music teacher

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!

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.


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!


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.


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.


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


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.

Battle Creek Choir Camp June 22-25

Tour is going well. We have already made some great music at the Museum of Natural History, and we finished day one with a jaunt down Navy Pier. I even enjoyed some Chicago-style deep dish at Pizzaria Uno’s! Good Times.

Next will be a performance at the Lutheran Life Community in Arlington Heights.

Anyway, I am always blessed to be allowed to work with the great kids of Battle Creek. Next week, kids will have a a great time learning about music from around the world, as well as learn to sing, read music, and make great friends! We are going to look at music from Israel, Germany, Brazil, and Australia. If you’re looking for something for your children, grand children, nephews or nieces to do next week, then please send them to us from 8:30 am-12:00 pm, Monday through Thursday.

Why I Don’t Let My Singers Use the Word “Can’t”

As a voice teacher, I get the opportunity to work with young singers all the time. A pesky word will pop up every now and then. My singers will tell me that they “can’t” do something. It is not within the realm of possibility. They should not even try. It really bothers me when my singers use the word.

It is not to say that human beings don’t have difficulty doing things. I have had to work hard to achieve things in life. We all have. Sometimes, those achievements only come after years and years of concerted effort.

I’ll use a common example from my voice studio. A girl struggles to sing a high note that I know she is physiologically capable of singing. That struggle is normal. Singers have all had to work on range extension. It may take a while to strengthen and coordinate the vocal mechanism to be able to sing that high note.

All too often this type of girl has told me, “I can’t sing that.” This is why I have a rule in my lessons and rehearsals. My singers must not use the word “can’t.” Why? Because it is a cop-out. They are much more capable than they think.

I do not believe in giving up easily, which is what the usage of this word frequently amounts to. My singers want to give up, even though I can tell that they would be able to sing that work with just a little more time, instruction, and effort. It’s as if they think I’m going to ask them to do something they will never, ever, in a million, bazillion years, be able to do.

So what do I let them say? I tell them to say, “I find this difficult right now,” or something similar. The phrase “right now” communicates to their mind that this present difficulty is temporary. The singer will be able to perform it eventually. They need to try a few more times.

Little efforts train us for the big efforts. When we learn not to psyche ourselves out concerning easier problems, such as learning to sing high notes, we learn not to be scared about seemingly insurmountable ones.

Life is hard sometimes. You have to push through the difficulty in order to succeed. When we stop ourselves from attempting something because it becomes hard, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We are teaching ourselves to surrender at the first sign of hardship. Many of the best things in life require arduous, even herculean effort to attain.

(Photograph can be found at Flickr. Photographer: Kumon. License: Creative Commons)

Synergy, or We’re All in This Mess Together (Part 2)

In my previous post, I spoke about issues from a school teacher’s perspective. I am now going to switch hats and speak from a community music program director’s view. Like teachers, community directors are concerned primarily with creating, sustaining, and growing their programs.

Community music directors are selling a commodity. People want to learn music. Hence, music training is what is being sold. This is not a bad thing, as private music teachers and community directors need to make a living just like everyone else.

Community directors, by necessity, have to be passionate about their product. The best salesmen and women believe in the value of what they are selling. What community directors can miss is that, ultimately, the programs are for the students, not the students for the programs.

What are some ways that directors get the cart before the horse?

  • Schedule conflicts.
  • Put down the value of other groups.
  • Fail to reach out to other groups in the area.

Schedule Conflicts

Kids these days are involved in a lot of stuff. It’s not just school stuff, either. They are involved in 4H, scouting, community sports, dance, martial arts, etc. Of necessity, there will be schedule conflicts. I myself have had singers miss rehearsals because of school band/choir concerts or local musical theater groups. It is unavoidable and understandable.

Since the students are the most important part of the program, they should not get read the riot act for missing a rehearsal for a concert. I always tell my singers who let me know of the schedule conflict, “Okay, I will let you go, but only if you perform amazingly.” If the conflict is a sports game, I tell them they can do it, but only if they win. I mean this as an encouragement for them to be awesome at their concert and for them to be an encouragement to the school teachers and directors of other programs.

Community directors should do their best to avoid schedule conflicts with other music groups in the community. (1) It’s just common courtesy. (2) Schedule conflicts force the student to decide which is more important in their lives.

Put down the value of other groups.

Community musical groups are different than school programs. A major difference is that we are not only educational, but we are strongly performance oriented toward high art. My Choir of Men and Boys last Christmas performed the entire Haydn’s Kleine Orgelmesse. My programs have also performed music with full orchestra. That is more of an expectation with community music groups.

The value in my program is that singers get extra training on top of what they already get at school. The more musical experiences a young singer has, the stronger musician they will be. The stronger the musicians are, the stronger the musical groups which they are a part of will be. My programs are complementary, not supplementary.

Sometimes, though, directors can believe in their product so strongly that they believe it is superior to what kids get in school. School teachers and other directors will not take kindly to this kind of attitude. Directors are not better than school teachers. The emphases are different. Teachers are on the front lines. Directors need to give them support.

Fail to reach out to other groups in the area.

John Donne said that no man is an island. We are all connected to one another, particularly in death. To apply it to the present discussion, the death of one music organization in the community will be felt by the others. Unfortunately, a lot of community music directors don’t understand this. They become very insular.

Nothing makes other groups think you are aloof than if you don’t talk to them. We all matter. It’s time to get out of the car and push.

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


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.