Conditions of Learning

From: Katharine Smithrim & Rena Upitis, Eds, (2007) Listen to their voices: Research and Practice in Early Childhood Music. Volume III of the Series “Research to Practice: A Biennial Series.” Canadian Music Educators’ Association, Lee Bartel, Series Editor.

Understanding the Conditions of Learning in Early Childhood Music Education
Lee Bartel & Linda Cameron
University of Toronto

Building on previous research, we explore a theoretical model of engagement focused on conditions of learning, which are strongly influenced by the socio-cultural context of music and musical opportunities, pedagogic-emotional context created by the parent/teacher, and the socio-psychological context of the child’s genetic and acquired characteristics. We then describe ways in which care-givers and teachers can develop the most positive conditions, setting goals based on categories established by our previous research including a focus on: musical expressivity, personal best effort, manipulable elements, performance-focused feedback, optimistic expectation, student-appropriate challenge, holistic approximation, equality of opportunity, collaborative environment, authentic music-making, social play, and a healthy childhood holism.


Music and sound are part of every culture and children cannot escape sonic immersion. But do they choose to become engaged with music? And if they engage music do they learn? Or must we formalize their learning of music? We now increasingly understand that babies are inherently musical (Trehub, 2003; Bartel, 2006) and Weinberger (2000) suggests that “the womb appears to be the first concert hall.” Sometime between the later prenatal stage, when they become the percipients of a sound rich world, and schooling when they become participants in formal instruction, children undergo conditions that have lasting effect on their musical engagement and enjoyment. In our opinion, “engagement” is the desired state for children’s interaction with the world (Cameron & Bartel, 2000). Intentional engagement – the choosing to do or attend and then “working” the playful learning involved – is the hope of educators. Music educators would like to see intentional engagement with sound and music. What are the conditions that influence a child’s development toward intentional engagement with music?

In this chapter we will explore first a theoretical model of engagement with music as it applies to the early years. We will then describe ways in which care-givers and teachers can develop the most positive conditions, drawing on the categories established by our research and explained in “From Dilemmas to Experience: Shaping the Conditions of Learning” (Bartel & Cameron, 2004).

The Conditions of Music Learning

The conditions within which a child is enculturated in music, “learns” music, and is “taught” music, are created by multiple influences or factors. In the most broad view, conditions of learning are strongly influenced by the socio-cultural context determining music and musical opportunities, pedagogic-emotional context created by the parent/teacher, and the socio-psychological context of the child’s genetic and acquired characteristics interacting in relationships and the immediate community in which the child lives.

Most fundamental is the socio-cultural level – or what the society and culture bring to the moments of musical encounter. These include the type of music the child encounters, but more subtly, the values and meanings (Bartel, 2002) that come with this music – how does music get made, why do we make music, who can make music, what do we do in connection with music, what is good music, and so on – and the values that come with how the music is learned or taught (Bowman, 2004)—formally, informally, alone, in groups, in a master-mentor relationship, and so on. Much of this is learned early through immersion and demonstration, and later through the covert “hidden curriculum” dimensions of instruction. Formal music instruction takes place within a socio-cultural context, although the socio-cultural value set the teacher brings may be somewhat different from the experienced context in which the child lives (Buller Peters, 2004). Imagine a child’s context in a home where the main music experiences come from TV and a few kids cd’s. Another’s context in a home where the father is a commercial music composer with a studio in the basement creating film sound tracks, big band arrangements, and the occasional commercial. Or the child living with the symphony musician mom who teaches lessons at home.

But, more immediately important to the child than the socio-cultural dimensions is the pedagogic-emotional context created by the parent/teacher – in other words, what the parent/teacher brings to the moments of musical encounter and transactions with the child (Cameron and Carlisle, 2004). The nature of these encounters are essentially reciprocal…the teacher cares for the child, the child feels cared for, the teacher accepts the child and the child feels accepted. The pedagogic-emotional context is shaped by the parent’s or teacher’s motivations, attitudes, beliefs, personal enculturation and the pedagogical repertoire and strategies employed. The pedagogic-emotional context is determined by the nature of the relationships established by the teacher. How safe and caring is the learning environment?

What the child brings to the musical encounter is partially an accumulation of previous learning in relation to music, but also genetic and acquired characteristics of personality, physical aptitude, and patterns of behavior and learning that become quickly established through the relationships and immediate community in which the child lives—the socio- psychological context. This is manifested in dimensions of motivation, adaptability, and sociality, and inevitably affects musical and learning potentials. The interaction of these three dimensions, the socio-cultural, the socio-emotional and the socio-psychological contexts, determine the level of engagement a child will have with music not only in early childhood but throughout life.

What society and culture brings to the moments of musical encounter

Every child is born into a particular socio-cultural context determined by factors such as: geographic location, religion, ethnicity, economic level, political conditions, community values, parental values, and life-style. This socio-cultural context strongly influences the music to which the child will be exposed, the demonstrations of music-making, and participation opportunities the child will experience. The process, or means, by which a child is encultured is one of immersion in and demonstration of musical content.

Musical Content and Values. The immersion and demonstration of specific musical content brings with it a particular set of values that encourage or discourage particular responses or involvements. In the process of raising the child, parents, care-givers and teachers unconsciously communicate to the child musical involvement and response values. Is the involvement value focused on listening? On creating? On replicating melodies? On exploring sound? Is involvement in music as a communal activity valued where everyone joins in or is music valued as an exceptional, competitive, perfection-seeking pursuit that is to be singled out and applauded? Is active or passive involvement expected? Is music to be made only by the talented or is it something everyone can learn? What responses are valued and therefore modeled? Is the appropriate response to music moving and participating or is it being quiet and listening? Is the expected and encouraged response to music making a critical judgment (Bartel, 2000)? When we respond to music making efforts with “Good job!” or “that was wonderful” we are passing on one of our society’s deepest expectations and practices - that the first and best response to music making efforts is critical evaluation and judgment (Bartel, 2003). An alternative would be a response related to function and effect such as, “Your music making made me very happy” or “I liked dancing to the music you played.” The socio-cultural context of the child will determine the role and focus music will take on, the meaning music will have for the child.

We recently witnessed what we perceived as a socio-cultural effect in the behaviours of two children visiting our home. One weekend we were amazed to watch a 13 month old who had barely learned to walk, mambo to music as if choreographed and practiced. He moved up and down in time with the music, wiggling and jiggling with hands up in the air waving meaningfully – this little guy heard the music – and responded with physical participation! He looked for possible instruments and added them to his performance. His dad is Puerto Rican and is a composer/musician, his mom is New England American and a professional modern dancer, his older sister dances, sings, acts, and performs constantly. The socio-cultural context within which this child was experiencing music valued participation, connected movement with music, had exposed him to Latin mambo music, recognized music as a manipulable and accessible play activity, and celebrated enthusiastic involvement. The music was turned on and away he went, not missing a beat. Although one might want to strongly attribute behaviour like this to Latin genetics, we believe it is the socio-cultural environment that largely shaped the response.

On a subsequent weekend we hosted another family. This child, similar in age, heard the same mambo music. He chose not to respond physically at all to the music invitation, even when an adult tried to inspire him to listen and move. His home is not without music. Rather it is a very different social-cultural context of music. His dad has been a producer of a radio jazz show for many years. The cd collection in the home is extensive. He has heard sophisticated jazz repertoire, although probably listened to when he was out of the way and uninvited to participate. This same little person’s media and social exposure has been carefully controlled and monitored by dutiful parents. This child has been exposed to carefully selected musical CD’s of “good” music. This child is being consciously and intentionally “educated” by well meaning parents intent on doing culturally the best for their child. The child experiences everything in controlled doses due to an attempt to educate excellence and limit the frivolous or “dangerous.” Music for this child is not an organic sensuous phenomenon to be entered into physically. Perhaps it is (or at least is meant to be and possibly will be) an intellectual pursuit – to be heard and considered – maybe to have descriptive knowledge about – but at 13 months he is too young to be able to show this.

Music matters in both these homes but is experienced by the young children very differently. Both sets of parents want their children to be “musically educated,” but understand that process of development and engagement differently. Perhaps as strong are the elements of culture that dominate the practices, values, and beliefs in these homes.

Music is a cultural phenomenon created from sound. Children are born as auditors of sound and very soon perceive patterns within intentional sound and learn to construct these as music. Since music is a constructed or learned perceptual ability, the more musical sound babies and children hear, the greater the possibility for them to develop capacity for music. The broader the range of sound, the broader the development. And, since style is a matter of the particularities of musical elements, the development of the fundamental perceptual abilities and cognitive structures to advance learning in a particular style requires early immersion in that style. This is somewhat like language development: development of competence in a language requires early immersion in all the sounds and structures of the language with opportunities to “babble” it. The type and amount of music a child experiences (is immersed in) influences the child’s potential for later learning. Conversely, a lack of immersion in musical sound and experimental music making inhibits potential for later learning and development.

Immersion. In our North American society today music is ubiquitous. It is inescapable on toys, television, radio, shopping malls, restaurants, offices, amusement parks, movies and videos, recordings, games, social events, and so on. By the time a child is age five, hundreds and possibly thousands of hours of music have been experienced in some form, usually unintentional. Contrast this with a child’s experience a 100 or even 50 years ago when music experience was infrequent and usually intentional. It may be possible that the frequency and unintentionality of the experience today reduces its power or effect. But, research on very young children show that musical enculturation has taken place despite intentional engagement (Trehub, 2000, 2001, 2003).

The context of musical immersion today for most children is that of a mixture of musical styles, a “musical mother-tongue,” that is quite different from what they may experience as the much narrower, or even foreign, musical language of their first formal music instruction (Buller Peters, 2004). The musical style mixture may be accidental or at least appear to be so. But, in Fisher Price recordings for pre-school children the musical mandate is to include a variety of musical styles with the purpose of establishing sound templates in children’s minds for a range and variety of musical experiences.

Despite the variety of sound passively experienced through unintentional immersion, music intentionally selected, modeled, and demonstrated by parents has a unique place in the experience of the child. With immersion in the music of a particular culture a child develops the taste for, the feel of, the expectation for that music-- the rhythm, the cadence, the tonal recognition, the “language” and syntax of the music. When the child hears the music that is familiar, he or she understands it somehow. They can predict how to move to it. It is his or her music. They are “tones-for-us” (Elliott, 1995). They comprehend it, in a sense. They know what should come next and what does or does not “fit” (Trehub, 2003). When observing children listening to a world music CD album, it is delightful to see the response when they hear music they recognize. They become animated and responsive…ready to dance or sing. It is like hearing a familiar story or a familiar voice in a familiar language. Home! Mine! It is so important to provide listening and music making experiences for children that is culturally theirs, familiar. At the same time, exposing (immersing) them to a broad range of music and sound gives them a richer context on which to construct their understanding of music.

Demonstration. Demonstration occurs when there is intentionality and instruction, “scaffolding” using Vygotsky’s (1978) term. For example, if you draw attention to the music by inviting the child to march or clap to the music with you, you are demonstrating beat and maybe rhythm. If you invite the child to sing along with a CD, she will be tone matching, melody making, exploring affective response and expressivity as demonstrated in the recording. If you demonstrate how to play a scale on the xylophone going up and back down and then pass the mallets to the child, he will be exploring the sound of the notes, differentiating the progression of the notes up and down the scale, developing hand-eye coordination, feeling the vibration of sound, and making music!

Some parents are very strict about allowing children to watch movies and television thereby limiting exposure to the breadth of “commercial children’s music” (Bartel, 2006) and all the musical content of commercials and other shows. These parents may carefully select and monitor children’s listening to recorded music. This control may restrict musical content to particular types of music. Other parents exercise little selection control and children are subjected to an abundance of sound from a wide spectrum. The issue here is not too much sound or music but rather developing attention to those sounds so that recognition, cognition, and appreciation will develop. If we equate this to language perception and development, it is like a child who might hear lots of language but not have anyone talk to, talk with, and listen to the child. It is in those focused situations where the language is made meaningful in the context by the conversation partner (face to face or through some form of media) that the child attends and learns and practices language. It is taking the teachable moments with the child and deliberately providing input, feedback, reinforcement, consolidation and maybe a little practice. This is demonstration. To make demonstration meaningful, it is important to be working within the child’s zone of proximal development, “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86). It is critical to be demonstrating or providing learning opportunities for the child that are within the child’s capacity to accomplish independently after the demonstration. This takes knowledge of what the child is currently capable of doing, what he or she has already accomplished, what he or she is interested in learning (motivation), and how much challenge and support he or she needs at the moment.

The key to this interface between demonstration and engagement within the zone of proximal development is problem solving. In music, problem solving at its best is found through the manipulation of musical materials (Wiggins, 2001). Too often in school-based music learning children are not allowed to explore and manipulate sounds and music, not invited to compose their soundscapes, not provided with “instruments” of sound making, not allowed to make noise which evolves into music. In early childhood pre-school contexts children may be allowed manipulation but rarely with any expectation that this really constitutes musical problem solving, musical goal setting and solution exploration, or thoughtful composing. Honouring children’s musical manipulation attempts with engaged, scaffolding demonstrations by adults can result in significant learning. We need to engage children in serious play with sound.

There is so much that musical play will inform about sound…loud, soft, high-low, nice-ugly, tones, vibrations… Not only the beautiful. Not only with the goal of “tamed” and “civilized” sound. But with opportunities for the wild sounds (Marsella, 2004), the exciting noisy energetic sounds that match many kids temperament, who are often too soon “cured” of noise (and therefore music). What happens when the option to combine listening with responding to the music through movement, singing along, responding with “instruments,” being rocked? What happens when a child is immersed in all sorts of musical possibilities, a rich repertoire of experiences and has opportunities to develop musical robust questions, intriguing musical problems, and someone to work alongside to support and challenge her?

Perhaps numerous concerns about the current effect of the socio-cultural context are evident. Two concern early childhood particularly. Recent new possibilities in the interaction of immersion and demonstration have emerged in the form of musical and sound making toys. The value and effect of these are not known and music educators who have addressed the situation hold differing views (Campbell, 1998; Bartel, 2001). We are concerned about what may in fact be learned from these “demonstrations” by dogs, or frogs, or golliwogs. Does immersion in the music of Mutzart create the kinds of memes most desirable in babies?

The other concern about the socio-cultural context is the push for early achievement, excellence, and “higher” standards. There is public desire and pressure to make music count intellectually and to satisfy the competitive edge. We see shelves of CD’s and videos that promise to make your child smarter and to improve his chances to be successful in the future. This culture has changed the focus of music education even for the youngest. We wonder about the effect of the “Mozart Effect” – not the reality of its efficacy, but the trademarked cultural phenomenon.

What the teacher brings to the moments of musical encounter.

Control of the pedagogic emotional climate. In considering what the teacher brings to musical encounters, we assume a care context other than the home: a nursery school, day care, or even music classes for the pre-school child. In a context like this various factors influence the pedagogic social and emotional climate (Cameron and Carlisle, 2004) but the teacher (or teachers) are the primary determinants of the emotional tone children will experience. The relationships between the teacher and the child, as well as between children, established and nurtured by the teacher are the key to learning at this stage and influential into the future. A positive emotional tone (Van Manen, 1986) created through child-focused thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and hope is the key to healthy development and learning. The emotional relationship between teacher and child is recognized as under-researched but potentially the most important variable in learning throughout childhood (Wang, Haertel, and Walberg, 1994).

Imagine an early childhood environment that has adults who love children and music and bring them together in a safe and caring, playful environment. Think of the possibilities of an environment that is full of musical possibilities: instruments – real and found, recordings, books about music, music books, listening devices, audio visual opportunities, time to explore, encouragement to experiment, celebrations of approximations, musical models, musical play, dance, movement, singing (lots of singing!). This sounds like a place that would stir the soul, develop the musical imagination, and find the musical heart of the child. Would the child not believe that he or she is a musician, a composer, a maestro, a disc jockey, a dancer? Research shows that one of the strongest factors associated with students’ choice of music in high school is how musical they believe they are. And one of the factors most strongly associated with this belief in their own ability, this sense of self-efficacy, is the quality of the musical experiences as a child (Bartel, 1993).

The teacher has the responsibility to keep the child’s musical self-efficacy alive, stirring and enhancing, filling and celebrating, educating within the child’s zone of proximal development and keeping him or her in “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). The teacher can provide “roots and wings” or conversely can silence and destroy the potential and power of the music for a child. In the context of early childhood care, the teacher can be a primary force in shaping the experience of the child with music just as in later schooling years the music teacher has this power.

Self-efficacy. The personal psychological character of the teacher including disposition, personality, mental well-being, confidence, motivation, and self-efficacy strongly interacts with the emotional climate created on a day-to-day basis. Ideally professionalism and pedagogic repertoire cover and compensate for the vagaries of emotional life. Perhaps overt behaviours and activities are not subject to psychological health and character, but in reality the emotional tone of the class can very quickly be affected. We will not examine every psychological factor, but with music, self-efficacy is a highly important one because it affects teacher motivation and decisions about what to do with music even with the very youngest.

Self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977, 1997) is the self-perception of competence and the attendant self-confidence to succeed at a particular task or type of tasks. For many teachers at all levels self-efficacy for music is particularly low (Bartel and Cameron, 2002; Cameron, Bartel, Wiggins, and Wiggins, 2002). This lack of confidence in many cases stems from the experiences these individuals themselves have had with music (Smithrim and Upitis, 2004). The teacher may have adequate knowledge and ability to create and guide musical experiences with children, but it is not the knowledge the teacher has, rather the feelings he or she has about music and musical ability that will influence the interactions with and experiences of the child. In a study of elementary teachers in one large board of education, we found that generalist teachers revealed a gap between their perception of their ability and their self-confidence: they had considerably less self-confidence than ability, and therefore low self-efficacy for music (Bartel, and Cameron, 2002). The energy of a love for music and music making jumps from one person to another. The angst of perfectionism or criticism passes over as well. Joy, fear, love of, anger about, mistrust, lack of confidence all affect the teaching learning process. If, for example, the teacher/parent only likes one kind of music and is prejudiced against others, it follows that the immersion and demonstrations, the experiences a child in his or her care, will be affected. The residue of the teacher’s experience with music, even from childhood, will be reflected in the musical opportunities for the learner.

The urgent need in all levels of education, and particularly in the education of early childhood care-givers, are multiple positive experiences with music and a self-efficacy altering process of realistic reflection on musical values and purposes. Specifically for early childhood workers professional development opportunities need to be provided so that they can regain a healthier musical identity and see where they can find their music to share. Early childhood educators currently have few opportunities for professional development and in most jurisdictions have very limited funds to support arts focused initiatives. In a study of ECE teacher education programs in Ontario (Cameron, Bartel, Bezaire, 2006), we found that music was only granted incidental place in the teacher training curriculum.

Pedagogic and Emotional Strategies

The early childhood “teacher” brings teacherly knowledge and ability to the child’s musical encounter. Although subject to the personal characteristics and psychological attributes as explained above, the teacher is to have an acquired knowledge base and skill set that is employed strategically in the service of the child’s development and education. This knowledge base and skill set can be understood as a repertoire of pedagogic and emotional strategies. The goal in early childhood is a social emotional environment that is free of negative criticism, abusive put downs, silencing behaviours, and non-attention. The musical encounter has to be in a safe and caring space! Children will want more, do more, try more, play more, music more, and learn more when they are having fun and feeling good about themselves. It is a life gift when an early childhood educator or parent inspires an early love for music and music making. We suggest that early childhood educators can give a lifetime gift of music. But, the means to this is through intentional pedagogic and emotional strategies that invite and involve every child.

Issues of power, control, and responsibility. At first glance this heading may seem to imply that we are discussing here imperatives or strategies for teachers to exercise power and control and how to act responsibly in loco parentis. Common societal myths of the hyperactive, terrorizing, rug-rats who must be subdued “Kindergarten Cop” style, assume teachers must first and foremost take and keep control of kids’ every action and interaction, activity and encounter, schedule and agenda. That is not what we mean. Teachers and parents need to find ways to empower kids to exercise control and responsibility related to their own learning. Kids need to have choice in what they do, listen to, respond with. Ownership of their music matters even to the youngest. Teachers need to use their control of the class to provide lots of freedom of choice to the child - selection in instruments or in the making of their own instruments from found objects; discovery of their own ways of responding to sounds and music; manipulation of musical materials. Freedom of choice develops responsibility. Responsibility invites setting new goals for oneself and allows for growth and development.

Expectation. Along with the pedagogic strategy of developing responsibility for learning in the child is the inevitable emotional communication of expectation. If the child perceives that she is expected to fail, she probably will fail, if he is expected to mis-behave he probably will misbehave, if she is expected to create she creates. Much of our interaction with children communicates our expectations – and they usually live up to them. Unfortunately this is often unconscious, in the sigh, or the rolled eyes, the smile, the laugh or the quick angry retort. That means that parents’ or teachers’ attitudes and expectations must be examined through reflection – and may need to be adjusted.

Modeling and approximation. Expectation is implemented by modeling behaviours. When the teacher demonstrates something and says “try to do it this way” she implicitly communicates, “I think you can do this.” The child’s attempt in response will probably fall short of the model. The teacher then has a choice – point out what was wrong with what the child did, or point out what was right with it and model it again to try to get the next attempt closer to the model. This process which we use intuitively as a young child learns to speak, is not so natural for teachers, especially traditional music teachers. Some methods of music instruction for very young children intend to make this process of modeling and approximation the central pedagogic feature. This “nurturing with love” approach (Suzuki, 1983) allows the child to succeed in small steps – each of which is recognized and reinforced.

Use. Opportunities to use newly learned abilities in real and meaningful ways is another strong factor in a child’s engagement with music. The key here is “to use in real and meaningful ways.” Think of the end of year performance for the assembled parents: The child performs, parents shoot the video, clap and cheer enthusiastically, and in the end tell the child what a good job she did. After all it is a step forward along the great journey of accomplishment toward the goal of excellence and ultimate perfection or at least reputation-building recognition by those considered important. Is it a real and meaningful performance? Why does music get made in our society? Do we make music so that we can demonstrate our achievement and people attend so that they can witness the achievement and cheer on the performer to greater achievement? Unfortunately that is often the case. And the language that has grown up around this is always an evaluative one – we tell the person how well they did. But why do we make music in our society? How do we use music? Is it not for simple enjoyment of the music? Is the proper response then not, I enjoyed your music, or your music moved me, or your music helped me remember an important friend, etc? We also make music for purposes of the rites and rituals of society. Music facilitates worship. Music energizes sport fans. Music makes us dance. When music making serves the fundamental purposes of music in society it is a real and meaningful music making opportunity. And, when a child gets to use his music in such a real context, and realizes it by the authentic responses of the participants, he finds a great boost to his musical engagement. This requires a change in our habituated vocabulary of response, but it also has strong implication for when and where we give our children opportunities to share their music.

For little children, formal public performance is not a necessary component of the music program…at least not a public performance that makes everyone stressed and mean-acting. One of the most important “real and meaningful” functions of music in society is one often extinct in our urban post-modern culture but that children often exemplify – music as a means of relating with each other, of community making, and one of simply pleasurable play. Little children are quite content “just” making their music informally with other children, “just” playing their song at group time, “just” being in the rhythm band as they march around the room, “just” playing one or two notes on the xylophone that has had the keys removed to form a pentatonic scale. They love having their compositions played by someone more competent, to hear how their musical ideas might sound. Children like to feel that their music is as real as the Velveteen Rabbit. Not fancy, not formal, not rehearsed until it is painful…just made! and celebrated! with opportunities to make more. Acknowledged that it is indeed music. It is like reading and writing and painting and dancing in the early developmental stages…approximations that get closer and closer to the real thing by doing it.

Feedback. The response by the care-giver or teacher to a child’s attempt will either serve to motivate or discourage. If it is genuine, related to what the child has done or not done, or could do, and if it is delivered in a caring way, then it will work to motivate. We must always remember to refer to the activity and effort and not criticize the essence of the child…to suggest that the child is not good enough, or stupid, or inadequate is damaging and often has long-term deleterious effect. Feedback is not just about negative criticism, but rather about noting what the child has learned, has demonstrated, has got right along with where there might be something that could be improved or tried or experimented with. Saying “good work” when it really wasn’t, does not do any good. Telling the child what you liked about his or her “work”… “I liked the way you sang that song, I could hear every word!” or “What an interesting melody you composed, it reminds me of the sunshine!” or, “maybe if you played the cymbals a little less often and used the triangle sometimes, the music would make more sense to me and not hurt my ears!” “ Have you thought about composing some music that would describe how happy you are rather than that sad, slow music you often make up? Maybe you could listen to this happy music to see what the composer does to make it feel happy.”

Another aspect of feedback that is important to the long-term motivation of the child is the attribution you make in your feedback – in your praise. Research (Bronson, 2007) now indicates that to make a global, child-directed attribution of achievement like “You’re so talented,” or “You are the best” or “You’re great!” can serve to de-motivate the child, making them less ready to risk making a mistake. A better focus for praise is the effort and specific skill exercised by the child. So rather than saying, “You must be smart at this” it is better to say, “You must have worked really hard.”

Feedback related to music learning can make or break one’s desire to learn. Linda had a music teacher when she was very little that hit her fingers with a stick because she did not approve of her hand positioning. The teacher then brought the plants over to be watered by her tears of pain and discouragement telling Linda that she was a silly little thing and that she would never be able to play the piano. The teacher also reminded her that everyone else her age read the notes instead of playing by ear and making things up, suggesting that she was a failure. If only the teacher had celebrated Linda’s strong musical ear and had not focused on finger positions, she might be a wonderful pianist today. How many children who were tapped on the head and told to mouth the words want to sing when they get older? How many children who were not chosen for the choir think they can sing today? How many little children who were forced beyond their age and development to do things that made little sense to them, want to keep trying? What if no one noticed or cared about the songs they made up, treating them as trivial and worthless? Would they keep making music?

A vignette
Picture a kitchen where there are pots and pans, spoons and towels, boxes of all sorts with various ingredients, elastic bands and the playful invitation to compose a “symphony”…child and parent have listened to symphonies before together. The dyad could start exploring sounds together and then the real fun begins as he chooses what to use. He listens carefully to the sounds and finds the ones he likes. He shakes and taps, rattles and bangs, listening, thinking, reordering, listening again and composing. The parent or teacher might be invited to collaborate or the child can continue to explore and combine sounds to make his “kitchen suite.” The adult scaffolds by offering some ideas, prepared of course for rejection. A recording device can make the invitation more real and provide the opportunity for reflection and reviewing. I can hear the child requesting to hear the recording of what he has created so far that he can improve and go on. Editing, adjusting, figuring it out and listening some more. And of course, the resulting product can be celebrated with a replaying to interested significant others for the important supportive feedback. When the child has composed a symphony of his own, he is more likely to care to listen attentively to one someone else composed…because he is also a composer with opinions and experience. In this vignette we see an example of motivation, responsibility, expectation, use, feedback, positive relationship and support. We do not hear the parent telling the child that he does not have it right or that he has to develop an ABA pattern or do it in a particular way. Approximation is what grows skill and fosters motivation. If a child can explore sound, instruments, compositions, questions, musical ideas, without adjudication...can try and even make mistakes that are considered learning opportunities…he will be motivated to keep trying and learning and getting better. The teacher’s role in approximation is celebrating what the child has got right, has learned and not pointing out what is wrong. Effective teachers celebrate each approximation and scaffold to the next level…that means providing support, a little idea, a nudge to try something, some new tools, a strategy that might help or just a nod and smile.

What the child brings to the musical encounter

The child’s musical encounter is situated in a strong socio-cultural context and is facilitated and affected by a mediating adult. To this already potent mix the child brings an accumulation of previous learning in relation to music, genetic and acquired characteristics of personality, physical aptitude, and patterns of behavior and learning that become quickly established through the relationships and immediate community in which the child lives—the socio-psychological context. This is manifested in dimensions of motivation, adaptability, and sociality and inevitably affects musical and learning potentials.

But there is another way to look at this. What does the child bring to encounters with music? It isn’t talent. It isn’t magic. It isn’t discipline. It isn’t aptitude that the child brings to the musical encounter. It is the whole child that encounters the music! They can hear it, feel it, learn to need it and love it, they can make it, move to it, and know it. Certainly the receptors, connectors and preceptors help when they are functioning well but we do not know any child who does not respond to music naturally. Children come ready to learn music—they are built for it (Weinberger, 2001). Hopefully, they come with musical experiences galore and a positive attitude that has been fostered through these experiences. They come with ideas! Eleanor Duckworth (1996) suggests that intelligence is the having of wonderful ideas. Musical intelligence is the having of wonderful musical ideas that foster questions, interest, willingness to explore, things they want to sing or dance to, songs they want to compose, melodies that are exploding in their minds, sounds they want to make. Willingness to learn is something that children are born with and as long as that willingness is there and not thwarted by experience or overload, nasty experiences or mistrust, kids will develop musically.

Musical ears are a great asset. If kids come with ears that have been opened to sounds of all sorts and musical variety, they are advantaged. Voice is also important. It is natural for children to sing and talk and make vocalizations of all sorts as they play, think, work and lull themselves to sleep. If that voice has been responded to, it is more likely to be used. Silencing is dangerous. Musical bodies are instruments in themselves. Wiggling, jiggling, bouncing, dancing, swaying, clapping, tapping, playing an instrument all are part of the skills a child brings to the musical encounter. If they can feel the music…that is such magic! and is another kind of knowing.

We recently watched a documentary about children in Africa. It was like watching a musical. The children sang and danced as they played, with music their most audible and visible language. They expressed feelings and communicated meaning through bodies and voices. It is what they have experienced in their community but they have found music in themselves as a first language.

We know that children bring a desire to make music that is quite inherent. It is our job to hold onto that, to encourage it, to make the desire increase.