Sunday, May 15, 2011

Music as a Language and Vessel for Communication

This is my final for my Content Area Literacy class, and I wanted to share it here.

Music in its own rite is a strange content area. Implemented the way it is at my school site, learning to read music comes about five years after learning to read English. But as with a spoken language, students begin hearing and producing musical sounds much sooner. Music (like math, as the Carnegie report points out) is a language, and I believe it should be taught as such. About five years after listening to and beginning to speak the language of music, students begin learning to read it. Just like when learning their own spoken language: Babies receive spoken messages from birth. Five years later, they can finally start to connect sound with symbol. The Suzuki method of teaching music is built on this philosophy: understanding how exactly to "speak" music comes long before reading anything off of a page.

Something that truly fascinates me is how different the experience of learning to read in music is from the experience of learning to read in math or other content areas. The difference is especially striking at the secondary level. As a middle school, high school and college musician I was continuously being taught and taught again how to read. Part of this phenomenon, I suspect, might stem from the fact that musical text looks and is interpreted very differently from English text. We do not see it in everyday life. One of my colleagues (I can't remember who at the moment) made mention of the importance of reading, and how language on a danger sign could mean the difference between life and death. There are no danger signs written in musical notation. Our survival in the world does not depend on being able to read both bass and treble clef (or alto or tenor clef).

But music is a common language, and a way to communicate to others without necessarily using words. It is incredibly important to students' health and well-being that they can hear the message of something non-verbal, and that they can express the rationale behind emotions or aesthetic experiences that they experience (their own or those of others) in their lives. The language is fully comprehensible without needing to read it in some situations. Some people have the time and discipline to learn an instrument, or to train their voices, without any guidance from the written word. They can express themselves beautifully, play with others, and have their message be understood by listeners. In our society, most situations where a student will be able to start out and develop as a musician must involve reading notation.

As I mentioned in my second paragraph, music reading skills and strategies must constantly be taught throughout the entirety of a young musician's development. It is the skill of taking a visual cue, decoding what it means and how to interpret it, and producing the right sound at the right time using a man-made machine (except for voice...that's a nature-made machine). Not only does a musician have to interpret the page and produce what it's asking for, but s/he needs to know where s/he fits in the group! The page might say to play loudly, but if our hypothetical student is playing clarinet in the high range for a rhythmic background part, s/he needs to know that the definition of "forte" is going to be different in this situation. Or a student might need to know that a marking that usually indicates one technique for strings, means something completely different for winds or percussion or voice.

The Carnegie report explains that "As readers we construct meaningful patterns from word to word, from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph, looking for connections across these textual elements toward some understanding that we can take away from reading the text." The authors then go on to explain that what we interpret from the text varies widely depending on our prior knowledge. This is absolutely true, but another corollary I'd like to add is that as teachers that hopefully do our jobs well, we will be on the students' lists of prior knowledge sources when they walk out of our classrooms. In other words, students who went through elementary school consistently handling bigger things that made lower sounds and smaller things that made higher sounds (and had that consistently pointed out to them) might be coming to beginning band with a better understanding of the basic idea of how a trombone works than a student who did not share that experience. Of course these connections need to be explicitly pointed out to everyone, all the time.

My final thought is this: when properly cultivated, musicianship is an extension of one's self. In an ideal situation, people can find ways to grow all the time, and when continuously practiced their musicianship will grow with them. Conversely, I cannot fathom that the discipline involved in growing as a musician would not lead to the musician growing as a person. Personally I walk out the door smiling every day when I can see evidence of both.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I Play Music

I can't say I've ever taken the time to think about why. Even as a music performance and education major, attending a workshop for one of the most famous jazz pianists in the world, as someone asked him, "Why do you play music?" and he responded, "Because I have to." My gut response hit me like no ton of bricks ever had before. It retorted, "Well, I don't have to."

That was a tough feeling for my brain to chew on for a few days. There I was, in my last semester of college, one of the top (if not the top) students in the entire music department, a star clarinetist, a pretty damn good trumpet player, participating in 10 different ensembles both through the school and not. And I didn't even have to play.

So why was I there? Why be a musician if I didn't really have to play? After discussing it some with one of my professors, I came to this conclusion: "I do have to teach." I was teaching private lessons and small groups at the time. It gave me validation in the world. Being a More Knowledgeable Other (yay, Vygotsky!) and sharing my view of the world and music with students who are trying to find their's a wonderful feeling. Watching students grow as musicians. They had to grow on their own, but only if I exposed them to just the right amount of regular sunlight and watered them with only as much as they needed each time.

And then, a year later (two days ago) as a student teacher, my mentor teacher (wife of the aforementioned professor) was trying to explain to me the process of writing a unit based on a piece. What do I want the students to get out of this? she asked. What is important here for them to know? What is going to enrich their experience of this piece? I don't know, I kept saying or thinking. She asked, "What do you want to learn about when you learn about a piece?...Why do you play music?"

Like an honest fool, I answered "I don't know." The reaction I'd had to that exchange last year hadn't answered the question. She said, "Well, it's probably time to start thinking about that." And so, here I am.

To be honest, I'm not sure what kind of person I am. I must be some kind of diligent, having the patience to learn and develop good tones on several (very different) wind instruments. I must be some kind of thoughtful, having written the ridiculous amount of some 30 single-spaced pages in the Reflection task of my PACT. But I do strange things sometimes. I make choices that in the back of my mind, I know are not the best choices. Like becoming a music major simply because my high school gave me a scholarship for it once. Like having schoolgirl-crushes on guys who would never consider me in that way. Like creating a blog at midnight when I have a rehearsal plan to write. So, one reason I play music is because it was a choice I made. Nobody told me to play music. Nobody ever said I needed to. I just wanted to. And I made it happen and was successful at it. Music represents a lifestyle choice that my soul embraces with every fiber of its being. Music is a good choice that I made.

A significant reason I play music is the social aspect--the feeling of belonging in a group and contributing your own voice to the sound of the whole. I am intensely shy. I've always been that way. It comes in waves--sometimes I feel confident and can say hi to a stranger, but most of the time I feel more comfortable as the approach-ee. If I were to estimate, I would say about 80% of my friends, if not more, are people with whom I have played music. A really good musician can tell you all about his or herself by how s/he plays (or sings). Heck, I know middle schoolers who show up on the musical floor and have something really poignant to say with their instruments. Playing music with people is how I can get to know them--their strengths, weaknesses, concepts of the world. And it's a way I can share parts of myself that many people would never know unless they pried it out of me. Music saves me from falling into an abyss of loneliness and depression.

The third and final reason I will share with you tonight about why I play music is this: I believe that our experience of time and the world is an aesthetic experience. If we are lucky and have use of all five senses, we are continuously stimulated, consciously or not, by each and every sense. When I play music, it feels good. The sound of my clarinet floating gently through time, the smells of cork grease and a freshly sharpened pencil, reading music on a page or communicating to other musicians with eye contact. The feel of my moderately moderate model of clarinet on my fingertips, the sound waves resonating within me and out of the bell. And yes. Even the taste of a reed. The very woody, sweeter taste of a new reed, the slightly sour taste of an old one. Playing music significantly enhances my aesthetic experience of time and the world.

Those are three of my reasons. I'm not sure if any of them will help me write my rehearsal plan. I suppose we'll see. :)