The revolution of teaching music

A new method of musical instruction gives anyone the ability to learn to play an instrument and anyone the ability to teach.

‘MUSIC IS not just a privilege,’ Rafi Sertshik says. ‘More people recognize music for society’s well-being... ’ (photo credit: PHOTOS COURTESY: MAGICAL NOTES)
‘MUSIC IS not just a privilege,’ Rafi Sertshik says. ‘More people recognize music for society’s well-being... ’
Rafi Sertshik wants to revolutionize the process of teaching music.
“The traditional way of learning with classical music notes is outdated,” says the 32-year-old Sertshik, who has developed a new musical “language” that he believes will make music simple and accessible to all children, regardless of financial background, disabilities or geographical location.
There hasn’t been much innovation in language in the past few millennia.
The written languages we use today are still based on the phonetic alphabet invented by the Phoenicians in approximately 1200 BCE. Yet even with the alphabet in existence for over 2,000 years, it was only with the invention of print that the accessibility of the written word spread democratically to all levels of (Western) society. The common folk could finally read, and the Church couldn’t keep its monopoly of knowledge on the Bible or other books of information and thought.
That is what Sertshik is trying to achieve with music. With Magical Notes, the name he has given his new teaching method, he aims to break the monopoly of music language and enable every person, young or old, to play an instrument quickly, without the frustration that comes with tackling an instrument for the first time.
“Of course new methods to teach music have been developed before, but never with such extensible coherence and successful methodology as the one that we’ve been working on,” he says.
Born to American parents from Ohio and New York, he grew up attending a religious school, with no musical background.
He taught himself to play piano and flute as a hobby. As a young adult, he taught Bible studies in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood, but whenever he saw a piano or an organ, he’d immediately jump at the chance and start playing.
On one occasion, during an after- school party for children, a five-year-old approached him and asked if he could teach him how to play. Not being familiar with musical notes or any teaching methods, Sertshik was not successful in doing so.
He began researching the subject and found, to his amazement, that there weren’t any teaching methods besides the traditional one of reading notes.
After consulting with top musicians, he went to Roni Levit, an infographics expert (and a musician), and together they began developing a musical language based on intuitive visual information, disregarding the classical notes completely.
When they had completed the first edition, Sertshik went to test his new language on children. And not just any children, but children with autism, severe learning disabilities and Down syndrome. The results were outstanding – and could not be taken for granted.
According to a Gallup Poll, 90 percent of pupils who start taking music lessons drop out, and in general, the number of people globally who play musical instruments is in decline.
And yet, maintains Sertshik, “music is not just a privilege. More people recognize the importance of music for society’s well-being, the ability to change the individual and the collective for the better.”
His goal is to fill the gap between that desire to play music and the number of people who are actually able to do so.
Most parents who want their children to pick up an instrument can’t help but notice the high cost of private lessons. A piano teacher can take NIS 200 or more per lesson. Group classes for flute or guitar can be priced between NIS 70 and NIS 110 per lesson. Schools cannot afford to pay these prices, so most children take music lessons as an extracurricular activity, funded privately from parents’ savings after school hours.
However, Magical Notes has made it cheaper for schools to provide music lessons – and most importantly, do it with excellent results.
How does it work? The language is based on images and colors, which are much easier for children to memorize than the traditional language. For example, an image of a flute will display colors that indicate which holes to cover with the fingers.
The organ visual follows the same pattern.
Instead of “do, re, mi, fa, so,” etc., the visual shows colors that represent the notes. As such, instead of telling a student to play “Do,” the teacher tells him or her to play “red.”
The development of the alternative language began five years ago, and since then, Sertshik has added more professional musicians, graphic designers and computer programmers to his team of developers. The program’s pilot began a half a year ago and is being taught in 30 schools to more than 2,000 children.
“Next year, more schools will join the program,” he says with satisfaction. “It is so easy to learn and teach. By using our music booklets, a teacher with no musical background can teach himself how to play and later on teach a class by himself.”
He clarifies that “most of our teachers do have a musical background or are musicians in some way or another, but more than a few do not, and they are able to teach. The big advantage here is that the children begin to learn at a very young age, and after one or two lessons can already play a few songs on their own – of course, not perfectly, but the whole point is to be able to actually play.”
Magical Notes now covers teaching flute, guitar, organ and piano, and there are plans to cover more instruments.
The program’s website stores a pool with thousands of songs – anything from the Beatles to Hebrew children’s classic “Yonatan Hakatan.” For the more advanced students, there are booklets with higher difficulty levels and instructions for playing scales.
Of course, not everyone approves of this method. According to Sertshik, there are two main objections.
“A lot of people don’t believe me.
They don’t believe they can start playing songs after just one lesson. You need to show them in order for them to understand,” he says. “Then you have people who come from a more conservative background, like people from former Soviet countries – they stand loyal to classical notes and don’t want to hear about new methods.”
But in this “instant generation” with its shortening attention spans, he believes it won’t be a problem to spread his new language – eventually.
“It’s just a mind switch people need to make,” he says. “It will take some time, but it will happen.”
And his vision is far-reaching. “It’s a revolution; I believe I can make millions of people around the globe learn how to play. I mostly enjoy it when I see children who come from families with low income get an opportunity to play: new olim, Ethiopians, the Arab population and the haredim, who I work with a lot; [people in] hospitals, old people. People who have money in north Tel Aviv take music lessons – they can afford it. They don’t need my method. But all the rest don’t have that access. I can give it to them. That’s my goal.”