I presented an early childhood workshop: “The Key to Wellbeing is Musical Play” at the ISME conference in July 2016. I went to a number of wonderful concerts, research presentations and workshops from early childhood to tertiary level.  As New Zealand delegates we can hold our heads high, as there was impressive general feedback about the quality of our presentations.

Dame Evelyn Glennie’s plenary session offered much food for thought for all music teachers at every level.  Her motto is: “Teaching the World to Listen”. She posed the question: How do we listen? How do we teach children to listen? As a hearing impaired child Evelyn went to an all -inclusive school that dealt with all the challenges that every child had. Her first lesson at twelve years of age was with a teacher who gave her a snare drum, telling her to take it away, explore how to play it and to bring it back the following week. No drumsticks or stand were provided.  For a whole week she played it in a variety of ways, marveling at the sound colours she could produce. No part of the drum was off limits. Her teacher wanted her to have her own music journey. He wanted her to become the sound creator in relation to what she did with the drum and how she learned. Nearly all of her play was done using the rim of the drum. This musical exploration helped her to listen intently, to develop flexibility, curiosity, creativity, musicality and understanding of how she could use her body in relation to her musical play. This first lesson has had a profound emotional impact on all her playing and understanding of how she moves, listens, interprets, interacts, takes time to reflect and appreciate. Glennie inspired us, helping us to reflect about our own teaching practice.  Do we give opportunities for our students to listen and develop a passion for the music and instruments they play? Do we help them to explore, listen and discover through musical play?

Another highlight was a Symposia led by Lori Custodero: “Communicative Musicality in Childhood” with a variety of music examples illustrating how young children are social players from birth, with an inherent capacity for musical play. It is universally understood that infants best attend and respond to relationship-based, musical, playful interactions. We saw and heard how loving ‘sing song’ vocalizations between parent and infant develop strong emotional connections and musicality.   

New Zealand born neuroscientist Colwyn Trevarthen provided a summary of these amazing presentations.  He describes this ‘communicative musicality’ as the way that the infant and caregiver express and exchange information in non-verbal ways about emotional states that are fundamental to strengthening the bonds of love. He stated that music is the sound of the movement of our bodies in rhythmic ways. The babies were anticipating, watching, listening, waiting, translating instantaneously, through turn taking with vocalization, gesture and movement. Trevarthen describes this instantaneous musicality as a metaphor for physical energy, internal energy, delight and fascination for sound. He challenged us to think of the feeling of sound.

All of the recorded illustrations showed children from aged three months to three years delighting in being proud performers. Comedy is showing off, always sharing some kind of joke. Trevarthen added the word comedy to communicative musicality.  We talk about playing music. In so many languages ‘Play’ English),, Spiel (German), Igra  (Russian), Jeu (French), the word has a double meaning pertaining to a game, a joke, or making music.

Wherever I was, whether it was on a bus, train, plane, on the street or in a café, seeing or hearing the wonderful research on the inherent musicality of young children, I was always tuned into the singing, clapping, natural communicative musicality of young children and their parents. This trip was full of musical examples of the universality of music and the way that all children sing and play.

In all of the ISME concerts, performances, and music workshops, it was this high level of expressive communicative musicality, the strong sense of emotional connection that drew us in as the audience.

When teaching our music students we need to consider not only how to help our students develop confidence and competence in listening, performance and aesthetic techniques, but also how to capture a playful integrated sensing that is a total experience in which one simultaneously sees, hears, feels and moves in ways that reach and touch the player and the listener.  All the ISME presentations that I went to, reinforce the importance of taking delight in musical discovery with young children and their families, our students, making time to listen, explore, imagine and create playfully together.