The Uninterrupted Performance
Several years ago, one of my students struggled with a song that was by no means beyond her technical level. And so, as she played through the piece, I repeatedly stopped her at each error to point out illogical interpretations of the music. Her long sigh, not out of frustration or anger, but what seemed to be sadness, occupied a space in my mind throughout the next week, reflecting similar frustrations with other students. It was clear that they wanted a chance to perform what they had been working on, even if it wasn’t perfect. And this was something that I had been overlooking.
The subject of music can be extremely complicated. It can require a lot of patience to sit back when you have only thirty minutes a week to teach it. But as a sign of respect and patience, I made more of an effort to allocate more time for my students to perform without interruption. With this change, a more honest and comfortable relationship unfolded between us. But it wasn’t long before a new test emerged: if I was going to allow the student to present the material without immediate criticisms, then they would have to present their performance regardless of quality. And this was a can of worms that neither of us predicted we would be opening.
Any musician can relate to the disappointment of expecting an energetic and moving recording of themselves only to be presented with a dose of reality. But to grow, artists must perform at the best of their ability often, even if the best of their ability is downright horrible. It can take years to be comfortable with this process. And sometimes, it is the job of the music teacher to expedite this process without inhibiting the student’s own voice.
This is what made the psychotic cymbal-throwing teacher from the movie Whiplash seem so ridiculous to me. I had a teacher who made Terence Fletcher look like Mr. Feeney. In a calm and matter-of-fact tone, she would say something like, “That sounded terrible. Come back when you’re ready.” When I explained this to some fellow musicians of mine, the anecdote was met with boisterous “ain’t that the truth” laughter that exposed their similar experiences. We would have much rather been dodging airborne Zildjian ZBTs. Fletcher was a jerk and that’s all there was to it. But my teacher wasn’t a jerk. She was amazing. Her demeanor spilled right into her playing, which was truthful, real, organic, and impossible - everything that made me crave becoming a better musician. Hearing the truth from her sucked. Big time. My bad performance provided enough salt in the wound. There was no need to add any additional seasoning. I was in denial and my teacher simply acted as an amplifier for an inner voice speaking a truth that was drowned out by ego.
After the honeymoon of these uninterrupted performances wore off, my student’s attempts were riddled with just as many regrettable note choices as before. However, my students got a chance to play without me spewing one opinion after another. And as a result, they started hearing the unintentional results themselves. In the arts, the seed of a good idea seems very magical in the artist’s own head. But just as some gig recordings reveal, a lackluster execution can make those ideas sound much less magical in the cold, hard world. Art has to overpower reality, until it actually changes it. And making that happen is the challenge.
Letting The Beat Guide You
One particular student of mine, Billy, became my student after his first teacher moved away. He was outgoing, confident, and eager. However, during his first performance in front of me, it was clear that he wasn’t trying to recreate any sounds in his head. He had developed the habit of playing a wrong note, then backing up a beat or so to play (what he believed to be) the correct note and continuing on. Billy was interrupting his own performance. In my experience, this pattern tends to be a sign of a student who has had minimal exposure to music.
Audiation, the ability to hear music in your head, is argued to be the foundation for musical creation. Humans are born with a capacity to do this, sort of like being handed an empty bucket to fill with musical ideas you come across in the world. But no one is born with the bucket pre-filled. So the music we attach childhood memories to, the ear worms we hear on the radio, the exercises we learn at our lessons, among countless other sources, fill the bucket. Trained musicians learn how to not only get ideas into their bucket quickly, but also to recreate the ideas on their instrument through imitation. It really puts in perspective how amazing and fragile music is. If all music was to vanish today, both from media and minds, music would just have to start from scratch.
In many ways, teaching music to a student who doesn’t actively listen to music presents problems similar to teaching Whole Language. Whole Language was an approach to teaching that challenged Phonics with the idea that learning to read comes naturally to humans and eventually led to an educational disaster in several states, including California, the first to implement it in the 1980s. In short, the only students who seemed to do well with the Whole Language approach were students who grew up in wealthy communities. Their peers and surroundings provided a Phonics education automatically, through exposure. Students who grew up in poverty ended up providing a control for a study that should have been conducted before implementation. And sadly, it came at the cost of their own education.
Because of the current state of art and music education, “artistic poverty,” as it could be called, can be found in any socio-economic background. Billy had every advantage that you could think of. A wealthy family, tutors for any subject he needed, a stay-at-home parent, and a great school to attend. But Billy didn’t really listen to music. He had never seen a live concert and his family didn’t listen to music in the car. His school had a very minimal music department. It seemed that the only time he heard music was when it was used as a fashion accessory or a way to sell products. As a result, his bucket was pretty empty. There wasn’t much to pull out of it and imitate. Rather, he was trying to do it “correctly,” as you would solve a math problem. You play the first the note, then the next note, and so on, even if it didn’t sound anything close to what it was supposed to. As a result, it didn’t matter what notes he was playing, because it was never going to sound right anyway. Imagine trying to learn how to speak a language without ever hearing it.
If his performance was plain English, it would have sounded something like the following recitation of a popular nursery rhyme:
Starlight, star tri- tri star bright
Second, star I see to, fist star You, I see. tomorrow!
I dish I may? may… … I… dish I? might
Have wish! I wish… wish… two nights.
Now, I don’t demand perfection from my students. But I do know music when I hear it. Even if it is sloppy, out of key, and hanging on by a thread. But, this wasn’t music. It sounded like he was trying to fill out a Scantron sheet. When finished with his performance, his obvious sense of pride made it clear that this other standard of quality was met not just with a friendly smile by his previous teacher, but also praise. So, naturally I smiled as well and told him that he did a great job. I’m not a monster.
It took a couple of years to change his perspective on practicing. If he wasn’t going to be listening to music, we’d have to learn what music sounded like while he was learning how to play it. So, we implemented a three-part approach that I had been developing over the previous few years.
With the aide of a metronome, I asked him focus less on playing “correct” notes as long as they took his attention away from keeping a steady beat. If we had to, we played the rhythms on a single note of his instrument. If that still resulted in problems, we would clap the rhythms, taking the instrument completely out of the equation. Sometimes, we would play random notes to the rhythms, almost as if we were improvising while following a rhythmic structure.
After making sure we had the timing down, we knew exactly when we needed to play. So, we experimented with something that was close to the same shape as the melody. If the notes went up on the staff, Billy played notes that were higher. If the notes went down, he would go down. Context became self-regulating. If he started on C and the next two notes went up and then down, but the last of the three notes was one note higher than the first note, logic would assume that the second note wasn’t D.
3. Self-Guided Audiation
We played it again. And again. And again. Every time, attempting to play more correct notes. But only if it would not affect the timing and rhythmic accuracy. If the piece was getting better with each attempt, there was nothing to talk about. Just play it again. In this way, the music began to present itself. However, if the piece was getting worse or stagnant, we could assume that it was above his ability, and we would have to create exercises for specific parts of the song that were causing trouble. But just same, I gave him the opportunity to perform it, without interruption. Not only from me, but himself.
As of now, in conjunction with normal exercises (where I don’t sadistically force my students to play wrong notes) I have used this approach with around 40 students over the course of about five years. The results are for the most part always the same. By the time we reach the third part of the exercise, students play around 60% of the correct notes on their first attempt. On their second attempt about 80% of the correct notes, and the third attempt, close to 100% of the correct notes. Pieces that may have taken the student months to learn were being played fairly well within five to ten minutes. In addition, they tended to remember the pieces with greater accuracy later on. Students with more exposure to music tended to sight-read pieces at a higher level much sooner in their studies, but the idea remained the same as long as the pieces were always just above their skill level, where deep practice occurs.
Learning How To Get Through It
Another student of mine, Sarah, had a similar problem, but had a drastically different background. She had been taking lessons for about year when she joined the school orchestra. But the transition wasn’t going well. The music was more complicated, her peers had more experience playing, and Sarah felt as though she was constantly being left behind.
Obviously down on herself, I asked Sarah what the word “confidence” meant to her. She thought about it for a minute and said “Knowing how to do something?” This was exactly the answer I was expecting because it was exactly what I thought when I was her age. So I followed up. “If that’s true, how can you be confident in something you don’t know how to do? How is confidence going to help you learn how do it? Isn’t kind of like the chicken or the egg?” A smile showed that she was happy to know that she wasn’t crazy. She didn’t like her definition either.
So I asked her to perform the piece that the orchestra was currently working on. She responded by simply saying that she couldn’t play it. I asked, “Well, think about what you can play. Can you play the first note? The right hand by itself? The first note of every measure?” She stared blankly at the page and blinked a few times. Just like Billy, there was this idea that it was either right or wrong. There was a way you were supposed to do it and there was one correct answer. But in contrast to Billy, it was paralyzing her playing. It may have been because unlike Billy, she was constantly being exposed to music. Her parents listened to a wide range of musical styles at all times of the day, they took her to concerts and musicals, and local live music was abundant in their community. The downside was that because of audiation, she knew that she didn’t sound good. It was the same self-interrupted performance that prevented Billy from advancing, but it was presenting itself in a very different way. Nudging her in one of many directions, I suggested that she could probably play the highest notes of the right hand essentially, the melody. I restarted the metronome, and she played it, leaving out the left hand and the additional harmonizing notes of the right hand. She played it beautifully.
I encouraged her, “Now you have something. Now you have something to attach other things to. You’re not lost. The orchestra will no longer be able to leave you behind. What do you want to add next?” She suggested a series of chords that harmonized the melody over the course of a couple measures. Sarah figured them out and started playing the piece a few measures before the section. She nailed it.
Over the next ten minutes we kept adding things. Additional chords in the right hand, the left hand, and so on. It wasn’t complete, but it was getting there. Then I asked her again. “Play the piece from beginning to end, no stopping. Perform it.” And she did. There were some wrong notes here and there, but she stayed on beat, didn’t give up, and didn’t get lost. Of course, lesson after lesson I had to repeat this approach. It took several months to build her confidence to do this on her own. Or essentially, to remember the plan that she could rely on. Each lesson it was obvious that she was surprising herself with how well she could play. It’s as though every week the belief that she could do it faded away and we had to restart the process. But in the end, every week a little more of that confidence remained. And it wasn’t the idea that she could do it, but that she had something to rely on.
The silver bullet in both cases was timing. In my experience, most students put the most weight into notes. In their minds, if you play a wrong note, it’s the worst thing that can happen. So much so, that they completely ignore the rhythms and beat. It is my prerogative to switch that thinking. Timing is 1000 times more important than the note. The right note at the wrong time is still a wrong note. The wrong note at the right time is very easy to fix.
To demonstrate the importance of timing, I conduct a participative experiment with almost every student. I choose a song that is easy to recognize, like Mary Had A Little Lamb, or Happy Birthday, and play it two different ways. Their job is to guess the name of the song. For the first performance, I play the melody with all the correct notes. However, without a consistent tempo and any rhythm all. The student is always dumbfounded no matter the age or skill level. For the second performance, I play the song without a single correct note. But, I play with a steady beat and play all the correct rhythms. Without fail, the melody is recognized within the first few bars.
It is my hope that my first post provides some help to self-learners, parents, teachers, and students. Or at least just some ideas or healthy discussion. There are many other subjects that were barely touched on in this post that I plan to write more on; the debate over the existence of natural music talent, the state of music education, and the importance of art education as a whole, to name a few. I plan to share my opinion and experiences on this blog and I hope that you enjoy them. Thanks for reading!
Joe Baer Magnant