Much is said about nurturing the “well rounded musician”. Examining boards, conservatoires and teachers aspire to nurturing them. What is one exactly? [no fattist jokes please!] For me, it is someone who understands the music they play, visually, aurally and practically; who has connected these 3 elements (or sides of a triangle) such that one element (or side) is always integrated with other two. When they see the music, the tonality, phrasing, harmony and texture, the intervals between notes etc. are all connected and they hear it internally. When listening and playing they see how it might look on the manuscript. The well rounded musician not only plays well but plays by reading and by ear and understands what they read and hear whilst playing.
This is the aspiration. We can no more expect to produce a rounded musician without these elements than we could to produce a chemist who does not know the periodic table!
What’s good about being a Well Rounded Musician?
When students understand it they are more likely to continue learning music and inevitably enjoy music more. Well rounded musicians not only have a life long enjoyment of music, they also have the freedom to choose whichever genre of music they favour and enjoy it to its fullest.
Classical music is in decline in the UK and I think this is because we don’t emphasise completing the triangle in our teaching. This prevents students from achieving their full potential and in turn restricts their freedom of choice. It imposes limits on creativity, enjoyment and the desire to learn.
For classical music to survive we need well rounded musicians in the UK. We need them to play in orchestras, to be composers and to be teachers, and for creativity to flourish. In educating for these possibilities within classical music, we also create musicians who play jazz, rock and pop with a knowledge of how music works. They are independent musicians who are not limited to copying, based on good aural and practical skills, but are well rounded musicians who bring pleasure to others and themselves.
How do we produce a Well Rounded Musician?
Ideally, musical understanding is integrated aurally and practically from the first lessons. It is not difficult for a child of 5 to read a note on the manuscript, sing its name out loud and play it on the piano at the same time, connecting the notation aurally and practically. Neither is it difficult for a child to understand the format of the tones and semitones in a major scale, and to construct major scales whilst singing and playing them. These are just 2 examples of teaching for the well rounded musician from the start and it can be continued in every lesson.
I wish there was a consensus that we fail our students if we don’t teach notation and theory in a way which connects aurally and practically to the music they are playing. If we fail in this, theory is seen as an isolated and unpleasant necessity whose only benefit is that it gives access to higher grades. If any of these 3 elements (or sides) is missing from a musician’s education, the triangle is broken and we are left with copying, confusion and creative impotence – not well roundedness.
We can teach some theory essentials without notation, like the circle of 5ths, but students will only gain the maximum enjoyment and understanding when they can read notation – the language of music.
Many students, especially those with good aural and kinaesthetic skills (the muscle memory of practical playing skills), play by copying without understanding. I see it often in students who come to me for aural and theory lessons. Although often our most musical students, they can struggle to function happily in orchestras or ensembles where comprehending the score is imperative. They have great difficulty in learning new music by themselves and their sight reading is often poor. Likewise if music theory has been taught but not connected aurally and/or practically, we find musicians who are bound to the manuscript; they read well but are not necessarily creative and can have difficulty understanding what they hear. They are often the ones who find it difficult to improvise and after years of learning they do not readily pick up an instrument and play it without music or memory.
Why isn’t everyone getting it?
Much of our teaching favours 2 sides of the triangle. Those who don’t like to teach or learn notation favour copying and playing by ear; and there are those who teach notation without connecting the understanding that it can offer aurally and practically.
At the Music Education Expo this year the then shadow minister for schools, Kevin Brennan, scoffed at the thought of encouraging all children to learn notation on the basis that he had never learned it yet managed to play in the parliament rock band. Well, I guess that settles it! The audience of teachers loudly applauded his anti notation stance. I had hoped for a more enlightened attitude to music and the arts.
If we think about the English language, the best time to develop a love of reading is when we are young – and the younger the better. If we don’t we may never learn to read at all. So it is with the language of music – notation. The idea of a child not being taught or failing to read English is quite shocking. Strange, then, that we can congratulate ourselves, as governments do, or say that “we have much to celebrate” as the ABRSM did in their recent report, that so many children play music without ever having had a chance to learn to read.
Instant accessibility makes for a popular vote with students, teachers and parents. It has short term benefits but it has no long term future in the production of well rounded musicians, classical music, or generic music in the UK.