Infant Musicality for the New Generation
Dr Lee Pei Ming
 
At what age should I introduce music to my child? Which instrument should I introduce first? Can my child develop perfect pitch through training? These are some frequently-asked questions from parents wanting to give their children a head-start in music education.

Music forms an essential part of learning. A common age group for children to learn a musical instrument is between the ages of 3 to 6 years old, although it varies based on their physical and mental abilities, and the kind of instrument introduced. Several educational programs for young children incorporate music into their activities catered for children between the age of 3 months to 7 years old. However, to develop a musical child from such a young age, how should we as parents or educators go about their musical training? What are some of the benefits to introducing your child to a music education at an early age? Can they develop absolute pitch (AP), also known as perfect pitch, and sing the nursery rhymes in tune? So what are the different approaches that we, as teachers, can do to help babies from 6 months to 5 years old learn music in active, engaging and fun-filled ways?

Introducing music to children has proven to develop their brain, resulting in cognitive development, and introducing them to different instruments develops different parts of the brain. But why is it necessary to have an early start? Do children benefit by beginning their music education as early as 1 year old?

At STACCATO! I seek to develop a curriculum to introduce classical music in an enjoyable way for young children to help develop and achieve a more accurate pitch.

To see how children can develop their aural skills, I conducted an experiment on a group of children below the age of 3. None of these children had prior music education; therefore, it would be the first time that they would be exposed to singing in solfege. The parents of these children had to use some flashcards with solfege written on it, sing with a fixed Do, and sing popular nursery rhymes in English and in solfege. They would use a toy piano to help them sing in more accurate pitches since many of them do not own any musical instruments. The parents held daily sessions with their children over three weeks, giving me regular updates on the progress of their child. At the end of the period, the parents would videotape the last session and see if their child showed any signs of development in pitching skills.

The children below 2 were unable to sing in accurate pitches, but they showed signs of enjoyment by dancing to the music, or swaying their hands vigorously in the air. The children above 2 years old showed tremendous progress by singing 5 to 7 notes in tune. Most of them showed improvement in accuracy of pitches while they sang, which proved that they could identify different pitches after a period of time.

With this knowledge on the importance of singing, I founded a curriculum to develop the children's gross/fine motor skills, cognitive skills, and tactile, aural and social skills through various activities. The structure of the curriculum is divided into 3 main sections: identification of rhythm and establishment of pulse, music and movement for development of gross and fine motor skills, and solfege singing to develop aural skills. The approach was inspired by different pedagogues like Kodaly, Carl Orff, Suzuki and Dalcroze, which involves singing, dancing and use of percussion instruments. Since it was related to energetic young children, I decided to name the curriculum Staccato!, to mirror the vibrancy of the children. The repertoires used in the curriculum were carefully selected with contrasting tempi, articulations, dynamics and pitches. And most importantly, the repertoires chosen should be easy for young children to relate to.

Curriculum Staccato!

The children are taught different rhythms using percussion instruments like castanets, guiros, triangles and wood sticks. They can tap the pulse or rhythm using the instruments or by tapping on different parts of their body. During this activity,children learn how to use these instruments and are exposed to the different timbres. Many enjoy this segment as they get to play on instruments they have not seen before. To develop their gross motor skills, actions are incorporated with different note values. A quarter note value is taught by walking, eighth notes by running slowly, sixteenth notes by running quickly, and half notes by hopping. The purpose of these activities is to develop their hand-eye coordination, gross and fine motor skills and spatial awareness. Refer to Table 1 below.

Music and Movement

Different equipments and tools are used to guide the children to understanding the different musical terms on tempo, dynamics, articulation and high or low pitches. Different classical repertoires are carefully selected to develop the listening skills of the young children.

Aural Skills

Children have to sing songs that they are familiar with, using solfege. Some nursery songs include Hot Cross Buns, London Bridge, Mary had A Little Lamb and Jingle Bells. They will start with songs that are within a 5 to 6 note range, which they are most comfortable with, and the range will expand to 1 octave range for older children.

Observation

The curriculum has been on-going for 2 years now. Based on my observation, children who have been exposed to music for a period of time tend to be able to focus better, follow instructions and sing in a more accurate pitch. Some are able to play a piece of music on the keyboard while singing the melody in solfege. Although it is too early and probably requires a longer period of time to determine if a child can develop perfect pitch, the ability of the children to sing in more accurate pitches shows the development of their aural skills, which may lead to developing perfect pitch.

Conclusion

The Staccato! curriculum enables children to identify and differentiate the different classical instruments, develop their aural and listening skills, establish a sense of pulse, identify different note values, increase exposure to classical music and expand on their understanding of and enjoyment in listening to classical music. Many parents and children are able to understand musical concepts easily, more so when they attend classical concerts. Most importantly, the curriculum enhances the bonding between the parent and the child, which makes learning more meaningful and enjoyable.

Table 1: Some Staccato! Activities.
EquipmentTempoDynamicsArticulationPitch
  Adagio/Andante/ Allegro/Presto/ Accelerando/ Ritardando Forte/Piano/ Fortissimo/ Pianissimo/ Crescendo/ Decrescendo Staccato/Legato/ Accent High/Low/ Ascending/ Descending
Balls Rolling at different speeds:
Slow (Adagio)
Fast (Allegro)
Very fast (Presto)
Walking speed (Andante)
Walking faster (Accelerando)
Walking slower (Ritardando)
Holding on to the balls at different heights:
Toes (Pianissimo)
Knee (Piano)
Head (Forte)
Above head (Fortissimo)
From toes to head (Crescendo)
Head to toes (Decrescendo)
Bouncing (Staccato)
Rolling (Legato)
Sitting on the ball to bounce (Staccato)
Roll sideways sitting on the ball (Legato)
Lifting the ball at different heights:
Head (High)
Toes (Low)
Toes to head (Ascending)
Head to toes (Descending)
Parachute Walk around slowly (Adagio)
Walk quickly (Allegro)

Shake at different tempi:
Shake slowly (Adagio)
Shake quickly (Allegro)

Putting a ball in the middle of parachute:
To roll the ball so as to prevent it from rolling out

Holding on to the parachute at different heights:
Toes (Pianissimo)
Knee (Piano)
Head (Forte)
Above head (Fortissimo)
From toes to head (Crescendo)
Head to toes (Decrescendo)
Jumping (Staccato)
Walking (Legato)
Holding on to the parachute at different heights:
Head (High)
Toes (Low)
Toes to head (Ascending)
Head to toes (Descending)
Scarves Waving at different tempi Waving at different heights Throw and catch (Staccato)
Floating in the air (Legato)
Waving at different heights
Puppets Tortoise crawling (Adagio)
Horse trotting (Andante)
Horse galloping (Allegro)
Cheetah running (Presto)
Elephant stomping (Forte)
Lion roaring (Fortissimo)
Birds chirping (Piano)
Mouse squeaking (Pianissimo)
Rabbit hopping (Staccato)
Snake sliding (Legato)
Lion roaring (Low)
Birds chirping (High)