Dispelling the Wrong Note Fallacy

2011Symposium_1_2If you’ve ever written a thesis, book or even a blog post, you probably know that just the right words don’t always just come flowing out of your brain onto the screen or page. Case in point, I have already deleted one word and replaced it with another in just these two opening sentences. The fact is there is very little we get perfect the first time, let alone at all. Good writers don’t worry about getting it down perfectly in the first draft, they just write and then go back later to revise, edit and polish.

When it comes to music, composing works much the same way. Though legends of Mozart composing whole symphonies at a time at one sitting, and without need of revision, this would be an astounding exception to the way most composers have and continue to work. Creating art takes time, requires many attempts and reworking before it finally settles into what the composer will accept as the finished work.

There is another aspect of creating music that lies somewhere in between the alleged perfection of Mozart and the seemingly endless struggles of Beethoven when composing. This aspect is improvisation. Like writing and composing, improvisations probably don’t come out just right most of the time, but unlike writing and composing, there is no opportunity to go back and edit. Once the tone is played or sung, it cannot be taken back. It can only be decontextualized into consequent tones that make the regretted tone sound less out of place or wrong. This is acceptable in improvisation, and the mix of “wrong” notes and “fixes” for them is what gives improvisation its often edgy and thrilling demeanor. In fact, many improvisors don’t consider there is such a thing as wrong notes when improvising.

It does, though, take a great deal of courage to improvise, especially in front of friends and peers. For less experienced music and the brainstudents, the fear of sounding bad is real, and prevents some from even trying. To be fair, most of us wouldn’t feel too good about giving a speech infant of our peers without any notice to prepare what we were going to say. Only a few people, the late Robin Williams among them, can just improvise a coherent, or at least entertaining five or ten or thirty minutes of comedy or poetry or prose. This is the obstacle young student improvisors face. How to play improvised music that sounds good to everyone listening.

Swing is an excellent choice of styles for inexperienced improvisors. The tempo can be held at a comfortable medium tempo, and a major scale has few if any bad sounding notes in it when played over a ii-V-I-vi progression. I like to teach my students the swing feel first by having them sing a couple of swing songs, and listen to a couple of swing charts. The song “To Swing or Not to Swing” from the Music K-8 series is a good tool to teach students what swing is. I then like to use Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Ticket A Tasket” as a song for the students to sing, and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” for them to listen to. I have them describe what they hear the performers do that makes the music swing. Key is that they acquire an ear for the swing eighth notes, and be able to sing and tap them.

When these materials have been learned successfully, I then use a medium swing backing track for the students to improvise over. I pass a small Orff style xylophone around the class, and give each students 16 beats to improvise with swing rhythm, especially swing eighth notes. The students are quickly amazed at how quickly they sound good with the backing track, and are encouraged by quick success to continue improvising. Many will just play on the beat at first, and then will begin to venture into adding a few swing eighth notes. For the more reluctant students, I encourage them to continue playing on the beat, and every so often just play twice on a bar using a rhythm of two swing eighth notes. I try not to play or model too much at this point, because I want the best music to be made by the students. Once everyone has succeeded, then I take my turn before giving the xylophone back to a student. The important thing is that once the students start playing, they slowly realize that there are no wrong notes, and that a good rhythm anywhere on the diatonic scale will make them sound like a pro. Try this out with your students using this backing track.

Rhythm, Beat, and Groove: What’s the Difference?

2011Symposium_1_2It all seems simple in the early grades. Beat is the steady pulse of the music, and rhythm is the changing durations of what is being sung or played. Using movement, students learn the difference between beat and rhythm by walking the beat while clapping the rhythm. Because they are not doing the same thing with their feet and hands, the point that they are not the same is easily made. The issue becomes more complicated when the students get older. Around age eleven, they develop their own musical preferences, and become more attached to the music of popular culture. With this change in how they relate to music and relate music to their peers, students begin talking about the beat in a different way. They use the word to describe the overall rhythmic affect on them that the music has; an understanding more accurately described as groove. Groove is the combined affect of beat and rhythm on the body; it is a word that describes how our body responds to music with movement. Labeling groove as beat glosses over rhythmic structure of music, making it almost certain that understandings of its component parts, that is rhythm, beat and meter, will be overlooked.

As music teachers, we are up against a misunderstanding brought about by common yet misleading usage of the thinking musicword beat. Part of the solution is to be sure our teaching goes beyond vocabulary, and includes application and experience. Defining beat as the steady pulse of the music is only engaging the intellect in learning the concept–it does not develop the deeper understanding that comes from experiencing the beat while being aware of what is being experienced, and manipulating the beat with creative and interpretive actions, which provides relevance and even deeper understanding. Here is how this could play out in a classroom. First, the teacher has taught the students what beat, rhythm and groove are, so that they can define each. This is the intellectual part of learning a concept, and must come first. Then the students might hear the music teacher play a repeated rhythm pattern–one which is easily recognized by the students. Then the teacher plays the same repeated rhythm pattern, but at a different tempo, and asks the students of the three elements, beat, rhythm, and groove, which one or ones have changed? The activity is then repeated, but with the students playing the pattern on body percussion or rhythm instruments. When ever either beat or rhythm changes, groove will be affected. Groove should not be confused with style. Funk is a style, not a groove. The groove of funk is the affect of the characteristic rhythms and beat of the funk style. That affect will always change when either rhythm or beat is changed, so groove can change even when style does not.

When a student says that a song has a beat that they like, it most likely is the groove they are referring to. Redirecting the conversation to groove opens up the opportunity to discover what combination of rhythm and beat created the groove that the student likes, and presents creative opportunities for students to explore tinkering with the rhythm and beat separately to alter the groove. Students tend to be deeply entrenched in a small number of rhythms that repeatedly occur in the music they listen to, so creating new rhythms that result in the same or similar groove helps widen their appreciation of music, and moves them from being music consumers to music creators, an important step in becoming educated musically. Students must come to understand that songwriters and composers have beat, rhythm and beat at their disposal to manipulate however they choose, and that the results of those creative decisions is a particular groove and/or style, and is very much related to the music creator’s expressive intent.

Putting the “Play” Back Into Playing (Or Singing) Music

2011Symposium_1_2If educators really want to know how students learn best, they should observe 3- and 4-year-old children. Over the last several weeks, one of the activities my 4-year-old class did was to improvise melodies for the rhyme, “Jack Be Nimble.” The children were asked to sing the words, using their singing voice. Naturally, some children sang the first time, while others needed several trials to sing rather than speak. Some sing right out, while others quietly sing almost just to themselves. Over several weeks, though , all were able to sing the rhyme, and deepen their understanding of the difference between singing and speaking. I mention all of this by way of providing background.

Today, one of the 4-year-old classes was given boom whackers. After discussing that the longer ones make deeper sounds, and the shorter ones make higher sounds, I told the children that I would play a drum beat, and they could play their boom whackers however they thought it would sound good. We all began to play. The children were having a great time, and the music they made conformed to the beat I was playing. After a minute or so, something wonderful happened. One child started singing “Jack Be Nimble” over all of the instruments. The children immediately changed what they were playing in response to what was being sung. Others then joined in and sang in their own way. Children dropped out or joined singing as they chose. This continued until one of them said “that’s enough of that song,” and they all agreed to stop.

Here’s what I observe form this marvelous session. First, the improvisation had a lasting effect on the children. They Dance-and-Movementwere, through their timid and tentative trials over the last weeks, assimilating musical patterns that they could use with that poem. Second, they intuitively connected a new improvisation activity with a familiar one, combining them into one. The new experience of improvising without words and with boom whackers was combined with improvising with words and without instruments. I never suggested that they sing while playing the boom whackers, and in another class, no one thought of doing so. Third, the familiar improvising activity, which was singing provided words, led one child to sing with different words while playing her instrument. In a lovely head voice, she sang a beautiful melody that captured her friends attention, as they kept playing but listened attentively to her improvised singing. Children will go places that you as the teacher will not think of directing them, especially when it is in the context of play. That leads to the fourth observation. Because children are naturally curious, and enjoy playing, they will learn a great deal from playing with things we give them to play with and with which they can do things we want them to learn how to do. If we want them to learn how to play musical instruments, we can give them musical instruments that are age appropriate, like boom whackers, and let them explore and play. Remember though, that they need some basis for their creative thought and play. Having material to work with, which in this case was the improvisation on “Jack Be Nimble” gives them a starting point; a home base, if you will, from which they can venture to explore other possibilities, and to which they can return when they need to ground what they are doing in something familiar or structured.

What does this kind of play look like in people that are grown up, instead of four years old? Yesterday, I played keyboard on the worship team at my church. Friday, at the end of the rehearsal, the leader told me that for the offertory we would improvise something. He would play drums, the bassist would play, and I should improvise over bass and drums. That was it. Sunday morning came, the offertory was taken, and while it was, we jammed. It was a funky, fun piece, and we could see the ushers taking the offering were moving about with an unusual bounce in their step. After the service, many people complimented us on how fun the offertory was. We had fun playing, and the worshippers had fun connecting to what we were doing.. There is a joy in expert spontaneity that cannot be matched by performing from a score. We all need more of that. Let’s all play and let play with our students.