Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

Archive for August, 2010

Six ways music teachers can encourage creative musical expression

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 23, 2010

1. Make time for creativity – Learning takes time and so does learning to be creative. Students are not always open to leaving the printed page, especially if their lessons have always been “by the book”. Have patience and offer plenty of praise for their effort (pat yourself on the back, too). Think of including creativity as a long-term goal, not the subject of a single music lesson.

2. Be Playful – Playing is different than practicing! When children play, often they are experimenting, testing scenarios, engaging in “what if?” thinking. This can be done with music as well. Instead of being focused on the final result, let students see what happens to a phrase when played with different rhythms or styles. Let them explore the possibilities or even compose an alternate ending.

3. Focus on sound – Sometimes it’s easy to get into a rut of relying too much on the notes on the page. Encourage students to listen to themselves, to hear the intervals and the rhythmic patterns. You could record them and then let them listen to themselves. Or have them close their eyes and listen as you play an excerpt. Afterward, talk about the sound together. It can be quite challenging to talk about sound at first, but it gets easier through practice.

4. Give students the freedom to make mistakes – Students afraid of failure will not take risks. Yet risk-taking is essential to getting beyond what you know and can do right now. It is important for teachers to provide a sense of “safety” during lessons so that the fear of making mistakes is lessened. I have known teachers who celebrated mistakes because they could use that information to plan the next steps—for them, a mistake is an expected part of the learning process!

5. Set the example – Teachers can lead the way toward creative musical expression by trying new things in the studio, like improvising with students! The goal is not to do it right the first time: it is to discover something new about music, about yourself, about the way you learn!

6. Be open to all kinds of musical expression – Students will often oversome significant barriers to learning when they realize they can be themselves . One way teachers can make students feel safe or special is to ask them about the types of music they enjoy listening to at home. Let them use their i-pod or mp3 player to share one of their favorite songs with you. This can be a great starting point for improvising together

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Choosing your pathway to musical expression

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 9, 2010

There are many ways music can be learned: through books, through imitation, and by ear, all with or without a teacher. A successful musician might start off using any one of these approaches but at some point, teacher guidance and focused study plays an important role for most students. Before selecting a teacher, it can be useful to know about some of the approaches they may use.

There are essentially three approaches:

  • Traditional – book based, with emphasis on reading music.
  • Rote – visually-based, with emphasis on copying.
  • Ear-training – sound-based, with emphasis on developing musicality

Teachers may use a combination of these as well. Although I have my own preferences, overall I recommend finding a teacher that recognizes your strengths and is willing to work with them.

More on each method:

A traditional method will provide a foundation in music notation and theory: many teachers prefer this route . It is a text-based learning method, using a written system of symbols that must be interpreted. Learning to interpret musical notation takes years, and there is no guarantee that knowledge of music will make you a good performer of music. But this approach does provide a clear way to communicate and record progress.

  • Pros: Students will understand standard musical terms and notation, be able to talk about music easily with others
  • Cons: Students may be bored playing simple, unfamiliar songs; they may be unable to perform without a book

Learning by rote is a fast way to move toward actually playing, especially with songs that are familiar. This method is greatly preferred by children, who often watch their friends or siblings play a song so many times that they figure it out for themselves. You-tube videos are also a primary source for kids who want to learn particular songs. Kids will carefully observe the placement of the performer’s hands on the keyboard, often watching over and over, and then mimic with great accuracy songs that would be very difficult to read out of a book. Having a patient teachers provides an extra advantage for getting tips on proper fingering and rhythm.

  • Pros: Students learn more difficult songs they really enjoy playing before they are even able to read music.
  • Cons: Students don’t always play with understanding and they may not be able to transfer what they learned to other songs.

Learning by ear is what happens when the student figures out the notes to a song purely by sound, with no visual model (such as a friend to play it for them first). The student perceives different pitches and then finds them on the instrument, playing the notes in the order he hears them and according to the rhythmic pattern he discerns. It is a slower process at first, but a very intimate one. Students who learn this way tend to know why they are playing certain keys on the keyboard and eventually become very quick absorbers of new songs. Like the rote- learners, music is always memorized. But the advantage for ear-players is that if a song is forgotten it is easily relearned.

  • Pros: Students able to learn many songs and play fluidly
  • Cons: Student may resist learning to read music

Each of these methods will allow students to express themselves musically, although some are better suited for  certain applications.

  • If you want to play in orchestra, you need to read music.
  • If you play in a garage band, no music books are necessary but a good ear is very helpful.
  • If you play in three piece jazz band, you may be glancing at pages of a fakebook that contain only words and chords—the best players will have a strong foundation in music theory.
  • If you play solo, you can pretty much do whatever you want!

As a teacher, I have used all these approaches at one point or another to prepare my students to express themselves musically. I am not hung up on one method. But I will say that the main ingredient in any musical program, for an adult or a child, is time and attention. To be good, musicians put in years of practice with attention to detail. That’s not bad news, though, because learning music can be a pleasure in itself.

Enjoy your journey!

Posted in Music Instruction, Parents, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Right to Play Music

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 3, 2010

Who should learn to play music? Do only the musically gifted deserve the opportunity to learn music and play publicly? Some music teachers conduct evaluations before accepting students, even at the elementary level. If the goal is to produce performers, then this makes sense. But for most people who study music, in the long run, the benefit will be mainly personal: playing for friends or self, or maybe in a local band. And studies have shown that there are both cognitive and emotional effects to playing music, so that tells me that everyone should have the chance learn how to express themselves through music.

How can we open the door for more people to participate in music? I follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Remove the goal of performing publicly or professionally—at least initially.
  2. Concentrate on enabling musical expression.

Even beginners can improvise after learning just a few notes and rhythm patterns. One of my favorite first activities with students is something I call “The One-Note Blues”: I provide the chord changes and they improvise on a single note that I assign. It helps students see how much can be done just with rhythm and attitude!

Of course gaining knowledge and skill is important—it certainly gives players more options as they create music. But depth of knowledge and refined skill is not a prerequisite to enjoying creative musical expression, even in the first days of learning.

Look for the video featuring the one-note blues in the weeks ahead!

Recommended Reading:

“The Child’s Right to the Expressive Arts: Nurturing the Imagination as Well as the Intellect”. Position paper of the Association for Childhood Education International, by Mary Rench Jalongo, Professor of Education, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana. 1990.

Related Links:

http://acei.org/action/acei-positions/positions-papers/

Posted in Parents, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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