Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What I'm learning about the Kodaly method and why you should care

 (I apologize for the lack of accent mark in the title. Every time I add it, the letter or the whole line disappear, and my lack of blogger savy-ness isn't helping me out here. )   

     A month or so ago I was browsing the music section of the library (a dangerous place for me, I know). Every time I browse that aisle I come out with an armful of books. One of the books I picked up this past time was titled Music Lessons: Guide your Child to Play a Musical Instrument (And Enjoy It!), by Stephanie Stein Crease. Though the book is written for parents,  I thought it would be a helpful read, so I checked it out and ended up reading the first few chapters. When I got to chapter 2, she had a brief overview of several methods. The Kodály method, which I had never heard of, was included and sounded intruiging, so I wrote down the name with the intention of looking it up and learning more.
     After I did some brief online reading,  I decided that the Internet resources on the method were far too vague, and inter-library loaned The Kodály Context and The Kodály Method I (both by Lois Choksy). The more I learn about the Kodály method, the more I like it, and I can't believe I'd never heard of it before!

    Seeing as how I had never heard of the Kodály (pronounced koh-die) method before this year, chances are that you haven't either. So I'll give you a brief overview of what I've learned through my reading.

     Zoltán Kodály, the author of the method, was a Hungarian musician who spent his childhood in the small villages of Hungary. He studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Hungary, and was passionate about discovering and restoring the rich folk culture of Hungarythe folk songs, dances, and children's songs. His educational philosophy can be combined into four major points:
  1.  That true musical literacythe ability to read, write and think musicis the right of ever human being.
  2. That, to be internalized, musical learning must begin with the child's own natural instrumentthe voice.
  3. That the education of the musical ear can be completely successful only if it is begun earlyin kindergarten and the primary gradeseven earlier, if possible.
  4. That, as a child possesses a mother tonguethe language spoken in his homehe also possesses a musical mother-tongue in the folk music of that language. It is through this musical mother tongue that the skills and concepts necessary to musical literacy should be taught.
(from The Kodály Context, pages 6-7)

     Kodály teachers begin by teaching young students to sing two notes: so and mi, which create a minor third. The minor third is the interval most naturally sung by children, and children are taught to sing songs that have simple rhythms and melodies. As they grow comfortable with the notes and songs that they have learned, new notes are added and and new songs and rhythms are learned. They are taught to sing in tune and in correct rhythm through games, songs, and activities. In addition to this, children are encouraged to incorporate movement into their singing. Many singing games are incorporated, and the elements of these games help the child to include movement in their music. Circle games include acting-out games, partner-choosing games, chase games, winding games, and eventually begin to include square dance patterns. Arch games and line games begin to contain contra dance patterns. From these singing and movement games emerge folk dancesthe basics included in square dancing, line dancing, the Virginia Reel, etc. If a child started in a Kodály program at a young age and continued until adulthood, they would emerge as a confident singer and excellent musician, with a comprehensive knowledge of their folk culture and heritage and a love for music, dancing, and folk culture. The country of Hungary has incorporated this method into their schools so well that anyone who cannot sing or play an instrument is considered illiterate. They were also the first Eastern European country to tear the Iron Curtain, and I wonder if that is a coincidence.

     Now, I'm not a singer (though I am very comfortable singing), and I'm not a dancer (though I have always wanted to take ballet, and I do enjoy a good swing dance). It may seem odd to you that I am enamored by the Kodály method, after all, I'm a piano teacher!
     There are several reasons that this method appeals to me. The more I teach, the more I realize that many of my students who have faithfully taken piano lessons for many years still struggle a bit with essential pieces of musicianship. Few of them could look at a piece of music and sing it in their head. Many of them still struggle with maintaining a steady pulse in all of their songs. Most of them are very uncomfortable singing, and some of them cannot even sing on key. They would not be able to sing one melody, and tap a different rhythm while singing.  Some of them don't even know popular folk songs like "Yankee Doodle" or "America"! They are intimidated by improvising, and few of them compose on their own.
     I think that the problem lies in the fact that we have taken a very academic approach to teaching music. The Kodály method teaches children to internalize and love music, music becomes part of their play through singing games and movement games.
     It is also interesting to note that folk songs deal with quite grown-up concepts of marriage, life and death, work, wages, ownership, and etc, some pantomime adult responsibilities. For example, a song entitled Jenny Jones contains a conversation between "suitors" and Jenny's mother. The suitors sing: "We come to see Jenny Jones, Jenny Jones, Jenny Jones | Come to see Jenny Jones,  How is she now?" and the Mother answers: "Jenny is washing, washing, washing, Jenny is washing you can't see her now." In each of the subsequent verses the mother answers differently, in the second verse, Jenny is ironing, in the next she is ill, the the following she is dying, and by the end, Jenny is dead. The second and third verses of London Bridge read, "Shake him up with pepper and salt, pepper and salt, pepper and salt | shake him up with pepper and salt, my fair lady. | Off to prison you must go, you must go, you must go, | Off to prison you must go, my fair lady." If you play the game with the entirety of the song, all of the players end up choosing sides as they are caught in the bridge, and the game ends in a tug of war between the sides.
    It strikes me that there is something very powerful in the vision of a generation of young people who love their cultural heritage, who are comfortable singing, who know their folk songs and love them, who can sing and dance together on the spot because they have been doing so since before the age of five. Imagine a generation of people who participate in folk dances, who have a rich knowledge of folk songs, who are adept at various instruments and comfortable composing, improvising, creating their own dances and games. They would not only have knowledge of their culture and heritage as Americans, but would continue to create a rich and diverse culture of songs, dances and music. I'm excited to see how God will use my study of the Kodály method, and what will come of it. I've already begun teaching a few of my newer students to sing some of the folk songs in the book, and their pulse has improved, as well as their ability to sing in tune. I think that Kodály was on to something.
    Besides this, one of my favorite parts of this method is that it values folk music and could be taught in any culture. Ethno-musicology is at its center and I think that's a very powerful tool.
      Why should you care about this? If you are not a music teacher, or you aren't musical at all, that's ok. But think about the results if the schools in the US started teaching music this way. Think what it would mean for your children, and their children, and their grandchildren. Think about how it would unite us. This method of teaching music is uniquely suited to the "melting pot" which is America. Music teachers could incorporate traditional American folk music, but also incorporate the aspects of the rich cultural heritages that exist on the fringe of American folk culture, whether it is eastern European, Hispanic, African, or Indian. I get so excited about the prospect that students from all over the country could be commonly united by their knowledge of folk songs and dances. I love to think that young adults of different ethnicities, from different areas of the country could be united over a common knowledge and love of music and dance. And I think that maybe, if you don't play an instrument or don't sing, you should get excited about it to. Because it would change our understanding of and attitude toward music.
That's what I'm learning about the Kodály method.


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