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Musical activities and understanding

These three principles suggest a wide and deep view of music teaching. Music teaching is an attempt to engage students in the rich form of human discourse we call music. Our aim is nothing less than the promotion of musical understanding. At this point I need to make a distinction between musical activity and musical understanding.

Understanding arises from and is the residue of experience. It is what remains with us when an activity is over. What we understand is what we take away with us. Different musical activities – composing or improvising, performing the music of others, or responding as audience to music – all these may differently affect how and what we understand.

Imagine a gifted jazz improviser being asked to perform difficult music, which has been composed and notated by someone else. The player might well feel constrained and under pressure, unable to express musical ideas freely. Similarly, a fluent and sensitive performer may feel quite lost if asked to compose or improvise. Both people for different reasons may function at a level where musical understanding is neither revealed nor extended.

The activities of performing and composing may also be complimentary. The performer who also composes is likely to become more aware of compositional processes and this understanding may illuminate subsequent performances. The best composers and performers are also avid, responsive and often critical listeners to the music of others. In the case of school children we have some evidence for this from Dr Michael Stavrides. Working with teachers in Cyprus schools, he found that students who listened to music produced more developed music in their own compositions.

We ought not to assume that there will be a kind of symmetry of musical understanding, that a pupil will have equal levels of understanding in the three domains of composing, performing and audience-listening. We have some evidence on this too. Another of our research students, Dr Cecilia Cavalieri França, worked with twenty Brazilian children in the city of Belo Horizonte. These students were all between eleven and thirteen years old and were enrolled in music classes in a large private music school.

During this study, each child made recordings of three memorised piano performances, recorded three of their own compositions (produced ‘aurally’, without notation) and discussed and made written notes on three recorded pieces of music, all of which were heard three times. There were then nine items from each child: three performances, three compositions and three in-audience responses. This amounted to a total of 180 observations for each of the three activities.

Four ‘judges’, all of them experienced teacher- musicians, then assessed these musical ‘products’. They responded to the items in random order and without consultation. Using ‘best fit’ criterion statements, which we have been developing over several years, they ‘placed’ each item into one of six levels of musical understanding. The diagram shows the distribution of these assessments.

The results clearly reveal that 160

levels of musical understanding fo composing and audience-listening were more developed than their performances. The same children reveal less ‘musicality’ or musical understanding when they play the music of other people than they do when they play their own pieces or discuss recorded music. What are we to make of this? Musical decision-making often seemed to go underground when these young people played their prepared piano pieces, while the






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activities of composing and audience-listening gave them opportunities to engage more richly with more layers of musical discourse. One explanation is that after a time students cease to really listen to what they are doing, becoming satiated or even bored by repetition, as do members of bands and choirs when they over-rehearse a very limited repertory. The performances were all played from memory although they were initially based on notated pieces and the pieces were practised over a longish period of time.

Furthermore and importantly, the level of technical complexity is implicit in the choice of piece, whereas when composing these children often stepped back to a technical level within which they were able to make musical decisions, judgements about speed, about expressive shaping, about structural relationships. In audience-listening there are of course no technical problems.

It would then seem unwise to base any form of music education more or less exclusively on performing, whether in individual instrumental instruction or in ensembles. The evidence supports the view that students should have access to a range of musical possibilities, including composing and audience- listening. Whenever possible this should be in an integrated way, not with separate teachers. Only then can we be confident that they are able to develop their musical understanding to fuller potential.

In a comprehensive programme of music education, students should find themselves in a position to make truly musical decisions, to transform and develop their own musical ideas and come to their own musical values. Students can then evaluate their own work and the work of others. Becoming an ‘insider’, playing a part in the great ‘conversation’, is what education is ultimately about.


Musical activities and musical understanding



5 Performing

Composing Audition



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