Music: A Multisensory Approach to Learning

Time for Music with Frank Leto

Frank Leto | June 2021

I have been a children’s music teacher for nearly half a century! I started teaching in Michigan and continued in the U.S. Virgin Islands, California, Hawaii, and New Mexico. In the beginning I was expected to create my own curriculum. Because I was a musician, everyone assumed I knew how to implement a music program. The truth was, I had no idea!

Fortunately in 1974 I received a scholarship to become an accredited early childhood teacher through the American Montessori Society. The Montessori philosophy and rationale inspired me to find an age-appropriate approach to passing on the language of music to young children. After careful observation, trial and error, and field research (classroom experience), I began to understand what young children need most from a music lesson.

Catalyst for Learning

Early childhood musical experiences are far more important than we imagine. Music is not just entertainment or recreation for young children. It can serve as a catalyst for learning. It aids in the development of cognitive skills or the core skills the brain uses to think, learn, read, remember, reason, and concentrate.

Research affirms the many benefits of music that extend beyond the craftsmanship and art of music itself. Music helps develop self-esteem, body awareness, balance, compassion and respect, sharing skills, gross motor control, fine motor control, problem solving, work ethics, and the ability to think creatively. These are the very skills that parents expect their children to learn at school.

It has often been said that music is the universal language. If so, then children should be introduced to music at the same time they are developing language, ages 1-5. Similar to learning a language, music needs to be in the child’s environment on a daily basis, gradually increasing vocabulary. In a preschool setting, this means creating a daily routine of interactive songs and musical activities aimed at developing basic music skills. Through engaging in the songs and presentations, children acquire a musical repertoire of melodies, rhythms, lyrics, and musical concepts. These early childhood musical experiences help them learn to focus, maintain attention, process information, and become better learners.

A Multi-Sensory Approach

The Montessori Method recognizes that each child has a unique way of taking in information; some children are very auditory, others visual, and some need a hands-on experience. Montessori is a multi-sensory approach, so the activities stimulate more than just one sense, thus fully engaging the child. I follow a similar approach when singing with young children.

The goal of a song is to invite the child’s participation through listening, singing, and utilizing hand motions or finger plays. The combination of these events holds the child’s interest from the beginning of the song to the end. The completion of a project is very important for young children; to successfully reach the end of the song leaves them feeling accomplished and builds their self-esteem. They often applaud at the end of the song! That applause is not for me. It means that they are proud of the fact that they completed the song.

Children learn through repetition. Doing something just once is never enough. It is important that they repeat the songs and exercises several times before moving on to new material. In my songs, I utilize a form of repetition called the “echo” or call and response. This is where I sing a short musical phrase and the children repeat it after me. Using an echo, they do not have to learn the song. They feel successful the first time they hear it, because they are simply repeating lyrics and melodies. The lyrics have accompanying movements or instructions, so the children repeat the phrase while performing the movements. The act of being my echo and merging the motions with the lyrics invites the children’s participation and keeps them fully engaged. Utilizing the echo improves their listening skills and their ability to follow oral instructions.

A good example is my song, “Ladybug.” We use our hand to represent the ladybug and start out with one hand behind our back. As I sing “ladybug, ladybug,” the children move their hand from behind their back while repeating my phrase. I then sing “landed on my head” (they repeat the melody and motion), “crawled onto my nose” (echo) “and over to my ear” (echo). “Ladybug, ladybug” (echo), “crawled on my neck” (echo) “and then she flew away” (echo). This is a very popular song with children worldwide.

I sometimes use verbal instructions for the children to echo. For example, I might say “girls stand up” (echo), “just the girls stand up” (echo), “girls touch your nose” (echo), “bend down and touch your toes” (echo), “girls turn around” (echo), “now turn the other way” (echo), “jump three times” (echo), “now quietly sit down” (echo), “thank you girls” (echo). They simply repeat my verbal commands while acting them out. By starting with the girls, I have created an expectation; the boys know that they will also have the next turn. This idea of creating and fulfilling an expectation is a tool I use to create enthusiasm for the lessons. As I am leading the presentation, I am constantly evaluating and assessing how well the child is doing. This allows me the opportunity to adjust the level of difficulty accordingly. I want it to be challenging, yet within the grasp of the child.

Once the children are comfortable with the concept of echoes, it plays a major role in future lessons: the introduction and performance of rhythm band instruments (tambourines, rhythm sticks, triangle, maracas, hand drum, and cymbal), solfeggio with the hand bells (Do, Re Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do), and even the introduction of rhythmic notation (a quarter note = ta, two eighth notes = titi, and a half note = to-o) all utilize the echo.

Create a Consistent Format

A daily music class with kindergarten-aged children usually lasts 30 minutes. I begin with verbal echoes and then proceed to echoes utilizing patschen (clapping, tapping knees, tapping the floor, snapping fingers, etc.). I then take out my ukulele and accompany myself by singing a few interactive songs. Half way through the lesson we stand up and dance or participate in a gross motor activity.

Besides my ukulele, I always bring a bag of rhythm band instruments. The bag creates a lot of excitement and is a good diversion from the other activities. All I have to do is say, “I have something in my bag I want to show you” and I immediately have every child’s attention. When I reach in the bag, I take my time and make noise moving the instruments around as if looking for a certain one. This again creates excitement and an expectation. When I take the instrument out of the bag, there is always an “ooh” from the children!

I introduce the instrument by telling them its name and allowing them the opportunity to hear and play it before placing it back in the bag. I always conclude my classes with a calm echo and goodbye song.

The songs and lesson content may vary, but the method and format of every class is the same, creating continuity and familiarity within the classes. These musical experiences become highly anticipated and appreciated by the children. I thoroughly enjoy my time in the classroom! I smile and laugh often. I genuinely have fun, which translates into the children having fun.

Building a Musical Foundation

My goal has always been to pass the language of music on to children. These early childhood musical interactions help them become better learners. They also provide a sound musical foundation. If these children choose to play an instrument in elementary or middle school, they most definitely will have an advantage and will certainly succeed.

Advice to parents: If you want your children to have a strong foundation in music, you must be a good role model. Sing and dance around the house and let your children observe you enjoying and interacting with music. Invite your children to join you and share the music that you like with them. Sing children’s songs and participate with them by acting out the motions. Take them to concerts or musical events. Allow them opportunities to explore playing musical instruments like drums or percussion. The most important thing is to bring music into focus! It is all around us, so draw the child’s attention to it, and they will fully appreciate and enjoy the wonders of music throughout their lives!

Montessori, Music