Big Ideas about “6 Little Ducks”

Think for a minute… What does a good music lesson environment look like to you? What does good music teaching look like to you? … What does good music learning look like to you? How can you actually tell when either is happening? How are teaching and learning related? Does the student-parent go home knowing exactly what and how to practice their assigned work? Was the teacher clear? Even if the teacher was clear, was the teacher understood? What does the learning/practising in between music lessons look like? Is it effective? Do the parent and teacher have the same goals in mind? What are the motivations (large and small) of teacher, parent, and student?

These are questions arising from my attendance at a Suzuki Principles in Action (SPA) course offered by the Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA) and hosted by the Suzuki school of Newton, Mass. near Boston. SPA is intended as a course to explore how to teach rather than what to teach. I’d like to say that I consider it more about why to teach. The textbook assigned to the course is Robert Duke’s Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principle of Effective Instruction (2012). If Duke’s ideas are truly embraced by music teachers there will be no more debates about music being a “fluff” course with no innate value. His approach addresses why every good music teacher is in the studio to begin with – the idea of the “accomplished learner.”

Duke’s preface resulted in my exclaiming a very loud and excited “YES!!” on the Boston subway! Where I live in St. John’s that sort of artistic/new idea!/finally someone else said it too! outburst is not very out of place and probably would simply encourage people to find out what you are so excited about. In Boston, however it got me odd looks, uncomfortable shifting in seats, and perhaps a few thoughts about my lack of social skills regarding subway etiquette (sigh…big cities…).

What got me so excited was Duke’s distinction between learning discrete activities and strategies for teaching those particular songs/games etc. and the “big ideas” behind why we teach these activities. He questions the value of attending a conference to sing “6 Little Ducks” in a conference room with 400 of your closest colleagues if all you leave with is another song to sing. He states that to leave that experience with:

“no greater understanding of the fundamental principles of human learning that             make this activity and others like it an important part of music development, is to leave the room without having learned anything of lasting value (7).”

Duke continues by explaining that experts not only have a lot of information and skill in their discipline but they also organize that information and connect it to the “big ideas” they are working with. He states that “these larger principles should be the focus of intelligent discourse in every discipline, including music and music pedagogy” (7).

So what does that mean? Is “6 Little Ducks” not important? Yes and no. Here is where I stack hats as an ethnomusicologist and music educator. In the greater scheme of things, “6 Little Ducks” is not particularly important. What is more important is what the young musician acquires from “6 Little Ducks” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or any other piece including the Mendelssohn violin concerto. From my point of view it is the transferrable skills they acquire from a piece, not the piece itself that is important. At the same time it is really important that the student learns all these skills very well. A non-exhaustive list of skills a young musician can acquire from any of these pieces include:

  • Learning processes – how to learn this song and other similar songs
    • mental organization of lyrics, rhythm, phrases, melodic contours
  • Tone production, listening to the quality of sound
  • Developing memory skills and pathways for music
  • Physical motor skills required for instrument and/or dance actions
  • How to break a project/piece down into smaller, more manageable steps and then how to put it all back together into a whole
  • The value of repetition for acquiring, refining, and retaining skills
  • Working with others, accepting help as needed from teacher-parent
  • Independence/responsibility for one’s own learning (age and level appropriate)
  • Social skills for ensemble and/or solo performance
  • Sense of accomplishment and self-confidence from acquiring these skills and completing a project/song
  • Acquisition, preservation, transmission and, sometimes, innovation of musical knowledge
  • Facilitating an emotional response in audience members and other participants
  • Cultural capital of musical ability and knowledge

If we approach “6 Little Ducks” or any other piece in this manner, we can see the intrinsic value and long term benefit of learning this song. These skills can be learned from many different songs but perhaps they happened to be learned with this song. As Duke explains we are not teaching how to play a particular note in tune in that particular song but how to play that note in tune in every song they will ever play (80). For example, I spend a lot of time on preparing to pay the C-naturals in “Etude” in tune, but it is not just those notes I’m teaching, I’m preparing the student to play all C-naturals in tune for the rest of their musical life. This results in a focus on C-naturals for the remainder of book 1.

What I like about Duke’s book is his emphasis on connecting the details of a piece to the bigger reasons we play music as a whole. The SPA course asks us to not only think about the details of what we happen to be teaching at any given lesson (ie. the C-natural in Etude or Mozart), but also to think how this will continue throughout the musical life of that young musician. As Suzuki teachers and SECE teachers we are generally taught in our pedagogy courses to take a long term view of technique and musicality and Duke’s book and SPA will be a bit of preaching to the choir. However, we sometimes get bogged down in the details and can’t always see the forest for the trees. I know that this narrow view can contribute to a lack of student-parent motivation when they feel they have been trying to get those C-naturals and don’t understand why it matters if they get one note wrong or not, isn’t it good enough? can’t they just move on? For a teacher who also sees the forest, you can explain why that note is really important, and no, it is not good enough to leave it out of tune, but yes we can also move on while continuing to work on that note in “Etude” as it’s going to happen again in the following six pieces.

As an ethnomusicologist, I see the importance of this training (C-naturals in Etude for example) in the larger frame work of music education worldwide. In every culture there is a different system of musical training, acquisition, and participation but many of the ultimate goals are the same. Parallel skills are also being taught explicitly and non-explicitly in every other musical culture around the world. Therefore, Duke’s work speaks not only to the western music teacher but also to music education and good teachers everywhere.

For me, the value of Duke’s work and the SPA course is not necessarily in introducing wholly new ideas but in bringing together the big ideas I always use to guide my teaching and give me the courage to speak about them more frequently and effectively in lessons, and to re-evaluate my own teaching to see if I hold up to my ideals. More soon on the “big ideas” and my personal vision of an “accomplished learner.”

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