music education

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!

An Excellent Article on Replacing a Beloved Choir Teacher

I recently found this blog post on replacing a popular choir teacher. This squares with my own experience during my first year of teaching. I succeeded an extremely popular and experienced director. Everyone adored him. He was able to get good sounds out of his groups, and he was just plain likable. He never met a stranger. You couldn’t not like him.

He and I were exact opposites. I was tall. He was short. I was an introvert. He was an extrovert. I was fresh out of school. He had several years of experience and was headed toward a doctoral program. I had big shoes to fill (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Students are not the most forgiving to a wet-behind-the-ears teacher when they have sat under a popular, talented, and experienced teacher. I found this to be the case with me. I struggled to find my stride. I probably would have quit except that, like many Snyders before me, I am very stubborn. We don’t like to give up.

Thankfully, I also taught a wonderful grade of youngsters who never had him as a teacher. They loved me and treated me kindly. I owe a lot to that grade. They kept me sane.

After several years, the music program was more or less mine. If you are replacing a beloved choral teacher, please be patient. It will get better in time.

A Day in the Life of a Choir Camp Singer

August 10-13 will be my last choir camp of the summer. We host it in Detroit. If interested, please sign up. We’d love to see you there!

Last Thursday, I completed my second of three choir camps. It went well. The kids enjoyed their time and learned much. We held a little reception afterwards, which provided a great opportunity for kids and parents to mingle and say their goodbyes.

I am giving you in this post a brief snapshot into our choir camp day. Before we begin, I want to thank my coworker from Vandalia Christian School, Marla Young, for the trial and error that made this schedule actually work. Those early choir camps were good times.

Camp Songs

It’s not camp if you don’t have camp songs. We always start the week with My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean (a classic).

We also play a game with this song. Singing and playing are important.

Mystery Show and Tell

We always give some mystery to the kids need to solve overnight. Since my theme is music around the world, the kids try to find the mystery country based on clues I give them. They earn bonus points if they bring in some fact or object to tell the group.

Game

You can’t have camp without games! We play several over the week.

Choir Rehearsal

The kids learn more difficult songs than the silly camp songs they sang at the beginning. These choir songs are meant to teach them how to sing, work together, and hold their own part. This can be tricky. You need

  • Songs the singers can learn and perform well in four days.
  • A good assortment of songs-variety in melodies, major and minor tonalities, etc.
  • Variety in tempo and energy.

This year, we sang songs from Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Israel. Some are happy, fast songs. One is a lullaby. I usually sneak at least one classical piece into the mix. Too often, people try to sell classical music to kids. Just teach the music, and let them decide if they like it or not. If you refrain from telling kids they shouldn’t like classical music, they might actually like it!

Break

The singers work hard, so they need a break. This is non-directed, and allows the children to play and form friendships with other kids.

Music Listening

I’ve already written a post about this here.

Break

Choir Rehearsal

This is a second, shorter rehearsal.

Music Reading

I take a little time to teach them music-reading skills. We go over some basic rhythms and solfege. They get points if they practice before the next day.

Game

The kids’ brains are about fried anyway. Finish the day with games!

Farewell

The kids go back into the rehearsal room. We talk about what is due the next day and any other announcements that need to be made.

This is my schedule for most choir camp days. I found that it works, and works well. Others have their own schedules. You’ll discover that not every schedule works for every person, just like not every teaching style works for every teacher. Take what works for you, and fill in the blanks.

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.

Music Is Skill and Aptitude, Duh!

People often react one of two ways to children’s choirs. They either are amazed at the fact that children are singing in-tune and with decent tone or they are unimpressed. Either reaction is based on the faulty premise that what is happening is quasi-magical. Musical ability is something you just have or you don’t.

Over the past few weeks, I have been comparing choirs and baseball (here and here). The last point I wish to make concerns a fact common to all disciplines everywhere. It takes time and concerted effort to become an expert at anything. Learning to sing and teaching children to sing is no exception. You might not see all the time, training, and hard work, but you can still smell it.

Music Is Skill and Aptitude

Folks often equate skill and aptitude. This idea could not be more wrong. Aptitude is the innate part of an ability. Someone turns aptitude into skill.

Music is skill and aptitude. As such, you should think of yourself as being on a spectrum. Take baseball, for instance. The starting line-up of the Detroit Tigers is on one side of the skill spectrum. I am on the other. I can at least swing and hit a ball sometimes. Skill-wise that (barely) puts me further than say, a five-year old who is still trying to hit a t-ball. That five-year old might have more aptitude than me, however. He could be the next Verlander. I doubt I would ever be.

On one side of the musical spectrum, you have some guy who has never sung or played any instrument in his entire life and hasn’t held a tune in a bucket. On the other side, you have Mozart. Most of us exist somewhere in between.

Skills Need to Be Developed

Learning to sing is simply turning your natural aptitude into a usable skill. Like all skills, singing must be developed. The 10,000 hour rule applies. If you want to master singing, you must practice doing it.

Skills Are Usually Passed Down

Most folks get training from someone who knows what they are doing. That is what I am doing as a choral director. I am imparting to those who know less about choral singing than I do.

In-tune Singing Is a Skill

I am surprised by how often I hear people compliment the fact my choirs sing in tune. Here is the secret: that is because I teach my choir members how to sing in tune! I never had a singer who was unable to match pitch. Some had less aptitude. They required more effort and training.

Healthy Singing Is a Skill

Some singers are good mimickers and, consequently, learn quickly. Those folks are not the norm. Healthy singing is not usually intuitive. Learning to sing is work, plain and simple.

Teaching Is a Skill

Lastly, the ability to teach is also skill + aptitude. Some are better at it than others. I am better than some, and some are definitely better than I am. I am grateful that I am better now than when I started.

So, is teaching children to sing some sort of superpower? No, it is not. Is it difficult? It is easier for some folks than others, and it is easier—I’m sure—than some professions and more difficult than others. I have training and experience in doing it. I will receive more training over the next few years. God willing, my skills will grow and I will become even better.

Should you be amazed that your child can sing in tune with healthy tone? Sure, why not? Just be amazed at the time and effort they have put into learning to sing and the time the choral director has spent learning and practicing a specialized field.

The Madness of Our Methods: Part Four: The Tools of the Trade

Methodologies have tools that they use. These tools fit with their philosophy and, more importantly, they work. The basic tools of Kodaly Method are:

  1. Solfege (do-re-mi, etc.)
  2. Rhythm Syllables (ta, ti-ti, etc.)
  3. Absolute Note Names (A, B, C, etc.)

Kodaly method uses these three things to to train the ear and teach elements of elements of theory.

Training the Ear

It is important to train the ear. All musicians need to be able to recognize what they hear. The use of solfege helps them to hear differences in pitch (highness or lowness of sound). The use of rhythm syllables allows them to hear duration (shortness or longness of sound). I know “longness” is not a real word, but it just seems to fit so well in this context.

Training the ear is absolutely crucial to good musicianship. How can the musician tell if they are playing correctly or incorrectly if their ear is not trained?

Teaching Elements of Theory

The basics to reading music on a page start with being able to identify a note, knowing that it needs to be held for a certain amount of time, and played on a certain frequency. Is that note an “A”, a “B,” a “C,” etc.? An “A” on the treble staff is played at 440 hz.

Solfege is used to help musicians know scales. We will get into these later. Music written on a page will almost always be written using scales.

Rhythm syllables will help the musicians read notes and know how long the notes are supposed to be played.

Synergy, or We’re All in This Mess Together (Part 1)

I recently talked with a friend of mine who offers private and group music training. My friend had run into a problem: school music educators were not encouraging their students to take private lessons. In fact, some teachers were very guarded concerning the students in their programs.

I am someone who has been on both sides of the fence. I taught general and choral music at a school for several years. I currently direct several community music programs and teach voice lessons. Based on my experience, I think there are several reasons that educators do not always actively promote other groups or lessons:

  • Busyness
  • Fear of losing students
  • Fear of losing a job
  • Fear of inadequacy

Busyness

Music teachers are very busy. They must not only prepare lesson plans, but they also need to tailor each plan to a different age group. A third grader (we hope) can pay attention longer than a kindergartener. A different approach is required. Planning and executing lessons take significant amounts of time and energy.

The same could be said for middle and high school band, orchestra, and choir directors. They are very busy people. They have concerts, competitions, musicals, and other things to prepare for on top of regular rehearsing and music-reading training. Do they have time to promote someone else’s program? Is this a productive use of their time? When I taught in a school setting, this was probably the biggest reason I did not do more to encourage students to take vocal, choral, or instrumental training. There was just a lot on my mind.

Fear of losing students

Ensemble directors know they only have a set amount of young people who are interested in singing or playing an instrument. Will they lose students in their program if they recommend a community group? Maybe they have known a talented child who used to participate in their group but is now only performing in a community ensemble. This can be very frustrating for someone who wants to grow a  program.

Fear of losing a job

Added to the fear of losing students is the fear of losing their job. School budgets are being slashed, particularly in Michigan. With the collapse of the auto industry, the economy is still pretty bad. There are signs of growth, but full recovery is still years away. Consequently, school music programs are not always supported. If the directors lose students, they fear the administration will cut their jobs.

Fear of inadequacy

I think this is the least common reason, but I will include it in this list. Some directors might feel that if a child gets additional musical training from someone or somewhere else, then the student is saying that he or she is receiving insufficient instruction.

Again, this is only my opinion that many educators are not actively promoting private lessons or community groups. I’m sure there are other reasons. I would love to hear them.

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.