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Vintage PA: Yodeling Puff The Magic Dragon

red dragonIt started with a performance of a method book piece with the word Yodel in the title. “It sounds weird,” said my young student, “and I don’t understand why that B is there.” “Do you know what yodeling is?”, I asked. She shook her head sideways, “uhuh.” I certainly can’t yodel, so demonstration was out but we finally found common ground in the song Lonely Goatherd from the movie Sound of Music.

My student’s parents are from China. Perhaps there is a Chinese equivalent which would have made more sense to her but I certainly didn’t have the time to Google it in the middle of a lesson. Later, I found a video on YouTube and emailed it to her Mom. I also asked her if there was a Chinese form of Yodeling that would help her daughter understand.

I have run into this issue before and not always with students of foreign descent. While working on my doctorate, I taught 3rd year class piano for choral education majors. We worked on harmonizing ear tunes as part of the curriculum. Even though I picked very recognizable tunes, there were still a significant number of students who had no idea how they sounded.

These were very American students. I was using a well known functional piano text. My mentor told me it was the student’s responsibility to go listen to the song if they didn’t know it and not to get bogged down. I began giving them 3-4 pieces to choose from for each ear tune assignment but even that didn’t completely solve the problem.

When students play the music of Bach, Beethoven, and the boys we expect to teach compositions from the ground up. We expect that they will listen to performances of their pieces on CDs or through the internet. Increasingly, I find myself teaching what I will call American Standards, for wont of a better term, also from the ground up. I have had students who were unable to sing Happy Birthday, not to mention, I Gave My Love a Cherry, or Puff The Magic Dragon.

Perhaps this is due to cuts of music programs in the schools or to the easy availability of commercial hits in audio and video formats. I remember reading an article blaming the increase of praise music over hymns for the fact that incoming college music students couldn’t play Bach or understand four part harmony. Whatever… It’s time to give up the idea that certain pieces are already within our students’ experience.

Do Felicity, or Bob, or Sophie, understand the rumba, riding in a submarine, being on a busy big city street, or yodeling? I can’t assume they know. I also can’t assume they know Happy Birthday, Alouette, or even Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Taking the time to teach them—from the ground up if necessary—helps them connect with their music in a deeper, more personal way. I can still teach traditional ear tunes, but I often record the tunes on the student’s or a parent’s phone or send them a link to an online video or MP3.

Portions of this post were initially published in Sept. 2010.

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