The boy announced his age with pride, nine years of age just yesterday. However, “no," he never took music lessons before, he did not know how to read music and he did not own a piano at home.
Obstacles. Seeming unsurmountable, yet here he sat before me on my piano bench ready to learn what ever he could while in my studio.
People often fail to understand the commitment of learning music; when they bring their children to a first lesson they list reasons their child will on certain days not be able to practice. Expectations often involve missed lessons as an insignificant priority. Structured daily practice often overlooked due to other priorities, such as play dates with friends whom they haven’t seen in a long time, or homework, or just plain fatigue from a schedule so packed no sane person would attempt it. However, their naïveté aside, consistent practice, something the body requires in order to perform needed skills, means less than daily to these kinds of parents, rather it means when they are able to fit it in. A mistake.
Still, these people heard somewhere that the study of music develops good things for you and so some sort of exposure as a part of an over all curriculum best motivates the onset of music lessons. At least there can be fun activities to keep them going. And, it is not their mistake. So music is leangen
The body does not learn anything immediately, except for perhaps the clear and present danger of a wolf chasing you. Normally, good experiences and fun, registers as beneficial to our survival and we therefore keep chemical signatures locked in the brain until needed. Each night as we sleep the brain prunes what it considers inessential for survival and we forget about these experiences, from the effect mainly of adrenaline and cortisol. Waking afresh, we steer a course for the day. If it includes the practice of a musical instrument, then we more than likely keep that experience registered. However, if practice occurs only on occasion, the body determines the activity non-essential and prunes our hard work from those days we did practice. It is as if we have never practiced and this breeds discontentment and discontinuing.
“These are not my rules,” I tell my students. “Think of what would happen if we learned everything we experienced at the moment of our experiences. The subsequent confusion would not be of interest to me! Too many conflicts, too many dissonances, disagreements, contradictions. Thankfully, over time we learned to learn slowly. Patiently. Step by step, as in a journey, be it walking to or from school, or hiking the Long Trail. And, oh, you cannot change this about yourself. It is just the way it is. Daily practice to learn playing music is in our DNA."
So, looking at this recently nine years old, wondering what his motivations might cause him to do as lessons continue, wondering what is his approximate Musical Aptitude and Emotional Intellectual Quotient, I typically size him up as a student with some promise as long as his parents support him encouraging daily home practice. That is, if he and his family can get the necessities together: a piano, music books, and the ability to persistently recognize true fun.
When practicing or performing, if you are not having fun you are doing something wrong. However, one must discern the experience of real fun carefully. All too often we equate excesses with fun, or with an arrogance, or a superior regard for ourselves over the performances of others, and this sometimes becomes our goal for fun! I’ve witnessed students, even music teachers laugh haughtily as a player struggles with a passage. In this society, often competition seen as the end to a means or of a journey, and practice pushed beyond our limits can appear as fun. What breaks down when people act that way starts after the competition, when one often needs to sit down next to the very people competed against and to play cooperatively while having true fun.
However, our bodies do not react these ways to signal success and fun. Rather, the chemical states encouraged by the above behaviors are forms of destruction which clear the way for fun and learning. To keep good skills, we must perform good deeds, which over time build good talents and the pleasure, or fun, we seek when we show up for our first piano lesson, even without a piano at home for practice.
Neurons that fire together wire together and with enough wired together bonded by the “feel good” chemicals, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, noreprinephrene, constellations of neurons form and form with a record of a fun talent. Once enough occurs on the constellation level, networks are formed. When enough neurons fire together and we recognize, understand, comprehend the network or constellation patterns, we comprehend, understand, and reach some level of learning or enlightenment. “A-Ha” moments are tantamount to the formation and comprehension of these wired patterns. The discipline to remain within limits of eustress provides us with continued guidance and the registration of fun, as we pursue our activity for more. The development of certain levels of skill or talent aids survival, so we continue. This process of learning the arts is the highest, most complicated activity known to humanity. To process music, we use 22 areas of the brain, more so the any other activity in which we engage. This includes as recently identified area of the auditory cortex dedicated to the process of hearing of music. Music is in our DNA.
That is a lot of different processes. We are designed to focus on one activity at a time. For a moment, try to complete a repeated task and once comfortable with that task, introduce another. You will find your mind will focus only on one activity at a time. Multi-Tasking is an illusion conjured by focus on one act followed quickly by focus on another, and others in quick succession, which makes it seem we operate several tasks at once. Sort of like how pixels create a digital picture. Making music is difficult because of this very basic built in existential aspect of being human. For those old enough, notice what it means to drive a car. One relaxes and allows the information to stimulate the appropriate responses, again, for our survival.
We find it a must we focus on relaxation and allowing the music to come together in performance; per, a prefix meaning through or respecting every member and form means our bodies. Performance, then, means the result of our ability to move through our form with our actions, our creativity, our meaning, our contributions.
The nine year old boy knows none of this, yet he knows almost all of it. Executive functions do not grow as part of our brain until about aged 25. However, at aged 9 this boy has come to the end of a process few of us realize happens to us. Between the ages of 2 and 9, perhaps as late as 3 to 10 for boys, our brain hardwires itself regarding our sound experiences. Location, pitch, rhythm, beat, connected and separated sounds (articulation) doppler effect, each sound is categorized and this once complete the result serves as a sort of sound vocabulary for the rest of our lives. The process is not as simple as recalling a song, or even establishing musical preferences. It is more elemental than that. However, this does provide us with our potential for making music, among other things. Tests can measure our acuity, that is, our abilities to discriminate differences in sound patterns, and then ranking is established among those who take these tests by percentiles. If you score an 80th percentile, you scored more accurate answers than 80% of those who took the test.
So, the boy knows much more than he realizes. The challenge of music education and perhaps education in general confronts the teacher to guide the student towards understanding and ultimately comprehending to the extent possible his/her connections with their aptitude. Work processes this aptitude while affording us the possible experience of building reliable skills, which in turn develops what we identify as talent. Such is the boy’s task. Simple?
Not quite. Recall the 22 areas of our brains processing music as we play. Think of the complexities activating 22 areas of the brain will cause us to feel. In fact, autopsies show musicians grow larger corpus colosseums [the connective tissues between the hemispheres of the brain.] than others, because their brains must use areas from both hemispheres of the brain and these communicate necessarily while making music. This means many internal and external actions occur as we make music. It is too complex to completely comprehend for most, including professionals. In fact, when interviewed together and asked if there is any type of person they do not want to work with at the MET Opera, James Levine and Placido Domingo answered without hesitation or consultation, “perfectionists.” These persons are likely drawn from the highest percentiles, or their upbringing fosters such attitude, and they use their aptitudes/attitudes to create ultimate scenarios that others cannot possibly imagine. Thus, when one does not perform according to the imagined outcome of the perfectionist, there develops a series of differences and ultimately uncomfortable misunderstandings. Add the demands of a perfectionist attempting to create their understanding alone and you see a recipe for disaster. Mid to high emotional I.Q. and mid-to-high aptitudes create the best candidates for making music professionally.
Such information does not help the teacher entirely, save for inspiring the imagination. Though aptitudes may be tested, talent: that is the product of aptitude and work remains an unknown for every student. We define talent after performance. Rather, gentle skill building with eustress is recommended.
A skill building exercise I use asks the student to play a passage, perhaps if needed several times, focused on one aspect, say counting beats, of the challenges of making the music they attempt to learn. Then, a second layer, such as recognizing correct pitch patterns is practiced, a third, such as articulation, a forth such as dynamics, and a fifth, say phrasing. Once each of these are practiced so they may be performed easily, with eustress, all are the encouraged through practice with a single performance goal: making the most beautiful music you can possibly make. This puts the student in a position of learning to relax, to identify threats or challenges, often even before they occur, as the player senses they are likely to occur, and then allowing the production of music with just a little bit of discipline. In fact, the effort in disciplining yourself should be just enough to maintain learning without distress. Other types of strategies compliment this process. [To be discussed throughout this book.]
Returning to the nine year old boy seated in front of me, I am faced then with how to motivate his daily attention, work, discipline, practicing. This is where connection, understanding, comprehension play a major role. At the beginning of a student’s journey simple rote practice, or repetition with an open mind to learning may serve the best route. However, just as driving a car requires us to notice signs along the way that guide us to keep within the bounds of safety, so, too, we look for signs in our musical development.
As an example, a tetrachord is a four note series played either melodically, that is one note following another, or harmonically, all notes played at once. The prefix tetra is Greek for “four”. Tetrachord means four specific notes categorized as a chord. In today’s tuning of notes we create a scale in which each note is equidistant to the adjacent tone [see pictures A, B]. This is called a half step. Two half steps do equal one whole step and a tetrachord is a combination of a note followed by a whole step, a whole step and a half step. This distinctive sound is both the lower part of a major scale and the upper part of the next scale to be found starting five notes down from the first note. Let us presuppose, then, that our student learns to play a tetrachord, he goes home and finds tetrachords starting on several different notes, perhaps even the the ordered relationship of scales five notes apart.
During this process he learns an “a-ha” moment when he hears the pattern distinctively as w-w-h steps. These upper and lower chords are heard differently according to the relations involved. They are examples of one of a variety of combinations of sound patterns that we learn. (see pictures ex. A, B) 📷
Notice the repeated pattern of two black keys and three black keys, in-between white keys. Also, we refer to moving to the left as moving down, or lower, and moving to the right as up or higher. These are not concrete terms we are certain of. We assume up or down, lower or higher. It has to do with the length of the vibrational wave of the note. Longer waves are referred to as lower and shorter wave as higher. Since longer waves are to the left on a keyboard, left is called down.
Tetrachord: start on the white note adjacent to and to the left of the two black keys. There are two possible keys useable as a starting place in this picture. Playing only white notes, play upwardly four keys for the first tetrachord. Then, move up one white key (a fifth key), and continuing to use only white keys play the next four. You should end on exactly the same place the key in the repeated pattern, only moved to what we call one octave up. Any key played up or down to the next key in the same place in the general repeating pattern of a keyboard is called an octave. Playing in octaves using one hand is fingered usually with the thumb or the first finger and the smallest or fifth finger stretched to the octave, then lifted and played the same way for the next notes up in a series. Sometimes, we alternate fingers four and five to play octaves.
We now have two patterns to learn to play: whole steps and half-steps, tetrachords, w-w-h and octaves; we must learn the pattern of keys on the keyboard, up, down, five keys apart using w-w-h plus a w and the identification of sound patterns invovled. At this point the nine year old should not discourage. A certain amount of information is needed to make sense out of our activity. If a discouraged feeling arises, the student must realize they have done something wrong and correct it. Remember, each step of the learning process continues successfully when practiced within an eustress situation. Here practice until a sense of comprehension that feels “installed” completes the lesson. A fundamental truth of learning music told me by every music teacher of mine in the past bears repeating: “In music learning, slow is fast.” This is because, and imagine the above lesson, when you distress yourself, you destroy brain connections and the body starts to learn again. Constellations, complex networks develop only within the bounds of eustress.