Sunday, April 24, 2016

Excellent sheep in music education

In 2014, a former Yale English professor published a provocative book following an essay in the American Scholar. His central idea: the elite institutions of American higher education, from high-priced secondary schools to prestigious universities, increasingly value, encourage, and churn out students who are very good at jumping through hoops on a path to achievement (so-called "excellent sheep") without engaging in real intellectual risk-taking and discovery. Though I felt somewhat differently about my own experience at an elite institution, there is one subject where I felt and continue to experience exactly what he's talking about: music education.

Music education, of course, comes in many different strains and variations, and within any system or institution there are always exceptions. But any student in a traditional classical performance program will recognize the excellent-sheep-ist attitude that propels us from conservatory preparatory programs through college and graduate school, funneling many of us (in some sense, the lucky ones) into orchestras and competitions after graduation. To put it bluntly, a traditional instrumental music education is largely and predominantly about execution as opposed to creation: how to execute precisely, exactly, and perfectly the music on the page in front of you.

Full disclosure: I am a piano teacher at a school that is very much part of the system I'm writing about, though it is better than most, and moving in the right direction. But I am part of the problem too. Another disclosure: obviously there are times and situations where execution is paramount (especially in large ensembles). But that doesn't mean it needs to be the singular focus of an education.

First, we teach children to read music and show them exactly what all the symbols mean in front of them. We teach them technique and exercises so that they have the freedom to play anything, but if that anything is written down in front of them, then we generally demand they play it a certain way.
I can hear some of my friends and colleagues crying out, "but there's so much room for creativity in different manners of execution!" And that is true, but even there the role of creativity, of personal artistic freedom, is often minimized in service to the original creator of the music.

Think I'm simplifying? Don't believe me? Let's look to some authorities of classical music. Sviatoslav Richter is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, and he described his thinking thusly: "The interpreter is really an executant," (emphasis mine), "carrying out the composer's intentions to the letter. He doesn't add anything that isn't already in the work." It wasn't hard to find this blog post from renowned cellist Lynn Harrell about his frustration with students' imposing—get this!—their own wills on musical performances. Other examples explicitly urging forth excellent sheep from the Internet abound.

The philosophical problem with these types of views, though dominant in the conservatory world, are several, but in practice they tend to fuse everyone's playing together, encouraging a sameness across the world of music. A performance in this view is less an act of creative expression than a fact-finding mission, a piece of detective work. Is that really what we want?

Ironically, Richter himself came up with some of the bizarre and enigmatic performances of the music of Brahms, Schubert, etc., and that's what truly made him a great pianist, at least for me. In fact, is there any artist, musician or otherwise, performer or otherwise, for whom anyone holds the highest admiration, merely for playing exactly by the rules and strictures handed down from above?
Thankfully, I've had some wonderful teachers in my own education, but I believe it's time for classical music to reckon with its authoritarian attitude and priorities. A music education should emphasize execution in the service of expression. It should include spontaneity, improvisation and creation, in addition to tradition. How to do that? Coming up next time...

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Speed Reading, Chess, and Playing by Ear

Recently I've taken to starting recitals by playing popular jingles from TV or radio shows. It's fun to see who else in the audience listens to Serial or NPR, or is familiar with the Champion's League theme (come on people, it may be the most widely-recognized music on the planet). Admittedly, it's also to win over the audience and impress them right off the bat, because rattling off something by ear is unusual and seldom taught in the world of (so-called) classical music and traditional music education (a topic for another time).

At the intermission of one show, someone asked me: can you play anything by ear, instantly? The answer is a definite and emphatic no, but the question reveals a lot about people's misunderstanding not just of music, but of human cognition and the limitations of memory.

People assume that playing music by ear is difficult because amateur listeners (and even amateur musicians, see: educational issues above) are not used to identifying pitches or the distances between them. Sadly for us musicians, identifying notes is only the first and easiest hurdle to clear when trying to learn music by ear. Remembering and rattling off a piece, armed only with the ability to identify pitches, would be like memorizing a poem by remembering the sequence of letters. The real problem is not identification but information reduction, taking a whole slew of sound and unconsciously reducing it to larger abstract musical components.

Think about the process you would go through in memorizing some lines of text to write out later. First, let's keep it simple, and imagine you just had to learn a single sentence, like, "What is your favorite piece of music and why do you like it?" Piece of cake, right?

But what if the line were in a foreign language that you didn't know ("Cila është pjesa juaj e muzikës dhe pse nuk ju pëlqen?" **from google translate, possibly not accurate)? In that case, your best bet would be remembering the sequence of letters that make up the spelling of the phrase. Think how difficult that might be for even a few words, how much more work, and how prone you would be to mistakes. Even worse, if you misremembered even just a couple of letters, it might distort the meaning or render the phrase completely meaningless. You couldn't remember it accurately with a single glance, even though remembering any of the individual component letters or words on their own might not be difficult at all. (In a language with different symbols, things would be an order of magnitude more difficult, though in principle the same: remembering any single letter in Arabic might not be too difficult, but good luck with a string of them).

The difference is, in your native language you don't have to remember the individual letters—or even words—that make up the phrase, but only a single concept (or two) of favorite-music-ness. If you mis-remembered the exact wording, you would still easily reproduce something that preserved the meaning ("What's your favorite piece of music and why do you love it so much?").

I was reading this morning (pretty quickly, but not that quickly) about speed-reading in the New York Times, and the problem is the same (though one level of abstraction higher). I used to think if my eyes could just move faster through text, I could read faster. But the limiting factor in reading isn't the speed of cramming letters and words into your brain through your eyes, it's remembering, keeping track of, and making sense of what your eyes are sending to your brain. Turns out, most people can only keep track of 5-9 "concepts" at a time, and so reading is really an exercise in grouping words into concepts, absorbing them, and then moving on. People who can "chunk" the most words into a single abstract idea or concept, then, will tend to be faster readers.

The go-to example in psychology textbooks is memory for chess positions. People used to think master chess players had great memories because they could remember an entire chessboard much more accurately than amateur players, but it turns out expert players are no better (or only slightly better) at remembering a randomly arranged board than amateurs. They're better with boards from real games because rather than store the pieces and their positions one by one, they store the board in relation to other "types" of positions they've seen before, and so only have to remember a few ideas, rather than all 32 pieces' positions.

I know very little about chess, so I can't really explain what those "types" are, but what I do know a lot about is music! And the process for learning something by ear is very similar, only the "types" of things you have to remember are music-specific instead of chess-specific. Identifying this pitch or that pitch from something you hear is essential, but it's only as helpful as remembering that the word "what's" starts with a w, or that white bishop is in position a6. In other words, it's a total red herring and completely misses the point. What's helpful in reproducing a musical phrase is reducing it to something close to something you've heard before and stored in memory already from hearing and categorizing thousands of times already, to a series of harmonies and rhythms and patterns that you already know.

One final story to clear up a musical misconception about absolute, or perfect, pitch. Absolute pitch is the ability to identify the pitch class of a sounded note (a, b, c, etc., basically, where it is on the piano). People sometimes think of absolute pitch as a great musical gift, and it doesn't hinder anything, but it's also, again, a red herring in terms of musical cognition. Example: a classmate who had absolute pitch in one of my music classes in high school. We were learning to identify different chord types (major, minor, etc.) by sound and by sight (hearing them or seeing them written down on the staff). Just as a point of reference, most of my beginner piano students can learn to do the sound identification task without too much difficulty. But rather than listen to the quality of the chord overall in the sound training, my fellow student would try to hear all the pitches individually, write them down, and then determine what type of chord was played by sight. In other words, instead of reducing the information, she was multiplying it! Like a great speller declaring, "I'll remember the phrase 'what's your favorite piece of music and why' by spelling it out each time, rather than storing its meaning." Moral: absolute pitch plays little to no role in musical memory since it generally doesn't help reduce information at all.

And even relative pitch (the ability to identify relationships between two pitches), while important and more valuable than perfect pitch, is only the first small step in learning to play by ear, since it, too, only aids the identification of pitches, but not necessarily the ability to store and remember those relationships.