Turning Ordinary People into Musicians, with Casey McCann

Today we’re speaking with Casey McCann, founder of Eclectic Music and The Little Middle School in Atlanta. We had the pleasure of meeting Casey in person recently and found her to be such a kindred spirit in the way she thinks about music education and the importance of empowering musicians with ear skills and musicality from the outset.

Talking with her was so enjoyable that we knew we had to have her on the show, and share some of her ideas and insights with you too.

Casey is the founder of Eclectic Music which offers music lessons and classes to musicians of all ages, and The Little Middle School, a small private academic program for ages 11 to 14. Casey believes that anyone can learn anything, as long as they have the tools and guidance.

She especially enjoys working with students who have struggled in the past and helping them to find success. At Eclectic Music, they have the tagline of “Turning ordinary people into musicians”, which we love. And she’s also incorporated musicality training into The Little Middle School’s academic program, something we talk about in this conversation.

As always, we were keen to dig into Casey’s own early music experiences and how she developed her musicality before starting to help others to do the same. We talk about:

  • The key insight about guitar and music theory that let her immediately have new freedom playing piano
  • How she was able to start playing songs by ear, even without formal ear training
  • Why at her school they let students pick each day what instrument they want to play rather than expecting them to pick one and stick with it for weeks or months

There are a few really key insights in this episode as well as a refreshing and powerful philosophy on approaching music learning in general. We loved having the chance to speak with Casey again and we think you’re going to really enjoy hearing her perspective and seeing how it can impact your own musical life.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Casey. Thank you for joining us today.

Casey: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Christopher.

Christopher: So, I’d love to begin with a little bit about your own journey as a musician. Can you tell us, what were those early years like for you, learning music?

Casey: Well, I grew up in a musical family, and sometimes I don’t like telling people that, because they go, “Oh, well that’s why you’re a musician, because you were from a musical family.” But I’m one of four, and I’m the only one who chose a career in music. But, my dad is an amateur musician. He’s had a basement rock band since I was in utero and, so he’d play a lot of classic rock and then meanwhile, on my mother’s side of the family I had an uncle who was a concert pianist, and he lived with us for a while and so I’d fall asleep listening to Chopin nocturnes and Scarlatti sonatas on the piano. So, I grew up listening to a lot of music and a lot of different styles and my parents had a wide range of tastes, so I listened to everything from Patsy Cline to the Beatles to classical music, and with music all around, I actually didn’t take up an instrument until later than a lot of children do.

I started piano lessons at around age 11 and I picked up guitar in my teens after watching my dad play for years, and I’m kind of going, “Eh, I could probably try that,” and then, I was always singing, sang in choir, through middle school and high school and then I ended up picking up trombone in the high school band and just kept picking up instruments and decided to study music in college, as well.

Christopher: Well, with that array of instruments and styles, I’m beginning to see where the name “Eclectic Music” comes from. You these days have a really fantastic and remarkable method with the way you teach music and I’d love to know, has that stemmed from the way you were taught music early on, or were those lessons fairly traditional in the way they were taught?

Casey: That’s a great question. In my piano lessons, my uncle was actually my piano teacher and he was excellent at teaching musicianship and musicality, in terms of technique and artistry, so making the music sound beautiful. However, I did not learn music theory and I found reading music very difficult, so it wasn’t until I started picking up guitar in my teens that I started to figure out how chords fit together and then started to learn more by ear, and that in turn really helped me to understand the classical music that I’d been playing.

In fact, when I was in high school I went to a summer music camp. It’s called Summer Youth Music School. It’s at the University of New Hampshire, up in Durham, New Hampshire, and I was there – it was a great program, two week program, and there’s kids there. You learned jazz, you learned classical, so you take these classes and most of the kids really didn’t like the classes because they just wanted to hang out with their new friends from camp and get snacks out of the vending machine. And so we were in this dorm lounge and there was no air conditioning and it was a really hot day and so everyone’s just half-asleep in the afternoon after a big lunch but the instructor started talking about chords and what the notes are in the chords and how you build a chord like a major chord and a minor chord and a diminished chord and how the chords fit in with the key.

And this was like the missing information that I had never had before, because I was learning how to read notes on the piano, but it was always just individual notes. And then I could play the chord shapes on the guitar, but I didn’t know what the notes were that were in those chords. So this is the piece that fit it all together so I was, like, leaning forward and writing everything down and so into it. Meanwhile, my friends were on either side of me, like, dozing off. This is a moment that I have never forgotten, because that was really what allowed me to, kind of, combine these two sides of the music that I’m playing, the classical music on the one hand and these, these rock and pop songs by ear on the other hand, and now I could take all this knowledge that I had learned from guitar and start playing in a pop style on the piano and the strange thing is that that actually helped me to read music, too.

So I was able to then translate everything I learned about chords and be able to see the chords as they were laid out in the music, like, kind of, knowing that an E minor chord is E-G-B and so, kind of going, “Oh, well, that note must be a G and that note must be a B,” and in time I was able to actually read music, where before I’d really just been faking it.
So, with my students, I really want to give them both sides of their musicianship. I want to make sure that they can play by ear and they’re learning to read music and that one, kind of, helps the other. If you’re thinking of music as a language that you speak and read and hear, so to speak.

Christopher: That’s wonderful to hear about and I think it’s such a valuable insight for anyone. Whether or not you’ve gone through that particular journey, I think the pianists of the world tend to get trapped in just thinking about dots on the staff and thinking about each individual note, and the guitarists tend to get trapped in chord charts and just knowing the name of the chord and the shape on the fretboard and I can totally relate to where you’re coming from, because for me, I was stuck, actually, in both of those two worlds, totally isolated from one another playing guitar and piano until I came across, I think it was called “A Chord Piano Course,” and suddenly that made me realize, oh, you can actually play piano by thinking about the chords, rather than just, you know, dot-by-dot on the page.

Casey: Mm-hm.

Christopher: And I love that for you, you were able to also translate that to making sense of the dots on the page and giving you that new insight into how the sheet music worked.

Casey: Yes. The structure of it was really important to me and has continued to be fascinating to me, as I’ve progressed in my career that I feel like a lot of what I do with my students is, they come in and they want to learn how to play the song they’ve heard on the radio. And so, it’s my job to figure that out for them. And yet, as I had, you know, spent years doing that, I’m the one that’s getting all the benefit, because that practice of figuring out songs over and over again, whether it’s on the guitar or the piano or any other instrument, that’s how you learn to play the instrument, you know? In a sense, the skills you have as a musician are, “Here’s all the songs I can play,” you know, that the songs you can play sort of defines who you are as a musician. So, in figuring all these songs out I was really growing, so I soon realized that my job was actually going to be to teach the students how to figure out those songs and basically model that process so that they could do that themselves, because that’s what so many people, particularly adult students, want to be able to do, is they don’t really want to spend years mastering perfect classical technique. They want to be able to get together with friends and jam or, you know, play a song and have people sing along, and that’s – it doesn’t take but a few weeks to a few months to be able to do that, with a basic level of competence, if that’s what you’re aiming for at the start.

Sadly, a lot of teachers don’t know how to create that result for students and they want to be the one who’s like, “Well, let me show you: Buh-duh-luh-duh-doot,” you know, and show off, but ultimately it’s so much more empowering to students if you can be teaching them, you know, teaching them how to fish, as the saying goes.

Christopher: Right. So, let’s come back for a minute, if we may, just to – after you had that pivotal moment of, kind of, connecting the two worlds, how did the next few years go for you in terms of developing as a musician and becoming a music teacher? Were you mostly learning from book, or by ear, or a bit of both?

Casey: Oh, so I spent the next few years learning how to write songs and, playing in bands with friends and, figuring out songs that I wanted to learn how to play and I did take a music theory course. I went to a very small high school that didn’t really offer a music theory course, so I was just like, “Give me the book, and just let me learn something.”
I blazed through a semester’s worth of stuff in maybe, you know, two or three weeks just because I wanted to follow up from everything I had learned at camp and I just really wanted to get all that information. Not that figured base has been that useful to me in my music career, all these arcane bits, but, and then I did go to college. I actually got a degree in music education, and that was helpful and I did learn, you know, a lot of the more classical – I was actually a voice major, so I was forced at knifepoint to sing opera, that’s pretty much what it took, for me. That wasn’t really my strength as a musician, shall we say. But I did continue to write songs, continued to play, and so much of who I am now as a musician, although I love and appreciate the classical music that I’ve learned, so much of what I use professionally and what I use for my own enjoyment is the stuff that I taught myself sitting on the edge of my bed when I was 16, 17 years old, and so have devised the Sitting-on-the-end-of-the-bed Test, which is, you’re figuring out a song, and you go, “Well, you know, how hard could it really be?” You just picture some guy writing this song and they’re just kind of trying to put it together, casually, you know, at midnight, or whatever, when they’re sitting on the end of the bed in their hotel room, and so, it’s sort of like an Occam’s Razor of music, you know? Whatever is the simplest way is probably what they were ultimately doing.

Christopher: That’s a great point.

Casey: It’s easier than it looks.

Christopher: Yeah, and I’m sure that takes a lot of the overwhelm and intimidation out of trying to figure something out by ear for your students. That’s a really great visualization to have.

Casey: Yeah, to humanize these great artists and realize they’re just – they’re just people who made up something that they thought sounded cool.

Christopher: So, looking back, I guess it’s easy to see that you actually took a really interesting trajectory with your music learning and one that was maybe a bit different from the majority of people who are stuck in that world of scales and repertoire and passing exams and just reading the notes on the page. Were there any moments along that way where you realized that you had gone on this more interesting path that maybe was going to open up different doors for you, as a musician?

Casey: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that I really had that chip on my shoulder from starting late and not really feeling good about my ability to read music. I had an episode in high school where I was supposed to be the accompanist for a choir and I tried it and I really couldn’t do it, because I couldn’t read the music fast enough and I couldn’t figure out what I was missing that other people had.

Later on I learned that it was the chords, but it did take me, still, a few years to, kind of, get back to where I thought I should be, reading, reading music, so, it just seemed to me that I didn’t have a special talent for it that I saw other people, it seemed to come a lot easier to them, and found my way into being a teacher and had these hopes of being a songwriter. I wrote a lot of songs and was dabbling in being a recording artist and in my early 20’s I had the opportunity to go to this conference out in L.A. that was for songwriters and recording artists and it’s thinking about, maybe I could learn, like, could meet people or learn to write songs better, or learn to market my songs better, maybe get a song in a commercial or something like that. You know how in early adulthood, you have these possibilities of where your life can go and you’re just, kind of, pursuing all of them simultaneously.

So, I was really intimidated because, I was this girl from this small town in Maine and I was a lot younger than everybody else and less accomplished and it was real exciting and exhilarating but really intimidating.

So, at the conference center in the hotel they had a nook in the lobby. It was sponsored by a company, an audio company that had supplied a digital piano and some recording gear and a PA. And so, people would take turns and dabble on the piano, and as the night went on, people were sort of starting to gather around and people were taking turns performing a song, but of course, like, everybody there was a songwriter.

Nobody wants to hear everybody else’s songs, you know, you just, you want to hear a familiar song and so, I don’t even remember how I ended up sitting down at the piano, but I did, and, you know, somebody was like, “Oh, can anybody play this song?” and it was like, “Let it Be” or something. I don’t remember. Piano Man? And, and I was like, “Oh, I could try that.” And it’s something I’ve really come to enjoy is this sort of high-wire act of like, “Well, I’ve never played this song before, but I can probably, kind of, figure it out on the fly,” based on having heard it a million times and music – knowledge of music theory and then, sort of, trusting my fingers.

So I played the song and everybody sang along and then I started getting requests, like, people were like, “Oh, well, can you play Hey Jude?” and “Can you play…” you know, just listing off songs, and I sat there for an hour just playing song after song and some of them were things that I knew how to play and some of them were things that I had never played before but I knew and, and so, that was a turning point for me to realize that, “Well, you know, I may not be the virtuoso that other musicians are and I may not ever end up being a professional million-selling recording artist, but I have some legitimate skills, here, with the ability to figure out a song by ear on the fly and, and, and bring people the enjoyment of singing together.”

Christopher: For sure. I love that picture you just painted of you sitting at the piano, kind of busking your way through having not realized up until that point that actually, this was a really special ability and something that most people around you, I’m sure, at that time couldn’t do.

Casey: Mm-hm.

Christopher: That must have been a huge boost to your confidence. Did you return to your music learning with a new sense of who you were as a musician?

Casey: You know, I think that’s – it’s – isn’t it always the hardest for us to recognize the skills and traits that are special about us and the things that we can do that nobody else can do? I think that it was still something that, I just kind of assumed that everybody else could do, but that actually helped my teaching because it was something that I didn’t think of as a gift, I thought of as, like, “Well, I took these specific steps to learn how to do this. I have a process for being able to.” Maybe because I didn’t consider myself talented and I approached music in this very analytical way, a very, you know, nerdy kind of way of like, really trying to understand it and can’t just pick up an instrument and dazzle people.

So, I think that’s really helped me to bring that to other people, the fact that I kind of go, “Well, yeah, but anybody can do this.” And so, I think that’s been – that’s, that’s really where I’ve taken it, is to see if I can benefit other people with that and bring other people along the same way that I was and give other people that same opportunity to, to say, “Oh, this? You mean, just like this? Oh, I can do that.”

Christopher: I love that, and I really appreciate you sharing this story, because those two things are so at odds in how we traditionally think about music, you know, the, the picture of you busking away at the piano and impressing everyone that you could play by ear versus what you just said, you know, you were doing it in a methodical, analytical way because you felt like you didn’t have talent or a gift. You know, I think that would surprise a lot of people that those two things were happening at once because we so often see that play-by-ear musician and assume it must just come naturally and easily with no thought or effort.

Casey: Yeah. That’s why I love the program that you have, Musical U, because I just think anything that we can do to demystify that process. With music it’s – people ascribe so much to talent, “Oh, well, you know, you just – that person is just born with it. Their grandparents were very musical and ultimately I think that that unfortunately shuts people out who have huge potential to be able to learn the skill of music, the skill of playing by ear, just like they can learn to read and write and play tennis and drive a car, so anything that we can do to demystify this process – and maybe it looks like magic, like anything that’s done well, you can kind of make it look easy – but anything that we can do to show that “No, this isn’t magic,” and kind of show people the inner workings and, you know, unscrew the top off the magic box and just see that it’s just some different, you know, different gears and chips and whatever else, you know, but it’s all knowable and understandable.

Christopher: Mm-hm. Absolutely, and I know our listeners are dying for me to ask – and I don’t want to put you on the spot and ask you to deliver a master class here, but I’m sure they’d love to know – you talked about a process there or that you’d done it step by step and so it seemed very clear and obvious to you that you could figure out songs by ear. Can you give us a sense of, of how that works, how you went about that?

Casey: Sure. I have a school group that I work with, every day. It’s a group of about 20, middle schoolers, which, in the United States is about age 11 to 14 and it’s an academic program. You learn math, social science, social studies and everything, but every day we start off with music and what I’ve been showing them is that every chord has a color and if we think about the chords as just being the letter names that’s obscuring some of the real magic of these chords that if we understand each chord in relationship to the key then it has this certain color every single time.

So your listeners may know that, for example, we have the one chord. The 1-4-5 are the most common chords, in any given pop song or folk song, there’s literally thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of songs that are written with just these three chords, right? For example, in the key of C, that would be our C major, F major and G major chords. Well, each one has a color and just like the colors that you see, you can describe them, but you can’t quite define them, right? So, like, if I – I’m, like, “How would you describe red?”

You’d say… it was hot. Yeah.

Christopher: You’d know it when you see it.

Casey: Right. Right. It’s a subjective experience of this visual color, right? So just like when I describe what the one chord sounds like or feels like, it’s like, “Well, it’s like your home base. It’s tranquil. It’s resting. And then a five chord has this sort of aggressive quality to it. It’s bright. And then four is kind of placid and has a sweetness to it.” So, just like when you’re teaching colors to a small child, they have to learn it by trial and error, basically, and so the same way we have to learn these chord numbers through trial and error, so, you know, you try something and you go, “Oh. Whoops, that’s not a G, that’s an F. Okay. Well, so that’s the four chord. That’s what the four chord feels like.”

And so over time, you have more and more experiences with these chords and you can start to name the colors without even having the instrument in your hand. You go, “Oh, there’s the one chord going to the five chord going to the two chord going to the four chord.” And then you go, “Oh, well I’m in the key of C so that must be C, G, D minor, F,” and it seems like magic but it just takes practice, just like a baby kind of going, “Oh, this is blue. This is yellow. All right. Got that one.” I don’t know if your little girl is learning chords, or, I mean, learning colors right now.

Christopher: Learning colors, sadly. Not chords quite yet, but, hopefully soon.

Casey: (Laughs) Yeah. So it’s just that process. So, so over time, we learn the job that each chord does in the key and then the color that we associate with that as an, as an individual person, and that’s, that’s the, the basis of it, essentially, is basically experiencing those different colors and learning to associate those with the numbers based on –

Christopher: I think that’s such a great explanation. So, when we think of – you sat at that piano at the songwriting convention – you were essentially remembering in your head how the song sounded and asking yourself, kind of, what was the color of each chord that then let you translate it into a particular key and how to play on piano. Is that right?

Casey: Exactly. And then the magical thing that starts to happen is your fingers over time start to be able to hear, so to speak, the chords so your fingers start to be able to find that next chord on your instrument, whatever it is and, and then, and then that simplifies the process, too. So sometimes your fingers find it before your ear is consciously aware of it, but that comes from a foundation of, that’s the part that looks like magic, but of course, that comes on the foundation of a lot of practice and thought into it.

Christopher: I think what’s beautiful there is that you’ve described yourself as someone that was very theory-minded and it was theory that kind of unlocked all of this for you. But actually when you talk about how you do it and how you teach it, it’s very practical. It’s very hands-on and it’s, kind of, experiencing the music much more than it’s thinking about figured base and, you know, interval relationships and that kind of thing.

Casey: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I do recommend that for those who want to learn how to do this they actually, start with really simple pop songs. It’s great to go back to, you know, the 1950’s pop songs, a lot of which were just four chords that you can hear pretty easily and, if a song seems too hard, just move on to the next one.

All you have to do is figure out what key it’s in and then figure out, you know, if you can get half the chords, great. Make a little game of hangman and you just write out, like, “Okay there’s, must be a chord there, I don’t know what it is. There’s probably a chord there,” and you write out these little dashes where, where the chords go, maybe with the lyrics and then you fill them in and skip the ones you don’t know, but over time you’re hit rate gets better and better, and in the meantime you’re basically learning how to play the song.

So, it’s just very practical and immediate as opposed to doing it in isolation. I don’t know what your courses were like for your ear training, but a lot of times the chords is kind of this very, dry kind of hearing, you know, the sound on a badly played piano and then this other sound is kind of out of tune, and you can’t really tell and a lot of people think that they don’t have a good ear because they’ve been working, you know, on that kind of stuff and it’s, it’s a lot easier when you hear it out in the wild and start to experience in a song you already know well, so.

Christopher: So – sure. I think we’ve found there is huge value in the kind of isolated ear training drills to…

Casey: Yes.

Christopher: …get you to skill up quickly but at the same time it needs to be connected to real musical tasks and what you actually want to do in music, otherwise it becomes a very dry abstract and frustrating exercise.

Casey: Yeah. I think for notes, having the isolated drills is helpful and incredibly necessary, because with notes it’s like, you can’t wrangle them in, in a regular song, like, it’s just too much, but where a pop song, if it only has four chords then, it’s a lot easier to handle it, but when you’re learning notes and learning intervals, having that just much more simplified prepared environment is really incredibly helpful and I wish I had had a lot more of that in my training.

Christopher: Sure, well, it doesn’t sound like you were held back at all and I love that you explained there how you quite quickly realized you wanted to not just use this ability you had to help your students learn songs by rote, you actually wanted to equip them with that same ability to tackle any song by ear. I’d love to hear more about your work at the The Little Middle School and also at Eclectic Music and the way you teach these skills of musicality.

Casey: Sure. One thing that we’ve found is really important is that it just doesn’t matter what instrument you choose, particularly for small children but even as an adult, if you’re learning the language of music. So learning to, to read and write it, that can be helpful, but particularly being able to listen and translate that to reality, whether that’s with your voice or with, with any instrument, really all you need to do is learn where those notes are on whatever instrument you happen to have in your hands and learn some basic techniques, you know, how to pluck, how to press the strings down, that kind of thing, and, and you’re off and going. So many people are really impressed, so it’s like, “Oh, this person can play guitar and ukelele, and mandolin,” and it’s like, “Ah, it’s all the same skills,” you know? It’s, it’s really not that fancy. So that’s one thing that I think holds people back, sometimes, is this feeling, this, this need to master an instrument and the cool thing is, I think, we get to decide as musicians what mastery looks like to us. It’s really like, “I want to play this song on an instrument, and I’m gonna learn how to play this song on the instrument.” Great. You don’t need to hit this, this external level of, of expertise that somebody else says that, that’s required, it’s really for your own personal enjoyment and satisfaction.

So with The Little Middle School, especially where we have our music time in the morning, all of that is completely by ear, we play a lot of pop and folk songs. The, the kids’ favorite song right now is “House of the Rising Sun,” the old folk song, and, so the kids might pick up a guitar, percussion instrument, bells, we have a couple of harmoniums, so, it’s like, you know, a pump organ that sits on the floor, from India, and, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, whatever else we can find and we learn what the chords are and, and then they’re off and going, and one of the things that we do is, maybe after we finish the song, it’s like, “Okay, so, what percentage did you get?” you know, “Did you get 50% of the notes? Did you get 30% of the notes?”

And we tried to normalize the idea that you don’t get the whole thing. It’s fine if in your learning process you get a little bit here and a little bit there, whoops, I missed that chord – no big deal. That’s the wonderful thing about playing with other people, is that the music keeps going and you can just jump back in whenever you want to. It’s very casual. The spotlight’s not on you. You’re not performing, you’re really just sharing.

So that’s an experience that a lot of people have never had and so, it’s sometimes hard to explain it to parents, because they don’t really know what that looks like, but really, that’s – it’s just such a joyous, authentic experience of making music. And then the next day, they can pick up a different instrument and try the same song on that instrument, and, and really pace themselves.

Christopher: That sounds wonderful. But let me play devil’s advocate, for a minute and pretend I’m that parent who shows up at your door who maybe hasn’t learned music themselves, at all, and they come to you and they’ve heard what you get up to in your morning music sessions and I imagine they’d say something like, “We really want Johnny to be good at music. Shouldn’t he just be playing the guitar every day?”

Casey: That’s certainly a good question. I think, that’s a tricky – I think if Johnny wants to play guitar then he can really focus and be dedicated to that particular instrument. And there is certainly something that can be said for consistency over time.

But, one of the things that I really feel is important to advocate for is this idea that between virtuosity and not being able to play at all there’s this huge range that is the ability to just be musically literate human being and that’s – when I say literate, I don’t necessary mean reading music. I mean, just being able to play, being able to sing in tune, all of the different skills of musicality that you teach with your program. And, I don’t know what it’s like in the U.K. where you come from, but in the United States, you go to a restaurant at 8 p.m. and you’re gonna hear a really terrible version of “Happy Birthday,” um – (Laughs) the average American adult can’t sing “Happy Birthday,” and so, parents are so quick to say, “Oh, we don’t want to try to make a virtuoso, here. We’re not going to send her to Julliard. We just want her to learn music,” and it’s like, “Well, this is what it is.” So, what people might not realize is it only takes a few months for a kid to learn how to play the guitar if they’re focused. So if you mix that up with learning some other instruments, no big deal, and yes, you could devote your entire life and be Segovia and spend, you know, years and years mastering the guitar at an incredibly high level, but most people don’t need to do that in order to feel like they’re somebody who plays guitar, it’s really all about the level of confidence you have and the level of satisfaction that you decide you’re going to be okay with, which is a tricky one. I guess there’s a lot of us, too, who are never going to be satisfied or never going to feel like real musicians as long as we play, but ultimately – don’t you think sometimes, at a certain point, it just becomes a decision that you make?

Christopher: I think so, and I think it’s easy, I am sure, as parents who don’t play music, but also as musicians ourselves to feel like you’re making a choice between being really good at music or just enjoying music, and I think what stands out to me about your program and your approach is you do have enjoyment and creativity at the heart of it, but actually, what you’re focusing on are, arguably, the most fundamental and the most important musical skills. These aren’t just “can I, you know, play along?” skills instead of learning to be a good musician. These are the skills that make you a good musician, and later you can decide you’re going to be the profession expert on guitar or you choose your instrument but you’ve got that foundation of what really matters.

Casey: Exactly. Yeah. That these are the skills that you can take in any direction, yeah. So, so rather than try to, you know, build a giant tower that’s in one area, we’re kind of, you know, building a strong foundation that could support multiple towers, with, you know, multiple instruments, being able to reach a high level in multiple areas.

Christopher: Absolutely, and I think it’s important for adults to realize that it’s never too late to put that foundation in place, you know, even if you’ve started building your tower, you can go back and learn some of these fundamental skills of musicality and give yourself that advantage. At the same time, I think it’s so important, the work you’re doing with children, because one thing that drives me crazy is when I meet someone and they tell me, you know, they took piano lessons as a kid, but they never liked the piano.

I just think that’s such a missed opportunity because I bet if you put a banjo in their hands, they would have loved it, and I think when parents feel like they need to pick an instrument and force it on the child rather than give the child the opportunity to learn music in a way that doesn’t pre-select an instrument for them, it’s such a disaster in so many cases, and so I love that you’re giving children that opportunity to learn who they are as a musician while doing valuable skill development and then they can go on to decide the instrument that’s right for them.

Casey: Yeah. And I think for adults, too, that they’re – they might be surprised at what they actually have retained, because a lot of the skills that people want as adults, like we were saying before, being able to play by ear and being able to play songs that they want to play and someone’s maybe taken ten years of classical lessons on an instrument and they feel like they can’t do anything with that and, but yet, they have actually absorbed a lot of that musical language, and so they’re often pleasantly surprised when, you know, these ten years of playing trumpet in the band actually translate to being able to hear musical patterns and being able to, to figure out a song by ear or keep a steady beat or learn patterns on a new instrument. a lot of that, it, it’s stored somewhere. It does come back. So there’s a lot of success stories that I’ve seen, with people who maybe fear it’s too late but then they actually can do it.

Christopher: Definitely. We see that again and again at Musical U where someone joins – they’ve been learning music for a long time but they feel like they’re at step zero in terms of developing their ear and what we explain is, actually, you probably have a pretty good ear, you just don’t have the mental frameworks to kind of make sense of it and put labels on it and put it into use on your instrument and it means they can actually very quickly kind of put those missing pieces in place, a bit like you discovering the theory and being able to join the dots a bit, they’re able to make great progress very quickly because they’ve actually been doing, kind of, passive ear training for several years, already.

Casey: Right. Passive ear training. I like that. Yeah. I bet you probably get a lot of “Why didn’t – why anyone tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me…”

Christopher: (Laughs) Absolutely.

Casey: …it was this easy?”

Christopher: Yeah.

Casey: Yeah.

Christopher: “I never knew it could be this easy.”

Casey: Yeah. Yeah.

Christopher: And so I want to be a little bit selfish, for a moment, if I may. As you know, I have an 18-month-old daughter and we’re starting to think about her music education. You know, she’s loving music already, which is fantastic, and she seems to be a fan of both Reggaeton and Tchaikovsky, so I think that must bode well, but I’d love to hear your perspective as someone who has a lot of hands-on experience with early music education as well as this very powerful and unique perspective on what matters when you’re starting to learn music. What advice would you have for someone in my shoes who has a young kid who wants to get them off to a great start in music?

Casey: There’s been a lot of research done on this, so called, “window” of opportunity to develop a child’s capacity for musical understanding, develop their very aptitude, and they say the window closes by age six. Much like learning their native tongue. But people misinterpret that to mean that you can’t learn music by the time you are six. If you haven’t started learning music by the time you’re six, it’s hopeless, and that’s just not true. Like you said, children are – they’re developing their tastes, they’re listening to the music that their parents are listening to, so she’s being exposed to music all the time and that exposure is how she’s developing that capacity. So, really, listening to music with her, singing with her, having musical experiences with her, taking her to see live music and musicians, doing a little class, like, you know, just – it doesn’t have to be fancy, just, you know, singing and, age-appropriate songs, clapping, tapping, developing that sense of rhythm, sense of pitch. For a lot of children, a lot of parents are so self-conscious about singing, but it’s so great for kids to hear their parents sing. That’s how they learn, they learn through mimicry and they learn everything from their parents.

So, any time that you can make up little songs, you know, at bath time and mealtimes and just little, you know, parodies of existing songs or make up your own melodies – I’m sure you do that all the time, um –

Christopher: More than my wife would like.

Casey: (Laughs) So, she’s soaking that all up. And then, as they grow, then I think parents want some more specific things that they can do because they see that their child is starting to learn to name letters and numbers and colors and they want a formal music education, as well. And after having done a lot of thinking about this and a lot of classes and so on, I realize it’s fundamentally weird to take your kid somewhere and have them learn from a professional when, you know, you’ve got this three or four-year-old that really is going to learn best from, from her very own parents.

So, what I like to do is give parents some tips for basically whatever the musical equivalent is of learning those numbers and letters right at the beginning and that would be learning some simple music patterns, like, starting off with, basically the notes of the pentatonic scale, so, “sol, mi” would be the first pattern that’s from Kodály, who’s done a lot of research and a lot of, work in early music education and, so, “sol, mi, la, sol, mi” is that first pattern that kids would learn, “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” and “Ring Around the Rosie,” and then, learning mi, re, do. And there’s a lot of songs that incorporate those five tones – do, re, mi, so, la, – and that’s really a great place to start.

You can get a set of desk bells, which are great because, there’s just this set of eight, eight bells resonator bells, like what you ding the bell for service at a hotel counter, but each one is a different tone. And usually they’re tuned in the key of C major, and they’re great because you can – a child can just hit them, really easily without having to have any fine motor technique and then, so what you do is you take the F and the B away and the child should never see those. Put those in a cabinet somewhere, and just focus on that pentatonic scale where you have those five notes with – actually, six bells, ’cause you have two C’s – and those always sound beautiful, you can’t hit a wrong note, as you know. It’s always gonna sound nice. And so they can arrange the bells different ways, they can play a lot of different melodies. You can play a lot of different melodies with those, and you can do kind of what you do when you read and you read a story, that, like, you might let her start filling in the last word, like, the rhyming word, has she started doing that, yet?

Christopher: Not yet, no.

Casey: Looking at pictures, name – like, you know, Where’s the Bunny?” so you might sing a song like, “Hot Cross Buns” and, like, so, you’re going, “Hot Cross Buns,” and then, the child will play mi, re, do, and doesn’t need to know the rest of the song, but they’re just playing that one little part, and that becomes, just, their first little step into making music together, just playing these little two and three note patterns as they fit into the song.

So there’s a lot, there’s so much that can be done with just those little bells and then bringing in, some percussion instruments and playing different patterns, playing call-and-response, something, you know, clapping, clapping rhythms and then mimicking them, and then, and then something to blow on is always fun, like, a little melodica, where you press the keys and make different tones and that’s a little bit of a step for more, like, four and five and six-year-olds, but, if a child is doing that stuff at home, they’re getting a tremendous music education, because that’s what they need, is they need that sense of pitch and that sense of rhythm, and that’s gonna be the foundation they can build everything else on and parents don’t have to worry if their singing doesn’t sound good. They just keep going and the more they do it the better they’ll get, but the child, the child will still learn to be able to sing, even if not every note sounds beautiful and is perfectly on pitch.

But I really want to empower any parents out there who want to try something like that, that they can. They can and in the process we’re creating some new norms for what we want children to be able to do. It’s not a high bar, but it’s a, you know, maybe the next generation will be able to sing, “Happy Birthday,” you know?

Christopher: Fantastic. I think there are a few better goals than that for transforming the world.

Casey: (Laughs)

Christopher: Terrific. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today, Casey. If listeners happen to be in Atlanta or want to learn more about your program, can you tell us where to find out more about The Little Middle School and Eclectic Music?

Casey: Sure. Our website for Eclectic Music is eclecticmusicatlanta.com and we do lessons in the local area and Atlanta but if people are looking for support for their children, as I was talking about, or if they’d like to know more about how I teach chords using the colors, they’re certainly welcome to get in touch with me, and, we can see how – if there is any way that I might be able to serve them, and The Little Middle School can be found at thelittlemiddleschool.com.

Christopher: Fantastic.

Casey: I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. A lot of fun.

Christopher: Thank you again, Casey.

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The post Turning Ordinary People into Musicians, with Casey McCann appeared first on Musical U.