Mastering Music

Music teacher Alise Brown

UNC faculty member Alise Brown demonstrates how the method she adapted for teaching students to read and compose simple music pieces. Photo by Barry LaPoint

A University of Northern Colorado musician has dusted off an early 20th century form of music instruction and adapted it in her classroom to help students master reading, writing and composing simple music.

In doing so, Alise Brown has preserved a scholarly voice from the past. The UNC faculty member's method draws on the approach that the late Justine Ward developed for the Catholic school system in the early 1900s. The Ward Method teaches music fundamentals through Gregorian chant principles.

Brown's modifications, grounded in her doctoral dissertation, include accelerated learning for adults and children alike in part by removing the chant. She revives the Ward Method's use of recognized singing syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) sung in place of numbers 1-8 to effectively and efficiently boost music comprehension.

Brown has been employing the approach the past two years in her junior-level classes. She teaches four of six sections of elementary music education methods classes offered at UNC. The results of using her modified method can be stunning, Brown says.

"I've had a student tell me that I taught her in 20 minutes what years of band could not," Brown said. Another student, after learning the technique, told Brown that she had been intimidated when the instructor told the class that students would learn to sight read after one class. "She couldn't believe it was that simple," Brown said.

Junior Amber Eickman is in that camp. The elementary education major enrolled in Brown's class last fall knowing how to read music but questioning whether she'd be able to pick up where she left off '' she hadn't played a musical instrument since fifth grade.

"When I grew up learning to play the piano, it took weeks to learn how to read music," Eickman recalled. "But it was easy to pick up again and the method makes it a lot easier and quicker to learn."

Eickman credits that to Brown's enthusiasm in teaching the method and the way the method uses numbers first before introducing key-named notes. It helped her visualize the order of the notes first and then expand on that foundation by learning other elements. She plans to incorporate what she learned in her future elementary classes, where rote learning is often emphasized.

"I feel like it will help in my teaching by putting songs to different lessons," Eickman said. "That makes it a lot easier for memorization."

Brown received permission for using her own version from the Dom Mocquereau Foundation, which oversees the Ward Method. It's one of the methods, along with elements of Dalcroze, Kodaly, Laban and Orff, used in UNC's School of Music.

While it's not uncommon for music educators to adapt or blend the various music teaching methods, Brown's approach is unique in that she has taken a lesser known practice rooted in parochial education and applied it universally, said Mark Montemayor, assistant professor and head of Music Education.

"It's very sound methodology for using in music reading including rhythmic reading and understanding pitches and pitch relationships," Montemayor said.

- Nate Haas