“In the Beginning was the Word, and the word was what made the difference between form and formlessness” (Ali Smith)
Once a word is spoken, its power is out of our hands.
Once an idea is defined by a word, it is humanized, limited, as we are.
Take the word God. Many centuries ago, one could not name or casually write Yod Hei Vav Hei (YHVH). Why name something that is beyond all names with one single word? How can one word represent all that humans can barely grasp?
Sonata and Symphony are musical forms that restrained creativity. During two centuries they were extended and transformed by great composers who developed musical language, pushing boundaries. Nowadays those words are insufficient; composers invent their own forms to express ideas. Some still pay tribute to tradition, but outside of their social context, those words, Sonata and Symphony, have exhausted their potential meanings.
Sometimes words seem to point to the same idea, but on a closer look, they imply more than their definitions in a dictionary.
Take another common word, “happy.” In the current English speaking world, partly thanks to Bob Marley and Pharrell Williams, the word “happy” has come to exude more of its exciting aura, as in “being joyful, delighted or blissful” than reflecting its more subdued connotations, as in “being pleased, satisfied, or glad.”
For the French, the word “heureux” has retained its contemplative flavor, more often associated with Content (contented), Bonheur (happiness), or Comblé (Filled).
In Vietnamese, the word “Hạnh Phúc” consists of two words, both of Chinese origin. Hạnh means “beloved, lucky, or blessed.” It connotes something precious one receives from outside as in befalling luck. Phúc is a word that can be understood only through the beliefs and customs regarding karma and veneration of ancestors, both well established in Vietnamese and Chinese cultures. Phúc is the immaterial goodness one leaves behind for future generations. By extension, it is our ancestors’ heritage.
“Hạnh Phúc” suggests a communal society for whom ancestry is valued. It is Confucius’ legacy. Perhaps the extroverted “happy” insinuates the value of an extrovert American society where assertiveness and self-confidence are valued over other virtues.
Thus in learning a new language, a new word, one also learns its construct, its implication, and the culture it represents.
What about learning the musical language?
When teaching a beginner, should one limit the definition of “p” as “soft” and “f” as “loud”?, or “p” as “as loud as the lullaby a mother sings,” or “the natural sound from the weight of one’s bow or arm,” and “f” as “the amplified sound one projects when talking in a Roman amphitheater,” or “when our whole body participates,” or “when a warm breath is blowing evenly as the wind blows through a leafless tree?”
As “p” is now used in books estranged from its original context of the Renaissance where dynamic markings were inconsistent, why should we assume that one definition is enough to communicate articulation, mood, sound texture, temperature, attack or decay? Moreover, many musicians have their own “p” sound for particular stylistic period and adapt this “p” not only to the composer, the particular work, but as well, to the acoustics of the performance space and the audience.
In separating a sound into its components, as most introductory method books do, one loses qualities not so valued by a specialized society: imprecision, ambiguity, adaptability, hence, creativity.
Dynamic, tempo, or pacing signs are elements that make music, and they are interrelated. It may be useful to break them down into components, but dangerous to teach each element as separate entity from all that makes music, for music is a much larger encompassing word. It is bigger than the sum of its parts.
When learning a new song, should a beginner learn only the pitches first and then the rhythm? How often should a student repeat the whole song with focus on getting only the pitches correctly? Would it be better to incorporate rhythm and pitches, but only play one short phrase at a time? For the more advanced players who can read both rhythm and pitches, should correct fingering and technique to express the articulation or dynamic be the simultaneous goals of one short phrase, or should one just play through the page to get a sense of how it goes, and add dynamic and articulation later when the page is in tempo?
When these words, tempo, articulation, dynamic, were invented, they were signs for a whole meaningful experience with sound.
“In the Beginning was the word,” and the word became sound.
That is how we should be initiated to music. Like a baby recognizing a mother’s voice after being introduced to air, so shall we be recognizing sound before seeing its representation, or hearing its definition.
I have encountered beginner adults who have not learned how to read notes. Many learned through youtubes, websites, and some have only taken a one credit class in music theory, from the very basic staff to the major scale. Many have great ears. One of my students picked up "Girl with the flaxen hair" Debussy prelude by ear.
When oral tradition was replaced by written ones, from orators to scribe, the written words themselves (in Greek) had no space. Written texts were used to remind ourselves what we already know. Learners already heard the speech many times and the written words were just a little help along the main thread, the core idea. Music notation started in the same way, from imprecise neumes to overly prescribed articulation, dynamic and pacing symbols. As men controlled more and more of his/her environment, the world specialized in all field, including music. Interpreters were separated from composers. We began to rely on our sight before hearing the sound.
Charles Hicks in the 1980s published in the Music Educator's Journal "Sound before Sight, strategies for teaching music reading."
The advice is logical, with emphasis on continuity, repetition, repeated patterns, narrow range, same key signature, generally a constructivist approach (always add one new element with something familiar). his recommendation was that the PRINCIPLES of notation rather than the SYSTEM of notation should be explored.
In what ways can this translate into a lesson plan?
Hidden in the writing of symbols are organized SOUND. If one can help a student first notice how sound perception can be organized and classified: in time (double the speed?), in pitch (higher or much higher?), in volume, in attack (choppy or smooth?) or lines (where are the sentences?) before one introduces them to the written notation, it would help contextualize the purpose of learning these new symbols. When we learned to speak we learned by imitation. Why should one learn written music before one learns what a regular beat is, and what one can do with that duration in time?
With very young children I have many rhythm games, or solfege games, based on what I learned at Suzuki camps, or with pedagogue such as Michiko. For pitch changes, aside games that required physical big motion such as walking on a staff, or arm motions for steps or skips, I also devised a mnemonic system of drawings. I doodle these images on a blank page without staff. After a while it is a matter of drawing a symbol of the animal in question to the notes on the staff, and gradually erase those drawings after explanation of the motions on the staff. Chords were color coded, tense chords were red or orange (dominant or sub-dominant) and the "home" chord was green (tonic). Children can learn the broad brushstroke before the exact note, or even their names. About 16 years ago I met an adult at a community college who was a wonderful intermediate pianist in a chamber ensemble. She could not name any single note. She could not find the third beat of measure 33. She could, on the other hand, start anywhere if I point to the exact spot on the page. I thus learned not to give out anymore written games of naming notes without sound or keys to press.
My very first questions to adult beginners are usually about their goals in taking piano lessons. Some would like to reproduce songs or pieces, some like to create, some, to accompany themselves singing, others say they have the treble clef down but would like to learn the bass clef, some "doodle" on the keys. My second question is usually about what kind of songs or pieces they listen to, in order to know what to use to motivate them, or ask them to show me what they "doodle". The third step is trying out how fast they can learn by imitation, and gage how much exercise to give for coordination and small motor control in warm ups. Adults can handle reading notes from the very first lesson, but many are stuck with the trees (naming of each note) and have difficulty seeing the forest (motion of notes or shapes of chords).
Our music education system puts a lot of weight on the Oral, less on the Aural tradition; it is leaned toward the visual rather than the audio part of learning music. Folk or Art music around the world are, for the most part, still transmitted by oral tradition. Even when written down, they require close encounter with an instructor, because learning is through exposure, enculturation and imitation. In India, a novice just listens for a year before attempting to improvise lightly a scale (raga). Years can pass before he or she is allowed to imitate licks of the teacher. Here in the U.S., there are students technically proficient who barely go to one concert a year. With certain other instrument, such as trumpet, hearing the sound is extremely important as the same buttons may be pressed, but the way one blows determines the pitch. In order to know whether or not one has blown the right pitch, one has to hear it first. Why don't we learn piano the same way? Less like a typewriter, more like a musical instrument.
How many of us teachers have encountered a student that played Ode to Joy with the dotted quarter note - eighth note instead of the written quarter notes? They are guided by what they hear on the inside. Most beginner piano books start with what they consider standard repertoire that everyone should know, such as Mary had a little lamb, Jingle bell and so forth. Please don't change the rhythm! This repertoire is also not updated nor culturally relevant. The Mexican Hat is not what Mexican Americans listened to, and most of us know "Oh When the Saints" (except new immigrants which I have taught) but some of us also know Amazing Grace, or the latest Lady Gaga, Birdy or Pentatonix. If the point is to teach something familiar, then we need an online continuously updated book for the younger generation. One where they can go in and choose songs they know, arranged for different levels, and print out song by song as they progress and taste changes.
As for the different types of arrangements one can do for each song with a chord chart, this can be learned in workshops, webinars, or conferences.
I hope more publishers will go back to our tradition of putting Sound before Sight.
Look for Mindful Music Academy Facebook page.