If you want kids to learn music, teach it like a language

March 4, 2024

Education doctoral student and elementary music teacher Eric Bottorff recently won the Michigan Music Educator of the Year award for his inventive classroom approaches, including teaching music to special education students.

A colorful graphic featuring a headshot of Education Lecturer Eric Bottorff, children playing music and singing, and a line of ukuleles in the background.
Graphic by Violet Dashi. Images by Ruslan Grumble, kues1 and Prot via Adobe Stock

The adorably awkward end-of-year music concert featuring kiddos singing their hearts out is a cherished school tradition that Eric Bottorff says he can live without. The Livonia Public Schools elementary music teacher has his reasons for doing away with the “cute concert” genre at his school. For starters, he never wants to set anyone up for disappointment, and the reality is that many of his students have life circumstances that will keep them or their loved ones from attending an after-school event. Prepping a performance is also a huge time suck. The conventional wisdom among music educators, which Bottorff figures is about right, is that every minute of a concert costs a music teacher an hour of instruction. Plus, it’s clear to him that teaching kids to sing a prescribed set of songs, mostly to ensure a cute photo op for their parents, is not the same thing as teaching kids music anyway. Above all, he wants children to leave his classroom feeling like music is “something everyone can do.”

Bottorff’s willingness to experiment with new ways of teaching kids music is earning him recognition and an increasingly large platform for sharing his ideas. He’s a regular presenter at educational conferences, and now gets so many requests for his lesson plans, he’s turned that into a little side business. Here at UM-Dearborn, in addition to being a student in the Department of Education’s doctoral program, he teaches a course on how to incorporate the arts into all kinds of classroom subjects, a key part of which is getting teachers-in-training to see themselves as musical people. Earlier this year, Bottorff received one of his highest-profile accolades: He was named the Michigan Music Educator of the Year by the Michigan Music Education Association, in part for creating a new research-based curriculum for his district that’s more inclusive of the needs of special education students.

Central to Bottorff’s approach is a belief that traditional ways of teaching kids music leave something to be desired. On one end of the spectrum, having children sing songs in unison doesn’t do much to teach them what music actually is. Interestingly, Bottorff says the opposite approach — introducing students to formal musical notation and instrument instruction at a very early age — can leave kids with the same deficits. Instead, Bottorff says we should think about learning music like we do learning a language, an idea that’s supported by research suggesting the brain processes language and music in a similar way. “Very often, in music teaching, we try to jump straight to reading music, as if the note on the page is the only true version of the song,” Bottorff explains. “But realistically, when we learn to read English, or any other language, we’ve had three or four years of hearing people speak it and us speaking it back. But we try to skip all those steps when we try to teach kids music.” 

This is why in Bottorff’s classroom, students won’t see musical notation until the end of the second grade. By that time, they’ve had nearly three years to experience music in more developmentally appropriate ways. For example, in kindergarten, Bottorff introduces the students to a diverse range of musical styles, so they can begin to internalize different genres, rhythms and time signatures, using mostly their ears and voices. By first and second grade, they’re starting to learn a bit of vocabulary for reading and writing music. But like a baby learning to babble, they use a language of music that makes sense to them. Quarter notes and eighth notes, for example, are “doos” and “doo-days.” Rhythms and time signatures are learned by clapping hands or stomping feet. Bottorff says this makes the leap to learning musical notation, or an instrument like the recorder or ukulele, a pretty straightforward process by third or fourth grade, since the students already have a working knowledge of what music actually consists of. “I tell my kids my goal is not that you’re a good ukulele player. My goal is when you’re 30 years old, and you need a hobby because you’re tired from working or need a break from your family, you don’t need to call me to learn how to play guitar,” he says. “You can remember some of these skills and figure it out on your own. And feel confident enough to try.” 

Bottorff has also revamped how special education students experience music in his classroom. For a variety of reasons, he says music class has traditionally been a “tough time” for many special education students — and the paraprofessionals who aid them throughout their days. When he started teaching special education music classes, he noticed that when students were struggling with a task, their parapros often couldn’t resist the temptation to intervene, either by singing for the student or even taking their hands and clapping for them. So Bottorff collaborated with the aides to come up with some new approaches, based both on his expertise and the parapros’ experience of what worked well for the kids in other settings. “For example, we actually made a poster that hangs in the classroom — the ‘Rules for Adults in the Music Room’ — which I have to hold myself to as well,” he says. “Don’t sing for a kid, let them sing on their own. Let the kids find their own beat. Give them time to process. I mean, we decided that we’re willing to wait 30 seconds for a response, because we want the student to find their way to an outcome that makes sense for them.” Ultimately, his philosophy, which he borrowed from his mother, a retired special education teacher, is to “make sure the kids are happy to show up, sad to leave and are learning something in the middle.” The fact that many of his special education students say music class is their favorite part of the day is an indication that something is working. 

Given the impact Bottorff’s had on music education in his district, it may surprise you to learn that he doesn’t see himself in the music field forever. People have been telling him for a while that he’d make a good principal, and he sees how an administrative role would give him a broader platform for creating a supportive educational culture that goes beyond the music room. In fact, his dissertation work at UM-Dearborn isn’t focused on music — a subject he says is so specific it tends to “pigeonhole you as an educator.” Instead, Bottorff is studying various aspects of “advisory,” an educational approach that’s experiencing a bit of a revival. Advisory takes a huge range of forms, but the core idea is that fostering a quasi-parental role for teachers can aid students' social-emotional development. He got a crash course in a fairly intensive form of advisory while he was a young teacher in South Korea. He was assigned 10 sixth graders, for whom he “was their person.” He would meet weekly with the kids, often at the school’s on-campus coffee shop, where they’d do things like play games and talk about their lives. He was also their official advocate if they had a behavior issue that required intervention from the school. Bottorff said he saw some huge benefits to this approach. But he also felt totally unprepared for having that kind of relationship with a student. “I think we have teachers who already feel stretched in their responsibilities. Or teachers who feel like they don't know how to make connections with these kids outside of, say, teaching them chemistry,” he says. Bottorff’s dissertation is focusing on several schools who are using advisory, so he can study what kind of support teachers need to make this approach work.

Those are the kinds of larger reforms he could help foster as a principal, which is one of the main reasons he’s willing to leave a role he loves. He figures he can always teach trombone lessons on the side if he needs his music kick. Plus, it’s hard to imagine someone who’s spent 14 years as a music teacher totally giving it up. A principal who loves to sing and plays tuba, ukulele, trumpet and about two dozen other instruments would likely be someone students never forget. 


Story by Lou Blouin