Roni's Journal

Sunday, 24 September 2006

A new system of teaching music

People say that it is a matter of personal taste as to which performance is better, and as to what interpretation is closer to the "truth", but when you see or hear a perfect performance, anything less than that will not be "good enough" in future. For me, it was like that when I heard Jeno Jando's performance of Beethoven's "Presto agitato" from the C-sharp minor sonata #14, and again when I heard Mitsuko Uchida perform Mozart's sonatas #1 and #4. It didn't much matter that perhaps Mozart played them in a slightly different way: it was like setting a new standard of good performance for these pieces, for the future.

In our century, we can't listen to music which is out of tune, having had our ears trained by perfect-pitch synthesisers, and so records from fifty years ago seem to many as being very out of tune. So, we have to adjust our standard of performance to the "modern ears".

In this same way, we must adjust the way we teach music to the "modern children". I propose the following.

It is a new system of teaching, which can perhaps be similar to other systems in some ways or others, but in truth it has two roots: the classical-era music education system - and - my personal experiences. It must be a system which utilises the modern technologies, that suits the modern families' ideologies, and that creates the right environment for children to be exposed to classical music. Why "exposed"? Because it seems that in the modern world, most children can be divided into two groups: first, those that are educated in classical music, obviously being exposed to it, and second, those that are not at all exposed to it, let alone being educated. We needn't educate everybody, but when exposure to classical music drops below 100% - it is concerning, when it drops below 50% - it is worrying, but when it starts tending to 0% - something must be done, and it is not education that should do it.

We need to look at the current standard music education system and identify its faults, without compromise. We must then make sure there are none of them in the new system.

Problem #1: Non-professional music education is lacking or non-existent

Most children are given two choices: either to study music professionally from day 1, or not study at all.

Those that choose to study must think of themselves as becoming musicians at the end of the road. During their study years they must adhere to the program they are given, and must spend a certain time studying at home.

The problem is not in that this is required of those children that will eventually become professional musicians, but that the children that will not - drop early and do not get a chance to study music as a secondary choice, or for fun.

This problem has been resolved in many disciplines that require hard work, including ballet, sports, etc. - children are trained at their own pace, and those that are fit and eager enough - succeed to the top; others are given the chance to participate in the process.

Problem #2: Yearly program does not suit talented nor slower children

In later years, when music subjects are added, such as solfedge, harmony, music history, polyphony, analysis of musical forms, etc., it turns out that only about half of children adhere to the yearly program as defined by the teacher or the institution; other children are either more advanced and are bored during the lessons, or are more slow in understanding the topics, cannot keep up with the class and are at risk of dropping out of the music school, or just quitting out of frustration.

Problem #3: Different subjects aren't synchronised

It is impossible for the student to grasp the idea of music history continuity quickly - but this takes many years of training. And before this happens, they are given many subjects, each of which is taught by a different teacher, and the yearly program for that subject is not correlated to the yearly programs of parallel subjects.

For example, during one period of time, a student may be studying Baroque music in Music History, early Renaissance methods of writing in Polyphony, analysing Beethoven's sonatas in Analysis of Musical Forms, learning Classical harmony in Harmony lessons and singing 20th century vocalises in Solfedge!

Problem #4: Music cannot be taught progressively, because it is neither a visual art nor a science; Music cannot be taught without listening to music

When a biannual Music History course is taught progressively, when it starts with early Greek music, continues with Ars Antiqua through Ars Nova and on to Renaissance, by the time they get to Baroque, most will have forgotten what they learned about the Middle Ages, let alone anything more ancient. Of course, they can look in their notebooks, but music should be primarily listened to and not explained in words.

Many a time, a student in higher classes is given several analysis books to read, and learns about pieces just from their description in the books. The student can then tell you the name of the piece and composer when you describe the music to him, while at no point in this process has he listened to a single note from the piece itself. One can understand why the popularity of Wagner is flourishing among such circles of students - they are amazed by the complexity of leitmotifs and are "in love" with the music even before they have listened to it.


The proposed music education system will allow students of all ages to participate. The "total" course is divided into small chunks and is taught in groups in cycles of several days or weeks. This means that the same material is presented to a group over a period of time, and then repeated over the next such period of time, with a variation of presentation. A student arriving at a group is prepared for the material in the former group, and will stay in this group until he or she has a good grasp of the new material. The student can then move on to the next group. Students move on from group to group at their own pace.

This solves both first problems in that students need not have to move on at all. They can do no home work and enjoy "music education" as an afternoon hobby class, staying in group 1 for the entire year, while perhaps a talented student manages to go through 20 groups in one year. No student drags other students behind him in this way, and the talented and eager students can move on quickly.

Our system will not have different classes for the various subjects, but instead two main classes: 'group lessons' and 'individual lessons', perhaps two of each per week. Each lesson should be divided into small parts with small breaks in between, e.g. 120 minutes divided into 6 equal parts of 15 minutes study + 5 minutes break/reorganisation.

The individual classes will only concern the student's personal musical abilities, such as playing an instrument, composing/improvising, stylisation assignments, etc.

The group classes will only concern collective qualities and disciplines where listening to given material is primary, such as music history, analysis, etc.

The group lessons will incorporate related material from various subjects into one lesson, allowing students to better understand the given topic from its various sides.

The individual lessons will follow suit, with the piece being played being related to the harmony, counterpoint, composition assignments.

Thus, the third problem is solved.

Most importantly, all studies must concentrate on the actual sound of the music, hearing it, and listening to it. Learning to listen, and learning to hear.

To solve the fourth problem, it is important to teach music as a pyramid, learning the basics at the beginning and then building on them later.

Let me elaborate on this point by giving examples of various disciplines being taught in this way to the beginner, i.e. in Group 1.

We start by listening to short pieces, each representing a whole era. Here is a possible list:

Middle ages
Hildegard von Bingen – chant 'O rubor sanguinis'
Motet 'Isaias cecinit'
Guillaume de Machaut – Virelai 'Je vivroie liement'
John Dunstable – Piece for Organ

Thomas Tallis – motet 'O Sacrum Convivium'
Josquin des Préz – Frottola 'El grillo'
Tielman Susato – 'Dansereye' – Fanfare

Domenico Scarlatti – Sonata in d-moll (K. 1)
Alessandro Scarlatti – Oratorio 'Sedecia' – Sinfonia
Georg Friedrich Händel – Oratorio 'Messiah' – Chorus 'Hallelujah'
Johann Sebastian Bach – Mass in B minor – Aria 'Qui Sedes Ad Dextram Patris'

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Sonata in E-flat major (K. 282) – Allegro
Franz Joseph Haydn – Trio No. 20 in B-flat major (H. XV) – Allegro
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major – Allegro moderato

Robert Schumann – 'Kreisleriana' (Op. 16) – Äusserst bewegt
Franz Schubert – Sonatina for Violin and Piano (D. 385) – Allegro moderato
Ernest Chausson – Piano Trio in G-dur (Op. 3) – Vite
Paul Dukas – "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

Obviously, this is a very short list, and may and even must be varied each time the group cycle repeats, so that the student gets exposed to more music and gets a better grasp of what an era "sounds like". By the way, it is better to listen to performances of the earlier eras played on authentic instruments, at least for the sake of really getting the feel of the sound of an era.

It is important not to make an accent on the individual composers at this stage, because they are irrelevant. I have chosen more known composers for my list for the sake of illustration, but less famous composers must also figure.

While listening, students are taught the basics of "hearing skills", so that it doesn't turn out that they are listening to the music, but are not actually hearing anything in it. We can do this by asking the students to identify various features, attributes, qualities, such as:

Is the music being played or sung? If it is sung, is it one person or a choir, if a choir, is it male, female or mixed choir? If it is played, can we identify the instruments, or is it an orchestra?

Later, more advanced questions can be asked, e.g.:

Is the key major or minor? What is the tempo? What feelings does this music radiate?

By learning to hear parameters in music, we learn to identify and relate the music to an era or a composer, a style or genre, etc. This gives us the ability to judge the music by comparison.

When students can more or less identify the eras listened within one lesson, we can start spending more time on an era, e.g. a whole lesson per era, perhaps in Group 2.

While listening, we also learn about the historic events that were going on at the time (and perhaps place) of the music being played. We learn about the instruments of that era, the simple of genres, and mostly everything related to the music. This way we allow each student to relate the music they hear to something interesting and close to them in their life. Associations are the best way to learn something.

Let us also analyse the structure of some of the music played, identifying simple points such as repeats of earlier material, etc.

Moving onto music notation, let us begin by introducing just two lengths of notes: a 1/4-note and a 1/2-note, and call them 'short' and 'long' for now. Later, we can add more lengths.

Let us place these notes on a staff of only one, two or three lines. At this stage, we only need to teach that music progression in time is displayed as a horizontal progression on paper.

Let us also introduce the C-clef, written in the ancient way as a key. Why? Because we want to teach the student that the clef is a key to knowing the placement of notes on the staff. Once students understand the function of the clef, they will be able to play with any clef, be it a G-clef (treble) or an F-clef (bass), or even tenor or soprano clefs.

Going on, let us teach only one or two notes per lesson, e.g. Do and Re, or La and Si, or Mi and Sol.

We listen to these notes, we sing them, we play them, we compose with them, we write them, and we try to write out on paper a short piece played from a combination of 'long' and 'short' notes, with the two just-learnt notes alternating or repeating.

We will learn two more notes in the next lesson, and remind of the previous ones.

Let's move on to Harmony, and let's start by discussing the different emotions music can provoke in us. We listen to various excerpts to allow us to feel them and discuss. We can generally split the feelings into two groups, and call them 'major' for 'happy' and 'minor' for 'sad', and then into more groups, such as 'slow major' for 'content', 'fast major' for 'excited', 'slow minor' for 'sorrowful' and 'fast minor' for 'angry'. Each of these can be split into more subgroups, at later stages.

In later groups, feelings and colours can be generally given to various keys, each person in the group conveying their personal feelings and visions to the class.

Such are my examples, and I hope it is obvious that each small basis that is given in the first group can be grown upon in the following groups, by complicating the material. And the important point is that the whole is learned first, and then subdivided and subdivided, and not the other way around - when they try to see the whole by combining different parts after the parts are learned.

Many things have gone without saying in my outline, because it is not a discussion, and I am only trying to convey the key points, but I hope the whole picture is understandable.