Learning to Teach Toddlers by Rachel Li

Toddlers photo

As college students, we are consistently surrounded by an environment made up of our fellow peers. When confronted with the likely possibility of making a living that includes teaching young children, reactions may reasonably range from hesitancy and fear to the sense of being personally under/over qualified. Because the musical education of a child is so important, it is our responsibility as current/future teachers to teach them in a way that is wholesome and beneficial to their overall wellbeing.

I met with Rachel Buchman recently, and we had a wonderful discussion regarding teaching music to young children. Ms. Buchman is the head of the Young Children’s Division, which is part of the preparatory program that occurs every Saturday at the Shepherd School of Music.  The program focuses on ways to develop musical skills through eurhythmics, and the classes are non-instrumental.

The rest of this post is based on what we discussed during our meeting.

“Something very important to note about teaching young children today is that we continue to teach instruments as if we live in the first half of the 20th century, but the musical experience we have now is not as it was back then.” Ms. Buchman goes on to say that in those days, the majority of the people owned pianos, and singing and dancing were inevitably a part of everyone’s lives. Rhythms to dances were second nature, and music and singing were unquestionably part of the school curriculum. We seem to have grown into a society that doesn’t appreciate music the way we used to, therefore creating a more difficult environment for young children to naturally have exposure to skills that used to be innate and a part of daily life.

With that being said, it is even more crucial now than ever to hone those skills that are lacking, such as memory, finger muscle development, musical instincts in rhythm, melodic movement, etc. Often parents are so ambitious that they do not realize that in order to get ahead, you need to go back to the basics instead of pushing a child toward an instrument without first having a solid foundation of music itself. For instance, there are many traditional finger games that aid in the dexterity of individual fingers, as well as the simple activity of singing songs that are accumulative to help build memory, like the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Ms. Buchman was also very adamant about the use of improvisation in teaching young children.  Improvisation is so significant in children because not only does it allow you to see the children’s potential, but it also develops their musicality and teaches them to trust their own musical instincts. Music is naturally so subjective that a black and white approach can be counterproductive in helping children engage in music to their full potential.


Basic Tips for Teaching Toddlers:

Lessons should be fun. It should be joyful and not mechanical. To accomplish this, you can incorporate activities and games related to music. It is more important for children to have a depth of understanding than for them to simply do the motions of what they have been taught. The process is much more important than the overall performance, especially for young children.

Improvisation should be included. There is a joy in music that can be brought out by the simple act of improvising. Improvising games can teach you the talents of a child. Improvisation will expose many things that the child can do musically that you cannot attain from them solely playing the instrument. Kids are incredibly gifted when they are younger and tend to naturally trust their musical instincts.

Spend time singing. Ms. Buchman believes that “a child’s fingers will follow their ears.”  Singing is so essential to refining the ears of a child and introduces the child to phrasing in an organic way. Instruments are essentially an outgrowth of the voice.

Listening is so important. We should invent games that will get the children to start listening. Once the child starts using music, the visualization of the music will inevitably dominate the ear, and listening loses the full focus necessary. Once you train them to listen, the next step would be to have them make their own choices by ear. This trains them to anticipate musical structure melodically and harmonically.

Focus on musicianship. When starting a brand new student, the main area to focus on should be musicianship and keeping their love of music alive.

Spend time exposing them to all types of music. In this current society, children’s exposure to classical music is minimal at best. Try to expose them to other genres that they can relate to such as American folk songs, jazz, and opera. The goal is to expand their minds to see that music can be produced in so many different ways and that there is not only one way to play music.


Game/Activity Ideas:

Reason for Games: Playing musically relevant games teaches you a lot about the child. You can see what they get and what they don’t get without giving them the pressure of being right or wrong. Playing games challenges the children to tune their ears and also gets them to focus.

Improvisation Games: Teachers should invent improvisation games. While the teacher plays something a little more sophisticated, have the student play open strings and maybe add just one finger and let them play whatever they want. This helps develop the child’s own music-making skills as well as having the child listen and intuitively react by ear.

Clapping Games: The teacher and student clap beats together. For younger children, if clapping is difficult, they can simply do it on their laps. First the teacher establishes a beat, and then you have the child do the same. The teacher will then switch to another beat while the child is still clapping the same beat. This will give the child a sense of relation between the two beats without overthinking it. Then you have the child try to switch to the other beat and see if he/she can switch back and forth. When you expand beats, what you can do is to physically expand your hands away from each other in a circular fashion after they make contact so that your hands are constantly in motion, even when you are in the middle of a beat.

Instead of mathematically teaching them rhythm, you are showing them and helping them visualize the time, space, and energy.

Copycat Games:  This is a very common procedure for games with young children. You can buy a little hand drum and have them copy the rhythms you show them. Singing games are also very good. If you sing a melody, have them sing it back to you. This will show you how accurate they can be with intonation as well as rhythm and phrasing.

Fun Stories: It is good to have or create stories that you can use to teach a melodic or rhythmic pattern.

Have them sing in response: Sing a song and see if they can finish the line on their own. The purpose of this is to see if they have the musical instinct to end with a proper cadence.

Sing Nursery Rhymes: Nursery rhymes are inherently rhythmic. This teaches the children to be in time. To make it more challenging, you can also have them respond by leaving out a part of a line.

Audiation: Refining their inner hearing is very crucial. For instance, using the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star melody, see if you can sing the first line together, then have the child sing the next line silently in his/her head. You continue to do this every other line. In the end, this shows if they can sing the tune in their heads. You can also incorporate clapping the beats as you do this exercise and ask them how many times you clapped before you started singing again. You can learn a lot about the child through this activity.

Listening Activity: An example of this would be for the teacher to play an open G and D string while you have the child fill in the chord by finding the note, judging by how good or bad it sounds together. If they play the wrong note and it sounds awful, then have them try until they find the third of the chord. This will give the children their chance to experiment by trusting their ears, and as a result, they will hear how nicely the note they found harmonically blends in.



Educating Parents: We often have to break the ideas of the parents. Because we are musicians, we know what is best for nurturing future musicians. To develop true musicians, we need to focus on what is best for them as a whole, not what is best for them to win a competition or get into the best school possible. We have to not be afraid to do things differently and not be controlled by what the parents expect from us.

Finding children who actually have time and energy to engage: In this day and age, children are so scattered and have no ability to focus for a long period of time. Moreover, parents are overly ambitious, and it is a balancing act for their children to get through the week of ballet classes, music classes, art classes, sports, etc.

I ended my discussion with Ms. Buchman by asking her what was most rewarding about teaching young children. She responded: “Every single child is different, and every one is a challenge. However, it is a wonderful thing to see them open like a flower.” What Ms. Buchman loves about teaching is the ability to create a personal connection with the child and offer an opportunity to aid in the process of developing the child as a whole person, not just as a musician. Teaching young children has its challenges, but the rewards are far greater.






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