FIRST I HEAR THESE
NOTES AND FORM
THEN I PRAC-TISE
AND I PRAC-TISE
AND I SLOW-LY DIS-CO-VER THE WAY THAT THE
NOTES COME TO-GE-THER
TO MAKE THE MU-SIC (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!)
There is no doubt that people approach the learning of music in many different ways. Listening to a recording several times over and then slowly working it out, phrase by phrase, on piano or guitar is a very different method from interpreting a complex set of visual symbols on a written page. And often people who are very good at the former are not at all good at the latter – and vice versa.
It took me a long time – and a lot of experience of teaching – to realise that the ability to read Western classical music easily is not in itself a musical skill at all. (I think it is has more in common with being good at algebra or playing bridge) Indeed it can be quite dispiriting to teach someone who reads all the notes and rhythms accurately but who has no feel for or even interest in the subtleties of dynamics, phrasing and articulation which make music come alive.
I often explain to pupils that there are three very different ways in which we learn music, and that ideally all three need to nurtured in parallel.
First of all, we need to understand that music is in the sound itself, not in the symbols on the page. In that sense, the person who naturally learns music by copying what they hear has a head start over the person whose first way into music is from dots on a page. We will only produce the sounds – whether with our voice or on an instrument – that we can already hear internally. “Intention’ makes a huge difference to the sounds that we produce.
Secondly, we have to develop the physical coordination and precision to play a particular pattern of sounds. This can be very complex on the piano where several different notes are sounded together, and particularly in contrapuntal music like the Bach fugues where there are several different ‘horizontal’ pathways to coordinate at the same time as the ‘vertical’ need to voice chords so that some notes are stronger than others. The level of complexity can be quite overwhelming for the mind, but the physical body has a way of learning by gradually assimilating information and repeating the process over and over again. Small children do not ‘give up’ on learning to walk just because they keep falling over, but lots of people are prone to ‘give up’ on being better pianists because they don’t take enough ime to practise, to repeat a particular set of physical movements often enough and slowly enough for the body to assimilate what is needed.
Thirdly, learning music is made much easier by an openness to engage with understanding the structures involved in the composition. This may be as simple as understanding the alternating pattern of verse and chorus in a popular song. It may be as complex as unravelling a four or five part fugue. The important thing is not the level of complexity but the openness of the mind to engage with the process.
Of the three ways, the fhird seems the least important at the early stages of learning. Its importance increases in significance, however, as more musical progress is made.