How do musicians make artistic choices? This is an essential question that should be at the center of our music lessons. Too often, the answer to this question is a secret kept by music teachers from their students. The music director makes all the choices, and then instructs the students to play or sing this way or that way. The result is a performance that the students had little opportunity to make their own. In truth, students should be making creative choices. and in so doing making a musical performance personal and personally expressive.
I was reminded of this a few days ago while teaching a seventh grade general music class. The students were given a score to “Hapuna Matata” from The Lion King. They were asked to describe what was happening in the story of the show when the song is sung, what the mood of the song is, who the characters are that sing it, and what the characters should sound like while they’re singing it. These instructions can be summarized with four terms: context, expressive intent, and voice. They were further to shape their performances of the song by making decisions on tempo, dynamics, and articulation, and were given word banks under each element category. If the music happy? If so, what tempo would make the music sound happiest? What dynamics? What articulation? They were to try out different ideas–different ways of singing the song, varying the dynamics, articulation and tempo, until they found the happiest possible way of singing the song. Then, they tried different vocal timbres, and similarly explored the possibilities. At first, there wasn’t much variety in what they were doing. Most of the students knew the song form the movie, and had this idea that it had to go just that way. I had to persuade a few students that they could, in fact change the tempo from what it was in the movie, if they thought it would better express the mood they found in the song. When they students realized that they had this freedom, they instantly became more motivated and excited about the project. The idea that they could make the performance their own, putting their own personal touch on the music, was a revelation to them, and an exciting one.
I don’t think students are often given enough time to explore, and enough freedom to really make creative choices. There is always a measure of choice in making a crescendo or playing something forte or staccato in as much as the student must decide how loud or how detached the notes will be played. But as musicians who have been taught by master teachers in music conservatories, we teachers tend to “guide” or students to making their choices our choices until the music sounds the way we want it to. While I believe there is a place for this kind of steering as a student learns how to make music expressive, there must come a time when a student has the freedom to interpret a musical work differently than we would if we were performing it. There is plenty of a music teacher’s influence that naturally rubs off on a student. Musicians can often be identified as students of so and so because of their sound or by the nature of their interpretation. But the best performances always come form the soul, not the brain, and the only way that can be realized is by having the freedom to explore and settle on a way of performing the piece that results in the music “speaking” exactly what the performer has to say.
The trouble with exploring is that it is expensive; it costs a lot in time, and many of us often feel as though we don’t have the time to let students grow in musicianship this way. We make ourselves slaves to performance deadlines, and then justify our expedient ways by claiming they are the only way our ensembles can be ready in time. I am a great supporter of frequent performances; I think performing often keeps students motivated and keeps them practicing and working hard. But I am also mindful that when I am working at my day job, and that is as a public school music teacher, I am not conducting a professional orchestra, band, or choir. I am teaching kids music, and that is a vastly different thing. The whole pace of teaching music must be slower than of preparing an already highly trained ensemble for a concert.
On the other hand, letting students develop properly as musicians doesn’t take as much longer as we may think. Consider how many times you have to have your ensembles play or sing a piece before they have all the notes, all the dynamics, all the transitions, all the tempo changes, all the articulations “performance ready.” Do you know why all of that takes so long? If you, the conductor, made all of those artistic choices, there’s an excellent chance that many of them seem unnatural and uncomfortable to at least some of the ensemble. There is instability in those rehearsals because your choices are very different from what their choices would be if they had the chance to make them. Part of that is because they are less experienced, and perhaps your choices are more “musical” than theirs. They should consider your choices because of this. But part of that is because they are making music from a kid’s perspective, surrounded by their artistic culture and sensibilities, which are more than likely different from yours, and driving you and your students to arrive at different artistic choices.
Often, unless the director is a percussionist, he or she tends to prepare a performance from the melody and bass, and treats other parts as background. This segregates rhythmic inner parts from soprano and bass voices. But kids are used to starting with all of the rhythm section, and working to the melody from there. They respond first to the rhythm section, the “beat.” This is a different way of experiencing music than the way many directors experience it, because we tend to favor classical and jazz in our persnal musical experiences. If we directors listened to as much rap, rock, pop and gospel as our students, wouldn’t we bring a different approach to musical interpretation, similar to theirs? What would happen if a band director started with just the bass, percussion and harmony rhythm parts, and then told those on melody to play their parts any way they wanted. They have to play the pitches and rhythms that are in their music, but beside that, they can do whatever they want with it; have them play the melody over the rhythm that has developed. This is “jamming” outside the context of a jazz or rock band, but well within the context of how kids approach music. The interpretation that eventually develops will probably knock your socks off, and really get the kids excited about playing that overture, which otherwise might have been a more ho-hum affair. If kids are going to really learn develop musicianship, they must be given the freedom to make artistic choices.