Music and Literacy–The Backbone of Musicianship

2011Symposium_1_2In my last post, I discussed the meaning of musicianship. Certainly, part of what goes into musicianship is the part of music literacy that is the generating of musical ideas. Literacy of any kind does not only include reading and writing, but also creating ideas and communicating them to others. In music, improvisers do this all the time. Improvising is communicating musical ideas to others aurally. Because of this, improvising is the form in which we think in music. When we converse with another, what we say is not premeditated, but thought of in real time in response to what has just been heard. This is thinking in words, or using linguistic improvisation. When a musician improvises, they are thinking in music, or using musical improvisation. Teaching students to think in music is the most important element in a music curriculum—it is central to all other musical acts including performing, composing, reading, writing, and responding to music. Teaching students how to think in music is the only way music can be taught from the perspective of “sound before sight,” which has been considered the best way of teaching music for centuries. The only way to know what the sound is before reading or hearing it is to be able to audiate, and audiating is what I am referring to as thinking in music.

A child will play a melody more successfully and with less work if s/he first sings it. A child will not need to select notes by trial and error, but will purposefully write down musical ideas if s/he first thinks it. A child will respond to music more knowingly with movement, singing or discussion, if s/he is tracking the musical grammar and anticipating what will come next according to cultural norms learned from listening experience. A child will always have a companion if there can be music playing in his or her imagination at will. I have happily and contentedly passed the time of long bus commutes many times by enjoying the music that played in my head. I have even used such intervals of time to practice my clarinet in my imagination when playing the actual instrument was impossible.

Learning to think in music requires a lot of listening to music, a lot of improvising in music, and a lot of writing down of music and the brainyour thoughts in music; and they must be done in that order. Repetition, and call and response are invaluable tools in teaching students to think in music—in fact in teaching students how to think. Somewhere along the way, educators have bought into the idea that memorization and recitation are to be avoided because they do not involve higher-level thinking. But one cannot think at a high level without thinking about something. There must be thought seeds planted for ideas to grow, and those seeds are musical patterns learned from repetition and recitation. At first, they are ideas being learned. Then they become catalysts for different ideas the student generates in the act of improvisation. Later still, the student learns to write down both the original ideas and the improvised ones, and perform from traditional music notation ideas created by others. At this point the student is truly musically literate.

I must caution you that the student is the one who must do the heavy lifting in all of this work—memorizing, improvising, creating, writing, and reading. While resources such as software can assist the teacher in teaching students, technology must not be allowed to subvert the student’s part in the learning process. At the end of the learning sequence, the student must be able to read music from music published on a sheet of paper, must be able to write original ideas on a sheet of manuscript paper, or enter them into music transcription software without using the playback or real-time audio capabilities of the software. Technology is useful when it serves the teacher and the music, but it is detrimental when the teacher and the music serve the technology.

The process of memorizing, improvising, creating, writing, reading and performing must be taught with constancy, cultivated over time. Sight singing, sight reading, melodic dictation, and composing must all be taught, practiced and brought to performance often in order to the training up of students in this area of musicianship to be successful.




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