January 30th, 2014
altspaceeditor

The T Word | Jay Albert

This is the final post in our January series inspired by an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors around how perceptions of who can and can’t make art affect their teaching practice. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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Sharing a table with several parents at a school event, conversation came around to my being a music teacher. In the course of the conversation comments came out of a type I have come to accept as inevitable when discussing my field with those outside it. If I had to categorize it I suppose it would be something like this “Talent: those who have it and those who don’t.” It tends to crop up in relation to some child or another, my having it as a professional in the field, or poignantly, the adult’s perspective that they themselves do not possess this “talent” which is required to make music.

It boggles my mind how universal this perspective is. I have heard the same tone, the same assumptions from individuals for many years. As to the source of such perspectives I can only speculate although I have learned of an alarming number of instances where an educator has informed some child that they “cannot sing.” It seems apparent to me that many individuals have years of practice envisioning themselves as “non-musicians.”

As I think back to this particular evening it occurs to me that this issue around talent plays heavily into any teaching of adult music students who, even though they come to learn music skills and expression, often harbor deep reservations about their own ability. Over time I have developed some sequences of activities to address this issue which are introduced with dogged positivity. My position is that people need a “safe space” in which to create, they need to feel that it’s okay to make their sounds, like singing in the shower. Here’s a brief tale of one adult student who was able to make it.

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June 12th, 2013
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From Eye to Ear | Jay Albert

I’ve written before about students composing music utilizing their manual skills and their ears to make compositional choices. There is another approach to composition that seems almost the polar opposite and I’ve found the results equally invigorating. Given a sheet of paper and told to write a song, kids’ thinking becomes very pattern oriented. There is perhaps an irony here in that by composing music in this way they think mathematically and visually rather than aurally: initiating patterns of pitches organized along the fretboard of the guitar, writing them in numeric sequences and altering them imaginatively. This kind of patterned thinking grows valuable reasoning skills and allows access to some techniques of music composition wholly absent from standard elementary music education.

This approach of written composition, in this case tablature, allows my young students to play with pattern in whatever way they wish and in this way they are not limited by technical ability. The Tab approach is fundamentally different from composing by ear and it yields fascinating results.  Let’s take a look at Lotte’s composition:

The assignment here was simply to “write a song.” We had been learning the major scale and melodies which use it, and we had begun learning Tab and notation. For first composition assignments I generally keep the parameters to a minimum; kids can write what they will. Lotte simply played with the pattern of odd and even numbers of frets which may have been suggested to her by noticing the pattern of fret marker dots on her ukulele or, she may have had some other inspiration. What she composed is what we usually refer to as a whole tone scale. This structure is common in contemporary classical and jazz compositions, entirely absent from children’s music.

In writing Tab one merely marks the location of pitches on the instrument; rhythm is left out of the notation. I use it as a means to teach the location of pitches on the fret board, for which it is a perfect tool. Also, removing the element of rhythm from the notation cuts the complexity of the task in half, further enabling the composition process. It is exactly this limiting of parameters that I value in this exercise. Composition is normally not taught until a musician is quite accomplished, sometimes high school, more often not until college levels of proficiency. This method allows even beginners an opportunity to try their hand at creating their own musical ideas and developing them into complete statements.

Jane offers a more involved example:

Again the composer begins with an ordering of odd-numbered frets, but then she takes off on a completely new pattern: alternating between the 3rd string and 1st string on the same fret. This she does at 12, 9, 7, and 5. A short 3rd string melody follows and then more 12th fret alternating between strings. This musician tends to let her imagination wander where it will and her composition reflects that. The song goes on for five full lines of Tablature notation; the whole time she plays with the patterns she stated at the beginning.

In composing a visual/manual pattern, students think in a totally different way than they do when thinking aurally. In doing so they receive an added gift in the form of a surprise: they have no idea what it will sound like until they play it! It is my hunch that the above method will help to unite the sounds and symbols of music together into a fuller understanding of the whole. I haven’t got this built into an entire systematic approach yet but what I envision is combining two sides of music creation: first, making choices based on what one knows and can hear or play; and second making choices based on one’s understanding of the intellectual structures of music. 

imageJay Albert is a musician and educator. His professional vision is to share music and help people achieve more of a connection to it, whether helping students learn to play or “teaching” an audience by means of a performance. He founded his company Songdog Music to further that vision. Jay holds degrees in guitar, music theory and composition from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music and Kent State University. He has taught at both of his alma maters and elsewhere, from PreK to graduate level, and has presented at and supervised arts education departments for several organizations. Contact Jay  www.songdogmusic.com

Also by Jay Albert in ALT/space:
Errors, Trials and Process
Birth of a Song
Finding the In Door to Music

February 26th, 2013
altspaceeditor

Errors, Trials and Process | Jay Albert

A class of 4th graders came in with a poem. It was for a residency I designed using songwriting to explore the relationship between literary voice, choices in musical composition, and how revision plays a vital role in expressing oneself in both media. It was a great project, but not a lot of time in which to do it. I had two half hour sessions with them to turn it into a song that they could perform with me in an assembly. The poem had been written by two of their number; it was lovely, brief, and expressive. Our first session consisted of finding a melody for it and editing the text to make it more rhythmic, more performable. My process was to listen to their words and group-recited rhythms, and then offer musical ideas for them to vote on. (I love the whole voting thing, in a situation where I must provide musical material for a group it enables them make concrete choices and own the composition that results.)

The poem included internal rhymes and half rhymes, its rhythms were quite irregular; in total it was challenging to set it melodically. Once they were able to recite the first two lines rhythmically as a group, they began to gravitate around several pitches. I pointed this out to them and they chose to use it as the main melody of the song. All in all, the first session went well — they had definite opinions about how the song was progressing and achieved consensus repeatedly on the various points of composition.

In the interim I did some planning in order to better proceed in our next session. I thought the song was a good start, but a bit repetitive and directionless. I mulled it around, played it and tried several ideas that I could present to the kids next time. I was unimpressed with what I came up with. At least I was happy that I had thought it through…expending that energy on it, even though not productive of solid notes or even ideas, gave me a foundation and a familiarity with the material that would form the basis of later work with it.

Coming back together with the class, we rehearsed what we had done and tried several solutions for the final section. Nothing inspiring.

"So, okay," I thought to myself "I’ve got nothing and they’ve got nothing, we need to get a new perspective or something to kickstart this sucker."

I started asking the class questions, just simple things like “which word is most important here?” or “would you like to hear the melody go up or down?” (I don’t remember exactly, it was off the cuff. Though I had recorded the first session I did not record the second one. I very much wish that I had!)

One girl suggested the melody go up. We tried something and talked some more. One boy suggested that we hold out the last syllable of the word “survive.” (I love comments like these two, it shows me that they are really thinking at the cusp of language and melody.) I noodled around a little more with chords on the guitar and sang some notes for them.

It was at this point that something clicked for me. I believe it was a function of my failed pre-compositional trials and particularly the two comments from students. I tried a chromatic chord and a couple of notes that fit the harmony. Both the kids and I went “ooooh.” We sang it together: it ascended and held the syllable previously suggested, only now it started to move somewhere. Then I got the idea to climb even higher and put the melody on the 7th of a chord. This is all upping the difficulty for young singers and I hesitated to ask it of them, but when I demonstrated it for them they cheered and insisted on it. It came out with a rather dramatic, pop/R&B kind of climax that the kids loved, and they sang it beautifully.

This takes so long to explain verbally and I know that some readers probably have to skim over details like “chromatic chords” and “7ths.” But what I really adore about this little story is that after hitting a wall, we as a group worked out a solution that even with my blahdiblah years of experience I couldn’t come up with alone. The kids were into the song all along, but when this clicked they totally loved it. I did too. The denouement was a flash, but it only could have happened because of the previous work and the open cooperation of a group interested in finding a solution.

imageJay Albert is a musician and educator. His professional vision is to share music and help people achieve more of a connection to it, whether helping students learn to play or “teaching” an audience by means of a performance. He founded his company Songdog Music to further that vision. Jay holds degrees in guitar, music theory and composition from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music and Kent State University. He has taught at both of his alma maters and elsewhere, from PreK to graduate level, and has presented at and supervised arts education departments for several organizations. Contact Jay  www.songdogmusic.com

Also by Jay Albert in ALT/space:
Birth of a Song
Finding the In Door to Music

January 2nd, 2013
altspaceeditor

Birth of a Song | Jay Albert

One day Hans (eight years of age) came to his lesson with a song he had written on his guitar (I use the term “written” to mean composed and remembered, not necessarily put down on paper). Hans has been playing the instrument a little over a year, currently strumming quarter note patterns, chords and reading simple melodies. He created his piece out of a chord he was assigned to practice. I showed him the E major chord and though I often do assign him composition, this time I did not. During his repetition of the chord at home something must have caught his ear, drawing him in. That was where he began making aesthetic choices, following his ear. When he was done, it was a song.

To create his composition, he used a fast strum pattern (much faster than anything he had played previously, a technical innovation), and continued to explore this rhythm throughout the piece, playing with its effect on pacing and form. He found new pitch material simply by plopping another finger down where it seems to fit. I find many student compositions have this kind of pragmatic approach. The physical and intellectual tasks at hand can be very solid limiting factors so children just play what they are able and change and add new sounds in ways that are accessible to them. The realization of this puts me constantly on the lookout for items to give to them that offer quality sounds, bits and tasks that yield something that might interest them.

Here is a recording I made of Hans playing his piece:

What exactly are we hearing, and how did Hans invent it?

  • It begins with an alternation between an E major chord and its suspension (created by adding one finger to remove one note and substitute another), strummed with the thumb. The chord includes a lower note, almost certainly unintentionally (he just hit another string while strumming). The official name for the chord this yielded is irrelevant but it is important to note that he created a new structure with several components that were not present in his palette previously. I’ll refer to this as the E-plus chord.
  • The strumming moves quickly in groups of four, coming to an abrupt halt. The ensuing pause establishes the foregoing as a segment and sets up a new segment to come, thus turning a simple strum pattern into a song.
  • A new chord enters as abruptly as the other ended. This one I helped him with since he had expressed the wish for a new chord but didn’t know how to create one. I suggested he keep one finger where it was and add another finger on the adjacent string. I presented this in terms of finger pattern as it would be easier to see and feel that way and he could see the relation between the E-plus chord and the new one. I also knew what it would sound like and that it was likely to be pleasing; he liked it and kept it.
  • The song moves in one or two bar segments, several with pauses between them of varying lengths. The stops are abrupt and rather dramatic, and some are accentuated with a light slap of his hand, creating a percussive whap.
  • The form is five segments beginning with the first E-plus chord, alternating to chord two twice and finishing with the first one again. It is symmetrical, with tonal center established by chord one, movement away from that and a final return to it.

Somewhere in here is the intersection of two educational approaches: putting facts in versus drawing creative inspiration out. The traditional role of the music lesson teacher is the former, my passion is the latter. If I give them the right material and a context that catches their curiosity they get interested in practicing (thus increasing their capacity to create music). If I then ask them to make up some songs for themselves I invariable find that their limited sonic palette is used ingeniously and that their individual voices show through clearly.

I don’t guide much, I just set the stage for them and let them go. That is enough, that and the fact that when they bring in their work I end up exclaiming and fist pumping and high fiving them. They know I’m not exaggerating either; I am overjoyed with what they have done.

imageJay Albert is a musician and educator. His professional vision is to share music and help people achieve more of a connection to it, whether helping students learn to play or “teaching” an audience by means of a performance. He founded his company Songdog Music to further that vision. Jay holds degrees in guitar, music theory and composition from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music and Kent State University. He has taught at both of his alma maters and elsewhere, from PreK to graduate level, and has presented at and supervised arts education departments for several organizations. Contact Jay  www.songdogmusic.com

Also by Jay Albert in ALT/space:
Finding the In Door to Music

October 30th, 2012
altspaceeditor

Finding the In Door to Music | Jay Albert

I’m going through a phase. It began about a year ago. An eager young face looked up at me, cradling a too-big guitar on her lap; written all over the face was “teach me.”

I live for this: helping others in to the world of music, sharing what I have learned. We had gone over a few sounds you can make, exploring the box and the strings to see what they do. We had seen and felt how to hold it without it trying to fall off. Then I opened the method book, the one that purports to show a beginner how to play the guitar, how to read music, how to make music. For my student’s first portentous and exciting try at making a song she was given something like this:

Now, if you don’t read music, this sequence of notes falls just barely short of incredibly, mind-numbingly boring. No melodic shape, no rhythmic interest, no lyrics, no sense of key for your ear to hold onto. Nothing. It is a very standard way for one of these books to begin and it is, to my mind, non-music.

Having attempted to use this kind of book before, I had become accustomed to making apologies like “Well, this isn’t exactly exciting but there are some better ones later.” But this time I snapped. Why would I give this kind of material to someone who has asked to learn music?! And why is there no tool I can use that does provide something inspiring for a beginner to learn with? So, I decided the time had come to write something better myself.

Since I have the good fortune to be teaching both lessons and classes weekly, I began to experiment with content and techniques regularly, always with a mind toward codifying them into future publishable/sharable form. On the first day of a guitar class with five elementary-age students I planned a lesson to get them playing immediately.

I showed them some strumming patterns, very simple ones with no left hand needed at all. Then I had them play one of those patterns and stop the strings with a firm tap on the neck of the guitar, yielding a nice “whack.”  I then morphed it into  We Will Rock You (you know, the “Boom Boom Whack!” part at the beginning of the song). This adaptation makes a very convincing version that is wonderfully easy for a room full of kids to play on guitars. They went nuts. They played it loud and together and in time. We split the class in half to play it. We played solos. We sang “We will, we will rock you!” while playing. Still nuts. I sang the very rap-ish verses for them and showed off a little guitar riffing. More nuts. It was like dodgeball day in gym class.

It was inspiring to me how well it worked. I  had found an “in” for my students. It was a simple way that they could play something that really sounded good and that, luckily, all of them knew. (It is often not possible to find a song that every member of a group knows, yet if the song still sounds good and they can play it, score.). What they got out of it was an experience learning by sight, sound and feel; playing in an ensemble; reading music; keeping time; playing within a representative style; singing and playing at the same time; arranging; performing with confidence; and having something to share at home.

I was giddy to have found one possible answer to a problem for which for years I had been finding mere work arounds. So the “phase” of which I spoke is truly that, a portion of a cycle of continuous refinement of my teaching methods and materials. As a teaching artist involved in teaching a very skill-oriented aspect of music, I am always cognizant of the need to balance its detailed knowledge work with the engagement and expression that make music exciting in the first place. I don’t want my students walking out of the room feeling like there’s work ahead, I want them bouncing out of the room primed to go show off what they can do with their new instrument and eager to discover more.

Jay Albert is a musician and educator. His professional vision is to share music and help people achieve more of a connection to it, whether helping students learn to play or “teaching” an audience by means of a performance. He founded his company Songdog Music to further that vision. Jay holds degrees in guitar, music theory and composition from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music and Kent State University. He has taught at both of his alma maters and elsewhere, from PreK to graduate level, and has presented at and supervised arts education departments for several organizations. Contact Jay  www.songdogmusic.com

In this space, Teaching Artist correspondents from around the U.S. and the world bring you stories of their work at the crossroads of art and learning. ALT/space is a project of the Teaching Artist Journal, a peer reviewed print and online quarterly that serves as a voice, forum and resource for teaching artists and all those working at the intersection of art and learning. Individual online subscriptions of the TAJ print journal gives you access to a very useful, easy to access, 55-issue archive--the only such archive of its kind.