Monthly Archives: April 2011

Reconnecting to the Heart of Music

Contrary to my friends’ opinion about my “cushy job as a music professor,” I seem to keep pretty busy. Busy enough that I sometimes feel like I’m just operating class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline. But every so often I’m able to take a step back and wonder, just what am I trying to do here?

Following the advice of any life-coach worth his or her salt, I end up prioritizing my values. I remember the things I consider most important and inwardly rally around them. This kind of process led me to start the blog you’re reading at the moment, and the name I gave it: Being Musical. Being Human.

It’s the big picture items that matter most. For me, the biggest is the natural connection between music and humanness. As a performing musician, I easily get preoccupied with right notes vs. wrong notes. And as a music parent, I worry about my kids getting enough practice time done. Too often I lose perspective by focusing on these little things, and forgetting what the whole purpose of music making is anyway.

I believe music is primarily about the sharing of expression between people. Consider music’s capacity to evoke emotions, stimulate people mentally and physically, and build personal relationships through communal music making. Years ago, anthropologist Alan Merriam offered up a list of 10 functions that music plays within human cultures around the world. They are:

  1. Emotional expression
  2. Aesthetic enjoyment
  3. Entertainment
  4. Communication
  5. Symbolic representation
  6. Physical response
  7. Enforcement of conformity to social norms
  8. Validation of social institutions and religious rituals
  9. Contribution to the continuity and stability of culture
  10. Contribution to the integration of society

I’m pretty sure that Merriam didn’t publish these as a Letterman-esque “Top Ten,” but I like seeing emotional expression at #1. In fact, I think the reason that music is so effective with the other 9 functions is that it enhances them with its emotional/expressive capacity. Take, for example, our American culture’s passion for professional sports, NFL football in particular. This would likely be a “social institution” according to Merriam (now college football is closer to a religious one! :)). Think about the many ways that music enhances our experience of NFL football: the stadium music, the enduring theme of Monday Night Football, and of course the Super Bowl halftime spectacles (U2 in 2002 was easily my favorite).

Just listening to music can be a very emotional experience, and performing it yourself can be even more so. For most people one leads to the other (even if it’s just singing along to a recording). Perhaps the most rewarding form of musical involvement is creating original music that is personally expressive. Maybe it’s with this kind of music making that the connection with humanness is strongest. In order to express yourself, you have to look inward. You have to know yourself, or at least know how you feel. Then you look outward, to others, as you consider how to express yourself to them. In this process, music provides a captivating medium for us to learn about ourselves and learn about others. And learn about how people connect. And learn about the world in which these connections occur.

Music is a lens for considering core issues of humanness: growth . . . the passing of time . . . bodily motion . . . power . . . motivation . . . identity . . . consonance . . . conflict . . . emotion . . . creativity. Some of the musical connections with these things are amazing. For example, a team of researchers found that the rate of slowing that musicians use in a ritardando is “strikingly similar” to the pattern of deceleration that runners naturally take in coming to a stop. That’s pretty cool.

My favorite trumpet player Chet Baker said “I don’t believe that jazz will ever really die. It’s a nice way to express yourself.” The simplicity of this statement is what’s so beautiful to me. Music will always remain because by its nature, it has the capacity to express our humanness. Music is critically important, yes, even in comparison to school staples like math and science. To say that music is not important is to say that human expression is not important. And that’s not a position that’s easily defended.

How Vernacular Musicians Acquire Their Skills

Those of us who built our musical skills through formal education may look at “garage band” musicians with some bewilderment. Maybe even with a little disdain (disguised jealousy in my case!). How is that these guitarists, electric bassists, and drummers are able to learn their instruments, all without the assistance of music teachers? We have to be somewhat impressed that they can figure out so much, seemingly on their own. But if they’ve done it without instruction from a musical expert, doesn’t that call into question the quality of their skills?

Ten years ago music educator and research Lucy Green published her book How Popular Musicians Learn. She shed light on the learning processes of “vernacular musicians,” as I like to call them, who acquire their musicianship outside of a school/lesson setting. Lucy followed up that landmark volume with another book and research studies further exploring the topic. Lately, many within the music education profession, myself included, have been paying greater attention to vernacular musicians. One thing we have found is that these people do not devote any less time and energy to their musical pursuits than those in more formal settings. Research refutes the notion that popular music skills are arrived at by osmosis (through just goofing around with music), whereas good “classical” musicianship comes through discipline. More likely, the real difference is whether the time and effort invested is perceived as pleasant or unpleasant. Most vernacular musicians describe their music activities as voluntary, enjoyable, and what they love to do. They seem to be tapping into more intrinsic motivation than many formally trained students, whose music experiences can be dominated by solitary technique-intensive practice of music assigned to them by teachers.

The interesting thing is that everyone starts off as a vernacular musician. Enculturation refers to learning that occurs through immersion in one’s culture and social environment. It’s how all young children begin learning music, as they’re exposed to music making around them and naturally engage themselves in playful exploration of musical sound. But upon reaching schooling age, some people become invested in formal music instruction, and their music making activities take on that value system. Much of their time is spent in teacher-led lessons and rehearsals, and in isolated practice sessions. Young vernacular musicians, however, continue on a more exploratory path. Below are some of the most important characteristics of vernacular music learning:

  • Informal group learning with peers – A more experienced peer may lead informal sessions, sharing previously unfamiliar chords, progressions, or licks. In less directed peer situations, learning is accomplished as musicians engage in group efforts to reproduce popular songs, create new compositions or arrangements, and otherwise jam for pure enjoyment. (Check out this clip from the movie School of Rock, specifically at the 1:40 mark where Jack Black and a student disagree on whether to call their class activities “goofin’ off” or “creating musical fusion.” :) )
  • Chosen musical material – Practicing is done within a real music context, meaning it emphasizes songs, tunes, or licks that they want to learn, as opposed to scales, long-tones, and exercises that they’ve been assigned. Interestingly though, many vernacular musicians eventually choose to practice scales, arpeggios, and the like as they “discover” the benefits, often through suggestions published in musician magazines.
  • Listening-copying process – They often “just listen” to soak up a groove, or try to play along with recordings for fun. But they also thrive on the challenge of listening carefully and working up imitative performances of difficult passages.

Obviously the ear is a critical component of vernacular musicianship. It is the means by which they build up a huge repertoire of songs, quickly memorize heard music, embellish basic music material, and improvise. In contrast to formally trained music students who rely greatly on notation in their practicing, vernacular musicians naturally develop formidable aural skills as they practice.

This line of thinking should in no way discredit the value of a great music teacher of the effectiveness of individual practice. The research literature is replete with evidence that formal education works, and that deliberate practice is an leads to improved skills. But surely there is something music education can learn from the activities of vernacular musicians. I suspect that far fewer “garage musicians” pack away their guitars into permanent storage after their teen years, like so many high school band members do upon graduation. “Indeed,” Lucy Green writes, “those societies and communities with the most highly developed formal music education systems often appear to contain the least active music-making populations.”

Boosting Intrinsic Motivation for Music Learning

We often talk about motivation as if it’s merely a feeling that overcomes us. How many times have I skipped my plan to the gym to work out because “I’m just not motivated right now.” We musicians often complain of not being motivated to practice. Of course, what we’re really saying is we just don’t feel like practicing. Often we seem prepared to wait (and wait…and wait…) until we do feel like starting a practice session. Many so-called motivational speakers have caught on to this and simply try to stir up the feelings of their listeners. Those in the audience may make ambitious plans during the inspiring speech, but ultimately fail to follow through on them after the speaker traveled on to the next presentation (check in hand).

Motivation is linked to the beliefs we hold and the emotions we experience but, to quote the old Boston song, it really is “more than a feeling.” Lots of people are so attracted to music as children that they want to learn a musical instrument. Yet relatively few of them ever learn to play one well. Why? Because it entails a great deal of effort! The kind of practicing that’s required is not enjoyable. Even the most highly successful musicians admit that they do not like to practice. So why do they end up doing it anyway?

While practice per se is rarely pleasurable, many experiences within music are. Growing musically requires a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. An activity that is intrinsically motivating is one that is rewarding in itself (think…eating pizza). We do the activity for the sake of it. In contrast, an activity that is extrinsically motivated is done for a reason outside of the activity (think…drinking a low-cal meal replacement shake). We do it because of the consequences of doing it. So, is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic important? Just because I sing along to my favorite recordings because I enjoy it (intrinsic), and I practice scales because it builds my performance facility (extrinsic)…what good does it do me to know this?

Perhaps the greatest benefit comes in avoiding burnout as a musician. When people find their musical involvement is dominated by extrinsically motivated activities, then they are in danger of quitting music altogether. I’ve heard too many college music majors say as seniors, “I can’t wait until my recital is done, and I’ll never have to perform again.” It’s sad that performance–presumably the act of sharing music with people who want to hear it–has become something that some musicians feel they “have to” do.

Here are some ways for musicians to capitalize on intrinsic motivation for music learning:

  • Choice and personal autonomy – Musicians need to “take ownership,” as the cliché goes. Research suggests that musicians willingly invest more time and attention on material that they’ve chosen for themselves. Feeling empowered and having a sense of self-determination are characteristics that distinguish play from work.
  • Inclusion of musical “loves” – As alluded to earlier, lots of young people choose to study music because they love music. Usually what attracts them to music is its ability to express emotions and produce powerful feelings in people. There may be a particular style of music that they’d listen to for hours at a time any chance they get. But all too often, music students find themselves focusing mostly on technical performance issues (over expressive ones), and working on music that is nothing like what’s on their iPods. Music learning is only enhanced when students connect to what they really love about music.
  • Emphasizing the social of music making – Human beings are social creatures. We are driven to connect with each other in a variety of ways. For many people, this is the reason they get involved with music. Lots of teenagers choose to join the high school music program (or drop out of it) in order to be with their friends. But it’s not just goofy teenagers collapsing under peer pressure. All around the world, group music making is a central part of cultural life. Connecting with others through artistic expression is a powerful reward.

Glimpse into a Group Creative Process

In terms of social dynamics, I’m really impressed how a group of musicians, who are strangers to each other, can get together and make music immediately. I suppose this kind of thing is not exclusive to music though. In sports, there’s the pick-up basketball game that commonly takes place in public parks and gyms. The corporate world has ad hoc committees and the justice system throws together a “jury of your peers” for criminal trials. These zero-history groups are pretty interesting for exploring how people get along (or not) with each other.

Some musicians are so good that they can all show up for a gig and without knowing each other, and without any rehearsal, they can put on a quality performance that the audience loves. I think this is pretty common in the jazz world. Groups like this are able to perform on the spot because they all share a common knowledge base. If, say, four jazz musicians are hired and they’ve never played together, they would talk before and during the gig to figure out the songs that they all know. Plus they would rely on standard conventions of jazz performance along the way.

But what about a group of musicians who come together for the first time to create a completely new piece of music to be recorded? We’re not just talking about strangers functioning together and carrying out the things that each of them already knows how to do. Now we’re talking about group creativity. Here’s where it really gets interesting!

Below is a video of singer-songwriter-guitarist John Mayer taking part in such an experience. He joins up with guitarist-bassist and drummer to create a new song for an album. The 18-minute video covers a 12-hour period during which they go from nothing to a polished recording.

Here are a few things you’ll notice in their process:

  • These guys have great musicianship. They have much experience to draw from, and all of them know a lot of the same things. They know the same conventions of rock music, the same kind of chords and progressions, rhythmic expectations, etc. And of course they all have great ears. They are adept at playing by ear and improvising, which allows them to musically interact so well together.
  • As they work together, they are establishing social roles in the group process. John Mayer is clearly the leader. I assume he coordinated the project, and they all know that the song they come up with will go on his album. (He’s also the most famous…just how many movie stars has he dated?). Yet he is very accepting of the others’ ideas and input. Especially in a artistic venture like this, all members of a group must feel that their contributions are important and valued by the others. No question that’s the case here.
  • They effectively communicate with each other. And they do so in a variety of ways. Like any other group, they talk together. Sometimes they say they like each others’ ideas–like at 6:08 in the video where the bassist tells the drummer, “Dude, your groove is disgusting, man” (yes, that’s a compliment!). But they also find tactful ways of voting down certain ideas. These musicians also communicate nonverbally during performance. They use eye contact, facial expression, and physical gestures. Most interesting to me, though, is the way they communicate to each other through the music they play. For example, Mayer and the drummer may hear in the bass line where the bassist thinks the chord progression should go. Or the drummer may signal in a drum fill how he thinks the tempo or rhythmic activity should change.
  • Creativity requires reflection. All the musicians in the video see the value in experimenting musically and seeing what is spontaneously produced. But they also recognize the need to periodically step away from their instruments, and with fresh ears listen to what they’ve made. Psychologist Howard Gardner has suggested that exceptionally creative individuals are willing to risk failure (i.e., experiment freely), and spend much time reflecting on and refining their work.

It’s pretty impressive what a few great musical minds can come up with together!