Check your messages

The pathway of life is a mosaic of external and internal messages. Conscious or subliminal, they carry a predictive content for our lives. Parents and teachers are the main conveyors of the external messages from which the internal messages are acted upon. Sending and receiving messages is a process by which teaching and learning take place.

Perhaps it could be beneficial to pause and check the messages we have been receiving and externalising in the practice of music.

Teachers are committed, by sheer necessity, to passing on the external messages they received in their formative years as students.

The external messages are passed on in the internalised form which is unique to each recipient. Many are the times that we are extremely surprised at the conclusions people arrive at following their own unique internalisation of the message. External messages are most effective when they can be reduced to a working knowledge.

Let us proceed with a selection of more commonly used teacher/student messages and reduce them, if possible, to a working knowledge. That is, what do I do? Can the message be reduced and then successfully applied?

 You should practice slowly…

This is arguably one of the most important messages for any student. However, the internalised reduction of the message to a working knowledge is not so easy. There is always a danger of an infinite regress if the words are not further reduced into what you actually do. That is to say, what change should take place when the message, practice slowly, is adopted. The benefit derived from slow practice is that the player has more time to understand the material that they are reading and send to the waiting fingers. Perhaps the original message needs a little ‘fleshing out’. It will give the player more time to read and internalise the music. Your messages to the fingers will then have every opportunity to be accurate and fluent.

In reducing ‘practice slowly’ to a working knowledge, we have in place a very valuable message carrying the underlying reason for slow practice. Further, it is possible to reduce the message to a practical working knowledge giving it a practical validity.

You should get a metronome…

Metronomes would surely rank alongside ambitious parents at a weekend footy game in the realm of brain-bullying. Certainly, the use of a metronome is of the utmost importance. However, in many instances the recommendation is out of context. Metronomes mark a regular and constant beat which is properly described as rhythm. However, there is an ongoing confusion between rhythm and its derivative, rhythm pattern. Many times a player’s inability to reproduce the rhythm pattern is identified as a rhythm problem. That is, a regular beat.

A metronome, will if seriously adhered to, give the opportunity to correct an irregular beat to the music. Not so for the correction of a rhythm pattern problem in the playing. Rhythm is the regular beat from which the rhythm pattern is derived by numerical subdivision. Given the beat is a crotchet, the numerical subdivisions can be varied to produce a multiplicity of rhythm patterns. The numerical subdivision of a beat is significantly different from the regularity in the establishment of a beat for subdivision.

When a metronome is recommended in the wrong context the message cannot be reduced to a working knowledge. Hence, a message of this nature is not valid.

You should practice more…

Spending more time practising is many times used as the panacea for technical confidence. This may well be effective in part and it may be no panacea.

In reduction, the message ‘You should practice more’ arrives at the notion: the more time you spend practising, the more competent you will become. Was the reduction valid, there would be many more competent players among the vast army of students.

There seems to be something very important missing in the reduction of this message. Surely the main ingredient is ‘how you practise’ rather than, ‘how long’. It is very possible to become very good at being not so good if many hours are spent using a faulty practice method.

Again, the quality of the message predicts the outcome. Quality messages can always be reduced to a working knowledge for intelligent and frequent application. Teachers can but supply quality messages and it is the responsibility of the student for the intelligent and frequent application.

Poor quality messages are those not able to be reduced to a working knowledge. A few examples of this type of message will no doubt be familiar.

Teacher to student…

‘You should spend more time on your scales’

‘Practice slowly’.

‘You are out of time, get a metronome’…

‘You should always practice with a metronome’…

‘Don’t give up, it takes time’…

“You should practice every day’…

‘Everyone has the same problem with that passage’…

‘This is a difficult work’…

‘You are rushing the semiquavers’…

‘You are getting faster’…

Student to teacher…

‘I get these right at home (scales)’…

‘I can usually play this piece without a mistake’…

‘I did know that scale. I just forgot it’…

“I had a dream last night that told me I should not practise’… (anecdotal)

‘Mum says it sounds good’…

‘I told Dad I should think the note before I play so that my fingers get the right message. Dad said he didn’t believe it’… (anecdotal)

Teacher and student…

‘You have been having difficulty with the name of this note most of the year my boy; let’s give you a minute to have a good think and then tell me the name of the note.’

Around one minute’s silence lapses…

Student: ‘Haitch’ (anecdotal)

Listen regularly to music…

Perhaps this message suffers from a modicum of neglect in the run of the mill music lesson. An extremely important message, which can be readily reduced to a working knowledge. Not so urgent for students of ‘fixed-pitch’ instruments and vital for other instrumentalists.

Aural training is absolutely a must for players responsible for making their own pitch. Players of strings and the woodwind and brass family fall directly into this category. There seems little point in giving a student the message ‘that note is out of tune’ if the student does not have an estimation of the correct pitch of the note. Ideally, the sound should be heard before production on the instrument. Perhaps there is, presently, an over-emphasis on the symbol rather than the sound in music lessons. The balance may be better if lessons involved equal time on aural perception and reading music.

An attempt to reduce the message ‘that note is out of tune’ would be pointless unless a consummate exposure to aural perception was in place.

Teaching allows you to send messages that will facilitate the growth of the student in the practice of music. You cannot be certain of the internalised messages that a student may have already accrued in life. Placing high quality messages at the disposal of a student fills the role of teacher.

It may become apparent that many messages come under the heading of ‘fillers’ and are non-applicable as working knowledge. However, now and again there are messages given that are extremely important to the facilitation of learning. Hopefully, this article will assist in raising the level of awareness in identifying the significant messages. Perhaps we are always just a thought away from success and competence.

Check your messages.

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