Teacher says she can teach anyone to play live music

One Shelton resident said she can teach a person with little to no musical experience to play in a rock or jazz band after just one 20-minute lesson using a technique that was developed in Finland.

Kim McCord is a newly retired professor of music education from the University of Illinois who recently moved to Shelton with hopes of spreading her love for music.

With more than 20 years of teaching experience in the field of music, McCord said, a large portion of her joy comes from teaching people to play instruments. This was once a challenging task for someone who isn’t exactly musically inclined, McCord said, but with this style of teaching, called “Figurenotes,” anyone can do it.

Figurenotes was created at the Resonaari school in Finland by music educators Kaarlo Uusitalo and Markku Kaikkonen. Initially designed to enable those with learning disabilities to play music, it has since developed into a tool to help anybody get started.

“It’s a style of teaching that uses colors and shapes designed to help people with disabilities to read music,” McCord explained.

Colors indicate notes, shapes show the octave, and arrows show sharps and flats.

According to Figurenotes.org, the technique teaches students to read musical notes through the placement of a variety of color-coded stickers on an instrument of the student’s choice. The instruments that this technique is used to teach on range from but are not limited to the bass, drums, and the piano, according to McCord.

“Red is always C because that was researched that red you see the easiest and C is the most common key that we play in,” said McCord. “I think the hardest instrument to learn to play is the bass, but still, anyone can learn to play.”

McCord explained that in Finland, education is funded by the government and allows students to pursue doctoral degrees at no cost to them.

“If somebody doesn’t want to go to college, such as those with some disabilities, the government pays to train them for vocation,” said McCord. “There was a group of guys about 20 years ago who decided they wanted to be rock musicians — they just happened to have intellectual disabilities. The government said OK and decided that it would help them to learn how to be rock musicians.”

Fast forwarding to now, Figurenotes is used all over the world to teach people.

“As a music teacher I never liked kids getting frustrated or dropping out of my ensembles, and I wish I had known about this sooner, because this is a way to include everybody,” said McCord. This has really changed my attitude toward teaching.”

McCord said that during the years that she’s been using this technique to teach her students, she’s never seen a student get upset or frustrated.

“It makes it that easy,” said McCord who explained that she became interested in Figurenotes when she was a band director in Denver, Colo.

She noticed that some of her students with learning disabilities couldn’t read music, no matter what she tried to do. That’s when she discovered the system that uses colors and shapes that correlate to the pitches.  

“Each person is different. Each student has their own challenges, and their own positives or strengths,” said McCord. “Someone who’s deaf can see this and learn to identify the necessary note or key just by seeing a shape/color.”

McCord added that students take lessons for different reasons.

“Some people want to perform and others just want to jam out and play,” said McCord.

She personally offers one-on-one lessons or sessions that involve a bit of recruiting so students can practice as a band. The groups that practice as a band wear a watch that vibrates at a set pace or rhythm to keep everyone playing in sync with one another, according to McCord.

With experience teaching “granny bands,” groups of students with autism and other disabilities, and young teens with no musical experience, she said, she doesn’t have a favorite.

“I just love the feeling of seeing my students learn,” said McCord, who elaborated on how her teaching style has changed since learning of Figurenotes. “I no longer teach to achieve that perfect sound. Now it’s about the ‘big smile.’”

McCord explained that “big smile” is a phrase used in Finland to describe the expression on a person’s face when they’re finally able to play an instrument via Figurenotes.

“So when someone is playing or singing, you look for that big smile which tells you that they’ve experienced joy, which is very rewarding,” said McCord. “We’re always going for that big smile. It’s just a system that really works. You sound good, just like the real rock band.”

McCord said she plans to build her network of students she works with in Shelton, and wants to start a community jazz program, too.