"Reasoning from analogy is not particularly useful when a problem requires deep innovation."
- Elon Musk
I'm not entirely clear on why we're having this discussion.
There's something to be said for the fact that the discussion has erupted as it has. Also - this five time Grammy winning artist
argues against music teachers' modes of operation.
There's no rational argument to be made for the idea that NOT knowing how to read music isn't anything but a disadvantage to be overcome.
It's more nuanced than this, TwoSnowflakes. There is a very rational argument to be made
. It's about something insidious happening.
As a PhD in music education and early childhood music development specialist, I can only deplore most of the techniques we use to teach children to read what’s on the page.
Musical illiteracy is not an asset even if somehow one can dredge up examples of musicians who managed to deal with it
As mentioned, the seven best-selling musicians of all time
, whose art earned them countless millions of fans - and dollars - are:
Number 7: Pink Floyd
Number 6: Led Zeppelin
Number 5: Sir Elton John
Number 4: Madonna
Number 3: Michael Jackson
Number 2: Elvis Presley
Number 1: Lennon & McCartney of the Beatles.None read music.
Additionally, the wildly successful Chet Baker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Taylor Swift, Danny Elfman, B.B. King, Charles Mingus, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain, Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Marley, Dave Brubeck, James Brown, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Wes Montgomery, Erroll Garner, Frank Sinatra, The Bee Gees, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Smith, Slash, Louie Armstrong, Tori Amos, Freddy Mercury and Chet Atkins did not read music
. These are hardly people who were "dredged up". These are bona fide geniuses.
True musical literacy is great
, but it is rare
. Far more common is the ability to mechanically regurgitate what's indicated on the page. This second skill is what nearly all piano teachers foist upon students. Next to none of these students end up truly musically literate because of it. They can’t silently look at an unfamiliar score, comprehend what’s on the page, and (thus) get emotionally affected by it. They’re trained to look at a score, decode it, and make their instruments produce the right tones. Almost always devoid of nuance, some do this quickly - most slowly. This isn’t reading.
(Side note: In fact, if the 'creativity vs. literacy' battle were a thing, I'd root for the former (just like this guy, who gave the most-watched TED Talk
of all time.)
In other words, just because it's not absolutely necessary and can somehow be accommodated doesn't do anything to diminish the idea that it's an ALMOST-indispensable part of musicianship.
How is it "ALMOST-indispensable"? Many of the replies in this thread cite "accompaniment under the Western classical tradition" as a primary argument for
sight-reading. That's a very limited subset of musicians. Also - from my experience - it's not really what kids desire when they go into lessons.
Similarly, I guess I could just memorize all of Shakespeare's plays, but I certainly wouldn't make the argument that being illiterate is a fine state of affairs for scholarly study because some people have managed to learn them without being able to read.
I'd never make the argument that being illiterate is a fine state of affairs for scholarly study either... and I haven't made such an argument. When it comes to devouring Shakespeare (he's great by the way!), it's not about memorizing his work. It's imperative that one has the English language facility to understand his writings, appreciate them, and then able to write one's own captivating plays, novels or other literary works once they're dreamt up.
I presume you watched the whole of the Victor Wooten video. Imagine, for a moment, your middle child (who just got back into piano lessons) wasn't fluent in English whatsoever. Imagine these were English lessons. She got frustrated with English once before, and quit. Her teacher who came to start lessons up again after all these years has her nose back to the grindstone, doing the same old rigamarole. Now read my bit here
about the ineffective daily
French lessons that myself and my classmates were all subjected to for more than a decade.
The example of composers finding it difficult to put the music in their heads into notation is not an argument for illiteracy, either. ALL WRITERS have that problem. It doesn't mean the act of writing is such an interference with the creative process that we should consider teaching and learning without written text.
For beginners, it means precisely that.
Also - imagine for a moment that improvising at your very best feels as though you're slipping into a deep dreamlike state of mind. You simply cannot be your regular waking self (who can act as a scribe) and
your masterful improvisatory self at the same time. The states of mind required (link
) are totally different. Imagine too that, when humans improvise, the part of the brain
responsible for working memory and for inhibition both shut down. Please see my post about Evgeny Kissin's first piano lesson here
Also, no writers would make the argument that because they have trouble writing sometimes that they then avoid the use of written text to learn OTHERS' works.
I think it's fair to assume that we both have trouble writing Mandarin, and that we both avoid the use of Mandarin text to learn Mandarin writers' works. I deeply apologize if you're fluent in Mandarin.
I guarantee you Chopin did not prefer to learn the whole canon of Beethoven's works by ear.
Chopin had true musical literacy. He began as a child with mimicry of the music he heard around him, then he progressed to full improvisatory facility, and then he proceeded to commit his own works to paper from a young age. It wouldn't have been a problem for him to learn the whole canon of Beethoven's works by ear. However - from what I've read - he was most fond of Bach and Mozart. Perhaps he didn't bother with Ludwig.
And I don't get how the fact that many musicians learned by listening and playing when very young makes any argument for musical illiteracy. We all learn that way.
But the 'we' you speak of in lessons do not learn that way. The lessons promote precisely the wrong thing.
What, because I learned how to talk and speak before I learned how to read is a reason to remain illiterate? A person who falls in love with Shakespeare by seeing and listening to the plays first is a defense of illiteracy?
It certainly isn't. However - you learned to converse fluently in English first. That was the prerequisite for literacy.
If you dare, try to throw on various songs for your middle child, and prompt her to 'jam along'. See if it's a walk in the park for her. I doubt that it will be. Otherwise, why would she ask you to procure the piano teacher again?
Not being able to use music notation among musicians is nothing but musical illiteracy.
Would you march into a room full the aforementioned seven best-selling musicians of all time (and the wildly successful group that I mentioned afterward) and announce, "Not being able to use music notation among musicians is nothing but musical illiteracy!"
Musical illiteracy is not an asset even if somehow one can dredge up examples of musicians who managed to deal with it, nor is it an asset even if you focus on the one moment in the creative process of composition where the act of writing notation can sometimes get in the way.
Again - I'm not promoting illiteracy.
I'm advocating the cessation of the process that mimics true musical literacy
If you'd care to indulge me, let me tell you a story.
I was once approached by warm-spirited Korean pastor who, alongside his wife, used the chapel I used to practice in. My friend's father would drive me there at 5am each morning. I was determined to be a concert pianist. This Korean pastor heard me playing early one morning, and asked me if I could give his two sons a few lessons. He said the boys took lessons for a short while, but that they weren’t really liking them.
I was seventeen, and beginning to doubt the MO of the traditional Western classical education system.
I was also obsessed with Carl Sagan and space, and Werner Von Braun’s famous axiom, “One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions,” popped into mind.
So - to the point - I agreed to give them a couple lessons. Then I proceeded to casually asked them, “So - are you from North Korea?”
Laughing like I’d just told the best joke ever, they said, “No, no, no, no - South, South, South!”
Laughing along, I said, “I know, I know!” like I wasn’t actually ignorant the whole while.
Then, a thought hit me, and I said, “Oh - please make sure that there’s a sound system and a computer at the lesson.”
Still giggling slightly at my obliviousness, they composed themselves, saying that this request would be no problem at all.
Their townhouse was about a twenty minute walk from the church. Unlike all of the other lessons I’d taught theretofore, I went to this lesson with my briefcase devoid of the usual slew of beginner music books. It had only one thing: a USB hard drive full of MP3 files.
When I got inside, the boys, six and eight, each showed me what they already knew how to play. At one point, the eight year old, Daniel, forgot, and started again. He finished, and his younger brother asked who would go first.
I replied, saying, “Actually - no piano today. We don’t even need to have it open.”
Looking puzzled, they shut the lid over the tarnished keys of their slightly beat-up upright.
I asked them to power up the computer and plug the USB hard drive’s power adapter into the socket in the wall, and to plug the USB connector cable to one of the ports on the computer. Then, it was time to turn on the stereo system. I played them a few excerpts from my favorite piano concertos, asking them, “Does this sound cool?”
Then, I asked them if they had MP3 players.
They nodded again.
I asked them if they knew how to load up their MP3 players with music.
I instructed them to listen to as much music as they wanted for the next week, but to listen specifically to Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto as much as possible. I told them, “Listen to it while you’re going to bed, listen to it on the bus on the way to school. Listen to it at school if you can. Listen to it in the bathtub, but not underwater!”
They laughed, and I said, “Next week, you should know this melody by heart! I’ve got to go now - so - see you in a week!”
I then promptly left, before their mother had a chance to give me any money.
The following week, I returned. They told me that they had listened to it a whole bunch. I went to the computer, and double clicked the first movement’s file. It started playing. Without me even prompting them to, they began singing along with it.
The pianist played the ominous bell-like opening chords, but as some pianists do when their hands aren’t as big as Rachmaninoff’s were, the chords were played rolled, rather than solid. The boys both imitated this effect by rolling their tongues up to the C above middle C that tops the first seven-note chord, and the subsequent nine-note chords. They even moved their hands along with the sound, and when the lowest F on the piano sounded after each chord, they said, “Bwwwwaaaahhh,” with their chins reaching down as far as they could go, and their eyes dramatically widening. When the orchestra came in, I started sing-humming it along with them.
I said, “Great!” and proceeded to skip ahead to random parts, at which points their faces immediately lit up with recognition, and they sang along. They knew it.
Prepared for their reply, I said, “Okay - let’s play along on the piano now!”, motioning to the instrument.
Immediately, they replied, “Uhhh no - we can’t!”
I asked “Why not?”
They replied, “Well, we don’t know which key makes what sounds.”
I said, “Okay, fair enough - but how do you know how to sing along with it?”
With curious grins cracking on their faces, they said, “I don’t know.”
I went on. “Well, there are muscles inside our necks called vocal cords. When we sing, those muscles inside either get tighter, or they loosen.”
Walking over to the piano, and sitting down on the bench, I said, “When my vocal cords loosen, I can hit lower pitches.”
I played a descending chromatic scale, simultaneously matching the notes with my voice, as far as it could go.
“When my vocal cords tighten, I can hit higher pitches.”
I did the same thing, this time matching an ascending chromatic scale. When I hit the highest note I could, they doubled over laughing at the shrillness.
I went back over to them. “Now look - at my neck - see this pointy thing? It’s my Adam’s apple. You don’t have yours yet, but you will when you get older. Watch how it moves up and down when I sing different notes.”
“Here - try this," I said. "Hold your hands to your necks and feel for your vocal cords. Let’s sing the Rachmaninoff melody. I double-clicked the icon again. Music playing, we all clutched the front of our necks, and began singing in unison. At that point, their mother walked in, saw all of us in the middle of a self-strangulation party.
Before I could even try to explain, the little one went all out, simultaneously exerting max possible grip pressure while getting as loud as he could (eyes were bulging, and spittle was flying furiously). His mother calmly left the room without saying a single word about my highly dubious methodology.
Once I said, “Okay, alright, that’s enough,” I asked them:
How much are you looking at your vocal cords?
“Not at all,” they replied.
“Right - now - how much do you think about moving these muscles when you sing?”
“Not at all!” they replied again.
“Right! We don’t know how much tension generates each note. It just happens.”
They both nodded slowly.
“When you're singing along, you’re absorbed in the wonderful music, right?”
They nodded quickly.
“So, when we try to play it on the piano, let’s try to use the same approach to play along with the soaring melody that the orchestra plays.”
After the concerto’s solo piano introduction, they both rapidly plunked around the keyboard for the first note of orchestra’s melody, which comes in at the eleventh bar. I rewound the file back a few times, and eventually, they got it.
When it came time for the second note, they were hunting and pecking.
Immediately, I paused the recording, and said, “Hang on! You’re thinking of which key to push, aren’t you?”
They answered coyly, “Yeah.”
Given how Rachmaninoff wrote the orchestra’s melody, the first five notes that they were to play consist of an alternation between just two notes: Middle C, then the D above it, then middle C again, then the same D above it, then the middle C for a third time, and then the melody proceeds in its sombre fashion.
They younger brother played first C correctly, then the D correctly, but then looked down at the keyboard, and played the B natural below middle C, which didn't work (middle C was the correct note). I encouraged him to sing along and pretend like he was conducting an orchestra with his left hand while playing with his right hand. He played the alternating Cs and Ds correctly. Then, he quickly looked down to see what he was doing, but rather than moving to the black keys, he took a guess and played the B natural below middle C. It didn't work. He tried another white key beneath that. It didn't work. None of the guesses worked.
I said, “Hold on mister conductor! You forgot to continue your conducting!”
He feigned dramatic frustration, and we switched his brother in.
The result was the same his brother - both of them were thinking to push white keys only.
I let that go on a while longer, before I said, “Whoah, hang on now! I feel like I shouldn't be asking you this, because it’s giving too much away, but I've got to ask - how many different colors of keys are there on the piano?”
The eight year old said, “Oh!”
Then the six year old shouted, “it's a black key!” and proceeded to plunk away at the different black keys, squinting hilariously in concentration as if he were a miner peering into a dusty mine shaft for a hint of golden glimmer.
I said, “Whoah, hang on again! This is not a visual memory game. It's not Simon!”
Neither of them knew what Simon was, so while feeling like an incredibly old seventeen year old, I showed them a YouTube video of it.
I said, “This whole procedure of practicing one section until you master it then move on to the next section is nothing like how you sang along, right?” They shook their heads. “But it is how you're trying to learn to play this melody on the piano, isn't it?”
More sly grins, and they nodded.
I said, “Let’s try not thinking about the keyboard at all! Let’s sing as we go! Even close your eyes!”
They followed my instructions, but I could see that by the way their hands were moving, they were hesitating.
“Are you thinking of where to put your fingers?”
I feigned extreme exasperation, saying, “Ah! Thinking about where to put them while your eyes are closed is just as bad as looking for the right key!”
“You don't think about moving your vocal cords, do you?”
They shook their heads furiously.
“You just get absorbed in the music, right?”
I said, “Remember that the physical, visible keyboard itself has absolutely nothing to do with the sound! It gives you no idea of what sound is produced. You make the sound!”
Then, in the corniest faux-sensei voice I could muster, I said, “Become one with the piano,” and they raised their eyebrows a little and laughed.
We tried again and again.
The six year old eventually called it quits, and sauntered dramatically over to the staircase to sit down and spectate.
The eight year old, Daniel, persevered.
“Okay, here goes!” I said, with the volume turned up a little more than before.
Channeling Chopin, I said, “Imagine you're on the greatest stage in the world!”
Grinning a bit, he tried again with his eyes tight shut, as if imagining necessitated that.
He admittedly understood full well that his mind kept wandering back to thinking about which key to play, as he dreaded making a mistake. The dead giveaway was the way his hands moved.
I jump in and said, “Okay, again!” enthusiastically each time a wrong note was hit, or a key was missed.
I increased the volume a little bit more each time.
We tried again.
It must have been the eighth or ninth time, and he skipped the second D, but did hit the third middle C. I called his name yet again, but didn't cut the music off quite yet.In a moment I'll never forget, he turned his head to divert his attention away from the piano and toward me in order to listen to yet another one of my pep talks, but he had a bizarre, dazed look in his eyes; it seemed as though he was gazing a thousand miles into the distance. For the next ten seconds or so, he played along with the majestic orchestral melody for eight bars, note for note, with his hands floating to the right keys.
At that point, his spectating younger brother lost his mind, launched himself off the staircase, not even sure what to say, so he screamed. With a huge smile on my face, I asked him, as his eyes focused on me, “Do you realize what you just did?”
Daniel replied idly with, “What?”
Any hypnotist will tell you that children are suggestible and therefore far more receptive to hypnosis. They have super-vivid imaginations that will run wild when you use visualizations, stories, puppets and role-playing. We all know this though. We were all children once.
I’m no hypnotist though. I - the ‘piano teacher’ - was simply a guy who turned on the stereo, started and restarted and re-restarted the track, and continually and gradually adjusted the volume upward.
I didn’t hypnotize Daniel that day. Sergei Rachmaninoff did.
Now -- interestingly -- what you'll find if you research the great composers and concert pianists, is that all of them started this way
. So too did all the famous 'pop' musicians. At a function, I once witnessed a young Chinese girl of three or four improvise a cute little melody along with a Mozart sonata that was playing on the self-playing Steinway Spirio piano. I knelt down gently, told her how great her little melody was. She promptly came back 'down to Earth' (her eyes, just like Daniel's, focused from the thousand-mile stare to my eyes), she let out a squeak, and ran behind her father's leg.
“The dean of the piano department at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music says, ‘As parents increasingly realize they need to expose their children to different instruments and enable them to imbibe a greater understanding of music, they take the children to concerts for immersive learning. Instead of forcing knowledge through traditional methods, parents are now more keen to be seen as their children's learning partners.’”
A 35 year old mother of an 8-year-old boy went on the record saying that she believes that the best way to persuade her son to practice the piano is to take him to concerts, to musicals, and to watch films with nice soundtracks. She said, “My son learned Edelweiss, just two days after he watched the film The Sound of Music. He listened to the melody time and again, and somehow worked out the notes on the piano even before he fully mastered the musical scale.”
[Michael Jackson's] art will later depend on his ability to stay in touch with that childlike inner instrument, keeping near enough to himself to hear his own melodic promptings. If you've listened to toddlers making up songs, the things they invent are often bafflingly catchy and ingenious. They compose to biorhythms somehow.
So - how to get our musical geniuses out?