On Monday and Tuesday this week (May 7 & 8), Joe visited our melodica pilot program at Silk Hope Elementary in North Carolina.
We met the teacher, Becca Clemens, at a mutual friend’s wedding last May. At first she thought the idea of having melodicas in an elementary classroom was crazy, but then she began to think it could work.
Becca applied for and received two grants from the county: a $1500 arts education grant to buy a class set of our melodicas, and a $1000 travel grant to pay for us to come to the school and teach the classes as a guest artist.
There were five different classes using the melodicas, grades 3rd through 5th, and the class sizes ranged from around 16 to 28 students. Becca and I co-taught the classes, and I did my best to model how she had been teaching them throughout the semester (she is a fantastic teacher).
Classroom procedure went as follows: Students came into the classroom and sat down in rows. Then, each row went up one at a time to pick up their mouthpiece tube from the sanitation bucket which contained cleaning solution (Dawn). They washed their tube off in the sink, picked up their numbered melodica from the cubby rack, and sat back down. Once all the kids were sitting quietly with their melodica cases in front of them, we began the class.
I started by reinforcing good hand position, thumb on C and pinky on G, and I had the kids check each other. Then, I demonstrated how to play C, D, E, F, G in quarter notes, and the students responded as a group. Then, I had the students play the pattern either individually or in pairs so that I could check their hand position and fingering.
After that, we moved on to a sequence of call-and-response, singing and playing. First, I sang a pattern (e.g., C C D) and the students sang it back to me as a group few times. Then, I played the same pattern on the melodica, and the students played it back to me. We repeated this a few times until they really got it. Then I sang a new pattern (e.g., C D E), they sang it back to me, I played it, they played it, and I kept sequencing new and slightly more difficult patterns.
Next, I introduced the concept of intervals. I showed them how to count up from C to G, explained that we call it a fifth, and notated it on the white board. Then we did the call-and-response sing/play on C and G, ascending and descending. After that, I said, “What song does this sound like?” I played C and G forte and accented, and many of the students said, “Star Wars!”
After that, I led them through a similar sequence introducing the fourth (Here Comes the Bride), third (When the Saints Go Marching In), and second (Happy Birthday). Then, I played the intervals to them and had them guess which interval/song it was. They were actually pretty good at it!
Next, we projected one of the simple songs they were learning on the smart board. We counted it with a drum beat, sang the letter names while fingering, and played through sections of it together. This took up the rest of the classroom time.
The district arts coordinator came to observe and film one of the five classes. As someone who had previously taught piano and elementary music, she thought what we were doing was very cool because we were introducing ear-training, basic understanding of the piano keyboard, as well as rhythm and reading notation.
Overall, we now have the groundwork in place. We know that having melodicas in a general music classroom is tenable, and call-and-response singing and playing will likely be the core of our pedagogy.
Moving forward, there are several things for us to consider, including: intonation and repairs for the melodicas, separate tubes for each student, making layered arrangements for multiple melodicas and even bucket drums, creating online curricula/supplementary activities to keep students engaged and progressing outside of the classroom, etc.
We are now looking to get other pilot programs started so that we may continue to test ideas and develop curricula before we begin to scale it. It will likely take a few years to make this curriculum highly effective and to iron out logistical wrinkles, but we believe there is no limit to the impact we could have through music education at scale.
We are deeply grateful for Becca’s initiative, and for your continued support which is making all of this possible. Thank you for being part of the journey, and we’ll keep you in the loop as things progress.
Joe and Tristan
Welcome to our blog!
We feel very grateful for the overwhelmingly positive response to our videos, and we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we want to make an impact through Melodica Men.
Above all, we are most excited about the melodica’s potential as an educational instrument.
We envision a movement towards integrating melodica into all primary school curricula, and we want to use our social media following to catalyze this movement.
If you want to be a part of this movement, you can share this post with music teachers you know, and/or support our efforts on Patreon.
The more we think about it, the more we become convinced that the melodica offers so much educational potential. Here’s a countdown of the Top Ten Reasons Why Melodica is the Best Educational Instrument:
10. Develops both keyboard skills and breath control
Melodica is basically the combination of a keyboard on the outside with a harmonica on the inside. Thus, playing the melodica requires both keyboard skills and breath control, which are transferrable skill sets.
For example, breath control is a fundamental skill set for wind instrumentalists. Melodica is a fantastic precursor to studying wind and brass instruments because it can be used to teach students how to articulate with their tongues as well as how to sustain notes and create dynamic contrast by engaging their diaphragms.
Students learning the melodica would also develop rudimentary keyboard skills. Melodica uses a proportionally smaller keyboard which would fit the hands of children, so teachers could plant the seeds of basic hand position and finger coordination. Melodica would also be useful for visually demonstrating basic music theory concepts such as scales and chords.
9. It's ubiquitous in Japan
Believe it or not, the melodica is already used as the standard music education instrument in Japan as well as other countries.
In Japan, every student was required to learn both the keyboard and the harmonica. The melodica was later adopted because it provided a “two birds with one stone” solution to the country’s music education requirements since it could be used to develop keyboards skills and breath control simultaneously.
We’ve seen videos of children as young as ages 3-6 (kindergarten) playing melodicas. What could be the long-term value of early education on this instrument? We suggest watching the following video as an example of what is possible:
While this video certainly does not qualify as evidence of the melodica’s educational efficacy, we can be certain that all of those children were required to learn melodica in school.
8. It's surprisingly unlimited
In terms of potential for growth, the melodica is a virtually unlimited instrument with a surprisingly wide palette for musical expression.
Unless someone can prove otherwise, no single orchestral instrument by itself can do all the things that one melodica can do: vibrato, multiple tonguing on chords, multiphonics, extended jazz harmonies.
Additionally, the melodica is totally unbound by genre. We’ve shown that it’s possible to play anything from Stravinsky to Star Wars, Bernstein to Bruno Mars on these things.
Although we neither expect nor intend to produce melodica virtuosi, it’s encouraging to know that there’s no limit to how far a student could progress on the melodica.
7. Plays well with others
What’s better than a melodica? More melodicas!
In addition to being a great solo instrument, the melodica is perfect for duets in which one person plays the melody and the other plays the accompaniment.
It’s totally conceivable that we could make layered arrangements for melodica classes which could include melody, bass line, countermelody, chords, and piano accompaniment for the teacher. Melodica could also be integrated with bucket drumming ensembles and other school groups.
We can imagine a music class putting on a melodica recital including solos, duets, trios and more, which would give students the opportunity to practice being both mindful leaders and effective accompanists.
Although nobody can deny the pedagogical utility of a piano, you can’t take a piano with you in a backpack, in a car, or as carry-on luggage.
We’ve taken our melodicas everywhere from across the country to across the Atlantic Ocean, performing in front of the Eiffel Tower, playing in a garden, and jamming inside a cab.
It’s easy to imagine students taking their melodicas to and from school. It could even be useful for children who grow up in split households where only one of the houses has a piano. Since it’s possible for students to take their melodicas anywhere, there’s even less of an excuse for not practicing.
Compared to any orchestral instrument, the melodica presents minimum barriers for producing a sound and beginning to make music. The subtle advantage is that it removes the variables of timbre and pitch.
This means that if a student presses the middle C key and blows into it, they will get essentially the same sound and pitch as us immediately. This is not the case with any wind, brass or string instrument, which all take years of diligent practice to consistently produce a characteristic tone that is in tune across all registers.
Why does this matter? Here's two significant reasons:
On a practical level, a class set of melodicas is much more attainable than a keyboard lab, both in terms of cost and space required. Melodicas are also inexpensive enough so that each student could own their own melodica.
Many entry-level instruments can cost hundreds of dollars, which is quite a bit to invest just to find out if your kid has any proclivity for music. Giving a child a melodica is a fun and easy way to see if they have a natural inclination for making music.
3. Superior to the recorder
When it comes to educational potential, the melodica is clearly superior to the recorder. In addition to everything previously mentioned, here are two more reasons why:
It’s also worth mentioning that the melodica could be a sweet relief to students and teachers who are tired of recorder and want to move on to something new.
2. It's super fun
If our videos have demonstrated anything, it’s that the melodica is very fun to play.
Whether you’re a beginner or a trained professional, the melodica can feel like a toy and elicit a sense of child-like joy. Some parents have sent us pictures of their kids literally sleeping with their melodicas. Seriously, we’re not kidding.
We believe that it’s crucial for students to enjoy making music, especially in the beginning. The fundamental reason why we practice is because making music is joyful and it’s worth doing as best as you can.
While on the surface the melodica is fun and accessible, it could be a great introduction to the sense of fulfillment that comes from improving at something worthwhile.
1. Untapped pedagogical potential
This one excites us the most and tops our list.
Although curricula must already exist for melodica in countries such as Japan, the melodica is still very new to countries like the US.
For teachers who are either highly creative in exploring new ways of teaching music or who are bored/disenchanted with the way music is usually taught, using the melodica offers the opportunity to create a totally fresh approach. It’s a blank canvas for pedagogical creativity, which we find very exciting.
We believe that the melodica can be used as a means of learning the language of music, and we are currently working with teachers on pilot programs in elementary schools.
Can you think of more reasons why melodica is a great educational instrument? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at melodicamen(at)gmail.com.
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