Ed Pearlman

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 country. He tours, often with his son Neil, a pianist in Scottish/jazz/Latin/funk styles. Ed directed the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club for 18 years, including major concerts and festivals. He has 3 CDs of his own and appears on others. His primary expertise is in Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle styles, but Ed plays other Celtic, American, and Canadian fiddle music, classical, some jazz, klez and Hungarian. For ten years he ran a CD distribution company to bring music to the USA from Scotland, Atlantic Canada, Ireland, Brittany and Wales. Ed has written the music column for Scottish Life magazine since 1996.

teaching music

The latest scientific research about mind vs body has huge implications for music teachers.  We are constantly working with the “body” to train our students’ ears and muscles to produce music.  Meanwhile, we continually work with the “mind” to manage egos, mental blocks, learning styles, and the basic disconnect between playing music and verbally describing it.

The bottom line in the new science is that there is no mind versus body.  The mind/body split, which has taken center stage in Western civilization for the past 2500 years, appears to be bogus.  Research now speaks of “embodied intelligence”.  The complex bodily systems are engineered to function and communicate so well with each other — electrically, chemically and physically, with whole-body signals taking place at a rate of about ten times per second — that the brain really functions more as a mediator and coordinator than as some kind of executive director.  One book likened the brain to being director of the choir, rather than the pilot of a machine.

I’d recommend the book I’m reading to anyone interested in this groundbreaking research.  It’s called Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks, by Guy Claxton.

One reason I’m excited about this book is that I’ve subscribed to its conclusions for some time now — I think my first Music Teachers Helper blog post relating to this way of thinking dates to 2008.  It is thrilling to see science support these ideas with detailed research, as described in Claxton’s very readable book.

You can read a few of my past posts* on this subject here in the Music Teachers Helper blog — especially Reversing the Learning Process.  In that post I suggest that while many people presume the brain tells the fingers what to do, and the ears decide if we got it right, the actual process is the reverse — the ears are in charge, and learn very quickly what is wanted; the muscles try to please the ears by testing and rehearsing their movements; and the brain takes notes on what has happened in order to provide help organizing and replicating it next time.

Science says next to nothing directly about the effect of “embodied intelligence” on music, and that’s not only true of Claxton’s book but also in many other areas of research, including work in linguistics and dyslexia.  I can’t explain this disconnect, but whatever the cause, it does free us musicians to explore the meaning and impact of this research on our field.

The research calls into question any teaching of a musical instrument that places music theory as its top priority.  Consider that perhaps the names of notes, chords, harmonic progressions, keys, and musical syntax are all ways of organizing and deeping our awareness of what we hear and play, and should be presented after listening and trying the music, not before.  Perhaps the physical relationships of half steps, whole steps, the “microballistics” of hitting a note are all more important than, or at least take precedence over, memorizing theoretical concepts.  Theory and practice are both important but what really comes first for the student?  That’s the question for a music teacher to consider.

Maybe a student should experience a G scale and arpeggio before being required to recite the names of the notes in the scale or its key signature.  The theory can then be presented as an exciting way of understanding what the ears and fingers are already experiencing.  Maybe our method books would be better off placing the section on musical notation and theory later on, after some physical work has already been done, rather than at the beginning of the book as if these technical details were the foundation of what is to follow.

The whole concept of what is right and wrong — what a mistake is — in playing music can change as a result of this research.  If you tell a student to play a C# and they don’t, is it really because they didn’t hear you or ignored you?  Or is the concept of a “C#” not as immediate to them as, say, the physical proximity of one finger to another, or the sound of the C# in relation to the surrounding notes?  Maybe the verbal description “C#” is lower down the pathway of perception than these other factors, and perhaps there’s a way to teach with a more immediate impact.  At minimum, allowing for this could be good cause for more patience and perception on the part of teachers as they try to figure out how students are feeling and thinking.

There is a large body of research on the subject but I’ll just mention one detail here.  There is a part of the brain called “Broca’s Area” which appears to control the syntax of language.  When it is damaged, people can still speak but cannot connect words fluently.  For example, instead of saying “the porpoise jumped in the ocean,” they might only be able to say “porpoise…ocean.”  Interestingly, there is a mention in the research that the same effect happens in the sequencing of music.

My question, however, is:  if a person with damage to that part of their brain can play or sing elements of music but have trouble sequencing them, what unit is being sequenced?  Nonmusicians might presume that the patient is having trouble sequencing notes — but the words “porpoise…ocean” are not single notes in a musician’s mind.  “Porpoise” could be written as a sixteenth followed by dotted eighth, and “ocean” could be a quarter note followed by an eighth note.  In other words, the basic units of music are not individual notes but relationships between notes.  The sequencing of music would then take place, not from note to note, but from one group of notes to another, or on a larger scale, from phrase to phrase.  Teaching someone to read a measure at a time would then prove to be an artificial and nonmusical way of learning the music, since often the last note of a measure is a pickup belonging to the next measure, much the way the word “guitar” could be written using an eighth note at the end of one measure leading to a quarter note at the beginning of the next.

I find the latest scientific research to be amazing food for thought in relation to music.  Teaching music particularly calls upon the science of learning and intelligence. In fact, since music is built on integrating physicality, emotion and thought into one act, the new science of “embodied intelligence” suggests to me that the playing or singing of music is one of the purest of human expressions.  It is up to us to find the best way to communicate that to our students.

*other related posts:  Beyond the Control Barrier, Mapify and Tonalize, Mind Over Muscle, Verbalizing the Work of the Ears, Muscularizing Music

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In talking about musical expression at a higher level, as we’re going to do here, I just have one caution to suggest first:  one of the biggest mistakes teachers and students make about musical expression is to imagine that it’s icing on the cake, that it takes place after all the technical hurdles are passed.  On the contrary, expression is not the reward for having technique — it’s the reason for developing technique!  It needs to be part and parcel of the learning process, from day one, or at least from very early on.

There is a good reason why stage actors hyper-exaggerate every movement or sound they make.  They have to not only express an emotional gesture, but they have to make you notice it.

Two stories about making you notice an emotional idea:  one story about a touring musician I heard and wished I could give a lesson to, and one about a series of drawings that I once made.
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Teaching Tempo

One fundamental question that lurks in the mind of students is:  “How am I ever going to play this music up to tempo?”

Many teachers have standard methods for speeding up a student’s playing, but there are several interesting ideas to consider on this subject, and they reflect different priorities about how to play music.

Perhaps the most common method for learning to play at tempo is to first learn the notes solidly at a comfortable tempo.  Then practice the music at slowly increasing metronome settings so as to arrive eventually at the correct tempo.

While I think this approach is valid, its weakness is that it sets the highest priority on getting all the notes right.

Tempo is not about the notes but about the beat.  One way to learn to play up to tempo might be to understand the beat first, and then fill in the beats with the correct notes.

Placing a high priority on understanding the beat means physically moving to the beat, which could involve the knee, the foot, swaying, breathing, and for string players requires a strong focus on good and consistent bowing.
Instead of reading the music as if every note was as important as every other, the student who focuses on beat notes would single out those beat notes for awareness and emphasis.

A good exercise for the student to try is to learn the beat notes for a passage of music, and then to invent ways of arriving at those beat notes on time.  If the student has heard the piece a number of times, the chances are good that their ears will guide them to actually play the correct notes.  But even if they are unsure, they can learn a great deal from finding their own pathways from one beat note to the next.

At heart, this is improvising, but it doesn’t really matter what we call it.  The learning process is that after inventing their own ways to get from one beat note to the other, they will appreciate better the choices the composer made, and will remember the music better because they will understand it from the inside, instead of merely memorizing what the music tells them to play.

Of course, the problem of playing the correct notes up to tempo still requires learning the notes.  But learning them in the context of arriving at the next beat note, and within the structure of a phrase, makes it far easier to learn the notes.

A good comparison can be made with speech.  It is far easier, quicker and longer-lasting to learn to say the phrase, “I like this music up to tempo,” than to learn the sequence, “i-l-i-k-e-t-h-i-s-m-u-s-i-c-u-p-t-o-t-e-m-p-o.”  Placing the notes within the beats, right from the start and engages the ears and the muscle memory of the fingers.

Special note:  A corollary to this discussion is that as much as we may want to get every note right, some notes are more important than others.  The beat notes are clearly the top priority for hearing music correctly.  This means we can relax a little about non-beat notes and trust students and ourselves to nail them down during the learning process, rather than panic about mistakes.  This too has a correlation to speech.  Our brains understand sentences that are misspelled if the first and last letters, and length of the word, are correct.  For example, we can understand, “I lkie tihs misuc up to tmepo” much more easily than if the initial letters were wrong:  “I klie to aply umsci up to etmpo.”

Cognitive studies have shown that drilling the same thing over and over fatigues the brain and yields diminishing returns.  Practicing something in different ways, trying new ideas, and playing games with learning, have been shown to allow for endless attention from the brain.

Learning notes as written and then drilling a passage at increasing speeds can be quite tiring and may have to be repeated many times to get lasting results.

But thinking a little bigger, placing the priority on learning the beat notes, improvising pathways between beats, then finding out the composer’s choices and learning them, noticing patterns within beats such as scales and arpeggios that lead to the next beat note, or even learning manageable bits of the music, such as phrases or half-phrases, up to tempo immediately rather than gradually — these are all intriguing games that allow a student to play up to tempo while gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for the construction of the music.  They’ll build in more musicality while arriving more quickly at their goal of playing up to tempo.

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