There is no single Montessori system for introducing 3-year olds to music. Children are placed in a rich environment full of learning toys, of which the musical instruments, generally bells, are only one among several competing attractions.
Montessori bell sets have a range of one octave and come in diatonic (8 bells) and chromatic (13 bells) versions. In both cases, two sets are used, one on black and white stands as on a piano, the other on plain varnished wood stands.
The idea of duplicating the sets is to test the child’s pitch sense by shuffling one of the sets and making him match two bells that sound the same note. The notion of error is thus instilled at a very early stage, and with it the possibility of failure.
Small children, especially the more sensitive and artistic ones, have a very ambivalent attitude towards success and failure. Some like to fail in order to make a point, and end up proving it to themselves.
Melodies, when taught, are the usual boring tunes in C major, and the expected end takeaway is that the child will hit his 6th birthday knowing the names of the notes and ready to start piano torture. Or will have decided music is not for him.
I find this sad.
Given that a set of bells like the one above can cost around $1000 (yes, you read that right!), it might be worth asking about the return on investment, and whether duplicating the set, rather than, say, offering a two octave range, is really the best use of resources.
The Montessori philosophy is all about letting children learn what they want as the fancy takes them. It’s about self-guided discovery rather than having teachers pump them with knowledge. The premise is that they learn best when they are interested in something.
So why is the musical equipment (or in Montessori-speak “auditory sense materials”) geared towards a boring piano-centric view of what music is? I suspect that this is a legacy of the nineteenth century, and that it is now time to move on!
My favorite example of the way the piano can compound errors and turn a small slip into disaster is a kid who had learned Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in C on the piano, but then started on B by mistake. Knowing only the white keys, he couldn’t work out why everything he did sounded wrong thereafter.
My proposal would be to use a single 25-bell set spanning two octaves offering intervallic consistency, so that the same movement always produces the same interval.
With intuitive layout, you don’t have to work out in advance which degree of which scale the song starts on to know which bell to hit first.
The flipside is you can play in the wrong key without even knowing it. But that minor failing is consistent with our focus: to play like singing in the shower!
The same colors used in Montessori mathematical games to give them appeal can be used for the bell stands. As with my intervallic xylophone, all major scales follow the same rule of “play 3 notes on one row then 4 on the other”.
But the aim here isn’t even to teach scales. Scales are just abstract constructs created by extracting notes from music. Or vice versa. They are not a pre-requisite for playing “like singing in the shower”.
Allowing a child to discover his own personal ritornellos on a logical and intervallically consistent instrument rewards his guesswork and reinforces his improvising muscle and musical confidence – the soundest basis on which to build his talent, and train his “auditory sense” – something not to be confused with keyboard knowledge.
And if you really want to put those kids to the test, why not let them have a go at placing all those bells in the right order? Who cares if they fail? That’s how Arnold Schoenberg got started!