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Addicted to Sheet Music

Are you addicted to sheet music? Do you feel nervous sitting at the piano without a book on it?  Don’t know what to play when asked to improvise? Do you spend endless hours practicing to memorize music? Believe it or not, the symptoms surely point towards poor command of the theory of music and ear training.

Over years of learning, teaching, playing and interacting with professional musicians, I have come to realize that there are a few aspects of music that need to be addressed right from the early stages of music teaching to make the student become a confident and accomplished musician.  Apart from the things all teachers instinctively address such as technique, sight-reading, repertoire, etc., I strongly believe that theory of music, ear training and improvisation go a long way to simplify our lives as musicians and teachers.

Theory of Music: Many of the students feel tortured when we make them work on the music theory workbooks. They sometimes complain that they feel bored, that they don’t even know why they are doing it. Teachers would usually say that one day they will appreciate it! Theory of music actually does make our learning much easier and meaningful. If students are asked to compose melodies right from Grade-1 level, they will naturally become curious about the architecture of music. They would ask questions like, “why does a melody usually start and end on the same note?”, or “why can’t they end their piece of music with a semi-quaver?” The study of theory actually enables understanding of the building blocks of music. Theory is derived from the music of the great composers; hence it gives us the basic rules that work. It firstly saves us from “re-inventing the wheel” and secondly, it gives us the ability to read the language of music in sentences rather than in alphabets. Imagine how easy it would be to memorize if a student realizes that a certain piece is in ternary form, that the section of music uses sequence that is falling by a tone each time, a certain section is just a repeat of the opening in a new key, that the music is following a VI-III-II-V-I progression, etc. The theory of music can, at a basic level, bridge the gap between reading seven notes and reading a scale. At diploma levels, students are suddenly faced with writing program notes. They are usually desperate students. Hence they don’t complain about the time they have to invest analyzing the piece of music, and often they would rather practice! If they were pursuing practical application of music theory all the way up the grades, they would instinctively be able to analyze any music they play.

Ear training: This is actually the missing link or, I would say, the bridge between theory and practical. There is a famous saying that “A good pianist is one who can see with his ears and hear with his eyes”. How easy it would be to read and play the piano when your eyes tell you what sounds to expect and your fingers trust your ears more than your eyes. This is what helps develop excellent sight-reading and general musicianship.

Ear training is essentially the ability to listen to sheet music without playing and transcribe sounds without using an instrument. The teacher should aim not only at imitation of sound, which only proves that a student can hear the right sounds, but ability to label the sound, which ensures that a student can notate the sound he/she hears.

I had very diplomatically avoided answering the question of “why is theory boring?” That is because I intended to answer it here. The workbooks on theory of music are full of musical excerpts. At early grades they are intended for explaining rudimentary elements of staff notation. But what if students could hear the given music? Wouldn’t they enjoy writing four bar rhythms or complete a given melody if they were able to transcribe what they hear in their head? Ear training can make that difference. The students should not work with symbols while studying theory but work with sounds. If the students are able to hear and label the given rhythms, melodies and harmonies in the workbooks, they will most definitely not only enjoy learning music theory but would be able to make practical application of the theory of music.

Improvisation: Can you name a composer who never improvised? There is none, of course. Improvisation is the first form of composition. Recently I attended a workshop conducted by Ravi Coltrane, son of legendary Saxophone player John Coltrane. In his answer to a question from the audience on how he composes his tunes, he said “I just improvise and record myself for half an hour. Then I listen to it and transcribe the interesting parts of it; and I have a tune ready to go”. Consciously or sub-consciously, every composer essentially makes use of improvisation.

The act of spontaneously making music using musical vocabulary is improvisation. When we talk, we improvise using language. How many times do we rehearse a sentence in our head before we speak? We make up sentences spontaneously, and that is improvisation.

Improvisational skills can be initiated right from the early stage. Since, the students at early stages have limited or no musical vocabulary and performance skills, it is advisable to start with imitation of easy musical phrases. Sooner than you expect, you’d be having musical conversation (using questions and answers) with the students. Improvisation is another activity that firstly helps develop a good ear and secondly helps practical application of theory of music that is otherwise learnt in isolation.

Transcribe an improvisation for a student. Give it a title and see the beaming smile on the face of the student! Apart from all the benefits of improvisation mentioned above, this is the greatest. I still remember the day I figured out changes of a song from a tape in my school days. Also, I still have the first jazz composition I wrote. To have a creation of their own is a feeling of achievement that can inspire students to pursue music for life.

To conclude, learning music is a process and it is the responsibility of us teachers to initiate and integrate into our lessons, all-important aspects of musicianship right from the early stages. More than knowledge, music is a passion that we share with our students.

Ritesh Khokhar

January 2013

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