There was an old woman from Chorzów
Whose grandkids were awful to know
So day after day their rear ends she flayed
An old Russian limerick
Almost every time that I see a traditional piano lesson, I’m reminded of this stubborn old granny. The work with the student seems diligent enough, the teacher exerts all of his effort and nerves, but the result, if there is one, is based not on gratitude, but rather spite of his exertions!
Training involves a very precise sequence of the acquisition skills. Some skills must be mastered before others. In turn, the skills depend on one another for development. Before you learn to stand, you can’t learn to walk. Before you learn to walk, you won’t be able to run. The traditional method of teaching music continuously confuses and disrupts this gradualness, and the work of the teacher is much like that of a housekeeper that constantly spills the garbage across the floor only to clean it up again. And of course, the blame for all of the extra work is on garbage!
Whenever I openly speak of the fact that we live in a musically illiterate world, my words incite a storm of impatience among my colleagues. I know that they work hard without rest, and try their best to make their lessons as interesting and productive as possible. But the self-defeating cleaner tries even harder! The problem is not in the effort. It isn’t the amount of patience and diligence. What is most important is the achieved result.
A musically illiterate person is anyone that can’t play a musical instrument with confidence, can’t reliably read the notes of the treble and bass clefs, sing from note books nor write in music notation. It is a fact that only with rare exceptions, our generation is musically illiterate. In public schools, music classes don’t even remotely concern themselves with music literacy. In the music schools, strange as it is, things aren’t much better. It’s very unlikely that every student that finishes 5-7 years of music school can actually play and easily read notes! No matter how many teachers try their best, the world of musical sounds continues to be a closed book to an overwhelming majority. Worst of all, these deprived people believe that in order to understand music, one must have a mysterious and innate talent, and that without it, pursuing music is pointless.
The true misfortune is that even the educators fall into this belief. Teachers, as a rule, tend to be bright and markedly gifted from the very beginning. Perhaps someone lucked out with good hearing, while someone else may have had a particularly talented teacher himself. And of course, those that have had piano lessons remember how they had to practice hours and hours at a time. These same educators are now convinced that an inborn music aptitude, assiduity, and a talented teacher are essential to success. This is how it was, is, and always will be, unless something is changed.
But, why don’t we ask a few taboo questions?
- What if it’s possible to teach music to every person, even though he might be untalented and impatient?
- What if all children in public schools can successfully be taught to play piano, read notes, and to write down music while listening to what is played?
- Isn’t it a necessity to create a performer in every child? Could it be that the most important thing in music education is the ability to hear and understand music? What if the personal fulfillment of performance is at the very foundation this ability?
- How should one work, if the ability to hear and understand music can only be achieved through music literacy?
- What if the teacher’s presence is important, though not essential in music education?
- Isn’t it our duty, then, to create a painless and effective system of self-education in which we could be temporary assistants?
- What if obsession with the personality of the teacher is an indicator of the weakness of the very system of education?
- What if our methods are malfunctioning not because of a lack of ability in our students, but rather because of a lack of ability in the methods themselves?