I'm a Music Teacher. Now What Do I Do?

by Yuriy Kravetz

You’ve agreed to teach music. Now what? Yuriy describes the goals you should consider for your classes, and lays out a step-by-step method for teaching sight-singing.

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There are many approaches to a music program in a Christian school, but one deciding factor is how much time is allotted to that subject. Another factor is if there will be a program or not. And as is usually the case, there is a spring program and a Christmas program. And those factors will really decide what you can accomplish in music class, and how deep you can get into the music.

So, if the requirements are for a Christmas and spring program, then I think a teacher will work one way. And if it’s just learning music without the need of a program, then the teacher has a little bit more latitude in what to work with. However, usually, we do have the programs. And so then you have the choice of whether to teach the songs all by rote, which is like the teacher singing and repeating, or you really get down into the mechanics of the music and work on the pitches and the rhythms.

Or you can do a combination of both, and that is what I usually try to do. Students should learn some songs by rote, just like they should be able to tell what is in a picture even if they don’t know how to spell every single word of each picture or each element of a picture that they see. However, we want a child to eventually be able to read the words instead of just relying on a picture to be able to tell what is being talked about.

I have put in effort that the songs we use for programs are at a level that we can break them down into their basic elements, and fully understand the rhythm and the pitches. So last year, me and a group of friends composed all the music for the Christmas program using text in public domain, and a certain set of criteria. For example, grades one and two had only combinations of so, mi, and la with a few other dos and res, maybe. And as we got to the older grades, we began to use the entire pentatonic scale. And junior high was mostly diatonic with one piece even being in Dorian mode. So this allowed me to have a seamless connection with what I’m teaching here in class, and what they are learning for the programs.

Here, I put in a lot of emphasis on sight-singing, because I believe that it is something very practical, and something that students will be able to use for the rest of their lives. I do that by breaking things down and adding in elements one layer at a time.

So for example, if I give a new piece to students, then one of the things that I want to do first is to be able to understand and decipher the rhythm. So we’ll start by just looking at the rhythm, all other elements aside, and we’ll see if we can break it down into he ta’s and ta-di’s and sh for the rests and everything. I use the Takadimi rhythm method. So it’s basically like solfege, for rhythm. And there’s also the Kodaly method, which uses different syllables. But I found the Takadimi to work quite well.

And so we’ll look at a new song, and we’ll just work through it just with the rhythm. And we’ll try to do that for every song, unless I really think it’s a simple song. But even then, I want to make sure that the students really can understand the rhythm, and chant it.

I’ll then move into singing pitches while removing the rhythm. So it’s not going to sound like a song, but it’s going to sound just like a collection of pitches, but in the proper order. And there I’ll use hand-signs a lot, and I have to make sure that I don’t fall into the temptation of singing it for them, because I want them to learn to sing the pitches. And if we come across a difficult interval, then we’ll stop and we’ll just work on that interval. Or if we come across several difficult pitches or difficult intervals, then we’ll just isolate that and work just on those intervals.

After we can comfortably chant the rhythm and sing the pitches without the rhythm, then we’re ready with what I call step number three. And that is chanting the pitch names. Again, just adding one layer at a time, going nice and slow and increasing the difficulty by just a bit each time. So yes, step number three would be chanting the pitch names in rhythm.

Step number four would be to sing the pitches and the rhythms together, and there we start having the picture of what the song is supposed to sound like. After that, I will sometimes remove the pitch names and just sing it on doo. And that, I believe, gets their mind working in a different way, which will get them ready to sing the actual lyrics of the song.

And the final step is singing it as written. And once we’re singing it that way, then I will focus on things like diction and other musical nuances. So, as we progress, I want us to make that switch from thinking about words to thinking about the sounds that they make.

So I’m quite passionate about teaching music, because I believe that music is something eternal, and something that we would do well into putting our time and energy into. Music is one of the few things that all age groups in a community can do together, and there aren’t that many of them. But music is one of them.

Music is just so wonderful, because you’re giving glory to God, and you’re being blessed, you’re being a blessing to others. And it is just something so incredible, that God has allowed us to use here on earth. It’s like a little taste of heaven.

And so I believe that we would do well as communities, as churches, as Christian schools, to not neglect putting in time, energy, and resources into the music program. Music is a vehicle for values, and it is ours to use or to lose, or sometimes to abuse. And so I just really encourage people that I come in contact with, that I have conversations with, that they not neglect this. That this is a very important part of developing the whole person, and how that person will fit into a family, a church, a community, and into society.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Yuriy Kravetz

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