Musical from the Start

July 15th, 2010 by

A student of mine attended a music camp recently where she learned several fiddle tunes.  One of them was a tune she already knew but she found it confusing until she realized that the teacher was only teaching the notes.  Her fingers felt awkward playing the notes without fitting them into the consistent bowings that she had previously learned.

The teacher explained that the focus was just on the notes, not the bowings.  But this brings up a question all music teachers deal with.  What are we actually teaching when we teach a piece of music?  Is it really just one note after another in the right order?  Do we add musical ideas only after notes are learned?

Painting by Neil Macpherson

Strangely enough, many students learn music that way, and yet we would never think of learning to speak in that way.  Think about how you might learn a line if you were performing in a play — say, for example, the first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Being an experienced English speaker, you probably would have no trouble remembering that line:  “If music be the food of love, play on.”  Not only does this line flow easily, but you’ve probably heard it many times before.  A line of music could be easy to learn for the same reasons.

But supposing you found that line difficult to remember, you might break the line up into parts, for example:  “if music”, “be the food of love”, and “play on.”  This is comparable to learning each of the phrases of a piece of music.  Once you feel you know the phrases you would string them together and remember the whole line.

If that still was too difficult, you might even try to memorize the line one word at a time:  “if”, “music”, “be”, and so on.

But you would never learn that first line of Twelfth Night the way my student was being taught at the music camp–note by note, in sequence.  That would be like learning the line, “i f m u s i c b e t h e f o o d o f l o v e p l a y o n”.  And what if you tried five notes at a time instead of the whole line?  That would be like learning “i f m u s” and then “i c b e t” and then “h e f o o” — doesn’t make much sense, does it?  And yet you could eventually, with a lot of work, learn that line.

But if you really thought that was the only way to learn the words, you’d probably break into a sweat about how in the world you were going to learn the rest of your lines, much less recite them as if they made sense!  You might also generalize (and this might ring a bell for music teachers) and feel that you will always have to drill the notes over and over until you finally remember them.  But learning those notes may not actually be that difficult.  It may just be you are trying to learn them in an inefficient way.  As teachers, we not only give the notes but also try to find the most efficient way for each student to learn them.

If the notes of music are like the letters of the words, then bowing, tonguing, breathing, squeezing — whatever your instrument requires for articulation — is how we group those notes into meaningful groups or into phrases, just as we group letters into words, and words into phrases.  It is essential to learn those musical ways of articulation right along with learning the notes.  Otherwise you might find yourself trying to memorize one note at a time, as if learning words one letter at a time.

Ultimately, our goal is to make the music come alive.  Just as the lines of a play have to spoken as if the character just thought of them, music comes alive when it breathes, when the phrases hold together, and when the musical lines are delivered, not just note after note, but phrase answering phrase, the way they were conceived.

Making musical sense is all about grouping notes into phrases, and we use bowing, breathing, and so on, as techniques to hold phrases together.  These techniques may seem like extra, or even advanced, tasks, but actually they make it easier for students at all levels to learn and retain music–and to play it better.

It requires flexibility and resourcefulness for teachers to build musical ideas into teaching right from the beginning.  We have to avoid giving students more than they can handle, but that shouldn’t mean breaking music into dry, prepackaged technical building blocks.  To grow a musical student, musical ideas and articulation have to be part and parcel of learning, to make the music live and breathe right from the start.

Posted in Music Theory, Practicing, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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