Homeschooling Column: The best of starts

Hazel Davis
Monday, February 1, 2021

In this month's column, Hazel Davis gives some advice on how to handle the tricky transition from early years music making to formal lessons.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who feels they didn't have the best start musically practically rams music down their children's throats from the start. As Kodály allegedly said, when asked about the right time to start music education, ‘nine months before the birth of the child,’ or even ‘nine months before the birth of the mother’.

I've talked before about the slight (ok huge) resentment I feel at not having all the musical opportunities in the world presented to me from a young age (ever) and I've just about come to terms with it (I haven't). But not enough to stop me forcing music on my children from the moment they could open their eyes. Having given my oldest daughter Joni as a middle name in honour of Joni Mitchell, it was inevitable that we spent her first day in the world staring at each other and listening to the entire Blue album on repeat.

Early years music exposure is important, whether it's in the womb (my theory they'd be born knowing all the Dylan lyrics hasn't borne fruit) or as part of the reading and writing process. Music learning doesn't have to be formal in the early years. ‘Sing, sing, sing!’ says violin teacher and home-educator Jenny Hanson, ‘make it a normal part of their day. Pop on a joyful piece of music that you love and show them how much you love it – sing along, dance, be silly! Play lots of different styles of music.’ Hanson also suggests a playlist of about ten tracks initially to have on when they are playing, so that they associate play with music.

Luckily for my children, this was always going to be the case as there was no way we wouldn't be having music in the house constantly, and they could sing almost before they could talk. What else was I going to do when sitting up at night with teething toddlers but watch old musicals?

When it came to formalising these musical foundations though, that was a little harder. I naturally assumed that they'd pick up a violin bow and immediately play Vivaldi's Four Seasons and so it was a bit of a shock when they didn't. I'd forgotten that because music was such a joyful part of their early years, the sound of a bow scraping on metal might not fill them with the same joy. Encouraging them to formal lessons at the age of four or five was a culture shock and so I had to put some things in place to make it fun.

As a new parent of the dungarees and oat milk sort, I was kind of against the ‘gamification’ of everything. But I quickly recognised that early years music has to be fun or things can quickly turn sour. Having resolutely decided my children would be raised on a diet of classic folk and rock, I realised that sometimes a child just needs an old-fashioned call-and-response song about a teddy bear. It's all well and good expecting them to jump from Bowie in the bath to understanding the difference between a crotchet and a quaver, but it doesn't happen by osmosis. Dalcroze techniques, for example, use whole-body movement to develop auditory memory and aural skills in a fun way. The Kodály method works to use folk songs, hand signs, pictures, rhythm symbols and syllables to teach music in an instinctive way.

And, loath as I was to ‘teddify’ things, using soft toys to join in the fun was a great way to reinforce the idea that music hadn't gone up a hard notch. Accessories such as Beaumont Music's bright and colourful sheet music bags make the simple act of getting music out to practise a pleasant experience. There's even plenty of room for Sylvanian Families to come along for the ride. There's also nothing wrong with a colourful recorder or an interactive book like Wild Symphony, a newish one from Dan Brown, in which readers can choose to listen to original musical compositions as they read, using a free interactive smartphone app.

Our children are now eight and nine and, while they are progressing absolutely fine, I know there are things we could have done differently in the early years. I wish I'd spent more time doing Dalcroze and Kodály principles rather than trying to speed ahead or expecting them to just know it. I wish I'd allowed the whole process to be more fun and I wish I'd allowed the teddies to join in more.