11 April 2016

The Theory-Technique-Creativity Nexus


Editorial Note: I lied, and it was only good for half an exorcism. Therefore, the "frozen essay" is hereby defrosted, prepared, and served. Bon appetit.

-SK

•••••

A talented eighth grade tuba student of mine was asked by his band teacher two months into our lessons how things were going. When told we'd spent most of the prior lesson building and playing triads in various keys, this teacher's response, as later reported to me in an act of unsolicited pre-adolescent candor, was, "You can learn your chords and scales at home. What did he give you for technique?"

Remarks not initially intended for one's own ears certainly have a way of occasioning some instant reflection, but beyond that, this one soon had me thinking about writing those reflections down and sharing them with the greater musical community. While such a task necessarily entails rehashing much territory on which I have written and spoken before1, the above exchange is an excellent prompt to further refine and sharpen these principles based on experience gained in the interim.

Specifically, I have set out here to theorize and advocate for the immense and far-reaching value of applying foundational music theory concepts directly to the student's band instrument regardless of their prior experience in applying them to the keyboard or to the written staff. Concurrently, I seek to connect what may seem to be mere subtleties of presentation therein to larger questions of what music education is, should be, and might become. Throughout, I take pains to address this discussion to all instrumental music students and educators, not just those involved in pre-professional musical training; indeed, I single out for particular scrutiny the notion that the comprehensive approach I describe is not well-suited to beginning and intermediate students. I would be remiss, however, to completely ignore the higher-order facets of this discussion and thus will conclude with some observations of that nature as well.


ISOLATION AND INTEGRATION
I strongly believe that tapping into the intellectual and creative dimensions of musicianship is a primary and essential task for music education even where instrumentalism is the ostensible priority of the endeavor. Indeed, instrumentalism is a fine priority to choose: music is after all not merely something to contemplate but something to do. That is to say that the most comprehensive and reliable extrinsic benefits following from a musical education of any scope stem from the "doing" part and minimally if at all from mere contemplation in absence of it. If you have ever read one of those breathless headlines declaring that music uses more different parts of the brain than most any other activity, I can assure you that the subjects of these studies were not merely head-bobbing or navel-gazing. Distanced scholarship does play a necessary role in "doing" music on a high level, but the two cannot simply be swapped out for each other one-to-one.

Hence, I want to propose that a broadening of the music-educational experience to encompass intellectual and creative pursuits need not come at the expense of instrumental concerns; rather, the intellectual and the creative can and must be essential components of the ways we present and cultivate instrumentalism, that is if we intend this cultivation to be successful. I believe as wholeheartedly in these assertions regarding beginning and intermediate students and hobbyists as I do vis-a-vis college music majors and working professionals. This is without question the most difficult aspect of my argument to support theoretically, but provided I can indeed achieve this, I intend to show as well that implementing it in practice is actually much simpler than it is typically made out to be. It is true that most classroom educators face severe practical limitations, but I believe this is an instance (a rare one, perhaps) where philosophical differences and not logistical barriers are in fact most responsible for creating a culture of expedience in place of the broader and somewhat more rigorous methods I propose.

Attaining a truly symbiotic relationship between the creative and technical dimensions of musicianship is, of course, a lifelong pursuit which even eminent musical minds struggle to meaningfully achieve and maintain. As such, it may at first blush seem too "advanced" a topic for the lower and middle grades. My contention, to the contrary, is that it is only as advanced a topic as is the material utilized to access it. All students are prepared to be creative within the confines of their ability, whether they know five notes or all of the notes. Further, it is well-known that the absence of social conditioning in young children makes childhood an intensely creative time; indeed, it is often easier to get third graders than eighth graders to improvise, and adults are typically the most difficult (that is, inhibited) age group in this way. Hence we may reasonably formulate an obverse statement as well: as adolescents start to feel the pull of myriad "adult" inhibitions imposed from without, it is doubly critical that we nurture their inner willingness and ability to experiment, to fail, to learn constructively from this, and to meaningfully understand that this process is essential to their development.

The time to challenge these students to be creative is not some imaginary day in the future that may never arrive. It is not the day when they can play all their scales two octaves from memory, the day they audition their way into the top group at school, or the day they finally decide to "get serious" about music; rather, that day is today, while we have them in front of us and have been charged with developing them as musicians, scholars, and citizens. We must teach the students that are in front of us, not the ones we project to exist at some unknowable time based on some unknowable set of variables.

The notion that my assertions here represent a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse is one which urgently needs to be challenged and debunked anywhere it surfaces. For one thing, the narrative of technique-as-prerequisite has its origins in an epoch of cultural consensus and musical common practice which has long since fragmented beyond repair. That is not to say this is a good reason to abandon teaching traditional instrumental technique in public schools, but it is ample reason not to assume that we know today the applications our students might later choose for their newly developed technique. Pedagogy which claims to be traditional and technique-oriented without sufficiently engaging students' intellects and creativity is, simply put, pedagogy that overreaches in its assumptions. This is because virtually any music that students might choose to play outside of the school band room will demand more than the passive recreation of written scores. It is very likely, rather, that it may involve the creation of scores and parts, aural transcription, co-composition, extemporization, or some combination of these things. As such, it behooves us as teachers to develop students' creative and aural skills concurrently with their general technique, as well as to ensure that the occasional need for isolation of underdeveloped skills does not work against the integration of these skills into the "big picture." This is not only possible within the confines of a technique-oriented program but in fact is a prerequisite to optimizing its results. There is no zero-sum game here, only a symbiosis which more closely mirrors the dynamics of living culture than any form of rote learning ever could. And to be clear, it does not necessarily entail abandoning the materials or values of the current paradigm, just rethinking how they are presented and in which proportions.

Speaking personally and anecdotally now, and at the risk of ruffling some feathers, I suspect that if a successful high-level professional playing career were a prerequisite to becoming a school band teacher, it would probably be unnecessary for me to make these points so forcefully, and perhaps also unnecessary to have written this paper at all. I am not an old or a wise man, but in my first decade of professional musical life, I have found the notion that technique deserves one's exclusive attention until mastery has been achieved to be mostly a convenient cover story for musicians and teachers who simply don't have much else to offer. It is so convenient, of course, because perfection is unachievable, and hence the carrot of technique can continue to be dangled in perpetuity, or at least until the student graduates or otherwise moves on to trouble some other teacher with their impatience. If I am wrong in this assessment, I must ask what the skeptic would posit in its place to explain why the concurrent development of technique, intellect, and creativity through mainstream classical music education could seem so radical when in fact there are established models for it scattered all across the past and present of Western cultural history? I have already addressed the logistics argument and found it compelling to a point but nonetheless inadequate by itself. Nor is the prerequisite narrative unique to the school band tradition: in fact it has been one of the enduring tropes of jazz curmudgeonry for nearly a century, reaching its apogee when dyed-in-the-wool beboppers reacted against the 1960s avant-garde by positing bebop as the unimpeachable technical and aesthetic foundation of all jazz to come. To be blunt, any musician who believes their music is everyone else's prerequisite is no musician at all, not in a free society at least. Their worldview as well as their work itself has run aground on delusions of common practice and cultural consensus which no longer define Western musical culture as they once did. I have for the most part privileged traditional technical approaches in my private teaching, partly out of personal predilection and partly out of terms of employment, but ultimately I see technique as a vehicle and not as an end unto itself. For some reason, this modern staple of music criticism and reception has not yet made it into many band rooms and private lesson studios in this country.

These are harsh words, and it is always with some trepidation that I release such words into the public sphere where people I've worked with personally might read them and be left wondering if they are to recognize themselves. On the other hand, in the wake of such a release it is unusual that I don't hear at least one unexpectedly positive response from someone I was most afraid of offending in this way. This could indicate that I have indeed underestimated the impact of logistics; that the "philosophical differences" I posited above are not as extreme as I think they are; and that we therefore are dealing with a lack of courage here and not necessarily with a lack of sensitivity. Ultimately I am betting against this explanation, but if I am wrong, I hope that what I've written, harsh though it may be, might then provide my colleagues with some of this much-needed courage.


SPECIALIZATION AND AGENCY
It will come as no surprise at this juncture that I question (as many have and will) the degree of agency afforded students by an exclusive focus on the passive recreation of written music created almost exclusively by career purveyors of educational publications. By the same token, I lament the rarity with which students in such classes interface with primary documents representing the work and ideas of acknowledged masters, a condition which is not and would never be tolerated in "core" subject classrooms beyond the elementary level. I question these things, and yet I am willing, for the moment, to accept them merely as inevitable consequences of collective cultural priorities and greater political expedience. If students are to be prepared to play Mozart by the time they are prepared to read Shakespeare, then their musicianship needs to be cultivated from the same early age and with the same tenacity as are their reading skills. Few would advocate for the necessity of this, even among the most vociferous of arts advocates. It must be said, however, that the alternative leaves music teachers to solve the puzzle of, quite literally, a child's mind in a young adult's body. Contemporary school music pedagogy is quite clearly a reaction to that unfortunate condition, but I do not think it is the only possible reaction.

Nor does the opposite extreme, the pre-professional "conservatory" orientation, necessarily play any better. Indeed, the notion of first isolating technique and only upon mastery of it being permitted to graduate to interpretive and creative work is itself a rationalist fiction stemming from two professionalistic dicta misapplied to the developing student:

(1) you must not reinforce your technical errors by repeating them without correction; if you do, you are "practicing your mistakes," not good technique;

and,

(2) all creativity is derivative, and fertile creativity requires lots of experience and influences; therefore, creating from minimal experiences and influences isn't worth much.

As a working professional I embrace both of these outlooks. I have to in order to stay employed and to fulfill myself as an artist. However, as a teacher of middle school and high school-aged students, I often impose in-lesson activities which virtually ensure students will make a few of the same technical mistakes several times in a row and/or that they will be charged with creating from insufficient musical experience. Why?

On the technical question, my thinking is that students who ultimately become aspiring professionals and/or college music majors will rack up hours of practice in that phase of their lives which ultimately will dwarf that of their early years. Meanwhile, those who remain strictly recreational players or quit after a short time will most obviously benefit more from a comprehensive approach now than from micromanagement of technical foundations they never end up building upon.

As for creativity as a lifelong pursuit, I hope all of my readers can easily agree that the journey and not the destination is of prime importance when it comes to the creativity of children and hobbyists, and that creativity, like success itself, is habitual. Expecting consistent masterpieces from any artist is of course totally unrealistic, but there are two other points we should consider in light of that. First, not every creation need be presented publicly. Great creators are often simply the most ruthless when it comes to deciding which of their creations are worthy of their good name, and this lesson in and of itself is one of great extrinsic value. Second, there are many elements of "craft" that can be taught and practiced even if the "art" part is destined to remain intractable. I am referring to the ability to realize a musical idea on an instrument or to write it down in proper notation; to knowledge of the notational conventions and instrumental ranges and transpositions that govern this latter task; to having heard and internalized enough music to the point that one's creations reflect these influences; to basic knowledge of computer programs for notation, recording, editing, processing, and programming; and so on. There is no reason to attempt to cover all of this ground, but covering none of it simply is not acceptable anymore, and waiting for just the right moment is nothing better than a gamble. Whether or not a given student possesses the inclination and capability to process this stimulation in the particular way that prolific composers and improvisors do is rather beside the point; if they are not at least given the opportunity to process it, then their chances of developing an emotional investment in music-making have not been optimized.

Is mastery of a traditional Western instrument in the traditional Western manner not the foundation on which all of these higher aspirations must be built? I am certainly not here to dispute the notion that it is, in fact, an excellent basis for this task and many more besides. Even so, we seem collectively inclined to underestimate the window for imparting instrumental mastery and, concurrently, to overestimate the window for sowing the seeds of creativity. If I could be permitted one more lapse into purely anecdotal reasoning, I would cash it in here, for I know of many more instrumental virtuosos who solidified their chops in their late teens and early twenties than I do high-level composers and improvisors whose interest and potential was not yet evident early in high school. That could be because technique is purely meritocratic and creativity is an ineffable gift from God, or it could be because of material circumstances more readily under our control. Given my reasoning here I suppose I must grant each reader the salience of their own anecdotes on the matter. My own observations lead me to think that it is never too early to take some modest baby steps down the path of creative development but that it certainly can be too late. Some light reading in the area of human psychology and brain development certainly indicates that the formative years are most fruitfully spent forging a diversity of neural pathways rather than specializing in just a few; that is, that creativity thrives on diversity of neural form and function and just as surely suffocates in the biocultural vacuum tube of specialization. It is one thing to parade around proclaiming music's function as neural cross-training in a politically calculated, reductionist manner, and quite another thing to actually embrace the many-sidedness of the musical experience and represent it in our pedagogy. I can think of no meaningful deterrents to the latter approach aside from the extra effort it requires on the part of those who by no fault of their own were not afforded a model of this orientation in their own educations.

Indeed, I have always insisted and want to do so once more that specialization itself broadly construed is an "advanced" musical topic, the one can that may be kicked down the road in precisely the manner I am insisting that creativity should not be. We must first possess a fair degree of inner certainty that we are choosing to specialize in something important to us before cutting bait with other closely-held interests and embarking on the hard work of consolidation. In other words, we are psychologically prepared to specialize only after we have attained agency, and agency cannot be achieved without protracted engagement in creative tasks. It has been said that you find out what you think about something by writing about it, and I believe this no less true in the realm of aesthetics than in the realm of scholarship.

If this sounds novel or overwrought, consider the place of the study of interpretation, a down-the-road, pre-professional place that comes long after most of what has been discussed here. Why do we study interpretation only then and there? Because it is a highly specialized topic the pursuit of which presupposes a single-minded surety that the chosen material is relevant to the student's long-term goals. General skills survive changes of interest and métier, specialized ones do not, and on top of that, the latter are harder won and thus require stronger internal motivation. This makes it particularly galling to find interpretation (mere interpretation!) being posited as the avenue by which music students might develop their creativity in band class in absence of being challenged to compose, improvise, or analyze. This represents a far more egregious example of putting the cart before the horse than any method I am advocating for.

So, what exactly is "agency" and where does it come from? It arises where ideas and experiences become transformed into beliefs and intentions; where these intentions start becoming increasingly specific and detailed; and where the question of what to do with oneself becomes engulfed by that of why. The whys of life are of course the most difficult, usually intractable questions we ever face. They are bigger than us, and certainly bigger than eighth grade band. They are not, however, like that trombone-toting bully launching spitballs from the back row: ignoring them will not simply make them go away.

Importantly, mastery of a given body of knowledge does not necessarily lead straightforwardly to the attainment of agency, nor does agency necessarily presuppose anything rising to the level of mastery. Pedagogies which prioritize one will, however, necessarily differ from those which prioritize the other. Unlike mastery, agency is something we can, should, and must expect to develop in young musicians whether or not they intend to pursue music professionally. I personally would go so far as to say that it should be our top priority. It is, in any case, one facet of music with implications far beyond the walls of the discipline, and hence no less crucial to the future hobbyist than to the future professional. Many extramusical factors both contribute to and are impacted by its emergence.

Taken collectively, the methodologies and hypotheses presented here represent a two-tiered plan of attack geared toward eliciting agency from the young student. First and foremost, they lay the early groundwork for dealing directly with the aforementioned primary documents (i.e. written scores and sound recordings) which contain students' rightful cultural inheritance. By the time students' "core" classes are leaving behind the shrink-wrapped, mass-marketed, one-size-fits-all consumables that the education-industrial complex dutifully cranks out to nurse them through their intellectual infancy, their musical infancy is, by that measure, just getting started and threatens to go on for a while. I think there is something fishy about that.

Similarly, a comprehensive music education from an early age may occasion the later introduction of academic musical topics truly comparable in intellectual rigor to the student's "core" classes, such as the science of sound, philosophical aesthetics, music production, and the study of criticism and reception history. This is rarely practical or even advisable except in exceptional instances, but I again ask the reader to consider the ever-escalating battlecry from within the arts advocacy world that music is a core subject, and then to consider whether any of their own pre-college musical education in fact rose to anything near this level. Core status is a worthy goal, but one which we are light years away from justifying on either the curricular or the pedagogical front.

I expect that while few school band directors would take substantive exception to these aspirations in the abstract, many will question the practicality of their meaningful implementation as well as their vague, generic, purely theoretical formulations. I can say that the vagueness, at least, is absolutely intentional here, even necessary, a direct consequence of my own belief in aesthetic plurality in arts education. That the specific demands of particular aesthetic orientations necessarily mediate the larger underlying assumptions of the accompanying musico-pedagogical framework goes without saying and is not particularly problematic. I have striven here, as elsewhere, to formulate these tenets in a manner that reflects the resonance I have found in my own journey toward agency among all of the music I am engaged with. It is a wider array of music than most of my professional colleagues, but not an infinite one; like anyone else, I am necessarily limited by the breadth of my own purview. It is true that some of my assumptions begin to break down when applied to the popular and folk traditions with which I am less engaged; meanwhile, experimental music, in which I have never had better than half a foot, eschews most of them completely and by design. Ironically, though, these particular genre labels also denote the Western musical traditions whose primary documents are most accessible. For that reason, the fact that even these documents, to say nothing of the scores of Beethoven and the recordings of Monk, have been crowded out of mainstream band culture by pieces with titles like S'cool Room Chromatricks is particularly inexcusable. Could a group of 7th grade, second-year band students not create a prose score, play-along track, or simple piece of musique concrète out of their chromatic scale exercises that was at least as interesting to listen to, and most likely more so? Would the process not be more worth their time in every way, and not least of all technically? And are there not three measly weeks of an ever-expanding school year that could be devoted to this without irreparably compromising students' instrumentalism?

Of course, the namechecking of all of these disparate styles, traditions, artists, and idioms, each so important to contemporary musical culture and each holding immense pedagogical promise in spite of their wildly divergent technical demands and cultural origins, raises yet another issue of practicality. It is indeed impossible to meaningfully expose every student to every important stream of Western music thought, and indeed it is hardly necessary or desirable either. Seeing, however, that the brain remains plastic into the third decade of life but indeed becomes far less plastic after that, it follows that students have longer than they are typically granted to decide whether or not to specialize, and also that they have less time than they are typically granted to achieve the agency necessary to both their musical and social development. The current paradigm manages to run afoul of both of these truths at once through its longstanding tunnel vision. In reality, there is plenty of useful space between hyper-specialization and overbroad dabbling that we might more profitably inhabit.

In Brain and Culture, Bruce Wexler remarks upon "a central feature of individual human development" that is as tantalizing as it is tragic:

Learning and action are in an inverse relationship throughout the life-span. We learn the most when we are unable to act. By the time we are able to act on the world, our ability to learn has dramatically diminished." (p. 143)

In this case, the vagueness and generality of the statement does not, I don't think, undermine its validity, and as such it strikes me as an unusually prescient and cautionary message to educators of all stripes. It is from this advice first and foremost that the pedagogical orientation I am advocating for here must be taken to proceed.


METHODS
While professional musicians, school music teachers, public-sector arts advocates, educational theorists of both the scholarly and armchair variety, and even standards-based learning models all pay lip service to the notion of developing students' creativity and self-expression through music education, the creative challenges encountered in the typical band room from middle school straight through graduate school remain, to put it kindly, limited and depersonalized ones. I suppose it is simply an unfortunate accident of history that the symphonic ensembles comprising the locus of so much Western musical thought and creativity have also institutionalized such a badly skewed teacher-to-student ratio as well as a top-down creative hierarchy from composer to conductor to performer. My fellow tuba players at least will recall the famous declaration by our pedagogical patron saint that "a limited challenge creates a limited musician." This of course rings just as true for questions of creativity and intellect as it does for those of technique and interpretation towards which Arnold Jacobs originally addressed them.

Just as the private studio has traditionally occasioned the introduction of greater technical challenges for young students, so it may also also fruitfully become the setting for posing greater creative, conceptual, and intellectual challenges; and this, I firmly believe, without subordinating one concern to the other in a zero-sum fashion. Meanwhile, as long as the greater musical community continues to view creativity as the intractable domain of a few innately gifted oddballs, its accompanying extrinsic benefits, which dwarf those of purely athletic music education, will remain mostly untapped. Not everyone is destined for creative brilliance, nor need they be, but anyone can learn something invaluable by making the effort. They should, and we must.

In what remains of this sprawling diatribe, I will begin to temper the vague theorizing, of which there has been plenty now, and initiate explicit discussion of methodology. Some of this methodology is supported by work I have done with students, and some of it is supported only by my own work and accomplishments. I must emphasize in any case that these methods and materials are for the most part so simple and familiar that they hardly bear mentioning, let alone scholarly excursus. It is precisely this triteness, though, that I feel too often leads the full implications of their ontology and provenance to be overlooked or misunderstood. Hence, the bulk of the discussion below deals not so much with the choice of material (which, befitting a creativity-centered pedagogical approach, is quite flexible) as with how it is presented, approached, worked through, built upon, and thought about.

In my opinion, musical patterning is the process which lays most bare for us the dialectical synthesis of technique and creativity hinted at in the title of this essay. It is undeniably the ideal intermediate step between rote execution and free extemporization. However, there is also an aesthetic nihilism inherent in the concept of patterning, a "paint-by-number" approach if you will, which strongly dictates that we must limit our exposure to it. You are what you hear: over time, listeners come to remember and ultimately to prefer that which they have heard most. Therefore, the ways we choose to develop our technique also shape our artistic identities. Any music pedagogy which does not account for the intrinsic qualities of its materials is an aesthetically nihilist pedagogy which thereby misrepresents both music's relationship to external society and its internal social dynamics.

This is not a question of musical style or genre: all artistic traditions produce works of seemingly "pure" inspiration as well as purely formulaic or reductionistic glosses on them. Ultimately this is a spectrum and not a dichotomy, but I believe it is incumbent upon educators that they be sensitive to the distinction anyhow. It seems to me, unfortunately, that very few are, that this is painfully obvious from both materials and results, and that the need for broad accessibility and expedience will continue to be trotted out as a defense anytime this issue is raised. The question then becomes what end, exactly, this accessibility and expedience is serving and whether it is worth the trouble at all.


RECLAIMING PATTERNING
Let's start with the good news about patterns: they repeat themselves on the intervalic level but change on the pitch level, and so the burden of creation is largely mitigated while the burden of realization remains largely intact. Verbal instructions such as "build a triad on each note of the scale" fully determine the notes to be played while underdetermining the means of executing them on the horn. The student is no longer a passive re-creator; he or she now has to think, at least nominally, about what is about happen. Such tasks are not truly "creative" processes; they are, rather, processes of translation from abstract idea to concrete sound. This is clearly a question of technique by any reasonable definition of the term, and as such, the choice of material and playing style can be geared to address almost any technical topic and the endeavor profitably undertaken by players of all abilities.

The lines-and-dots-oriented bandmaster is liable to opine once again that this approach is too applied and too integrative to be of use with younger students, who would most benefit from the isolation of underdeveloped skills. He or she might posit some glorious day in the future, as vaguely defined as it is overly optimistic, when Johnny or Susie has finally done the hard work necessary to be equally good (or bad) at every aspect of technique. Only once these students have sufficiently flagellated themselves at the altar of received knowledge have they earned the privilege of expressing themselves. Indeed, how can they express themselves if they don't know their scales?!

If you think this is just a straw man argument, I have news for you: this straw man has flesh-and-blood progeny and they release thousands of unlistenable jazz CDs each year. First of all, as I have already said, the day never comes when we have our technical houses ideally in order; this is, rather, a convenient fiction peddled by educators who never pursued such a consummation themselves. Secondly, realization exercises do not exactly work against the process of isolation; rather, they are the truest isolation of the improvisor's craft that exists. This can only be said, however, when students are asked to extrapolate a complete exercise from a single instruction. I hope it is obvious why simply writing the exercise out for them does not work the same way. If, on the other hand, it is the student who writes the whole thing out with due attention successfully paid to the myriad notational conventions involved, this is absolutely worth their time too, just for rather different reasons.

One of the wild cards here is that any material will eventually become memorized through repetition. Hence, a given pattern's value as a realization exercise gets "used up" long before its value as a technical exercise is exhausted, and usually before any particular technical challenges have been isolated on their own terms. Memorization is yet another useful challenge students may benefit from attempting, but again it is not at all the goal of any of this. Students may of course stick with certain material after they've memorized it and transition to the traditional mode of technical refinement; indeed, they must do this if they have aspirations beyond baseline mediocrity. Techniques do need to be isolated at some point, and material which is not "lived with" for sufficient period of time will not be internalized or retained. That being as it may, patterns are not the only material available to us, and they are not usually the material that we actually want to "live with" to this degree. As such, they are the ideal disposable materials for realization exercises but far from ideal as long-term vehicles for technical development; for the latter purpose, large chunks of "real" music are the only profitable choice. And to reiterate, "real" music does not mean "hard" music! It merely means music that was created out of an overwhelmingly aesthetic motivation rather than a reductionistic one.

Here is a canonical example of a "disposable" exercise:


As common and simple as this pattern might be, the difference between introducing it as notation and introducing it as a set of verbal instructions is not negligible. Even if permitted to look at a fingering chart or unidirectional chromatic scale during realization, young students still have some extra "figuring out" to do, and of precisely the kind that composers and improvisors engage in when they spin out their masterpieces. To be sure, what I have described so far does not exactly represent a creative act itself, and certainly not a masterpiece either, but it does represent the foundation on which such things might subsequently be built. It should go without saying, though, that there's absolutely no reason why the foundational technical objectives of this ubiquitous exercise cannot also be explicitly remarked upon by the teacher as the task of stand-and-deliver realization necessarily morphs into that of refinement and repeatability.

I hasten to clarify that I am not merely interested in tipping the scales away from written notation and toward aural transmission. What I am describing here, rather, does not truly belong squarely in either category; the central task of the process I have described so far is neither reading nor hearing, but rather thinking, as well as, albeit in a highly circumscribed manner, creating. I for one think we could use quite a bit more of both of those things at all levels of music education and have devoted the bulk of my pedagogical energy (and quite a lot of verbiage) to this end. So much of the early foundational material brass players are introduced to lends itself so well to the task that it almost seems wasteful not to milk every last drop out of it that we can. The past century of American creative instrumentalism attests to the artistic empowerment that a thoughtfully designed integrative approach can achieve, as does everything we know about the bygone ubiquity of improvisation in a European classical tradition which so many college and university music departments claim now to be conserving while conveniently ignoring this aspect of it.

As for the "practicing your mistakes" critique, it is true that technical mistakes are a frequent and inherent consequence of this methodology. Here we arrive at a highly contentious cultural disconnect between musical traditions which value technical refinement and those which permit technical abandon, one on which I fear partisans of each side may ultimately do no better than agreeing to disagree. I myself maintain a foot in several musical circles of each type and can personally attest to the vehemence and thoroughness of alienation that exists between the true believers of each camp. I can at least say that keeping myself happy is much simpler: it involves having concurrent, fulfilling opportunities to express myself in both refined and unrefined technical idioms. There is, of course, no reason to expect quite that much from middle school students who joined the band because their friends did; but then, in that case, there also is no reason to deprive our students of any approach which might more fully develop them as musicians and people simply on account of our own sympathies in one or the other aesthetic direction. That is why in absence of extenuating circumstances I customarily reserve lesson time each week for the presentation both of fully realized material AND creative/conceptual exercises. No student with whom I've been fortunate enough to work for a period of multiple years has failed to eventually achieve aesthetic agency and gravitate rather decisively towards one or the other stream, at which point I invariably attempt to introduce a more focused approach based on their expressed interests and needs, and to lead them on a journey of, if not refinement, then at least consolidation. For me, the task of eliciting such agency from students is no less essential a responsibility than ensuring that they play with proper posture and air flow. Of course this is above and beyond the established role of the private instrumental teacher, perhaps even outside of it in the views of some; but then, who else is there to pick up the slack that a 50:1 student-to-teacher ratio necessarily leaves dangling? Moreover, what good is technique without an emotional investment in its application?

As for that pesky issue of "pure" creativity and the generation of original material, I am not here to claim that it can truly be taught, but I do know that the ability to imitate is a foundational prerequisite that can be nurtured and diversified, namely by exposing the student to as wide a range of musical ideas as possible. Patterning is at once both the best friend and worst enemy of this process, an open-ended, technically and intellectually accessible simulation which is nonetheless a terribly inadequate substitute for exposure to aesthetic history and thought.

To address this deficiency in the process, students who are motivated and prepared to do so can and should "graduate" to greater challenges of realization based on more advanced music theory concepts, and also to transposition of material drawn from "real" pieces they know and love. To make the study of an instrument the locus of this expository-imitative process is not merely expedient in the sense of combining technical and conceptual pursuits into one; rather, this process is itself an essential component of instrumentalism. Any reader who finds that last statement to be an unduly jazz-centric one is again invited to consider the centrality of improvisation to so much 17th and 18th century European art music as well as the more recent propagation of myriad non-jazz improvisatory idioms. And again, I am not saying that every casual student of an instrument ought to be expected to achieve mastery at extemporization; what I am saying is that the non-improvising chamber musician is just as much the historical anomaly as the non-improvising lead trumpet player and that we truly need many fewer of both than we have.


TRANSPOSITION
If I have put forth more than a few seemingly-radical claims about young students, I trust even so that the confluence of the conceptual and the technical is quite a bit less controversial when it comes to aspiring and current professionals. The ability and willingness to transpose large chunks of pitch material is in fact an absolutely essential prerequisite to the refinement of professional-level technique and repertoire. I must be clear that, as opposed to "sight-transposition," I am referring to "mind-transposition;" in other words, to more or less the same "realization exercise" detailed above but utilizing more complex material and more of it.

The reasons for this are simple. First, to be ideally secure with passages in either extreme of register, the player must be secure in the same passage made yet more extreme; and yet if the only interval by which the player is comfortable transposing is an octave, this aspect of preparation is by definition completely unavailable to them. Additionally, in order to truly balance out our playing experience among all keys, we must in fact "practice keys;" that is, we must occasionally have periods where we play lots of material in the same key. (How's that for isolation of skills?) As anyone so inclined can attest, practicing keys is both less productive and less fun when we are limited to raiding IMSLP or our school's music library for centuries-old pieces we really don't care about. If we allow our weaknesses to force us down that road, we in fact miss a golden opportunity to consolidate our burgeoning agency and identity by revisiting music that is important to us and repurposing it. The exposure effect is a good thing as long as we are exposing ourselves to the music we love! The inevitable discovery of quite unexpected, purely technical resonances between familiar pieces and unfamiliar keys is also very constructive.

And so, remember all those technical "mistakes" the eighth grader made trying to figure out simple patterns based on verbal instructions? Remember how combining so many tasks into one worked so thoroughly against the sacred cow of isolation? Well, if it's not too harrowing a thought, let's imagine that he is now a Masters student in an exclusive university tuba studio. He has aspirations of winning a playing job and his practice log has grown to Gladwellian proportions, burying any memory traces of this youthful flailing underneath a heap of more positive technical reinforcement. All of those foundational patterns kept reappearing, though, in his music, in his undergraduate theory classes, and eventually in his own mind. Ditto the full gamut of scales, chords, and pitch sets. This material, all of it, has become so familiar, its technical challenges so inconsequential, and its intellectual demands so seemingly lightweight, that he will not waste one second or make one purely realization-based error when it comes time to practice Bydlo in A or The Ride in B-flat. Some of his classmates only discovered that approach late in college or even in graduate school, by which time their accumulated experience made a midstream change of orientation even more difficult. And so in the time it takes the trombone player two practice rooms down to hand copy the exposition of a Bordogni vocalise up a half-step, our man has warmed up his chops and brain alike by playing it in all twelve keys, low to high, without a hitch, and is on to something more pressing. He has an audition next week and is both training on a wider array of material AND making fewer mistakes in his daily practice than even some of his technically superior competitors; indeed, the ones he cannot outwork he has outsmarted. Nor is he losing sleep over the diagnostic exams for the DMA programs he is applying to: he has long since forged a permanent intellectual connection between his instrument and his academic music classes by immediately applying theory directly to the horn and eschewing the cult of pianism to read through passages of historically important scores part-by-part.

If he had waited for just the right moment to do all of this instead of simply seizing the moments he had, he would not have begun recognizing these same ideas in the music he was performing in band, orchestra, brass ensemble, chamber groups, and solo recitals. And because he was constantly performing with these and other groups, he did recognize them over and over, he internalized and retained the concepts quickly, he was never at risk of forgetting them as long as he was playing regularly, and he didn't have to waste face time refreshing his memory. Most importantly of all, he has not listened to himself practice dry scale exercises for many hours a day for many years; rather, he has listened to himself play a few scales here and there, dwarfed by a tremendous amount "real" music that he chose because he loves it. This means that whenever he composes or improvises, "real" music is what comes out, not the empty technical displays that lead so many listeners to misguidedly condemn technique as an artistically destructive force, thereby truly completing the circle of ignorance that the first published book of scale patterns started.

Anyone who thinks that last part sounds like it issues from the bitter memoirs of a broken down dabbler who loved playing but hated practicing thinks this solely out of fear. They fear breaking with the conventional wisdom that has always been there to comfort them, with the advice of so many teachers they respect and identify with, and with the faith instilled in them by these mentors that scales are The Way. They fear the loss of simplicity and comfort that reductive solutions have always provided and the ways this loss forces them to come to terms with the complexity, ruthlessness, and incomprehensibility of the real world. They fear last minute audition announcements which prescribe scales to be played, announcements which in reality only ever issue from academic music departments and high school music camps whose appetite for expedience and conformity is no less voracious than that of overburdened public school educators, who at least have a better excuse. They fear forgetting how to play their scales because they don't ever think about them unless they are actually playing them; they could have avoided this by taking a creative musician's approach to the horn rather than the trained-monkey approach, but they were spoon-fed the latter from tweendom and were never allowed, much less encouraged, to question it in any meaningful way. I am questioning it on their behalf, then, not out of hate as it may seem but out of love.

The graduate tuba student scenario above is dramatized and idealized, but only mildly. It is partly autobiographical too, but also validated by a great deal of subsequent real world experience. I for one find it hard to believe that eighth grade band is much more than a distant memory for most of us who have subsequently spent years or decades honing our instrumentalism under the tutelage of master teachers; I do know, however, that I have had many academic classmates and professional colleagues for whom the transposition of standard orchestral excepts, and sometimes even of simple tunes, is not so simple a proposition. Unfortunately, the twin conceits of "hire education" and an American meritocracy both fail us rather spectacularly here. If either of these things were real, would all those "master teachers" have so thoroughly neglected to develop their students along the lines I have enumerated? Considering that the vast majority of paying work for tuba players (i.e. teaching or entertaining) can be (and dare I say is) obtained as easily by novices as by experts, there effectively exists no material incentive for us to pursue the avenues I have laid out as thoroughly as I have laid them out. We can no longer expect, if we ever truly could, the material conditions under which we live to create this incentive on our behalf. Meanwhile, the individual initiative and altruism of the self-directed artist are beautiful things wherever they arise, but these are exceptional qualities and cannot be relied upon to initiate change on anything resembling a mass scale.

I more than enjoy receiving the occasional frantic phone call from a bandleader whose tuba substitute the night before could not read or improvise from a lead sheet; I also rely on those calls to keep coming in order to pay my rent. If more tubists could do this as well as they play orchestral excerpts, I would have to make up for the lost work some other way. Even so, as one of those altruistic, self-directed types, it is my greatest wish for any aspiring professionals reading this article, and current ones for that matter, that they might be motivated to stretch themselves out in the ways I elaborate here first and foremost out of a desire to do justice to whatever music is important to them, and only secondarily to be able to get playing work any way they can while waiting for the next orchestra or military band vacancy to be announced. Having said that, if the latter is indeed as decisive a step towards functional musicianship as the classical brass community is willing to take, then we should take it: anything to hasten the collective realization that a more creativity-centered approach is also a more technically rigorous approach.

Until then, I expect that technique-without-scales will remain a man-without-God question for many musicians and teachers, as I am reminded every time I attempt to broach this issue with those given to leisurely paddles down classical music's main stream. My reaction against this state of affairs is of course highly personal, but nothing I'm saying here is either radical or arcane. If it seems to be either of these things, this is merely symptomatic of the advanced stages of a period of pedagogical hyper-reductionism driven ultimately by forces far beyond the scope of this paper. I am occasionally given hope that much of what I've said here simply actualizes good intentions that already exist, certainly in the heads and hearts of many educators I've spoken with in person, and even in some otherwise counterproductive standards-based learning models. There can be no doubt, though, that it is a more challenging road for both students and educators than the various triangulated compromises that have come to predominate in its place. Failure is an essential part of learning, but today it is also grounds for depriving career educators of their livelihoods. In light of that and other such postmodern impasses, I'm inclined to own the "idealist" label here and admit that I'm asking a lot of my colleagues in various other metiérs. I can assure you, however, that you will always find me walking the walk, and no matter which side of the stand I happen to be on at the time.


NOTE
1. See my Operating in the Affirmative (entire) and MFA Graduation Recital Program Notes, pp. 24-33.


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