Listen Purposefully, Avoid Tuning OUT

We are surrounded by sounds, but how well are we listening to them?   Is there too much so that we “tune out” the sounds, ignoring it like “musak”.   Or can we hear the violins play the melody, and the horns play the ominous chords that helps us feel the building tension in an orchestral piece about a thunderstorm?  Can our children recognize the difference between different types of drums?  We are either training our brain to listen purposefully, or we are training it to “tune out”.

There are so many sounds in our busy world these days that we learn to “tune out” most of the ones that aren’t directly effecting us at the time.  The interplay between our brain and hearing mechanisms that allow us to block out certain sounds is a wonderful ability that our ear has, and is not something that can be duplicated with technology.  Ask anyone with a hearing aid how they miss the ability to choose to focus on one sound, instead of hearing everything at the same level.    This is truly an asset when we are trying to focus on something. 

Yet, if our brain makes it a habit to ignore the background sounds, it lessens our ability to be fully aware of our environment.  That is why it is important that we limit the continuous background sounds in our environment, such as the TV, or even music if played all the time.   I knew a fabulous mom whose 2 girls were involved in Suzuki violin lessons.  As part of the methods for training the ear to hear the right sounds, it is important to listen to this music regularly.  In her zeal, she had this music playing in the background of their room all day and all night… for months.  This is sensory overload, and the brain simply cannot process continuously like that.  She appreciated this new perspective, and chose times to play it that the girls would be receptive to this auditory stimulation; as they were getting ready in the morning, before practicing the violin, and while relaxing before bed.

Families can consider and CHOOSE times that will work best for music to be played in their home, or even in their car.    Play SONGS at a time when you and your child can interact with fun activities, even if singing along and talking about the music in the car.    Play instrumental music while they are coloring or doing some artwork.  OR play soothing music as a child is going to sleep.  Just don’t have sound going on all the time.  The brain needs a break so it can listen with refreshed awareness when it does get a chance.

In order to develop our ability to “tune out” the irrelevant sounds, and to focus on the important sounds, we must PRACTICE active listening.  This means engaging our brain in the active decision to reduce our own sounds and pay attention to the details of specific sounds that we hear.  In class, I suggest rubbing the ear lobes before an active listening opportunity.  This helps stimulate MANY neural connections that help us pay attention and listen.  With practice, a child, when told to listen carefully, will start to rub their earlobes and close their mouth – waiting for the sound.    Music is a wonderful venue for learning to listen with purpose.  There are many things we can listen for: 

  • We can focus on each instrument separately to hear their particular “voice”. 
  • We can try to listen to the words to determine what the song is about, or to learn the words. 
  • We can listen to hear if the music seems happy, soothing, or sad. 
  • We can listen to sounds of real creatures or objects and try to imitate the sounds. 
  • We can listen to patterns in music, anticipating, and making sounds or actions at the right place in the music.  Ex,  If your Happy and you Know It  (clap, clap)  This is the beginning of ensemble development – playing instruments with others.

Practicing active listening provides lifelong benefits. It’s necessary for following directions at home and at school. Preschoolers are developing the ability to notice subtle differences of sound, such as listening to many different styles of drums, and naming that style of drum- something he wasn’t ready to do as a toddler.   

In our Imagine That class this week, and at our Studio Free Play on Saturday, the students were able to feel and hear the sounds of a variety of REAL drums, such as a djembe (African drum), a Native American Pow Wow Drum, and even a SNARE Drum.  They got to feel the curled wires underneath the snare drum.  They made an “ooooh” sound near it, and heard the buzz, and they played with drumsticks on the top. 

This hands-on experience was delightful for all, but even more than that, it has laid a concrete foundation for them to start really HEARING the different timbres of drums.

HOME ACTIVITY with the DRUM !!!

During some of our movement activities, we are practicing active listening as we listen to how the drum is being played, and try to determine HOW it is telling us to move.  For example, the drum is played with a nice steady beat for “walking”, or a fast steady beat for “running”.   The students listen, and determine HOW to move.

After much practice, they are quite the experts at listening to the sound, and they are READY to use their creative thinking to figure out HOW to make the drum sound like we want others to move. Start with “walk” vs “run”: then explore tiptoe, march, slide, spin. We will continue to explore this in class next week.

So this week, take time together to “put on your listening ears” and discover all the wonderful sounds around you. 

What do you now HEAR that you didn’t really recognize before?  How will you “train your brain”?

Benefits of Beats for Babies and Beyond

Why do I need to spend time with my child focusing on Steady Beat?  There’s an old adage, “With age comes wisdom”.  And then there’s the comedy trailer, “… and sometimes age comes all by itself.”    The same is true for steady beat. 

Most people don’t understand its importance:  in an international study by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, the majority of 2,000 teachers and 5,000 parents indicated steady beat was only of moderate importance, and that no teaching was necessary for it to occur.  (Weikert, 1999)

BUT, a steady beat does not develop along with the ability to walk.  Just because we have a steady heartbeat does not mean everyone can match the beat of recorded music.  There are plenty of adults who don’t have this ability.  How many of you KNOW someone with “two left feet”?   It doesn’t mean they can’t learn it.  It just means they haven’t…  yet.     

Steady Beat, at any age, must be experienced fully.   And “developing a sufficient level of competence requires support from knowledgeable adults and plenty of opportunities for active engagement in targeted learning experiences.”  (Weikert, 2003)   In other words, get with someone who knows what they are doing, who can provide a wide variety of activities that can help that skill develop.

If this worries you as a parent (if you feel you have two left feet), be comforted.  For one – please realize that parents do not have to dance with a perfect beat, or sing with a perfect pitch.  Your joyful musical interactions with your child are beneficial across so many developmental realms – the musical benefit is just one of them.  Just KEEP making music with your child, even if you can’t “carry a tune in a bucket”, or you avoid skipping rope like it’s a snake!

In Kindermusik, a licensed educator facilitates the class, providing the “knowledgeable adult” who will help both you and your child to experience and develop this skill.  Even in class, we offer a variety of options, allowing each individual to find their own “best way” for beat development.   It’s never too late to learn !

So WHY is it so important to teach it to my child NOW?

Like learning a language, steady beat, rhythms and pitch of music are best learned through immersion at a young age.  As we talk, sing, and interact with our children throughout the day, they are naturally learning and using the same skills that are somewhat more difficult to learn later in life.   With each repeated steady beat activity in childhood, the early neural networks are laying a solid foundation upon which MUCH MORE information will be connected.   As the child is developing the concepts and skills, the benefits start working right away !

The consequence of insufficient steady beat experiences in early years can result in poor physical coordination, halting speech (in some cases, stuttering), and even weakness in thought flow. 

 So, really, how important is  steady beat competency?

Of course, there is the fact that a good steady beat is required for any musician to play an instrument effectively, as a soloist, or as part of a larger group of musicians;  and the sooner they learn it, the better.   Formal music instructors on any instrument, including the voice, can guide the child’s progress so much more effectively if the student has already have mastered steady beat.  Just ask a music educator.  You will get an earful.

But if someone is not planning to become a musician, how much does it really matter? 

Steady beat is an organizer for the child, purposeful and calming.

This skill is required for many physical abilities, both large motor skills, like walking, skipping, and bouncing a ball, as well as fine motor skills, like using a pair of scissors, or chopping vegetables quickly like a master chef. 

Because beat, rhythms and pitch are also a part of language, the addition of rhythmic and music experiences in their daily routines also supports the child’s development of speech, communication, and writing skills.  Actually, we KNOW that steady beat can help those who stutter to speak more clearly.   Some Scientists believe that a poor sense of rhythm could be the cause of dyslexia.  “Researchers concluded that an awareness of beats can influence the way young children assimilate speech patterns, which may in turn affect their reading and writing abilities.” These examples underscore the importance of steady beat in helping children make sense of their world and organize their responses.”  (Education Tuesday, 23 July 2002).

Feeling and moving to steady beat develops a sense of time, and the ability to organize and coordinate movements within time.   (A sense of time… what a great gift to give your child. )

The research carried out by High/Scope Educational Research Foundation (Timing in Child Development,  Kuhlman & Schweinhart, 1999) shows a positive correlation of steady beat to many academic and school skills, as well as physical coordination. 

“Standardized testing shows that children with steady beat independence are better readers and more successful in mathematics.  Further, teachers report that children with better abilities in steady beat are more well behaved in class and have less aggressive physical contact with other students.  Steady beat seems to help in these areas because it contributes to children’s ability to concentrate, to understand space and distance, and to have better control of their actions.”  (Weikert, 2003)

Wow !  All that can come from learning to keep a steady beat !?!   How can that be?

Well, let’s take a look at which basic skills are involved in developing true competence with steady beat:

They must LISTEN – intentionally listen – well enough to feel the beat in their head and in their body.  That, in itself, takes training.

They must OBSERVE – to watch closely enough to match the actions of others;  from the early stages of learning to keep a basic beat, to when they become involved with ensembles (playing music with others in a group).

They must CONTROL their movements, not just for a moment, but over time -coordinating their actions according to what they HEAR and SEE – repeatedly and consistently.

These are a fabulous set of skills to continually practice and develop for any aspect of life (and they do not necessarily develop in the natural course of aging.) 

Fascinating, isn’t it?   Now that you know WHY, let’s move on to WHAT &  HOW:

A Parent’s Guide to Beats and Rhythms –  includes games to help clarify these topics

Developmental Progression of Steady Beat – how the skill develops over time

The best teaching methods for parents to use, with links to a wide variety of ideas specific to each age group;  babies, walkers, preschoolers.

References

Insights on the value of music and steady beat  article by Phyllis S. Weikart   This article helped me round out a lot of my thoughts on this topic, and is referred to regularly in this review.  It is well worth your time to read the whole article, which also includes other musical skills such as pitch. http://www.childcareexchange.com/library/5015386.pdf

BBC News Education. (Tuesday, 23 July,2002). “Poor Rhythm ‘at heart of dyslexia’.“ pg. 1.

www.highscope.org/Research/Timing  Paper/timing study.htm

Weikart, D. P. (1999). What Should Young Children Learn? Teacher and Parent Views in 15 Countries. Ypsilanti, MI:  High/Scope Press.