23. The Ignored Stages of Learning
Music is a language created for the transmission of musical thoughts. To use it, theory won’t help; here one needs control over many skills. The abilities to hear, read, and understand, and to have creative thought are all separate groups of skills.
Music literacy isn’t a code of laws, but a practical, everyday ability to freely translate sounds into music notation, and vice versa. In this regard, there isn’t a big difference between music and speech; whether we translate words into letters or sounds into notes, the process remains the same. In both cases, the human voice serves as the main intermediary, the focal point. Both verbal speech and music “speech” are familiarized, before anything else, through the voice.
There are four stages of learning:
- The sounding-out stage: We sound out what we read with our voices, letter by letter, and then by syllables. We already know and understand the words that are read out loud, and the voice can articulate them – this is our “focal point.” Our assignment is to connect the letter (symbol) with its perception in the throat, and on an auditory level. This embeds the letters into our consciousness. The result is the ability to vocalize what you are reading.
- The silent utterance stage: We switch from reading through the external perception to reading in our minds. We can already remember how words sound when read out loud; this is our “focal point.” The voice has completed its role and has passed the baton to the consciousness. Our new assignment is to work out our own mental dictionary of sounds and letters. The result is the ability to read out words and sentences within one’s mind. At the same time, we work on the skill of writing, and learn to write down what we’ve heard or read.
- The grammar stage: We begin to receive a much larger volume of information, and we need clarification. Words and sentences are written following strict and definite rules. The time has come to learn the rules. The “focal point” for this is a ready mental dictionary. The assignment is to perfect the writing of the words and phrases in this dictionary. To do this, one doesn’t only need to learn the rules, but also must write down accounts and dictations by ear.
- The creative stage: The achieved literacy becomes a stable base for developed thinking and self-expression in the mastered language. Now, we can seriously study different literary styles, improvise, and compose. Having mastered the language, we can have our own influence on it and can communicate in it with other readers.
These stages are natural for the perception, and all students learn language in this way. Yet, with music, for some reason, everything is quite opposite. The psychological disposition of the students filling music classrooms is by no means extraterrestrial, yet the system of music education is built upside down! Here, they start with the creative stage, with an emphasis on the laws and rules. Then they shift to mental reading from sheet music, not involving the voice at all. Finally, only after this do they come to the sounding-out stage, if they resort to it at all. Not tying sounds to the voice and hearing, not having given a mental ‘dictionary’ of sounds and notes, teachers demand that the child play on an instrument, and even more, watch his application, dynamics, rhythm, and placement of the hands! This backwards teaching beats out all footholds from beneath the student. He hangs in the air, and stops seeing what he’s doing and where he’s going. All he is concerned with is how best not to upset the teacher. There is only one escape: mindless memorization.
There is another absurdity in our system of education: the artificial preparation of skills. When we learn to read words, we rely on hearing, reading aloud, vision, and coordination all at once. And of course, a person can’t read words aloud if he’s never seen them or heard them, and has never used his vocal chords. Yet in music classes, this is disregarded. One day the children are taught to memorize the notes and the keys, and the next, they are taught to play without ever singing, the next, to sing without accompaniment, and after that, to play exercises without singing nor reading the notes. Instead of jointly helping the child, these skills conflict and battle for the position of priority. Artificially separating these skills, we later attempt, painstakingly, to unite them back into “one happy family,” more often than not in vain.
I constantly see people whose hand technique isn’t well connected to their hearing, or whose voices aren’t capable of singing out what their eyes see. This chaos is the result of the methodical laceration of the united perception of music. The nature of the language of music demands a perfect harmony between the sensory and motor organs. Each fraction of a second in reading music notes is an entire block of perceptions and reactions. The vision, symbols, inner sound, the throat, the voice, hearing, the quality of the sound – in any language, all of these things work at the same time. If they have been sufficiently worked on, we can easily make music. But if this hasn’t happened, we struggle from note to note at the speed of a tortoise.
Stopping at every note in order to find its key, tearing through the music text as if it were an overgrown jungle of Columbia, we aren’t in the position to listen, nor understand and analyze what we are playing. These activities give almost nothing to the musical development. The most common product of the music schools is the sigh of relief after the final recital, when the instrument is locked away, concluding the long punishment that has been endured with much suffering.