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Lee W. Kikuchi - Essay

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I wrote the following essay to advise prospective students and parents of students on the many aspects that are part of a music education.

September 1, 2003

 

 

 

 

 

What is a Music Education?

A music education is never merely taking lessons on an instrument in order to learn how to play that instrument. Music itself is a multi-faceted art form which includes physical skills, mental abilities, historical knowledge and mastery of theoretical concepts. The musician can be compared quite easily to the surgeon who must have fine hand skills, and a deep knowledge of medicine, math and basic sciences.

Likewise, for a student who has no aspiration of becoming a professional musician, a broad musical education becomes even more meaningful, as focus on perfecting the skills on any one instrument or singing is secondary to acquiring the fundamental knowledge needed to enjoy music as an amateur.

For this reason, I offer two approaches for every student: 1) the college preparatory approach and 2) the music appreciation approach. In the beginning all students are the same, and as the interest and potential become more evident, each student is tracked accordingly. Within either approach I give great latitude regarding the specifics of the education to meet the specific needs and goals of both the student and the parents.

I also believe in developing a teaching plan for each student, in consultation with the parents which is then re-evaluated every semester. As the student progresses and as various other family or personal situations change, the teaching plan is adjusted accordingly.

The Facets of Music Education
A music education must include all the same facets as music itself. A musician must have well-developed technical skills which include the advanced techniques of the hand as well as a finely trained critical ear. A musician must also have a deep knowledge of the entire musical art including the history of music from the Gregorian chants to the most avant garde compositions of the present. This knowledge must also include full understanding of the many musical styles of the ages and the music theories such as harmony, melody, forms and acoustics. Finally, a musician must demonstrate superb musicianship in his or her ability to apply all the techniques and knowledge acquired to the actual performance of music.

Just as a professional musician must acquire all these abilities to a very high level of competency in order to perform music publicly, an amateur musician must acquire all these abilities to a lesser level of competency in order to enjoy music as a non-professional avocation or hobby. The level to which the student has developed in these many areas, is the level at which she or he will be able to enjoy the benefits of the musical education throughout life. The higher level achieved in the earlier years, the greater potential for further development later on, long after formal instruction has ended.

1. Technical Skills
The two types of technical skills a musician must acquire are technique and ear training. For the piano and non-wind instruments, all technique involves hand and arm movement. For wind instruments and voice, technique includes the mouth, lips and breathing. For all musicians ear training is developing the ability to hear specifics and nuances of intervals, chords, intonation and timbres of sounds with greater acuity than the average person.

Most of these technical skills are acquired through lessons and practice. The teacher guides the student through a series of exercises and musical examples, which are mastered through practice at home. Once the student has grasped a certain technique to the desired level of competency, the teacher assigns further exercises and musical pieces to learn, and so on for many years. As the student develops the ability to execute a technique physically, the student also learns the ear ability to hear the technique, which is just as important. Knowing when something is done right or wrong is the most important step toward learning to do it the right way every time.

In the beginning, musical examples are usually simple pieces written specifically for the purpose of teaching beginners. As the student progresses more and more actual music literature becomes available, since many composers wrote some less demanding works, in addition to the standard repertoire which is usually quite advanced technically. Many composers even wrote works specifically for the purpose of teaching such as Kablevsky’s Children’s Pieces.

The teacher will generally select musical examples which incorporate the techniques the student is presently working on, but the teacher will also select music from a variety of styles to broaden the student’s exposure.

2. Knowledge
Music is more than just playing the right notes fast and in the correct rhythm. To perform any music correctly, requires a deep knowledge of theory, style, history and cultures. Music is no more the notes on the page than a book is the letters on the page. If the book is written in German, it has the same letters we use in English, but if you do not understand German you cannot understand the book. Music is the same, as a musician must know the actual style and historical period in which a piece was written in order to have any idea how to play it.

a. Theory
Music Theory is the “mathematics” of the musical world. It is the study of how sounds work together to make music. This includes their relationship as pitches - which we call intervals - and how they sound together - which we call harmony. Melody combines aspects of both as it is a series of intervals that outline or fit in a certain harmony. Further, harmonies and melodies are organized in specific patterns called forms, and in fact the way a composer uses melodies and harmonies can often be dictated by the form(s) the composer has chosen.

Western music is built on a system of 12 notes, which are organized into octaves, scales, triads and intervals. A full understanding of these basic musical elements is required of all musicians, both amateur and professional. It is virtually impossible to play any standard repertoire without a thorough mastery of these important theories.

A further knowledge of chord progressions, complex chords and forms is also required for the professional musician, and can be beneficial to amateur musicians as well. The more one knows about theory and form, the quicker one can understand and learn a new piece of music, whether upon listening, or upon sight as written music.

b. History & Style
Music, as with all art forms, has changed substantially through the years, and also as with all art forms, we value the music of many historical periods. A symphony concert will often include in the same program a piece by Bach written in 1738, a symphony by Beethoven written in 1802 and a work by Stravinksy written in 1911. Not only do we appreciate music from many periods, we even come to expect a variety with every concert. It is unlikely to have a concert where every piece was written in the same period, unless it’s a special extravaganza for one composer, such as a Mozart Festival.

With each period of history also comes a complexity of musical techniques and styles. The execution of such simple things as scales, trills, and even accents can vary greatly from period to period, and even from composer to composer. Likewise, the composers from each historical period wrote using very different musical forms according to what was popular at the time. Bach wrote lots of fugues, Beethoven wrote lots of sonatas and Chopin wrote waltzes and scherzos. The rapid rhythmic note patterns of Bach can be exhilarating, and the lilting melodies of Chopin can be dreamy, and each style is quite different from one another.

As a result, learning how to play the many wonderful pieces left to us by the great composers makes it necessary also to learn the history and styles behind that music. Some of this is acquired in lessons, especially the mechanics of phrasing, interpretation, finger execution, tempos, rhythms, etc. But just as much or more is learned through didactic work such as reading, listening and classroom lecture.

c. Cultures
In addition to the separate time periods of history, music also varies greatly across the many geographic boundaries. In Western musical culture, we distinguish between German, French and Italian as the three biggest musical divisions, but all music from Europe and England shares much in common. American music is primarily the music developed over the past 100 years in this country, which sometimes has ties to European music and sometimes not. Jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, etc. are all American musical styles specific to our culture, owing their roots to

Americans of African descent.
Likewise, music varies greatly across the continents, as one can compare the music from Africa, the Aborigines in Australia, and Asia, all of which are built on fundamental musical elements quite different from the scales, chords and rhythms we hear in our more familiar Western music. The polyphonic chants of the Tibetan monks and the combinatorial rhythms of the Indonesia gamelan are examples of just such music.

3. Musicianship
Finally, musicianship is the ability to synthesize all of one’s technique and all of one’s knowledge together in application to the playing (performance) of music. Simply put, the greater the musicianship, the better the performance. The more technique and musicological knowledge one has acquired, the easier and easier it becomes to learn new music. Likewise, the only way to play music correctly in the appropriate style is to have full mastery of the techniques and knowledge needed for that music.

Musicianship is also the art of performing. This includes learning how to perform music from memory, how to play without mistakes, how to communicate the music to the audience, how the acoustics of the instrument work within a sound space, how to draw on your emotions for performance, and how to protect your emotions from criticism. In fact, dress, deportment, facial expression and body gestures are all also very important elements of musicianship.

When people say, “It was a very moving performance” they are in essence acclaiming the high-level mastery of the performer’s musicianship. The performance must have been technically and stylistically accurate, and the performer must have communicated the music emotionally and intellectually to the audience extremely well.

Everyone can benefit from these very important performance skills. Public speaking, handling criticism from others, accepting praise, and striving for ideals of perfection are all skills most people need at some point or another in life, and all are skills learned through performance of music.

It is my goal to develop each student’s musicianship to the highest level possible, whether that student is planning a career in music, or just wants to have fun. For the professional, greater emphasis must be placed on the techniques of the instrument, and for the amateur more emphasis should be placed on broad exposure to music. Ultimately, this means that college preparatory students must prepare and perform at more recitals and competitions, than would the non-college preparatory students, but clearly all music students should perform to some degree to gain the maximum benefit of the education.

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