Some quick impressions 3 weeks into the project:
This week I announced a surprise playing test for beginning orchestra. Pretty simple--play a D major scale, play Twinkle Little Star and play a piece of my choosing. As students arrived they saw the pop quiz announcement and unpacked quickly to prepare. I could hear a difference in the group's sound even during warm-ups.
The students played for me one at a time. The rest of the class continued their individual practice. A happy cacophony. Another difference--they are making more sounds during down time. Some new tunes; some noise. Right now I think any sounds are good sounds. As for the playing test, I was astonished to hear every single student play with a well developed tone. I observed some technical issues such as droopy violins and make-do bow hands. But they all seemed comfortable playing their instruments. That is such a plus!
What have we tried so far? We experimented with volume of sound. How loud can you play? How soft can you play? We've also tried moods--playing with characters or playing with emotions. Without discussing the technical aspects we've tried to make our instruments sound happy, sad, tired, scared, proud. And we learned that adding mood impacts tone production. We are conveying feeling and that covers an enormous range of sound.
It could be that after 20+ weeks my students would feel more at home with their instruments in spite of the improv project. Certainly there will be improvements after a semester of lessons. How about this?--Improv is a great way to Improve! My guess is giving students permission to wail away on their instruments in class has carried over to home practice. I'll bet they are playing louder, stronger, and more courageously at home. My hope is by taking them out of the book and off the page we can find the spark that made them choose an instrument in the first place. They're making more sound--and that's what makes them sound like musicians.
Ever since I attended Mark Harris' fantastic clinic on developing musical expression I wanted to explore his concepts with my students. The idea of using an instrument as a way to communicate is something I've written about before. To teach musical improvisation based on spoken language concepts instead of chord structure is something new. It seems obvious to try this out with private students so they could receive the benefit of one-on-one coaching. You might be surprised to hear that I thought my beginning orchestra class would be the ideal place for this experiment.
My class played their instruments for the first time in the last week of August. They have been working on the notes of the D major scale for weeks. Most of this time with the same quarter note rhythm pattern. Half notes and eighth notes are a very recent addition. We're really just drilling the facts--like multiplication tables. As with any classroom, some students want to race ahead and others want to linger on the familiar songs. Let me tell you, the fact that tunes like "Jingle Bells", "Twinkle Little Star" and "Hot Cross Buns" all can be played with the notes of the D major scale has been a great motivator.
The biggest stumbling block for any student is reading music. Playing a stringed instrument is challenging enough--then you throw in note-reading? It's like learning a whole new language. In my private studio, I introduce most beginning violinists and violists to the Suzuki method which teaches music by rote. The method is geared towards very young students so we only tackle one new skill at a time. Fourth and 5th grade students have better developed muscle control and already know how to read so they can begin playing and reading at the same time.
It's a challenge for my orchestra students to focus attention on holding the bow while holding the instrument while reading notes on the page while listening to the teacher and all the classroom noise. It's an awful lot to filter. That's why I was eager to show my beginning orchestra students what they can do with their instruments right now--in spite of forgetting their books and forgetting how to find F#.
Last week I started the "Improv Experiment"--my name for this project. How is it working? Well, the best news of all is it seems to make the kids happy. No matter their level they can play and play together. I'm excited to see what will develop over the coming weeks. And I'm working on a plan to document their progress. Next time, I'll talk more about the details and results.
Last week I attended an inspiring clinic presented by Mark Harris, Saxophonist and Visiting Assistant Professor of Saxophone at Metro State College of Denver. The clinic was entitled "Sowing Seeds of Expression-Using (Non-Jazz) Improvisation to Develop Musicality." This concept was geared towards wind and brass instruments--there was even a quartet of young trumpet and woodwind players on hand to demonstrate. Though the principles we learned could apply to all instruments. He started the class with an important point: we teach elementary instrumental music by showing kids where their fingers go and how to produce a sound. And we can all agree that these are necessary skills. But when do we talk about using our ears?
This session was so exciting to me! Mr. Harris led the quartet through several demonstration exercises all based on listening. I want to emphasize that these were young players--early middle school-aged. The quartet was able demonstrate and discuss tone color, articulation, pitch and dynamics. What's more, they were tuned in to each other--each student took a turn leading a short musical phrase and the group followed with surprisingly accurate ensemble. (Many of you reading will understand how challenging it is to get musicians of any age to play together).
My favorite demonstration was "playing a musical scale." Mark started by reading the first sentence of "the Gettysburg Address" in a bland and boring monotone. They he read it again with feeling. He explained the difference between playing a major scale routinely or playing it musically. Each student had chance to play a musical scale. I'm laughing now thinking about the amazing things I heard. Each scale was unique and each scale was musical. The trumpet player experimented with dynamics, rhythm and smooth articulations. One of the saxophone players used punchy articulations, rhythm and rests, the space between the notes, to draw us in to his musical scale.
I left eager to try this with all my string students--from private students to the beginning orchestra class. Mr. Harris shared enough ideas to keep me cooking for a long time. To think that students so early in their training could make this leap across space and time. To go from wielding a clumsy tool to commanding sound, now that is truly astonishing. It's what all musicians strive for. The instrument is merely a mouthpiece that conveys the music we want to express. The sophisticated sounds and expression he coaxed from the group was amazing. And he did it by using what they already knew--language. This musicality didn't come from a method book; it came from inside.