Music Ed Methodology

Why Music Schools Must Change or Die: A Call for a Practical Music School that Prepares Musicians for Success

I’ve recently heard that many colleges in general and music schools in particular are struggling. They’re struggling with decreased enrollment, higher costs, and decreased interest. Unfortunately, the response to these troubles has been reactive rather than constructive. For instance, some higher ed professionals blame parents who don’t wish to spend a gazillion dollars for their kid to get a degree that won’t lead to financial stability or success. They blame the skyrocketing costs of tuition which forces students to take out unreasonable loans that will take a large portion of their lives to pay off. In short, they blame everyone but themselves.

While there is much to be said about parental priorities and the financial cost of Higher Ed, addressing those concerns won’t change things in the short run and won’t lead to stability in the long run. The education industry is contracting. A storm is already upon the education sector. Ignoring the storm won’t help. Furthermore, it’s easier to blame other people for the problems in your industry rather than face the difficult proposition that you might be part of the problem. If you want to change the world, you need to start with the man in the mirror, to paraphrase a famous song. I firmly believe that schools can at least halt (perhaps alter is a better word) the trend of attrition, but they must change.

The following is my own opinion. Please do with it what you will. If you have questions or concerns, please send me a private message. I would be happy to speak with you.

Since I graduated in 2017 with a master’s in conducting, I decided to take the hard road of being a gigging musician and a creative entrepreneur. This has not been easy. I started with nothing; I pay college loans every month. On top of this, I discovered that a lot of the skills I needed for success were not taught to me. I’ve endeavored to rectify this through self-education through a fancy institution known as the library.

The path for musical success is doable. I’ve become convinced of this through study and through experience. However, in order to succeed, a lot of things need to happen. The musician needs to learn a lot of skills, and not just the skills of musicianship (accurate performance, flexibility, and improvisation) and musicality (artistry, beauty of tone, phrasing, the It Factor, etc.). No, the musician also needs to be skilled in business (money management for self-employment, taxes, incorporation, setting up a studio, etc.), marketing (social media, websites, promoting concerts, contacting other musicians and teachers, etc.), professionalism (the fine art of showing up on time, knowing your music, communicating in a timely fashion, etc.), as well as many others.

Musicians should also have the correct mentality for entrepreneurial success. Namely, that to start your own business is really, stinkin’ hard. You will fail more than you succeed, and you will often not pass the audition (rejection!). You will have months of financial feast and famine. Success takes grit, ingenuity, and hard work.

Schools fail to prepare their students for this in several ways ways: 1) While many music schools touch on these skills, they often do not do so in an organized fashion. Adding a class or two is not going to solve this problem. 2) The faculty they hire to teach skills have no real world experience. They’ve been in the ivory tower for most of their lives, and so they’ve not learned in the school of hard knocks. 3) Faculty teach classes that functionally assume the students already know what is being taught. If half of your class if failing, it doesn’t mean that they are stupid or lazy; it means you are teaching the material incorrectly. 4) Faculty are teaching classes that are in no way applicable to the real world.

Does this mean that faculty should never teach a class on the history of Bach’s violin concertos or on the correlation of philosophy and music aesthetics? As an avid reader and learner, I firmly believe that those have their place (i.e. learning for its own sake). Moreover, these types of classes have helped me create more informed musical performances, so there is a practical advantage. Sometimes I’ve even applied these types of classes to something completely unrelated. However, there is a pedagogical order to things. Kids need to learn to crawl before they can run.

The world has drastically changed, and musicians must change with it. This includes music schools. No longer can they assume that students will come “just cuz.” Those days are gone. Higher Ed types need to assume that they must work hard to attract students with practical, helpful classes that enable students to succeed.

Perhaps some changes are in order.

August 2016 Life Update

The past several months have been eventful! Life has been busy, but good. I ran two of my most successful children’s choir camps (Detroit and Coldwater, MI). Both of them were the best attended of any of the camps I’ve conducted in their areas. The kids responded in ways that I did not expect.

This year, I used a new theme: the African-American Spiritual. I have always loved spirituals, but I was initially at a loss as to how to teach about them. A couple months passed until the curriculum formed in my mind. In fact, the deadline to complete it was quickly approaching.

Thankfully, inspiration finally came knocking. I approached the four-day camp this way:

Day 1: What is a spiritual? (Roots of slavery and how spirituals are a fusion of African music and European hymnody/folk music)

Day 2: The Fisk Jubilee Singers (How they popularized the spiritual and used it to fund Fisk University)

Day 3: The Spiritual and the Civil Rights Movement (How spirituals were adapted to help end Jim Crow and encourage racial integration)

Day 4: The spirituals go mainstream (How choral groups all over America frequently sing the well-loved spirituals)

The kids really connected with the curriculum, but not like they did in years previous. They weren’t bubbly excited; they were seriously interested. They loved singing the spirituals. They understood the plight of slavery and the struggles of black Americans as they have worked to rise from it. I think the spirituals helped personalize this history in a way that only teaching about it can’t.

I had no idea when I came up with the idea for my theme that racial tensions would be this high in the USA. However, I’m thankful that I did it. It is only through understanding that we can truly empathize.

The rest of my summer was spent working. The Lord provided me with a job at a nearby hospital. I have been both blessed and extremely taxed by this job. I work with folks who need to be watched for various reasons (suicidal, homicidal, addiction, dementia, head trauma, etc.). It has definitely caused me to consider things about the world in a different, perhaps deeper, light.

I was also prepping for the upcoming school year at WMU. I will be starting a graduate assistantship in the vocal and choral departments in a few weeks. I am looking forward to the challenge. I love teaching voice lessons and conducting, so this seems right up my alley. I am also choosing repertoire for my graduate conducting recital (Spring 2017!) and my various and sundry choirs.

Lastly, I will be leaving in a few days for the Norfolk Chamber Choir and Choral Conducting Workshop. It is hosted by Yale University and directed by the inimitable Simon Carrington of King’s Singers fame. I’m very excited about it. I believe I will learn a lot about choral singing. Hopefully, it will lead to more choral singing gigs, which I am keen to be doing.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. I will keep you posted as new opportunities and the like happen in my life.

 

The Danger of Extremes: Robbie Gennet and Notation-free Music

Recently, Robbie Gennet, a musician and blogger at the Huffington Post, posted an article claiming that teaching reading and writing was unimportant in today’s world. My gut reaction was to quickly disclaim such an idea. However, I like to chew on ideas for a while. This allows me to choose what to say and how I want to say it.  Here is part one of my response to Mr. Gennet.

First, let me list some ways in which I agree with him. It’s easy to shoot from the hip when there are a lot of incorrect ideas to focus on. I want to be fair.

Notation is a written record of music

Sheet music is a visual copy of a piece of aural art. If you want to reproduce something like what the composer intended, then a copy of sheet music can be indispensable. This is particularly true the older or more complicated something is.

In undergrad and grad school, I learned to read notes precisely. I am very thankful for that focus. It has helped me immensely over my career. Sloppy musicians do not last long in professional music.

A lack of Improvisation

With that said, there does seem to be an overemphasis on reading notation as opposed to improvising in our universities. I received lots of training in reading music; I received little to no instruction on how to improvise. The majority of my training taught the opposite. Read the notes! Get it right! Now! Don’t be a hack!

I learned improvisation by singing melodies and harmonies with my family as a child. It was these unstructured, low-pressure times where I felt free to play. I experimented. I grew.

Some genres do not want exact reproduction. I believe these genres are what Mr. Gennet is talking about-genres like jazz, pop, rock, and others. Even classical music does not always insist on exact reproduction. In other words, some composers assumed that the performer would do improvisation on the written notes.

Too much emphasis on following the rules, not on what sounds good.

Certain minds love rules, and I thank them for it. They establish guidelines so that music-making becomes streamlined. These folks impose order on the chaos. Even musicians untrained in notation use these rules that were developed. They might not know it, but those three chords that they use were codified by others who knew notation. It was preserved for us by our forebears.

Rules create framework, but they do not create art. Musical order is good, but not as an end in and of itself. This is where some musicians, composers, and theoreticians go astray. They exalt the rules™ and are more concerned if a piece of music has parallel fifths than if it sounds good.

You do not need to know how to read to become successful in the music industry.

I concede this point to Mr. Gennet. There are many popular musicians who can’t read a lick of music. They make a whole lot more money than I do. I say, “More power to them.”

Which brings me to Taylor Swift’s quote that Mr. Gennet shares. “I would not have majored in music because when music becomes technical for me I don’t like that part of it. I can’t read music.”  An obsession with getting it right misses the boat, quite frankly. The point of notation is to provide a framework for making and understanding music. Creating a good song should not be about how many rules you got right, but how it sounds. A well-trained ear trumps a well-trained eye, but both are necessary in order to be a well-rounded musician.

Mr. Gennet is right in these areas. Unfortunately, he comes to an extreme, erroneous conclusion. Rather than say that we need to properly emphasize the primacy of the ear in writing music and promote training in improvisation, he advocates blowing up the system. If you can be successful without learning to read, in his mind, then reading is worthless.

The ability to read music is an extremely important tool. I am saying this as someone who learned to read later in life. Reading has helped me immensely. It opened vistas of great music and helped me understand my craft.

In addition, basic notation is not hard for folks to grasp. I have taught basic note-reading to many classes and choirs with ages ranging from 6-80. Musicians young and old can easily learn to read.

Mr. Gennet is mistaken when he says teachers should not teach notation. If taught correctly, it should not create a barrier to understanding and writing. It should only enhance it.

World Music Listening Examples for Music Ed

Well, my last choir camp of the summer is winding down. I’ve been teaching the kids world music this year. Accordingly, I had to find some recordings for them to analyze. I wanted to share a few of them with you because the singers and I liked them so much. Here is one by Aleksei Arkhipovsky playing a Russian instrument called the balalaika.This guy is fantastic.

The next one is a performance the African Children’s Choir. These children radiate sheer joy.

I think it is awesome that there is intermixing of instruments from different cultures in this day and age. This is performed by Mitchell Cullen and features a 12-string guitar, drums, and a didgeridoo!

I am happy with the singing and learning my choirs did this summer. We squeezed so much into just four days!

How to Teach Children to Enjoy World Music

Next week, I will be directing a choir camp in Coldwater, MI. This is the second of three that I will host this summer. This got me thinking about one of the things I will teach.

Too often, music education simply equals music appreciation. By that, I mean that we have them listen passively to world music we think sounds cool. We do this under the impression that if the song sounds cool, then kids will like it. If kids like the song, then they will like that other culture.

This approached is half-baked at best. Real music education for children gives them the ability to read, play, and analyze music. It is understanding that helps them truly appreciate music.

Flash forward to my theme for this summer: Music Around the World. As part of my camp, I play recordings from Youtube for them to analyze. Let me say here that Youtube has been a godsend for music education. You have access to recordings of music from around the world. These recordings are made by real, live, honest-to-goodness musicians from that country. Talk about authentic!

I approach music listening through a framework. The kids will learn the five elements of music. Those are

  • Rhythm—How do they use the beat?
  • Melody—How do they order the pitches?
  • Harmony—What pitches do they use to accompany the melody?
  • Texture—How many and what kind of layers of sound are there?
  • Timbre—What tone color is it?

These are college-level terms. Shockingly, it is simple enough that young children can understand! This last sentence is dripping with sarcasm, in case you are wondering. I have stated in previous posts that we often underestimate what children can learn.

I have never had a student complain about learning this framework. On the contrary, they enjoy having a grid with which to analyze the music. It gives them a means to understand. They actively listen as the piece of music is performed. They quietly fill out a little questionnaire based on the grid. They readily answer questions afterward.

If we want children to gain an appreciation for world music, why do we just play the stuff and then refuse to give them any way to process the information? This is counterproductive. In my experience, lack of understanding makes them uncomfortable. When they are uncomfortable, they make fun of the other culture’s music.

Provide young musicians with the ability to appreciate the differences in the way other cultures approach music. Give them a useful rubric, one that they can use on any piece of music in the world. This will help them see the similarities and differences we share as human beings.

Be All That You Can Be, As a Musician, Teacher, and Student

The fifth tenet of the Kodaly philosophy is that music educators should be the best musicians they can possibly be. They should push themselves to the highest levels of knowledge and ability. “It is much more important who the singing master at Kisvarda (small village) is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail.  (Often even a good one.)  But a bad teacher may kill of the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils” (Zoltan Kodaly). For this reason, continuing education is very important. There are always people who know more than you. Learn from them. Go to conferences and summer training courses.

If you go to a Kodaly education summer training course, you will take part in several different segments. Trainees learn methodology, conducting, and musicianship. Methodology is the part where they tell you how to teach using the Kodaly approach. The conducting part is meant to help you wave your hands around more capably. Musicianship is, essentially, your old sight-reading and ear-training skills class from your undergrad years.

However, I enjoyed my musicianship classes in Kodaly better, and I use those techniques with my singers. Why did I enjoy my musicianship classes better than my aural skills classes? For several reasons:

  1. The purpose was spelled out to me.
  2. It was far less intimidating.
  3. It drastically improved my musicianship.

The purpose was spelled out to me.

The purpose of sight-reading and ear-training classes is not to take a grade. The purpose of those classes is to teach the student how to be able to perform and aurally identify music. The end goal is mastery. Grades help with assessment, but they are not the point.

I try to teach my singers this. Self-improvement is more important than getting high marks. I often tell them, “I don’t expect you to be perfect; I expect you to do your best.” I am interested in them becoming better music readers and thinkers.

It was far less intimidating.

As a music major, I dreaded sight-reading and dictation. Each session was a new form of agony. There was so much musical information for which I was responsible to read and transcribe. It was like trying to drink from a fire hose.

I teach musicianship differently. I try to make it as stress-free as possible, and I try to break down the elements into manageable chunks. For instance, sight-reading is taught thusly. When I put a sight-reading exercise on the board, I tell the students to read through the rhythms in their mind. Reading rhythms–I have found–is more easily and quickly learned than reading pitches. Anyway, they can usually read the rhythms after short while.

Students then sing the notes inside their head using solfege. We call the process of reading music in the mind “Audiation.” This technique is very important for musicianship. Only after they have done both steps do we sing it out loud as a solo or in small groups.

It drastically improved my musicianship.

The musicianship courses I took actually accomplished what they were trying to do. I became better at reading and thinking. I could more efficiently sight-read and identify musical elements.

I have also used the techniques I learned in these musicianship classes to great effect. If you spend around 10-15 minutes a rehearsal teaching sight-reading and ear-training, you will be surprised at how drastically they will improve.

The Voice Is the First Instrument

Music teachers approach music literacy different ways, often depending on their strengths. Piano teachers will teach using the piano, violin teachers teach with the violin, etc. Methodologies have sprung up to service this. I have known piano teachers to often use Alfred or Faber.  String players will often use the Suzuki method, although I have met some who really don’t like it. Most string teachers I have met either really like it or they really hate it. To my recollection, I have not met any that were ambivalent. Percussion and band teachers will often use Orff.

As a voice teacher and choral director, I use a voice-based approach. This works well, for a voice-based method has some strong advantages. Interestingly, music schools and conservatories here in America have a course called “Aural Skills,” which is essentially voice-based sight-reading and ear training. All music majors and minors have to take it.

The reasons for this are two-fold. First, everyone owns a voice. They don’t have to go and buy one. It is built in. Second, they don’t have to study the voice for months or years in order to sight-read with it. There is no steep learning curve with the voice, unlike some other instruments. It would not be cost-effective to have all musicians in a conservatory buy and learn a new instrument when they already have one (the voice) that is fairly simple to use.

The voice is the first instrument people play with as children. Before they can move, they can start matching pitches. That is because the voice box is used for both singing and speaking, and the line between speaking and singing is a very thin one. That is why tonal languages (e.g. Chinese, Thai, etc.) are able to be learned.

People have told me that they or others are tone deaf. If that were true, then people who live in areas with tonal languages, such as Thailand and China, would not be able to speak or understand others in that language. The ability to match or identify pitch is present in almost all humans.

There are several reasons I use a voice-based method (Kodaly). I used a voice-based method even as a general music educator.

  1. It is cheaper. I did not have to buy any extra instruments. We did have some various percussion instruments that I used, but I did not buy them. More importantly, I did not have to buy them. The instruments were not intrinsic to my method. They were the gravy, not the potatoes.
  2. I did not have to teach a new instrument. In my years of teaching, there were only a handful of students who required special attention to be able to match pitch. Most could sing pretty easily once they were in a judgment-free environment where they could just play with the voice.
  3. The voice is my instrument. I have trained in it since I was a child. I have taken private lessons in it since I was in high school. It was my major in college. I have a master’s degree specializing in voice performance.