Growing Music Naturally
 

MUSIC AND MEANING

in Resurgence 

COLOURFUL LEARNING

 MICHAEL MAXWELL STEER

The broader cultural situation has changed dramatically over the last half century, and while classroom music teaching has largely adapted to this, instrumental teaching remains for the most part rooted within the limited horizons of an exam-defined world which does little to promote autonomous musical creativity. But there are valuable ways to build self-esteem and motivate pupils while helping them to read music. 

Nature provides pretty immediate feedback on the environment the horticulturalist creates, making it easy to agree on the best way of raising plants. With children the issues of learning music are a lot more complex, but not fundamentally much different. During the seventeen years I taught at the Junior Royal College of Music, I came progressively to feel that the system of the conservatoire pedagogy harmed as many students as it helped. And so, in 1991, I resigned from the world of ‘establishment musicianship’.

Subsequently I became a private piano teacher in Wiltshire. I soon realised that it gave me an ideal environment to explore ideas of ‘child-centred music learning’. Advertising that I taught without exams, I attracted a self-renewing bunch of really interesting parents, some of whom come long distances simply in order to find an alternative to the ‘Associated Bored’. When I mention an exam-free environment, conventional piano teachers reply “if only!” The pressure for exams largely comes from pushy parents, but also from schools, where results are a prized commodity.

Making bi-annual concerts my principal focus, I quickly realised that their effect could be enhanced by filming them, so I began to compile video portfolios of each pupil’s progress for their families. Within the last two years I have begun uploading the concerts to YouTube – the positive effects have been tremendous, especially on the self-esteem of the young performers which, for teenagers, is often fragile. The ability for their friends to google them delivers big time. When selecting repertoire for students, at the back of my mind is the thought that whatever kids learn must work for them in the playground. Put another way, motivation is kept high by ensuring that what they learn delivers street cred: this doesn’t just mean fashion, it means acquiring a skill which their peers can respect, and a lot of that comes down to ensuring what that they learn includes music that is relevant to their cultural background.

There is a further very important aspect to this. The grade system constantly requires young players to learn unfamiliar music which, in the case of mainstream classical music becomes increasingly abstract as technical demands increase. In my experience 80% of children simply don’t relate to the rhythmic/harmonic subtlety of music from the classical era. Familiarity is a vital ingredient to maintaining enthusiasm. This is conferred as much by style as by melody. For instance, the idiom of the Blues is instantly familiar, and indeed I believe that the twelve bar pattern is now forming the birthright of almost any musician today. I joke that to my pupils ‘early music’ means anything before the Beatles – except that it isn't a joke, it’s true!

The second advantage of videoed concerts is the facility it gives pupils to review their own performance objectively. OK, they don’t want to be confronted with the difference between what they hoped for and what they actually achieved, but the fact they and I both know, and know that we both know, exactly what happened (unlike an exam, where I cede my personal connection to a stranger) makes a solid emotional platform for discussion of future plans. An example occurred when a talented fifteen year old was playing a Haydn concerto from memory, with myself on a second piano. He took a ‘wrong turning’ in a passage very similar to an earlier one. Naturally it was upsetting for him, but in a supportive environment where it was ‘safe’ to fail he bounced back far quicker, and without any lasting psychological damage. Whereas in a competition or exam the additional, and in my view spurious, judgmental layer often serves to build in longer term psychosomatic problems which may manifest as performance nerves or tendonitis.

This leads to a third advantage. I believe with all my heart that music is about community above all. A mantra of mine is that “music is not the sound you hear, it’s the emotional experience the sounds trigger”. In other words, music is not a product, it’s a process. Even in the age of the iPod, I argue that what discrete listeners are hooked on is the sense of community which their choice of music evokes. The question I therefore pose is: what gives the most constructive message to neophyte musicians – performing for friends and family in a warm and supportive environment, or going into a room with a total stranger to be judged?

With these ideas as the backbone of my teaching method, it was natural that I would attract quite a lot of children whom conventional piano teaching had failed. In 2001, I was teaching a boy with considerable learning difficulties. At that point, the computer music program I use, Logic, brought in coloured noteheads – several years before its competitors. So I colourised this boy’s music as an experiment – and the pace of his development improved markedly.

Thereupon I colourised all my teaching music, and the effect on beginners was instantaneous. It simply abolished music reading difficulties. In the intervening years I've used it with around 100 children, constantly refining aspects of presentation. Having taught beginners for many years using black notation, I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in progress since changing over: with coloured notes all age-groups can read music immediately.

Beginners usually find time values easy enough because the head/tail shapes are reasonably distinct, but most have difficulty distinguishing pitch: a surprising number of all ages find it hard to perceive lines and spaces as next-door notes. With coloured noteheads learners need only read the correct colour and hey presto! Recent research has shown that the brain processes colour and shape in separate areas, and thus colour recognition bypasses the need for decoding complex information from a single colour. Nevertheless, there remains an advantage in having the stave-lines present from the beginning ‘as part of the furniture’ since the appearance of the printed page doesn’t alter when the student finally progresses to black notation. In 2007, I decided to publish the method as ColourMuse – now available from http://colourmuse.com.

From observing the difference in young beginners’ responses both to black and coloured notation I conclude that what we generally call dyslexia is almost a normal condition in under-eights. The difficulty in decoding a set of monochrome symbols links, I believe, to difficulties most beginners have with addressing a specific hand or finger. I’ve come to see this simply as a perfectly normal stage in the brain’s development, whereby reading difficulties are part of an overall problem with a child learning to prioritise stimuli. By reducing the density of black information for beginners the whole process of brain-hand coordination seems to develop faster. Even with able children coloured notes accelerate the prioritisation of both visual and ‘handed’ information much better than black.

The goal of child-centred teaching is to create a virtuous circle where pupils’ enjoyment of what they’re playing feeds back directly into enthusiasm and faster progress. I incorporate selected compositions by my own students. These have a unique advantage over adult-composed music in that they're simple but just quirky enough to capture the interest of kids of the same ability level, and because the way children ‘compose’ for their own skill-set involves a perspective that an adult can't enter. It is the difference between someone looking up a mountain as they start to climb, and someone else looking down from the top. For new learners to see other little faces like their own above the music creates instant identification, and encourages them to think that their own creative impulses will receive a response.

 

The role of a teacher is like that of the sweeper in ice curling, clearing obstacles from the path of the puck. By constant modification I have created a learning curve which children find both smooth and natural. I am fortunate position of being answerable to noone but them and their parents, and I lament the restrictive environment in mainstream music education where personal experimentation of such slow and evolutionary character would be all but impossible. Having evolved this particular approach doesn’t mean I don’t see the merit in other approaches, but I remain a severe critic of the current ‘examinitis’ mania – which seems to me the antithesis of growing music naturally. Does nature examine? No, it grows organically and evolves as it does so. It is intellectualism that examines and tries to control the outcome.

My experience of teaching adolescents suggests that in an over-tested academic environment what they need from music is a ‘rumpus room’, by which I mean a space for autonomous experimentation. In terms of developing a whole and healthy personality, structured music learning can assist the process of personality-evolution. Introduce exams and immediately you deprive the learner of the essential autonomy which validates their emerging adulthood. Fine if they choose it, but a real alternative to exams should be offered within an educational context. Too often in most school circumstances the cachet of any exam pass means they're perceived as the ‘high road’ – and thus teachers themselves gain higher status by schlepping kids through exams rather than encouraging them to take a ‘scenic route’.

What is the great appeal of indie rock? Adults can't control it! How much more constructive it would be if the energy adolescents put into defining their personality in opposition to curriculum-driven norms were integrated into ‘the house of learning’ by basing the approach on empowering students’ own choices of repertoire selection. The music of the Italian minimalist Ludovico Einaudi is hugely popular with nearly all teenagers, but you won't find it on any exam syllabus.

Aren’t music exams a particularly ‘ice-race’ concept? What price an exam in Reggae?

What are we actually measuring in a music exam? To examine something implies that it is – if not dead – at least in no position to answer back! But music is about answering back – engaging our own personalities in its expression. When youngsters discover the burden of tradition art music expects them to shoulder, who can blame them for deserting it for genres which not only communicate directly with their peers, but where their own personalities count for something? Why was American art music so fresh in the early 20th Century, Ives, Gershwin et al? Because they didn’t have the inihibiting weight of European tradition prescribing what was/n’t acceptable.

A full answer to what constitutes ‘growing music naturally’ depends on its cultural context. But one component must be that the seed that is planted should always be relevant to the emotional development of the individual, and the way in which it is grown should respect their cultural environment – albeit not necessarily surrendering to it!

In addressing professional colleagues I like to remind them of a Music Industries Association report stating that a million guitars were sold in the UK in 2005. Evidence of a dynamic and thriving musical culture. It also reported that 50% of British men claim to play guitar at some level. What proportion of them, I ask gatherings of piano teachers, have ever learnt with a formal teacher? And of them what proportion took grade exams? We don’t know answers to either question, but I would hazard that the highest possible answer to the first question would be 20% with, at most, 25% to the second. My point to colleagues is that this is the way music grows naturally. Some of the players’ techniques may be ‘right’, a lot are probably ‘wrong’; but in the end technique is as technique does. We in the piano world are so hung up on the ‘heritage aesthetics’ that we tend to put technique ahead of almost everything else.

What we need to do as teachers is to help young learners acquire a technique which matches the demands of the music they want to play and its stylistic requirements, and is in proportion to their ability trajectory. Whatever feels ‘natural’ for them is good, because that helps them to a sense of ownership of their talents. And that in turn feeds their motivation. Where I feel much conventional piano teaching fails is that a lot of the syllabus that students are forced to learn in order to pass grade exams is simply irrelevant to someone who has no intention of being a concert, or even a classical, pianist. The result of being obliged to learn abstract things which seem to have no vernacular relevance is demotivated students; and a demotivated student rapidly becomes an ex-student. The benefit of having a relationship with families unmediated by an institution is the direct feedback it gives. I can ensure that all my customers are satisfied without bothering whether some educrat (dis)approves of what I'm doing.

Perhaps in the great scheme of things one pupil more or less doesn’t matter? Yet I think it does! The profound inner connection that music enables for me when, for instance, I'm playing a Bach prelude and fugue gives not just a refreshment of spirit, and an escape from the inevitable pressures of life but also creates an open-head-space where left-field solutions or ideas enter in my mind spontaneously. That is the kind of richness I hope a significant proportion of my pupils may find in later life, if I am creating the right conditions for them to grow into music naturally. •

Michael Maxwell Steer’s career as a broadcast composer /producer /writer included many original programmes for BBCr3. Since 1994 he has lived and taught in Tisbury, Wiltshire, where he recently created the succesful Nadder Music Café, an informal intercultural concert series. Between 2001-07 he coordinated the Big Green Gathering’s Ethics/Spirituality/Philosophy Field.

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