One of my best Christmas presents ever was a cuckoo clock, which I was given at a very young age. It was pure magic. Providing I regularly wound up the weights, the pendulum would swing and the sounds would begin; the steady tick-tock of the clock and the little bird singing out at regular intervals.
Then one day the clock stopped working. The pendulum was stuck to one side, but once I had worked out that the mechanism just needed a little oil, everything was fine again.
In the cuckoo clock that is music education, the pendulum sometimes stops swinging. Indeed, at the moment it seems to be stuck in one fixed position. This position we know as ‘teaching music musically’.
This was originally the title of a book by Keith Swanwick, which has since become inextricably associated with the Ofsted diktat ‘we want to see music being taught through the language of music’… So in a mad panic to follow this directive, teachers are trying to replace as much talking and writing as they can with musical gestures and signals. Students are singing and playing instruments for the entire duration of each lesson.
The problem with this approach is that it will only get you so far. It’s great for some aspects of classroom curriculum work and woefully inadequate for others. It’s great for getting kids to make music, and this approach will go some way towards helping them get an understanding of music. But for a fuller, deeper, more rounded understanding of music, there are times when we need words, talking and writing.
I’ve been reading Oliver Quinlan’s book The Thinking Teacher. In the chapter on technology, he counters the argument that kids don’t need to memorise stuff because they can access it so quickly from the vast store of information on the web. The point that he makes is that being able to retrieve data is not enough. If we want to understand the deeper structures, we have to internalise some learning. One example he gives is the learning of multiplication tables – sure we can find the answers fairly quickly on a calculator, but having this information internalized helps us to understand and recognise a vast range structures and patterns, in many different contexts.
It’s the same with music. I can look up a scale easily enough on Wikipedia, but if I have taken the trouble to understand how scales are constructed and how chords work with scales, then I then have insights into some structures in music. Here is an example. I have two students who are guitarists – one has some music theory knowledge and one does not. They were both learning to play the introduction to the Jimi Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower. They did this by listening, and both ended up being able to play it convincingly. Both worked out it is in the key of C minor. They play the appropriate scale and work out the notes. But here’s the difference. The non-theory player learns the piece and then goes back to his pentatonic noodling. The other player spots something interesting. In the opening phrase, he notes that Hendrix stresses two non chord notes – the note D over a chord of C minor and the note F over a chord of Ab major He comes to recognise and understand how Hendrix’s use of 9ths and 13ths is one of the factors which makes his music so distinctive. The student works with these ideas and is soon able to incorporate this feature into his own improvisations. In other words he can use his basic knowledge of theoretical frameworks to help himself develop as a musician.
The point I am making here is that without some basic knowledge of musical theory and structures, you will eventually hit a brick wall. Hendrix himself freely acknowledged this when he said, towards the end of his life, that he was thinking of signing up for music college so that he might explore ways in which he could take his music further.
Compared with some of the things we ask our students to learn, these musical basics are relatively straightforward skills. Most students will have no trouble understanding the basic concepts of two or three time signatures/key signatures, basic rhythm note values and the notes within the range of a treble clef. These can be instilled at an early age and provide enough of a foundation for those who may need to take them further.
Is it interesting to note that many classical and jazz musicians will continue to make musically creative and innovative music throughout their working lives. But very few pop/rock musicians do anything musically significant after that initial burst of creativity. And the few that do usually have theoretical frameworks they can draw on to help them develop their music over the ensuing decades.
We need to bear this in mind when we are teaching our students. We need to go beyond quick fix/instant gratification solutions that will keep them happy for just a short time. They need the tools and structures to enable them to go on making and enjoying music that will last a lifetime. If we want to help our students to continue exploring music many years from now, we need to keep that pendulum moving…