be made). The introverts are best accommodated if they have an instrument to themselves, the social animals thrive in pairs doing something with friends. You get the picture – there are quite simple ways to bend activities toward particular learning preferences.
Education is about learning and being stretched. So, whilst learning styles are most often brought up as a challenge to teachers to include diverse learners, I suggest that the power of marimbas is that the various learning modes can help students grow in the areas in which they are less confident. The amazing thing about music (and perhaps the unique thing) is that it all happens at once: Movement, auditory memory, pattern recognition, reading, language, visual understanding.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of getting it right for multiple students at once, one controllable is to develop an approach to lessons that has tiny amounts of several different elements. For instance, don’t make it all about auditory memory – write the letters of the tune so that the visual learners can work from that if they struggle to remember the melody. Using a piece of old-fashioned blackboard chalk to write on the marimba notes themselves can be useful for visual learners. Chalk makes a nice, clear mark on the wood, and cleans off easily. Some teachers use coloured stickers on marimba notes for each different note (e.g. C is red, G is Green) and this is another way to give visual learners support. You will see which students gravitate toward specific learning styles. Finding ways to make learning easier for individuals is really, really important because confidence is so important in music classes. Kids are not just demotivated by feeling inadequate, they are likely to shut down to minimise the chance of failure.
The more ways our students can learn, the better. They won’t always have a lovely music teacher who designs lessons especially for them. Catering to their learning style, while simultaneously scaffolding other ways to learn can help them strengthen diverse neural pathways and better manage their learning today and in the future.