Thursday, October 1, 2009

Just Solve the Equation Once

Hi all. Today, I want to share some thoughts about playing in an ensemble. Specifically, playing in an orchestra. I think that this also goes to the art of teaching students to play in an orchestra. I have been thinking a fair amount lately about my students and their approach to orchestra. Actually, I don't think that this is limited to my orchestra. In fact, I am pretty sure that this concept applies to most, if not all, student groups. I have noticed it at every level of high school player - from the average school orchestra, to the all-state level.

Yesterday, I was running an orchestra rehearsal and was giving fingerings to the violin section for a particularly challenging section. As we came to a similar section, I asked the kids if anyone had marked in their fingerings. Out of 19 first violinists, only 1 stand (2 players) had done this. And it compelled me to say that we should only have to figure out an equation 1 time. Once we have "figured out" the correct way to finger a passage, we don't want to have to figure it out again. We simply want to act - to play. Unfortunately, if a musician doesn't write specific notes in their part and they walk away for the piece for a day or more, they will have to figure out the passage again.

It is a lot like multiplication. When we are learning to multiply, we may have to figure out an equation. 6 * 5 = 30. We all know this now. But, when we first learn to do this equation, we probably have to do the addition: 6+6+6+6+6=30. After a while, though, we just know it. 6 * 5 = 30. Fingering on a string instrument is like this in many ways. When students first learn to play in 3rd position, they will probably have to put numerous fingerings and notes in their music. After a period of time, they learn the "language" of 3rd position and the notes are no longer necessary.

In more difficult literature, it is necessary to put well-placed fingerings and notes into a part when the music is too difficult to simply "read" each time it is played or practiced. For that reason, students are encouraged to have a pencil in class and to write in their parts. Oddly, though, this is not a natural thing for my students to do. They wait for me to tell them specifically what to write. This simply is not good enough. Musicians must be constantly solving the equations that are in the music and taking notes on their thoughts in order to be effective participants and members of the ensemble.

As a teacher, I have noticed that my students really want to gain the insights that I offer during class. They are fine musicians and extremely bright students. They are enthusiastic and receptive to my instruction virtually every minute of every class. I'll bet your students are similar. (I know that lots of teachers don't enjoy that same attention, but that is my experience at NCSSM.) So, what is the roadblock to effectively solving the equation just once? I think it is two-fold.

First, we need to encourage or even force our students to be musicians. They need to be scientists in science class. Be mathematicians in math class. Be writers in English class. You get the point. It is not enough to be a music student in an orchestra. You have to be a musician. You have to think like a musician, feel like a musician, listen like a musician, count like a musician, BE a musician. Too often, I think that we expect our students to be music students, not musicians. But, how do we get them to do this?

We have to teach them how a musician thinks. We have to teach them HOW a musician counts, how a musician listens, how a musician moves, how a musician feels. I think that too often, we get so caught up in the facts ("make that C sharp higher, hold your bow this way, etc.) that we forget to teach the thought process. Sometimes, we also (and I am guilty of this) we deal with the emotional aspect of the music much too early in the process of learning a piece. Ultimately, before we have effectively taught them how to think the piece. Really, I am concerned that it happens in many, if not all classes. This came up in rehearsal recently when we were doing a passage that called for triplets against a duple eighth note figure. I asked the kids what they should be thinking as they approach the passage. No one could answer. They kind of knew how to play it, but no one knew what to think. So, we spent some time on the thought process and the passage cleaned up really nicely. Following the discussion, I asked the kids what they had written in their part. No one had written anything. We had just broken down again. For once we moved away from that passage and came back to it, no one (or at least not many) would have retained that information. They would have to solve the "equation" of that passage again. That is not how an orchestral musician works. We only want to solve the problem one time.

I really wonder how much instructional time in the American education system is lost to re-solving equations. Or maybe the question could be more accurately asked, "How much time could we save in the American educational system if we taught students to solve equayions only once across all disciplines?"

I had an interesting conversation with my good friend and Drama Instructor at my school about this topic. He expressed a similar frustration with students that take minimal notes during the blocking of a scene. They have to re-solve the equation of blocking at the next rehearsal, and the next, and the next. Thus, never getting to the real business of acting. I have a hunch that every teacher could find a similar scenario.

So, my goal for this year is to teach my students how to THINK like a musician. I want them to only solve problems one time. Once it is solved, let's move on to the next problem. Or, better yet, lets solve the equations and move on to the business of moving people with music. The reality is that we have to solve the equations first. We just don't need to solve them over and over.

That is where my head is today. I am sure there will be more on this topic as we move forward.


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