Sunday, February 24, 2013

Paperless World

Many students warn me that they "can't read a note of music" and are surprised when I pooh-pooh their concern. But music is a hearing art. It is not a visual art. People played music for millenia before anyone ever thunk up how to paint sounds on paper. If sound-recording devices had been invented hundreds of years ago, would we now be using written music notation? Can music writing long endure in this, the Age of YouTube?

"Think different" is not a new concept. I can hardly imagine the leaps and arabesques of abstraction it took to start from scratch, invent, and refine our modern two-dimensional mapping of sounds.  Standard music notation is an impressively complex, efficient set of symbols. It's called standard notation for good reason. But there other systems.

I'm used to working in tablature, an alternate graphic system which is instrument specific. Banjo tab uses a five-line system to map out where to place the fingers; guitar tab uses six lines. Many instruction books written in tab also add parallel standard notation, a handy Rosetta stone for literate musicians.  But that gets to be a lot of blobs swimming on the page and looks downright scary if you're already shy of reading. I had one banjo teacher who sketched out quick ideas for me using only a large numeral with small superscript to indicate string and fret, respectively. I use that minimalist system when it works best.

I have found that if I invite my youngest students -- who haven't seen standard music -- to invent their own music writing, they'll come up with some pretty creative ideas. Then I can mix their own graphic ideas with normal music symbols for more organic learning.

And for the adult students who warn me they can't read music -- or are worried because they've tried and failed? We get out our smart phones and make a little video of me showing them what to play; they can watch at home to jog their memory, and voila!

(Disclaimer: I do still write things down in tab or music, as needed. Literacy for its own sake is good. But when a bunch of dots on paper keeps you from the joy of making music, it's time to throw that page upon the fire of the ages!)


Dri Christides said...

I found this very interesting! I'm a prospective teacher currently in the process of attaining my music ed. degree. For one of my classes, I teach a group of 5th-grade flutists every Friday morning. Our professor stresses that we need to continue to work outside of the methods book, to teach them to play new concepts before they learn how to read them. Particularly when it comes to rhythms and even melodies. Which make sense. As children, we learn to talk before we can read. Music is a language, so why should it be any different? Plus, learning things aurally first really helps the student learn pitch relations and get the basics really drilled into their heads before being forced to multitask.

Suzanne G. said...

So how do you teach new songs? Do you model first? How do you have students not just imitate you? How do you teach them to make up their own tunes? I'm really interested in your answers.

Margie Mirken said...

Yes, I play for the student and have him/her do little bits at a time, then stitch the parts together (traditional tunes are often repetitive). I ask the student to describe the fingerings in words and we write those words on paper or make our own diagrams as a stepping stone towards more formalized writing. I call mistakes "variations" and we keep them if they sound good. I also teach specific tunes where the point is doing it "right". Ideally we build skills and repertoire; I try to show that the process is fun no matter how one learns to play.
Thanks for your kind words and thoughts! -- Margie

Layne Publications said...

I would have to say as a music teacher myself I found it easier to email the songs to students. Half the time spent in the lesson was writing out the songs and it was the same one I would teach over and over. I'm all for paperless!

Jordan Bourland