Polyphony: the rhythm of musical development

Polyphony: the rhythm of musical developmentThe teaching year has an unmistakable rhythm to it as we come to a junction where students suddenly seem to perform with more depth and sensitivity and deeper musical insight.

Whitehead and the Stages of Romance, Precision and Generalization

In the 1920s, British mathematician and educator Alfred North Whitehead wrote an essay titled "The Rhythm of Education," in which he discussed the progression of a student in a formal learning situation. (1) He speaks of the stages of romance, precision and generalization as means to acquire knowledge as a kind of a rhythmic progression. Whitehead describes the romance stage as the initial time when the subject matter is vivid, exciting, entrenching. It becomes so fascinating that the student cannot stop thinking about it and perhaps becomes obsessed with the topic. Hopefully, we all have experienced this student. In this romance stage, the student, who's sometimes a beginner, only wants to play and make music and learn all she can about this fascinating subject.

The next stage is precision--where a student learns the mechanics of the subject--in this case, the technique and mechanics of playing an instrument or singing. Benjamin Bloom describes precision as "... the stage of technical mastery. It is learning the rules and the exceptions of the language of the field. It is coming to terms with the discipline at its current level of evolution.

For the musician, it is a stage marked by detailed music practice and attention to detail. This probably is a time when technique is developed in detail and depth and where repertoire and physical playing skills are built.

Whitehead describes the final stage as generalization, during which the individual returns to the stage of romance, but now with the experience of the depth and synthesis that come from the period of precision. The individual is able to apply techniques and insights gained from prior study to a larger picture. It could be for musicians, a time when they are aware of style, performance practice and sound ideals for much of their own literature, as well as of subtleties in individual performances; here, they can generalize with depth and renewed meaning.

Stages of Development

Many teachers can see this in their work with students. Bloom, in his book Developing Talent in Young People, talked with twenty-four American concert pianists under age 40. Bloom says highly accomplished pianists move through three phases of learning during their growth as musicians and pianists, similar to those stages outlined by Whitehead. Bloom found the early years of study were playful and filled with excitement, yet carefully planned and structured. The student often is caught up in the excitement; learning was enjoyable, and activities provided "surprising rewards and continuous excitement or challenge. The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated and hooked and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise." (3) Often, first lessons were filled with positive reinforcement, as the student explored possibilities and engaged in a wide variety of activities. This was a time for developing a routine--lessons and practice were integrated as a natural part of life. Bloom stated that it is important for all pianists to go through this phase of romance with music study.

Bloom's second stage parallels Whitehead's stage of precision, where the pianist spends much time on details. Knowledgeable criticism from teachers and juries of musicians became as rewarding as applause and adulation had been earlier. Here, pianists came to understand that music could be studied. Recitals, competitions, performances became more frequent and important. For many of those interviewed, the lessons changed dramatically during this time. Instruction became more rational and less formal and personal. Technical skills and vocabulary became the core of the lessons. Objective measures--results of adjudications and competitions--provided means of planning subsequent instruction. Often, the problems to be solved by the pianists were determined by the teacher during the lesson. In this stage of precision, pianists are encouraged to develop "skills, a sense of competence and an identity as musicians ..." (4)

Finally, Whitehead stated that the age of generalization "is the stage of shedding details in favour of the active application of principles, the details retreating into subconscious habits." (5) His stage of generalization is depicted by Bloom's third phase of learning applied to concert pianists, during which the emphasis is on creativity, individuality and making music personal. At this point the pianist begins to bring some nature and synthesis to the musical experience and interpretation. Bloom states that the process from technical precision to personal expression sometimes was gradual and sometimes was abrupt. (6) Teachers impressed upon students here that no two musicians should ever play a piece the same way. Even more time than before was spent working at and thinking about music. Pianists made personal decisions about expression and interpretation based on technical knowledge, historical understanding and deep and close personal associations with other musicians. Eventually, they reached the point where they became their own critics and developed personal musical styles. (7)

Several issues stand out from this discussion. A central point concerning pianists is that they and other experts mirrored the learning phases of Whitehead. With prompting, guidance, encouragement, support and structure from parents and teachers, most seemed to have easily moved through the three learning phases. They did so at different rates and in very different ways, but without too many long pauses or discontinuities.

However, several pianists did not move easily. One pianist who had been studying music arduously needed to go back and have fun with it before he could really begin the process of successful learning. (8) Another pianist spent about nine years in the precision stage after four years of romance. He had grown quite weary of this and was looking forward to giving up piano lessons until he began studying with a new teacher during his senior year in high school. (9)

Learning theorists and psychologists believe these phases may very well be logically necessary. What can be gained from each phase seems to be a prerequisite for being able to make the most of the subsequent phase.

Robert Duke's Application to the Private Lesson

Robert Duke has applied Whitehead's process to the private music lesson. In a summary of Duke's comments on teaching to attendees at the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy in 1990, Joyce Cameron describes Duke's belief that many music teachers allow a very short stage of romance followed by a very long stage of precision and then move on to a brief stage of generalization. (10) Duke believes that perhaps an ideal lesson is one with "lots of romanticisms, and then quick precisions, and then generalizations, and then another romanticism, and then some more little precisions, and then generalizations again." (11) In other words, ideally, each lesson would cycle repeatedly through the romance, precision and generalization stages. Duke reminds teachers that students need to feel a sense of accomplishment and encourages teachers not to get too involved in a student's precision stage at the wrong time.

The Rhythm of the Academic Year

Students now, perhaps, are entering a time of generalization for the teaching year. Many are in the final stages of recital or other performance preparation. This is when things come together, the performer feels free to create her own performance, in the moment, and feels confident doing so. The performer here displays the results of the stage of precision that may have developed earlier in the year and now is performing with newly added depth and maturity. And so the cycle repeats itself even during the teaching year.

In conclusion, it seems clear that Whitehead's stages and the concept of growth in phases, in many ways pervade much of our lives. The concept is not new, for there are many theories of development and growth.