Goh Khee Meng
"Moving toddlers and parents with Soft Mozart in Asia"
Singapore is an island city-state in South-East Asia. It has a multi-cultural population of about 5.4 million people and the 4 official languages are; English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.
Just in case you thought Singapore was as big as Russia, this is the size in perspective. It’s just a little dot on the map.
Perception of Music Education in Singapore:
Parents in Singapore place a high emphasis on education. However, Music education is not always a priority. There is a high emphasis on the learning of Languages, Mathematics, and Science. Music education is mostly perceived as something “extra” or “good to have” by most parents.
Recently, thanks to much research in the importance of Music Education in Early Childhood Development and brain development, many parents are beginning to value musical training from an early age. Kindergartens and Childcare centres in Singapore are also beginning to place more emphasis on Music education in their curriculum.
As a result of this trend, many Music and Movement classes for young children are mushrooming across the little island of Singapore. These programmes range from both international to home-grown programmes that are entertaining children from infants till about 7 years old. Many Language and Literature programmes and Gym programmes also employ “Music” in order to engage children. These programmes successfully confuse parents into thinking that their children are receiving a Music education. Thankfully, there is a sector of parents who are more discerning.
Avenues for Music Education in Singapore:
Parents who value Music education for their children range from those who want their children to master a musical instrument as quickly as possible to the highest standards available to those who simply want their children to appreciate and enjoy Music. From the latter group, we get parents who would populate the Music and Movement classes. From the former group, we get parents who would send their children for the grueling instrumental programmes such as the Suzuki method, the Yamaha programmes or the “talent development” programmes in government initiated institutions
Most parents who are serious about Music education for their children send their children for lessons as young as three years old. That is because Music schools such as Yamaha previously only conducted individual classes for children aged about 3 or 4 years old. However, recently, these schools have created Music and Movement programmes for groups of children as young as 2 years old and younger. Still, these toddlers do not play on the piano but simply have music appreciation classes with lots of songs, props and activities to entertain the children. Many other home-grown Music schools have also emulated this model and created their own Early Childhood Music and Movement programmes. The idea is for the little children to lead on to formal individual piano/instrumental education in that particular Music school.
Typically, Music schools in Singapore teach a range of musical instruments such as the recorder, ukulele, guitar, violin and piano etc. Some even teach exotic musical instruments such as the Erhu and Yangqin (Chinese traditional instruments). Most of these schools use acoustic instruments to conduct individual lessons for their students in preparation for graded Music examinations.
Most parents would like to enroll their children for graded examinations conducted by the Associate Board of Royal School of Music (ABRSM), London. An alternative to ABRSM examinations is the Trinity College of Music, London examinations. This is mainly because the standards accredited by these schools are recognized by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore. Children with such skills are given priority for entry into Primary schools. By attaining at least a Grade 3 standard, students would be eligible to study Music as an academic subject in Secondary Schools. Scholarships for the Music Elective Programme (MEP) are also available for students with such qualifications. These students would also be considered for entry into prestigious schools such as School of the Arts (SOTA) or Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Thus, many parents do try to discover the talents of their children by starting Music lessons while they are still toddlers.
Moving Toddlers, a problem?
The idea of starting musical/instrumental training while children are toddlers does sound like an excellent idea. However, it does not take much musical or pedagogical genius to realize that children below 4 years old move a lot. The ideal toddler who would sit in front of a piano for 45 minutes enthusiastically practicing Bach and Beethoven rarely exists, if ever! Children at this age also cannot independently follow instructions and parents (and even teachers) are often stressed about the posture and fingering of these toddlers. Toddlers do not even appear to possess the awareness of having five fingers. They seem to only needed one finger to play every melody!
Hence, many Music teachers/lecturers and parents believe that children cannot learn the piano until they are at least 4 years old. This view is not surprising because children who are younger than 4 years old do not have the attention span to focus and sit in front of the piano for an extended amount of time. One Music lecturer in Singapore even told a parent of an eighteen month old boy, who signed up for our programme, that they have been taken for a ride because “children below 4 years old cannot play the piano!” Many who embrace this popular believe conduct sing and dance programmes for toddlers, not teaching any serious Music at all.
Brave parents who insist on getting instrumental lessons for their children end up enrolling for instrumental courses in which the simplistic tunes written in the method books fail to motivate the little budding musicians. Neither the parents nor the children were very impressed with themselves after weeks and weeks of playing simple tunes with the right hand, then weeks of playing just with the left hand before they play a piece with both hands at the same time on the piano.
As a result of the above, many parents think their children are not “gifted” in Music and many children themselves grow up feeling inadequate at making Music. Only a small number of persevering toddlers actually make it to study instrumental Music at Primary or Secondary levels while everyone else would be labelled “ungifted” in Music.
A Software That Moves The Perception of Parents and Children with Regards to Music Making:
Hitherto, Music programmes we have encountered either emphasized too much on the technical accuracy of the performance that all joy of making Music is taken away through the grueling repetitive and imitative approach to learning Music or they emphasized the process of helping children enjoy Music with minimal Musical attainment, claiming that it was the process and not the performance which is important.
The former approach of drill and practice had gained much admiration from many parents because children seemingly did achieve very high standards of musical performances, albeit without much affection for Music most of the time. The latter approach produced many children we loved Music and wished they could play some!
I had, for many years, thoroughly enjoyed conducting classes using the latter approach (typically based on the Orff, Kodaly and Dalcroze approaches) but I felt that though the children enjoyed themselves thoroughly, they were musically underachieving. I wanted something that could both retain the high standards of Musical rigour and yet provide a pleasant and exciting musical experience for the children. In my opinion, the Soft Mozart (SM) programme is able to merge these seemingly diverse goals.
I was introduced to the SM programme as one which is based on Russian musical pedagogy and which enables even children as young as 2 years old to play the piano with both hands by my Music college classmate, Nancy. At first, I was skeptical about the effectiveness of SM. Besides the claim of learning through imitation, which is used in the Suzuki method, SM also claims to enable children to read Music from an early age. Since children cannot read and write when they are 2 years old, it was hard for me to believe that toddlers can read Music through SM!
In spite of my cynical attitude, I could not deny the high standards achieved by Nancy’s children on the piano within 2 years of doing the SM course. To further support the success of this programme, there were so many other children who learned to play the piano (recorded on Youtube videos) through this same programme. The most amazing part was also to notice that these children seemed to be happy and enjoying the process of playing the piano. This was unlike my previous encounters with children who were drilled into practicing the piano with little or no enjoyment at all. These undeniable evidences made me take a keener interest in the SM programme. I had to make a paradigm shift in my mind regarding how piano could be taught.
Every aspect of musical training which was previously thought as only possible for older children are now possible for toddlers. Through the SM programme, toddlers were able to match pictures on the screen to the pictures which were stuck on the keyboard. That was to my mind an ingenious way to introduce children to Music notation. Though children cannot read and write yet, they are able to recognize and match pictures. It was amazing to see how the young toddlers are now able to “follow the score” through the SM programme. What was previously thought as an impossibility is now evidently made possible through SM.
My traditional musical training emphasized the need of getting the right fingering, technique and posture from the start. Toddlers on the SM however do not start this way. They may initially use only one finger to play the tunes but when they wish to improve their scores on the SM, they would naturally use more fingers; and when they wish to play the music up to speed, they would naturally adjust their posture and hand position.
In subsequent lessons, they also match these pictures with the pictures for each finger.
This was what Nancy, Ellize and myself witnessed in our SM students.
The perplexing dichotomy of either having good sight-reading skills or good aural skills have also been reconciled through the SM programme. Through the “guess key” and various note-reading programmes on SM, students train both their ears and correspond the sound with the note on the screen. It is therefore now possible to have both excellent sight-reading as well as aural skills; and to start doing all these as a toddler!
How I wish I had the SM programme when I was a toddler! In my personal experience as a Music student, my aural skills were often tested through music dictation and harmony exercises. However, I could not remember having been taught a systematic method to successfully complete these tasks. It was either I did them right, or wrong. The only feedback would be the score which determined whether I got a longer recess or not! Through the SM method, students are taught how to write musical dictation and how to compose Music systematically.
Even concepts like transposition was traditionally learned by rote as a matter of fact (especially before theory examinations), e.g. G Major has one sharp and so forth. Transposition on SM is more meaningful as it takes a tune and brings it through different keys.
Moving Asia through Sof Mozart:
Being now thoroughly convinced that SM can dramatically accelerate the learning process on the piano, as well as provide unprecedented motivational impetus for musical training, Nancy, Ellize and myself have setup a new Music School, Musikal Genesis, to focus on spreading this new Soft Way to Mozart. We hope this would put an end to the torturing process of learning the piano and many more children will grow up enjoying playing the piano. This is what many parents in Singapore and Malaysia hopes to achieve for their children as well. Thus we have every confidence it would be a success!
Our students are currently practicing on the SM programme so they can perform in a series of concerts around Singapore. Soon, little “geniuses” playing the piano will be on our news reports and Soft Mozart will be well-known to all in Asia. We have also made plans to bring this wonderful programme to China. We are sure our aims to achieve high musical standards while preserving the sparkle of interest in our children’s eyes will charm many parents to join our wonderful community of Soft Mozart in the near future.