Sunday, December 22, 2013

Music and Education

I think I have mentioned that I was quite attracted to philosophy when an undergraduate--to the extent that I took three philosophy courses, two of them higher-level ones. I seriously considered switching my major from music to philosophy. But I think I can recall the exact moment when I decided not to. I was in the office of the chairman of the department, with whom I had just taken a course in philosophy of mind, and we were discussing a paper I had written for him. I think he was saying something like I did seem to be able to appreciate some important distinctions. But as he was speaking I observed his demeanor. He was like a disembodied intelligence housed in a physical body, but not so terribly connected to it. I have no idea whether this was a fair observation or not--for all I know he was a demon salsa dancer on the weekends--but that was my observation. And I continued to muse that one of the great things about music is that it engages you on all levels:
  • you can dance to it (it is somatic)
  • it engages on an emotional or mood level
  • playing is physically challenging
  • it is intellectually engaging as you study history and theory
  • it is socially engaging as you play with and for other people
And on and on: music is a whole, complete universe that challenges and engages you on virtually every level. I liked that. Philosophy, while fascinating, seemed too purely intellectual.

The reason I bring this up is an article I just ran across in Forbes about how students at university simply do not seem to be learning how to write. Here is how it opens:

Suppose you sent your daughter to a music camp—an expensive camp lasting months. She had said that she wanted to learn the violin, so you bought her a nice one and sent her off to camp.
Upon her return, you ask how the camp was and she replies, “Great! We studied lots of stuff about music and the violin.” Then you ask her to play something.
“Well, we didn’t play much and I still don’t know how to tune my instrument. But it was still a terrific experience!”
You would probably think that a music camp ought to concentrate on essentials first—tuning, scales, simple pieces—before moving on to music theory, music history, conducting technique, and so on.
For many American students, college is like that music camp. They take lots of courses and study lots of stuff (or at least seem to), but don’t even learn how to use the English language well. You might think that would be a top priority, but actually it’s not a priority at all.
The article goes on at some length to explain why no-one at university takes responsibility for instruction in writing. Of course, this should probably be done in high school, but that is another kettle of fish! So why is it so easy to avoid learning fundamental skills in writing, but the very idea, when applied to a music camp, is ridiculous? Why does the comparison work so well for the writer of the article?

I think it goes back to my observation about the differences between music and philosophy. In
Philosophy, as in English, History and probably the rest of the humanities, one can ignore basic fundamentals while constructing elaborate intellectual theories. In music, one cannot. If you cannot play a simple piece of music with some fluency, you will not be credited with being any kind of musician. BUT, and here is the rub, in many fields these basic skills have been denigrated as being part of a reactionary past that we have left behind. Just as, in the visual arts department, sketching the human figure may no longer be taught.

But there is something hidebound and traditional about music. As far as I know, all music departments still require all their students to take private music lessons and pass a playing exam at the end of the year. This may be being eroded around the edges--perhaps there are schools that have substantial electronic music programs where all you do is, in the immortal words of Deadmau5, "hit the space bar", but these are surely not the majority?

The wonderful thing about music in education is that it brings you face to face with yourself, I think. At some point you will find yourself all alone in a little practice room with your instrument and in front of you a little piece of music: perhaps a minuet by Bach. You are going to have to learn how to play that little piece: perhaps even memorize it. You will have to keep coming back to that little room until you do so. This is discipline and music is one of the best ways I know how to develop a personal sense of discipline.

Somehow people can go for years and years being unable to write simple prose. But when they are trying to play a piece of music the flaws and weaknesses and errors are very evident. It is not just that the teacher is pointing them out, is it? If that is the case then the solution to college is simple: just give everyone private lessons in how to write.

Of course, in order to have enough teachers to do that, you would have to fire nearly all the administrators.



Nathan Shirley said...

Excellent post, and a great argument for teaching music in the pre-k through 12th grade years.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, you bet! Not to mention teaching writing skills. But somehow the educational establishment has different fish to fry. Or different incentives.

Nathan Shirley said...

I'm reminded of that TED talk by Ken Robinson about education killing creativity which went viral several years back-

Bryan Townsend said...

I see why my post reminded you of that video--the stuff about the disembodied intelligence. That was very charming and funny, but I wonder if it is actually true that ALL children are creative? But it certainly seems true that the educational system is deeply flawed and designed for a previous time in which everyone was going to go work in a factory.

Nathan Shirley said...

In my experience teaching private lessons and going into classrooms, I've found it to be true. With older kids, 8, 10, 12 years old, you start to see a profound decline in creativity. By the teenage years most kids are nearly as uncreative as most adults, having had it beaten out of them. But young children have an amazing natural creativity. They draw pictures, make up stories, and it's easy to teach them to improvise music, though hardly any ever get that opportunity. Trying to teach your average adult to improvise is nearly impossible.

Some kids have a higher aptitude for music, art or storytelling, but they're all creative to a greater or lesser extent. Thoroughly train all kids in the arts and you might not see an explosion of artists, but you are likely to see an explosion of critical thinking with the relatively small side benefit of having an enlightened society who truly appreciates the arts.

Bryan Townsend said...

I wish I had had your experience! I only took students from age 8 up, so perhaps the decline in creativity that you mention was already happening, but my experience has been that there are not very many creative kids out there. Or maybe it was just my approach... I had a great experience once with a group of ten-year-olds that I taught. The four of them learned together and kept playing together for years. They turned into a pretty decent quartet by their mid-teens and one that I took on television shows. I even had them play at a music teacher's conference.

Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting speach by Ken Robinson. His point about not being afraid of making mistakes in order to be creative seems to be very true. I wonder how he suggests schools to nourish creativity better. The schedules are already pretty tight as there are lots of important things to learn already. Maybe if schools taught study techniques (speed reading, planning, when and how to use repetition, memorization techniques etc.) from the start it would ease up things a bit.

Anyways, I study electrical engineering and many times I get to hear that what you actually work with is quite different from what you learn in the education. In the education there are a few projects but mostly theory (physics (in my education mostly related to electromagnetism) and math mainly). But in actual work you most often work in project groups and use computers to do various simulations etc. Plus there are also important things like economy and contact with costumers, suppliers etc. Ofc being creative is important too. Still, it's important to understand how things work when working with them. The whole theory & calculation by hand etc. aspect is much more important if one wants to work at a university to get a Ph.D or get even further in the university hierarcy. It is very to true to what Ken Robinson (roughly) said about the ultimate (highest) goal of education is: to get university professors. I'm not denying that university workers do important work. University postgraduates, associate professors, professors etc. (at least) in engineering do important research and some is of the sort that most companies wouldn't spend money on. There are though probably areas in the university world that need a huge creativity boost (music composition seems like one of those areas, nothing more boring that an analytical approach (maybe 12-tone) approach to something so creative as music composition).

Rickard Dahl said...

speech*. I was in bed trying to fall asleep, then I realised I had made this strange misspelling.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't know what school and university are like in Sweden, but I imagine they are good. I know that Finland seems to have excellent public schools. There are some people in the US who think that sending your child to a public school is a form of child abuse. You certainly hear some crazy stories about what goes on in the schools. And the results don't seem to be very good. I did not find high school in Canada to be very good. But I loved university and, for me at least, it was an excellent experience. I did my degrees at McGill, which is an excellent music school. But I suspect I was an unusual student: I went in with the firm intention to squeeze all the knowledge I could out of every professor! I suspect a lot of students aren't quite that, uh, attentive.

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, the school system works pretty well in Sweden. Of course it all depends on the specific school, for instance if it's located in a poorer suburb the kids seem to have more problems and are generally meaner (in my own experience). The teachers are generally good although one stumbles across bad teachers sometimes. In my experience the upper secondary school (which comes after 9 years of elementary school) was more interesting as it was more specific (in my case focusing on technology). University is even better as you study something even more specific (electrical engineering in my instance), the students are more mature (and besides interested in the same thing basically) and the teachers are more knowledgable.

I can imagine public schools in the US are much worse off. I guess one of the problems might be that more students with problems (generally poorer) gather in the same schools causing things to be more chaotic. Also I suppose less money (and thus less resources) goes into public schools in USA compared with Sweden.

Anyways, slighly offtopic (but thought it might be interesting to mention): Next term (after the Christmas holidays) I'm going to work with a bachelor project (that I chose) called (roughly translated) "Musical effects with a digital signal processor". We will basically implement a digital signal processor for sound processing (it will be able to create effects such as echo, flanger, chorus & equalization).

Nathan Shirley said...

There are obviously a LOT of public schools in the US, most kids attend them as private schools tend to be extremely expensive. The range of quality in public schools is enormous, it covers the entire spectrum. For better or worse I'm a product of that system.

One of the main problems is though the schools are fairly well funded, music is viewed as nonessential fluff and so is nonexistent in a great many schools.

Bryan Townsend said...

Posts on education always seem to spark a lot of comments. Rickard, I was wondering if your electrical engineering side and your music side were going to get together!

Nathan, yes, a huge number of public schools of all kinds of different quality. The interesting thing is that, as you say, even while well-funded, they often neglect music as being "non-essential". I suppose you could say that a lot of aspects of civilization are "non-essential".

Some people refer to "public schools" as "government schools" which is what they are, of course. I am rather interested in the idea of education outside of the standard public school model. I must confess that, until I got to university, which I loved, I pretty much hated going to school. Reminds me of a quote from an episode of Buffy where Dawn answers the question "how was school" by saying, "Same as usual: a big square building full of boredom and despair." Yep.

Now one of the interesting things about music is that it always seems to have resisted the public school model. Public schools, apart from marching bands, don't seem to excel at music education. Private lessons are essential, for example, and public schools don't offer them. So everywhere that has good music education has private teachers and usually a conservatory. The province of Quebec in Canada has long had a province-wide conservatory system that consistently turns out very good musicians. Quality music education always seems to have a medieval flavor about it as the master apprentice model seems to still have traction. At the upper levels, there is still a tradition of handing down things that would never make it into an education "system". I have one exercise that I do that is very useful that I learned directly from Pepe Romero. He learned it from his father Celedonio who learned it from his teacher Daniel Fortea who learned it from his teacher Franciso Tarrega, the great 19th century guitar master.

I have a feeling that all the really interesting things about music, the essential flavor if you will, are squeezed out of it as soon as you try to turn it into a "curriculum".

Nathan Shirley said...

I think there is a lot of truth in all of that. But one very important exception to the idea that public schools are bad for music and that private instruction is the only way, is El Sistema.

That is very much a public system (although technically outside of school). There are all sorts of new systems based on El Sistema popping up left and right, including some very successful ones in US public schools.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very good point, Nathan! I'm afraid I know almost nothing about El Sistema, but it certainly seems to have had great successes.