Six Rules About Repertoire

Repertoire Rules

These six rules are:

  • for piano teachers,
  • about students and their repertoire,
  • covering motivation, sequencing, development and quantity.

I’ve discussed in this blog before how  students having access to more books of music is going to have a positive impact on their musical literacy, and how learning a large number of pieces each year will have commensurate educational benefits. I’m not going to rehash either of these posts, but rather cut straight to: what are the rules we need to apply to students and their repertoire?

RULE 1: The Rule of Quantity. If your student learns less than 26 pieces per annum they will be bored.
They may not tell you they are bored, but they are. If learning 6 pieces a year truly engages their curiosity they must be almost entirely disinterested in learning to play the piano. On the other hand, you may have a student who only learns 6 pieces a year with you; they are busy finding their own repertoire (jamming with friends, composing their own songs and pieces, playing songs they listen to on their iPods, playing pieces they’ve discovered on YouTube, accompanying worship services at church, accompanying friends at school, and so on) which makes up the 20-piece deficit in order for a piano student to not completely (albeit metaphorically) die of boredom.

RULE 2: The Rule of Development. Once a student has hit 15 years of age they get to have a very large say indeed in their repertoire; before a student reaches 12 years of age they get basically none.
Or let me put that in the correct developmental order; children under the age of 11 don’t necessarily know what they like, because they haven’t tried it yet, and further, they may think they don’t like something via some truly superficial or temporary rationale (such as a scary looking key signature or because they can’t already play it). Children at this developmental stage don’t have the requisite knowledge and insight into learning (and learning the piano) to construct their own programs of study. Don’t let them.

On the other hand, a student over the age of 15 is in the throes of  forming their identity and finding ways to take greater control over their own lives. Repertoire choice is the perfect zone for a teenager to exercise agency – you literally cannot make them practice what they do not want to practice, and you certainly can’t stop them from playing what they like. Take advantage of this! Students around this age will research their own repertoire, and your job becomes akin to that of a counsellor, guiding their choices rather than restricting them, showing the student the best means of attack rather than discouraging them from their planned endeavours.

RULE 3:The Rule of Curiosity. Interesting music is interesting to learn.
It is tautological to state that interesting=interesting, and yet time and time again piano teachers present students with music of limited ideas under the misguided belief that these pieces will inspire their languishing students to re-engage with their practice. The best learning happens when students are curious, so offering students more of the same seems like a recipe for poor learning, both in terms of what will be learned (not much) and in terms of how that learning takes place (through learning not emerging from curiosity).

RULE 4: The Rule of Gratification. Almost-instant gratification is very gratifying.
It is also tautological to state that gratifying=gratifying, yet our profession as a cohort also struggles with the reality that students will be interested in learning music sounds like music right from their first encounter with the score/piece. When we accept that music-making is what our students are curious about, and that curiosity is fundamental to what we do, we approach the experience of learning any piece of music from a completely different angle – sound, for example become primary in lessons, as does musical experimentation.

Note: f it takes three months before it sounds like music the whole process is wrong (see Rule 6 for more thoughts on this).

RULE 5: The Rule of Context. The more students can put their music into a context the more excited they are to play that music.
Context can be as simple as music the student is already familiar with because an older sibling learned to play it, or that it featured in an advertisement on television, or the student has watched performances on YouTube. Context can be biographical, historical, technological, technical, sociological, interpersonal. A piece of music free of context is a piece students will be ambivalent about investing time into.

RULE 6: The Rule of Sequencing. For each new technique, skill or understanding a new piece requires a student to gain, add another week to the length of time it will take the student to learn the piece.
So if your student has never played in F sharp minor before, in a 9/8 time signature, with double sharps, mordents, demisemiquavers and dotted semiquavers before you will be looking at a 7 week ‘acquisition’ process prior to being able to work on performance aspects of playing the piece. Ideally a new piece will have no more than 2 new elements, so that students are quickly moving into performance learning (and sounding as if they are playing music). And of course, if they are learning new pieces all the time they will have gained 26-50 new techniques/skills/understandings within a year without really trying.

These rules are all focussed on different aspects of student experience, but all come down to one thing – creating conditions favourable to joyous learning and performance.

Next, of course, is the issue of transitioning students from their almost repertoire-free modes of learning (as few as 3-6 pieces a year) into a repertoire-rich mode of learning. See the blog post Repertoire Rules (for students): How to Transition for ideas and principles to apply to transitioning students.

This is a slightly extended version of this piece from 2009… 

A Piano Teacher’s Manifesto

A Piano Teacher's Manifesto 2

Originally published some years ago as What Are Piano Lessons For? this is my manifesto on the purpose of piano lessons.  This is a manifesto that emerges from my experience, that reflects my values, and that frames everything about my piano teaching, about my writing for piano teachers, and about my composing for piano students.

1. Piano lessons are for learning how to do cool stuff on the piano.

Cool stuff starts with things like

  • playing familiar melodies,
  • creating glissandi,
  • using the sustain pedal,

and moves on to more sophisticated cool stuff like

  • creating a balance between the melody and accompaniment,
  • voicing two parts within one hand,
  • being able to control tonal variation,
  • learning to recognise and perform any number of patterns (both by sight and by ear),
  • knowing how to make different chords and chord sequences,
  • being able to play a chromatic scale – fast,
  • being able to play scales in contrary motion, or thirds apart, or sixths apart,
  • creating different effects through a range of articulations

and in terms of repertoire includes

  • playing pieces your friends and family enjoy
  • being able to play music that is new to you easily
  • playing music with other musicians
  • playing music with your friends
  • playing music to accompany singers (solo, group, social, amateur, professional)

2. Piano lessons are for learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it.

This might sound like a repetition of the ‘cool stuff’ idea in point 1, but while ‘cool stuff’ teaches you what you can do on the piano, this second point has a completely different focus – it’s not about performance per se, but about the ability of the student to express themselves freely through the piano. This might manifest as a student composing new music, or as the student creating variations on the music they are learning, or as the student finding their own new music to learn, or as the student playing familiar music without requiring a score. ‘Learning what the piano can do so you can do whatever you want on it’ means a developing autonomy, an increasing sense of ownership of the instrument and its role in [your] life.

3. Piano lessons are for understanding other people better.

Playing the music composed by others allows students (and performers) to inhabit someone else’s emotional and ideational world, and learning to play the music of others is an even more intimate encounter with the way other people think and feel. Playing music with other people gives an insight into the way they approach interacting with others, how they express themselves, how patient or impatient they are(!), how curious they are, how their minds work in all kinds of ways. Each of these ways of interacting with others can result in deep connection with others, whether they are peers, mentors, or people the student has never met.

4. Piano lessons are for understanding yourself better.

This happens in many ways, but I want to highlight two.

Music connects directly through to your emotions (even if you are just wandering through a shopping centre, and certainly in a scary movie). But that emotional access is multiplied many times over when you are playing a musical instrument; the music is in your body – your body is making the experience you are hearing, your fingers are finding ways to excite, soothe, enrage or engage. When you take piano lessons you learn about what kinds of emotions you want to express, you learn about the ways you can change your emotional reality, you learn about how your choices impact on the emotional states of others.

The process of learning to perform music (especially on the piano where the performer needs no accompaniment) is a particular kind of discipline that requires a deep acceptance of imperfection while still striving for excellence: no performance is flawless, there will always be new ideas for improvements and change. No one else is to blame for less than wonderful performances, no one else can take credit for performances that shine. The student learns much about themselves in terms of  how they relate to perfection/imperfection, how they face challenges in an emotional sense, how they face challenges in a practical sense, how they work toward long-term/medium-term/short-term goals, and a myriad of other truths about their natural proclivities regarding how to define success and failure. Parents sometimes think thisaspect of piano lessons is so important it alone makes taking piano lessons an imperative.

5. Piano lessons are for understanding the world better.

Music is a genuinely direct way of connecting students with other times and other places. It’s quite extraordinary how effective music is in this regard. And while listening to music provides a passive, touristic understanding of the world, actually playing that music means that you are complicit in this wider world – you’ve participated in history, you are experiencing the cultures of other continents and communities.

6. Piano lessons are for exercising your body, your intellect and your emotions all at the same time.

It has been demonstrated that playing the piano will raise your IQ by around 7 points for as long as you play the instrument (you’ll lose those points if you stop playing for months/years), and the reason for this is that nothing else in this world engages so much of your brain at the same time as playing a musical instrument. We didn’t know this in the past, but advances in neuro-imaging mean that we now do know which parts of the brain are at work when a musician is playing an instrument and, while in many activities in life there is a dedicated region of the brain that processes that activity, it is evident that the whole brain is involved in music. In short, the brain is musical – all of it. And when you play an instrument you are using that whole brain.

7. Piano lessons are for changing who you are. All the points listed above add up to an experience that allows you to express yourself [increasingly] freely, learn about yourself and others as well as about both the world around you and the world beyond your horizons. This will change you. Further, with each new goal that you attain and each new challenge that you conquer, you will find yourself looking at other, non-musical goals and challenges in a different way. This goes far beyond believing in yourself, this goes to knowing that you can achieve what you set out to do.

8. And finally, piano lessons are for joy.

The joy you feel playing the piano, the joy you feel playing better and better each week/month/year, the joy others feel hearing you play, the joy you and others experience playing together. The joy of discovery, the joy of achievement, the joy of the raucous, the joy of the sublime. If piano lessons aren’t for at least some of these joys, then what on earth are they for?

Thirteen Mistakes Pianists Make

13 Mistakes

 

No one likes getting things wrong. It can be embarrassing, messy, expensive, damaging. But sometimes we fixate so much on avoiding micro mistakes we don’t notice how we might be missing the bigger picture.

Here are thirteen mistakes pianists make, and only a few of these are specifically related to playing the right notes.

MISTAKES OF ACCURACY

1. The Mistake of Omission - something is supposed to be there and it’s missing.

2. The Mistake of Difference – something is supposed to be there, but we put something else in instead.

3. The Mistake of Addition - nothing was supposed to be there, but we put something in.

MISTAKES OF INTENTION AND ACCURACY

1. The Mistake of Misreading – we do what we think the score asks us to do but we misread the score.

2. The Mistake of Misunderstanding – we read the score correctly but we misunderstand what it means.

3. The Mistake of Misprints – we read the score correctly and perform it accurately but the score is wrong.

4. The Mistake of Not Listening – we perform accurately, but without being informed by the sounds we are making at the instrument in the space and making adjustments to our performance to suit our performing context.

MISTAKES OF INTENTION 

1. The Mistake of Misshaping - we perform the notes and rhythms accurately, but we fail to create contours and narrative arcs in our performance.

2. The Mistake of Emotional Misconnection - we perform accurately, but without an emotional intention, or with an emotional intention that the music cannot sustain.

3. The Mistake of Ignorant Miscontextualisation - we perform accurately with either a mistaken or non-existent concept of how the music connects to any other piece of music, musical tradition, artistic movement, technological development or historical event.

4. The Mistake of Not Exploring Possibility - we perform accurately but have failed to engage with what the music could be, thus limiting ourselves in performance to a narrow range of musical possibilities.

5. The Mistake of Fear – we perform with a terror that we will make a mistake, thus triggering a heightened risk of other mistakes of communication.

6. The Mistake of Complacency – we perform without being committed to connecting and communicating.

The biggest mistake, of course, is believing that playing the piano is about pressing the right keys at the right time; it’s not. It’s about

  • being in flow (in our bodies, in time),
  • being connected (to others, to history, to our emotions, to possibility),

And most importantly of all, it’s about

  • being human, even on those (possibly rare) occasions when we don’t make any mistakes.

What To Do When You Make A Mistake

Music isn't about being right. It's about being human.


Mistakes are a big fixation in the life of a piano teacher. Students come to piano lessons and play their pieces and sooner or later they play wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong articulations, wrong dynamic shapes, and so forth.

Once upon a not-so-long-time ago (let’s say 50 years ago) a particular breed of teacher would respond to a mistake with a physical action – a smack across the knuckles with a ruler, say – with the idea that this would focus the student’s mind on not making mistakes. (It’s more likely that this focussed the student’s mind on not being tortured, but, well, we’ll talk about that another time.)

Even though piano teachers don’t do that now, this idea of not making mistakes still looms large in the learning-to-play-the-piano scene. Students are taught to avoid them. When they do make a mistake the teacher puts a big circle around the note in the music, and a list of these mistakes is compiled for the student to go home and fix.

I’ve written before about the importance of not having lessons (or life) structured around correcting mistakes. But here I’d like to explore the idea from the point of view of the mistake-maker: what should we do when we make a mistake? Here’s where I always start:

1. Think about what makes this mistake a mistake. Did it sound bad? Did it fail to communicate what you wanted to express? Did it feel bad? Did your body get muddled? Did it prevent flow in your performance? (Or was it your worry about the mistake that prevented flow?!)

If you don’t know exactly what it is that you did that was The Mistake then you’ll struggle to not do it again! Just as true in life as it is as a musician.

Looking at it another way…

Most of the mistakes we worry about in piano lessons are mistakes of accuracy rather than mistakes of truth. In some ways it doesn’t matter which kind of mistake it is – we still need to locate the source of the error in order to prevent the mistake occurring again. But while an audience will ignore/forgive/fail to notice mistakes of accuracy, mistakes of truth will destroy a performance.

2. Explore the mistake. Can you repeat the mistake? (If you can repeat the mistake on purpose you are almost certainly not going to make that mistake again.) How does the mistake change the meaning of the music? (If you understand what meaning the mistake communicates you can choose to create a different meaning.) If you make this mistake at this point in the music, what else do you need to adjust to make the music make sense?

This kind of exploration can go on for a long time, and if exploration of this kind is new to you it can feel as if you are ‘mucking around’ or ‘not getting on with it’. Stick with this as long as you can – these explorations build a platform of deep understanding for your future performances. (Ignore that little voice that tells you you would be better off practicing scales. You would not.)

3. Ask yourself if your mistake really was a mistake. Maybe the ‘wrong’ thing you did was what you totally meant to do. When beginner students consistently play a tune with the wrong melodic contour I ask them to sing the tune – more than half the time they are playing the melodic contour to perfectly match the shape in their imagination, and they’re not making a mistake at all! They’re just not playing the same piece I’m looking at in the score. This is a question that is a “locating the source of the error” question, but it can also lead to some further introspection…

If you are committed to your changes to the original musical text you need to be aware of the implications in the cultural context of that work – are you performing in a context where variation, improvisation and recomposition are valued, or will this be seen as sloppiness? Are you committed to your ‘mistake’ because you aren’t all that interested in other people’s point of view?! Are you capable of giving a range of different performances of the same work? A commitment to a mistake can sometimes indicate a high level of rigidity in the thinking of the performer, and this will be more or less troubling/interesting/challenging-to-work-with depending on the age and developmental stage of the performer!

Often our ‘mistakes’ are a commitment to a muddle-headed conception of the work. This is when and where you need to trust your teachers and mentors – they’ve had loads more experience than you have.

So, now, what NOT to do….

1. Don’t stab and stab at different keys on the piano until you stab the right one. By the time you get the “right” note the whole piece will be wrong, you’ll have forgotten where you were and what your point was.

2. Don’t go back and start at the beginning. You can already play that part. Don’t waste your time. By the time you get to where the mistake was you’ll have forgotten what happened and you’ll make the same mistake again. Going back to the start means you are in a cul-de-sac of doom.

3. Don’t write in the names of all the notes. This doesn’t help. It distracts. And it makes you feel righteous when you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing at all. And you still don’t know why you made the mistake in the first place.

4. Don’t think you’ve sorted it out as soon as you’ve played the section correctly once. Tomorrow you’ll come back and make the same mistake, because all your practice has been practicing the mistake, and only 1.3 seconds of your practice was when you played it right.

Practice is fundamentally NOT about repetition and discipline – it’s fundamentally about listening and reflecting and noticing and exploring. Take your thinking away from an accuracy = perfection model. Music isn’t about being right, it’s about being human.

And remember, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning anything. Every single time you make a mistake you have the chance to become someone even more fabulous than you’ve ever been before – so celebrate your mistakes; they remind you you’re alive.

 

 

 

15 Things You Need to Know About Supporting Your Child Learning to Play the Piano

This list was first published in It Takes Two Generations at the end of 2013. 

If you’re a parent who has no background in playing a musical instrument it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of things the piano teacher accidentally takes for granted along the way. Don’t be overly worried about this – the teacher won’t have enough time in each lesson to fill in all the gaps and still keep your child engaged and enthused about their learning, but as time passes you’ll become expert at supporting your child’s musical education.

Here are the absolute basics that you need to know to be able to support your family’s journey into profound musicianship:

1. You simply cannot miss lessons. Unless you’ve just had a car accident, your child has a communicable disease, or your grandmother’s funeral couldn’t be scheduled any other day. Your child having extra homework that night or wanting a playdate with a best friend simply doesn’t cut it as a reason to consider skipping a lesson.

2. Practice has to happen every day. Even if it’s just for three minutes. The act of commencing practice every day precedes the act of engaging in prolonged practice every day! Get your child into the habit of playing her or his instrument daily and to a certain extent the practice will take care of itself.

3. Practice might not mean playing through a piece from beginning to end. In fact, practice rarely means playing through a piece from beginning to end. The teacher will give your child clear instructions each week as to what is required, and you need to respect these instructions – which means you need to know what they are. Teachers traditionally give written practice notes, but these days some teachers may even make a quick video demonstrating the correct practice approach. Use whatever the teacher gives you as a guide for what will take place that week at home.

4. You need to have books of music at home. The best indicator of a child’s capacity to develop literacy skills lies in whether the home has books, and the same holds true of musical literacy. If you try to insist that the teacher work from one book instead of three you are deliberating limiting your child’s capacity to learn. The price of music keeps changing in today’s internet-distributed book economies, but a rough guide is that you should be budgeting between $A125 and $A200 (that’s Australian dollars) for each child’s annual print music spend. Less than that and you know your child isn’t making particularly good progress! This amount will change from one country to the next, but I’d suggest $US80-150 would be about right for students in the US (music is just cheaper in the US, less to pay for postage/shipping), and about £55-90 in the United Kingdom.

5. Your beginner student child should be learning new music almost every week. If your child isn’t learning new music almost every week (there will be weeks when new music isn’t assigned, but these should only be from time to time, not every second week) it means something isn’t going right with your child’s learning (probably due to issues with practice at home). Talk to the teacher about how you can better support the practice for pieces assigned for a second, third or even fourth week.

6. Writing the names of all the notes in is a total waste of time and will drive the piano teacher completely nuts. Sometimes a piano teacher will write in the name of one or two notes, but writing in the names of all the notes is like asking your child to read a book one letter at a time: it’s boring and it doesn’t even make any sense. Being able to read music at the piano is about seeing the shapes and knowing what that will feel like to perform, and even having a clear sense of what it will sound like (the word for that is audiation – imagining sound). Don’t ‘help’ in ways the teacher hasn’t asked you to – and when you have a brainwave it will almost certainly be a good idea to discuss it with the teacher during the lesson before putting it into action!

7. The lesson time is when you should talk to the teacher, not afterwards. The teacher will either have other students, other appointments, or a really short dinner break at the end of your child’s lesson. It’s not OK to expect the teacher to discuss matters with you outside of the lesson time as a matter of course. Make the odd phone call, feel free to send an enquiring email or text message, but the time directly after your child’s lesson is sacrosanct (and not dedicated to you). It might be the teacher’s only chance to use the bathroom in five hours. :-) Of course, if the teacher wants to talk to you then by all means, chat away, but don’t assume that the teacher has this time available otherwise.

8. Just because you need to remind your child to practice does not mean that they don’t want to practice or that they don’t want to play their instrument. Just as you don’t give your children the option of failing to brush their teeth, bathe, eat or get dressed, so doing practice is not optional, even if that means you remind your child to do it every day for a decade. You are the parent: you make the rules. No one ever reached adulthood and said “I wish my mum had let me stop learning the piano”…

9. Think long-term. In other words, don’t plan to ‘try’ piano for six months to see if it’s a good fit – if you want your child to learn to play the piano you need to be internally committing to at least three years of lessons and practice. Then you can reflect on how things are going. This isn’t about being a tiger parent, it’s about being realistic about what’s involved in gaining musical skills. That 10,000 hour rule? You can have an awful lot of fun during that first 100 hours of piano practice, but you’re still only 1% of the way (if that) toward being amazing.

10. You may not realise how easy it is to play the piano, and at the same time how hard it is. There are very cool things students can easily learn to do at the piano which may give you the impression your child is a genius. Feel free to enjoy this sensation, but don’t be disappointed if the next week your child reverts to just being the cool, fabulous kid that you know and love. Some things that pianists do that appear easy are actually very hard, and some of the impressive things pianists do are ridiculously straight-forward to execute (if your teacher just shows you how).

11. If you want your child to learn to play the piano, then get a piano at home for your child to practice upon. Seems kind of obvious. Sometimes there are great reasons why you end up choosing to buy a digital piano, and these days there are just fantastic digital pianos available. But often parents choose woefully inadequate pretend pianos and think it will be as good: it won’t. If you can’t afford lessons AND a piano then postpone lessons for six months and use the savings to buy a decent instrument (digital or acoustic). Practicing on an inadequate instrument will set your child back by years in the long run – get this sorted as quickly as you possibly can.

12. Grab every chance you get to sit in on your child’s piano lessons. You will be a hundred times more likely to be able to support your child’s practice if you’ve been observing the teacher working with your child throughout the lesson – from how to use the body (shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingertips, proper seating position, etc.) to how to practice each piece to getting to understand the lingo (staccato, arpeggio, inversion, etc.). You have the chance to get your own free tutoring just by sitting in on your child’s lesson!

13. Participate in studio recitals every chance you get. You will be amazed how much your child is motivated by playing at and attending recitals – they get to hear music being performed by more advanced students, and they begin to build programs of pieces they are comfortable performing. And don’t project any nervousness you may feel onto your child – children don’t know they are supposed to feel nervous unless you tell them (or they have an anxiety disorder, which is a completely different matter), and you have an opportunity to develop confident public presentation in your child in this musical setting.

14. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. This one makes me smile, of course, because one assumes you’re reading this on the internet, and believing it. :-) The truth is that your teacher is going to be able to give you much better advice for your child than you will find chatting to random people/teachers on an internet forum or by searching YouTube for tutorials. If you don’t have a background in playing a musical instrument you won’t know what to trust and what is nonsense. Find a reputable teacher who you trust and like, and get educated (along with your child) and develop your capacity for discernment.

15. Share what you know about your child with the teacher. Does your child have a morbid fear of spiders? An allergy to cats? A learning disability or a processing disorder? Don’t wait for the teacher to figure it out by themselves – by sharing what you know about your child you won’t be preventing the teacher from building a positive relationship with your child, you’ll be facilitating immediately great learning experiences. Thing is this: piano teachers are fairly canny – because playing the piano is so holistic a learning activity you might even find that the piano teacher is alerting you to quirks in your child’s learning behaviours that will help you finesse their school-based learning! Piano teachers are often the first to notice problems with vision, dyslexia, problems with proprioception, processing problems, pronounced learning styles (which may be the basis for trouble in the classroom), even synaesthesia, simply because they are spending 30, 45 or even 60 minutes one-on-one with your child, and maybe this is the first chance your child has had for that kind of regular, professional adult attention. You and the teacher are a team working to make your child the best person he or she can be. :-)

Follow these 15 guidelines and you’ll find that you are fast-tracking your family’s musical development! Enjoy the transformation!

These ARE The Good Old Days

This last weekend I attended the Kennedy Awards, a New South Wales-based peer-awarded recognition of excellence in journalism, in the role of handbag to my journalist husband (who also happened to be nominated for, and go on to win, an award). Many stories were shared over the course of the night – events that had transpired behind the headlines, hair-raising exploits of reporters whose recklessness was matched by their journalistic brilliance. At some point in the evening, my husband noted that, for all the journalists in the room, these were ‘the good old days’ that would be recounted 20 years, 30 years, 50 years hence. From the premier undone by a bottle of wine through to disgraced former policemen being arrested for murder; from pervasively corrupt infrastructure deals involving Sydney’s water supply and regional mining leases through to politicians being handed paper bags of $10,000 cash just prior to elections; these are the good old days these journalists will look back on.

This last weekend also saw the passing away of iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, a man whose music and mentorship has defined much of what it means to express oneself as an Australian composer. Anyone whose lives were touched by his has found themselves complicit in communal remembering of various good old days and decades with Peter: former students, editors, performers, pop musicians who enjoyed drinking/collaborating with him, friends. Peter Sculthorpe’s death has suddenly rendered a whole suite of musical and human experience as part of the fondly remembered past.

The present becomes history so rapidly.

In my first year at university I was studying composition and the general music subjects one studies in one’s first year. But on the side I was taking a course in 20th century literature. This was 1984, and I was just 16 years old. The first term’s lectures were devoted to poetry, and the lecturer started with Gerard Manley Hopkins and took us the way through to boot-legged recordings of the then still (comparatively) nascent hip hop and rap that had been developing in New York. “This is your time,” the lecturer told us, “this is the time of your contemporaries. The art that will be talked about in 50 years time is the art being made around you right now. One day you will realise that you were here. Pay attention.”

I couldn’t believe how exciting it felt. I felt so privileged to be experiencing the living of history when I was still so young! Things that had already happened, that were already over, notated, documented, recorded – they weren’t the limit of what counted. Yesterday – this morning – this afternoon – mattered, too. It was all important. Suddenly, as I walked down the hill to catch the bus, the very atmosphere was heavy with all the creating that was possible, all the contemporaneousness that was.

In shaping learning experiences for my piano students I am always aware that as much as the past informs the present, so the present will soon be that past that informs future presents… How am I teaching my students about the past they are a part of? How am I helping them connect with contemporary experience as future memory? As future history?

I was gloriously fortunate in my teachers, both at university and at high school – teachers who understood that they were building the past even as they were building the future. I don’t just honour them by maintaining that tradition in my own teaching – I honour my students, present and yet to come, who are only just beginning to realise that these are their good old days.

Being Musical… Being a Music Teacher…

March was a month of conferences for me, the most recent of which was a conference where I had been asked to speak about (amongst some number of other things) the benefits to music education of utilising the opportunities social media affords.

This did not go well.

I began by talking about the ways in which high school students use music rather expertly without the assistance of teachers, for:

  • identity formation;
  • communication (especially in regard to emotion);
  • making sense of, or organising emotional experience;
  • organising executive function;

and I went on to assert that these four uses of music are more fundamental to human musical experience than are the ‘performance’ / ‘composition’ / ‘analysis’ modes of musical experience dictated by the curriculum; that it is a kind of concert hall-think that permits us to structure music education in the 21st century primarily in regard to such a narrow set of musical experiences (performing, composing, analysing) and to blithely ignore the rest.

In retrospect I think this, long before a mention of facebook (which was poorly received, needless to say), was where I lost most of my audience.

Once upon a time school music education was assessed by theory exams, harmony exercises and essays about music history; it was a triumph of some considerable magnitude when music educators succeeded in prioritising the performance of music in school music marking systems, a triumph that many still feel great pride in having helped to achieve.

So it was completely naive for me to waltz in and start talking about the function of music in the formation of identity or in the organisation of executive function and to fail to attempt to connect the dots from what is still perceived in classroom music education as a recent breakthrough of transformational proportions, let alone to acknowledge the history that was/is within the professional lifetimes of half the members of my audience.

I very much suspect that this first section of my presentation was apprehended as a babbling prologue to the real business of my presentation (talking about social media). This was a terrible pity, because the value social media might have for you and your students will change, vastly, depending on what you think your job as a music educator might be.

Surely we all believe that we are training musicians? And if we all think we are training musicians then surely the main game is teaching students to play musical instruments, no?

Well, no.

Before the instrument comes musical thinking. And musical thinking is exactly what is going on when kids choose one style of music to listen to, and to share with their friends, rather than another style; any act of selecting music to accompany life is an act of musical thinking. In fact, in the 21st century musical thinking is what we use to make it through the day: from choosing a ringtone to understanding the plot cues a soundtrack signals in a film or a piece of TV pseudo-journalism or advertising.

Everyone is musical these days in ways we could not have imagined in the 80s when teachers were fighting for instrumental performance to be included in the curriculum.

And if you, as a music educator, don’t acknowledge how musical the world has become, how underscored our lived experience is, how imbued with musical fragment, rhythmic motif, decontextualised timbres and insistent tone colours our days now are, you have no idea what you are doing.

You know what you were doing, back in the day. Back when intervals were learned with reference to song openings and modes were taught via medieval folk tunes. Back when a backbeat was still quietly considered to lead to promiscuity and chromaticism was widely believed to be to blame for political upheaval.

But in the age of YouTube, GarageBand, SoundCloud, Spotify, facebook shares and twitter retweets, you haven’t got a clue. Not if you think that being musical can be measured by how well someone plays an orchestral instrument. Or how well they write an 8-bar tune.

So…. if everyone is already engaging in musical thinking, what is the music teacher for?, I imagine you’re asking (possibly with a disapproving facial gesture and a bit of an eyeroll).

The music teacher is there to structure experiences that lead to more nuanced musical thinking, more informed musical thinking, more conscious musical thinking, more creative musical thinking. (Feel free to keep adding to this list – it is by no means intended to be comprehensive!). The music teacher is there to help students develop critical thinking skills in relation to their musical experiences; to build a vocabulary for the many experiences that students have no words to describe; to build a fluency in musical reasoning and an understanding of the musical narratives that have built the range of musical experiences the 21st century has to offer.

But we can’t even begin to be that kind of music teacher if we think that music education is about delivering performances, compositions and analyses. These are just not appropriate means of assessing what it is to have a good musical education anymore.

And I wish I’d spent the whole session exploring that. The first mention of facebook brought outbursts and outrage (it’s the end of PRIVACY, don’t you know?!), and there’s no purpose to exploring the opportunities social media brings as long as educators believe that their job is about cultivating and assessing 19th century ways of being musical (performance, composition, analysis).

To be continued…