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  • Writer's pictureIlan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

About Teaching Music with Dr. Colleen Conway Pt. 2

Dr. Colleen Conway is Professor Music Education at the University of Michigan, author of several best selling books on Music Education including Private Music Lessons: A Manual for Teachers, editor-in-chief of Arts Education Policy Review, and is on the senior editorial board at Oxford University Press.

This is the second part of our conversation. The first part can be found here.


IM: A university that I was working at had a lot of emphasis on audiation. To some students, they understood from that that all they had to do was “feel: the music. With that logic, I often felt they never developed actual knowledge of the notes and rhythms they were looking at, which I found frustrating to work with.

You talk about having a sequence to teaching our musicianship skills. Where does audiation vs. say, note reading, fit in this sequence?

CC: In my mind, whether you start with no notation and then introduce it later, as in the Suzuki method for instance, or you start with notation right away, either way, you have what I would call a leap of faith.

I favor the audiation route first with young kids. If you start with kids and you say, hey, I want you to be able to hear Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and be able to sing it and move and tap your feet and all these kinds of things, and we're going to play it on the instrument: just repeat after me. In other words, I'm not even going to talk about where their slide positions are or what they should do; We're just going to learn this stuff. In my experience, If we start with that approach, we get a lot of music on the inside. That’s obviously not enough! And there's still going to be a leap of faith when it comes time to say, OK, here's the notation for Twinkle-Twinkle, and now I have to help the student make this connection between these things on the page to what's aurally in their mind.

And there's this kind of leap of faith that at some point the kid's going to make that connection and figure it out. If we go the other way and we learn note names and rhythms and theory first: then we don’t spend time hearing it. There's also a leap of faith in that plan that once you're able to make sense of it all, decode it, you're then going to take that and move that to the ear. Either way, there is a leap of faith at some point: either you're going to be able to audiate and figure out how the notation fits those sounds in your head, or you're going to have a notation that you've decoded and at some point it becomes musical to you.

IM: As a teacher, is there something that is easier about giving a very concrete idea of notation as music?

CC: Audiation happens inside the head. Right? It's just like trying to teach somebody to double tongue. Sometimes I can't really tell if they're using the K not: Some people can fake double tonguing forever because you just can't get inside their mouth to see what's going on.

I feel that way about audiation. It can be harder to teach students to audiate. Nobody had to teach my son Tommy to audiate. He grew up in a musical household where people were singing all the time, were listening to music, and going to concerts. If you live in an environment that is musical, it's what's happening. No one really has to then teach you to audiate because those musical things are like spinning around in your head.

What I think happens for professional musicians who teach, is that too often you don't realize that a lot of students who walk in the door for a private lesson do not come from musical environments; an environment where most of us who became musicians grew up. In other words, most of us who become successful in music came out of musical families, whether we recognize them as being musical families or not.

And that's really, really hard. My own children can be incredibly intolerant of the musicians around them because they don't understand how people could not hear what they are hearing. They would stand next to someone in choir and be like, how can they not hear that? We need to remember that no one is singing out of tune on purpose, and no one plays out of tune on purpose. The divide is in the initial musicianship training, and I think that's hard for a lot of professional musicians to have that understanding. In other words, how do I get somebody who’s never had these kind of issues, and didn't need a sequence like I am proposing, to a place where they are able to provide that structure for a kid who's really raw and doesn’t have a musical background.

And so I think you're onto something when you say it's easier to teach concrete concepts. Let's say in your head one and two and three and four. Often that's a lot easier than trying to get a kid to move their one hand to a big beat, and the other hand to a little beat. But what do you do if they don't have that foundation? And so I think a lot of times we leave musicianship issues out of our teaching because in a way, it’s easier to not address.

The other thing that I talk a lot about is the difference between these musicianship skills and executive skills on the instrument. I think it’s easy to misdiagnose a student's problem as one of executive skills, like oh, use more air or change the embouchure, or do this with your tongue, when really it's just purely a matter of them not having the basic musicianship to know what just happened or what it’s supposed to sound like. This can be very difficult to diagnose the difference as a teacher sometimes. For instance, we might misdiagnose an issue as a rhythm issue, when the problem was actually mechanical, say, the student couldn't move their fingers fast enough or has a less-than-ideal instrument.

To me, the distinction between musicianship skills and executive skills are at the core of what we are constantly trying to figure out. It’s hard!

IM: How do you address the issue of practicing in young students? I feel we so often say “go practice”, but we don’t often spend time talking about what that means.

CC: I think the whole notion of practicing is another really big area, because all these things that we're talking about: Learning style, the age of the kid, the home environment. In my experience the notion of practicing is different for every kid. And to go back to audiation. My sense is kids who are musical, who have sounds in their head, are much more apt to go home and practice, because they can go home and they can play tunes and they can make good sounds and they can look at this étude and get a sense of what it's supposed to sound like and figure it out. In other words, they have the tools to enjoy themselves when practicing. Whereas kids who don't have that sort of musicianship inside them, the only time they really can be musical is when they're in front of you and you're singing, tapping along, or playing with them.

You think about the number of kids that come in, try to play and can't do it at all. Then you start playing with them and they're able to do it right. That happens a lot. But when you are not there at home, they weren't able to do it. They don't have enough musical capability to actually know what it sounds like. And then they'll say to you, well, can you play with me? I can play it when I play it with the band. And that has to do with I can only play it if I've got the crutch of somebody else's musicianship to lean on.

And so then we get to this divide between the haves and the have nots, the kid that already came in with some ears and some ability to hear and practices and gets better, and the kid that comes to you without those abilities goes home and you say practice, and they're like, but I don't know. I don't know what to do. I don't know what it's supposed to sound like.

IM: My instinct in those cases is that I tend to fall back on what I feel is hard knowledge; namely note names and rhythms. I'm like, well, you know, here's what this note is and here's how you find it, and here’s how you figure out when you’re supposed to produce it. On the one hand I feel like I’m helping by grounding the information for the students, on the other hand I fear that it's also an insecurity on my part because it's easier as a teacher to just be like, well, the student ust be “bad”, because I did everything right: after all, I gave them all the correct information!

CC: Right. One thing I would change about what you're doing is I would put something tonal with it. Rather than just saying, here's your B flat and here's your F, you can sing “here's your B flat and here's your F”. The only way they're going to be able to practice is if they know the difference in the sound between that B flat and F, particularly on a brass instrument, because the letter name doesn't give them that kind of musical piece.

IM: Is there research on the subject of private lessons teaching?

CC: There's no research literature on private lessons teaching. There's literally none. There are a few people that have done studies about applied teaching at the college level, sort of how to create musicians and case studies of master teachers. To my knowledge there is not a single actual empirical research study that looks at private lessons at the school level. And when you think about, a huge portion of what happens in instrumental music happens in the private lesson.

IM: So here’s a sensitive question: Can you be a bad player and a good teacher? In other words, can you be a person who never learned how to play at an appreciable level, and still be an empathetic enough person and a motivating enough person, that you produce good results?

CC: I think no. I would say that you can be someone who at one point was a really good player and no longer plays professionally and be a good teacher, but at some point you would have to have gotten to a good level as a performer in order to be a good music teacher. And this goes for elementary classroom teachers, and middle school band directors and private teachers alike. You have to have attained a certain minimal level of playing, and when I say minimal, I mean a professional musician, or you just don't you have any business doing it. I feel really strongly about this.

This topic recently came up as part of a research study. I was asking these 20-year veteran teachers about their undergrad practice habits, and do they regret the time and effort spent because they no longer perform. The answers were unequivocally no: there's just a certain experience that you have to have, in working, in crying, in having bad lessons, in beating your head against the wall, in getting over that hump of finally figuring out how to do something.

This idea that you don't have to be a good performer to be a good music teacher to me is just hogwash. You really have to be what I would consider professional quality. You may not be a practicing professional musician by the time you're a twenty-year high school teacher, but at one point in your life you needed to have attained that level. I feel like it's huge.

IM: So what does one do when they are teaching higher ed, and need to maintain a studio of a certain size to keep your job?

CC: I teach a class titled “Teaching Music in Higher Ed. In that class we talk a lot about what we call East Cotton Blossom State. What are you going to do when you're the trombone professor? In order to have a job, you're supposed to have 15 to 18 students in the studio, but over half the students, you know, are never going to be successful performers. How are you going to live with yourself when you have warm bodies in the seats just because the ensembles are requiring for you to have warm bodies in the seats? That's a really important ethical dilemma.

IM: I really think there are a lot of things you can do for a living in this business that don’t involve performing, and I frankly don't think that that conversation happens often enough. I also don't think the financial incentives are there for the teachers to send students away to other parts of the school.

CC: Well, to go back to the Music Ed thing, I think that a lot of applied professional musicians as well as college students who really don't understand how broad a music education career can be. So I think so often students have a high school band director that they loved, but they say, I'd never want that guy's job. The marching band, a jazz band, the weekends. The sectionals. I don't want that to be my life! Or maybe they have a high school director who they thought was lame. Or maybe they don’t want to associate with the ed crowd socially. And so the conclusion can be “I don’t want to be a music educator”. What is really unfortunate is that often students don't realize the variety of contexts music educators can work in. School music programs vary greatly, and the needs from the teachers and demands on the teachers are not the same everywhere. There is certainly a scenario where one can be done teaching by 3 and have plenty of time for a rewarding freelance performing career as well.

IM: Regarding band directors, in your opinion as a person who teaches future educators, what is their responsibility towards their band when it comes to fundraising?

CC: I think to say that it's the band director's responsibility to find money is to me pointing a finger at the wrong place. I would frame it as “what is the school's responsibility? What is the school district's responsibility to be able to provide the resources that are needed?” I'm sure band directors can advocate for one thing or another, but I feel the conversation has to happen at the school board level.

To go back to the TMEA Bassoon fiasco, it's like, if you want to have bassoons in your school, then you've got to convince your macro level administration that this is going to be a financial responsibility that we need to take on. But we need to remember that when we’re discussing band directors, especially at the high school level, we’re often talking about a person with 90 kids in the room at a time, and no spare time. So I would be very cautious to add to that scenario responsibility over budget issues.

IM: This last question has been on my mind since a discussion we had back when I was working for you in school: what's your thinking on “the Mozart effect”, the idea that there’s a connection between learning music and math, especially now that there seems to be a study that claims to have controlled for other factors?

CC: I think most of us in the research community don't buy it. So you know that I do believe that when you grow up in a musical environment that it will have long term effects. But the idea that your mathematical reasoning is going to get better purely from experiencing music doesn’t add up for me.

I think what's interesting is that that field of neuroscience is very separate from those of us who do music education research. And for a long time, we've been saying, even if what you're saying is true, what does it really accomplish? It’s not like you can just play recordings of Bach in the hallway between classes and expect math scores to change.

We definitely need studies that help us understand the power of being a musician or being an artist. There's no doubt in my mind that we need to continue to explore those things. But how do you take into account family background, financial standing, different teachers, schedules, parents ability and availability and willingness to help, access to private instruction, etc etc etc? It’s really hard to control for all these factors when you're dealing with human beings in a research study. In other words, we can’t put human test subjects in a vacuum, and so it is very, very difficult to be able to have a definitive causal relationship between music studies and success in math class.


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