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Recital Season!

My students just had their annual recital last night, and the music they made is still dancing in my head today.

I am not a fan of formal recitals. It is already nerve-racking to perform and I believe that recital time should be a celebration of music instead of a test or competition. Students get the chance to share their hard work and get immediate feedback from glorious applause. They also get the opportunity to see where they will be in future years as they listen to others play.

Last night, about 45 people–musicians, family members and friends–gathered at the beautiful home of 3 of my students. The potluck of snacks and desserts left a sweet taste in everyone’s mouths. My newest students appeared shy at the start, but a jumping session on the trampoline and an impromptu basketball game gave them the chance to meet new friends. (And also provided them with a release from pre-concert jitters!)

Piano Party night is my favorite event all year. I relish the growth that each student demonstrates. It gives me a chance to see how each student is musically unique, with their own set of challenges and strengths. It is always a night full of joy!

Musical Fugues

I have a very-beginning 7 year old student, “Pythagorus”, who loves thinking about numbers. Numbers and patterns get so exciting that they can eclipse actual music making during our half-hour lessons, so I need to think creatively to get us back on track whenever the distraction of quantifying occurs.

We just had a fantastic lesson observing meter (musical measurement) in one of his pieces. We counted every note value in each measure and discovered that each bar lasted 3 beats.

“Hmm,” he said, finger to chin like a classical Roman statue.

Then we looked at a series of 3-beat tied notes and multiplied them by 4 (the number of measures) and came up with the very cool digit, 12, which means you can tie 4 3-beat notes or 3 4-beat notes. And the “time signature” says 3 and 4…

“Hmm…”

To facilitate tactile playing, I’ve taken to using an unorthodox crutch with Pythagorus: we sing finger numbers so he can inscribe a number over each note. Then we check out the patterns in the shape of the melody he is learning to play. Music making from this perspective is fascinating. We think about mirror images and “up” and “down”. We divide, multiply, and add. We look for intervalic relationships. The pages of his method book are covered in spiderwebs of connecting lines.

Pythagorus has taught me how to just relax and say, “hmm” sometimes. There are so many hidden gems to discover when we take time to make cognitive connections.

On “Every Good Boy Does Fine”

First of all, it isn’t true. All of us are are good, but everyone makes mistakes sometimes so every good boy does not do fine always.

I prefer asking my students to invent their own EGBDF silly sentences, such as “Every Good Banana Deserves Fudge” or “Even Ghosts Burp Disgusting Food”. (To the long ago students who composed those mnemonics, thanks!)

Every Good Boy Does Fine is a mnemonic–dating back at least to my grandmother’s childhood–used to teach note reading by rote. “Rote” (defined as the “mechanical or habitual repetition of something”) learning certainly has its place in music learning. A musician really does have to repeat musical problems several times as they imprint kinesthetic knowledge. That’s called practicing. But learning how to read by rote is problematic for many students.

While EGBDF mnemonics help us to recognize the letter names of notes on the staff, musicians who can sight read do not think of individual notes as separate entities. Instead, they read by “chunking” patterns of notes visually, thereby eliciting the muscle  and auditory memory of a melodic shape. This is similar to the way we learn how to be fluent readers: as you read this sentence, you probably aren’t sounding out each individual letter. Instead, you see chunks of alphabetic patterns that you recognize from past experiences. In an awesome way, your brain is interpreting both sound and meaning as you visually decode these patterns.

Music is sound, not a visual symbol. EGBDF music readers play the same way that a new reader recites a sentence, in starts and stops, without rhythm. Drilled EGBDF can turn into a difficult habit to break, especially if a young student internalizes the message that note reading equals music making.

If a child can speak in full sentences with punctuation long before she learns how to read, the same is true for an instrument learner. Music is sound made by a physical action, not the decoding of visual representations of pitch and rhythm. Some of the best musicians that I have worked with don’t read notation at all. To make fluid, beautiful music is the first priority in music lessons.

Traditional classical training assumes that students learn how to play music at the same pace as they learn how to decode Western notation. The symbol itself is emphasized in the absence of meaning. In Teaching for Musical Understanding (2001), Jackie Wiggins states, “Students need to understand that there is a logic behind a notation system, a logic that is based on the way the music sounds (and not on “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”) [Music notation] systems will only make sense to students after they have established a strong base of prior experience with the concepts behind the ways in which we write down musical ideas.”

Staff decoding can be an easy achievement for many learners, but for others, this skill takes time to learn. Classical piano playing requires a choreography of mental and physical skills, and the age of the student who finally takes that developmental leap into decoding does not predicate their ability to play or read fluently.

My Teachers

This NY Times article about music teachers living on in their students has me reminiscing about my own music teachers, Olga Zlobinsky and Joe Maneri.

Mrs. Zlobinsky is a brilliant educator from Leningrad Conservatory who taught me how to solve musical problems in a myriad of different ways. She instilled in me a love of practicing because her lessons were so dynamic. She especially taught me how to play with thoughtful and precise expression. Because English was not her first language, her technical explanations were miniature works of poetry spoken in a Russian melody. (“Andrea, you play like take dust from the keys with feather! Please make like this!”) Often she would reenact her own technique, playing against the palm of my hand. This kinesthetic interaction was precious to my understanding.

My dear piano teacher taught me how to approach musical growth from a variety of perspectives. In this sense most of all, she is the musical grandmother to all my students.

Joe Maneri, my composition teacher, was legendary, a masterful teacher and an amazing character. His compositions and improvisations were visionary. Our lessons were literally magnifying: each note, rhythm, color deserved minute reflection. Joe divided the octave into 72 pitches, bringing my ear into depths completely radical and refreshingly new to my western ears. I learned how to listen meditatively.

Joe is my students’ grandpa, and a direct musical descendant of Arnold Schoenberg. (I am proud that Schoenberg’s spirit has been passed down to me!) Joe taught me that every intention, every action in life matters and should be presented with love. Words cannot express my gratitude to him for teaching me this ongoing lesson.

Maurice Ravel’s Bolero

I love this rendition of Bolero, retold by Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo and later used as the soundtrack for a short animation.

I love this interpretation too. The cartoon explains the form of the music so well.

And I am sure that Ravel himself would have loved this performance despite its faster-than-written tempo.

The form of this piece is so minimalist that scholars have debated whether Ravel was showing early symptoms of dementia through the composition. When Bolero was written in 1928, a great composition was defined by its antics in the development of melodic and harmonic ideas.

Instead, Ravel completely relied on exploring color and texture. He later explained, “It  is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece … consisting wholly of orchestral texture without music—of one long, very gradual crescendo … I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.”

Personally, I will take it.

I believe that music, ubiquitous to every society, is each human’s birthright. It has been part of our collective consciousness since prehistory, and perhaps even predates our species. (Darwin hypothesized that language evolved from music.) Our ancestors were building flutes during the Ice Age, at a time in which our species struggled to survive. What makes music so valuable to humankind that precious resources, time and energy were spent in its creation? My hunch is that music is an essential tool which connects us to life us in many ways. We use music as a tool to connect interpersonally, physically, spatially, mathematically, verbally, spiritually, historically and culturally. Even on a micro level, the entire brain lights up during music activity: cognitively, our very neurons are connected in the music process.