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Watching is better than listeningIf you’re anything like me, it can be really challenging encouraging students to listen properly to their performance whilst at the same time playing (or singing).

The other day, one of my beginner pupils made the all too familiar statement: “I can’t hear a tune!” Yet any other person listening would have, like me, surely been able to make out the strains of Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy!”

So why then can it be so hard to actually hear what you are playing whilst in mid performance? And more importantly, how can students be encouraged to “hear” what is “good, bad and ugly” in their playing or singing so that they can improve?

The answer lies in two facts:

  1. most humans are better at understanding what they can see rather than what they can hear
  2. the process of trying to listen properly whilst at the same time read the music and physically play or sing is at best, extremely complex

So what’s the solution?

A simple method to assist students is to  [···]

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‘How musical is Man?’

musical manIs musicality ‘natural’ to humans? As a culture, we certainly describe music as something that is somehow ‘innate’ to humans as a species, or at the very least we think of music an especially effective, and deeply rooted, natural mode of human communication. ‘Where words fail, music speaks’ (Hans Christian Anderson), we might quote, or ‘Music tames the savage breast’ (Shakespeare), or ‘Life without music is a mistake’ (Nietzsche). We know we feel better when we make music, in particular with others, whether we play in an orchestra, sing in a choir, or simply jam at home with family or friends.

What is more, our media is brimming with references to new scientific studies confirming how participation in music benefits human health; turning these results around, it seems a small step to take to assume that human health ‘requires’ or is naturally designed to include some form of musical activity. As the anthropologist John Blacking famously posited ‘There is so much music in the world that it is reasonable to suppose that music, like language and possibly religion, is a species-specific trait of man’ (Blacking, 1973, p. 7).

We have all worked with students who appear to have be born able effortlessly to remember melodies, beat even rhythms, sing in tune, and in some cases even move fluidly from one instrument to another with very little additional instruction. We call these students ‘musical’, and it is always a thrill when a new student begins to sing or play for us for the first time and the evidence of this natural propensity for music begins effortlessly to flow.

Not musical enough?

keyboard 1And yet, every music teacher will have had at least one student who is not ‘naturally musical’. For some teachers, it may be the child who cannot immediately match pitch, while for others it may be an adult who, despite a great passion for music and a lifetime of listening, nevertheless struggles to beat four in evenly spaced units of time.

If, as our mythologies of human musicality suggest, Man is ‘naturally’ musical, where do these apparently ‘unmusical’ students come from? What can, and indeed should, we do for our apparently ‘unmusical’ students, and what, if anything, can they offer us as teachers? [···]

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