Essential skills for promoting a lifelong love
The question of what we mean by musical "skill" fascinates me, so I was delighted to be asked to contribute to this worthy series. Certainly, essential skills--substantial skills for a lifetime--are what we genuinely hope to impart as teachers. Yet, it's all too possible for a student to learn one piece after the other for years and not really develop essential skills in the process.
What should we be looking for? If we see a high school clarinetist marching smartly up and down the football field in perfect cadence with the others in her prize-winning band, never missing a note in the tricky arrangement, what skills has she acquired? It's hard to tell. She may be responding wholeheartedly to music and all its vital elements. Or she may find if she goes to college and majors in music, that she can't actually figure out rhythms on her own, or sing, improvise, play or move expressively. And some high school players, as we know, pack up the horn on graduation day never to play it again.
Often, at pedagogy conferences, we witness prodigiously talented fourteen-year-olds taking a master lesson in huge pieces like Prokofiev sonatas or Chopin scherzos. Their achievement is awesome. But sometimes, even though the teacher's suggestions are inspiring, inviting, encouraging and clearly intended to engage the student's imagination, the student--after listening dutifully--proceeds to play with precisely the same inflections as before. And those inflections are beginning to seem a bit too programmed. What skills are in evidence--and not in evidence?
Or consider the college piano student, carefully groomed to taper each Mozartean phrase just so, and deliver sharp accents in Bartok. What skills does he have? Might he be primarily an accomplished mimic, Faithfully cloning the teacher's interpretation, the teacher's musical instinct? Or is his own creative self, blossoming, maturing, finding an authentic voice?
One way to look at this issue is to delineate two categories of skills. I've often described these as "outer" and "inner" skills, and they complement each other beautifully. (1) Competencies such as singing on pitch, counting rhythms accurately, understanding the basics of style and developing finger technique ("outer skills") are essential, to be sure. And satisfying to master, too! But so are the profoundly rewarding, if harder to define, "inner skills"--playing from the heart, enjoying rhythmic vitality with the whole body, expressing and creating and truly speaking the spontaneous language of music. These skills give joy to the performer and the audience, and evince a deep connection to music and its elements.
Ability to Work Creatively--Improvise, Compose, Harmonize and Play by Ear
Importance: These are all ways to make music our own and share the impulse with others--not on stage, but in more "everyday" settings. Obviously, the four creative skills mentioned here all deserve a much more thorough discussion than we can attempt in this article, but we can touch briefly on each.
Solo improvisation can be as immediate and truthful as musical expression ever gets--"What feelings are occurring within me right this moment? And how are they evolving in the next few moments?" There's no need for judgment, and no comparison with anyone else. Sometimes improvisation focuses less on feelings and more on the lively imagination itself, given free rein to roam, make up stories, try new things. In any case, improvisation is fun, flowing, healthy, even cathartic. An interesting benefit is that improvisers who really are "getting into it" tend to produce tones of remarkable color and variety--a "connected" sort of tone. As Stephen Nachmanovitch sums tip the dynamic quality of improvisation in his compelling book Free Play, "The noun of self becomes a verb." (2)
Group improvisation ranks among the purest delights music can offer. If you are in a drumming circle and, after some experimentation, the group somehow comes up with a rich, funky, humorous rhythmic groove that none of you thought of individually (but all contributed to), the genuine belly laugh you share afterward is richly fulfilling. According to Nachmanovitch, Leonardo da Vinci kept his creativity stimulated through group improvisation with his friends--they liked to make tip fanciful operas and sing all the parts. (3)
Composing is creating in a more thought-out way--making a structured statement in the language of music. When composing, we can revise, plan, construct and manipulate musical elements in original ways. One of the most impressive ways in which piano teaching has improved in recent years is the greatly increasing numbers of teachers who routinely integrate composing into the musical journey of all their students. This wise approach was practically unknown when I was a child.
Harmonizing and playing by ear are functional and extremely useful "outer skills." Can every piano performance major in college sit down at a party and improvise a confident rendition of Happy Birthday to You, with all the right chords? People expect them to be able to do this, and they are quite right to expect it. if diligent music majors can't utilize a basic skill to share a familiar song with others, then what exactly are they learning in school?
Suggestions: Even though we know it's essential to improvise, the very word "improvisation" can cause the chill of fear to grip our chests; what if we embarrass ourselves in front of others by fumbling badly or drawing a blank? One technique that helped me improvise more comfortably came from the remarkable grassroots organization Music for People, whose workshops I heartily recommend. I call this "Atonal Improvisation" and have had a wonderful time passing it on to students and fellow teachers. The only ground rule? NO TRIADS--at least no polite diatonic ones like A minor or G major. Only dissonance is allowed, and the more random the better. We don't want wrong-note anxiety to be the bugaboo.
A simple format for implementing atonal improvisation at the piano is Ostinato/Solo. Sit with your student duet-style, with the student in the treble. Start the "ostinato"--some sort of atmospheric (dissonant) soundscape, with repetitive patterns. Perhaps a moody underwater one--think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with creepy overlapping harmonies and lots of mushy pedal. The student listens for a bit and then adds, expressively, an atonal, free solo. Just about any notes will sound good, if imagination and spirit are there. Do not comment or evaluate at all; just delve into the feeling. Create a nice ending together, share a good laugh and say, "Let's try something different!" Now it's a spiky, aggressive bunch of syncopated staccatos, jazz, Fast and crazy. The student senses this different energy and jumps in. Afterwards, you can reverse roles, with the student making up the ostinato and the mood--and there has to be a mood, not just random abstract patterns. Exercises like these are fun, vanquish the fear and thus make later "tonal" improvisations easier to try.
Playing by ear--finding chord structures readily--is tricky to teach, I find. Some people seem to have known from birth how to do this, while others are mystified. Those who do have the knack aren't always clear about how they do it, and this makes it hard to explain to others. I did have good hick recently, though, with a graduate student who was highly motivated to improve at keyboard harmony; he didn't trust his ear and would panic when he had to find chords. Here's what we did: the idea was to take one song, a familiar one that moves nicely through the basic chords, and become really fluent in it. We chose that old cowboy standby Red River Valley, and it served us very well. It has a satisfying harmonic sequence with just enough movement: