Misconceptions about approaching music learning
A time ago, I made a research on how to enable anyone to play music. This idea was rooted on my own experience around musical learning experience; and I seized the context of my university degree project to think about it. It happened that at music classes in school, I always felt as someone musically handicapped. One of many people that then would have said “I am inborn unable”. But it also happened to me that in the same mindset that has someone who plays a videogame, I started to play with a software called Fruity Loops. I went out of school convinced that I didn’t have skills as musician (and in that time, i actually didn’t had them), but for a reason, I never left this game of creating electronic music pieces. Maybe because I liked them myself, and I really enjoyed making them. Until many years from school, if I would have been asked whether I was a bit musician, I would have denied; but actually at that time -I realized later- I was working with concepts on harmony, rhythm and reading that my musically skilled mates didn’t yet had domain of. Once I noticed this fact, I got intrigued about the huge gap that was between how music is learned and how is taught. In most of teaching contexts, music was being taught in a way that was perfect for not letting the learners to learn.
The questions “you know how to play music”, or “are you a musician” are too vague to answer. It could be asserted that everyone is musician, because actually anyone can hear music and understand it, as much as it can be asserted that very few are musician because almost no one is able to really do what it wants while making music. The curious thing is that these questions are always answered with security. There is a sort of social respect about asserting oneself as a musician or not, almost at the level as it is respected to be or not a medic. It is true that there is a huge difference in terms of musical knowlege, between someone that develops music as a professional career and a rookie, whose musicality circumscribes to the hobby. But also the music is something for everyone; and I think that the enjoyment of music is something so natural and universal as the need to eat. That is why I would like that the process of learning music started always by forgetting about this judgment of being musician or non-musician. There is no milestone to mark when one starts being musician. There is not an attribute needed to be musician. And we could stay happy letting this issue to remain if it was innocuous, but in the practice, this question invalidates anyone’s intention of making the music learning process motivated by the process itself rather than attaining a goal. The first concept that we will split is between someone that is a musician, and someone that is music-able. Someone that is music-able, will be someone that has certain training, and the potential to make music and enjoy it. When we refer to being musician, we are going speak about anyone, at the moment in which he is playing. We are not going be speaking necessarily about someone that develops this as his main life activity and way of living.
If someone is interested to enter into music, is very important that he doesn’t contradict the way in which he understands this music-ability. It happens to most of the people that are interested in music, and actually have the ability, they dive through guitar lessons, because it is the standard way to do so; and despite that the teacher could be a great teacher, they end up frustrated, because the process is simply impossible to enjoy in many stages. The difference between one way of being musician and other is big; despite that all of them share a lot of common required skills. We could visualize this in the following polarity line, in which we sort all the different ways of approaching music. In the leftmost side, we will put the most linear activities; and at the right, the most divergent activities. this distinction between the linear and divergent activities is defined by the extent with which the musician intervenes in the course of the music.
In the left pole, I putted the block that contains “hearing”. Hearing could vary from unattended hearing (1), into the attentive hearing (3), distinguishing instruments, identifying parts, or any feature in general; with which the hearer analyzes the music. Therefore there is an active musical activity in the extent that a musical world is created in the hearer’s mind. The hearer has an experience of the music with which it takes part in the musical piece, thus, becoming a musician. The process of actively hearing can be creative because different visions of a single exact acoustic phenomena, can generate different perceptions, according to the hearer’s cultural luggage. In the same way as it can happen with a graphic piece, a movie or a text. It is the the typical thing that happens when someone that is used to classical music, hears pop music from the radio. If he doesn’t understand the pop culture and it’s musical language, he will not value any feature of those. People usually adjectivize some musical styles as the good ones, and others as the bad ones. What actually occurs, is that the subject is able to access some styles, and some others are foreign (and in some cases, hostile)A bit more to the right, and being a less linear act, we find the act of playing a musical piece. When we read and play something that has been composed by others, we can choose between adding something creatively without detriment of being accurate with was written, through, for example, the way in which tempo changes and deviations are expressed, or where the interpreter puts accents and emphasis; according to how he understood that the composer wanted to express it. Being more flexible, the interpreter could invent his own way to play the piece.(Compare this interpretation with a computer’s interpretation, ignoring the timbral differency) Linearity when playing a piece that was composed by some other, can vary from the accurate interpretation (2), being the least interpretative, up to the altered interpretation (4), changing the intended instruments by others, as it could be done in a cover; or actually making alterations to the composition(6), which is a bit like composing.
For me, the difference between composing (7-9) and improvising (5-8) has to do with the order of the factors. When improvising, the music is created while it is being played. When composing, the music is created before it is played. In this sense, the improvised music, is a process that only permits the music to exist as long as there is a musician playing, and the composed music, behaves more like a painting that starts existing from its creation, and remains in it’s medium (be a score sheet, or an audio registrations as cassette or mp3). In this way, composition over improvisation offers the possibility to reflect more about the particular musical piece and all of it’s details. It could happen that between improvisations, some patterns remain and repeat, giving place to a re-think of it, and occurs this same composer reflection process, in the context of improvisation. We could say that in some improvisations, composition ocurrs.
The first step of becoming music-able is to learn that music learning is not confined only to musical instrument training, but it can also be developed creating music, hearing, improvising etc.
When children learn to draw, they see their own creations as if they were of the same quality as the professional ones, made by reknown artists. This effect remains as long as the kid’s perception for drawings stay paired with the evolution of his own drawing capability. If the kid stops drawing for a long time, it will start perceiving the gap between his own drawings and the professional ones. The same could occur with musical composition, and at a more mature age, because music is more abstract, and the ability to judge the quality of some music, is matured when music is exercised by hearing, playing or composing). This effect is positive, and the creator should look for the retribution that his own judgment grants, as motivation to keep learning, and the judgment of others to know whether he “is ready” or not.
I personally think that anyone that remains restless in a way or other about becoming music-able, should try it. Through deep interviews with some people, I have seen that the main explanation for not having learnt music, is becoming frustrated with how difficult and boring was to get something out from the learning attempts in school. Here we discover two problems. The most obvious is the wrong approach in music teaching. I will explain better this misconception later, when I refer to the concept of autotelic. The other problem is less obvious. It has to do with the conception of being musician. there is a cultural notion around being or not being musician, and looks like, one could be a dedicated expert, or not to have relation with music whatsoever. But when we put the activity of hearing music between the creative musical activities, we start to understand that anyone is potentially music, given its ability to dominate the musical language, enough to understand it.
The self-perception of not being music-able, puts the person in a position of respect and distance with musical instruments, and to any attempt of composing and experimenting. I have accidentally made a couple of experimental tests. By lending a Kaossillator, to people that had this aversion to music, it resulted in the ignition of a strong enthusiasm to keep playing. The Kaossillator has a character that is not perceived much as a musical instrument to which respect should be held; and for this, there is not a pantheon of experts, as it would happen with guitar or piano. These people, approached it without preconceptions. One of them, Gabriela, told me: “I wasn’t interested in relating with music in any way, but this showed it to me in a different way”. Since that moment, we kept speaking about composition and music in general.