Designing for Joyful Learning, with Anne Mileski

Today we’re joined by Anne Mileski of and The Anacrusic Podcast. Anne is trained in several of the musicianship approaches we’ve covered here on the show before, including Kodály, Orff, Dalcroze and Music Learning Theory, and her mission is to make music teaching as purposeful, sequential, and joyful as possible for music teachers everywhere. Anne really stands out as someone who draws on each of those approaches to musicianship training to develop her own very well thought-out material. And she shares this with other music teachers through in-person workshops as well as her popular website and podcast.

We really enjoyed getting the chance to talk to Anne about her experience and observations of the various approaches to musicianship training, and we’ll throw in our normal disclaimer that although some of the specifics we’ll be talking about are geared towards music teachers and early childhood music education, if you are an adult and/or a student yourself, keep listening! There are plenty of insights and valuable nuggets for you in here.

We talk about:

  • Anne’s own musical upbringing and a few key experiences, both positive and negative, that influenced her own musicality and how she approaches her teaching
  • The relative strengths of Kodály, Orff, Dalcroze, and Music Learning Theory
  • The importance of sequencing in teaching and learning – and the two timescales you need to be thinking about for designing effective music learning sequences.

Anne is a great story-teller and we know her stories will resonate with you, as well as her insights on singing, sequencing, improvising and more.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show Anne, thank you for joining us today.

Anne: Yeah. Thanks for having me, I’m excited.

Christopher: So you specialize in early music education, and I would love to hear about your own early music education. Was it so good or so bad that it inspired you to go into this area yourself?

Anne: Oh my gosh, that’s such a loaded question. My early musical background, in terms of school music, is memorable in bits and pieces but is very different from the way that I teach as an early childhood music teacher. The biggest influence in my life was actually my father. I grew up in a really musical family, my dad was a high school band director, a composer, so I grew up in this really rich environment of musical everything all the time. I grew up as a trumpet player, and singing in a university children’s choir, and taking piano lessons from the time I was four til I graduated high school. I felt really, really moved by music, I felt like that was a huge part of who I was.

Then when I went to college I decided I wanted to do something totally different. That completely bombed because when I got to college I just was a total fish out of water, I felt really, really uncomfortable and like I couldn’t my way because I wasn’t doing anything with music. So after my first semester at university, I transferred into the music school at the University of Michigan with my trumpet. From there, I trained to be a professional trumpet player, it was my goal to be a trumpet player in an orchestra. Moving through undergraduate studies I decided to go do a master’s in trumpet performance.

I was in my master’s program that I actually met a wonderful elementary music pedagogue by the name of Julie Scott. She kind of showed me what elementary music could be. I thought if you were going to be a music teacher it meant you were going to be a band director. While I have lived that life, and it was a wonderful like and lots of cool things that my dad got to do, and I got to do as a student of his, it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. So once I got a little bit of a glimpse at how rich elementary music could be and how it could impact kids in a lot of different ways outside of just musically, and then having the opportunity to work in some preschools, and some early childhood situations, I just really found my footing there.

It was a little bit of a curvy path to get to being a childhood music teacher. I would definitely say that the influence of just growing up in that musical environment, and having the experience to be really proficient on my instrument sort of paved the way for where we are today.

Christopher: Interesting. I definitely want to come back in a minute and talk about what she showed you that opened your eyes to what early music education could be, and compared with your expectations. But first let’s go back a little bit, because you mentioned your memories are … You’ve got little bits and pieces of what the journey was like for you, and you just said it was a bit curvy. I’d love to ask, what were the other memorable phases or moments for you developing as a musician before you went down this path of becoming a teacher?

Anne: You mean growing up, like in my school years?

Christopher: Yeah, what kind of musician were you, or what was the music learning experience like for you? We’ve had guests on this podcast who just learned playing in their church gospel band, others who were learning sheet music note by note, some who are very music theory oriented, others who were on the jazz improve end of the spectrum. What was that like for you? What was your music education like?

Anne: Well to be very honest with you, it was very formalized in the sense that it was very reading notation driven, I guess. That’s not a very clear way to say it, but I remember, and my brothers would admit to this too, we were all great readers, so we were great sight readers. You know, you have a week in between your piano lessons, and then your piano lesson’s on Tuesday, so Monday night you’re reading through everything so that you go into your piano lesson and make it through, right? Of course the piano teacher always knows, as they always do.

I remember kind of relying on that, and not being able to play by ear very well at all, to be very honest with you, throughout my high school days. So when I got to college I kind of continued along that trajectory. It was really reflective in my playing, to the point where my undergraduate teacher, there were a couple of experience I remember, particularly with this. But my undergraduate teacher, one day in my lesson, said, “You can’t hear anything that you’re playing.” I just kind of got very quiet and thinking, “Yeah, that’s definitely true. I’m just pressing buttons and looking at the notes.” So he’s like, “You need to sign up for the Jazz Lab Band.”

I looked at him like he was crazy because at my university, it was very much… There were a couple of people who did both jazz and classical, but it was a very direct road. Like if you were in this studio, you were going to be a classical trumpet player in an orchestra, or a military band, or something like that. And if you were in this studio then you were a jazz player. And the two very rarely crossed because the teacher for the classical studio didn’t really dabble in jazz at all, unless it was in an orchestral context, but that’s a different story.

Anyway, so he had my sign up for the Lab Band, and I remember there was one day that… And the director knew that I was Anne In This Box, had not played jazz every in her entire life. He just went around the room one day to improvise, and it got to me, and I literally could not play anything. I literally, I was just like, “I can’t do this.” I was like, “Pass! Somebody else can go now.” And he just kind of looked at me and moved on, and that was the end of it.

But you know, obviously that’s something that stuck with me, it’s been over what? 15 year now? Longer than that since it happened. Looking back that’s really kind of sad in a way because I should have tried something, but I was so in my head and so about making things right that there was no way I was even going to try.

Playing by ear is really having a good idea of the context of the musical situation that you’re in and being able to sort of process what you want something to sound like before it comes out, right? That’s how I think about it. For me, ever practicing excerpts, practicing orchestral excerpts, practicing more of these well known classical things, there are times I would have a really good aural picture of what something should like before I played, but then there are other times that I didn’t.

That’s something that my master’s degree teacher told me. I was playing a really complicated, almost atonal, etude in one of my lessons, and he kind of pulled the same thing on me. He’s like, “You have no idea what you’re playing.” I was just like, “Yeah, that’s true.” He’s like, go to the practice room, sit at the piano, and you need to be able to sing this before you can play it. I did that and then I came in and he was like, “Okay, now we’re talking. Here’s the next one.” Like, now we can check that off.

I hope that answers your question. I think that for me, improvisation is something that still does not come naturally on my instrument because I honestly think that that is an extra step. It’s something that now, after doing lots of elementary music, pedagogy training, and thinking about how to teach it to kids, comes much more naturally to me in terms of singing. And I am not a classically trained singer, I am trained to the point that I teach children to sing, but I would never go audition for an opera or something. That’s more natural because of the way that your brain processes music, and being able to sing something is very different than being able to process something and then put it on an instrument, because there’s an extra step there.

Christopher: Very good. I’m going to add that to the list of things to cycle back to in a moment, that singing, improvisation. I love the way you talked there about how playing by ear works and then nuance od improvising because, as you say, it is an internal and an external skill, it’s not just magic on your fingers on the instrument.
First, you mentioned a couple of really memorable experiences there that were both kind of a blow, by the sounds of it. Like emotionally, it was hard advice to hear. It clearly did you favors in the sense that it opened up your ears and you put in the effort to live up to what your teachers were saying you could do. But at the same time that’s not the most encouraging. You clearly, you had a great trajectory through music and into becoming a teacher. Were there any kind of counterbalancing experiences that encouraged you that yes, you were becoming a good musician, you were someone who was cut out for this?

Anne: Yeah, absolutely. First I want to address what you said. Yes, there were definitely blows, but bear in mind that I was training for a situation where if you don’t go in an orchestral audition and play perfect, you’re not even considered. It’s not just playing the right notes, playing the right rhythms, it’s a lot more beyond that. But that’s the first step. There were days that I would leave a lesson crying, but I always learned something from the situation, so there’s that.

But there absolutely were counterbalancing moments. When I was in high school, I mentioned earlier how I kind of pushed back against this whole idea of being a musician, and largely because that was what everybody expected out of my, and that’s what I was always good at. Since I felt like I always good at it, I wanted to try something different, which maybe seems weird. It’s like, “But I’m also good at school, and I like math and science, so let’s go do this thing.”

Anyway, I remember when I was in high school, I was a sophomore, so I was in my second year of high school. In the United States, in the state of Michigan, where I grew up, they do these proficiency tests. What it entails is you play a solo, and then you play scales, and you do sight reading, and they give you a numerical score out of 100 essentially. I got a 99 on my first proficiency. Like I said, I was a really good reader, and it was the first level of performance in this competition, so the sight reading was fairly accessible. The reason I missed a point was because I didn’t do a trill, because in my brain I was remember, like my piano background got the best of me, and I was trying to remember if the trill should start on the note above on the note that it was written. So I was just like, “I’m just going to skip it,” so I lost-

Christopher: I love that you remember that all these years later, that one point.

Anne: Oh yeah, that one point. But anyway, that’s okay. Never got as good of a score in my later years. But anyway, I remember I was outside after and the man who had judged me, knew my father because he was a band director as well, but he was kind of standing over by the window, this is very vivid in my brain. He kind of gave me that “come here” motion with his finger, and I walked over and I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it was essentially, “What are your plans in four years when you graduate,” and, “This is what you need to be doing.” I was just kind of like, “Okay.” I mean, I was what? 14? 15? I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, let alone what I’m doing in four years when it comes to trumpet.

But that really stuck with me, and the fact that somebody noticed that I just sort of had this natural … I resist the word talent a little bit, I think that’s a whole other podcast, but just this natural inclination. That it came naturally to me, and that if I really, really fostered it, it would probably be something great.

So there was that moment, and also the same moment that my trumpet teacher in undergrad … Well actually this is a different moment. He assigned me a very difficult etude, and it was when I was getting ready to go do master’s auditions. I was always pretty good because I got by, and I’ve never really loved practicing. I love playing, I love going and going and sitting in an orchestra, I love sitting in a brass quintet, I love doing all of those things, but sitting in a practice room with a timer for five hours was never my jam. When it came time to audition for master’s programs, I got really motivated because I had that goal.

So he assigned me a brand new etude that was really, really difficult, and I think he thought it was going to take a couple of weeks to get it under my belt. I walked into my lesson, and if I can be so bold, I totally nailed the snot out of it. I did, I played it really, really well. He just looked at me and pushed back his chair, and he said, “You mean to be telling me you can play like that and I haven’t heard you play like that for the last three years.” I was just like, “Oh.” I wasted some time, you know?

From that point on… It was rare to get a compliment from him like that. At least, I mean, obviously because I wasn’t practicing the way I should have been for the last three years. I mean, he was a very, very caring teacher. I love Bill Campbell with the University of Michigan, he is an amazing man, he really, really cares about his students more than just as trumpet players, just as people. Like we were really a family.

But it was rare to get a compliment like that because he was honest. And unless it was really, really good, he wasn’t going to tell you that it was really, really good. But that day he told me it was really, really good, and I rode that high all the way through my graduate school auditions.

So having that positive experience where I just worked my behind off and then got that positive feedback, and then went on to do fairly well with graduate auditions. That was a big, big turning point for me where I was like, “Oh, this is something I can actually do.” If I put in the time, if I really, really want it, if I’m working toward this goal, this is definitely something that I can do.

Christopher: Fantastic. I think that gives me a much better sense of where you’re coming from as a musician, that’s awesome. I want to come back to… I’m sorry I forget her name, but you had a pedagogue who was particularly inspirational for you, and said she showed you what early music education could be like. So now that we have that sense of who you were at the point where you were like, “Maybe I’ll become a music teacher,” what were your kind of mental notions of early music education and what did she show you that changed that perspective?

Anne: Yeah. I’d be so interested to talk to you on a later day about what the early music education is sort of like outside of the United States, because I’m just very ignorant when it comes to that, just to be very honest. But for me, and for a lot of people sort of my age, when you talk to somebody about their elementary music class they remember the musicals they put on, and playing the recorder. Those are the two things that everybody remembers. To me, I might not make friends if I say this, those are my two least favorite things teaching elementary music. I think that recorder can be done really, really beautifully, but at the same time, it’s just not my most favorite thing.

But anyway, that’s what most people remember, I remember that too. I remember going to the lunch room, because that’s the only place we had for a music room in my elementary school, and sitting on the benches. We would either be playing B-A-G on the recorder, we would be singing along to the prerecorded music for the musical, or we would be singing out of the textbooks, the music textbooks that big companies, like Pearson, puts out. Like Silver Berta and Nicky Music, maybe those are owned by Pearson, I don’t know.

Anyway, so I remember also reading the textbooks and singing along. Just kind of following the ups and downs and all kind of stuff. For me, kind of doing the monkey see, monkey do whatever … Singing first of all, let’s say this, singing first of all, no matter how you’re doing, I think kids love to sing and they love to sing in a community setting. When you get on a bus, what do kids start doing? They start singing songs. So, on a field trip or whatever else, I think that’s jut part of what they do, and on the playground, and all that good stuff.

However, I think that in music teaching environment there are things we can do beyond sitting and singing from a textbook, or singing along with prerecorded music, or just kind of playing fingerings on a recorder instead of knowing what the notes are. So that was my image of elementary music.

That’s not what sticks out in my brain about what formed me as a musician. I think about the children’s chorus experiences that I had, where we were treated like real musicians who needed to practice their music, and we went on tour, and we did recordings, that’s a very special experience, not everybody would have something like that. But that really kind of gave me an idea of what you could do with kids. I mean, I was in fifth grade when I was in that ensemble and got to do those sorts of things.

So anyway, my picture of elementary music was very, very limited, I guess. When I went to Southern Methodist University I met Julie Scott. Even though I was a trumpet player, I was randomly assigned to the music ed department for my teaching assistantship, to help them with things. At that time, Dr. Scott was working on her doctorate, she was working on her dissertation. So she had finished all her doctoral coursework and she’s back to teaching, still working on her dissertation. Her dissertation was all about Orff Schulwerk and the role of singing within Orff Schulwerk.

So through that I was talking to her about all these different people she had interviewed in the field and their take on what elementary music is like. I was also helping sift through different choral octavos that were unison or two part, so things that I sang when I was in children’s choir, and remembering all of these things. It was kind of this wash of stuff that just made me think, “Oh, this is so fun.” And in the meantime there was an undergraduate in the trumpet studio who was an ed major, and she was in her methods class, so we’d be sitting and lunch and she’d be doing her homework, and I’m like, “Oh that game looks like so much fun, and you’re using it to teach this.”

I just sort of had my eyes wide open for me, I guess, to realize that elementary music is not just sitting and singing. Which is so crazy to hear myself say that, because how many years have I been doing this, and up until the point that I really started doing it, that’s what I thought it was. I think that that is a very common misconception because a really, really great elementary music teacher is somebody who is not only helping build skills for children in terms of literacy skills and all of that kind of stuff, but also somebody who is taking the time to really, really build community, and build positive self efficacy, and all of those things when it comes to doing music, but also applying that outside of music classroom. Very little of that has to do with sitting and reading music. A lot of it has to do with everything else, right?

Meeting her … If I had to name one of the five influential people in my life, she would be right up there, because I wouldn’t be a music teacher if I wouldn’t have met her.

Christopher: I see. So you were exposed to offshore work, you decided that was the be all and end all, it solved all of your problems and you went on to become an become a music teacher for the rest of your life?

Anne: No, not even a little bit. At the same time I was doing my master’s degree, I was also teaching a part time early childhood music. The lady that I was working with doing that was a very, very Kodály inspired music teacher. The books that she gave me, so I knew what in the world I was teaching were the Lois Choksy, The Kodály Contracts and The Kodály Method. That gives you the sequencing and everything else for what to teach. Not that orchestral work does it, I’m not saying that in the slightest, but you can find resources that are more prescribed, we’ll say it that way, that have the title Kodály Inspired. That stuff we can get into a minute about how I feel about that.

I knew about orchestral work, I knew about Kodály, I knew that there lots of these different sort of pedagogical approaches to teaching elementary general music, and I knew that none of them included just sitting and singing. I think that that was the big eye opening for me.

Christopher: Gotcha. Yeah, without going down a rabbit hole of what things are like in the U.K. and my own early music experiences, I think that your description of it as “sitting and singing” or “playing the recorder,” unfortunately covers a lot of it, in a lot of countries. It’s interesting that there were those two pedagogical approaches that specifically opened your mind to what was possible. I know that you’ve also become a Dalcroze practitioner in some regards, and I’ve also I think seen mention on your blog of music learning theory and the various aspects of that.
I’d love to ask you, because there aren’t many music teachers I’ve met who have explored each of those to a decent standard, so I’d love to hear your perspective on how they all relate or don’t, how they fit together. I gather you’re not someone who is like, “Orff is everything.” No. “Kodály is everything.” No. “Dalcroze is everything,” and switched. So you have found a way to kind of reconcile them and draw on each. Maybe you could just talk about what you see as the strengths or what people misunderstand about each of them if they think it has to be all of nothing, choosing one.

Anne: Yeah, so that’s a loaded question. There’s a really, really wonderful text, if anybody’s interested, called Teaching General Music: Approaches, Issues, and Viewpoints, I believe is the subtitle. It’s edited by Dr. Brent Gault and Dr. Carlos Abril. Dr. Gault is professor of music education at Indiana University and Dr. Abril is a professor of music education at the University of Miami in Florida. They are both wonderful, wonderful pedagogy and they edited this book and brought together sort of their dream team when it comes to all of the different things that you need to think about and all of the different things that you need to consider when it comes to teaching general music. Within this book they have experts on Kodály, they have experts on Dalcroze, on Orff Schulwerk, on Music Learning Theory, on world music pedagogy, on constructive teaching, I mean, anything you can think of. It’s a pretty dense text and pretty comprehensive. So that’s a good resource for anybody because I am not the expert, I wouldn’t necessarily say.
If I had to put myself in a box, which I violently oppose and don’t like labels, believe it tr not, but if I had to be pinned down, to be put in a box, I would definitely say that I am predominantly a Kodály inspired teacher. I don’t really make any bones about that. And the reason why is because of in a way sort of that prescribed sequencing that I talked about.

Prescribed isn’t the right word, however, when you first begin to get into Kodály inspired teaching, or you get into getting Kodály certified, at least in the United States, there is a very, very good example of what a sequence would look like. Some people take that to be the prescription and other people say, “No, this is the example. Here is the essence of what it is, now I can take it and apply it to my situation.” Which is the whole point. So that’s a big misconception that it is prescribed, because a lot of the things that you see in textbooks or in training courses is that example. When people go into training courses or get textbooks, they want to see something that they can immediately apply.

The whole idea is that you see how to take repertoire, and how to take that repertoire and develop a instructional sequence that relates directly to the repertoire that you’re using, in the place that you’re living, with the culture of your students, and all that kind of stuff. It’s hard to wrap up in a pretty little box in a hot minute. But anyway, so there’s that.

Orff Schulwerk really has to do with finding ways to explore different musical concepts in terms of creativity. So, you see that throughout what would be considered a learning sequence, which in Kodály terms is generally taking a concept and preparing it, presenting it, and then practicing it. The Orff Schulwerk takes maybe that process, and improvisation is in there throughout. So the student has more opportunity to have their own definitions of whatever, and their own ideas, validate them, their own sort of musicianship come into play throughout the process. It may be considered more student drive, but I would argue that there’s Kodály teachers who do that really beautifully.
I am of the opinion that Kodály inspired teaching is not just about reading and writing, but I think people get really, really bogged down with that because it is so literacy based. I think that all approaches have that literacy component, it just maybe seems a little bit more clearly delineated in Kodály inspired teaching.

I think that if you can take the Kodály process and infuse some of the Orff Schulwerk inspired student agency along with the different Orff media, which is speech, singing, instruments, an movement, which allows each student to be their most musical selves, then you have a really, really beautiful package there. Then of course, Dalcroze is big part of that movement piece. What I love about Dalcroze is that Orff Schulwerk, when I first started doing my training, I think people are either really, really drawn to movement or they’re really, really afraid of it. I was really drawn to it, but I felt like I didn’t know enough about it, and how to use it really purposefully. While Orff Schulwerk allowed for a peek into that, going on to do some Dalcroze training gave me more tools in my toolbox essentially to be able to effectively to children and to teachers. I think that that is also a nice little piece.

The last one that I got training within that, I have the least amount of experience with, is Music Learning Theory. But what I love about Music Learning Theory is that Edwin Gordan really focused on approaching music as a language. So it’s lots, and lots, and lots of speaking before you read and write, and experimenting in sort of this oral/aural idea where you’re speaking and listening. So what’s great about that is sort of like Orff Schulwerk: improvisation is in there throughout. It’s getting in there and processing, and then processing what you’re thinking and hearing, and the context and then putting it out into the universe I guess. It’s very difficult to explain, it’s very, very heavy, Music Learning Theory is. I’m still working on that one.

You know, I think that, to be very honest with you, any of those tools can work together really, really beautifully, and it depends on the teacher, and their situation, and where they’re teaching, and the kids that they have, and the concept that they’re working on, or their repertoire that they’re using that’s going to dictate how they teach music. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether they’re an Orff teacher, or a Kodály teacher, or a Music Learning theory teacher, or a Dalcroze teacher, it just has to do with being a good teacher. If you can use some of those tools that come from those different approaches, that’s great. The more you know, the more you know, and the more you can do for your kids.

I always like to say, yes, if you have to pin me down, I’m predominately a Kodály inspired teacher, just because I thrive on that structure, I thrive on that framework, and being able to be flexible within it. I’m mostly active, maybe, I’m as active in the Kodály world as I am Orff Schulwerk world, but I do teach training courses for Kodály, so maybe I wear that hat a little bit more frequently. I like to say that I’m not a Kodály teacher, I’m a music teacher. I mean, I don’t teach Kodály to kids, I teach music to kids. That’s a very long winded explanation.

Christopher: It was a fantastic explanation, thank you. Depending on how familiar our listeners are already with each of those, I know they will have drawn a lot from your insights there. I did want to pick up on a couple of things you mentioned. One, was if you wouldn’t mind just briefly explaining the Kodály principle of preparing as the first step in a process of learning a new concept. I think that’s something that our listeners might not have come across before.

Anne: Yeah, so if you think about preparation, present, and practice, those are sort of the three P’s. People have variance of it, and they add in assessment at the end, or they have different … I sort of have my own terminology that is outside of the Kodály framework, but you’re talking specifically about a Kodály inspired teacher that you find in sort of that realm of the world. Prepare, present, practice: prepare is the whole idea of singing a song, playing a game, doing some sort of iconic representation if you’re talking more learning theory type stuff, so that students can aurally, visually, and kinesthetically understand a concept before they’re asked to name it. So the preparation phase is really sort of the exploration phase, that’s the term that I like to use, because you’re having them, being students, work within the context of a concept without really knowing what it is in terms of a literacy component.

So for me, when you get to the present moment, the idea is that the teacher is presenting this to the student as well. In my opinion, the students have already learned it, you’re just naming it for them. In the process of presenting or naming something, they get to see the formal terminology, the formal notation, and then they’ll probably practice reading and writing then.

Then when you go on to the practice phase, that’s when they can really apply all of that exploration and all of the literacy components to new experiences. So practicing creating the higher level practice activities like improve composition, all of that type stuff.

Christopher: Cool. So you and I were talking briefly before we hit record about the differences between children learning and adults learning, and I think this is a nice case because when you’re teaching children music, I think you get to start with a blank slate to a large extent. So you get to start in that prepare phase. What we find when people come to us at Musical U, they often think they’re starting from scratch, but essentially we have to explain to them, “No, you’ve already done all of that preparation. You already know what a wonderful five chord progression sounds like,” for example. So really our work is really in the kind of presenting and practicing stages of mastering the skills and really knowing mentally what’s going on. A lot of the internal work has been done. I always find it really interesting to look at teachers such as yourself and how you design things, because you’re starting from the very beginning, but you’re working through each of those phases.

One thing that I wanted to pick up on to is you mentioned sequencing when you were talking about the different approaches, and I know that’s a particular strength or yours as a curriculum designer. I wonder if you could just explain what is sequencing to a music teacher and where does this come up?

Anne: Yeah, so I think about it… There’s sort of two different ones, there’s a macro sequence and a micro sequence. So macro sequencing has to do with what you’re going to teach kids from the moment they come in your classroom at the beginning of the year through the end of the year, or through the end of their time with you, which for me I see my kids from kindergarten to fifth grade. So the idea of how are you going to build concepts from the simple to the complex.

When kids come to me in kindergarten, the very first thing they have to do is sing. You know, they have to learn to be musical if they haven’t grown up in a family where they sing songs, or play games, or that type of thing. So finding their singing voice and steady beat, because everything is built upon those two things. They can’t do anything with melody, or chord progressions later on in life, or anything else if they don’t have some sort of musical instrument, I guess. Singing is their first and best musical instrument, so that’s where we start. Then when it comes to steady beat, that’s the foundation for anything rhythmic.

So that’s where we start, and from there you build upon whatever will be the next smallest scaffold, I guess. Or the next building block in a sequence. So, for me I go from steady beat to faster and slower, right? Because there’s fast steady beat, and a slow steady beat, and all that kind of stuff. It goes on, and on, and on, and on building from the simple to the complex. That’s the idea of a macro sequence.

When you get to micro sequencing, that tends to be a little bit trickier because I think largely, at least in my experience, there’s some variation, but there are probably about two or three different sequences that I think most educators could agree are good for kids to learn music in terms of concepts, right? Some people say you should start with Do Re Mi instead of So Me- there’s all that kind of silly banter that goes on. It’s not silly because people are very passionate about it. I have an opinion, most teachers do, but at the same time, as long as you have a solid macro sequence, it really doesn’t matter where you start as long as you stay with thar trajectory.

Anyway, so the micro sequencing is a little trickier because you’re talking about how you start with steady beat, how you even begin to present that to kids so that they can master that concept before you move on to the next. For me, when I comes to micro sequencing, I think about a learning sequence in terms of a specific concept, and how I’m going to, as a teacher, gather resources. So that means, what songs, what games, what activities can I bring to my students to help the be their most musical selves. So it might be a singing game, it might also be an instrument activity, it might also be a dance, or a movement activity. Whatever I think will help as many students as possible sort of get into the next phase, which is exploration.

So that’s the whole idea of the aural-visual-kinesthetic prep, right? The whole idea of letting them experience and sort of speak the musical language before we get to the discovery moment, which is that literacy component. So saying, “Okay, we did all this stuff with this thing, now here’s what you were doing. Here’s the thing that you were actually exploring.”

Then moving on to extension, which is that practice phase. So they get to take all of the experience that you’ve given them, right? So you’ve built sort of schema or that knowledge context as well as a literacy component, combining the two to apply to a new context. Then from there, whatever they’re able to extend, or whatever they’re able to create with you turn into a sharing moment because music is meant to be shared. So whether it’s within the context of a class, or with parents, or the community, and then taking some time to reflect on that experience in terms of a lot of different things, but also how it pertained to the actual concept that you were sequencing through.

Christopher: Very cool. I think that’s a super valuable mental model for people to have as they’re exploring music. I think a lot instinctively think about that macro sequencing of taking a course, or figuring out what I’m going to work on this year, but I think very few of it really pause to wonder about the micro sequencing, and actually how am I approaching this thing, and what is a logical progression. I wonder if we could just take an example and briefly talk through what that would look like, if there’s a particular skill or topic where you could explain what each of those stages might involve.

Anne: Yeah, sure. Just really quickly, if I think about just taking, we call it ta’s and ti-ti’s, so if you’re taking quarter note into eight notes in kindergarten, right? Then end of kindergarten for me, so maybe I have a singing game where they’re singing a song with those two rhythm, so like apple tree is the classic example around here. So you know, “Apple tree, apple tree,” over and over, it’s kind of that ti-ti ta rhythm.

They play a game with it, then maybe they’ll take that same song, and after they play the game they’ll put the song in their head, but they’ll play the rhythm on rhythm sticks, so they’ll play the way the words go, right? That’s how we present it to little kids because they’re not thinking about rhythm necessarily. So, it’ll just be [clapping], and so on and so forth.

Then maybe they’ll step that in their feet. So they’ll go, ‘Tip toe walk, tip toe walk,” and then maybe we’ll put some icons on the board. So that’s like sort of the immediate preparation to that literacy component. So there’ll be two apples for apple, and then one apple for tree, and then two apples for apple, and the one apple for tree. So that kind of sets them up aurally, visually, and kinesthetically, right?

So they’ve had all of those preps … That was a super fast rundown. All of those preps going into, “Well, okay now we have all of these apples on the board, here is what musicians call this. And you’re really musician, so here’s our ti-ti, which is two eight notes, and here is our ta.” And then they go on to read it. So that’s all that the discovery or the present moment really is, it’s really just saying, “Here’s what you were doing, here’s what it’s called, here’s what it looks like.” And then you instantly move on to the practice phase. It’s just super duper quick if you’ve built that context.

So then moving on, you can have them take apple and tree, because that went over, and over, and over again and have them read different patterns, right? And then translate that into ti-ti and ta. Then they start making their own patters, and maybe they make a four beat pattern, or maybe they make an eight beat pattern, and maybe they share it with a friend and they put their two patterns together to make a longer piece. Then there’s your extension.

Then they go on to play those patterns that they combined together for the class, or maybe that turns into something that you record and put on a class blog or something. So now they’ve shared it and have the opportunity to watch it back and then reflect about what they did, and make decisions about whether they liked it, whether they didn’t like it. Maybe they could notate it if it wasn’t notated before. The opportunities are endless, you know? But the whole idea of just giving them, like I said, as many opportunities as possible to explore something aurally, visually, and kinesthetically. It can be as basic as what I just said, putting it in their feet. Obviously as kids get older there’s ways to incorporate more creative movement and maybe not so overt. Like put the ti-ti ta in your feet.

Finding ways to do it aurally, visually, kinesthetic, giving them that literacy component, and then instantly moving on to the opportunity where they can be the music makers, where you’re not necessarily just spoon feeding them.

Christopher: Wonderful, thank you. That was a perfect illustration I think of why that kind of framework is valuable. Because if you said to an average music teacher, ‘Teach them quarter notes and eighth notes,” there’s a lot to think through. Whereas I think when you have that step by step process in mind it’s a lot easier to be like, “Oh, we could do this here and that there, and build it up bit by bit.”

Anne: That’s one of the struggles too is I think especially for new teachers, if you’re not thinking necessarily this specifically, and this intentionally, and this sequentially about how you’re going to approach a concept, it’s really easy to just throw up a quarter note and two eight notes and say, “This is what this is called, now let’s do it.” But if you haven’t given kids, or adults, or anybody, an opportunity to sort of play with something first, they can turn out to be good readers, but they won’t be able to play by ear. Let’s bring it full circle.

I think that that’s what ends up happening a lot of times, and it’s not because those teachers are bad teachers, it’s just an awareness issue. I think if you can find as many ways as possible to approach music like a language in the sense that you are giving … My one year old, she’s babbling like crazy right now, she knows exactly what she’s saying. I haven’t got a clue because she hasn’t gotten that formal thing happening yet until she sees the cat and she goes, “Kitty,” right? I think that the more opportunities you give them to play, and babble, and experience things before you put it in a box. And then also once you put it in that box, giving them the opportunity to make it their own. I think it’s really, really important.

Christopher: Fantastic. On that note of putting things in boxes, I did definitely want to come back to something you said, which was when people come into your classroom, when kids come into your classroom, they have to sing. I know that some of our listeners, even just hearing that the kids were going to have to sing they will have tensed up and they will have been like, “Oo, can’t sing.”

I wonder if we could just talk a little bit about that and specifically you mentioned a couple of times there, kids love to sing and they sing naturally, and that is generally the case, and particularly at the younger ages. But I think it’s come up several times on this podcast with guests from different countries, there is this cultural thing of, at a certain point your class, or your teacher, or your friends decide you can or you can’t sing and you get put in that box, and that’s that for the rest of your life.

Of course, we’ve talked a bit about this on the podcast before and the complete nonsense that that is, and what you can do about it, but I’d love to hear … I guess a couple of things. One is what you do to head it off at the pass and avoid that happening in the first place. And I guess the second is if a kid comes into your classroom and they’re already in that mental state of, “I’m too shy or too nervous to sing,” or, “I don’t think I can sing,” is there anything you can do to kind of help them on to the right track?

Anne: Yeah. Before that do you mind if I tell a quick story?

Christopher: Please do, yeah.

Anne: For me, performance anxiety, I won’t go down a huge rabbit hole, but performance anxiety has always been a little bit of an issue for me. Not when it comes to playing trumpet, not when it comes to playing piano, but always when it came to singing. So growing up, I loved singing. I often say that if I would have had the opportunity to have a really, really awesome musical theater program in high school I probably would have tried to go to college for that. But anyway, just because I love it.

I remember growing up, I was in children’s chorus, but I remember I one year was singing for a school variety show, the jazz band was playing and I was singing. And the whole week of rehearsals of our technology week, it went great and I love it, I was having so much fun. And then something happened the opening night, because it was a three night show, the opening night that I was on stage and the band started, and I froze. I couldn’t run off the stage, there I was in my dress, with my microphone, with the jazz band behind me. So I suffered through it and it was awful.

I got a letter from a lady that was a member of our church later in that week that said that she was working the school, because she was also a teacher, but she was working in the school and she heard somebody singing on night, and she came in, and it was me. She was so impressed because she had never heard me sing like that. Not to say that I’m so wonderful, anyways. She had just never heard me sing like that, so she was really excited for opening night. Then she came and she noticed that I really struggled. She didn’t say it like that, but she said, “Being a singer myself, I know that whatever you were dealing with in terms of laryngitis or whatever-” because that’s what it sounded like, I was croaking like a frog, I was so stinking nervous. She said, “Whatever that was, I’ve been there. I know what that’s like and you need to keep going.”

Talking to you today, Chris, I feel like I need to write all these moments down. Throughout the last couple years because there’s some good stuff in there. But anyway, she wrote me that letter, and that’s obviously stuck with me as well. The thing is is that, something my trumpet teacher told me too, and I’m speaking of this because if there are people who are listening and who are nervous about singing or say they can’t sing, I violently reject that. Because everybody can sing, we’re all born with a voice. It’s just that we have allowed our adult psyche to get into our head about singing.

My trumpet teacher told me, when it came to trumpet auditions, because I used to be nervous about orchestra auditions obviously, and most of the time those are behind a screen, right? They put up a screen so it’s blind. He said, “You know, I’ve sat on those committees before and everybody sitting on that committee wants you to come in and do an amazing job. They want to find this amazing player, they want to find this amazing musician. They don’t want you to come in an fall on your face.”

And that’s something that I’ve really tried to keep in the forefront of my brain with everything I do, whether it has to do with music or not. People are rooting for you. If there are people just sitting there waiting for you to fail, they aren’t people that you would want in your universe anyway and there’s something wrong there. I think that you have to remember that in terms of singing.

Moving past that to get to the question that you actually asked me. When kids come into the classroom and they are five years old, very, very rarely are they coming in with the idea that they can’t sing. To be quite honest with you, I don’t give them the opportunity to even think about it because the way that I have my classroom and the way that I pace things is in such a way that first of all, I’m always singing. And second of all, when it’s their turn to sing, it’s not a, “Okay, Johnny. It is your turn now, would you like to sing or would you not like to sing?” It’s not like that. It’s like I echo sing to them, like “Hello Johnny,” and then I point to them. And if they don’t respond, I move on. Then the next day I come back, and then the next day I come back.

Because if a kid is resistant to singing in the first place, it’s probably because first of all there’s other kids in the room, right? They need to see you sing more, and they need to watch their friends do it more, and they need to find it in a fun way, like through a game or just quick, quick, quick with your pacing where they don’t even have time to think about it and it’s just what you do.

So that’s sort of how I try to facilitate it in my class. The times that I notice that kids don’t want to sing it’s usually because I’m trying to make a correction, and so that’s a tricky thing. If I sing the “Hello Johnny” thing that I just did, it’s early so I won’t sing anymore, if I do that to Johnny and he sings back and he’s not singing on pitch, and then I say, “Oh, listen to my voice again,” and then do the same exercise again, and he shuts down because kids are intuitive, they know that’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do that right.” Then you still move on. They just need more time to explore, they need more time to experience what’s going on in the classroom.

So yes, I believe that every kid can sing, I think unless they have already had a horrible experience by the time that they’re five, very rarely do I have an issue with kids at that age resisting to sing. So much of what happens in the classroom is game based, the pacing is quick, quick, quick, and they’re down to party. They want to come in to play. If it means they can’t play the game because they’re not singing, they’re going to make sure that they’re singing.

Now I have been in situations where I’ve gone to a new school or a new campus and so the fourth graders and the fifth graders, who are very preteen and way too cool for school, come in and don’t want to participate. That’s when you have to start getting a little bit more creative, because a lot of things have happened in terms of them being really, really aware of their peers, really, really aware of what other people are thinking or what’s going to come up later. So trying to find ways to bring singing out of kids at that age is a little more difficult.

A lot of times what I do is I either use an activity that they want to do as a carrot that they’re more comfortable because older kids are more comfortable with instruments, right? A lot of times what I’ll say is like, “Okay, we’re going to move to the instruments, but first we have to learn this song.” A lot of times that will bring it out of them. So it’s just sort of finding ways to make it a regular part of what you do if you’re in a music teacher situation. If you are an adult musician listening today, and singing is just like, “I can’t even think about doing that, it’s just too much for me.” I think like anything else, it gets easier the more that you do it.

I’m a big proponent of stepping outside of your comfort zone. I care a lot about what people think because I’m a people pleaser, but when it comes to trying something new, I don’t care what people think because I’m going to try something new to better myself. It might work, it might not work, and if it doesn’t work I’m going to learn from the experience.

Christopher: Fantastic. I think you’ve painted a great picture in this conversation of your approach to music education and I think it will have given listeners a really sense of how rich, and creative, and enjoyable it can be in terms of singing first, understanding what you’re doing, not just pressing buttons robotically, using games and activities, and having fun with it, exploring before you’re worrying about transcribing, you know? I don’t want to put you on the spot too much, but you can be as brief or as lengthy as you like, but I’d love if you could just say from your perspective what is the difference in terms of the musical results and the musical life of doing early music childhood education this way versus if we just call it the traditional way where it’s very sheet music focused with recorders and singing from the staff.

Anne: Kind of the old guard way, right? To say this, so growing up, my music teacher, if for some reason she’s out there listening, obviously had some sort of impact on me because I remembered it. When people think about, “Oh, I played the recorder,” some people are like, “Oh, I loved that recorder, I took it every day, and I practiced,” you know what I mean? That was still a positive experience.

But I think that it’s important to build those positive experiences. I work and have worked in places where coming to school is sort of an escape for some kids, it’s maybe nerveracking for some kids, every kid’s different and I really like to think about the music room as a place where everybody can come in and just be a member of the community and really, really love what they’re doing. I mean, yes, they’re learning, but they’re learning through play like children should. They can’t just sit and read and sit and do this, that, or the other thing. The music room, it’s my hope that most places, the music room is a place where they come in and they can just feel like they belong and they feel like they really are musicians, and they’re doing things where they have a voice and where they can work with other people and have a voice.

I also think that if you approach music education from the standpoint that I’m going to give kids the opportunity to explore, and be their most musical selves, and find as many ways as possible to sort of uncover that and tap into that for kids, that not only gives them an appreciation for music, but hopefully gives them sort of that higher self efficacy, that higher self image for other things as well. Like, “Oh, I tried this thing and it went really well, and I really liked it, it makes me want to do more of this thing. So maybe that’ll happen in this part of my life too,” right? I mean, maybe that sounds a little too … Is altruistic the words? That everybody says, “Music makes everybody better.”

I think that it really does have that power because of the way that you approach it and the community that you build in a classroom. Music teachers are an interesting breed because music teachers become, I like to say that music teachers become music teachers not because they want to be teachers necessarily, but because they’re musicians who want to bring something that’s tapped into their lives to other people.

So we’re certainly not in it for the mad cash flow a lot of the time. Not to say you can’t make a living, I mean, that’s a different podcast too. But anyway, I think that that’s why we’re music teacher, it’s something that …. Musicians are an interesting breed too because what they do is often their hobby, right? It really melds those two worlds. What is the saying? If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life, or whatever that is? That’s really and truly what I feel.

I’m going off the rails with your question, but I think that it’s important to build those communities and to really give kids the opportunity to just come in an be, and to create, and to just have the opportunity to be musicians instead of be parrots, I guess. To really put it bluntly. Which I think can unfortunately be a little bit of a trap sometimes depending on the approach.

Christopher: Absolutely. Wonderful. Well I think having heard you speak today our listeners won’t be shocked to hear that the tagline of your website is, “Purposeful, sequential, joyful.” I wonder if you could just tell us a bit about those three words, why you chose them, and what people can find on, and the Anacrusic podcast?

Anne: Oh yeah. So the whole reason I came up with that was just because those were sort of the three things that I try to infuse in everything I do. So the whole idea is that first of all, I don’t see my kids very often, and so a lot of times I want to make sure that everything that I’m doing in my classroom is really, really intentional. So if I only see my kids twice a week for 30 minutes, or you only have a music lesson once a week for 30 minutes, you don’t want to waste a second of that.

That’s why I mentioned my pacing is always … Even my transition from one activity to another has a really distinctive purpose. In order to find that purpose there has to be a thoughtful sequence. So like what I was talking about with the micro and macro sequencing. That helps sort of streamline or align whatever my goals are for a classroom, or a workshop, or anything like that.

Then obviously it needs to be joyful. I don’t want teachers that I’m working with, or kids that I’m working with to come in and feel like it is such a drag, it’s the last thing they want to be doing. I want it to be the best part of their day. Whether I’m working with teachers or I’m working with kids, I great them at the door, I say, “I’m so happy that you’re here.” I mean, all of that is really, really important. So I always say, “Find the purpose, be thoughtful with the sequence, and choose joy.” Because I think all three of those things are really sort of in your control. Like my husband likes to say, “You are in charge of your own attitude.” I think that that’s really true and you’re also in charge of how you want your classroom to sort of unfold. Being purposeful, and sequential, and joyful is sort of the decision that I’ve made about how I want everything that I do to sort of work.

I have my website, and my podcast, and my blog, and some of the resources that I do. I really intended for music teachers who are in a classroom setting, and I work with teachers regularly with workshops here across the U.S., and then I do teach some summer courses as well. I am also always working with kids. I work with the area youth chorus here in my town and a lot of the resources and things that I talk about on the podcast or on my blog stems from my experience with my kiddos.

Christopher: Terrific. Well I’ve said it before on the show, but I’ll say it again, some of the best stuff online for learning music is where music teachers are talking to music teachers. So even if you, yourself as a listener are not a music teacher, definitely check out and see what might be there that could help you in your own music learning journey. I’m sure you’re feeling inspired after listening to Anne today to find out more about her thoughts on these various topics.

All that remains is to say a big thank you, Anne. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you, and thank you for sharing so generously both of your own story and your expertise. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Anne: Thanks so much, really enjoyed it.

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