“If you want your children to be brilliant, tell them fairy tales.
If you want them to be exceptionally brilliant? … Tell them more fairy tales.”
-Attributed to Albert Einstein
I’m talking a lot and writing a lot and thinking a lot about creating a musical culture in a school. What does that mean and how does one actually do it? Thanks to the presence of the Interns, who are causing the SF School music staff to reflect even deeper than we ordinarily do and are casting their own mirrored reflection on what they see back to us, I keep coming back to the Singing Time we have every day with the elementary children. I’ve come to realize that it is a rare part of schools and school music programs and besides the long list of benefits regarding language, math, history, it plays an enormous part in developing our children’s musicality. Just how and why is worth a ponder.
A song is a remarkable piece of technology. As mentioned above, it carries stories, sentiments, patterned mathematical structures, vocabulary, rhythm, rhyme and much much more. But the melody is at the center of most music and the daily immersion in a wide variety of melodies brought close to the heart and into the ear through the voice also feeds the mind’s understanding of both the similarities and differences in melodic shapes and phrases.The mind begins to absorb the larger patterns of melody-making and starts to make predictions. Such predictions form a feedback loop, reaffirming understanding when they’re correct and enlarging it when they’re not.
Each new song a child learns goes into the mind’s storehouse, where it serves as a point of reference for the next new song. When a new song is learned, the mind searches for familiar patterns and tries to relate the new information to what is already known. Not just in music, of course. All knowledge is based on prior knowledge and our first strategy when we encounter something new is to try to compare it to something familiar. I noticed when my wife and I traveled around the world years back when places really were different, that we were constantly commenting “This place reminds me of that other place” in an effort to orient ourself. We in fact do this with each new thing or piece of information we encounter.
The more examples we have in our storehouse (Einstein’s “more fairy tales”), the deeper richer and more textured and nuanced our understanding becomes. And the quicker we learn the next new thing. One of the most impressive things guests notice when they come and teach a song to our kids at our school is how fast the children absorb it, learn it and remember it. And it is no small part due to that storehouse of over 150 songs in diverse styles that the kids in our school know.
Without such prior knowledge, without a storehouse of diverse stories, melodies, emotions, perspectives, what have you, the learner simply cannot advance very far. So one of the best strategies for creating the above average children every parent wants is to to fill their storehouses with plenty and make sure that plenty is of the highest caliber. It’s not only that the kids in our school know lots of songs, it’s that they know lots of great songs and lots of songs from different places in different languages from different times and different cultures. The grain in their storehouse is both delicious and nutritious,filled not only with songs, but also stories (story and storehouse are etymologically related), dances, experiences in nature, exposure to dynamic ideas.
I don’t need much convincing that education is important, but when I think of what dry schooling or overhyped pop-media throw into the children, preparing them for nothing but either boredom or hypermanic sensation, I want to shake the culture by the shoulders and shout, “Wake up! Put inspired schooling at the top of every budget and town meeting and give the children what they deserve.”
Friends, sing lots of songs with children. Lots. You’ll notice the difference. And tell them some fairy tales while you’re at it.