We’re excited to have Zach VanderGraaff, the founder of Dynamic Music Room, on the show. Mr. V (as his students like to call him) is a K-5 music teacher who’s developed his own teaching philosophy drawing on the Kodály approach.
Zach shares many of our core beliefs here at Musical U. He believes that “talent” is a myth, that music learning can and should be enjoyable, that the learning process should feel musical, that it’s more effective to learn together with others, and much more.
In this conversation you’ll hear about:
- Zach’s own first experience of playing by ear – and why he was frustrated by his family being impressed.
- The key difference between the elementary music teaching Zach does and the more common approaches you may be familiar with.
- The three core concepts on which Zach bases his teaching – and how you can apply each in your own music learning.
You will be fascinated by just how much you can learn from the world of children’s music education. Enjoy this episode and make your music journey more fun and effective.
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Zach. Thank you for joining us today.
Zach: Thanks for having me.
Christopher: I know you these days through your website, dynamicmusicroom.com, and I know a little bit about your teaching philosophy and methodology there. But I don’t know very much about your own backstory, and I’d love to know where you came from as a music learner. Could you tell us about how you got started in music?
Zach: Sure, yeah. My grandma, she was a kindergarten teacher, and she was retired by the time I was a kid. In her kindergarten classroom, which wasn’t a music classroom, she loved music and she sang all the time. She would, as a grandma, when she wants to expose us to all this great music that she would sing and listen with us. So music was always a big part of my childhood, but I never really received any music instruction until I joined band in middle school. I started on the trumpet, and then I stuck with trumpet. I picked up tuba. Loved that. Made it all the way through high school, and I always felt like music was just something I wanted to do, I wanted to share with people. I knew that when I was done with high school, I was going to go to college. I wanted to be a music teacher.
Zach: I got into my college classes and actually thought about quitting at one point, because I didn’t want to teach band, and in my mind that was the only thing you could teach. Then I went and observed a teacher, and she was amazing. I saw all the stuff she was doing with her elementary music students, and it just blew my mind that if we broke down musical ideas into elements and a sequence that people could understand, that anybody could learn complicated musical ideas, and even these kids. And I thought, hey, I want to do that. So I got really involved in it, and then since then I’ve been teaching elementary music for about 10 years now, K-5, and I’ve loved it. I’ve also taught private lessons to kids. My youngest was seven, and my oldest was about 70 years old. I taught private lessons on guitar and piano and things like that. It’s been a ton of fun.
Christopher: Terrific. Well, I’m really keen to dig into how you approach teaching, and in a minute I want to ask you specifically what you saw in that classroom with the elementary teacher that inspired you or showed you a different way. But before we do that, let’s go back a little bit to your own journey and the kind of musician or music learner you were, because I think it’s always interesting when I speak to these very expert music educators who now have a very clear understanding of how music learning works and how to impart their knowledge, to understand whether they had that experience they’re now giving their students or whether it was born of something different. What was learning music like for you?
Zach: Well, when I got into band it was a lot of hard work, but it was fun. I appreciated the hard work, practicing day after day and that kind of thing. But for me, I really felt like a musician, and this was weird, but I was in eighth grade, so I’d been in band for three years, and I was at my grandma’s house and she had this little toy piano. They were labeled from C to C in the scale. I thought, hey, I can apply some of my knowledge to playing this little toy piano kind of thing. So I played Hot Cross Buns and Mary Had a Little Lamb, and then I hit the low C to high C, and it just stuck in my ear. I’m like, “Wait, that’s the opening of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And I’m like, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.” No one had ever taught me that, but I heard it.
Zach: I sat there for, it felt to me like a really long time, probably only like 35 minutes or something, but I sat there and, through many mistakes, plunked out that whole song, except for the bottom leading tone, which drove me nuts at the time. I plunked it out, and I was just so proud, because all this listening that I had been doing and this practicing was applying to musicianship skills everywhere. I went to my parents and my grandma, and I was like, “Hey, look what I can do.” They were so excited. They’re like, “Oh, that’s so awesome.”
Zach: But then they kind of made me mad, because they looked at me, and they’re like, “Oh, you must have a lot of talent.” And I thought, what? Maybe, I guess, but by calling it all on talent, it cheapened all the hard work I had done to figure out the song and all the hard work I’d been doing for three years in practicing my instrument and learning music, just to throw all that hard work away with the word talent. And that really informed all my teaching since then, although I didn’t realize it at the time, to be like anybody can do anything. It doesn’t matter what your talent is. You just got to put in the hard work, and you got to have the right tools.
Christopher: I love that. That is such an elegant story for encapsulating so much of what we care about here at Musical U. When we teach playing by ear, we really encourage our members at Musical U to think about it as a process of figuring things out by ear. And as you get better and better at that, and as you add in some ear training, it eventually seems like you just magically always know the right answer immediately. But you get there by doing it in a painstaking step-by-step, getting harder and harder kind of a way. From the outside, yeah, someone looks at it and they’re like, “Oh, they’ve got some magical talent.” And the musician, obviously, often is like, “Wait, what? No, no, I worked.”
Zach: “What are you talking about?” Yeah, it’s like, I did all the practice. My host teacher when I was student teaching, he made me think about improvisation in a way I had never thought before, and he told his elementary students, he says, “You guys improvise all the time.” And they looked at him like, what? We don’t do that jazz stuff that people do. And he’s like, “No, when you talk, you improvise. You’re improvising a conversation. You’re taking the knowledge you have of words and sentences and all the practice you’ve done, and you’re creating something brand new. It’s just the same thing with music, you just don’t have as much practice with music as you do with speaking.”
Christopher: After that first taste of playing by ear and getting labeled a talented musician, how did you take things after that? I mean, clearly you had that band environment in your school, where it was presumably a lot of sheet music and repertoire and concert performances. Did you also have a strand of figuring things out by ear and improvising and songwriting? Or what part did that play in your own musical journey from then on?
Zach: Well, yeah, the figuring stuff out by ear, ever since I realized that, any time there was any kind of instrument, I tried to figure everything out that I could. One of my favorite things to do, and I still do now, although not on my trumpet, I don’t play that as much anymore, but to figure out songs that I hear, any songs that I think of, or think of from, say, the soundtrack to Harry Potter, Hedwig’s Theme. I was teaching one time, and I had that song stuck in my head, so I picked up my recorder, and through a lot of work, I was able to figure it out. And my kids were like, “Oh, that’s amazing.” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s just because I practiced and I’ve been doing this for a long time.” So I would do that on my trumpet and tuba and pretty much any instrument I could put my hands on. I’d just hear the song and then I’d try to figure it out. Sometimes I’d get close, sometimes I wouldn’t.
Christopher: Let’s jump ahead a little bit, then, to that teacher observation opportunity you had where you were seeing an elementary music classroom. Before you describe it, I want to just illustrate what I suspect are the assumptions in a lot of our audience’s minds about what early music education is or could be, because for me certainly, when I was growing up, early music education looked a lot like a junior version of later music education, meaning you give the kid an instrument, you explain about the staff and the key and where the notes are on the xylophone or whatever you have them playing, or the recorder, and it’s a gentle version of serious music education.
Christopher: And then, at least in the UK, the other option that you encounter is basically a music activity session, where it’s like come along, sing some songs. There’s not really any educational thought put into it, except let’s have the kids have a good time with music. And I don’t want to denigrate either of those. There’s value in both of those approaches, but it’s been fascinating to me over the last four or five years through my work at Musical U to discover, particularly in the US, I think, there is a whole other world of early music education that manages to combine the fun and the pedagogy and produce something that is both enjoyable and educational, rather than seeing those two as very different goals, which is, at least for me, the perspective I had in the UK. You can have fun playing about with music, or you can do some serious music class. So I’d love to hear, what was it that struck you when you were observing that teacher and you were like, “Oh, there’s something different here, that’s not what I was expecting”?
Zach: Yeah. Yeah, you hit it exactly as the way I think most people view elementary music as just fun times. Mine was kind of the opposite. It was more like the structured one. We sat in rows and we sang songs that we read off the staff, and it was not fun at all. But yeah, when I went to observe that teacher, I didn’t know what to expect, because I thought it was going to me like mine. But as the class walked in, she immediately started with music, and it was fun. And I’m like, “Hey, that’s awesome.” They got engaged right away. I’m like, “Yeah, this is fun. This is like one of those fun music classes.”
Zach: But then she smoothly transitioned, taking elements of the songs that she was doing and isolating some of the literacy elements that she could train their ears on so they would be doing patterns they had pulled from that song they started with. And I’m like, wait a second. Without even realizing it, all of a sudden these kids, they’ve moved from playing a game to practicing learning music. And she would have them singing from the staff, and she’d have them singing in canon and in harmony. And I was like, these are second graders.
Zach: And then almost as soon as they started to get frustrated or tired of the hard work for a few minutes, I think it was five or seven minutes, she’d transition them right out into a movement activity that was fun and that kind of thing. It blew me away, the way that you could seamlessly combine, like you said, the fun and the literacy, the serious music practice, that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. And I think it’s important to keep both. That’s what blew me away, I think, that it could be both and they could do all of these things, that these kids could sing in harmony. Adults are terrified of singing in harmony. If we can get kids to do it, we can get adults to do it too. We just have to teach them the right way.
Christopher: Absolutely. And what gets me excited, although I have kind of a personal stake in the early music education in that I have my own daughters, and I’m trying to figure out to run fun little music classes from them at home, actually what gets me most excited about this is how much we can draw on these ideas and insights for adult music learning. We’ll talk a little bit about your approach in your own training and how that all fits together, but I just wanted to highlight a couple of things there for our audience, which are the idea of respecting the fact that the learner needs to stay engaged and enjoy the process.
Christopher: As adults, we typically approach learning in such a strict and, I don’t know, almost masochistic way, where if we’re not suffering we can’t be doing it right. And actually, as you see so clearly with the children, the best way to get them into the learning activities is to make sure that when their attention wanders, you bring them back to something fun, rather than just saying, “Pay more attention.”
Christopher: And the other thing is, I think you mentioned the word transitions there, which is something that I really respect, particularly what I’ve seen in the Kodály world, but I think probably a lot of elementary music teachers are very good at this in the US, which is for us in the UK, growing up in that junior serious music approach where it’s like sheet music and do the instructions, that there was no concept of that really. It was like, okay, now we’re going to play this piece. Ten minutes have elapsed, you’ve lost interest, now we’re going to do this other thing. And it was just completely a series of almost, from the learner’s perspective, completely unrelated activities or tasks. And there was some variety there, sure, and each of the tasks was great, but there was no overall journey or flow.
Christopher: I’ve done a little bit of Kodály early music education training in a workshop where this was really talked about, how you can weave a story in or how you can have elements brought from one thing to another. Again, it’s one of those things, I think as adults we don’t even consider might be interesting or relevant or useful, but it’s such a valuable part, I think, of making that learning experience effective.
Zach: For sure. For sure, yeah. I have three kids now, so I don’t have time to teach private lessons as much as I used to, but I taught private lessons on guitar to adults, including much older adults, and even in those lessons, I would take some of the things that I had learned from my elementary kids in my private lessons with those adults, to work it out for them. We would start with something easy and something fun that they could feel successful at, and then we’d pull some of the harder elements. And like, okay, so now we’ve got these basic chords, let’s try this different chord pattern and do some practicing. We’d get to the meat of the lesson.
Zach: And then for the adults, I’m sorry, adults, I’m one too, we have almost as bad of an attention span as kids do sometimes. Before they get too frustrated or bored, we move on to something else. My adult learners always said that they loved the way that I structured lessons and that it kept them motivated to keep coming back. It wasn’t a chore for them, it was fun.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, what better feedback to hear from your students, that they keep coming back because it’s fun, and you know they’re learning along the way? You observed this lesson. It inspired you that that might be the direction for you. Where did your own training go from there?
Zach: At my school, you have you music education major, and then you have different minor options. The school had just introduced an elementary minor, they called it general music minor option, that offered more specific classes geared towards what I decided that I wanted to teach. I got to take those classes. Instead of taking double reed techniques to learn bassoon and oboe, I instead took classroom instrument techniques, and I learned more how to play guitar and ukulele and stuff like that.
Zach: And then also, I just felt so motivated by all of this that I would go to workshops all the time all over the place, to see expert presenters and see their takes on everything. I cleared my schedule as much as I could on my Fridays, and I would go into classrooms with teachers that I knew teaching elementary music, and I would volunteer to help there and learn from them. And they even let me work with the kids a lot early on in my career, and that was awesome.
Zach: Then I got into teaching, and I taught for a little while. And then my local university was hosting a Kodály levels programs, and I thought, hey, I don’t really know too much about this stuff, so I’m going to go check it out. And it went, and it just blew my mind, because everything that I had been feeling for teaching music, how you should use fun real music and how you should have fast-paced engaging lessons and you should get the kids working together, that kind of thing, all of that was in there. I decided that I loved this stuff. I got really involved. I did my level one, two, and for each training I got my certificate and got my master’s in the process as well. I mean, that’s been an overview of my training, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Christopher: Absolutely, yeah. And for listeners or viewers who haven’t been tuned into past episodes of the show where we’ve talked a bit about Kodály, or for members watching who haven’t taken our foundations course that uses that kind of methodology or approach or philosophy, could you just explain maybe some of the distinctions between what you had been learning in your degree program and what that Kodály world offered you? What was the distinction or what was new or useful about bolting on that Kodály piece of the puzzle?
Zach: Okay, yeah. The university program, and I respect them a whole lot and some of them are my good friends, but when you’re an undergrad like that, you don’t really know what you need to know as a teacher, and so the elementary music classes that I took for methods were basically survival. Here’s a little bit about the different methods, but if you’re going to do this, here’s activities that’ll get you through the day. Here’s how you should maybe structure your lessons so the kids are sort of engaged and not jumping all over each other. Here’s some instruments you can play and some other resources you can look into.
Zach: That carried me through, plus all the workshops and the relationships I’d built with other expert elementary teachers. That carried me through for a while, but when I got into the Kodály world, it was just, the songs, I had already heard a lot of them, but it gave me a lot more resources for the songs and activities. But for me it was the structure and the overall planning that really made a difference to me, because week after week when I was teaching before, I’m like, okay, what am I teaching next? What should I teach next? What concepts should my kids learn next? And I was struggling to find that myself, and I was building it myself, and then lo and behold, I go and take this class, and hey, people have been doing this for decades now, so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel with this stuff. I can just look at what’s been done and pick the one that most aligns with what I like to do.
Zach: From the Kodály classes, I got the more resources for good songs. I got more information on a sequence and a structure for teaching, what you should teach when and that kind of thing. And then also, I shouldn’t forget this, because Kodály was huge on this, that he believed the music teachers should be really good musicians themselves. And so as part of our levels training, we had to go through solfège training and ear training and rhythm training, and we had to practice conducting, even though we don’t really conduct in our elementary music programs. And that, even though I haven’t used all of the solfège training stuff, like I’m not going to have my fifth graders sight read Bach canons in solfège, that’s just crazy, that made me a better musician for them. I’m more aware of what they’re doing, and they can hopefully see what this stuff they’re learning can lead to.
Christopher: Gotcha. And on that front, there’s a couple of phrases I wonder if we could unpack, that have come up. One was literacy, I think you mentioned along the way there. And the other, I’ve heard you make reference to how approaching things this way can help anyone to become musically independent, I think you said. And those are two ideas that I think are really useful to unpack as part of illustrating to people, what’s the point of all this? Okay, it’s fun and it’s effective, but what kind of musicians are we creating here? What’s so different about the effectiveness of this kind of education versus some of the traditional approaches?
Zach: Yeah. Literacy, you hear the word literacy, you think reading, and it’s not just about reading in sheet music. It’s also, I think, in music it’s about this idea of sound concepts and your aural connection to the sounds and that kind of thing. And then developing that by playing and singing and hearing all the patterns and doing them yourself. And then applying it afterwards to the symbols. We call that sound before symbol, always. There’s both of those parts, and then you go on to create yourself. And you need that to become what I like to call musically independent. Other people call it that as well.
Zach: Musically independent people, it’s not just that they can read music, whatever music they pick up, it’s that they feel comfortable doing music. It’s that they can go to church, if they go to church, they can look at a hymn and they can kind of figure out their way through the hymnal. They can ride in the car with their friends on a road trip and they can all sort of sing in tune and have a good time doing it. They can all not embarrass themselves at sporting events when they’re clapping along with the band and they’re sticking with the beat, that kind of thing.
Zach: That was really Kodály’s goal and my goal too, is I’m not trying to train professional musicians, and not everyone should be a professional musician. We need all kinds of other jobs. But music should be a part of everyone’s life, and providing this foundation is going to help everybody have music more in their life. It’s a part of what makes us human, I think. I don’t know if I walked away from your answer too far on that one.
Christopher: No, that was tremendous, thank you. And so much of what you said there is near and dear to our heart here at Musical U. I don’t think musically independent is a phrase we’ve used very much, but it describes exactly the kind of empowerment we try and provide our members and the opening up a whole new world of possibilities for them that we try and deliver. These days, as well as teaching, you have a fantastic website, Dynamic Music Room, where you share some of these ideas and lessons and resources for other K-5 and even secondary teachers. I’d love if we could talk a little bit about what defines your philosophy or your approach there, because you’re not just coming out and saying, “Kodály, Kodály, Kodály, everyone should do it that way,” or anything else. You’ve got your own perspective and philosophy, I suppose. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Zach: Yeah, sure. Kodály is my big background, but I recognize and acknowledge that there’s many different methods out there, or even if you combine methods, that’s awesome. My host teacher when I was student teaching, he was actually a wholly Orff-certified person. They’re not totally different at all. They all have a lot of the same elements to them, and so I looked at all the world of music out here, at least in the US, and I see that there’s basically three groups of people. There’s one group that subscribes to a methodology and says they’re the best and everyone else stinks. There’s one group that says they subscribe to a methodology and they think they’re the best, but they say, “Hey, you guys are good too.” And then there’s the group of music teachers that pull from the different ones and try to create an eclectic classroom. And there are great teachers in all three categories.
Zach: I imagined a site and a resource that was independent of a methodology per se, that reached what I though were the most important qualities of music education and music teaching for all grades, which is why right now it seems to be more focused towards elementary, because that’s my background, but it’s my hope eventually to provide more and more resources for secondary as well. But that’s why the three words for my slogan for Dynamic Music Room are “Authentic, engaging, and cooperative.” Authentic being we’ve got to use real music and real good activities and fun stuff to engage the students.
Zach: And then engaging, obviously there’s no learning without engagement. There’s no motivation. You have to get buy-in from the students, whether they’re five years old or 50 years old. If they’re not engaged, they’re not going to learn, and so you have to create lessons that can guide them through learning in ways that they don’t get frustrated, or if they do, they’re not so frustrated they want to quit.
Zach: And then cooperative is one I feel like we’re forgetting a lot, we’re missing out a lot of in our elementary music world especially, but also secondary from what I see. That’s students working together to teach each other and share the knowledge they’ve gained with each other. That’s a big part. I feel like there’s a lot missing from a lot of people there and that kind of thing.
Zach: My goal for Dynamic Music Room is to create these resources, but also a place where teachers from any methodology can come and just take their teaching to the next level, just a little bit more. That’s my hope.
Christopher: Tremendous. Yeah, we’ve been codifying our pillar beliefs here at Musical U this year and trying to get very specific about the vague stuff that’s been driving us and motivating us for the last decade. A couple of our pillars match very closely to what you just said, which is probably why I connected so much with your site when I was looking around it. But when you’re talking about cooperation, for us, better together is one of our pillar beliefs, where it’s just like we’ve seen so clearly that when someone’s learning in a community and there is that kind of peer-to-peer engagement, it just works so much better.
Christopher: Another of them that kind of maps to your engaging is that we believe music learning is a journey, and you should enjoy the ride. This should be an enjoyable journey, an enjoyable process, and if it’s not, you’re not going to learn well and you’re not going to enjoy it. So that was really interesting. This is the kind of thing, these are my three words, where you can just dash them off and people forget about them. I don’t want that to happen, because I know you’ve thought very deeply about these.
Christopher: So I wonder if we could just unpack each of those a little bit more, and maybe one way to do it would be if you could explain what it looks like when this is missing, why you care so much about bringing this ingredient in. And then if you have any tips or ideas for what this looks like in practice, to illustrate the specifics of what the right way of doing it, as it were, would look like, that would be really great.
Zach: Sure. Yeah, yeah. Start with authentic. Authentic music means real music. In the elementary world, it’s real folk music. If you were in the band world, you’d be using music that was composed for band, for example. And if you were an adult musician just trying to learn something, you would be trying to learn songs that were real. Like if you’re trying to learn guitar, you’d be looking at real pop songs and music played on guitar. You wouldn’t just be looking at exercises. If you don’t have that authentic piece, your music classroom, it feels like it’s missing something, because you’re either just using a bunch of composed songs that are only written just to teach a specific concept, and they just feel cheap, they don’t feel satisfying.
Zach: In the elementary world, we pick old folk songs, because our idea is that if these songs have survived hundreds of years to remain around today and stick in people’s ears, like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, love it or hate it, everybody knows it in one of its forms or the other. The indefinable quality, it satisfies you more than a cheap composed song. In the elementary world, the same thing we want to be careful of is modern pop songs, because they’re often inappropriate, and they might not be musically satisfying. That’s why when I look at songs to include for pop songs, I’ll often look for music of the ’60s and ’70s, because that’s been about 50 years now, and the ones that have stuck around, you know they’re going to be that good quality. And the funny thing is, even my little five-year-olds, I’ll turn on Yellow Submarine or something and they’ll be like, “Hey, I know that song,” and stuff like that. So you know some of these songs have some kind of quality to them.
Zach: And it’s same way when I work with adults. If they’re learning something, you got to pick a song you love. You got to pick a real song and hold that in your head as a motivator to stick with the practice you’re going to have to do, because you have to practice. You have to have the exercises and that kind of thing. But don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to get to, which is you doing that real authentic music too. Does that work for “authentic”?
Christopher: Amazing. Yeah, yeah, that really unpacked it well. Thank you.
Zach: So then engaging, in the music teaching world, we have a hard time engaging our students more and more lately, because they’re always distracted by other things. We can’t have learning without engagement. The research shows that if a student is not engaged, they are doing zero learning. Even if they’re not disrupting, they’re just sitting there staring off into the distance, they’re not taking in anything. They’re not learning. You have to be doing music. In a classroom or in a lesson that isn’t engaging, you often have the students, the learners just there. They’re not really a part of the learning process, and you need to get the students as much of a part of the music-making as possible. Not talking to them, just talking with them to build the knowledge.
Zach: Part of that, at least from my perspective, is designing your lessons in such a way that they are small chunks that students can stay engaged with and that you alternate high energy activities with low energy activities. The low energy activities are actually your learning activities, because you’re slowing things down and you’re concentrating. And then you go right out of it again. In my world we glue all these different chunks together with transitions to connect them so everybody gets that hey, we’re doing the same thing the whole time. It isn’t disjointed. Everything’s connected in that music is everywhere kind of a thing.
Christopher: Maybe we could just pause on that one for a moment, because as I highlighted earlier, I think transitions are often really just not even considered in the world of adult music education. And for me, the first time I took a one-to-one Kodály lesson, it was so striking that from the very first moment, we were doing something musical, and that flowed into the next thing and that flowed into the next thing. And at the end of the lesson, I was like, oh, we’ve done seven different things, but it didn’t feel like seven different things.
Zach: And you don’t realize it, yeah.
Christopher: No. So maybe you could give an example or talk through some of the transitions you might use, for people who’ve never encountered that idea, to show how smooth or how clever it can be.
Zach: Yeah, sure. I think of one I just did yesterday. I had my first graders come in, and as we walked around the room, I had them doing call and response right away, while I played on the ukulele and stuff like that. And then we got to our spots, we moved into a vocal warmup, instantly as soon as we stopped. And then the last vocal warmups I did were the pitches of the next song I was going to do. And my kids right now, they’re so well trained that as soon as they hear me start to specify what I’m doing, they’re looking for the next song, because they know it’s coming. It’s like a treasure hunt for them. Like, “Oh wait, I know that’s this song.”
Zach: So then we sang a song. That was just a fun, silly echo kind of song. It was about pie getting stolen or something like that. And then after we were done singing it, we sat down and I said, “Hey, the weirdest thing happened to me the other day. The pie was gone, and I wanted to find it, so I set a trap. And then when the pie was taken, I chased after the person that stole it, and it was a pirate. And he captured me, and he made me sing this song and pull on the anchor rope. And then we sang a song about pulling on the anchor rope, and then for first graders, that song also used a lot of quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rests. So after we played that game, I was able to throw up some patterns that had those rhythms that they could read, and they practiced reading.
Zach: And then I would change some of the notes to different patterns, and then by the time I was done, of course, they know what to look for. The new rhythm I had put up there was the next song we were going to do, something like that. So continue in that manner through storytelling and borrowing elements to compare with other songs and that kind of thing. I just love that my kids now, they get it. It’s, like I said, like a treasure hunt for them. They’re always looking for it. “I found it. It’s right here in the second line backwards.” I’m like, “Geez oh Pete, I got to get better ideas. You guys are too smart for me.”
Christopher: That’s wonderful. I can’t applaud highly enough someone who manages to work puns into their lesson planning as a pivotal transition, as a way from “pie” to “pirate.” And obviously, we don’t want to trivialize it. It’s a funny example, but I think anyone following along can imagine how useful that is. If you compare it with the alternative, where you sing a song about pie and then you turn around and you’re like, “Now we’ll do our next song, it’s about a pirate,” the kids are going to have that mental confusion. And yeah, maybe you catch their attention, but-
Zach: Like whiplash.
Christopher: Exactly, yeah. And so even if it’s a contrived or a storytelling transition, it bridges it so smoothly. I’m sure you’ve found ways to do that same kind of thing with your private adult students too.
Zach: Yeah, yeah, for sure. It’s not so much the cutesy story stuff, although sometimes, I mean, I’m pretty cheesy as a person, and even my adult friends know that, and my adult learners also. In the summer, my wife and I conduct a community band throughout the summer. We co-conduct. And they know how I am. They’re always prepared for bad puns and stuff like that.
Zach: But yeah, in my lessons with adult learners and that kind of thing, we can transition. We can pull, like if we start the lesson with an easy song they know and they like to play, I can then isolate something and just transition and say, “Okay, now go back to that C chord, but now this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to move that ring finger over here, and now we’re playing an A minor chord.” Even that kind of small simple transition, I think, just helps to connect it. And it doesn’t feel like hey, now we just played a song, and now we’re doing learning, and then we’re going to play a song again, that kind of thing.
Christopher: Yeah, and I’m sure there’s a whole world of pedagogical theory and philosophy we could explain all of this with, but I think aside from the engagement, I think you mentioned earlier that idea of starting with something easy to build confidence. And I think those transitions really help with that too, where if you’re starting your A minor chord from the C you just played, it’s a bit more approachable than if just out of nowhere, your teacher’s like, “Let’s play an A minor.”
Zach: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
Christopher: I interrupted you at going through the three. The third is cooperative. Let’s just talk a bit about that one.
Zach: Oh, cooperative, yeah. Yeah, sure. Music is naturally meant to be shared with others and that kind of thing, and we’re meant to work together. Even solo artists who are all by themselves always have a backup band or something like that, even if it’s just a crew that helps them get on the stage and do their thing. Music is meant to be shared. In classrooms, I think it’s more than just them singing together. To help build knowledge, you need to re-explain it and share what you’ve learned with other people and that kind of thing.
Zach: In my classrooms, I always try to have the students take some time with a musical idea. Even if I’m not looking for a specific right answer, to take some time to try and re-explain an answer with each other to build a better answer themselves. Or here, let’s create our own rhythms. In this group, you have to have eight here, they must use this. And have eight there, they must do that. Then you must split up and perform them in canon with each other or something like that kind of a thing.
Zach: Getting them to work in smaller groups and cooperatively really helps to build the knowledge. It helps their engagement, and it reaches a type of learner I think we often forget about in the different brain theories of learning styles. Everyone knows the visual and the physical and the aural and stuff like that, but everyone forgets that there are social learners too. Social learners need to re-explain and work with other kids to learn in their best way, and I think we forget that part a lot. I’m trying to push that a lot, to give as many opportunities for kids to re-explain to each other.
Zach: I know as an adult learner, when I was picking up the ukulele more seriously, that I appreciated, I didn’t take private lessons on it, but I did go to group classes. I found I almost learned as much from that as I did from private lessons, because I was able to share with other people and see how other people did it, even if they weren’t the teacher. They had their own tricks that often worked just as well or hit something for me that the way the teacher was saying it didn’t, and that kind of thing. So I always encouraged my students when I had them, my adult students, to also play for other people or find someone else who was learning the instrument too, and connect and play together, because that’s important.
Christopher: Fantastic. And so “Authentic, engaging, and cooperative” is the tagline or the slogan for dynamicmusicroom.com, and as I hope this conversation shows quite well, there is so much that adult learners can pick up from the world of early music education and so much that independent learners can learn from teachers talking to teachers about it, as you do on your website. And so I wonder if you could just share a little bit about what you’re up to at dynamicmusicroom.com and what people can find there and what’s coming up next.
Zach: Sure, yeah. Right now, I only started this about four-ish months ago. I’d been sitting on the idea of starting something like this for a long time, and then finally, I’m just going to do it. As I move forward, right now I’m just putting out a lot of content, a lot of helpful resources for teachers that I feel haven’t quite been answered as specifically as teachers might want or are held back by the experts from yore, who they won’t… “Yeah, here are all the answers. You got to buy my book, though,” and that kind of thing.
Zach: I want to provide helpful resources for teachers to get into things and to get their buy-in, and then my goal is to eventually flesh out more about the authentic, engaging, and cooperative learning, flesh it out even more. Because I kind of explain it, and maybe it’s clear, maybe it’s not, maybe I ramble, but I want to flesh it out even more, maybe like a course. I don’t want to say a book, because I think books are just, they’re good, but you need to see someone doing it or do it yourself. Obviously, that’s what I believe. So maybe at some point coming out with a course or a guide for including these three things more in their classrooms, regardless of whatever kind of teacher they are.
Christopher: That sounds great. Well, I said to you before we hit record, how much I was enjoying looking around your website, and so I would really encourage anyone who’s enjoyed this conversation to go and check out dynamicmusicroom.com. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes for this episode at musicalitynow.com. Zach, I’m excited to see what you move on to next with that website, the new resources you’re putting out, and definitely, if you come up with a course in the future, I will be one of the first people lined up to take that. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Thanks so much for having me. I’ve loved doing this, and I love what you guys are doing over there at Musical U. It’s really cool.