Why Music Lessons Suck – part II

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Music/Audio, Opinions, Personal, Teaching 2 Comments

This is part II of my rant on “traditional” music lessons.  Part I can be found here where I lashed out a bit at the way that I was and countless other music students have been and are being taught music.  In this installment, I’m going to continue on this path.  To give you some context to the following – I view music as both a language as well as an art form…

Speaking in Tongues

Take a look at the way in which language is learned and taught as a way to communicate.  Babies learn how to recognize words and phrases, learn how to make sounds, learn how to string sounds together in words and phrases and then, in the end communicate with other human beings.  Later on in life, they are taught the rules of grammar so that they can read others’ words AND also write their own.

Music can be used to communicate – perhaps not in the same convergent manner as spoken language, but it does communicate SOMETHING.  Some call it the language of emotion or feeling.  A musician taking traditional lessons is not generally taught how to listen, interpret and “speak” the language, but rather, jump right over all of that and start reading.  I drew a lot of parallels to what I had to do in my music faculty choirs – when singing in different languages, I could phonetically sing Italian, Latin, Spanish, etc. lyrics but could rarely comprehend what I was saying.

Do traditional music lessons completely fail to teach students how to use music to communicate?  Perhaps not completely, but I’d suggest that it’s limited.  A student is rarely encouraged to deviate from purely learning music through playing notes that others have put down on a page.  There is some leeway in how a performer inflects phrasing and dynamics – possibly some liberties with tempo, but as a generalization, the student/performer is expected to rattle off exactly what is written with some limited personal stamp of expression.

A long-forgotten memory was awakened from the frightening depths of my mind while I was writing this post.  I was in fourth year of my Music Degree at Western and a group of us went to see a pianist play a fairly well-known Mozart Piano Concerto (K453 or 491 – can’t remember) and when the performer got to the Cadenza of the piece (a part of the piece that, in the period was improvised by the performer, but is now written out), he actually came up with his own thing.  I thought it was cool – he even borrowed something from a Mozart symphony and put it in there … total awesomeness in my humble opinion.

After the performance, a classmate of mine expressed his displeasure with this deviation from the “official” score.  We all had an interesting discussion about this – the pro’s and con’s of deviating from and adding your own “words” to a written piece of music.

Music – and especially classical music (although this could be stretched to include bands who play covers) – as a language, is an oddity in that, the person communicating (the performer) is not generally expected to convey their own thoughts (or emotions / feelings), but rather recite, verbatim, what’s expected.  There definitely are parallels you can draw to this dilemma with the other “performing arts” – dance and acting, but I think there is something in the manner in which it’s taught that’s limiting communicating through music.

The Art Side

If I continue draw on parallels in performing arts, from my limited perspective of those genres, I see much more training being focused on giving the performer appropriate tools to create their own art or even “think on the spot” (improvise).  What happens in a musical performance if a conservatory-trained performer flubs something – it’s a hiccup that is typically not easy to cover up.  In the worst case scenario, they’ll have to pause and restart at some point.  Why isn’t it acceptable to “go off the grid” and try and cover things up the best you can?

A dancer is trained in a variety of techniques that he or she can draw upon to either make up his or her own routine or recover from a missed step or beat.  And an actor has similar training (or instinct) to be able to “wing it” to either create (improvise) their own creation or cover for a fumbled line.

Why can’t “traditional” music training do the same for performing musicians?

Leaving the performing arts aside, let’s look at the fine arts – painting, sculpting, writing, etc.  When you look at the way in which artists in those disciplines are trained, it’s pretty well the expectation from both student and teacher that the end result is a creative artist.  Barring the fact that it’s illegal, you don’t see many painters, sculptors or writers making a decent living by constantly replicating other artists’ work.

Granted, it’s part of the training – replicating the “masters” works is all part of how an artist learns his or her craft, but in order to “make a go of it” there is a point at which he or she needs to transform that blank [insert artist starting point] into something unique.

Will You Please Wrap it Up?

I’m a music theory junkie.  If there was a support group for folks who think too much about how to make sense of music, then, I’d be in the thick of it all.  That being said, I’m always harping on about how music theory – notation, chord analysis, arrangement, orchestration, etc. – is SECONDARY to what you hear.

I think of music theory as a way to explain what your ears hear and not be used as a rulebook.  When I’m teaching at Ai, I’m constantly telling my class to use their ears to do the magic part and then use theory to either help out with choices and decisions OR attempt to explain / categorize what you just heard.

I guess, to sum all this up in a question: Why can’t we insert some creativity in the way we teach students music?

I just revisited a bunch of Chopin Nocturnes and Waltzes I used to play – I can NOT play them for the life of me anymore – and I actually was able to map out what was going on in the music.  It wasn’t just a bunch of technical runs and acrobatic contortions for my hands – there were solid chords that related to a lot of what I learned through contemporary theory and making up my own stuff.  I could UNDERSTAND what good ol’ Fred was trying to do at the music construction level – what chords and functions he was using, how they were relating to each other and in the bigger picture of the piece.

Not only could this have helped me map out the architecture of the piece (and probably memorize it easier), it could help me with expressing a meaning when playing it.  Or better yet, all of this could possibly allow me to use some of the things that were happening in the music and creatively adapting them for something else.  Kind of sounds like the way jazz and blues musicians do things huh?

I guess until our society accepts that actively participating in and creating music is a skill that is just as or more useful than just performing and listening to music, then we’ll keep on churning out music performing automatons.

Comments 2

  1. Pingback: Why Music Lessons Suck – part I | Hatched Productions

  2. We lucked out that our kids’ piano teacher prefers to emphasize the joy and interest of music over the rote performance expected in the Royal Conservatory and such (even though they still take those exams). They haven’t really started improvising that much, but they still consider it fun most of the time.

    As someone who stopped taking classical guitar at age 12 and then taught myself drums to play in a rock band almost a decade later, I was astonished when I encountered classically-trained players who couldn’t improvise at all, or even play anything without a score in front of them. And I still find it puzzling that many classically-trained musicians don’t know how to gloss over a mistake. That was almost the first thing I learned as a barely-competent rock musician: if you screw up, keep going like nothing happened, and chances are the audience won’t even notice.

    Then again, much RCM-oriented training seems to have little to do with entertaining an audience. But I now wish I had the knowledge and skill I could have gained from more rigorous lessons too. Sigh.

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