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Archive for March, 2012

When I began studying music it was all a mystery.  All the notes seemed to be fixed and I couldn’t change them.  This was reinforced to my uneducated mind through the mistakes I made.  Whenever I played a note that wasn’t notated on the page it sounded terrible.  I assumed that any note beyond the notation was wrong.

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I thought it was like the story I read of a famous sculptor who was asked how he would sculpt an elephant.  The sculptor said it was easy.  All I do is eliminate everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.  I assumed music worked the same way.  To play Yankee Doodle all I needed to do is eliminate every note that wasn’t Yankee Doodle.

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There is a principle in teaching that instructs the teacher — GO FROM THE KNOWN TO THE UNKNOWN.  It was obvious from my childhood assumptions above that there was a great deal of the UNKNOWN in my musical education.  I remember that experience and assume the same process is going on in my student’s minds as they begin their piano instruction.  My goal was to help my students not fall into the trap and limitations of holding on to the assumptions I had as a young student that were limiting at best and downright wrong at worst.

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There are many ways I do that in my teaching but today I want to focus on only one of them.  I’ve made several anthologies of “classical music” for my students.  In several of the compositions I took some of the major ideas employed by the composer and applied it to a common folk song.  If a composer uses imitation in a composition I take a folk song and arrange it using the same type of imitation.  If a composer uses syncopation I take a folk song and apply syncopation within the arrangement.  When the young music student compares the similarity between the classical composition and the folk song; what is unknown becomes known.

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This method of learning helps the student understand far better than just giving a text book definition of imitation or syncopation.  Let’s take a couple examples to demonstrate using this method in applying the principle of going from the UNKNOWN TO THE KNOWN.

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Here is a popular teaching piece by Kabalevsky – Chit Chat.  The piece is a simple piece of imitation; a measure is first played by the left hand and is directly imitated by the right hand in the following measure.

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I always mention to students that imitation is something they are going to find very common in the music they will study.  It will enter into their compositions in many different and creative ways.  I use this piece as my “entry level” piece to teach the concept of musical imitation.

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This little arrangement of Are You Sleeping?  uses the same imitation technique as Chit Chat by Kabalevsky.  To add a little variety and to give students another example I created a variation on the Are You Sleeping? theme.

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Using this method helps students become aware of how a composer can use an idea like imitation to create a composition.  For teachers who teach composition this is a good simple technique that can be used to guide students to make their compositions more interesting.

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The page on the left is another way to reinforce the concept of imitation.  The student is given the major phrases of the folk song Three Blind Mice.  The student is given two measures to write out the imitation.

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The teacher may certainly aid the student in helping him write out the imitation but most students do rather well in understanding the assignment and knowing what to do to fulfill the requirements.

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A good piece to introduce students to syncopation is Morning Greeting by Gurlitt.

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The same syncopation is repeated throughout the piece.  Also, there is always a chord to play on beat one to help the student feel/create the feel of the syncopation.

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To reinforce the concept of syncopation to the student I created an arrangement of the popular folk song Cockles and Mussels.  I used Cockles and Mussels because it also could be syncopated with the same rhythmic arrangement of notes as Gurlitt’s Morning Greeting.

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The pedagogical use for the Ecossaise in G major by Schubert is that it is one of the few pieces that uses root position dominant 7th chords.  Root position 7th chords makes a perfect springboard for the introduction of teaching 7th chords.

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To compliment the Ecossaise in G I took the old madrigal Now is the Month of Maying by Thomas Morley and arranged it with several root position dominant 7th chords.  Again, when students get an opportunity to see the similarity between the two compositions the student grows in understanding that music follows rules and traditions.  When students are made aware of these rules and traditions their understanding and assimilation of their repertoire will be facilitated.

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Finally, I would like to explain my way of helping students experience the common practice of changing from a major mode to the parallel minor.  Kabalevsky makes use of this technique in a piece he wrote called The Little March.  The first phrase is in C major and the second phrase repeats the same material in C minor.

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To further the students understanding of the changing from major to minor I took the popular folk song Shortnin’ Bread.  Through the little arrangement I alter the mode of the phrases going from major to minor.  Being that most students are familiar with Shortnin’ Bread they can more easily discern the dramatic difference that this change of mode creates.

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Using folk songs in this way has been a great way to teach my students the great musical tradition we follow.  It has been one of the major ways I use to help my students go from the UNKNOWN and make it KNOWN by going from the KNOWN (folk songs) and showing the connection it can have to the UNKNOWN (our musical tradition).

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This handy little chart defines the task of a music teacher quite well.  I would like to comment on the major points.
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MUSIC IS A SCIENCE:  We live in an age that has seen giant strides because of scientific discovery.  That sense of scientific discovery is also a very handy tool in teaching music to students.  For example, the piano is an instrument that takes full advantage of the “overtone series”.  This scientific idea is a part of our natural world.  I demonstrate how a fundamental low bass tone “sensitizes” other notes above that fundamental tone.  These tones are “sensitized”  WITHOUT EVEN PLAYING THOSE TONES.  The notes they sensitize are the notes of the major chord from this fundamental tone.  This little exercise puts the student in direct touch with natural world itself.  Students discover, through this little scientific experiment, that music is part of nature itself.  It opens their world to see what they are doing in their music is touching on the the pulse of nature and in fact, the whole universe.  Music is a cosmic activity!
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MUSIC IS MATHEMATICS:  There are so many ways in which music is mathematical.  The natural pulse in music divides most commonly in twos and threes. It is my starting point for teaching the mathematics of music.  From the very beginning I emphasize the feeling of the strong beat in a musical pulse.  After the strong beat is easily discerned we can move on, in a rather scientific manner, to our discussion of the weak beats that are found in music.  This directly leads to meter in music and duple meter (such as 2/4) and triple meter (such as 3/4).  The nice thing about music being mathematical is that the teacher can present the musical material in a very logical systematic and “scientific” manner, relating back to our first point.  Most students are fascinated by the logical and mathematical ways in which music can be understood.
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MUSIC IS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE:  I personally think that it would be better to say simply that MUSIC IS A LANGUAGE.  I think mathematics can be also said to be a language, too.  It can express things that words cannot.  Music is no different as it expresses things words cannot.  Music can even express things that even math cannot.  Again, MUSIC AS LANGUAGE can be approached from a myriad of different ways.  The language of “major” and “minor” opens up many possibilities.  As the poster alludes, music comes from many cultures. Just as each language has its unique sound, the music from each culture has its unique sound.  An Irish Jig sounds different from an Italian Tarantella, even though they often share the same meter. A Polish Mazurka sounds very different from a Viennese Waltz, even though they share a common triple meter.  Music puts a student on a journey that traverses the world.  Music is a language we can share and learn from others even though we may not understand a word of their native language.
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MUSIC IS PHYSICAL EDUCATION:  Learning a musical instrument takes intense physical training.  I will often draw a student’s attention to new born children.  When we observe them we notice, as they lie on their back, they are full of activity, especially the kicking of their legs.  This constant kicking of their legs strengthens them for the eventual task of learning to crawl.  When they learn to crawl on all fours their arms become stronger.  In time they can use the strength of their arms to become upright; yet their legs are not yet strong enough to walk.  But in time they can make their first step. then two. Then comes the magic day when they can walk.  But they are not done.  Eventually they run, skip and even jump.
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When students show me their first creations at the piano I always give them the praise they deserve.  But when we begin working on proper technique I say their finger movement reminds me of the kicking of that newborn child.  They have to go through many steps of training to eventually get to the place where they can run.  This is a journey that takes time, and just like that newborn they keep on moving forward until they could eventually run, if they go through all the steps of the process, they will eventually run too.
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MOST OF ALL MUSIC IS ART:  Even though music is a very scientific and mathematical venture, even though its a journey that is as exciting as learning how to run; the reason for learning a musical instrument is because of the challenge it brings to the imagination.  The challenge of learning to become artistic.  One of the best ways I found to get across the concept of art, artistry or becoming artistic is through stories and poems.
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I give the student two examples.
 
ONE …
I almost fell asleep one night
While reading some books.
But an old bird woke me up
By pecking on my door.
It was winter.
 
TWO:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door
Only this, and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
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Both examples describe the same incident.  The first is very plain.  You may even think “so what“!  The second example stimulates your imagination and brings you into the story.  You can see it, you can almost hear the tapping of the raven, you begin to imagine the furnishings of the room, you experience your feelings of a dark winter’s night when you’re all alone.   This stimulation of the imagination is what makes this poem — art.  When we play a good piece of music we should be inspired to imbue the notes with meaning and tell the story or express the feelings that the notes bring to your imagination.  Art is the communication of imagination to imagination.
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The most joyful aspect of teaching music is giving students the tools and means to communicate imagination to imagination through the media of music.  This can be said no better than in this poem by Franz von Schober.  It was beautifully set to music as an art song by Franz Schubert.
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TO MUSIC
by Franz von Schober
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Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!
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How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!

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