One of the elusive topics in music learning and teaching is expression and meaning. How can we work in one medium (sound) and have to explain it in another (words?)? Often the intention of the teacher and the experience of the student can be so far apart, and we may never know it. This week I got creative and a bit silly and set my class loose with the project of picturing the sound. Really – I gave them all sorts of dried pulses, pasta, rice, seeds, nuts, bits of cotton wool, cake decorations, big sheets of paper and asked them to create the picture they heard as people performed to them. This sort of invitation is usually met with two different reactions, often in close succession, excitement followed by a tentativeness and doubt.
I like to broaden the #MUS654 content each time I revisit these topics, and so here’s something completely new. Will Wallace has kindly spoken to me about his musical experiences and practices. Will is Director at Christ Church College Choir at Oxford, where he is also Senior Organ Scholar. During the half-hour interview he discusses improvising, dissecting how he learned to improvise, and points out some of the challenges he faces as an organist. How does he utilise the different sonorities available on the instrument? How does he achieve sound that fits the setting? Does he adapt if he is playing within a church service or for a certain group of people? What are the limits of musical expression?
Will takes us through an example of what he might do, talking through his thought processes as he demonstrates. It is fascinating. And, if you, like me, have never played the organ, please don’t skip this. I find that listening to other musicians explain about their craft, especially as Will does, in such a clear and approachable manner, is always enlightening and gives me ideas and inspiration for my own playing and teaching.
Many classically trained teachers and performers shy away from improvising, and the mere mention of it downright frightens some people. I challenge you to watch, listen, and see if you can apply even a small bit of what Will shares to your own instrument. If you have any comments, please share them below, or via Twitter using the #MUS564 hashtag, or on your own blog. It would be a pleasure to hear what you think.
In conversation with Will Wallace:
The video begins with Will testing out the instrument. Organists don’t bring their own instrument with them of course… I left that bit in so you could see – these are some of the behind-the-scenes ‘musician’ things that we don’t normally have the chance to see and have explained… and our conversation begins at about 45 seconds. Enjoy.
It is great to come together at a concert or other event with other people and spark. Oh I know ‘spark’ is not the most academic word, but it’s the right one – talk, think, laugh, experience new people, experience something that transcends people, and connect it in a way that is electrifying. SPARK! (4 min read)
I had the privilege of being invited to a concert by the Castalian String Quartet that was part of the European String Teachers Association summer school. One of my former students (a graduate who is now a teacher herself) was in attendance at the summer school and I know some of the people involved in ESTA and was fortunate enough to be invited to the concert. It was fantastic. The atmosphere reminded me of being back at Meadowmount and just breathing in that atmosphere was invigorating. Read more
This post is about learning, and what happens when learning is visible – to the learner and to others. (2 min read)
This morning I was practising and I had one of those moments that really made me stop in my tracks and think. In a week I have a big event, it’s my book launch. The book is all about self-efficacy and fostering that positive self-belief in students. -and I have my good friend, and co-founder of the Open Source Learning Foundation, David Preston coming over from LA to speak, and then I’m going to be playing a fun duet with a recent graduate and then I sing a song (accompanied by a second year student) before a tea and cake reception. More on the singing a song later – for this story the important part is the cello/violin duet.
As I played I noticed something out of my peripheral vision. It was my husband – I could see him in the garden through the window.
IMMEDIATELY I became aware that I was very self-conscious of how I was playing and what I sounded like. I had been really going for it in my practising – playing with abandon and making a big sound, really doing all the things I should be doing, and suddenly I questioned everything and shrank. It was as if someone had seen me naked.
That made me think about the idea of body image and I thought about the attention that acceptance of different bodies and individuality is taught. Overwhelmingly there has been a move away from some perfect body image to the idea that people are individual and that’s ok, and then I thought back to musical practice and wondered about my musical identity. Am I comfortable with who I am musically? What about processes? Why would I doubt myself so much if someone saw me learning? -especially if it was my husband! Of all people, he is the most supportive and would not be passing critical judgement – certainly not as he was on his way to mow the lawn. He wasn’t focused on the few notes he heard as he passed by.
I recorded a little passage when I felt self-conscious and noticed what was happening:
I felt physically small, felt tight, was listening in a nervously critical way, my coordination was getting sloppy and it started to go out of tune… Oh my goodness! Not at all what you would want and certainly not a conducive environment for learning.
So my mind moved to the garden (stay with me, it’s a good analogy – promise). There is nothing wrong with watching someone garden. I have never known someone to get sheepish and embarrassed about planting a flower or raking leaves and having dirty hands or leaves still on the ground. We are ok with process in that pursuit. That was a revelation for me. We are ok with process in gardening. We are ok with process in cooking. We watch people do these things from start to finish. There are popular tv shows about it.
Why is it different in musical learning?
I don’t think it should be. Yes it is very important to know the difference between something in progress and something finished, and if a learner does not have the perceptive capabilities to know that there are still areas to improve, then that is not so good… but surely the process of learning should not be something that people are ashamed of. If someone walks in just after I’ve cracked an egg into a bowl, I don’t get worried that they have seen the breakfast crepes before I have cooked them; that would be silly. (photo CC BY-NC-ND by Rakka http://bit.ly/1lEb6tl)
So what am I going to do about it? I’m not completely sure, and would love suggestions. I had the idea to do a practising hangout. In my open music class #MUS654 we talk about all sorts of aspects of music learning from the point of view of teachers, and I think that next year I will add at least one ‘in progress’ hangout to put that process out there. I’ll be the guinea pig – as it’s not fair to ask that sort of thing of the students, certainly not if I am not willing to do it myself! – and I’ll be the fly on the wall and talk through the process. Learning to learn is so important, and I don’t think it’s something anyone should hide from.
More on the book launch soon – as for putting the cards on the table, I’m singing a song and that is a big deal for me. I’m definitely still a student there, and it’s a pop song… like with a microphone. and we’re live streaming it… It’s all about learning and living it, every day.