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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, December 10, 2023

'Here Come the High Notes': Marka teaches music through storytelling

Marin Marka is pictured holding her book 'Here Come the High Notes' (2019).

Alumna and book author Marin Marka (LA'15) has had many years of experience with young musicians-to-be, having taught piano lessons since she was a sophomore in high school. Although Marka said she had witnessed some students struggling with the music learning process, she noticed that her students all loved talking about their favorite television shows and characters during lessons.

“If you really want to be able to connect with them, you've got to know 'PJ Masks', 'Paw Patrol', all of that,” Marka said. “But I was thinking, why doesn't music have characters? If they can tell me the names of 10 different dogs on a TV show, they could tell me the names of 12 different notes on the music staff if they saw them in stories.”

This realization led Marka, who currently works as a pediatric occupational therapist in Grantham, N.H., to explore the use of storytelling as a music teaching platform. With that, the 12 colorful and furry characters of "Here Come the High Notes" — each with unique personalities — were born.

The first title in the FableNotes series, "Here Come the High Notes" is a mnemonic picture book authored by Marka and illustrated by Alexandra Tatu that teaches music notation through storytelling. It has an accompanying workbook for students to apply what they have learned. The book, featuring characters such as "Snooty C," "Bottom-Line E" and "Speedy G," was launched earlier this year in March through Kickstarter. The book is currently available in paperback and is expected to be available in hardcover and electronic formats by October.

According to Marka, she first thought of what would soon become FableNotes while taking a class at Tufts for her child study and human development major. That class explored creative movement in children and dance as a teaching tool and was taught by Renata Celichowska, director of dance at the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance studies.

“We learned about all these different ways that you could teach math through dance, and I watched [Celichowska] do it at the Eliot-Pearson [Children’s] School with a whole bunch of kids. It was just such a cool thing to see how much they were learning through dance,” Marka said. “I realized that if I could just make [music] a little bit more creative, the way that we teach it, I could actually open up opportunities for a bunch of kids.”

Marka said that her personal experience with music also played a part in the genesis of the project. Reflecting on her own music education, she acknowledged that reading music was initially a struggle for her. She added that her lessons growing up did not have the creative elements that she incorporates in the lessons she teaches today.

Marka shared that her writing process began three years ago in 2016. It took a total of 34 drafts for her to distill her ideas into the story and its 13 distinct and fun characters that we see today.

“I started off with everything from kings to astronauts, and it just didn't really ... it was a world that didn't make any sense. And so the more I stripped it down, the more I realized that [the kids] don't need anything else to really learn it than just adjectives,” she said.

The story includes many music terms that are introduced to the reader in context. That people, especially children, learn languages and words best this way was something that Marka learned through her classes at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development.

“I just kind of blended all of these music words like clef, treble, staff, skips … I incorporated them and repeated them in context throughout with pictures,” Marka said. “It's the same reason that we read books to kids to help them with their vocabulary development.”

Other notable features of the book include its rhyming text, the use of color to help readers distinguish characters and thus notes on the staff, as well as its vibrant illustrations.

Tufts Department of Education Senior Lecturer Linda Beardsley, who currently teaches a class on the role of storytelling in education, shared her thoughts on how people are inherently drawn to stories.

“Narrative is something we're naturally drawn to. We're innately wired to the idea of a narrative: the beginning, the middle, and … the ending of the story is very compelling to us from a neurological, intellectual perspective,” Beardsley said.

She added that stories can be an effective teaching tool in class at all grade levels and in many subjects, including music.

“To start a lesson with a story really appeals to people. And I think … having a story allows you to remember so much more than if you just get a list of stuff to think about,” Beardsley said. “I think it's a wonderful concept that she has, I think it's really neat. And, you know, I would encourage her to continue in that line, certainly to use it with children.”

Edith Auner, coordinator of private lessons and outreach at the Tufts Department of Music, said that she considers the use of storytelling in music education a good way to make music more approachable to children, and that the approach has potential for further development.

“I think if you could make a child really love that story, and then get interested more in playing music with this background, and [provide] a way in that's not scary or too technical, I think it's wonderful,” Auner said.

According to Marka's Kickstarter page, this book was written to be as approachable as possible to children with learning disabilities so that “every student can participate confidently with their peers.”

Marka, who also does occupational therapy work in a school district in Claremont, N.H., said that another of her objectives in publishing this book is to make music education more accessible to students in underfunded school districts.

“A lot of times, teachers in these [high needs] districts ... do not have enough funding for actual music classes with a music professional; [they] are responsible for incorporating [music] into their curriculum, and they don't even know where to start,” Marka said.

By providing educational material in music that is accessible even to non-professionals, Marka hopes to be able to help manage the challenges these schools face. In support of this cause, she has donated books and workbooks to several Title I schools across the country and continues to do so on a need-based application basis.

One of Marka’s biggest challenges in creating this book had to do with the publishing aspects of the process, including dealing with the book’s layout.

“It's not in my wheelhouse, really, knowing how to deal with all of the page alignments and the gutter in the center of the book. I could teach a class now … but that was really the biggest hurdle that I wasn't quite prepared for,” Marka said.

Another was dealing with the loss of her father, Harry Amyotte, who was involved in the production process but passed away while Marka was working on the book’s final drafts. "Here Come the High Notes" is dedicated to him.

“He was a photographer and videographer. And it was really hard to launch it without his skills because we had kind of been teaming up on the production side of it together,” Marka said. “So I had to teach myself all the things that I had been preparing for him to do with me.”

With the full release of "Here Come the High Notes" underway, Marka is already working on the next book of the series, focusing on notes on the bass clef. She also looks forward to expanding the curriculum beyond just books to more interactive platforms.

“I learned a lot throughout that [writing] process,” she said. “[It] took me a while to make the first idea good, and now I'm going to focus on that next book to make sure that all the notes are covered, and then I'll see where it goes from there.”