Why Practice?

Version 2I was in my senior year of my undergraduate studies, during my apprentice teaching semester. I shared an off-campus apartment with two other men, one a music major the other a psychology major. One day, after I had been practicing my clarinet, the music major said to me, “I don’t like listening to people practice.” Naturally I asked him why this was and he said that it was because when the people he knew practiced, they paid little attention to tone, and most of their attention to practicing notes. I asked him if that was true of me too, and he said that it was.

All these 39 years later, I have recently remembered those words and reflected on them. I have realized that the practice sessions I enjoy the most are the ones in which I am being most expressive; the ones in which I lose myself in the music and “play my heart out.” On the other hand, my least favorite practice sessions are those that are aptly described by my former room mate’s words; the ones in which I am merely practicing notes, drilling myself over and over until I play a passage with the correct notes. Of course, this kind of attention to right notes is necessary, but it is a temporary departure from what should be the main point of playing a musical instrument in the first place, which is to express something of the human heart and spirit.

Suzuki, the famed violin pedagogue, often spoke of the intimacy between heart, soul and music. To him, music was as essential to life and human compassion as the air we breathe. How unfortunate that some teachers have cherry picked playing by ear from the totality of Suzuki’s philosophy and method, forgetting or laying aside the development of beauty of tone and expressiveness in favor of playing dry renditions of Twinkle ad nauseam. Ever since the National Core Arts Standards were released with the pervasive presence of expressive intent throughout them, I have found it both energizing and challenging to frame every musical experience in the context of expressiveness. Yet that is exactly the point of art in general and music in particular–to express something personal from one musician to other musicians and beyond them to audiences. It has also caused me to call into question the premise that performances of classical music must be “authentic.” If a musician’s primary mission is to convey someone else’s expressive intent, then musicians are left with an enterprise that is marginally relevant to them at best. Whether the mandate is to reproduce a composer’s intent, or to follow strict instructions from a conductor, preparing performances to present to an audience without the creative freedom to convey personal meaning is rendering music study largely superficial, and limiting the true power and benefit of musical study.

If someone tells me about something about which they have strong feelings, those feelings are conveyed to me in body language, voice inflection, as well as the words themselves. Their feelings then interact with my own feelings born out of my own experience and interests, and are given an additional meaning that is personal and somewhat unique to me. If the person is telling me about a life event they have celebrated and are happy and excited about, anybody hearing them talk about it will get that the feelings being expressed are happiness and excitement, but my version of those emotions are different from others’ based on how I personally feel when I am happy or excited over a similar life event. The same is true with music. Whereas musicians may universally agree that Beethoven was expressing anger, or Haydn was expressing humor, individual musicians or non-musicians will relate to that anger or human in unique ways, influenced by life experiences only they have responded to in unique ways.  So it is here, in the mixing of life experiences and music that we as music educators much grant our students the freedom to interpret music they hear and perform in our rehearsals and classrooms in personal ways even when those ways are different from how we would dictate an interpretation to them were we to assume the role of traditional maestro.

In granting this freedom, we must prepare our students to create such interpretations by giving them ample experiences with music of the same idiom as that which they are preparing for performance or are listening to for responding to music activities. They must develop a “feel” for the music of Beethoven so that they can relate their own lives to what Beethoven invested into his music. The same is true of any composer of any idiom or time period. Interpretation is the melding of two contexts: that of the creator and that of the performer. The later must understand the former, but be left the latitude to understand the former in his or her own cultural and personal contexts. The more the students have a “feel” for a composer’s music, the more they will be able to understand it based on how they feel when they play, sing or hear it.

When this is applied to practicing or rehearsing, more attention is often given to details. For example, when students are focused on beauty of tone, they are concentrating on the expressiveness of perhaps only a single note, or a single phrase of music. This point is famously made in this moment from the movie Amadeus.

Salieri’s attention to that first sustained note is exactly the focus on expressive detail that is necessary for music to be understood as an expressive power. For Salieri, the miracle of this music is not in the specific pitches or even in the literal dynamics, but in the way in which these things are used for expressive effect. It should not be necessary for children to wait until they are in college or even high school to experience this level of musical sensitivity. The vibrant imaginations of children are perfect for exploring music in all of its expressiveness, much more for than for exploring the names of lines and spaces and the memorizing of vocabulary lists. These too must be included in our music instruction, but they should not become the primary focus.

Are We Misleading Students In How We Teach Them To Appreciate Music?

2011 Symposium2

Music appreciation as I experienced it as a student was largely a matter of learning how a musical work was put together, and then listening for landmarks along the way. First theme, second theme, development section, modulation to the dominant, recapitulation back to the tonic, and so on. It usually takes a great deal of training in order to learn this vocabulary, and even more to be able to hear all of these things in real time while one listens. The assumption behind such training is that once a person knows “what to listen for” he or she will be able to do so and will as a result enjoy the music. But putting such a substantial prerequisite on enjoying music places a learning curve before students which they may not be willing to navigate. What’s more, there must be people who enjoy music some other way, who know nothing of expositions, recapitulations or modulations. This is, or perhaps should be, the province of professional musicians and a minority of dedicated music lovers who choose to dive into the inner workings of classical music. But it surely must not be expected of everyone. It is just this sort of thinking, requiring the general population to rise to the level of expertise required of a professional musician, that has caused classical music to be so off-putting to so many people who very well might otherwise MusicEarbe filling symphony orchestra concert halls.

Aaron Copland, in his classic book, What To Listen For In Music, explained that there are three types or “planes” of music listening. One is the sensuous plane. “The simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself. This is the sensuous plane.It is the plane on which we hear music without thinking without considering it in any way….The sensuous plane is an important one in music, a very important one, but it does not constitute the whole story” (p. 10). To Copland, this was an entry point to classical music; a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy music, so long as it did not remain the full extent of one’s efforts to listen to music. With this in mind, I have to wonder how many times, if ever, students in a music appreciation class are given the opportunity to listen to music on the sensuous plane, and to begin to build a fondness, liking, or even love of the music before more strenuous intellectual demands are place on them. It would seem to me that including this beginning step is critical to the assumed goal of developing music lovers in these classes.

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Copland’s second plane was the expressive plane. Copland believed that “all music has an expressive power, some more, some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes, and that that meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about” (p. 12). Copland went on to explain that the meaning music expresses cannot be explained in words; that it is part and parcel of the experience each individual has with the music on an emotional level. Words can only approximate or misrepresent what a musical work truly “means” to any person; yet this very meaning, so personal and inexplicable as it is, can also be the very thing from which a person derives enjoyment and pleasure from music. The difficulty is in the fact that because musical meaning cannot be observed or explained, it is at best difficult to teach; it more realistically just is. Still, as with the sensuous plane, simply giving students to listen to music and find meaning on the expressive plane is helping to facilitate growing their love of music.

Copland called his third plane the musical plane.  It is used when the listener is versed in “the notes themselves, and their manipulation.” This is the high ground of traditional music education, but caution is in order. “From the layman’s standpoint, it is not so much a matter of getting over bad habits on the sheerly musical plane as of increasing one’s awareness of what is going on in so far as the notes are concerned.” What’s important here is the phrase “increasing one’s awareness.” In this phrase, Copland acknowledges that the lay listener, without training in musical form and music theory, already has some awareness of what is going on in the music.

We have seen that a listener is aware of emotions and meaning, even if the latter cannot be explained in words. Doubling down on the nuts and bolts of music will take the listener further, letting him or her in on more of what is there to be enjoyed, but it is by no means the first and last word on musical enjoyment. So when we teach music appreciation, we must make sure we remember these three planes, and that we get them in right order. I dare say, it is not necessary to graduate from the musical plane before bringing students to a classical music concert. Allow them the experience, and to grow on the first two planes, and then when they have learned to use the third plane, they will return with new energy and appreciation.