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The idea that music is another language isn’t new and a conversation I have had often enough; many have written and mused over this topic. Every human culture has music, just as each has language so, it's true that music is a universal feature of the human experience.
Music inspires common human feelings and bridges gaps between cultures that spoken languages can’t. The ability to read and perform music as a common thread brings and bonds people together, transcends boundaries and creates community.
Little Kids Rock’s (LKR) Music as a Second Language (MSL) is based on founder David Wish’s experience and back ground in teaching bilingual education or ESL and as a self-taught musician. Drawing upon his understanding of how children learn language, he developed this hybrid methodology of teaching music that utilises as Wish suggests, “the deeply interconnected nature of language and music”. A second language rather than a first, because no one is born into a family where music is the primary language.
Wish believes that like spoken language, music can express the full range of human emotions and does so through a distinct grammar, meter, and vocabulary. He takes it further by stating that like language, music has both a ‘spoken’ and a written form. By emphasising performance and composition over reading and writing, students acquire musical skills in a natural way moving at their own pace. According to Wish, this then creates a context rich in musical experience for young learners facilitated in an environment that encourages and allows for mistakes and is best learnt in conversation with others who have achieved some level of fluency.
The Music as a Second Language approach is initially and deliberately non-notational. Children are taught to play music the way many musicians learn themselves. Not by notation but by listening, imitating and through meaningful experimentation. Wish states, “We don’t begin with theory when we want to teach a child to play tee-ball. We bring the kid up to the tee, give them a bat and let them swing.”
One contributor to a recent MF Facebook chat centring on this topic said,
“I love the theory of 'Music as a Second Language'. It resonates so strongly with me from personal experience. When I was quite young I began learning the piano and I just wanted to play. I gave up when I felt that trying to get my head around theory was slowing down my progress of playing. When I reached high school, I realized I could learn from my peers through listening, imitating, experimenting and just playing without the pressure of understanding theory… The more I learned informally, the more my curiosity took hold and I actually wanted to learn and understand theory. Once I could actually play, I was able to make connections with the theory and understand it on a much deeper level".
The 5 Stages of Music Acquisition
MSL does bear similarities to the Suzuki method, which also stresses learning by ear (initially) over reading musical notation. It also draws heavily from renowned linguist and educational researcher, Stephen Krashen’s “Theory of Second Language Acquisition.”
Krashen has hypothesised that languages are learnt once meaning is made of sounds or symbols and that all children acquire basic grammatical principles of language in a similar fashion.
This is where things get interesting, Krashen’s theories provided Wish with a framework for creating a rational for his ideas in regards to music education and music acquisition; these are described as the “5 Stages of Music Acquisition”.
5 Stages of "Music Acquisition"
❶ Listening Stage (0 To 5 Years) Notice how much longer many children can spend without “making noise” on musical instruments.
❷ Approximation (6 Months to 2.5 Years) Music is taught in a cursory manner. Focus is often on singing and clapping
❸ Intermediate Fluency (2.5 Months to 5 Years) Child is stringing words together & increasingly uses language to get needs met. Parents hear utterances like “Mama... milk... now” & may say “He/she is speaking in sentences!”
❹ Fluency (High School +) Child has achieved “native-like” proficiency in their mother- tongue. Child is proficient on their instrument and can express
❺ Reading & Writing (High School +, or Never) Child begins to read and put own thoughts into writing
Wish discusses this further during a TED talk he gave 2011.
It’s important to note that to date, there is currently no evidence based research into Wish’s theories of Music as a Second Language; without solid inquiry many questions arise.
David Wish is an interesting and clearly a very clever man. He has created in LKR a movement that has a vast following- those of us who went to Rockfest witnessed that first hand. To date LKR has provided music education to more than 500,000 low-income children in 14 states in the U.S. Wish’s ability to generate millions in charitable contributions is extraordinary allowing LKR to be the largest free instrumental music program is the United States. Regardless of whether David Wish’s MSL theories are meaningful or correct, he is definitely doing something right –giving children the opportunity to have a meaningful music education.
In the words of Willy Wonker, Wish’s self-described hero - "We are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams."
Felicity O'Halloran teaches at Hamlyn Heights PS, Geelong, Victoria, Australia. She travelled to the USA as part of the 2017 Musical Futures International teacher tour, participating in Little Kids Rock Modern Band Rockfest 2017. Music as a Second Language is a pedagogy which underpins the Modern Band approach of Little Kids Rock in schools across the USA.
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