A Discussion on the Challenges of Incorporating Kodaly Method into Piano Lessons

Last summer I completed my Kodaly levels, and although it has completely changed how I teach my students, I want to continue to include more of the philosophy, structure, ideas, and sequence into piano lessons.But before I can truly change my piano teaching, I refreshed my memory on what the ideal music education looked to Zoltan Kodaly. To start, I decided to re-read my copy of The Kodaly Method I: Comprehensive Music Education, and finally read Kodaly Today. This week I focused on what the The Kodaly Method said about ” its sequence, tools, materials, and Philosophy”(1. p. 9). I will only focus on specific areas where I feel there is friction between “traditional” piano lessons, and the Kodaly philosophy. At this point I have no solutions. I am strong believer in first assessing a problem, then brainstorming and researching all possible solutions, and finally making a decision on how best to proceed to overcome the issue.

  1. Zoltan Kodaly believed Singing Folk Music must be at the core of instruction. As a child learns the language that surrounds him, naturally and with ease, so should a child learn music of his heritage. This is because folk music draws from the speech patterns of the native tongue, making them easy for the child to learn to sing. They are also playful, and full of human experience and emotion. Children sing many songs that contain a new concept first without identifying the new concept. Over time, the teacher draws their attention to the new concept by asking questions about what is going on. Students are led to describe and analyze the new concept, still not knowing the name or how it is written. Only after the students can recognize and describe what is going on in the music does a teacher present them the new concept. Folk songs are perfect because the children love them, there are joyful and playful games to use, and they are easy to sing.Why this is a challenge for piano lessons: Singing is the easiest instrument for a child to conquer. They can carry it with them anywhere and they can practice anytime! With instruments, there is an added weight to learning a new concept. There are so many coordination and motor skills that go into playing the piano – both gross motor and fine motor – that I feel like learning musical concepts and musical literacy gets bogged down. My students can tell me the names of notes, can clap the rhythm, and can sing the melody. But the physical act of playing the piano is what slows them down. Kodaly actually believed that an instrument can slow down the progress of a student’s musical progress. I’m starting to see how this is true with my students.If I were to switch to using folk songs to introduce concepts, I would need to write my own arrangements because traditional piano methods are built around composed songs, not folk music. If folk songs are used, it is not in the same order I would want them. One book series I have found that introduces folk music to the children first is Do-Re-Mi Piano. I still have yet to purchase a copy but is on my wish list!Let me end by saying that art pieces are absolutely necessary, but Kodaly believed that folk music was the pathway to understanding and loving art music.
  2. Children must first experience music before they can intellectualize music. It is suggested to teach 5- and 6-year-olds twenty minutes for twice a week, for an entire year, before introducing symbols for music (1. p. 19). The classes would be highly structured with many songs, movement to music, and music games. Once the children have a musical repertoire and have experiential knowledge, then the teacher can proceed to teach them about music. (1. p. 19-20)To ensure the greatest success for your students, preparing a concept thoroughly and completely before ever making a concept conscious is one of the most important things a teacher can do for its students. How many times as a piano teacher have I simply turned the page and then taught the concept with no prior preparation? Or incomplete preparation? No wonder the children struggle with new concepts! I am asking them to internalize and understand something that they have absolutely no working knowledge of!Let me give you an example. A lot of traditional piano books start with reading sort of music at the lesson. Johnny (the student) it told this note gets one beat and these types of notes get two beats. My students would fail miserably and be so frustrated. But how can a student who has no knowledge and experience of what the beat is, be expected to understand, perform and remember how many beats a note is held? When I learned this, I was relieved to finally have an answer as to why my students weren’t succeeding at rhythms, or basically any concept they had no prior knowledge in.One aspect of my piano teaching I knew needed help was a student’s first lesson. I went through and analyzed the first lesson pages of a beginner book I had used unsuccessfully(method to remain anonymous). I looked at it through the eyes of a student with zero prior music experience or knowledge. This is typically how my students enter my studio. Let me list all the new concepts required at the first lesson:
    1. Left hand
    2. Right hand (some kids don’t know the difference!)
    3. Staff, grand staff
    4. Top staff – right hand
    5. Treble clef
    6. Bottom staff- left hand
    7. Bass clef
    8. Musical Alphabet
    9. Black Key groups/Layout of Keyboard
    10. Names of keys
    11. Higher/Lower, Up/down
    12. Steady beat
    13. quarter note = 1 beat
    14. Half note = 2 beats
    15. Whole note = 4 beats
    16. Bar line
    17. Measure
    18. Time signature
    19. Finger numbers

    It’s no wonder my students left frustrated and not remembering anything after the first lessons! Since that analysis I have found a piano lesson series that I like better, but am still not 100% satisfied.

  3. The Kodaly sequence is one based on child-development, not subject-logic. (1. p. 9-10). It follows what children do naturally and with more ease, which was found through research. The subject-logic approach is one that makes sense logically. But a children’s development is not necessarily aligned with the logic of a subject.One example: Research shows children can subdivide the beat much easier than hold out notes over multiple beats. That means in sequence inspired by child-development, we start by teaching the steady beat, followed by quarter notes, then eighth notes. Quarter rests are added next. This is because research says that children can naturally do this easier, and can therefore come to understand it easier. On the flipside, traditional piano lesson books introduce concepts in a subject-logic approach with the whole note, half note and quarter notes first because it makes sense mathematically. As I begin to analyze beginning piano literature though, I am finding that most beginning literature requires students to know quarter, half and whole notes first. So the question that I have is: How do we approach the concepts needed in beginning piano literature, while keeping a child-centered approach to the sequencing of the concepts?Melodically, in a research-based sequence, children are taught the pentatonic scale (do-re-mi-  -so-la) first because half notes are difficult for them to sing in tune. Many approaches start with teaching so-mi, then adding la. This is because that is what children tend to sing, or how their parents call them upstairs (A parent calls for their child “Tommy” on s-m. Likewise, think of the taunting from one kid to another “nana-nana-na-na” on ss-ml-s-m).Beginning piano literature tends to stick with (do-re-mi-fa-so) pentascales because it logically makes sense; one finger per note. If we are to have the children learn solfege and sing their songs first before playing them, once again, how do we approach the concepts needed in beginning piano literature, while keeping a child-centered approach to the sequencing of the concepts?

These are just the beginning questions I have when thinking about how I can improve my teaching and bring it more inline with the philosophy of music education brought about by Kodaly. It is a philosophy geared towards child development, and educating them so that music becomes a way of life. But in order to do that, I need to continue to evaluate what I am currently doing, particularly looking for what is not working. I need to compare it to what has been shown to work in research, and the Kodaly philosophy is one of those research-based approaches. Then, I need to see how I can settle the conflict between what is necessary for beginning piano literature and how children learn best.

(1) Choksy, Lois. The Kodaly Method I: Comprehensive Music Education. 3rd edition.1999.