The most healing power of music is its ability to give voice to the most abstract, confusing, and human parts of ourselves. The parts of ourselves where words fall short. “Chord painting” (exploring harmonic function) can help us empower kids to express these wordless places in themselves. Students as young as 5 years old can learn that the 6- chord can express a deep sadness, that a 4 chord can feel like discovery, that the 1 chord feels like home. What a gift we can give our students!
My favorite check-in question with kids is: what chord do you feel like today? Just the other day a student told me, unprompted, that he felt like a G chord in the key of C. Fellow music nerds will know that this is the 5 chord, which has a very unsteady, forward-moving feeling to it. He was excited about summer break, and that G chord matched his mood. How fitting!
Ok cool but what does this offer that teaching other musical elements don't?
At the root of my teaching philosophy is the belief that music is a language, and so we should teach it like a language. Young children learn to write their name before they are expected to read a book. Heck, we even give them letter-shaped toys to chew on before they can even say their name as infants and toddlers.
But when it comes to music, we often expect kids to dissociate from themselves and what they have to say in favor of memorizing all that has come before them. Yes, we absolutely should teach them to sight-read and expand their awareness of musical styles, and use the correct fingers in each scale on their instrument, and teach them that Taylor Swift song they are begging to learn. But also. We must leave room for their unique voice. We need to hear who they are.
I like to explain chords as "the beds that melodies sit on." Chords can become the universe of a song, the melody becoming the characters and story. Chords and knowing how they function can empower kids to fully inhabit their musical space, before they can fluently read music.
Plus, chords allow kids to naturally start improvising melodies with their voices in lessons, or secretly at home.
Okay, I'm sold... but how? My students can barely sit still!
Through play. I always follow a new skill with a composition exercise. For instance, in my upcoming Ukulele Composition Book, I'll teach students first how to read a ukulele chord diagram, then I'll teach them how to de-code these diagrams to learn their C, Am, and F chords. I'll expose them to some short chart-reading exercise, and once they get the hang of it, they can write their own very short progression, with rhythm strums written out. (Check out my FREE ukulele Composition Booklet 1 on my TPT store here!)
I combine composition exercises with activities and games, and teach all of this in tandem with actually learning the instrument. Knowing young beginner ukulele students can lose focus quickly as they deal with finger discomfort, I create opportunities for them to playfully engage with their new skills.
This chord painting activity has always been a hit with my students, and it forces them to slow down and mindfully receive the communicative powers of each chord.
After they have explored the colors and flavors of each chord, they can (unknowingly) strengthen the more left-brain skills involved in identifying each chord function number with an activity like this one above.
I have seen, time and time again this approach be *the thing* that boosts a child's confidence enough to continue with the instrument. It is a highly advanced, but strangely accessible tool that communicates to young kids that there is space for them and their voice.
A song by a kindergarten student of mine, M, from my uke composition series.
Note: I am a Nashville-based teacher and educator, and use the Nashville Number system, knowing the basics of this approach can easily be transferred to Roman numeral system more common in jazz and classical.