To be a musician is to wield a special kind of power. The ability to sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar or blow through a saxophone has the power to impress, to enchant, to mesmerize, to draw people around us into a web of sound. We can charge the air, give a shape and color to an occasion, move bodies and open hearts. We can change how people feel, offer them solace and comfort or energy and vitality or at least, a few moments of distraction from the troubled world. We can seduce, proclaim, unveil a glimpse of our own tender hearts, show off a virtuosity achieved through dedication and sacrifice like a peacock spreading its tail. We can give meaning to apparent chaos, reveal the mathematics of the mind, order the random mish-mash of the daily round so it becomes coherent and comprehensible.
How we learn and how we play music brings different energies to that power. We create distinctly different musicians in our choices of formal and informal music education. We create different assumptions about what music is and what being a musician means. We create different types of audience participation when music is played.
When my Ghanaian friend Kofi Gbolonyo travels by plane, his seatmate asks, “What do you do?” and Kofi replies, “I’m a musician,” the next question is invariably, “What instrument do you play?” (If he says he’s a music teacher, they’ll ask “What instrument do you teach?”) Kofi patiently explains, “I said I was a musician. That means I can play anything you put in front of me. This tray table. My body. The words in the Skymall magazine.” For Kofi, to be a musician means to experience and express the world through sound and rhythm in whatever form is available. For the Western public, music means playing a particular instrument and most of our formal music study begins by choosing a particular instrument and taking lessons. And 90% of that formal training (guitar and drum set exceptions) begins with learning to decipher written musical notation.
PLAYING BY WRITTEN NOTES
To sit in front of a page of black dots and lines and translate them into a glorious sound is a praiseworthy power. Through a curious ability to decode symbols and transform them to a living stream of rhythm and melody and harmony, we can play far beyond our own musical understanding and become a vessel for Bach’s genius or Charlie Parker’s (through transcribed solos) imaginative improvisations.
Learning to read music gives us the power to access an enormous body of work in markedly different styles. Learning to write music gives us the power to preserve our inspired improvisations or songs that come to us a gift and to send them across time to future musicians and across space to folks in other places. The technology of literacy, both in words and music, is a relative newcomer to millennia of music-making, a mere six or seven hundred years, but one that has contributed mightily to human achievement. Imagine if Bach had simply improvised his genius in front of a small group of churchgoers or taught by rote his compositions to a choir.
PLAYING BY EAR
Another dimension of musical power is to be able to hear a song, sing a song and figure out how to play the song. This becomes a more portable power, not dependent on having one’s music book on hand, and opens us up to a body of work often not captured in print. The ability to duplicate sung melodies on keys or strings, to imitate the touch from listening to recordings or live musicians, to feel the nuances of the rhythms and the dynamics of the phrasing, to hear the implied or stated chords and either imitate note for note or find one’s own voicings, is a delicious power indeed.
PLAYING BY FEEL
Yet another dimension is to simply sit down and plunk down one’s hands on the keys and begin an improvised journey from note to note, conjuring an organic structure and tonality and feeling out of thin air, composing on the spot with no preconceived idea of style, key, form, chord pattern. Now you are wholly independent of other’s work, written or heard, with the freedom to fully express emotion in sound and musical motion. At the same time, we’re never wholly independent and everything you’ve heard or played with be present in some way as you venture into your unwalked paths of possibility.
Reading and writing music, playing existing songs by ear, improvising and composing music—each carries its own assumptions about what music is and how it is to be learned. Each confers a different kind of power, a different relationship to musical development, a different experience as a player and a listener. In an ideal world, a developed musician would be able to do all three (though even here, many exceptions— many fabulous Western musicians have trouble improvising and many remarkable Indian, Balinese, African, etc. musicians will play virtuosic music at high levels without ever reading or writing a note).
But life is short and time is limited and when it comes to teaching music to children once or twice a week, we have some choices that we need to make. We know where traditional Western music instruction— music as learning what keys to press down by reading notation— leads. The eye is favored over the ear, the mind can “cheat” and play things it doesn’t wholly understand, the body can be reduced to fingers and arms only and the imagination is left dormant, passed over in the effort of simply playing the correct notes. This will work fine for a handful of musicians who are wired to truly hear what they are playing, to feel the rhythms and phrasing fully in their body, to unconsciously sing along with the notes they’ve deciphered. But many simply endure this wooden approach, learn how to play Minuet in G on the piano, Hot Cross Buns on the recorder and Louie Louie on the guitar and then call it a day. The children deserve something larger, something more effective, something more long-lasting.
SOUND BEFORE SYMBOL
In the world of language, sound always precedes symbol. No child has ever learned to read and write before he or she speaks. And yet the child may indeed come to the first piano lesson without significant experiences in moving to the beat, singing a wide variety of songs in tune, listening to a large repertoire of live and recorded music, creating music from simple materials and starting to form their own musical sentences they way they did with words. When they sit down at the piano to look at a page with middle C’s and quarter notes and 88 keys to press down, they’re assuming that music is found in the papered black dots and the ivoried black and white keys. Without knowing how sounds speak and rhythms move and textures connect musical thoughts, they’re not prepared to venture forth onto the keyboard.
And so common sense tells us that music education begins with simple, everyday things, ideally offered by the adults surrounding the child, be they parents, teachers or neighbors. Being bounced on the knee to rhythmic chant, sung to and sung with, danced with and dancing alone, exploring the sonic potential of everything that crosses their path. They need to be constantly immersed in the bath of music drawn by the surrounding adult and older kid culture before they can swim into formal lessons.
And so— sing what you hear, play what you sing, hear what you play and around the circle we go. Then if the need appears to notate it all or check the existing notation, by all means do so. Yet beware that in a visually dominant culture, the ratio of the senses are unevenly distributed and some rebalancing is in order. That is precisely one of the great gifts of Orff Schulwerk, jazz as it used to be learned and folk music of all sorts. It’s all yours for the taking, regardless of how you were taught.
I suggest “take it!”