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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September 24th, 2013
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What I Learned in Summer Camp | Jay Albert

"You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail." — Charlie Parker

Last winter a conversation with some friends gave me an idea to create a summer music camp. We discussed some local camps and other activities and before you know it I was going “yeah, I’ll just create one myself.” A ton of planning and work later and June found me running a camp for elementary students, based on the science of sound and music. I drew up a weeks’ worth of lesson plans (three hours a day for five days) using scientific inquiry into the physics of sound, building on each topic until it translated into how sound becomes music and how we manipulate our materials to construct and perform music. It was awesome.

The camp was held in a friend’s art studio, in an antique one-room schoolhouse on a now-busy street with a good back yard, and lots of art supplies and resident drums to liven it up.

The group was small enough that I was able to run the whole thing myself, snacks, teaching, recreation and all. Among the things I learned at this camp were several lessons in how to make a place and time where learning can occur organically. We began each day with some movement, trading improvised musical ideas and generally getting ears, bodies and brains going. Next I would introduce or expand on a previous topic and we experimented as a group, exploring acoustics and recording findings in our science notebooks. The last section of the day was manipulating the elements of sound and music we’d learned as individuals or groups, yielding new compositions. Breaks came at various places, often these included a snack or I’d give them a game based on listening or group communication.

The kids had a great time, they were eager to go each day. But I think I may have taken away more lessons myself. Here are a few.

Structure is good, letting your structure slide when appropriate is better.

I had everything planned out. I saw the kids make the connections I had intended and many I hadn’t planned. On the first day I was helping with them make “oboes” out of straws and thinking ahead to the next activity and it occurred to me to just let them derail my plan and continue with what they were doing. We had learned how reeds vibrate to make sound in woodwind instruments, at this point we were figuring out how to make our own and how the resonant body (the tube/straw) affected the sound. We also worked on the technique of blowing through the instrument; I gave little instruction on this but it ended up being the part they experimented with the most. They had so much fun! If I had “kept to my plan” I would have ushered them along to the next thing. However I use the quotations above intentionally; my plan after all was to get them interested and playing with our topic; creating a wind instrument and discovering its sounds. Score.

Cookies help.

Another moment etched in my memory is sitting on our front step munching on Oreos and Nilla Wafers with some students. That’s it, just hanging. We chatted about cookies, other kids, traffic, birds, noises, and whatever. Down time is beyond price; my musical analogy would be the value of rests: if music never has a silence it becomes manic and this is not always desirable. Down time helps in the digestion of ideas (and cookies!); if we must use a more technical term it would be assimilation.

Additionally, this kind of activity just allowed us to become friends. There were also several times when I just let the kids hang together, staying out of the way discreetly, and they did what kids do. They shared media, fashion, dance moves, emails, idle chat; again, basically becoming friends. In adult-speak they were team building in the most organic way possible.

However much I holler about giving kids space to do their own thing, I can always use reminding.

I suppose the lesson I’m attempting to share here is that like all good teaching artists I plan the bejeezers out of my programs…this is completely essential, yes…however, during implementation the art of teaching requires the same kind of adaptation, letting go, trust in process, self and others as our arts disciplines themselves. Kids are the best reminders; they are brilliant and beautiful, and my job is merely to give them a path and let them dance down it.

At one point during the week I realized I was making these kinds of adaptations and several hundred pounds came off my shoulders. I really started to feel like like I was a kid at camp. I remember one moment standing at the back door looking across the room at three girls sitting together busily sharing their many thoughts and planning out what they would do tomorrow, and I thought yeah, this is how it ought to be.

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:
From Eye to Ear
Errors, Trials and Process
Birth of a Song
Finding the In Door to Music

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

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.