Interviewing Marilyn Lowe

by | Feb 4, 2020 | Interviews | 0 comments

Interviewing Marilyn LoweToday is a special day for me because I start a series of interviews with pedagogues that I admire. I started making interviews for my blog in Spanish a year and a half ago, but today it´s the first of the series in English.

I begin this series of interviews with the pianist and pedagogue Marilyn Lowe, creator of Music Moves for Piano method, inspired by Edwin Gordon´s theories of audiation, named Music Learning Theory. Music Learning Theory is an explanation of how we learn when we learn music. Music Moves for Piano is a method where musicianship and keyboard skills are developed through listening, singing, chanting, moving, pattern instruction, performing, and improvising. Application is made to reading and writing music notation continuously during instruction. Most students are excellent readers after sufficient skills are internalized.

When did you learn about MLT (Music Learning Theory)? How has this knowledge influenced your teaching?

In the 1980s I started hearing a lot about Gordon and his research about how we learn music. His ideas intrigued me. I heard him speak at a National Music Conference and discovered he offered summer week-long seminars. Consequently, a colleague and I drove to Columbia, South Carolina in 1992, where Gordon taught a weeklong seminar at the University of South Carolina. I felt as if concrete blocks were removed from my shoulders as he explained how we learn when we learn music. It was apparent that the reason my students had difficulty improvising, arranging, composing, and playing without music notation was because they did not have audiation skills.

I learned that the music learning process is compared with language learning: listen, speak, think, read, and write. It made sense that, since music is an aural art, it should be learned as an aural art and not from notation. Like language learning, we need acculturation and preparation/readiness to learn music. New music learners and infants should have exposure to a large variety of musically appropriate listening. Research shows that the ear is developed in the third trimester before birth. Carefully selected music listening before birth matters. Music learners should acquire a music pattern vocabulary of carefully sequenced, functional tonal and rhythm patterns in context of a tonality or meter. A continuous step in the music learning process is to improvise using everything learned. Improvisation is fundamental for understanding music and for reading music notation.

My journey into creating an audiation-based piano method began immediately, with Gordon’s help, on my return home after hearing Gordon in 1992. My students and parents were excited about the different approach. Some of my students’ parents were school teachers and psychologists, who understood Gordon’s learning process and liked it. I returned for another seminar during the end of summer 1992, and continued to go to summer seminars where Gordon spoke for six summers.

I learned the importance of sequential instruction and the value of carefully planned readiness, repetition, review, and reinforcement. My lessons changed. We sang (singing develops tonal audiation) and we moved (rhythm audiation is based on body movement). We worked in small, overlapping groups. I discovered a book by Gerald Eskelin, “Lies My Music Teacher Told Me” where he discusses explanations that teachers use that are incorrect. For example: ” a quarter note gets one beat.”

Rhythm and Tonal syllables (movable DO with a LA-based minor) were new for me. They are powerful as they make the connection between ear and notation. Syllables help organize musical thought. Labels and names of meter, tonality, and functions provide an aural classification. It is important to sing tonal patterns and chant rhythm patterns.

Students were definitely learning and enjoying lessons, and the musicality and musicianship increased immeasurably.

What is the most important contribution Gordon made to the way we teach music?

Perhaps the most important contribution Edwin Gordon made to music learning is the emphasis upon ‘context’ for developing audiation skills. To make sense as an aural art, context of music is fundamental. For example, meter. Does the music move in duple meter or triple meter or something else, such as five or seven or mixed meters? Is the music in major tonality or minor tonality or something else, such as dorian, mixolydian, phrygian and so forth? Single notes and intervals do not have aural meaning without context. What does D mean without the context of a tonality or a tonic? For example, a fifth from the tonic (1-5) sounds different from a fifth from the supertonic (2-6) if one has a resting tone/tonic for context in mind. Young children learn to hear differences and can recognize music context as duple or triple or major or minor. This acute listening is the beginning of building tomorrow’s audience.

Gordon held a PhD in Psychology as well as two music degrees. He recognized that to understand something there must contrasts: same and different. Differences are necessary for learning to take place. This is why duple and triple meters are taught together and major and minor tonalities are taught together. Students learn to discriminate as listeners and audiation begins to develop. Our Western Culture is a duple/major world, so music teachers must ensure that students are exposed to other meters and tonalities in music lessons to become aware of contrasts.

Gordon was a fan of the Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who believed that we should challenge children according to individual differences, then help them arrive at a solution. This approach is embedded in Gordon’s Learning Sequence Activities. Vygotsky also demonstrated that children learn best in groups, because they learn from peers, even if they are on different levels of learning. It is the teacher’s responsibility to recognize individual differences and help all children learn.

Gordon’s process for music learning was to “ask the question and teach/give the answer.” This is called discrimination learning. With this approach all, regardless of music aptitude, can learn because the teacher is aware of individual differences. Students are able to take what they learn and use it in a variety of activities provided by the teacher.

Everything I have mentioned previously is sequenced in Music Moves for Piano. Gordon made a difference in the way we think about and learn and teach music.

What are the main differences between Music Moves for Piano and other piano methods?

MMP (Music Moves for Piano) is audiation-based, sequenced instruction for the purpose of building complete music literacy, including improvising, composing, arranging, performing, playing in ensemble, reading, and writing. MMP is based on aural learning. Other methods teach music from notation and audiation skills as defined by Gordon are not the focus of instruction. There is a common, unusual physical phenomenon that the eyes tend to prevent the ears from listening. Gordon said that when students are asked to learn from notation before they learned to audiate, audiation is stifled. I recommend that music teachers study Gordon’s conclusions and teaching recommendations from his lifetime research and practical field testing about music learning.

Music Moves teaches context and improvisation as informal instruction from the beginning of Keyboard Games books by differentiating between duple meter and triple meter. As students progress into formal instruction, they experience the difference between major and harmonic minor tonalities. A rich heritage of folk tunes is used to provide material for sequenced instruction and developing deeper improvisation and arranging activities. Students learn to harmonize folk tunes, first, by listening for and singing/playing root chord changes of tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords in major and minor tonalities. The ear develops a harmonic listening vocabulary when singing and playing root chord changes. Once a harmonic vocabulary is acquired, more chords can be added, such as the supertonic and submediant triads. Improvisation and composition skills become quite sophisticated as more changes in harmonization and arranging are introduced.

Our rich international heritage of folk music provides countless opportunities for learning improvisation and arranging skills for beginning to advanced students. Music Moves for Piano prepares students for university music programs. I have a former student who received a DMA at the age of 23, a student who received an MM degree in violin, student who received a MM in Piano, and a student who will start work on a DMA in composition next fall.

 

Are there other influences to MMP besides Gordon´s ideas?

Because of my passion for music, I almost completed a PhD in Music Theory after finishing my MM in Piano at Indiana University. However, after hearing Gordon speak, I discovered that my music theory studies were primarily notation/knowledge based and not based on sound or internal aural learning.

My instruction previous to Gordon hinted at many possibilities for innovative instruction. Studies with Nadia Boulanger and master class teachers at Fontainebleau, France, provided invaluable insights into music. Piano study for three years under Menahem Pressler at Indiana University was filled with delightful imagery. Other influences include the techniques and theories of Carl Orff, Shinichi Suzuki, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Zoltan Kodaly, and Dorothy Taubman. It is exciting to realize that Gordon provided the missing links from these outstanding music educators: context and a music pattern vocabulary.

Why is it so important to teach rhythm and tonal patterns?

Sequenced, categorized, and functional rhythm and tonal patterns are the words of music, and are an essential music vocabulary. Music is complex, and to understand music one must learn the parts that make music, such as patterns. Tonal and rhythm patterns that are functional and sequenced are the organized and teachable ‘words’ of music. As with language, music words to use for labels or names to describe or recognize something are essential for communication.

Why is it important to teach body movement in music lessons?

Rhythm is based on body movement. Counting is not rhythm. Body movement is the foundation for rhythm understanding. We move physically to the tempo beat and meter beats while chanting rhythm patterns. Movement activities also develop the feeling of continuous movement, a feeling that is essential for rhythm to flow musically. Movement activities connect the physical coordination of pulse, meter, melodic rhythm and flow, building both rhythm development and musicianship in performance. Body movement demonstrates style in music, such as bound or free and light and strong. Another benefit of movement activities is that they relieve body tension and free the mind so that learning can take place. Students of all ages enjoy movement activities.

Here in Spain, the most common approach to teaching piano from the very beginning is through music notation. When do you introduce (in your teaching) reading and writing musical notation to your students?

Think about how children from birth are prepared for reading language. Music learning is compared with the language learning process: 1. Listen 2. Speak (perform) 3. Think, converse (audiate, improvise) 4. Read 5. Write. The same preparation is necessary for music learning. Careful attention to appropriate music acculturation from birth immediately accesses the neurons that are innate for music.

Everything a child learns from birth is internalized and forms knowledge for reading when the mind is developmentally ready to read. There is a continuous sequence of activities from birth to prepare for reading and writing. I am currently writing the ‘music reading learning sequence’ for the piano student with examples and how the sequence works, keeping a child’s chronological age, developmental stages, and musical age in mind.

There is a lot of new information on one page of music notation for a beginner to digest. Research tells us that we can only learn one new thing at a time. Think about the huge variety of symbols on a page of music. This can be confusing for a new music learner. Experience with the sound of music is what is important, not explanations. We learn to read what we know and hear. As with language, we cannot read with understanding if we do not know the words of the language. Symbols and music notation can be understood gradually over time. Knowing that we can only learn one new thing at a time, students gradually build an understanding of music notation symbols. When beginning to learn from a music score, students should first read the rhythm patterns, then examine the tonality and tonal patterns. Complete understanding of music notation requires abstract thinking that developmentally begins around age eleven.

I have experimented with students learning from notation at a younger age and the results are decoding without audiating. Often there is frustration and students stop lessons. One activity that works very well with students of all ages as a first step for reading is to read rhythm patterns from a music score. The Well Tempered Reader books are perfect for this activity. I use Gordon’s philosophy of “discrimination learning” where a teacher tells the answer and the student responds. The teacher will use either rhythm syllables or neutral syllables for reading rhythm patterns from notation. Students learn to look at notation in chunks, or phrases, rather than note-by-note, and audiation is strengthened.

Why are creativity and improvisation such important skills?

Improvisation is fundamental for developing audiation skill. To truly learn something and make it useful, students have to “do it.” Students are expected to improvise from the beginning of lessons using everything they learn with short improvisation activities. In language learning, children use the words they know to speak. Improvisation internalizes learning. Without student interaction using what they know, they are not likely to remember or be able to use the information.

Music improvisation is similar to spoken conversation. We don’t memorize sentences that we speak, but use what we know to converse and describe our thoughts.

What does improvisation look like for the Music Moves piano student?

Simply stated, improvisation means changing something. It’s fun to hear students talk about pieces they learn, then tell another student, “Now change it.” Students change melody, rhythm, harmony, patterns, articulation, dynamics, tempo and more. Students have fun making mashups, medleys, and arranging duet parts or playing two pieces at the same time as a duet. Students improvise using the rhythmic phrase structure from a folk song. My favorite choice for improvisation is using random keys. This provides a release from the tension of making music that “sounds correct” and focuses on other music elements, such as dynamics, tempo, articulation, pedaling, and keyboard register. Tones from tonal patterns can move over the whole keyboard. Learning is happening with joyfulness.

What does a normal lesson look like using Music Moves for Piano?

Occasionally I teach one-on-one lessons but my favorite lessons are with small groups or overlapping lessons. Psychologists tell us that students learn best in groups and from each other. This is true in piano. We sing and move and chant, following a carefully sequenced lesson plan from the Teachers Lesson Plans. Students listen and talk about music in terms of context (meter: duple/triple/or something else and tonality: major/minor or something else.) Students hear other students play and gain performing experience themselves. There is a lot of variety because of different ages and levels of students: we learn from difference. Students know that making a change is improvisation so they become readily able to change a song or piece.

Teacher Lesson Plans have sequential plans for each Unit in the Student books. The Activity section includes learning a ‘Song to Sing’, a folk song learned through essential tonal and rhythm patterns and phrase structure and singing. Pattern instruction is included as well as a variety of music in different tonalities and meters. Other sections include Keyboard Geography and Technique, Exploration/Creativity/Improvisation, and Learning a Performance Piece. Sequenced instruction throughout the series provides readiness, repetition, review, and reinforcement.

During lesson time, students perform for each other and perform in ensemble. Look at Robert Baldwin’s quarterly group class that he recorded and posted on his YouTube channel (video). In the MMP Facebook group, I posted in the files Baldwin’s description of the activities. This is an excellent video demonstration of activities that can happen in lessons, then are used in a group class or a recital performance for family and friends.

Krista Jadro has a complete and well-developed Online Course about Keyboard Games, the beginnings of piano study: musiclearningacademy.com. I highly recommend this course. Krista also has online meetings where teachers ask questions as well as a Facebook Group. In the spring, Student Book 1 will be offered in an Online Course.

On the Music Moves for Piano Facebook Group teachers post questions and answers that are helpful and provide support. It is difficult to turn the piano teaching approach upside down, but in reality, as one of my students told me, we have been teaching backwards. Piano method publishers have told me that teachers need a turn the page piano method that explains everything to students. We build our knowledge on everything we learn, one at a time. There is far too much information on a page of music notation for a student to learn well. Plus, looking at notation can be an obstacle for building good piano technique, which is a priority in Music Moves lessons. Perhaps someday we can return to the way music was taught in the 19th century by Clara Schumann, Chopin, and others. Keyboard skills and improvisation were studied before notation. Robert Schumann said, “The most important thing to remember is that music is an aural art.”

Thank you very much Marilyn, it´s been a pleasure and an honour having you on my blog.

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Links:

Music Moves for Piano: https://www.musicmovesforpiano.com/

Keyboard Games Course: https://musiclearningacademy.thinkific.com/courses/keyboard-games

The Gordon Institute for Music Learning: https://giml.org/mlt/about/

Learning Sequences Activities: https://giml.org/mlt/lsa/

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