A few years ago a former student of mine shared with me the common perception by high school band directors that were affected by my work locally. Their observation was that my students excelled more quickly through middle school, but students of other private teachers miraculously caught up with mine in secondary schools.
Needless to say, that bothered me for the next few months, but also got me thinking about this anomaly. Finally, while taking my morning shower (when and where I do my best thinking), I had an epiphany. They were right!
Most private teachers’ “bread and butter” is preparing their students to interpret the written note for the next immediate concert in school. While this is important, it doesn’t end there. My students had already moved on to new concepts.
Now we have to back up a little. Humans are born tabula rasa, that is our minds are a blank slate. Upon birth we immediately hear sounds and learn to duplicate them which enables us to express ourselves. After about five years, we start to recognize symbols that represent the sounds we have been producing for communication, also called the written word. Both continue for the rest of our lives, but with an emphasis on expressing ourselves verbally and spontaneously.
In music however, we receive a crash course in speaking on our chosen instruments. No real expression required. We learn four concepts simultaneously, 1) produce a pitch, 2) relate it to a finger combination, 3) associate it with a written symbol, and 4) assign a letter name for each pitch. While this process is important, and can be a life long endeavor, self expression takes a backseat to interpretation of music already composed by others.
Though it appears to band directors that other students catch up to mine, I take my students beyond interpretation and focus on expression incorporating listening, feeling, and tapping their inner creativity most of which not required in concert band music. So directors have no idea as to the advancement of my high school students.
Charlie Parker once said that while he was playing songs he was always hearing musical ideas in his head waiting to bust out. (paraphrased of course)
While playing popular music in our lessons, I allow my students to break away from the written notes and experiment with what they hear in their heads along with backup music. One of my favorite sayings is “Play an idea. If it sounds good, remember it!… If it sounds bad, remember it. Remember to never play it again!”
Good or not just “Say it with music!”