Friday, 22 May 2015

Two-Part Blog: How to Teach Music (Part 2)

Following on from from his previous article, conductor Tom Hammond writes about the best methods of teaching music.

Hours of debate and forests of trees have been devoted to this topic. What is the right way to teach, and learn, about music?

Many will say it's all about the individual being taught. A great teacher (maestro) simply opens doors, and the student has to choose which one they go through.

Of course we're talking of a huge range of genres too - is there any similarity between those who are learning to play the tuba, and opera singers? Percussionists and composers? Recorder players and jazz guitarists?

Well I really think there is - and here's how I would do it for anyone, be they an aspiring instrumentalist, singer, composer or conductor:

No.1 Sing

Musical instruments only exist because they replicate, or extend, the possibilities of the human voice. Singing is fundamental to music of any genre, or culture. If you don't sing from an early age, and 'feel' in your body the pitch, timbre, dynamic and emotion - how are you really supposed to then communicate those things via an instrument? If you tell a child aged 9 that a note they are playing is 'flat' or 'sharp', how do they really know what that means unless they have used their voice in an ensemble setting?*

(and this should extend to movement and dance in order to gain true awareness of rhythm).

No.2 Learn how music 'works'

Especially if learning a single-line instrument such as wind or voice, if you are not aware of how harmony works (used here in its widest sense, not only diatonic music) it's like piloting an aeroplane without understanding the science behind flight. They don't teach pilots like that, but many teach music this way. You need to understand how pitches relate, how that relates to musical structure, and know how what you are playing relates to the musical 'whole'.

No.3 Improvise

With a solid understanding of pitch, intonation and harmony - you can very probably improvise. In fact, why not teach children all of these things before they see a note of printed music so that they learn to use ears first, and eyes second. Oh, and it's fun!

I think the benefits of the approach above will be self-explanatory to all, just think how it would help in the training of musicians:

- aural awareness through developing the internalisation of pitch
Ever taught someone who plays out of tune, but can't seem to hear it themselves? Singers or brass players who pitch incorrectly?

- knowledge of harmony and harmonic context
Ever coached an ensemble where initiation is an issue? Ever wondered why listening to others in ensemble is a core skill that needs to be reiterated constantly? Ever wanted to be able to memorise long passages of music?

- improvisation skills
Ever struggled to get musical phrasing and sense of line from a student, or ensemble? Ever wished you could improvise freely with no fear, just enjoying music for its possibilities? Ever suffered with performance nerves?

Each of the disciplines above I wish had been part of my early music education. They weren't, and as a consequence I have spent most of my musical career putting them in place for myself, and realising how things I struggled with in the past were almost all a direct consequence. I have been able to develop these things and I now keep them in 'training' but, wow, I wish I'd had them in the first place.....

*As a conductor, I have had the amazing privilege of performing with a number of outstanding soloists. Almost all of them, but especially those instrumentalists who have stood out as truly exceptional, were singing either before they learnt to play, or were doing it alongside. Next time you meet an outstanding musician, ask them if they sung as a child; I will pretty much guarantee that they did.

Read Part 1 here

More information about Tom Hammond can be found at his website.

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