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.

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