“I want to be better at improvisation, you know, just go to a jam session, have someone play a melody, and then improvise my solo part around them.” Last night a friend who plays the guitar and I were talking about our playing, what we like, and how we are accomplishing it. She plays the guitar, mostly pop-type music, though she says lately she has not been in a class and has found herself turning to bluegrass music. She’s been playing for five or six years, and when she’s taken lessons she’s done so at the Old Town School of Folk Music, which I’ve mentioned before as an institution of renown here in town for just such pursuits.
I was struck by the degree to which what she was saying matched Mark O’Connor’s points I’ve discussed – contra Suzuki – about modern American pedagogy. O’Connor’s desire to focus on composition and improvisation versus the rote in music education seems to be well-suited to my friend’s wishes. She says that overall she thinks she would have made more progress, technically speaking, with a private teacher versus the group lessons she’s taken. When not in lessons, rather than use a method with specific instructional materials she mostly picks out tunes on her own, playing by ear.
The Suzuki Method is all about aural appreciation, and I would have called that “playing by ear,” but I think there are several elements at work in playing by ear. Playing to approximate something you hear – mimicry – is certainly one type of playing by ear; Suzuki seems to focus on mimicry. Students are to listen to the accompanying CD so we can know what the music sounds like played well, then we are to try to sound like that. It makes it possible to play without knowing how to read the music .
But listening for congruencies, intervals, skills that allow for variation and improvisation, are somewhat different. Some would say that you practice copying masters until you are good enough to then learn how to free yourself from their prescriptions. O’Connor and good pedagogy would likely say that skills that are primary need to be introduced at the very beginning of the educational process, when possible. Suzuki takes out theory and reading until a student has made considerable progress – he says you have to learn to hear and play before you learn the language of music. I’m not sure how much O’Connor would argue for or against learning music theory and reading music early on – what I guess I do know is that copying would be relegated to its own place, whereas it’s the entirety of the Suzuki way.
It’s interesting for me to make progress and to talk to others and to learn about how others learn music. I’m pretty sure that one way is never going to be shown to be “the” way, and that many roads lead to musical appreciation and an ability to play.
Thanks for reading.