Learning To Speak The Language Of Music

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guitar student (2)I taught my first music lessons at the age of 17 at a pop up music school called ABC Music Studios in Vancouver.   I remember the “studios” were dingy and dark with draw curtains separating one space from another. There was virtually no expectation on the part of the management regarding the necessary qualifications for their teachers.  At that time, my resume would have read something like: “Played in rock bands and has a guitar.” I didn’t know how to read music, had no pedagogic experience whatsoever and had no lesson plans but these shortcomings didn’t prevent me from embarrassing myself with a few students who must have wondered why they had trouble playing my rock licks not to mention probably also wondering why they had just spent money on “music” lessons.

Now with a few decades of study and teaching experience under my belt I think it is safe to say that I have learned to teach – and – after teaching 50,000+ lessons and directing a dozen different groups and performing a thousand or so dates I think I am also starting to understand the role that music plays in the song of life. In times of career struggle I have asked myself: “Is music even important?”  In the process of answering that question I considered my personal experiences.

First, music making stimulates the mind as much as it stimulates the emotion. I have had scores of mature students with lifetimes of professional career experience in a host of fields who find themselves challenged to their cerebral limits by simply playing music. I have led a sing-along and watched while someone who could not speak due to dementia could – to everyone’s amazement – sing all the words to dozens of songs. I have worked with hundreds of teenaged students caught in the adolescent mire of existential confusion who find in music a lifeline that helps set them on the solid ground of stability and maturity. I have watched music draw people of all ages together, strangers become friends, the shy perform, the wounded smile and bonds are formed that didn’t exist prior to making music together.   I asked myself: “Is music important” and now I can answer: “Yes, it is the stuff of life”.

So, what is the goal of a music education?   I would say to “communicate” musically or in other words to learn and to speak the “language” of music.

Using the word “language” in this context does not refer to reading the written musical language (although that is good) but instead means speaking a language in the broader sense of understanding as well as communicating the grammar, vocabulary and syntax so that “ideas” and “creativity” can be shared.

Music begins as an elegant and simple system that is rooted in physics and nature, these natural physics are expressed in our musical system from the design of our instruments to the names of the notes and these elements are essential to a functional and growing understanding.

This may begin to sound like a lot of book learning and not a lot of just playing music and having fun but in fact it is exactly about “playing music” as well as enjoying the creative process.  For that to happen a teacher must be equipped with a fluent and vernacular command of that language.

We have all heard of the latest studies that scientifically demonstrate the cognitive and psychological benefits of a music education but these studies in my view tend toward an erroneous assumption that all music “education” is similar. The popular implication is that merely by being in the presence of “music” an education will take place but that is a bit like saying if I watch TV long enough I should be able to make a movie.   A “music education” requires an experienced and dedicated and skilled teacher who possesses an intimate understanding and command of their language.

Not all teachers of music are created equally and I freely use myself as an example for testimony to that truth. As previously mentioned I began to teach when I didn’t have a clue what it meant to teach and when I didn’t understand the fundamentals required to “educate” .   Private music instruction isn’t regulated and for this reason there are many who continue to call themselves “teachers” who are simply not equipped or qualified for this complex task. The harm in this is in potentially ruining the student’s music making experience as well as the potential of the student while at the same time distorting their idea of what music is and what learning is.

I have had students as recently as this year who have come to me after taking lessons for years who did not know how to play a scale and in fact did not know what a scale was. This would be similar to a carpenter teaching an apprentice that a hammer was not a necessary tool or an artist not being familiar with the colour red. These are as fundamental to building a house or painting a landscape as understanding a musical scale is to music making.

Students of all ages come alive when presented with musical possibility.  A music teacher has to be a music communicator, a music teacher speaks the language of music as their native tongue and they bring that language to their teaching and that in turn to the art of “playing” which should all lead naturally to a continuing path of musical discovery and an enriched life.

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