Saturday, March 3, 2018

Paper Music

I’m a guest teacher at this school as the same time as another guest teacher helping out with the band program and today I got to hear the band in rehearsal and listen to her comments. She was good, noting that the Irish jig the band was playing didn’t make her want to dance and the articulation of the notes on the paper were not singing out. But her remedy, as is often the case in this world, seemed to be just to notice that and ask them to “make it dance more” and “make it sing more.”

And what would I have done? I hope you can guess. I would have them actually dance a jig and actually sing the tune. At the same time! My book Play, Sing & Dance was aptly titled. When you dance the music, you feel the whole rhythm and rhythms in multiple parts of the body, the particular way it inspires you to move (the style), the weight that the written meter can only hint at. When you sing, you articulate (with guidance from someone who knows the style) the nuances of the song as it’s meant to be. After having sung and danced, it’s a short step to the proper playing of the music. All you need to worry about is the fingering and technique that can help your instrument to sing.

There is much I admire about bands and orchestras and the people who teach them, but after these five weeks straight of music felt in every fiber of the body and communicated directly to children who then can express it with energy, delight and impressive musicality, watching the band kids felt like landing on another planet where music is another creature altogether. Consider the cultural differences from the Orff class:

• Seated in chairs.
• Seated in rows.
• Seated with a music stand in front of them.
• Each has a score with just their part written out and not the others. Just count correctly, play the notes as written and magically (or not), they’ll all fit together somehow. (Thank you, composer.)
• When you’re not playing, you might have a measure with 7 written across it which means counting for seven measures and pray you got it right.

After years of doing this, the music indeed starts to sound better and some of those musicians sitting in chairs behind printed music might be the Count Basie Band or Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. But those guys were also singing and dancing in church and improvising like the wind parallel with this traditional band practice. And that makes all the difference.

The next day, I taught an hour class with high school band students and we played two blues pieces and a Latin Jazz piece, each complete with solos and all of it attracting people in from the hall. All without a single written note. I asked what they noticed about this way of learning and one said, 

"I had to think more." 

"Great!" I said. "Indeed, you did. You had to figure out the scale, find it on your instrument, imagine some cool little riffs with two or three notes, understand how my underlying harmonies changed the character of your notes. Those are good things."

Another offered, "I had to listen harder."

"Yep. And that's probably the number one skill in all of music. Can't exactly be taught, but can be awakened depending how you learn a piece. When you're in your private tunnel with your notated score, it's entirely possible your listening ear can go to sleep."

And a third. "I could feel the music deeper."

"Thank you. My work here is done!"

Band directors, take note. Keep working on the important skills of traditional bands, but please, widen the conversation. Fling open the windows and spend as much time with the ear as you do with the eye. You will have to re-learn your craft (maybe take an Orff workshop?), but the feedback from the student's deeper involvement and the music emerging just a bit more alive and present is more than ample reward for making the effort. And when you return to the printed page having physically danced and sung and improvised in the style, I guarantee that the notes on the paper will also begin to dance and sing.

(Feb. 27)

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