VCU alum takes an alternative approach to music education

Artwork by Tess Wladar

Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing author

Students in Nicolas Léonard’s class learn the basics of music through games, well-known songs and sensory methods.

Leonard, a VCU Music Education alumnus and Chesterfield County teacher, uses the Kodály method to teach music in an alternative way. The Kodály method focuses on kinesthetic learning. Kinesthesia is a sensory experience derived from the feeling of being aware of the movements and position of one’s body, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly developed the Kodaly method in the middle of the 20th century and focuses on growing a child’s musical abilities by “meeting the child where they are,” according to Ginger Albertson, president-elect of the Virginia Organization for Kodály Educators.

“It’s very child-centered,” Albertson said. “It’s very developmentally appropriate for children and it’s important that we have fun.”

The Kodály Method differs from traditional music education in that it focuses on teaching music education in a way that makes sense to children. This is achieved through games and a focus on music the child already knows, according to Leonard.

“We approach it kinesthetically,” Leonard said. “They are actively doing something related to music.”

Leonard said the Kodály approach also involves teaching children music in their native language and emphasizing traditional folk music from other countries. The diversity among his students at Greenfield Elementary School facilitates this aspect of Kodály’s approach, according to Leonard.

“We live in the United States, so I’m going to teach a lot of these traditional American folk songs from centuries ago that we use as a base,” Leonard said. “However, for every American folk song I use, I also add a song from another country. It’s something that’s really close to my heart because we have such diversity in Greenfield.

VCU Music Education alumnus Nicolas Leonard uses the Kodály Method to teach music in an alternative way in Chesterfield County. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Léonard

Leonard was determined to attend a school outside of Richmond and pursue a major outside of music, as his parents were both music teachers. Initially, he didn’t want to follow in their footsteps, he said.

Leonard attended Christopher Newport University with a communications major, but said he soon realized he wanted to pursue his passion for music in college. He changed his major to music performance and later earned a degree in clarinet performance, according to Leonard.

Leonard said he went to VCU for his master’s degree in music education, which shaped the course of his career as an educator and musician. He was later introduced to Kodály through the program, according to Leonard.

“Through VCU, I shaped who I wanted to be as an educator,” Leonard said. “We talked about the good, the bad and the ugly. They don’t coat anything. Similar to Kodály, it was just a very complete experience overall.

Leonard said he was introduced to the Kodály method by his music education teacher at VCU, Alice Hammel, who urged him to get his Kodály certification before his first year of teaching.

Leonard said he initially chose to start teaching music in a more traditional way, but quickly discovered that this style of teaching was “not his favorite thing.” He took a two-year hiatus from teaching, then returned the following year with his Kodály certification and a renewed love for music education, according to Leonard.

“I passed my first level and I thought ‘this is exactly what I want to do,'” Leonard said. “It just spoke to me.”

Leonard currently uses the Kodály approach with his students from kindergarten through sixth grade. The teaching method builds on itself, making teaching and lesson plans concrete for each grade level, according to Leonard.

“I know exactly what order I want to teach things in,” Leonard said. “It’s a bit like a skyscraper. In early childhood, they come to me and we first build a solid foundation and with each grade level they progress. We scaffold and build things based on what they already know.

The approach consists of many different tactics, such as focusing on the singing voice and increasing musical literacy, according to VOKE president Ashley Cuthbertson.

“The idea that the voice is our primary instrument because we all have it and everyone has a right to music is something that really touches every aspect of my professional teaching career,” Cuthbertson said.

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