What Good Music Students Know
Over the years a music teacher will occasionally encounter students who make it all worthwhile. They may be self-taught, never having formally studied with a teacher before, or indeed they may be just starting to play. But they seem to just “get it.” They don’t require much guidance and they don’t make many wrong judgments. The learning curve resembles the trajectory of a missile. In a few months they are playing with others, and in a few years everybody knows who they are. Then they move to New York. Who are these people, and how do they do it?
The crowds gather at the gigs and offer their pronouncements. It is said that they have “talent.” What is talent? We describe it by its effects but we cannot define its essence, and for some reason that seems to be okay with us. Talent is a word used by doting parents at their daughter’s dance recitals. A term sometimes recklessly tossed around by writers and teachers. A label used to describe something most people lack and don’t know how to acquire. You are born with it, but what if you aren’t? To believe in talent, and then to conclude that you don’t have it, is to give yourself permission to fail. Talent, real or myth, is not a useful concept.
What is useful is to focus on behaviors that can be observed and recognized. There are such things as passion, the will to succeed, organization, good study habits and persistence. Whenever someone of any age exhibits an unusual degree of musical skill there is always an explanation. It usually has to do with exposure to the right circumstances at the right time. But, again, what do these people know?
They know where to place and to hold their attention. The key to learning music or any creative endeavor is to get the brain out in front of the hands and to keep it there. When exposed to a new skill, the mind does not automatically know what to do. NASCAR drivers, heart surgeons and commodities traders have been trained to know where to put and keep their attention. If someone takes Driver’s Ed, or swimming or skydiving lessons, they are exposed not only to the skill itself, but also the method by which the information was transferred to them. If the student is curious and paying attention, HOW these things were imparted to them is often just as interesting as the results themselves. The process for them is to identify everything involved, prioritize it and start with the most important thing. They focus on the process, not on the results, and they often find such a focus rewarding.
The nature of mastery. To arrive at mastery means to solve a problem multiple times using multiple solutions. For example, reading music in the conventional sense means identifying a pitch, locating it on the instrument and playing it. However, music can also be read by thinking of the notes in terms of the scale degrees they represent, which is a more relative approach. Another tack is to identify the intervals by which the notes differ, and then play the intervals. Those who sight sing might look at the notes as a singer, “hear” the music mentally, and then play by ear.
If you know the task via multiple skills, there is a choice when solving on-the-spot reading problems like transposing, unfamiliar clefs, etc. In general, mastering music means employing the piano, writing things down, comprehending music that is read, “spelling” by reciting the names of the notes out loud and singing. Play a scale on the piano, saying the name of each note out loud just BEFORE you play it, write it on the staff, look for fragments of it in a fake book, spell it away from your instrument exactly as it appears in your range, sing it, and finally practice it on the instrument.
They always do it like it is the first time. Less successful people are often in too much of a hurry. They start to learn using the more analytical parts of the brain, but they are quick to abandon this more stressful and arduous way of doing things. So they practice by using their memory rather than analytical thought, prematurely trying to remember what has not yet been imprinted securely. It’s like stepping on the gas and then coasting. Our child of destiny is in less of a hurry to get something over with. He or she is less trustful of fully remembering something just learned, and they keep the analytical brain burning far longer into the process.
The difference between study and practice. Students and teachers of music use the term “practice” far too much, and the term “study” far too seldom. There is nothing to practice unless you have studied first. To study is to take a skill that you do not possess and turn it into something you can utilize. At this point the metronome stays off. When it is right it will be slow and halting, with lapses of time, but with no wrong notes. The student takes the time and expends the effort to remain in control until the last sound. Once a skill can be demonstrated in this fragile way, the metronome is turned on, but never faster than the student can think. Practice means taking something which is understood and making it more comfortable, flowing, familiar and stress-free.
The Tripod. Musicianship is supported by three components, in the fashion of a camera supported by a tripod. One is the mind. The musician needs to clearly know what needs to be done, the theory behind it and the form it will take. Another is the technique. You need to know what your hands or lips are going to do just before you do it. The third is the ear. You need to know what the notes are going to sound like just before you hear them. If any one of the three is weak or ignored there is no creativity. Most are far more adept in technique than in the other two.
The “100 Times” rule. If in fact a concept has been “studied” and is ready for practice, once again the better judgment of a good student overrides impatience. This is the time for repetition and lots of it. If a student studies correctly, has the concept memorized and is ready for practice, 100 times will do it. It does not have to be all at once. The student could keep track, do things in groups of 10 and write things down so that one can pick it up where it was left off during the next practice session. Good students aren’t in any hurry to finish. They couldn’t care less how long it takes. When it’s over, it’s over, and it gets learned.
To summarize, one who has taught highly successful students is in a position to notice that they seem to fit into a kind of template. There is very little drama. They don’t seem to need much direction, and occasionally will accomplish a task differently than the way they were instructed. They know a lot of records. They go to the concerts, too. They are curious about music, but also they seem curious about many other things. If they have perfect pitch, they probably grew up in a house with a good grand piano. But it is ultimately about curiosity, an unhurried pace, an imposition of method. The road to mastery is complicated, but the more you explore it, the less you are prone to think of it as mysterious. And regardless of what you think about the existence of “talent,” you learn that it is a type of bigotry, and not a useful or helpful concept to throw around.
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