Music Education Philosophy

Music is in essence a language, a profound way of connecting and communicating with others. Just like spoken language, it is learned through imitation and play with those who are masters of the language. Children naturally pick up their native language without any formal education, simply and joyfully making sounds, then little by little combining them into more and more complex structures. Once the spoken language has begun to be mastered, children begin to abstract the language patterns they use on a regular basis in the form of writing. Writing is a symbolic form of the spoken language, useful solely because it references the much richer world of spoken language. Spoken language communicates not only through consonants, vowels and grammatical structures (all that is present in writing,) but in pitch, tone, the movement of the face and body, eye contact, tempo, pacing, space, etc.   The power of writing is built on projecting all of these already mastered elements onto the written word. Without this projection the written word would only be capable of communicating the most mundane and basic concepts.

Music is learned in precisely the same way.  It is learned through imitation and play with those who are masters of the musical language.  Through regular play, the fundamental building blocks of music are internalized and the student is able to communicate musical concepts and structures in more complex and meaningful ways. These patterns can then be abstracted into musical notation and the student can then translate the pitches and rhythms written down and play them in a way that is meaningful.

One can vividly experience the disconnect between written music and performed music devoid of the much richer world of the spoken “language” of music.  If you input all of the notes and rhythms and other musical markings written as a piece of music into a computer program designed to play back music, the computer will play back the notes, rhythms, etc “perfectly” as written. However, the experience will be meaningless, no emotion is communicated and the music lacks any energy or power.  

Most formal language and music pedagogies conflate the difference between the spoken musical language and the written language. They begin the learning process with written words or music, assuming that by merely “understanding” the abstraction and replicating it in some simple way, the student has “learned” the language. This process does not work. The effects of this can be seen very clearly in the failure of most second language students – students with 4, 5, 6 or even 7 years of studying a second language in a classroom will be unable to communicate in that language, unless the student has spent time in the country where the language is spoken and goes through the same process of learning the language as they did as a child.  One can see this same failure in modern musical education systems. Children spend 6-8 years in a band program or in piano lessons but are almost always unable after all of this to actually communicate in the language of music. The result of this is that students stop playing music once they leave high school, never to touch their instrument again. If asked to perform, they very often respond by saying they need their “music” to play and even if they have the music, will play it in a way that is far from the natural communication we all experience when we speak, lacking emotion and meaning.

For most of human history, music, dance, and singing was the birthright of everyone.  Communities danced together, sang together, made music together, formally in religious communities or civic gatherings or informally in their homes for holidays or just for fun.  Modern society has slowly lost these traditional forms of music making and this has had an effect both on the quality of life of humans in general and on the music development of all peoples. Most people today would say they can’t sing or don’t have a sense of pitch or rhythm. We no longer have a shared body of songs that we sing together.  Most children grow up without any singing whatsoever, and even if they sing, are no longer surrounded by other singers from whom they would have traditionally learned from. Not that long ago, every child would have had developed a natural sense of pitch and rhythm in the language of music without any formal education, just as they learned their native language. These days, that is no longer the case and much music education fails precisely in not recognizing this huge shift in culture.  It cannot be assumed that children have a basic sense of pitch and rhythm – they do not.  Unless we bring back our old forms of communal dance or singing, or create new ones, it is essential that the modern music educator take the time and care necessary to develop these skills in the student, in as similar a manner as possible as they would have originally been learnt.

Fortunately, it is not the job of the educator to imprint these onto the student; rather, music, just like spoken language, is something that we are born with, something natural that just needs time and attention to bring out.  Migrating birds naturally know the routes to fly in winter and summer without needing to study maps – it is something inherent to their nature. In the same way, we can all just as easily develop the language of music.  The primary means of learning is the same as it is for our native language – imitation and playing with a master of the language.  Children learn to speak by forming sounds, enjoying what they are creating and getting positive feedback from their caregivers. Victor Wooten uses the word “jamming” to describe this basic means of human language and musical development. Just as children learn by jamming with masters of language, music students learn by jamming with master musicians. Jamming means playing, imitating, exploring in a free environment with gentle guidance.  Learning in this way, the fundamentals of music are learned quickly and a natural and free expression of music is something that becomes second nature, just as it is second nature for us to speak our native language.  

In modern music education systems, generally a student is expected to choose an instrument and the assumption that learning an instrument is synonymous with learning music. Music does not reside in an instrument anymore than writing resides in a pencil or piece of paper. It is something that comes from within and a musical instrument is just a tool we use to express that music, just as a pencil or piece of paper is something we use to express our thoughts in writing. Great musicians generally express themselves most fluently on a single instrument, but they could also express themselves musically anywhere or at any time on anything. One of my mentors, Joe Craven, practices something he calls “found sound.” Before every concert, he finds something in the dumpster behind the venue and uses that as a musical instrument during the show. During one the first Island Beat Music Nature camps, someone was using a leaf blower outside which was drowning out our session.  Joe invited the man with the leaf blower inside and used it to create a drone which we all sang over. I’ve seen Joe mic his shoe string and play a killer “string bass” solo on his shoe string.  Music is everywhere, in everything, and the work of a music teacher is to guide a student into understanding and implementing this very simple fact of reality. By learning to speak the language of music, we are not limited to a single instrument to express ourselves. In the same way, learning the technical aspects of an instrument does not in any way guarantee that we can speak the language of music.  

When we are in the midst of a conversation, we do not know what we are about to say. Rather, the words we use are unknown, unmediated, seemingly coming from nowhere.  This is mastery of the language.  If someone were to memorize a sonnet of Shakespeare, but not understand the English language, it would be ridiculous to say that that person was a master of the English language, no matter how well they might be able to reproduce the sonnet in a way that was understandable to a native English speaker.  Music education has made the mistake of thinking that reproduction of previously written music is somehow the same thing as learning music.  A very few music students figure out the language of music, but most do not, assuming they lack “talent” or didn’t spend enough time practicing.  Actually, they just didn’t go through the natural process by which they could have easily and smoothly picked up the language of music.

Music is at its heart an act of community.  Music is a language where everyone speaks together, where each member attunes to each other and becomes entrained on a very deep level. Music requires deep listening and a wide open awareness. As we settle into this state, we naturally attune and entrain and enter a state that is generally called a “flow” state.  This flow state is a primary “goal” of music making, as it is in this state that we naturally experience the depth of musical experience.  Most forms of music education have their central aim for a student to learn to recreate the notes from a musical score.  This is a flawed approach, as can easily be seen by listening to a score played “perfectly” from a computer or by attending a student recital.   The computer lacks feeling, interest, anything we would normally associate with music and student recitals are often stressful and dry affairs.  Performers who draw an audience are those who naturally and easily enter this state and by proxy draw their audience into a similarly entrained state.  The joy of making music together comes from entering this very natural state. And the most exciting thing is that it doesn’t require 10,000 hours or 20 years of formal training to achieve. It is actually accessible at any time and the great potential of music education is in helping students learn how to consistently and easily enter this state.

The ideal environment to learn music is one in which students “jam” or play with other master musicians.  If there is at least one musician who has developed a free sense of rhythm and pitch, they can fill this role.  Students learn by doing, first hearing and then imitating until they are able to reproduce pitch and rhythm in an easy and natural way.  There are an infinite variety of ways to go about this, some are more ideal for smaller groups and others for larger groups and whatever is most familiar to the “teacher,” ie, the one being imitated, should take precedence.  Music is largely “play” with pitch and rhythm, creating patterns that take place in time and then “playing with” or arranging those patterns in a way that the listener can both follow and be surprised by.  Foundational elements that are required to do this are the ability to sing/recognize modes/scales; feel a groove and be able to hold a rhythmic pattern within a groove; reproduce and create melodic and rhythmic sequences within a groove;  improvise melodies; sing intervals over a drone or harmonic progression in tune; hold a musical sequence while someone else sings/plays a different sequence. These basic building blocks are what all music is built on. Once a student has fluency in each of these areas, they have everything they need to learn any instrument, learn any song, or play or compose in any musical genre.