Of the young students who begin violin and viola lessons, some 80 percent quit during the first year.
That rather sobering statistic was cited by Hillsdale College Strings Studies Professor Melissa Gerber Knecht, based on anecdotal observations by Shar. She went on to say that, of the 20 percent who continue, many hit a wall when they arrive at pieces such as Haydn's G major Violin Concerto or Telemann's Viola Concerto in G major (Suzuki Book 4 level or so).
After that, "just a small percentage move on to that next level of playing," Knecht said at a lecture called "Cows, Chess and Music Expertise: Perception, Comprehension and Memory in Music," at the American Viola Society Festival at Oberlin in June.
Why is that the case? And what can be done about it?
Knecht has been searching for the answer to those questions for the last 10 years in her research on mental musical patterns. She also has created a website called Developing Your Musical Mental Map to help people understand and use her findings. (Her book, by the same name, is available through Shar Music.)
Some might say that "talent" that gets certain students past the difficulties -- and a lack of it leaves others struggling. Though we have a lay notion of what constitutes "talent," is there any science behind it?
One of the most indisputably talented musicians of all time was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and there are many stories to corroborate his astonishing abilities. One story has to do with his ability to transcribe complex music upon hearing it once: At age 14, he heard the nine-part vocal work "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri at the Sistine Chapel, then later that afternoon was able to recall and transcribe it in its entirety, to the note. After hearing it just once!
How could he do that? It had to do with his knowledge of musical patterns and language, which he'd banked in his memory from an unusually early age.
"He used his vast experience in listening and performing music," she said. Because of that knowledge, "he was more able to identify music into chunks and remember patterns."
Two things help us put musical language together: having a "schema" and being able to "chunk."
A schema is a set of expectations, and it can apply to many things, not just music, she said. For example, most of us have a "schema" about birthday parties: the expectation that there will be people gathered, cakes, hats, party streamers, games, etc.
"We have musical schemas, too, that begin in the womb and develop from there," Knecht said. "By the age of five, children have learned to recognize chord progressions in the music of their culture." By that point, our musical memory has certain structures, into which we fit details.
"Experts don't learn pieces one note at a time," Knecht said, "once they reach a certain level, they can scaffold onto music they knew before." That is called "chunking."
Our minds group certain things together. For example, what comes first into your mind when asked the question: What do cows drink? You might have immediately thought of "milk," even though with further thought, they mostly drink water. But that is because when it comes to language, the brain is likely to group those culturally-associated words together. Chess players also can "chunk" -- experts can look at a chess board with strategically placed pieces, then reproduce exactly that set-up. This is because of their vast experience with the game -- those set-ups mean something. But when the set up has a pattern that would never appear in a game, they are less able to reproduce it.
Musical material has patterning, as does language and chess. But without recognizable patterns, the mind has a harder time processing music, language, and chess. Knecht has some examples from language: Look at the following word, then immediately cover it up: VERNALT. It's a nonsense word, but can you spell it? Now look at this word and immediately cover it up: PQVLKSL. Can you spell it? For most English-speakers, the first spelling is easier to remember, and the second is difficult or impossible, with just a glance. That is because the first word contains syllable patterns that appear with statistical frequency in the English language, whereas the second does not.
This same phenomenon happens in music: there are patterns that we can easily "chunk," because they come up frequently in Western music.
In her research, Knecht used a computer program called "Travesty" to come up with groups of musical patterns that appear frequently, less frequently, and not frequently at all in Western music. Then she tested people's ability to remember those patterns, using Chicago Symphony Orchestra members (in other words, highly trained musicians) and high school students (not highly trained). They were asked to repeat eight-not patterns. Her findings?
"When the patterns were random, the experts became novices," Knecht said. "My research suggested that experts don't have a better aural memory. Experts did better only when the patterns made sense with their harmonic system."
In other words, "what makes an expert better than others is the quality of their schema -- or musical mental maps," she said.
So how can students build better-quality mental maps, and how can teachers help them?
If a student is unable to chunk an eight-note pattern, then they are mapping just one note at a time. That means they need to get some basic aural schema in place. Knecht's suggestions, which are laid out in her book, Developing Your Musical Mental Map (available from Shar), include: arpeggios to map the division of musical space; intervals to clarify distance between notes; melodic patterns to chart musical sound; and reading tracking exercises for training the eye.
"Single-line players need to be able to scan, recognize and anticipate patterns," she said. "Basically, reading words instead of letters."
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