A New Approach to Instrumental Music Literacy

Are You Sure Your Method Book Is Teaching Kids to Read?

A New Approach to Instrumental Music Literacy

By NAfME Member Nathaniel Strick


This Is No Easy Task

Let’s be real for a minute: If you are a band or orchestra teacher, your job is HARD! Playing an instrument is a monumental task for anyone, let alone a 9-year-old. With limited resources, we face the uphill battle of getting our kids to play (well). Luckily, we have employed an easy way to learn any instrument in a few simple steps:

  1. Get an instrument
  2. Get a method book
  3. (Optional) Get a teacher
  4. Learn a page from the book per lesson
  5. Success

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Most method books try to cram technique, literacy, music history, genres, styles, improvisation, composition, and national standards into a glossy, one-size-fits-all approach. Some books even include audio, video, or online resources. While method books all have strengths and weaknesses, most do a mediocre job at trying to cover EVERY aspect of playing an instrument.


How Do Method Books Address Literacy?

If you teach from a beginning method book, check out the first page that addresses notation. You’ll probably see one, two, or even three notes introduced. You might even get a fingering chart to accompany these notes. Usually all this new VISUAL information also includes stuff about staffs, clefs, barlines, etc. You probably feel that all this information is necessary, right? The problem with over-emphasizing VISUALS is that we are teaching our students NOT to listen . . .


iStockphoto.com | STUDIOGRANDQUEST


Three Skills

Music is an aural art. Playing an instrument is a delicate balance between what musicians hear, see, and feel. Seasoned musicians do all three of these skills concurrently. Beginning musicians struggle because they are usually overwhelmed in one or more of these areas.

Look at the diagram below. Where is your method book focusing? In which circle do your students live most of the time?


music literacy


All of these skills are important but without the auditory component, our students are just “pushing buttons.” Plus, your ensemble is going to have a hard time playing in tune, playing together, and playing musically. Most method books do a fine job of addressing the visual and kinesthetic skills but fall well short in the auditory area.

Effective music instruction can be learned with the same natural sequence that language is learned.

If your students DO focus on those critical auditory skills, you are well aware of a key word: audiation. Audiation is defined as inner hearing or hearing sound when no sound is present.


iStockphoto.com | Slphotographys




Language Learning Sequence

The reason why audiation is so critical to learning music (and literacy), is because it is hard-wired into our DNA. Music is just like a language. Effective music instruction can be learned with the same natural sequence that language is learned. Think of the natural sequence for how babies acquire their native language:

  1. They listen to their parents (even in the womb).
  2. They babble, imitate, and ultimately speak (using the same sounds that they heard from their native language).
  3. They read (starting with large printed simple words).
  4. They write.

Now apply this same sequence for language to music literacy:

  1. Listen (and echo)
  2. Improvise
  3. Read and decode
  4. Compose


music literacy

If you want your students to be truly musically literate, they need to be audiating at every stage of their learning sequence.

Think back, again, to your method book. Does it start with the natural first step of language acquisition, listening? Does it start with improvisation? It probably starts with visual notation. Once again, we ASSUME that kids are listening and audiating, but our method books aren’t teaching literacy that way.


What Is True Music Literacy?

If you want your students to be truly musically literate, they need to be audiating at every stage of their learning sequence. That means they see what is heard and hear what is seen. These musicians play in tune, play together, and play musically.


Moving Forward

We all fall back into familiar habits and patterns. But ask yourself: Is my literacy sequence is working? If it’s NOT, consider trying something different. It takes bravery to stand up to the status quo, and it is easier to keep doing the same thing. The job of teaching music is demanding especially with diminishing resources and an emphasis on performances.

But remember that you are not a robot. You are an artist. Artists take chances even if it means that failure is a possibility. If you’d like to take a chance, feel free to attend my session on instrumental music literacy at the NAfME National In-Service Conference in Dallas on Monday, November 13.


About the author:

Nathaniel Strick

NAfME member Nathaniel Strick of Avon Public Schools in Connecticut is an orchestra teacher by day and immature adult by night. He attended the University of Connecticut for undergrad, HARTT School of Music for a graduate degree, and Central Connecticut State University for his 6th year degree. He has received zero cum laudes. In his 16 years of music teaching he has taught thousands of students but can’t remember all their names right now. Nate has also presented at conferences in the areas of music literacy, creativity, and building a positive classroom culture. During the summer, he rides his bike, plays golf, and teaches a summer workshop at HARTT School of Music. He has parents, brothers, friends, a wife, and a dog. They are all doing well right now. If you’d like to contact him, please send him an email at nstrick@avon.k12.ct.us

Nathaniel Strick presented on his topic, “A New Approach to Instrumental Music Literacy,” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!


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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Brendan McAloon, Program Coordinator, September 6, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)