Learning with music

Published 10:15 am Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I scream. You scream. We all scream for music.

This take on a well-known phrase is posted on the walls in Nancy Dolphin’s classroom at Southgate Elementary, where each student partakes in music class twice a week.

However, in class Tuesday, fifth-graders did everything but scream. In the second half of a 45-minute session alone, they sang in two languages, read rhythms, read sheet music, danced and played recorders.

Dolphin, along with the rest of the district, subscribes to state and national standards of music education, but Dolphin’s specific teaching style is based on the method of Hungarian musician Zoltn Kodly.

“He had a philosophy of training the whole body to create a more total musician,” she said.

So, Dolphin, who has spent 30 years teaching music, begins with singing lessons, often starting with folk music.

First graders practice just two pitches, as the beginning of a total music process.

“That is what’s most natural to children. I believe, and Kodly taught, that you must internalize the music before it comes out of their fingers.”

Students in Dolphin’s classes do go on to learn much more than singing.

They learn the Curwen hand signs associated with do, re, mi, etc. and to read rhythms, move rhythmically, read music and play the recorder. They also learn the context — geography, and history — of the songs they sing.

Tuesday, fifth-graders sang a Yoruban welcome song (in English and Yoruban) and also performed a Yoruban welcome dance. First, they learned a bit about the Yoruba people in Western Africa.

Dolphin said her music classes are somewhat linked to the other disciplines, and not just the history and geography parts.

Rhythm relates to mathematical patterns, and reading music and learning the Curwen symbols are two new languages for students to master.

However, music itself, regardless of connections with the other academic areas, is an important life skill to develop, Dolphin said.

“To me, talent is practice. Music and singing are skills that can be learned. My job is to bring that out in students,” she said.

Dolphin hopes her students leave Southgate with singing skills, a well-developed ear and a proficiency in reading music.

“This way they will be prepared for choir or band or to play an instrument in junior high,” she said, “Or, later in life maybe they’ll be able to sing in the community or church choir.”

She added, “Basically, I want them to have the confidence and enough skills to enjoy this lifelong skill and to take it where they may.”