Part 2: Literacy Matters
Literacy isn't a new cause. Educators have championed the case for literacy and reading for years now with much support and applause, and private schools boast about their phonics programs and language arts programs with a satisfied smile, knowing that offering these programs will increase enrollment among families disenchanted with modern state methods of education. Countless programs, both private and state-led, have been developed to foster literacy among children and even adults. Simply Google literacy programs and you will find thousands in your search results. We all know that teaching a child to read is the most important step in their educational development. From there, there are no limits to what a child can learn. The ability to read has even been a determinant of socio-economic status in times past, as well as an indicator of freedom. Literacy liberates. That's a fact.
However, when it comes to "music" literacy, many educators and schools are a little less galvanized. Music is a language, and it is a language God intended for us to learn. What is "music literacy"? According to the International Kodaly society, "Music literacy refers to the ability to read and write musical notation and to read notation at sight without the aid of an instrument. It also refers to a person's knowledge of and appreciation for a wide range of musical examples and styles." Among my colleagues in classical education, the phrase "music literacy" seems to have become a mantra. I haven't attended any music workshop or classical education conference recently where I haven't heard the word uttered and emphasized repeatedly. There's a valid reason for this, as many private and public schools are substituting children's choir and band for foundational musical training. (I will address in a later post what is wrong with this.) Music educators who teach actual literacy are constantly having to advocate for their programs to keep them afloat. And in the homeschool realm, there are just not as many quality music programs out there for children that truly foster literacy, leaving parents to simply put their children in whatever "free" choir or instrumental option is available. There is not even curricula available for homeschool that fosters true literacy (yet).
Choir and band programs for young children are simply rote teaching. That means they are simply repeating whatever vocal part the teacher models for them, or covering whatever hole their teacher tells them to cover on their instrument. Choir means concerts. And audiences. It makes the school look good. It makes the parents beam. But if literacy isn't being taught alongside repertoire, or even in place of it, it's a hollow substitute for true music instruction. The concert creates a deadline that puts the teacher in crisis mode. "We have to learn this music, guys!" But the child isn't actually learning anything except maybe how to produce a sound. This methodology keeps the child completely tied to the teacher for all further music experience, so these children are not becoming free as musicians. This is in direct conflict with the "liberal arts education" so many claim to promote.
Rote teaching is the quickest option for educators to get "a" result (and there is a place for rote instruction), but over time, if all you do is teach by rote, it only weakens the student and hinders their development. They can't leave the classroom and go sight read a piece of music. Singing in a choir does not automatically make one a musician. How many of you know the stereotype of the Prima Donna who has a beautiful voice but can't count? There's truth to that.
Performances and concerts aren’t necessarily the culprit. It can still be a part of a music literacy program. Performance is a wonderful reward for a choir that is made up of students who are developing into real musicians, with a teacher who is not afraid to perform at the level required to preserve music literacy instruction in the classroom.
Music literacy instruction isn't flashy or glamourous. Liken it to drilling phonetic blends and sounds versus reciting Shakespeare. As with anything worth doing, though, a literate musician takes time and diligence to develop, making it even more crucial to start while the child is very young. You don't start teaching a child to read in 7th grade. You do it in 1st grade. And as it is with all good things, the hard work pays off in the long run, when after several years the child can read music on their own, giving them the capability to fully develop the gifts the Lord has given them. All children have the ability to be musically literate. As Christians, if we want students to be able to worship God fully as He intended, it is our responsibility to ensure we are educating and turning out musically literate students.