Monday, March 28, 2011

Choosing a music syllabus for your child - an amateur musician's perspective

Today marks four years of Caitlin's musical journey with the Yamaha Music School. Her class is having a mini 'graduation' concert and party this evening. At age five, she began with the Junior Music Course(JMC) for two years, followed by the JXC. According to the website, this course helps children achieve the musical ability on the level of either Yamaha Piano Grade 9 or Yamaha Electone Grade 9. C took the Piano Grade 9 exam two weeks ago.

In the JMC, the children learn together as a group using the Yamaha Electone keyboard instrument in class as the syllabus covers more than just keyboard or piano playing. They play and sing together in an ensemble, playing/singing different parts and sometimes using different instrument sounds, hence the Electone, and not the piano, that has the capability to produce varied sounds.

They also learn solfege singing, play different percussion instruments as an ensemble to learn rhythm, learn composition to compose their own songs to play, plus develop their musical hearing skills to be able to sing and play by ear. The one-hour lesson each week is usually high-energy (teacher must be on her toes all the time!), very interactive, playing/singing together along with the teacher and CDs.

One parent is required to accompany their child in the class for the JMC course while it is optional for JXC. The parents get involved in some of the actitivities like singing, clapping, and doing actions with the kids.

I personally find this course a good one for a child to start with as it provides a good musical foundation, covering the many aspects of music to develop a child's musical ability, espcially the aural ability which develops fastest in this period.

From my personal experience, I believe that to be true. Sitting in her lessons every week over the four years, I've seen how these young kids can pick up notes with perfect pitch quite easily while I struggle to do so. I had started learning the piano when I was seven years old way back in the 70s using the Royal Schools of Music ABRSM syllabus and did not have the opportunity to develop much of my aural ability i.e. pitch recognition and playing by ear. Whatever I managed to pick up later in my teenage years was through personal interest and experimentation. I am not saying the Yamaha syllabus is the best. The different syllabus available these days are just different, that's all.

There are many music courses available nowadays, packaged in their own individual way and giving emphasis on areas they think are important. Some emphasise on building the foundations, some focus on the technical and theoretical aspects of playing a particular instrument, others think it's not even necessary to know how to read music notes and teach playing by ear only. Some are tailored specially for babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, some are for school-age kids and adults, some could be more serious and exam-oriented for the possibility of tertiary-level qualification/certification, some are more for fun or leisure, etc. At higher grades, some are also recognised in university applications, contributing to credits.

Which syllabus you choose depends on what you want your child to learn and benefit, what your reasons are for wanting your child to have musical knowledge and ability. We may dream but need to face the fact that not every child can be the next Mozart, Sarah Chang, Yo Yo Ma or whoever's the hottest musician right now (I've really lost touch in this area).

In my opinion, it is better to have a well-rounded exposure to and knowledge of music to start off with. This includes singing, clapping, moving or dancing, playing percussions like the triangle or tambourine, to songs with different rhythms, tempo, and pitch. It helps develop their ability to sense the beats to the rhythm, how fast or slow, high or low, soft or loud.

Later, when they are older and have more developed motor skills for whatever the chosen instrument requires, it is not too late to focus on mastering the instrument. Prodigies aside, how well a child plays may depend on his interest in the instrument, teacher-student compatibility, his physical and motor skills suitability to the instrument and of course frequency of practice (as they say, practice makes perfect).

The weeks leading up to her Grade 9 exam were quite stressful for both her and me as C is not the diligent kind who'd be afraid of an impending exam and practise consistently. So she had to be persuaded, threatened, forced to practise, resulting in much tension. I don't know how Amy Chua of Tiger Mother fame could do what she did with her kids. It came to the point where she (and I) was on the verge of calling it quits after this JXC programme and resort to me teaching her on my own for leisure playing until such time when she is older and more ready for serious learning and exams*.

The Grade 9 exam seemed rather demanding in my opinion. What I was tested on, especially aurally, during my time in ABRSM Grade 2 was nowhere near what Yamaha Grade 9 Piano is testing students. Having said that, the ABRSM syllabus seems slightly more advanced in the area of the ability to play the piano with higher technical ability (which I personally think can be mastered quite easily anytime for any child/teenager with average intelligence, as long as the interest is there).

*While I was mentally prepared to take the 'homeschooling' route, I've been hoping that things would change once the stress of the exam is over as I felt that continuing on with the next level, the Junior Ensemble Course (JNC) would be beneficial. Last week, C agreed to continue and we've bought the materials for the course which starts next week with the same teacher. Am keeping my fingers crossed that as time goes by, she'll continue to enjoy learning music and the piano and take to exams more easily.

Here's another similar article I wrote:

Starting your child on music: Your daughter hates the violin. Get over it.

no alt
By Anna Tham
Like any new parent, I entertained my own “delusions of grandeur” during my daughter’s early childhood. I’d dream of her making a scientific discovery, becoming a celebrated author, or performing one of Paganini’s Caprices to a standing ovation.
That last one was particularly enduring when I began thinking about sending her to music lessons. Projecting our ambitions onto our kids is common and often manifests in our eagerness to put our kids through enrichment classes.
With music we become anxious about which programme, which instrument, which school, which teacher? We start comparing course content, fees, and teaching methods. We see what other parents are doing and we feel like jumping on that bandwagon too.
But before we limit ourselves to what’s popular or what others tell us is good, why not think about what’s suitable for your child; an individual with his own preferences, personality, character, and learning style. You’ll find that it’s not a case of ‘one-size fits-all’.
Was it your child himself who has asked to learn?
It’s a good sign when they articulate their choices. That means they are at the very least attracted to, and curious about music. Sometimes, that interest lasts –my daughter is now 11 and still drumming away– and sometimes we have to accept that it doesn’t.
At four years old my daughter pestered us for drum lessons. I like to think that our music sessions with cheap toy instruments helped piqued her interest.
I did secretly wish she’d chosen the violin. But that was my dream. We should know better than to live our dreams through our children.
Compulsion breeds resistance or worse still, resentment, so let him have a go at whatever instrument he chooses. If he doesn’t know, expose him to as many as possible. Go for free trial classes for an instrument or a music-and-movement class. Let him have a feel of the activity, the teacher, and the other students if it’s a group class.
Choose an instrument or music programme that your child enjoys and is comfortable with. Don’t force him to pursue what you alone think is good for him.
Think about your objectives
Is it music appreciation, general knowledge, or mastering a specific instrument that you want her to gain from music lessons? It’d be great if it was all of the above but don’t forget that learning music also develops social skills; instils discipline, commitment, responsibility, self-confidence, and teaches teamwork.
It aids younger children develop their sensory, motor and coordination skills, and even in learning a language. In the article Born to Sing: How Music Enriches Children’s Language Development, Ann Gadzikowski writes that language learning is enhanced when children experience the rhythm of music.
Look at how your child can learn and develop through music with the right perspective; not simply because it is another item to add to your must-do list in the rat race of life.
Consider what’s practical; there are no rules.
If an older child chooses an instrument, you’ll need to consider if it’s practical and suitable for him physically. A petite child may not be able to carry a large cello case by herself let alone play the instrument. Some wind instruments require suitable lip structure, and facial strength, while others require larger hands or more dexterity to play.
Also, do not stereotype, follow trends or be influenced by others. There is no rule that says every child must start at age three, or with the piano or violin, or if a particular instrument is more suited for a boy or girl.  
If your child is special, can the programme, instrument and teaching method cater to her needs? How will it benefit her? Would it be a challenge for the both of you? Or would she be bored because she is exceptionally gifted?
What is your budget? Are you ready to spend on fees or the instrument? There’s no need to buy an instrument immediately if you can make-do with one of average quality. You can upgrade later when your child progresses and shows deeper commitment.
Is the location of the music school convenient, are you able to send or make arrangements for your child to travel there? Or would you prefer a teacher that makes house calls?
Choose a programme or instrument suitable for your child considering all aspects of readiness, and how much you are willing to invest in time and money. Balance these considerations instead of going with what’s popular or convenient.
‘Audition’ the teachers as they ‘audition’ your kid
Some of us may have encountered the knuckle-knocking-sadist of a piano teacher in our childhood. Avoid them at all costs. Why subject your kid to abuse? A good teacher should should be able to relate to children and treat them with respect.
Before enrolling my daughter into a music education programme, we attended trial classes in two schools that offered the same programme. The contents of the content and methods were identical. The only difference was the teacher, and the kids in the group classes. In the end we opted for the one with the teacher to which my daughter responded well.
It always helps when the child likes the teacher. Weren’t we more open to listening and learning from a teacher we liked when we were in school?
Choose a teacher that your child can respond positively to. It may be difficult to determine if that teacher is ideal from just one trial class so let your instincts and better judgment guide you.


bunda maritza said...

Hi Anna,

Your Perspective is good, I have daughter in Yamaha Junior Music Course Primary Book 3 and Yes, I do agree with you.


Anna said...

I wrote a similar one here:

Lena Chan said...

Hi Anna,
Thanks for the great post on Yamaha. My son is taking his Yamaha Grade 9 next week and we are deliberating what route to take next. What has been C's experience doing the JNC?