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Lebanon teacher emphasizes playing music before reading the notes

  • Marin Marka works with music student Lou Almstrom, 4, of Lebanon, N.H., during a morning lesson at Spark Therapies in Grantham, N.H., on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Marka, a piano teacher and occupational therapist, has written a book, titled "Here Come the High Notes," which is designed to simplify note reading for young people and help teachers and parents share music with kids (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marin Marka helps music student Lou Almstrom, 4, of Lebanon, N.H., find a note during a morning lesson at Spark Therapies in Grantham, N.H., on Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marin Marka, a piano teacher and occupational therapist from Lebanon, N.H., has written a book titled "Here Come the High Notes," designed to simplify note reading for young people and help teachers and parents share music with kids. Marka was at Spark Therapies on Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Grantham, N.H., where she teaches. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marin Marka uses her book "Here Come the High Notes" during a piano lesson with music student Lou Almstrom, 4, of Lebanon, N.H., during a morning lesson at Spark Therapies in Grantham, N.H., on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Marka, a piano teacher and occupational therapist, has written a book designed to simplify note reading for young people and to help teachers and parents share music with kids. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 11, 2019

If Mozart were able to time travel into the new millennium, he’d be baffled by most of the trappings of modern life. But sit him down at a piano with the sheet music to A Star Is Born, and he wouldn’t miss a beat. Music notation hasn’t changed a bit since the days when Rondo Alla Turca was trending.

It’s a little crazy when you think about it — and Marin Marka had plenty of time to think about it while commuting 2½ hours each way to Boston University last year. That’s when she got the idea for her new music literacy curriculum, FableNotes.

A piano teacher who often works with children with learning disabilities, Marka was bothered by how many of her students struggled to retain what she’d taught them, as well as by the deterioration of school music programs around the country.

“I was finding that music just really wasn’t very accessible for different types of learners,” said Marka, 25, who lives in Lebanon and works as an occupational therapist in the Claremont School District, in addition to teaching piano. “There’s really only one way of teaching music, and that’s with black dots on a page, and they’re usually pretty small.”

Innovative methods have opened up fields such as coding to a wider range of learners, Marka thought. Why not apply some of these methods to note reading?

The result: a gang of furry, colorful characters with big personalities who introduce young people to music literacy through stories. The first book in her curriculum series, Here Come the High Notes, which will be launched on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter on March 27, tells the story of how the treble clef notes found their places on the music staff.

“Basically, what it does is make note reading really easy,” said Marka, who earned her bachelor’s degree in child study and human development from Tufts University and her master’s degree in occupational therapy from Boston University. “I used the science of learning and memorization when I was writing it. It’s designed to work the way the brain works.”

Reading and playing music provides a vigorous workout for the brain, among numerous other benefits. It boosts math skills, helps with problem solving and analytical thinking and correlates with language learning, according to research. It also offers social benefits by giving people a way to connect with one another, Marka said.

The problem is that many people never get to enjoy those benefits. Along with being inaccessible to many non-traditional learners and people with disabilities, music literacy is unappealing to a lot of people because, like other disciplines, it begins as drudgery.

Marka, who teaches adaptive piano lessons at Spark Therapies in Grantham as well as private lessons in her home, remembers well her own days of learning to read music. Growing up with an opera singer mother, Katheryn Amyotte, she  had an ear for music at a young age but didn’t care much for piano lessons.

“I had a great teacher, but she was really traditional. I struggled with note reading a lot,” Marka said. “I would kind of hobble along playing by ear. I remember note reading just feeling really difficult and kind of lifeless.”

Things haven’t changed all that much. “So many kids are quitting music because the current music resources can’t compete with all of the technology that kids have,” Marka said.

There’s another reason a lot of musical aspirations flatline, too. Parents don’t know how to help their children practice at home. The goofy characters in Here Come the High Notes, which comes with a companion workbook and e-book, can help with that as well.

“I wanted it to be something that could make it to the bedroom bookshelf,” Marka said. “Many parents say they wish they’d kept going with music. They want to give that to their kids, but they don’t really know how.”

This is especially true in lower-income districts, said Marka, who recently watched one of her students use the concepts from FableNotes to teach her mother how to play a song from Frozen on a mini keyboard.

“The big hope is that it’s more than just music learning. It can promote positive interactions,” she said.

Marka also wants to bring those interactions into the classroom. Through her website, she’s donating the curriculum to 50 schools around the country in Title 1 districts or districts where music education has been cut. In Claremont, she’ll also visit classrooms to demonstrate the curriculum.

“All you really need is a little xylophone or piano keyboard for them to be able to start sounding out notes and playing songs,” Marka said.

Diane Edwards, director of the Claremont Early Childhood Program, is eager to see Marka’s ideas in action.

“When she told me that she was developing a program that dealt with music, I said, ‘fantastic, count us in.’ ” Edwards said. “There are so many benefits of music that directly and indirectly impact learning.” 

Music already plays an important role in the preschool classrooms, Edwards said. It helps the children with everything from making the transition to a new activity to discriminating between sounds — a key pre-reading skill — to developing emotional resilience through persistence and discipline. Having additional tools to integrate music into the school day, as well as into the young people’s lives, would be very beneficial, she said. 

“I’m all about anything that we can do that’s fun for children that will develop all these important traits,” Edwards said. 

Before she can donate the materials to schools, Marka needs to raise about $8,000 to reimburse the illustrators and pay for printing and shipping. If all goes well, she plans to continue adding materials to the curriculum. Her next book, Look Out For Low Notes, is in the works, and she’s considering other forms of media, including digital apps and videos.

She also intends to travel to school districts and communities to introduce her program to educators, parents and other people who work with children. She hopes to hold her first event in the Upper Valley sometime soon.

Meanwhile, Marka said her own students are making excellent progress using the FableNotes concepts. Along with acting as a stepping stone to traditional music notation, the goofy characters can be used to teach a variety of musical concepts.

“We talk about the characters and say, ‘what would it sound like if they talked to each other?’ … or ‘what happens if Heroic E is feeling very flat today?’” Marka said. “There’s just all of these ways to use the characters.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.