Musical Adventures for Little Maestros
“Music is the universal language of mankind.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
What’s a proper age to learn to play an instrument? Teacher and musician Sophie Maxwell believes children can start before they learn how to speak, even before they celebrate their first birthday!
Sophie should know; she has been teaching for some 15 years now, and has worked with some of the youngest and most promising singers and musicians at her school Musical Adventures, which she opened at West Footscray back in 2017. Sophie is also one of the first teachers to run live online classes on WeTeachMe using Zoom - a timely switch, as they’re about to rebrand and will soon be known as Leading Note! So the music goes on, even with social distancing measures in place. Read on, if you’ve got a musically inclined child or if you are an aspiring teacher who’s also thinking about teaching your classes online.
Here she is with one of her adorable toddler-maestros.
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I love seeing how excited my students are when I bring my violin or viola into class, it's one of my favourite things about teaching small people big things. Here Chiyo has his little hand on mine, so he can feel my hand play the viola. Except he's loving the viola so much, that he is pushing and pulling my hand faster than we are playing Twinkle! Gorgeous to see his enthusiasm ❤
Tell us about yourself and your teaching experience.
I have always loved helping others to learn new things, and master skills they had previously believed were out of reach. By the time I was in Year 11 at school I had already received a Diploma in violin performance, so doing the Suzuki teacher-training program alongside my VCE studies didn’t seem so strange.
I started teaching in 2005, and it was part of my life while I completed a Bachelor of Music at the University of Melbourne with First Class Honours. I then embarked upon a very serious classical music performance career, with a segue into Radio Production at ABC Classic FM. After a few years, I discovered that Production and Performance didn’t give me joy in the same way that teaching does.
One day I was lost at a Suzuki Teaching Conference and stumbled across the baby/toddler classes. I was highly sceptical (what can a baby do?), but by the end of the class I was signing up to do the Teacher Training course. In the same way that babies are learning their first language for a year or more before reproducing the words, they are doing the same with music. It is quite incredible to see tiny people play a steady beat, sing in tune and identify a rhythm. They are so much more capable than we realise!
What prompted you to bring your in-person courses online? Tell us about your experience so far.
Due to the current COVID-19 situation, the safest option for our student families was to move all classes online. Honestly, I didn’t give myself too much time to second-guess this move, it was the only way to keep connecting with our musical community, and that’s the most important thing for us.
The mental health of parents and children is so important. By keeping the classes going in this new format we were able to support parents and give them a stress-free moment each week to enjoy spending quality time with their children, to keep the happy connection between teacher and student, and to keep some semblance of a ‘normal’ routine for our tiny students.
The experience has been fantastic in so many ways I wasn’t expecting. Usually, with our ‘in person’ classes, we meet the one parent who has that day off work, and that’s the only member of the family who gets to join in the fun and see what their little one has learned to do. As the classes are now in their living room, we are meeting the whole family!
One Dad is a high school teacher, he can now join in the classes with his wife and toddler in between running his own classes online - the joy on their faces as they share this experience is so special. One Grandma has mobility issues, so hasn’t been able to attend a class, well now we come to her! She loves sharing the activities and songs with her Grandson, and says the shared class experience is bringing them closer.
As the children are in their ‘comfort zone’ at home, they are more comfortable to perform solo, and they love introducing us to their favourite toy. We incorporate these into our activities, so no one (including Big Ted) feels left out! We are also getting new students who previously hadn’t been able to travel to our classes, and previous students who had moved away are also returning to our program. It’s a really exciting time to be a teacher!
How did you go about designing your first-ever online course? How did you plan it?
I had to rethink a music class from a visual perspective, which isn’t an element that I had thought so deeply about! I made some simple swaps (where we would have danced around the circle, I found ways to adapt the dances to be done on the spot), and also had some fun coming up with a list of creative solutions for instruments at home - yes, raiding the kitchen for wooden spoons and pots is on the list!
These are interim solutions while we put together an instrument pack for our students, as beautiful sound is so important to us as educators. I am lucky to have some very understanding friends who joined a trial class, where many mistakes were made! It was really important to do that trial run before the real one, because we discovered the elements that didn’t work, and I was able to test our solutions.
There was also a lot of: ‘Sophie, hold it higher, I can’t see it!’ and other hilarious moments while I worked out camera angles, etc. I also did many, many drafts of the lesson plans as I realised and worked through issues that parents may face when being the ‘home teacher’.
Can you share a few hacks you’ve had to employ in your classes?
As the jump online was so fast (we had less than 24 hours to pull it together), I’ve had to be very creative and use what we have at hand! Because so many people are now working online, many items such as webcams and tripods are completely sold out.
In order to get the right camera angle, I got crafty with some power tools and created a platform out of wooden planks, laid this across the rungs of a ladder and ta daaaaaa! The laptop is now high enough to get a good view of the instruments and movements in the class.
WeTeachMe has been brilliant in supporting our switch online by integrating Zoom with the enrolment system, which means that we don’t have to manually send class codes each week (that really was clunky!). Now they are automatically sent to them, which is a big thing off my admin list!
A student’s Dad has kindly given us an external microphone, which has made a wonderful difference to the quality of our lessons. We are so fortunate to have the support of our student families in this shift online.
What type of feedback from previous students and parents have you received on your online course?
We have received amazing feedback, quite overwhelming! I had assumed the online classes would be a placeholder before we returned to our in-person classes, however, the response is so good that I am now planning on continuing this online stream when we resume our in-person classes.
One of our baby class mums, Laura, has followed us online from the in-person classes, and she says I have an amazing energy that translates through the screen. Laura is a prominent TV producer, so I am incredibly chuffed (and relieved) to get this kind of feedback! In my personal life, I’m usually the one avoiding the camera, but somehow when I’m teaching I know my students need me to be comfortable and relaxed, so therefore my inner teacher overrides any inhibitions and I have a great time running the classes, just as I always did in the physical classroom!
What advice would you give a teacher designing an online course for the first time?
Jump in and have a go! You may surprise yourself by how well it works for your students, and how much fun you have!
Cover photo credit: Krystal Seigerman
Want to learn more about Sophie and her teaching techniques? Check out her online music classes for kids at Musical Adventure!
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