More thoughts on teaching the ‘pitch’ concept
I find that for many of my students, pitch is the most intangible, hard-to-grasp concept of all the musical elements. I’ve experimented a lot with different ways to help children make sense of it and to get greater satisfaction from working with pitched instruments. Rhythmically the students are usually very strong, but I think that multiple pitches (indeed, multiple sounds) are often very chaotic for them.
Last week, leading workshops for the City Beats program, I worked with students from four different schools. I found it interesting that students from 3 of the 4 schools used the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ to talk about the difference between different string instruments (eg. violin is smaller than double bass and therefore makes a higher sound). The much more culturally-diverse group of the 4th school were more hesitant and unsure about the language to describe those same differences, instead using ‘loud’ or ‘big’ and ‘soft’ or ‘small’. Work I’ve done previously with musical contour has not transferred across to understanding how to find the higher and lower notes on tuned percussion. It’s as if the concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ don’t translate into musical concepts in some cultures and languages. That’s my suspicion; it is based on my own observations.
I don’t remember learning about something like pitch – I played a lot of music, and little by little, I absorbed musical knowledge without it every being explained to me. It was always quite evident to me that sounds move around, have different pitches, and the learning a melody means learning all its ups-and-downs, skips and rests. I approach my teaching and workshops in a similarly experiential way, but I also want them to have concrete knowledge and understandings to take with them into other music experiences. So from time to time, I try to unpack some of the theory or terminology of music, in practical terms – ie. “This is how this works in practice”.
However, we do very little work with pitch notation, which I think is a very useful way of making visible the differences between notes of different pitches. Lessons times at Pelican Primary are very short, with a huge range of abilities and needs. There is scant opportunity for the students to learn to play an instrument while learning to read pitch notation even with tuned percussion, as we don’t have enough instruments for everyone to be able to work at the same time, nor do we have a good room set-up for children to spend much time reading off printed documents or a projected page. (And they don’t have the patience or discipline to wait…!). I’ve experimented with a number of other ways to make the concept visible:
In one project, I asked invent and memorise melodies that they were learning by assigning different pitches to different parts of their bodies (eg. while seated on the floor they might touch the floor, their knees, their hip bones, their upper chest, their shoulders, their heads, to show 6 different pitches, from low to high), and to ‘play’ or perform melodies in this way before transferring them to instruments. I did this in detail in one project at the Language School, which followed on from an early exploration of the idea at Pelican Primary School, and the students engaged with the task very enthusiastically. However, when the time came for that melodic contour to be transferred to an instrument, I was disappointed to see that it offered some of the children no help at all in finding the pitches on their instrument.
So far, without the aid of pitch notation strategies, the work on playing by ear, and identifying when notes are moving by step or by skip, has been the most effective approach to helping the students develop an understanding of pitch. However, there are still a number of students in that class who don’t yet understand what I’m talking about, who are guessing, or copying others rather than using any conceptual tools. So we are still finding our way through the woods.