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.