Taking a Holistic Approach in Music Teaching

Graham Strahle
| October 24, 2017

It has long been recognised that Gestalt principles have an important place in music teaching. Whether it is singing or learning to play an instrument, positive and rewarding experiences can come when the teacher is able to fully harness a child’s sensory awareness, imagination and curiosity.

Mary Jakovac is a studio piano teacher in Melbourne who has a particular interest in holistic learning, and the ideas she employs with her students interrelate closely with her other work as an Art Therapist and Holistic Counsellor. Her teaching was recently highlighted by EducationHQ News, and here we take a look at the creative way she teaches piano.

“My approach is geared to each student as an individual, the interests they have, and even what mood they happen to be in, which makes my teaching more like a Steiner School,” she explains. “I approach people as a whole being, and I fit in very much with their outlook and spiritual existence.”

Jakovac emphasises above all the need for a peaceful atmosphere for making music, with surroundings that make the student feel safe. A lovely garden and teaching room, as her Oakleigh studio boasts, helps a lot. “People do seem to be calmer when they’re with me. When teaching music, I use the garden as a metaphor to help the child make a beautiful sound. This is a Steiner principle.”

First of all she teaches all her students to listen, imagine and think about sound. How this proceeds depends entirely on their situation and maturity, but often it involves just slowing down.

“If a student rushes through pieces, as some often do, I ask them to stop and explore the sounds they’re making,” she says. “I tell them, for example, to think of a nursery rhyme and how the music could make a baby go to sleep. Or I might draw a picture of a snail on their book or get them to look at a painting of a swan on the wall, and ask them what story the piece tells. I get them to be patient and gentle.”

Jakovac encourages her youngest students to bring in toys as an aid to story-making and as a way of confiding in the music. The child can whisper secrets in the toy’s ear without the teacher hearing. “This is a Gestalt thing, about the transference of one thing into another, and removing the teacher from the process,” Jakovac explains. “So the client can feel safe to express their feelings.”

She also gets her students to compose their own music – even the littlest ones. This process involves them writing their own story using imagery. “I ask them to close their eyes and visualise colour and shape. Again, these are Gestalt ideas of taking oneself deeper into the process.”

The one-on-one nature of private music lessons, as distinct from school-based learning, is something Jakovac says she values most of all in her work. “Sometimes it is the only time when the child gets a sustained one-on-one experience, even in their home. It is very beautiful, quiet and intimate. I get very fond of my students.”

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