Don’t talk bananas

nanaFrom the outset, my wife and I have always spoken to our children in full sentences. So for instance, at meal times “Would you like a banana for pudding, or shall I see whether we have some yoghurts in the fridge?” A baby is not going to pick up all of the nuances in this sentence, but they know the context, which is that after the orange mushy stuff comes something sweeter! So they will latch onto the word banana, reach out both hands and say ‘nana’. They might not know what the fridge is, what the word pudding means, or that they were given a choice – but if we use this language consistently, they soon will.

I’m not a language acquisition expert, but having raised four sons (our youngest is now fifteen) it is very clear that this approach has done them no harm. They are bright boys, which helps, but they all have large vocabularies which these days they use to great effect to put their parents in place when necessary! They are also grammar pedants, all of them, which I love!

Why would we teach our instrumental lessons any differently?

In a recent article published in the ‘Opinion’ pages in The Guardian, Charlotte Gill perpetuates the myth that reading music notation is difficult.

This is a cryptic, tricky language that can only be read by a small number of people.

Sadly, it is an opinion shared by many.

I began learning the piano – and to read music – at the age of five, and remember it being an exciting adventure. And undoubtedly the single most important factor in my rapid success was this: nobody told me that it was difficult.

I know countless teenagers who tell me that they can’t read music, and it’s clear that the problem is that they don’t believe that they can. Amongst them are bright, able pupils, and fine musicians at that, but the whole music theory thing is just too much of a hurdle for them to overcome. It doesn’t help when everyone around them – peers, teachers, even Guardian journalists – are telling them how hard it is. It’s like we’re whispering in their ear “That wall is really high, you’ll never get over it.” A small number of people will see that as a challenge but the majority, it seems, will decide against it.

What frustrates me immensely is the teachers who seem to navigate around the theory issue, like they also are afraid that it is too difficult for their pupils to understand. We run the risk of raising a generation of musicians who can ‘get their grade 8’ and yet at the same time giving them permission to remain in the dark about the most basic of musical concepts. What kind of teaching is that?

If I tell a pupil that we need to make sure that “the quavers are nice and even here”, is this going to send them into a flat spin? Are they going to throw the toys out of the pram and tell me that my teaching to ‘too academic’? I doubt it. In this context I’m talking about technical control, and the reference to quavers might even go unnoticed. In the same way, I refer all the time to apparently ‘cryptic’ things like semitones, triads and even parallel sixths as if they are perfectly normal and natural things, which of course they are; if we use the language of music theory consistently in this way, they will soon learn what it means. We sing too, because that’s not difficult either, and like notation, it’s another tool which is incredibly useful in developing the all round musical abilities of our students. Let’s give our pupils the chance to have it all; not leave them frustrated that they were never given the opportunity.

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