The need to rethink how we teach music

Con­sid­er­a­tions for the future of wind bands, part 2

For thou­sands of years, the gen­er­al­ly accept­ed def­i­n­i­tion of Music has been that music is a spe­cial lan­guage for com­mu­ni­cat­ing feel­ing or emo­tions to the lis­ten­er. We all under­stand this, but we do not teach this. We all make a dis­tinc­tion between hear­ing some­one who “just plays the notes” and some­one who we say is “musi­cal.” But we do not teach this distinction.

We are teach­ing only half the music. In gen­er­al, we teach only what the eye sees on the score page because the def­i­n­i­tions of these gen­er­al gram­mat­i­cal sym­bols are uni­ver­sal­ly under­stood and there­fore can be com­mu­ni­cat­ed and under­stood. On the oth­er hand, that which has to do with inter­pre­ta­tion or musi­cal­i­ty is per­son­al, found in the right hemi­sphere of our own brain and there­fore is very dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate in lan­guage to anoth­er per­son. We must pause here to men­tion that the right hemi­sphere of the brain is mute, it can­not speak or write; it can­not form a sen­tence. Thus it is often said that Music is the most impor­tant vehi­cle of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for the right hemi­sphere — which, con­tain­ing our own expe­ri­ences, is the real us. The left hemi­sphere con­tains only the expe­ri­ences of oth­er writ­ers and is entire­ly past tense!

Since we only teach half of music, the left hemi­sphere part we can see, the results are cat­a­stroph­ic. It makes aes­thet­ic adju­di­ca­tion in music impos­si­ble. Look at the adju­di­ca­tion sheet and you will see most­ly the left hemi­sphere data words: into­na­tion, bal­ance, dynam­ics, etc., but where is the adju­di­ca­tion form which asks, “Was this per­for­mance musi­cal?” That ques­tion, the most impor­tant thing which can be adju­di­cat­ed, is miss­ing because of how we teach. The impli­ca­tion is that if all those left-brain data points are cor­rect then the per­for­mance will be musi­cal. But that is not true, is it?

Our way of teach­ing only half the music, the left brain data which the eye can see, incor­rect­ly gives the stu­dent the impres­sion that music is for the eye. It fol­lows that the stu­dent assumes that solu­tions in inter­pre­ta­tion are made by the eye. Tem­po is a good exam­ple: the stu­dent looks at the top of the page and sees “Alle­gro,” and on this basis alone he makes a deci­sion on tem­po even though he has not yet even looked at the actu­al music. This has long been a prob­lem. Leopold Mozart, in his vio­lin trea­tise of 1756, makes a strong point that the stu­dent must find the cor­rect tem­po in the actu­al music because these Ital­ian words at the top, Alle­gro, Andante, etc. , have already lost their meaning!

Leopold Mozart, Vio­lin Trea­tise, 1756

We can see this loss of pre­ci­sion in var­i­ous doc­u­ments dis­cussing the Ada­gio in the mid-18th cen­tu­ry. The Quantz Trea­tise on Flute Play­ing of 1752 gives Ada­gio as quar­ter note = 40, which is slow­er than most per­for­mances today. Indeed Quantz advis­es that prob­a­bly one should con­duct the eighth-note at this tem­po. At the same time, Mozart uses the word “Ada­gio” with­out mean­ing any spe­cif­ic slow tem­po at all. Indeed, Mozart told his sis­ter that “nev­er in my life have I ever writ­ten a slow movement.”

And of course the metronome is a spe­cial prob­lem, a mechan­i­cal instru­ment far removed from the world of feel­ing. Beethoven, the first impor­tant com­pos­er who used his friend’s inven­tion observed,

Yes, it is a help­ful instru­ment, but only for the first cou­ple of mea­sures. After that, feel­ing has its own tempo.”

That is some­thing we all do in our per­for­mance, but no school teach­es the prin­ci­ples of the rela­tion­ship between feel­ing and tem­po as a major ele­ment of performance.

And final­ly, we ignore the audi­ence entire­ly, the very peo­ple who under­stand by nature that music is for the ear! One per­son observed that since we teach music for the eye, per­haps we should for­get per­for­mance and just hand out copies of the score to the audience.