What Would Music Be Like Without Change?

2011Symposium_1_2Although most would probably say they don’t like change, the fact is that we need change and are designed to change and benefit from change. This can be clearly seen if we consider minimalist music. When a minimalist piece begins, it has our attention, because what we hear is a change from not hearing it a moment ago. As the repetition continues though, we begin to take it for granted, while hoping and listening for something to change. When it does, we are gratified, refreshed, and our interest in the music is renewed. As the music goes on, and we long for another change, we begin to notice more subtle changes, because now we are focused on change. We naturally overlook things that stay the same, and notice things that change. Think of sitting in a quiet place where there is little sound and movement, and./or constant sound and movement. We do not notice anything in particular until something changes. We instantly notice the sound of a door closing, or the motion of a paper falling to the ground off of a desk. Evolutionists will say that we notice these changes because they must be tested as possible threats to our safety. Once we realize, even in a fraction of a second, that there is no danger, we return to a state of relaxed indifference to our surroundings, until something else changes.

When music changes, it arouses this alert response in us, and that is why we feel aroused and excited, even agitated by music that surprises us. Loud sounds are initially understood as a threat, and so startle us. Quiet sounds arouse curiosity and caution. These are involuntary responses, so even though we know music does not pose a threat, our threat response system reacts anyway, and we experience the “high alert” as exciting experiences with music. Without these reactions, music would be dull and uninspiring. That is why the best composers skillfully balance repetition and variety, or change. The repetition lulls us into a calm repose, and the change rouses us out of our relaxed state. No where is this more plain than playing music for children that has a surprise in it. In thirty years of teaching, I have never played the “surprise” movement of Haydn’s “surprise symphony” without seeing a response of giddy delight on the children as that bombastic chord jumps out of the quietest of passages. Even when they know it is coming, it still has great affect.

Now contrast that to the pedantic drudgery of drilling the first few pages of an instrument method book. The songs are each comprised of one pitch, repeated on one rhythm, a whole note, each separated by a whole rest. Change is nowhere to be found, and the emotional delight that gives us all reason to want to make music is entirely missing. These early days of instrument lessons need to be recharged with change. An instructor can change dynamics, articulation, tempo or even instrumentation if the class is grouped heterogeneously, to create variety and change, and even to surprise the young musicians so that a spontaneous and emotionally charged response is enjoyed.Musical-Balance

Listening to music, even popular music which tends to be highly repetitive, can be more exciting by directing listeners’ attention to what is changing in the music. There is the form. Some students will be so focused on the rhythm and beat that they will overlook changes from one section of the song to the next, or changes in instrumentation or backing tracks. Musicians and their producers know the value in change, even in a highly repetitive musical form, and embed changes, however subtle at times, into the recorded music. Students can learn about musical form and production while learning how to enjoy their music more by practicing perceiving these aspects of songs. This type of listening can then carry over into art music, opening up greater understanding of the classics as well.   While too much change is confusing to anyone, a good balance of change and repetition in our presentation of the music we teach with will increase student interest and enjoyment.

It All Starts With Expectations: What Teachers Do

2011Symposium_1_2If there is one thing a teacher must do it is this: expect change. We teachers are in the business of bringing about changes in our students; changes in their behaviors, attitudes, and proficiencies. Daily, we know this to be true, but the slowness with which change often takes place can easily make it difficult to see some changes taking place.  We become accustomed to certain behaviors from certain students. These include regularly making little attempt to be prepared, frequently giving attention to things other than your instruction, often not knowing what to do or showing little or no improvement at all. What change do we expect to find in students exhibiting these behaviors as we continue to teach them week after week?

It is natural to have high expectations for students who are nearly always on-task and show constant improvement, and low expectations for students who are not showing improvement. But we better serve all students if we have high expectations for each of them. We can and should expect that all of our students will do what we ask of them, that all of our students will practice what we teach at least long enough to do it right, and that all students will give their best effort along the way. In most cases, what we teach must include not only what we want them to learn, but also how they can most efficiently and effectively learn. The best teachers I’ve had made it clear what I needed to do in order to learn what they were teaching me. For example, in my college string methods class, double bassist Gary Karr taught us that lower notes required a slower bow speed, and higher notes required a faster bow speed. IfExpectations he just taught it like that, forgetful students like me would have easily confused this teaching, and wondered if slower bow speeds were for higher notes or lower notes. But the rhyme “the lower the slower” forever embedded it in my mind. The late Kalmen Opperman summarized how to play the clarinet with the refrain “push up, close off, and blow.” With this in mind, I had three points of reference to monitor as I practiced, checking my right thumb, embouchure, and breathing. All three had to be right, Other teachers had taught me breath management, but not the others. He also taught me to practice passages with different articulation patterns to achieve evenness. Other clarinet teachers simply told me to keep practicing. Left to my own devices with only “keep practicing” to go on, I made little progress. I needed to be taught what to do when I practiced before I could see my effort result in growth as a clarinet player.

In classes where I am teaching twenty or more students at a time, my students need to practice attentiveness before they can learn or practice anything. They must learn to look and listen, to ask questions as well as answer them, and learn to be a fully participating part of a class. I expect them to practice doing these things everyday, and to use these strategies to learn and practice the curricular content of the course they are in and that I am teaching. None of this happens instantly or even quickly. It will be a process, in some cases a long process of steady growth before the final expectation is met. But along the way, I expect that they will demonstrate growth in all of these areas. Some will not want to try, and that is one of the many great challenges of teaching. I must show them that it is worth their while to try, and to trust my confidence that they will succeed if they do. Every now and then success at something comes easily, but it is never so indefinitely. When someone fails to apply effort, someone else will eventually surpass their greatest achievement. Sooner or later, and sooner for most of us, success is bought with effort, and the greatest of successes is available for a high price in success. I expect all of my students to be college-ready when they finish high school, and I expect my work with students, who range in age from 3 to 13 years, to be an important segment of that preparation. Some days it doesn’t feel like any of that will happen with some of them, but it is on those days that expecting great things is most important.