If necessity is the mother of invention, I’d have to say that one of my best teaching “inventions” was inspired by the necessity of my not going completely deaf. You see, I’m an early-childhood music teacher. You know how noisy a typical preschool classroom is? Well, I’ll see you that noisiness and raise you by a roomful of rhythm instruments. Tambourines and sand blocks are particularly ear-splitting, but really, if you put any instrument (or any object) in the hands of a young child, there’s gonna be noise.
For years, I considered children’s musical noisiness as just an annoying part of my work. At first, I reacted by saying (cough cough, shouting), “Let’s stop and put the instruments down.” Notice I said “react” – that’s a tipoff that I wasn’t really thinking about the situation, just dealing with it after the fact.
After a while, I caught on to the fact that if I wanted the children to play more quietly, I had to mention it before I gave them the instruments. I’d bring out one instrument before the activity, and show them how to play it gently and carefully. That helped, but it didn’t feel right. I’m all about allowing children to explore, discover, and improvise. I didn’t want to be all “do this, don’t do that.”
I started to think about why my students were making so much noise. I observed them, especially their faces as they clapped the sand blocks together (this is truly a horrible sound) or banged on the tambourines as if I’d offered a prize to whoever could break one first. Their faces weren’t particularly gleeful – they weren’t doing this for fun. They didn’t seem distracted or aimless, as if they just didn’t know how to play the instruments. They were very determined. They were focused.
The children were focused on scientific inquiry. They needed to find out how loud a sound the instrument could make, or more precisely, how they could play the instrument to get the most noise out of it. (I also believe part of the motivation is to assert their own power and strength, which they’re always testing and questioning.)
Today, I address this inquiry before I do anything else with an instrument. “Can you make a loud sound? What’s the loudest sound you can make with this instrument?” I let them try this for a few moments. Some individuals will want to show me their loud sounds. I listen respectfully and appreciatively. Then I’ll ask what would happen if we played this loudly all the time. “It would hurt our ears,” they invariably reply.
So yes, there’s still some loudness. But the difference is, children know that I appreciate and support their inquiry and exploration. Once they know that, they rarely try to play too loudly on purpose – they’ve satisfied their curiosity and are ready to investigate other properties of the instrument.