Practice Makes Perfect – Really?

Actually, I prefer ‘practice makes permanent‘!

Here is a short article exploring some of the often contentious issues regarding music practice. In it, I discuss how informed practice works to consolidate learning and thus the importance of appropriate preparation on the part of the students before commencing.

I also examine how the teacher’s guidance during the lesson can make practice more meaningful and productive for the student, and how careful a choice of words can make affect attitudes towards it.  This is all of vital importance, because, as we know,  the majority of the learning takes place away from the lessons – and away from the teacher!

Click here to read: Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?

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Music Education’s Love Affair with Literacy (it’s complicated)

There has been much debate recently regarding an article that appeared in The Guardian on March 27th bemoaning the ever-diminishing provision and status of music education in the UK: a valid subject, well worth any number of column inches, given the decline in school music provision not “since 2010, when the baccalaureate was introduced” as the author Charlotte C. Gill states, but since the early 1980s at the hands of Margaret Thatcher[1] and Sir Keith Joseph[2]; a trend that shows no sign of being reversed – at least in terms of government policy. Ms Gill makes some valid points concerning the importance of music education albeit in a confusing and sometimes self-contradictory manner. The two key issues she sees are that music education in the UK has become the preserve of a predominantly white, middle-class, academic mindset (in other words, ‘elitist’) and that teaching with an emphasis on music notation is a dominant symptom of the overly academic approach to musical pedagogy. This, she claims, renders the subject inaccessible and irrelevant to the needs of many if not the majority of school age students. As she puts it, ”music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement”. In response, there has been an outcry of indignation in the form of a letter published in The Guardian, with several musical luminaries among its signatories, and a plethora of articles and blog posts shared on social media. Several of these demonstrate a clear grasp of the issues surrounding music provision, but others, unfortunately, also contain contradictions and mixed messages even to the extent that, in effect, they lend support to some of Ms Gill’s claims. It is not possible, therefore, to come down firmly on one side of the debate or the other since there appear to be extremely valid points as well as errors and assumptions on both sides. Continue reading “Music Education’s Love Affair with Literacy (it’s complicated)”

Group Instrumental Teaching & Mixed Abilities

brass_band

As we all know, group teaching is a controversial topic. One of the most frequent objections to it (in my experience) is that since no two students will progress at the same rate, or in the same way, the activity is doomed to failure because the less able students will hold the faster learners back and conversely, the faster learners will leave the slower ones behind.  A ‘lose-lose’ situation, to coin a phrase.

However, I believe that these differences can indeed be accommodated

Continue reading “Group Instrumental Teaching & Mixed Abilities”

Benefits of Group Instrumental Teaching

11KLAS-tmagArticleDuring the 1990s, I was director of a music support service for schools in the UK. We provided mainly group lessons, so when interviewing prospective teachers,  I would ask them what they saw as the advantages or disadvantages of group tuition as opposed to one- to- one teaching. Their answers almost always (and I mean in more than 90% of cases), dwelt on the perceived disadvantages and very, very few advantages would be identified.  Some would say things like “Well, obviously, the best situation is individual tuition, but …”

Obviously!

I couldn’t see anything obvious about this at all! In fact, a great deal of reflection, research and experience had convinced me
Continue reading “Benefits of Group Instrumental Teaching”

Practice Makes Perfect – or Does It?

Actually, I prefer ‘practice makes permanent‘! Here is a short article about the thorny issue of music practice – how the teacher’s guidance during the lesson can make it more meaningful and desirable to the student, and how careful a choice of words can make a big difference to attitudes to practice.  All very important because of course, the majority of the learning takes place away from the lessons and the teacher! Excuse me…

Pythagoras and the Music of the Future Part II

It’s Harmonic Wave 2a relief finally to be able to post the next article in my series about the relationship between musical structures and the harmonic series. It’s a relief because my crowded schedule, which included writing a new (now finished) piece for solo piano, meant that I could only work on it sporadically. However, it’s done now!

Whereas the first article dealt with timbre, this one focuses on melody on harmony (well, mostly harmony actually) and, after tracing the development of harmony in relation to the proportions inherent in the harmonic series, illustrates the premise that music based on functional harmony (tonal music) and atonal music are very similar in at least one very important regard.

The two are often thought of as very different and even in opposition to one another, but in fact one grew out of the other and both are founded on proportions to be found at points – distant points perhaps – but nonetheless, points on the continuum which is the harmonic series.

It’s all becoming reminiscent of Heraclitus and the ‘unity of opposites’ once more I think! Read more here.

Tuning tips for teachers of young/amateur bands and wind ensembles

tuning_fork

Many will be used to tuning to a sustained note, usually A, or in the case of brass or wind bands, it could be a B flat. The problem with this is that many players will, consciously or unconsciously, compensate by correcting the pitch with the embouchure. Once the music starts, the tuning is ‘out’ again.

I have found the following sequence for tuning instruments very useful. It is a lengthy process initially, but it speeds up as you and the players get used to it and it pays dividends.

  1. Tune the first player to a digital tuner. This is optional because the main objective is to have the players in tune with each other not necessarily to the exact concert pitch, but of course you won’t want to be too far out.
  2. Have the first player play a short ‘open’ note. Short means about one second, but not less.
  3. Immediately, get the next player to do the same. You will find it is very easy to compare the pitches and give the necessary ‘pushing/pulling’ instructions to the players.  After a while, this process can become quite quick.
  4. Go through this process with each of the players and the first player, occasionally back-tracking to check those who have been tuned.
  5. When a section has been tuned in this way then have them play long unison note ‘forte’.
  6. Listen, and you will hear either beats or the octave above the tuning note ‘ringing’ out!
  7. Repeat the above until you are satisfied.

We hear the beats or octaves because of ‘sum tones’ and ‘difference tones’:  When two notes are played simultaneously, they produce additional frequencies which are the sum of, and the difference between, the frequencies of the notes being played.  If the frequencies are just 2-3 Hz out, then the sum/difference tones will be below our hearing threshold, but they will create ‘amplitude modulation’ of the basic tone creating the familiar ‘wah-wah’ effect. If they are in tune, the clear octave above will be heard.

For the sake of clarity, let’s take A as an example. Everyone knows that in standard concert pitch A = 440 Hz.

440 + 440 = 880;  in tune so ‘A’ one octave higher would be heard.

440 – 440 = 0;  no lower pitch would be heard, but

440 – 438 = 2; one note is flat so ‘beats’ would result

It gets a tiny bit more complex when one note is sharp, but this serves to illustrate the point.

Of course, after this and when your rehearsal is under way, the focus will be on intonation (the players) rather than tuning (the instruments).  However, you will find that once these tuning habits are well established and the players are encouraged to listen critically to, and correct, their own intonation, a considerable improvement in the richness of sound – across the entire ensemble – will result.

Pythagoras and the Music of the Future

Harmonic Wave 2I am just about ready to introduce the first in a projected series of articles discussing, in accessible terms I hope, the influence that the harmonic series has had on musical development since the Middle Ages. I will be discussing not only the connection between the harmonic series and timbre (the obvious one), but also the connections between this and the conventions governing musical structures such as rhythm, melody and harmony.

Ultimately, I will arrive at the conclusion that there needs to be a clear, natural (as opposed to contrived), relationship between the the diverse sets of proportions inherent in the harmonic series, and musical expression – now and in the future. Ironically, or so it might seem, I will also argue that whereas the development of functional harmony and therefore tonality was strongly influenced by our perception (maybe subliminal – I don’t know) of  the ‘inner workings’ of musical sound, the music that has already left, and will leave, tonality where it belongs – in the past – is equally bound up with these inner workings – particularly as represented by the harmonic series.

Many will know a great deal about the relationship between the harmonic series and timbre already, so may not find anything particularly new in the first article which sets the scene, so to speak.  To find out if you’re one of them, click here.

Music practice – making it happen and getting the best from it

Here is a short article about the thorny issue of music practice – how the teacher’s guidance during the lesson can make it more meaningful and desirable to the student, and how careful a choice of words can make a big difference to attitudes to practice.  All very important because of course, the majority of the learning takes place away from the lessons and the teacher! Excuse me…

Do beginner musicians need to read music so soon?

It is so often taken for granted (students, parents and teachers) that early music lessons will involve learning to read music. After all it’s essential isn’t it? Well, I’m not so sure it is.

In this article, I discuss some of the pitfalls of insisting that beginners – particularly children – read music before they can play with a degree of fluency. Let’s Make Music…