September 2014

what I learned about teaching from a hamster...

September 24, 2014 16:53

A few days ago, my wife and I became the proud owners of a very adorable longhaired hamster, mostly not by choice. A neighbor knocked on our door and handed us a shoebox of the adorable but feisty creature, telling us she had too many animals and was looking for a nice home for this one. We said yes, even without having any idea what we were doing. I quickly became enchanted by how she looked up at me with big black eyes, her nose moving up and down rapidly as she explores her surroundings. We re-named her Hildegard, to honor the great medieval composer, artist, writer, and all around amazing, creative soul St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Anyway, it turns out that hamsters are nocturnal creatures, so her playful movements and insatiable curiosity subsides each morning, so she spends most of the time during the day curled up in a ball sleeping in the corner. A couple days ago, she did wake up in the middle of the day and start approaching her half-empty food dish. I lovingly gave her more food and was once again enthralled with her somewhat clumsy stretching as she then went for the water bowl. In a fit over how adorable this was, I reached my hand in the cage and tried to stroke her back. In a gesture that seems obvious in hindsight, she pushed my hand away and turned over. I tried to rub her belly, and then – ouch! The cute fur ball, named for a twelfth century nun bit my finger!

Now obviously, Hildegard was not being mean, and did not bite me out of maliciousness. I was bothering her when she wanted to go back to sleep, and she was trying to communicate this in the only way she knew how. If I had decided she was being “bad,” and that I had to punish her, it would have accomplished nothing but damaging the relationship and trust I was trying to build. I simply had to learn a new rule – don’t bother the hamster when she’s sleeping.

I mention this because it shows a very important principle I’m starting to realize in teaching – the importance of honoring a student’s perspective, and clear communication in the learning process. Just like my new hamster friend, children and adult beginners often have a better grasp on their abilities then we give them credit for. We ignore or stifle this ingrained ability at our (and our student’s) peril.

The goal of teaching is not to break down a student and recast him or her in my own image, but rather, to be a guide, helping them walk down a path in such a way they recognize that they have really made it this far by themselves, not because I carried them. I, as a teacher, don’t want to be viewed as above my students, but rather, I want to listen to you carefully, honoring and shaping your own intelligence and creativity to do what makes sense to you.

I remember as a young beginner sometimes seeing my teachers as these god-like “experts” who would tell me everything I had to do to achieve mastery, but I quickly realized that the majority of how I made progress was actually up to me. Simply being told how to hold the bow or what notes to play was not enough, I had to spend hours practicing, and figure things out for myself. I needed the guidance of someone more experienced then me, but I also needed space to struggle through music on my own, so the knowledge became my own, not only my teachers. I would not have stayed in music if I was primarily externally motivated (trying to please my parents or teachers), but I had to learn how to become internally motivated (doing music for my own sake, out of love for it.)

Thus, today, as a teacher, I consider it essential that I listen to my students. Different people have different tolerance levels, and I am continually trying to strike a balance so a student feels challenged, but not discouraged. This means cultivating a climate of mutual trust, being always open to feedback, free to move at the pace that works for you, discovering new ways of practicing and understanding a concept until it finally “clicks.” Particularly with younger students with short attention spans, I have discovered that little good comes out of forcing them to play a song or exercise “one more time” after it’s clear they’re bored and unable to concentrate on it anymore. Instead of berating their lack of discipline, I find it works far better to honor the cues they’re sending, tell to practice it this week, and go on to a new activity or song.

For this reason, I personally have no hard and fast rules for or against things like using tapes as temporary frets to let a student know where to put the fingers down. For some, it may get in the way of learning to find the correct pitch by ear, but for others, it can be extremely helpful in developing muscle memory to know where the fingers should go. Everyone learns a little bit differently, and my job is to respect that as I figure out what is the most helpful for the areas in which you need to grow. Just like in my budding relationship with Hildegard the hamster, methods will only take me so far. To truly be a part of the mentoring and empowering process of teaching, you must listen to the mind of the one being taught, and spend all your energy lighting their fire.

1 reply

4 Ways to Improvise

September 17, 2014 12:59

When I first walked down this path of using strings to create sound, I was unaware how versatile it could be, or how the same instrument could make me comfortable in a huge variety of settings. I have inserted my voice into all kinds of situations – sometimes projects involving many hours of rehearsal, and others involving street musicians I’ve never met before who simply see my case and say something like “Why don’t you join us, man?”

One thing I hear a lot from ethnomusicologists is that “music is not a universal language, but it is a universal phenomenon.” In other words, the same piece of music isn’t going to mean the same thing to everyone. Based on numerous, sometimes unknown and uncontrollable factors, the same song could sound scary to one person, sad to another, exciting to someone else, romantic to another person, and spiritual to yet another set of ears.

But not only can music be heard in a number of different ways, but it can also be made in a number of different ways. Playing with a string quartet and playing in a street jam session require different parts of the brain, and totally different approaches to knowing what notes make sense in a particular context. In the area of improvisation, there are a number of different ways to go about learning how to "jam" over a piece. I believe that to be truly proficient, all musicians should be pushed to be comfortable making music in all different ways possible.

There are, I think at least four ways to approach learning or creating a song, and all four can be jumping off points for improvisation. To help me keep things straight, I’ve decided to label each way of musical creation with the part of our bodies from which that way of playing originates. Of course, anyone playing will be using all these different parts all the time, but I feel that certain styles of creating music demand that one part gets more attention at certain times.

1) Playing by sight – reading what’s written on the page.

This the path emphasized by traditional Western music education, of reading sheet music. It is a valuable way of learning songs, but I would argue that it should not be the exclusive one. However, some people critical of Classical violin training scoff at the process of sight-reading, believing it is uncreative and a simple robotic bending to the will of a God-like composer. However, this is very much not the case. Sheet music provides a blueprint for a piece, but there is still a lot left up to the individual’s creative interpretation. A composer might want a song to sound soft in a particular section, so he or she will put a stylized “p” for piano under the staff. However, what does “soft” really mean? It’s up to the player to decide just how dramatic that “piano” should be emphasized. That’s just one of hundreds of decisions a player must make. So that's why Jascha Heifetz can sound so different from Hillary Hahn. And why, if you're classical trained and intimidated by the concept of "improvising," you're actually being more creative and spontaneous then you may realize.

2) Playing by ear – playing by hearing and imitation, learning a song the same way a growing child learns to speak language.

This is the primary way most of the world’s cultures learn their “folk songs,” as the song leader teaches others to join in through listening, imitation, and repetition. Once a tune has gotten so far in your system to be known, the ordination is up to you, and can be improvised in the moment, often never really played the same way twice. Some styles of music, like classical Arabic music, and old-time Appalachian fiddling allow several people to play the same tune together, with the subtle differences each musician brings blending into one whole.

Here's a cumbia (a popular style of Latin American dance music) song that can be a good starting point, as an example for its relative simplicity:

After careful listening to this song a few times, you'll start to notice this is built along a minor scale, and has two different melodic phrases, starting at different pitches, jumping up, and then descending. Simply try repeating the accordion introduction, and trying to play along on your instrument, listening carefully and adjusting until the notes match. Before long, you'll start to really get this repetitive and catchy melody so "known" in your ears, mind, and fingers, that you can experiment with branching off - keeping the melody in your head, while trying out other "licks" that might sounds good.

3) Playing by brain – using the chords figuring out the skeletal “song behind the song,” and then building melodies that fit around this internal melody. This is the central place for jazz, rock, and pop improvisation.

Going back to the aforementioned "Rumba Cha Cha," careful listening to the piano part can show you that there's more going on in the song then just the melody. Advanced knowledge of composition or jazz theory could go all over the place with this song, but at it's most basic level, the song goes back and forth between two chords. - E minor and D major.

Looking at a piano, and playing the triad, or the (1st, 3rd, and 5th notes) of both of those scales will give you the most basic internal melody, namely.

E – G – B


D – F# – A

That’s three notes that move down either a whole or half step. To create a solo that makes sense, be aware of this movement, and emphasize those notes. Of course, in the heat of performance, you shouldn’t have to be aware of all that. Practicing the different scale and arpeggio possibilities over the song will eventually cause the process to become automatic.

4) Playing by heart (or gut, if you prefer) – Playing spontaneously, creating something that is uniquely yours. This is the home of the composer and improviser. Whether spending hours carefully crafting a symphony, or exploring the sounds that emerge when you mindlessly let your fingers glide on the strings, utilizing your own music voice is an essential part of what it means to be a full musician. Getting comfortable creating music when there are “no rules” other then ones you decide to put on yourself will enrich your ability to play with true expression and heart in all the other modes of playing. Plus it’s great therapy!

Different people are going to find different that one pathway is going to come easier to them then the others, and that’s ok. But I feel that since music can be made all of these different ways, that it’s my goal to become more comfortable with all these different methods.

Do you think there are any other ways or approaches to making music that I’ve left out? Let me know your thoughts!

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