My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chain of thoughts about the state of some music students

Syllabi are being written, texts are being chosen, offices are being's almost time to start
© alswart -
teaching again.  I always find myself being reflective this time of year as I try to figure out what did and didn't work the past year.  In an effort to find some direction before the semester begins I thought it might be helpful to jot down some of the thoughts that have stuck in my head ever since the close of the previous one.  

In general, the students I work with...

  • have learned to read note-by-note, pitch-by-pitch, word-by-word (for singers), and individual rhythmic duration-to-individual rhythmic duration.  Notes do not belong to one another in any sort of way.  

Which means...

  • students have a difficult time seeing patterns and motives within the music.

Which means...

  • each time a student works on a piece of music he is having to process innumerable pieces of information at each moment and is not drawing on a reservoir of previously learned material.  He is starting from scratch each time and spending a lot of extra effort in order to learn his music.  

Approaching music in a note-by-note fashion, not seeing patterns and motives also means...

  • students have a more difficult time feeling or understanding phrases so musicality tends to be overlaid atop of what's learned after all the notes have been learned rather than being embedded in the music while they are learning it.  
  • sight-reading is very challenging, overwhelming, and tends to be unmusical.
  • memorizing is also very difficult and daunting.
  • the ability to audiate and internalize the music is hindered since the eyes are being utilized more than the ears.  The more one sense is being relied upon the less the other senses can actively participate and assist in learning.  

In the end what all seems to lead to is...
  • the students feeling unprepared and uncomfortable when it comes time to perform.  Rather than creating an interpretation through performing and enjoying the artistic process, they have the daunting impression they need to put together a piece of music through recalling the zillions of tiny details.  No wonder many students fear performing.  It makes me queasy just thinking about it.

And how can this affect the audience?
  • Audiences can sense sense discomfort in a performer.  They can also sense when someone is reproducing music rather than creating it.  

And how can this affect the performer?
  • Performers can sense lack of interest from the audience.  I equate it to a stand-up comedian doing his show and having the audience not laugh at any of his or her jokes.  Ouch! Not a good feeling.  

So what can I do to help students?

I am determined to focus on breaking that first link - to help students see music in a way that helps them to see how notes belong to one another; to help them start to build a vocabulary of musical motives and patterns; and to encourage them to use their minds and ears as much as they use their eyes.  Hopefully with this approach, music will help them to turn those countless number of tiny black marks on the page into a language they can truly understand and share with their audience with confidence and excitement.  This will build a brand new chain that will make performing something in which everyone wants to participate whether they are on the stage or in the audience.

Now where's my hacksaw?  I'm ready to do some damage!  


  1. Let me know what method you come up with - sounds like something of a revolution.

    1. LOL. It sort of does sound like a revolution, doesn't it. I kind of like that! And yes, I'll let you know. I've been experimenting this past year or so and feel like I'm just starting to get somewhere. We'll see what happens this year.

      Thanks for reading!


  2. This is where my training in "Kodaly" (it's not a method) has come in very handy! When the pedagogical principles are understood and used right it addresses these issues. Sounds like you are working with adults, hard to undo the "skill and drill" that's been reinforced for so long.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      I had a smattering of Kodaly and Orff when I was growing up and am grateful for the little training I did have. It hasn't been since I have started teaching that I've realized how helpful it can be. Now I would like to get trained in all of those, plus Dalcroze.

      And yes, I'm working with "young" adults - college age, so much is already ingrained. I'm hoping that it's never too late, however. We shall see!

      Thanks for reading,

  3. I have been teaching my piano students about patterns in music all along - it's about note patterns, rhythmic patterns, and looking for them in all the songs they learn. I try to give them a reinforcement with a "fun" song along with whatever lesson piece they're working on, so that they can see that many songs use the same patterns and that they can come to recognize those patterns in any music. Someday, they will leave my studio and will be on their own and will, hopefully, remember these things when they attempt a new piece.

    1. Maria, what you're doing sounds wonderful! It sounds like you're teaching them a language that they'll be able to build on easily and with enthusiasm. They are fortunate to have you as a teacher.

      All the best and thank you for contributing to the discussion!


  4. Erica,

    A nice post!
    - just some thoughts from my world of music and metaphor.

    You bring up this idea of connecting ideas. I like to refer to this as “clumping”. The mind clumps bits of information. When we speak, we speak without gaps between words, yet the mind clumps the information into known bits, or words, when we hear it. This is usually one of the big learning curves when studying a new language. At first everything sounds like one long word, because the brain has yet to establish identifiable clumps. I demonstrate this by speak a sentience in Finnish. To most people it would sound like one long noise, to a Finn it’s nicely clumped by their brain and ‘makes sense.’

    So too in music. Listeners will clump ideas in order to create ‘something’ rather than noise out of the sounds. This clumping is more than phrasing. It’s grabbing combinations of notes, rhythms, that turn of a phrase, motif, groupings of color, pulse, time, harmonies and so on.

    As musicians, we can do a lot to guide the ear. Deciding what bits of musical notation can be intentionally clumped to create gesture is a skill – perhaps that’s the essence of music-making.

    It’s a very creative skill, rather than technical skill. Possibly this is why it is left behind in many educational processes.

    1. Kim,
      Your last thought really turned on a lightbulb in my head...yes, perhaps that is why education doesn't seem to be addressing this approach to processing music - because it involves too much creativity and not enough technical work. It's a different process to teach in a creative way, I think, because in that type of teaching there aren't necessarily wrong or right answers or solutions, only different ways, some of which will make sense to some, others that will make sense to another group of people, and so on. In an education system in which standardized tests are the determining who is "getting it," and who isn't it concrete answers are a must. You can't fill in bubbles when it comes to creative thinking.

      And I love your analogy to language! I have to say I'd love to hear your Finnish sentence that you use. I don't believe I've ever heard it spoken least I wasn't aware of it.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Kim...always so great to hear from you. I hope all is well with you.


  5. Erica,
    Let us know how your endeavors towards instilling more linking of notes goes!
    You'll probably have some good tips to share - as usual!!


  6. I just saw that you tweeted this out, and I have to say I love the approach of chunks and not individual notes. It's a big pet peeve for me because I feel like for the most part teachers don't help their students think in a bigger picture and find associations. I've had some amazing teachers in my past, but I feel like they just assume you're going to find these associations and use them when in reality almost no students understand how to do that.

    I took a year off just to practice in the middle of my undergrad. I read so many books and experimented with so many different ways of practicing, and came to the conclusion, that learning is about associations. It really changed my whole approach to the piano. It looks like you're a great teacher, really approaching this the right way.

    It seems to me like there needs to be a revolution in teaching methods out there, because this one change I feel could significantly change the way students learn.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Brian,
      After reading your other comment on the technique post and then this one, I want to first say that I am really intrigued by your story. It seems like you've figured out so much about music and piano on your own. And I love that you are willing to share what you've learned from others through your own blog, which I love, by the way!

      Thanks for sharing that my thoughts make some sense. It's definitely a subject about which I feel very passionate and like you, I hope that more and more teachers could start to guide students through this process of seeing music through associations and patterns. It's made a world of difference for myself and for the students to whom I've taught this method. I happen to love puzzles and mind games so this type of work is right down my alley. My hope is that it could appeal to lots of others too, especially kids.

      Thanks for passing on my thoughts and for giving your own here.