Music Education Through a Montessori Lens
Every Child Has Musical Potential
By NAfME Member Sarah Burns
The perception of the Montessori approach to education is often fraught with misconceptions. It is stereotyped as an unstructured place of freedom where undisciplined children run amok and do whatever they want with little thought to academic subjects. This description could not be further from the truth! When I first walked into a local Montessori center as its music specialist I was transported into a school setting unlike any with which I had previously been acquainted. I met students who were very disciplined and very well-behaved. Their individualized curricula were both organized and structured motivating a freedom to learn and empowering them with individual responsibility for that learning. Music is an integral component of the philosophy of Maria Montessori.
The Montessori Lens
Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was the first female physician of Italy. As a young intern working with children with special needs she became interested in the study of children’s learning behaviors. This interest led to the opening of “Casa dei bambini” (“Children’s House”) for underprivileged children, aged 3-7, in Rome in 1907. Out of this Children’s House the tenets, themes, and unique terminology of the Montessori method would develop.
- Uninterrupted Work Period
- Three-year Age Range
- Strategic Guided Lessons
- Collaborative, Interdisciplinary, and Exploratory Learning
- Freedom through Self-directed Work
- Beautiful Hands-on Materials
- Fostering of Abstract, Creative, and Critical Thinking
Qualities of the Children
- Inquisitive – Love of Learning
- Development of Responsibility and Confidence
- Calm, quiet, and peaceful atmosphere
- Affinity with nature
- Environment: The learning space or classroom. The “Prepared Environment” is a cornerstone of Montessori education. It is considered prepared when materials and instructional aids are ready for student use.
- Works: Refers to a student’s individualized daily lessons, prepared weekly by the student with a teacher’s guidance.
- Levels: Refers to grade levels however, levels are very fluid and are not determined by age, but rather by a child’s abilities.
- Plan Book: The student’s lesson agenda which is prepared each week and includes daily works.
- The Line: A circle taped on the floor that children walk around to gain self-control, balance, etc. It is also a gathering place for the group.
- Hand on Head/Arm: Indicates a child has something to say. Hand on the head is like raising a hand. Hand on the arm indicates child needs your attention while you are busy.
- The Floor: Student works take place here – as does teaching.
In the Montessori method learning and mastery are considered sufficient rewards. There are no grades, incentives, or prizes. The child is never tested (in the normal sense of the word), but is expected to demonstrate proficiency before moving on to the next level. Parents are kept informed of the child’s progress through weekly reports.
Music Education through the Montessori Lens
The idea that every child has musical potential and all children are able to learn and express themselves musically permeates the Montessori method. Music activities are respected at the same level as any other form of learning. Teachers are supportive and encouraging of the child’s musical endeavors. Children learn with music, learn about music, and learn by music. Music is incorporated into the Montessori curriculum in the daily classroom environment as well as through music classes and private lessons.
Music classes, taught by a music specialist, take place in multi-aged, group settings while private lessons in piano and other instruments are offered to the children starting with the second level. Time to practice for these lessons is a part of the children’s daily schedule.
The music curriculum embraces the pedagogies of Orff, Kodály, and Dalcroze with an emphasis on music literacy, singing, movement, listening, and the playing of instruments. Ear training is developed beginning in early childhood through sound exploration with Montessori bells.
Musical Process in the Montessori Lens
- Observed Introduction: The teacher silently models the music work (i.e., activity or concept) while the children observe. “Silently” in the music environment, where sound predominates, means modeling is done without preface, explanation, or discussion allowing children to observe and form their own idea of how the work can be completed successfully. This modeling may be repeated as necessary.
- Reinforcement: Routine and repetition of the work as many times as the child needs for success or wishes for enjoyment.
- Performance: “Sharing” the work for the teachers, classmates, or family, in informal or formal settings.
Rethinking Centers through a Montessori Lens
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”
[Montessori, M. (1963). Education for a new world. Kalakshetra.]
These experiences in the music environment are like learning centers found in many classrooms. In the Montessori setting, these interactive centers – known as “works” – are designed so that students can experience them individually rather than in small groups, and they are predominately hands-on, not worksheet-based.
To accomplish this requires several things:
- Fostering a cooperative, well-organized learning environment
- Preparing materials, instructions, and self-checks for each work
- Introducing works to the group then allowing children to work independently
Success in having a class of children working individually is dependent upon each of these.
It is helpful to consider the following when creating works:
- Task: What is the child to do?
- Materials: What is needed to complete this work?
- Self-Check: How will the child check his work?
- Assess: How will the child demonstrate proficiency to the teacher?
See the accompanying handout for Work Tasks Descriptions and Types of Works.
About the author:
NAfME member Sarah Burns is a doctoral candidate for the D.M.A. in Music Education degree at Shenandoah University, VA. Burns has 28 years’ experience teaching general, vocal, and instrumental music from preschool to university levels in Illinois and Tennessee. She has completed the requirements for Kodály certification (Capital University) and Orff-Schulwerk certification (University of Memphis), as well as Dalcroze Eurhythmics training (Anderson University). An active member and presenter of professional organizations she specializes in general music strategies, music education pedagogy, folk song and historical research, and world music. Recent ventures include providing music experiences to homeschool students through the West Tennessee Homeschool Band program (founding director) and Young Musician classes.
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