Thursday, September 23, 2010

Do I Hear the Walls?

Ear training and hearing training are not the same thing. Ear training coaches us to listen to the structural elements of music - the chords, the intervals, the tonality shifts and the rhythmic complexities. Hearing training is going on all the time in the brain. It is the way we prioritize the sounds in our environment and make decisions based on the perception of those sounds.

Blind people use a process called echolocation to help them "hear" where they are in space.
The reflection of sound from different surfaces helps them to determine where objects are and what the density and consistency of those objects is.

Good news - sighted people do this, too. Not only do we hear reflected sound and determine the location of objects, but we can also determine the shape of an object based on the reflected sound, even when we are blindfolded. Isn't hearing grand? (Check out "See What I'm Saying" by Lawrence D. Rosenblum.)

It is not unusual for musicians to want to rehearse in a space before a performance because we want to know how the space "sounds". True enough, obvious even. We also know the sound will change when the audience moves into the space, and we hope they DO move into the space.

What we may not realize is that the way we perceive sound changes the way we move in a given space. If we are hearing the resonance of a large hall, we are more likely to move as though we have a lot of space to move through. If we are in a "dead" acoustical space, it is more difficult to feel the luscious reverberations that encourage free movement. We tend not to like the sound, both on an aural level and on a kinesthetic level.

Adding conscious hearing training to your day helps you to be more observant of your surroundings and helps you to make movement decisions that are more favorable in the worst of acoustical environments. Take a few minutes a day to sit in one spot and listen to all the sounds around you. Notice the ones you like, the ones you don't, the ones that encourage comfort and ease, and the ones that induce tension. Make a decision to move freely, wherever you are, whatever you hear.

Be surprised that you can hear the walls, and enjoy the conversation.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Devil's in the Details

In a study examining differences between more effective and less effective principals, Doug Fiore determined that one significant variation is that the very best leaders ignore minor errors. Though this finding was not limited to how they treat high achievers, we can see how it would readily come into play. High achievers hold themselves to very high standards. They expect to succeed at everything they do and work exceedingly hard to do so. That is one reason they are so good.
When high achievers have their shortcomings pointed out by someone else, they emotionally deflate. They are used to expecting tremendous things of themselves and they hate to let others down. If we point out minor flaws in their achievements, they take fewer risks and keep their successes more private. This is just the opposite of what we want our best role models to do. We want their work to shine as an example and inspiration to others.
The Fiore study also pointed out that if principals harp on minor errors, the faculty shies away from contact or interaction with them. The less effective the principal, the greater the likelihood that teachers will describe that leader's comments as consistently negative. For the sake of our own self-worth, we tend to stay away from someone who regularly points out our mistakes.
from "What Great Principals Do Differently" by Todd Whitaker

Do you, the teacher, see yourself as a leader? A boss? If so, does that make the student the follower? The employee?

If so, what kind of leader are you? Are you the kind that leads by nit-picking away until there is nothing left of the student's self-respect, let alone the muse? Or are you the kind that encourages a bit of risk-taking?

When I first read this quote, I saw myself as the employee, and I cheered! Yes, I said to myself, I DO become easily deflated when someone picks at little things that aren't quite perfect. I DO become frustrated when creative risk-taking is unappreciated or dismissed.

Then I took the position of the boss. I thought a lot about how complex it is to balance the "major" musical details against the "minor" musical details. As music teachers, we are trained to hear sound as a rich mix of pitch, intonation, articulation, dynamics and accent. Oh, yes, and then there are the fingerings, the pedal decisions and the technical movements that need to be assessed. What is major? What is minor, other than the keys, of course! When have we hit the point where the student is unwilling to take any chances for fear of being lacerated with the details that are whipping by?

The job of the music teacher is to teach the music AND the student. When our awareness is narrowed to the musical details, we may miss the point of overload for the student. There is sometimes a fine line between enough information and too much information, between too much control and not enough risk-taking.

If you are sensing that the student is bracing against the inevitable onslaught of criticism, maybe the line has been crossed. If you are sensing that the student is content to play without any discipline what-so-ever, chances are you've gone too far the other way. Remember, every student's line is in a different place.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Chemistry Problems

Believe it or not, I was good at high school chemistry. I would go so far as to say that I LIKED high school chemistry. The mathematical and physical connectivity of valences and formulas was intriguing to me. Certain molecules produced exciting results when mixed with other molecules. Other chemicals just couldn't talk to each other, thanks to electrical charges or lack of receptivity. Those experiments turned out to be "duds".

When piano teachers talk about chemistry problems, we are talking about something entirely different. We are talking about the inability to connect with a student in a way that sets off positive electrical charges that encourage receptivity.

We all know what this is like. We have our share of stories of "difficult" students. Yet I find that they are the students that we'd rather not admit to when we gather to share experiences. Maybe we would rather think about them as "duds".

When I was a young teacher, I felt like a failure when I couldn't connect with a student, especially if that student showed something I regarded as talent. I would get frustrated in a lesson, impatient with the lack of progress, and yet somehow unwilling to let go of the student.
Maybe next week, he would come around. Maybe next week she would hear my wise advice and follow it.

Now I know that some molecules just don't mesh with other molecules, splendid as they both may be on their own. Looking at the larger picture, I remind myself that I am not the "perfect" molecule either. Maybe I am the "difficult" teacher for some students. Maybe - unthinkable as it may be - the student will do better with someone else!

If I've done what I can to adjust to personalities, learning styles and goals, and the experiment isn't working, it probably will never work. This is why I have piano teacher friends who are not clones of me. This is why we can confidently recommend students to each other when the chemistry problems arise.