Friday, July 26, 2019

Capstones and Stepping Stones

When I’m teaching, occasionally sentences escape that feel perfectly formed and important. I had the good sense to write this one down.

Every new piece of knowledge is a capstone to all previous knowledge and a stepping stone to the next. 

Not earth-shaking, but a good reminder that when we teach with a purpose and a trajectory and through-line, we introduce key skills and concepts that gather everything we learned into a clear and coherent summary. A capstone is literally a stone placed on top of a wall to complete it., a final decorative touch that completes a building or monument. Hence, many universities offer things called Capstone Projects as a terminating thesis that integrates and summarizes all previous knowledge. 

But that stone then becomes a stepping stone to bridge the known and the unknown, the firm ground from which we learn the next necessary piece of knowledge. In the course I’m teaching now, I’ve introduced a powerful concept called the trichord, three notes in a row like do-re-mi or re-mi-fa etc. I chose melodies in the diatonic modes that are based on sequences of trichords to demonstrate how they work. The trichord then becomes a guide in improvisation. As we learn piece after piece, the trichord becomes more and more familiar and we grow comfortable with its expressive power, learn to recognize, begin to use it effortlessly in our improvisations and compositions.

But then the next step is to put it into a new context and show how it works in the harmonic context of I, V, and IV chords. Now it has a different function and our learning is enlarged by taking something familiar and applying it to something new. This is how we grow. 

Seems obvious, but often teaching can feel like a shopping trip to the mall, picking up this item and that item to put into our grocery cart, but without any connecting thread or direction. Or if we’re a music teacher, we’re given a mere one class a week where we can’t get any momentum going and it becomes a kind of entertainment of glorified babysitting. (Indeed, in New South Wales, Australia, music teachers have been called RFF’s—Relief from Face-to-Face for classroom teachers. Aargh!!!!). 

I talk a lot about our daily Singing Time with all 100 of our elementary students and note that learning some 150 songs makes it possible for the next song to be learned more quickly and expressively. The kids develop a storehouse of melodies from which the brain can draw when it encounters the next song, noticing what is familiar and what is novel. If there is no storehouse, then everything is new information. If the storehouse is filled with the same 10 songs, the possibilities of recognizing patterns is diminished. And so with every new song learned, our previous experience of how melodies worked is affirmed and becomes a stepping stone to the next new melody. Capstones and stepping stones. That’s how we learn. 

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