February 20th, 2013
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.
Is your child learning an instrument? Is she a music student? The early study of a new instrument can be quite a challenge. Throw together fine motor skills and a new language. The physical limitations can feel shocking. If your child was really excited about playing chances are the sounds she hears in her mind are miles away from the sounds you hear from inside the practice room. She needs your help to travel that road. You can help her become much more than a struggling student. You can help her become a musician.
This is a work in progress. Even Michelangelo said, "I am still learning." We all wake up every morning and try. And along the way we look for inspiration. A musician is taking a long, creative journey. You can't really distinguish between the practice and the art. So how do we support the study while encouraging a creative identity?
For parents and teachers, it's understood that a specific level of commitment is required for progress. There's a fine line between sharing our youngster's enthusiasm and setting expectations. If your child has extended himself by choosing an art then we need to honor that. This creative expression will become part of his identity and will flourish when nurtured. If this is a work in progress how can we offer structure while nudging him toward creative flight?
I was prone to dwell on my parent's negative comments. "When are you going to learn vibrato? All your friends know how," and "your scales sound good on the way up but they're always out of tune on the way down." Artists can be fragile souls. I'm ashamed to admit, I was such a practice ogre that my own son had a heavyhearted request for his 8th birthday present. "Can I please quit guitar?" Ouch.
How can we offer welcome support? Set a dedicated time and place for practice. If you are involved in the practice sessions try to make at least one positive comment first. Get your student involved by offering choices like, "Do you think it would be better if we tried it this way?" Keep it positive. This is about nurturing. Lots of supportive parents can't carry a tune and don't have a musical bone in their body. That's ok. Share music together. All kinds of music. And most of all, remember that true support begins with making sure you believe he's a musician.