Making connections: speaking through the fabric of music

Musical connections are a lot like any other connections. (4 min read) We need to experience them, process, and attribute meaning to them, and that is something that we all get better at with time and practice. There’s that practice word again… This post is inspired by this week’s topic Session 4: Studies and connecting material, and I wanted to liken it to conversation and listening, but there are differences. Although both are aural – spoken word and musical sound, we tend to engage with one very differently to the other. In speech there is a fluid dynamic. It is knowingly experimental and sometimes messy – wait, I didn’t mean that… no, no, it’s more like this… – In conversation it is entirely acceptable to present ideas and change them, or to present ideas and realise that they lacked clarity and then need to add detail.

This is interesting because in musical playing, it doesn’t often happen like that. I am not talking about professional performance. Performance can be equated across these two fabrics of communication – speech and music. Last week I enjoyed a fantastic performance of Shakespeare’s Much ado about nothing, and it was great ! Performed to the letter, yet with such spontaneity. -Just like an audience might expect of a musical performance. Expert. Well rehearsed. Fully formed characterisation and ideas. Excellently communicated. Wonderful.

However there is an in-between stage that happens everyday. The learning and the exploration are something that we use to different levels in our normal communication. Perhaps we don’t consider it learning when it happens in conversation, but it is certainly practice. Maybe it is because I am a musician and an educator (and I like to think a lot) that I wonder about these things, but I do, and thinking about it, I have not been in many situations where music is used in the same way as speech.

Why?

  1. Language has a special role in that it IS the mode of communication.
  2. Music tends to be used to communicate, but descriptively, not necessarily interactively.

Music certainly has meaning, and the connection between ‘tones’ and ‘tunes’ as Keith Swanwick says in his book Teaching music musically (see p.15) comes about as we contextualise and process. Music does have meaning and relationships, although it does not have the concrete definition type meanings that words carry. In language sometimes the purpose is to communicate specifics out of necessity: ‘Do you have your keys? When I go out I am going to lock the door…’  whereas with some Brahms it is different. There is also the conversational element in language. I can discuss with another to explore my ideas but also to find out more from them. It is a two-way operation.

This does happen in music, but not often at an exploratory level and, in my experience, it is not something that happens everyday. I wish it did. I’m going to do this with my son. Play. Talk. Talk with cello. What if we could do this:

Man, that would be great. Of course, that level of conversation cannot take place without an extremely expert command of both the instrument and the language. I particularly like the segment from 3 min. It is not about copying one another, but about expression, presenting your ideas, and actually conversing. With music I don’t always understand the words, but I know what you’re saying. It is a different sort of language and to get good at any language we need to learn the words, syntax, and grammar.

Ah, back to learning and study material. For those rudiments, I included the very excellent sight reading book last week, and there are some really good websites to help with interval training and the understanding of those rudiments.

So what of studies? Those are rudiments. We need those to progress to learning. When approaching the connective exploration between the tones and tunes, we are best able to explore if we have the tools. If I can learn the individual techniques, then I can learn to put them into context. As Duane says in the interview on this week’s session page, he was told to learn 40 songs in that style – off by heart – and then he would be ready to have a conversation in that style. – gotta do a lot of musical chatting before it’s time to present the monologue to an audience.

My personal task is going to be to engineer more spaces, times, and ways for my students to have those musical chats – and to make them interactive, so we each have a role to play. I’m not saying to always fill lessons with duets, but with a mix of purposeful musical conversation – in sounds and words. Sometimes in music, that quizzical level of formative musical experimental conversation is not always encouraged or welcome. I would like to welcome it. And for me as a player, I’m going to engineer spaces and places where I too can engage with different sorts of musical conversation: from quiet practice to jam sessions. Sometimes it’s nice to have a good musical chin-wag.

Featured image CC BY by Sharon Mollerus

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