The Other Expectations

Version 2Today I would like to discuss expectations, but not the usual sort. Often, when expectations in education are discussed, they are the kind teachers have of students. These may be behavior or performance expectations, and both are important. There is, though, another sort of expectation that is embedded in the how successfully people perceive and understand. These are the expectations a learner brings to that to which they are confronted. Absent expectations, materials presented to students such as whole or part of musical works, can only be understood in a limited way at best. When expectations are incorrect, the musical work is likely to be misunderstood or downright confusing.

Let me use a non-musical example to explain. Suppose a child is looking for a shaker in a box of non-pitched musical instruments, and suppose that child expects to find a shaker that is square. He or she goes through the contents of the box containing shakers, and though many are there, the child overlooks all of them, because none of them matches his or her expectation that a shaker is square. The child finally gives up, and claims that there are no shakers in the box. The child would have easily found many shakers had he or she known that they were round, or egg shaped. When presented with the information that all of the items in the box are shakers, the child will be surprised, and declare “that was unexpected.” And that is exactly the point. If a person’s expectations about what they are presented with are faulty, they will miss the meaning, or even the identity of what they are seeing or hearing.

This point was made by a Music History professor when I was an undergraduate in his class. He played an excerpt from a Mozart symphony ( forty years later, I don’t recall which one), and then asked us what we heard. The usually reliable Bruce responded that he heard violins playing this, and cellos playing that, and so forth. Bruce’s answer was right, but incomplete. I responded that I heard the melody played on the flute over all that Bruce had described. The activity in the strings was what Bruce expected. He was used to the melodic content being delivered by the strings, but did not expect to hear the melody in the flute. His expectation eliminated the possibility of the melody being anywhere else except in the strings, and caused him to overlook it. I have had similar experiences with my students, even adult students. I play them a melody I want them to keep track of in a sonata-allegro form, and then play the movement. What I didn’t tell them was what instrument or instruments would be playing the material I wanted them to hear. Frequently, not knowing where in the orchestra to expect the melody to appear, they listen in the wrong place and miss it entirely. I can always go back and tell them what instrument will be playing it, and (as long as they know what that instrument sounds like) they will easily hear the melody next time through. It is all about knowing what to expect.

The same is true for performers. For myself, when I am playing my clarinet, I can easily play, even sight read, most music put before me, because I expect even difficult passages to be in familiar patterns of scales and arpeggios. As long as those patterns are what I expect, I can play accurately. But the instant the pattern changes, or the scale or chord is one I did not expect, mistakes become numerous, and I am then in a passage I must stop and practice until I have learned those unexpected patterns. As we teach students, it is not enough to teach them the repertoire, or even the scales, which are out of context. We must teach them how these things are typically used in actual music. This can include learning progressions of arpeggios, sequential patterns like scales by thirds, or sequences of motifs. Many etudes typically take this approach, moving through a few themes that use sequence and progressions. They typically start relatively easy, then become difficult somewhere past the middle, and then end relatively easy again. This in itself is an expectation I have for etudes, and causes me to search out the middle of the etude to practice first, expecting that the beginning and end will come much easier. Having these expectations not only helps me play the etude more successfully, but also helps me plan my practice strategy.

Expectations are acquired through experience. As music educators, we provide our students with experience ample for constructing expectations on. I believe that one of the weaknesses of survey type courses, is that there is too great a variety of musical genres, styles and forms presented in an attempt to build familiarity with them all, while not providing sufficient concentration on any one genre, style or form to allow for the forming of expectations of them. No one can have accurate expectations of 18th century symphonic music after listening to single symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The creative span of just these three composers is so much greater than what can be drawn from a single work. It is not so unreasonable to think that Beethoven’s first two symphonies were written by Haydn, if all one knows of Beethoven is the fifth and third symphonies. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to think that the prelude to Haydn’s The Creation was written by Wagner, if all one knows of Haydn is that prelude. Given the opportunity to listen to a broader sampling of each composer’s work, the listener can acquire more accurate expectations that will guide him or her in perceiving and understanding so much more along any symphonic journey they may take.

Expectations also leaves the listener or performer the freedom to discover and explore musical works with those expectations and the accompanying intuition as guides, so that the performer preparing a musical work for performance or a listener taking in a concert or recording is not left to drift through, become bored and abandon future encounters with such music. Giving students expectations whets the appetite to go out and have those expectations met, and that involves seeking out the musical works about which they have expectations. Developing expectations equips the student to interact with musical works on his or her own terms, without being restricted by assigned listening tasks. Students who make predictions about what they will, concerning everything from instrumentation (what instruments are likely to have the melody often (violins, oboes, flutes, clarinets) and which ones are unlikely to have the melody often (violas)), and harmonic progressions (clear tonic and dominant harmony in Mozart, more adventurous and chromatic treatments in Richard Strauss and Wagner) to length of works and use of rhythm and dissonance. With the right expectations, a beautiful Wagnerian dissonance sounds like a bad mistake in Mozart, and sets that dissonance in the right context, that of impressive creativity on Mozart’s part to think of using dissonance like that (consider the “dissonant” quartet, no. 19 in C major, K. 465)  when others were not doing so. And so the more able we prepare our students to have accurate expectations concerning musical works, the more powerfully they will be able to assert their musical learning on creative musical activity.