Until I got to college and began working on my music degree, I thought music was a pretty simple thing. There were people like me who sat in a band with a clarinet, and people like the conductor who told me and all of the other players what to play, and how to play it. There wasn’t much decision making to be done on my part. If we all succeeded in doing what the conductor wanted, the music would come out sounding good, and we’d all be very pleased with our concert, and look forward to the next one.
When I studied music theory, I began to get a different view. There really was quite a bit to how al of this music was put together. Music appreciation made me aware of themes, and motivic development, and the term “recapitulation.” To this day I don’t know where the capitulation is that requires a recapitulation at the end. When I tried to explain sonata form to members of my family, I became frustrated when they couldn’t hear how the themes were being developed like I could. I came to realize that listening to music was harder than playing music. While I had a conductor to tell me everything I needed to know and do when I played, no one told me what to listen for while I sat at a symphony concert or opera. Once I read the program notes, then I was on my own, and so were all of the other people in the audience.
Now that I’ve been a music teacher for 30 years, I realize that a teacher who tells his or her students everything they need to do or know isn’t such a good thing after all. It robs students of the opportunity to find an expressive intent of their own, and to interpret the music so that it become personally meaningful and expressive. It takes a lot more time to let the students do the thinking and interpreting, but it’s worth the investment.
My fourth grade class today offers the perfect example. I built their whole lesson around performing repetitions expressively. The premise was that when something happens more than once, or a single note is held more than a beat, you must change the repetition or the note so that the note, or motif, or beat, or whatever it is does not sound exactly the same both times. I told them that they needed to change the way they sang the repetition by changing the dynamics and/or the articulation.
Given the freedom to alter the music in this way, they found delight in singing a sixteenth note flourish louder, infusing it with energy it had lacked before. They were sure the music would sound better if the same phrase were sung louder the second time, and coming off of an ascending line, they were exactly right. When they got to the end of the song and realized it had an Amen, they insisted that it be sung soft, because, well, Amens are supposed to be soft. They put all of these changes together into a couple of performances, and they instantly became more interested in the music, and instantly began singing better both in accuracy and in just staying together and listening to each other. All of this in a simple sixteen bar melody.
The skeptics will say that such student involvement in interpreting is too time consuming, but this class of 26 children reached consensus on expressive decisions quickly. A section in a band or choir can just as easily decide where to crescendo, where to accent, and so forth. Letting the students make these decisions puts the making of music into the hands of the ones who are actually making the musical sounds. It redefines a conductor as a collaborator with the musicians he or she leads. There is a journey of building an interpretation together in a way that enables the students, who are supposed to be the learners, to learn how to make music, and to practice doing so.
Teaching music this way goes beyond just crescendos and articulations. There are many musical elements which a composer uses to fulfill his or her expressive intent. Some of these are fixed and not left to the discretion of the performer, such as pitch and rhythm and usually instrumentation. But within those constraints, there are many possibilities. There is the freedom to decide how to play a pitch, with what tone color to play an instrument, and how to bring out the many and subtle nuances of rhythm out of which metrical structure is perceived. In our busy and hasty routines of preparing concerts, we mustn’t forget that the essence of music, and perhaps the very reason we first loved music, was because of the little things that make music beautiful, but that we all too easily treat with indifference when we teach. We mustn’t be teaching music as if we were dispensing push notifications to our students. We must teach music through making music.