Friday, July 30, 2010

Music Education Teaches More Than 'Learning a Song'

Bring Back the Band!
After 6 years of teaching music in Los Angeles, and seeing some of the same students consistently over that time period, I feel like I am starting to see the higher purpose of music education, just in my students alone. Every teacher is important. I still remember things my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Markum, said to me way back then. My high school English teacher changed the way I read literature, and my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Threet, taught me about the importance of humor in EVERYTHING. These teachers taught me lessons that have lasted for more than a class period. They taught me things that I think of everyday. They taught me lessons that helped shaped my mind. 

When I was in 6th grade, Duval county started cutting music programs, right in the middle of the year! One day I was in Chorus, the next day it was GONE. I couldn't understand why someone would come up with a stupid idea like cutting Chorus to save money. Didn't those school board officials know that singing was how I dealt with stress? Didn't they understand that dancing was how I got my exercise? No they did not. I don't know why, but for some reason, someone in charge of education decided that music was just entertainment, and not worthy of being required. I'm sorry to be rude, but that is just ignorant laziness. If the School Board that took away music education had spent any time researching the effects of music on developing brains, they would have seen how important music education is. Shame, shame, shame. The problem of cutting music education has now been going on for 20 years! That means that an entire generation has grown up without music education in school. This should be a concern. 

Music education teaches some very important things that you would notice if you tried, dear school board members. Here are some of the most important life lessons that occur over the course of once-a-week piano lessons:

1. Trust Yourself. 

When I teach piano, I am very strict about keeping the eyes off your hands and on the sheet music. This is the way I learned, yes, but there is a deeper lesson here. It's a lesson of trusting your own instincts and knowing that you have done everything to prepare, so there is no reason to NOT trust yourself. Let me explain:
Pat Benatar had Classical Music Education

For the first year of piano, a student almost never leaves the same hand position on the keyboard (known as C position) so if you need to play C in the right hand, for one year it is your thumb that is sitting on C and your index finger on D and your middle finger on E. Get it? So there is no reason to look at your hands. Students look at their hands because they are scared they will mess up. But that fear is what makes them stumble! As soon as I say something like, "Ok. I'm going to cover your hands with this book and I want you to show me that you can play the song correctly without looking at your hands," they play it correctly with no fear.  It works every time. That's when I say, "See? You prepared before playing the song, so you just needed to trust yourself." My hope is that this trust will spill out into non-musical decision making.

2. Confidence

Music Helped Lift Louis Armstrong Out of Poverty
This one is easy to explain, because it is simply a byproduct of the last statement "Trust Yourself." When you know you can do something if you just learn the rules first, then you start to believe that you can do anything.

3. Quick Thinking 

Musicians have to make lightning fast decisions when they play, especially during improvisation. Those of you who don't play the piano: have you ever tried to remember a song and stumbled on the notes a few times before getting it right? A student of piano should be able to get the song much quicker than that because her brain is working quickly to remember ALL THOSE RULES at one time in order to make the right musical decisions; All in the span of a one-minute song. Quick thinking and decision making is practiced every time someone practices the piano. You have to remember where both hands are supposed to go in a matter of mili-seconds! Most people can't even use their dominant hand quickly, much less figure out how to make both hands play "The Entertainer."

4. Teamwork 

This life lesson is not just reserved for team sports. I start every lesson with a 5 minute jam session. This means that we improvise and make the music up as we go. That does not mean piano anarchy for 5 minutes! There are rules. If we play the Blues in the key of A, then there are certain notes that the students can and cannot play. How do you know if he hits the wrong key? It sounds bad. That's it. You don't have to be a piano teacher to hear it.

Rhythm is important when jamming together. If you are playing at the speed of a Superbowl marching band, and I play at the pace of a wedding processional, then it is going to sound terrible. BUT if we both agree on a tempo (speed) then we can listen to each other and make certain that we are working together and not against each other. There is absolutely no room for competition in a jam session. All are there to make great music. A big ego is not welcome and only serves to ruin the experience for everyone. This is a very important life lesson.

5. It Exercises Your Brain! 'Nuf Said.

Music Brings Us All Together
How many times do we need to go over this before the school board figures it out? EVERYONE knows that when you use your Left hand, it is being controlled by the Right Side of the brain and when you use your Right hand, it is your Left Brain doing all the work. So it is easy to see that if one plays the piano with both hands, the brain is getting a good workout. The harder you make it, the harder your brain works. It's simple. Just like weightlifting, if you continue to work out your arms, increasing the weight as time goes by, you are gonna have crazy strong arms! When you play the piano and continue to challenge yourself, your brain is getting stronger, faster, calmer, and more focused.

It makes me very concerned to know that kids are growing up in a school system that actually has taken away music education. It's like our country wants our children to grow up to be mindless mush. They spend 8 or more hours a day at school learning what? The subjects taught in school would be easier to grasp if their brains were getting the exercise and relief needed from musical expression. Kids need to play and create. It's how they learn! Music should be an unquestionable part of education. It's deeper lessons are so important, but most of all: IT IS FUN!

And "fun" is not a bad word. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Music: Hear it, Learn it, TEACH it

Mr. Schneebly is my personal Role Model.
He just knows how to teach "fun!" 
Number 27 on the "38 Ways to Change the World Through Music" list simply say's "TEACH." You might think that you do not know enough to teach, but think about it a little longer. Aren't you passionate about something musical, even if that means simply listening to the music you loved as a teenager? Have you had one year of piano lessons? That is one year longer than many people, so there you go.

When I was 15, I had an older friend named Cari. She was always good to me. She would take me out for ice cream and play the piano while I sang in her living room. She knew how much I loved music, and she was very supportive of that. At 15, I had still had very little formal piano instruction. My family was struggling financially, and we couldn't afford piano lessons. I knew that in one year, I would be able to take the free piano class at my high school, but Cari could tell that I was dying to learn sooner, so she taught me!

At her church, Cari was required to do a community service project when she turned 18. This project needed to last for several weeks, and she chose to teach me piano lessons for FREE. FREE! I was so excited, and I could not believe it.

We met in her living room once a week for about two months, and she patiently taught me how to hold my hands correctly on the keys, sit up relaxed and straight, and to keep my eyes focused on the sheet music in front of me. She never got frustrated with my right-brain quirkiness.  After trying to explain the Math behind musical intervals a few dozen times, she calmly gave up with out making me feel bad about it. I always remember her patience when I stand next to a student with too much A.D.D. to also understand certain concepts. From her I learned to adopt the attitude, "Well, she'll get it one day..." No drama.

You might be surprised how much you can teach someone. If you have had at least one year of piano, why don't you pick up a set of piano method books like "Little Mozarts" and go through the lessons yourself? It won't take you long, and you will be surprised how much you remember. Then, do what Cari did for me: find a child who can't afford lessons and teach them what you know. If you are worried about having to stop after your knowledge runs out, don't. Cari only taught me for two months, but it clearly had a positive impact on me. I may not have mastered theory in two months, but Cari's lessons gave me something much more important: confidence. I felt confident to improvise on the piano. Improvising on the piano gave me an emotional outlet that I didn't have before those lessons.

Bill Nye the Science Guy: Another AMAZING Teacher!
Teachers are seriously the heroes of our time. Of all the life changing experiences I have had, almost all of them involve a great teacher. I don't say this as a teacher today, I say this as a student of yesterday. The teachers who made a difference in my life made a BIG difference, especially Cari.

If you don't feel you can teach piano, then think about something else. Is there a band you are so in love with you understand the deeper meanings behind their song lyrics? Share that with someone! Rent the documentary and watch it together. Bring this child to a record store and teach them the history of Vinyl. Watch a movie like "School of Rock" together and listen very carefully, and with great interest, as they tell you what they loved about the movie.  Pay close attention to what they think of Jack Black's character... Lot's of subtle information in that one!

If you need a little inspiration, here is a video from one of my favorite movies of all time, "School of Rock."


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kids Can Be Activists With VH1's

If you read this blog, you are most likely interested in seeing this world get better instead of worse. You must be interested in music, too, and probably education.  I started this blog because I saw a few problems with our current state of affairs:

1. American schools no longer teach music on a universal scale. It is becoming "normal" to grow up without music education.

Joan Baez at an Anti-War Rally
2. Music hasn't been used enough as a tool for Social Change. I've gone to fundraising parties with zero live music on the agenda. This is a mistake for many reasons. Music helps to create a mood for your audience. It brings people together. Music should be used for these purposes! The Joan Baez's and Bob Dylans need to come out of the woodwork and help these causes get their work done.

3. Music lessons are too focused on perfection. Timing and pitch are important... I'm not saying they are not. There is definitely room for perfection in music, but there are other factors involved. Emotional Intelligence must be encouraged more, especially in music lessons. Feeling is the MOST important part of a  performance, IMHO. Not only is feeling and expression important to teach, but it is important for your audience. Which leads me to the final complaint...

Don't let terrible people be the only
influential performers.
4. Music students should be made aware of the fact that they are influencing a crowd of people when they perform, and that should be taken seriously and ethically. Check your own moral code when you are teaching students. When you perform a song about Peace, and you really, really feel it, your audience will feel it too. Based on my own music education, this is not practiced enough on the part of teachers. I recall learning about the "feeling" part of performance from Theatre teachers. Here is a suggestion: Can we begin teaching Ethics to performance students? History is full of terrible people who abuse their oratorical power, like Adolf Hitler. He was an amazing speaker. His stage presence was so powerful that he influenced the death of millions of innocent people.

Ah, Skynyrd...You never surprise me.
On a more current scale, I can think of musicians who abuse their power too. Anyone here ever see a Lynyrd Skynyrd show? They wave confederate flags, for pete's sake. How is that not encouraging the wrong message??

Ok enough preaching. Here is the point I want to make in this blog post. If you are a reader of this blog, you obviously believe in the power and the marriage of Social Change and Music. I stumbled across a VH1 site called This is a wonderful site! It offers inspiring ideas to start taking action on issues you care about. It also gives away grant money EVERY WEEK! There is a section specifically focused on Music Education. I am passionate about the idea that Music Education is essential for a well rounded academic education. If you care about this too, why not start a project where you live to make others aware of this?

Send me a message when you get your project rolling, and I will feature it on this blog. Your action will inspire others to take action too. Imagine if everyone did something to say that music education is important. Imagine how powerful that would be.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Did They Ask For It?

The Dead Kennedys
I was watching an old episode of Real Time with Bill Maher last night, and David Simon was on.  [See video below] Creator of the show "The Wire" and veteran news journalist, Simon had some interesting theories on the fate of the newspaper industry. While most people are mourning the death of this news medium, David Simon is thinking about this from an inside perspective. He basically said that once newspapers started caring more about profits than real news reporting, the business began to lose integrity. It is no longer a solid product. Mom and Pop newspapers of the old days reported the news and did not cater to advertising. Now, the newspaper industry is a business first, news source second. Naturally, over time, readers would become fed up and seek out alternatives. And thus, the internet news sources are born. The people have spoken, and I don't really blame them. It reminds me of the music industry.

The music industry is always whining about piracy and YouTube giving away the music for free. They worry about the fate of their business, and they should, but I can tell you this started long before the internet was present in every American household. This phenomenon started in the late 70's with the Punk movement. Rebelious, artsy teens in the 70's and 80's felt like they were not being represented by the music industry, so they made their own! DIY culture was born, and independent record labels spread to big cities like NYC and Washington, D.C.  Bands booked their own tours and paid for their own studio time. This allowed for complete creative control. No pandering to advertisers or religious people who are offended by curse words. Well. This never stopped. It simply evolved!

I came of age in the early nineties, just before Nirvana hit the big time. Right before that happened, I remember hanging out with the older kids at a club in Jacksonville Beach called
"Einstein A Go Go,"(Known as Einstein's to the "Steiners" who frequented this venue)  where indie bands would stop on their tours to play to an all ages, music obsessed crowd of teenagers. Bands like The Cure, The Cranberries, *and* Nirvana, among countless others, all hit that stage before they exploded onto the mainstream radio airwaves. After that happened, we would usually loose interest and cheer on the next round of indie musicians. We bought independently produced records, and most of the time the money went straight to the artists. Kids even made their own Zines to spread the word about independent music. It was exciting to be part of a new music revolution.

River Pheonix Performing at Einstein A Go Go
At Einstein's, as well as the swarms of other all ages clubs around the country, teens like us were developing an attitude of disdain for the music industry. The way we saw it, they didn't care about kids like us. We were interested in politics, social change, and art. The mainstream music industry still saw us as easily manipulated by scandalous clothing, sexual lyrics, and money. We felt insulted by this. We prided ourselves on being intellectual, and the musical "products" (Yes, by products I mean records and artists) being released were of no interest to the growing movement of indie music fans. Yes there was a market for the bikini music videos. If you lived in a town that lacked an "alternative" scene, you had to listen to what the music industry put out there, or spend your life listening to the oldies station (Trust me... that get's annoying very quickly) There was also this growing DIY movement happening right under their noses, and they never once tried to understand what we were interested in.  Bands in the indie scene continuously sent demos to Major Label Los Angeles offices, but it was like this monarchy that you could not get through, unless you could prove some sort of royal authority for yourself. 

An Old DIY Show Flyer
When Nirvana hit the big time, a HUGE divide split through the indie scene. Many saw Kurt Cobain as a "sell-out" while other fans stayed committed. For me, it was bittersweet. I felt sad that my romantic underground scene would no longer be the same, but I felt some hope that perhaps this meant that the music industry was evolving. I was wrong. This is probably the moment when DIY culture became more well known to the rest of the world. All of a sudden, "Grunge" became the "Alternative" music, when really, it wasn't. The word "Alternative" was applied to music on the indie scene; the DIY peeps who wanted an "alternative" to what they saw as a flawed system for spitting out mindless music to the masses.

So, this is simply my opinion for why I have a hard time sympathizing with the failing music industry. Perhaps this will be a warning to other big markets who care more about profits than substance (film industry: take note). 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dangerous Music: Plato's Secret Code

One of my latest obsessions is understanding the relationship between music and math. When I was in high school, my brain could not grasp mathematics, even when I tried. It's still something I struggle with, but I have noticed that math concepts are a little easier to understand since I started teaching music.

After several years of teaching harmonic intervals, timing, tempo, and rhythm to children as young as 4, I've come to understand what people mean when they say that music can improve your math skills. I failed math in high school, but listening to music and analyzing it is making me think a little differently now. Music seems to help me think like both an academic and a poet all at the same time. Plato appears to be one of the first to point this out.

The thing that my thespian soul loves the most is that Plato was willing to die for this information! His own teacher, Socrates was executed for sharing some of this philosophy, yet, Plato believed in it so much, that he found a way to share the info in code.  Scholars in Plato's clique believed that Math and Music had the keys to understanding the universe. Wow. That is enough to blow my mind. Check it out:

A Musical Message Discovered In Plato's Works


July 3, 2010

It sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but a scholar in Manchester, England, claims to have found hidden code in the ancient writings of Plato. If true, the secret messages would have made the ancient philosopher and mathematician a heretic in his day.
Jay Kennedy tells NPR's Guy Raz that his discovery was partially luck. Looking at Plato's works in their original scroll form, he noticed that every 12 lines there was a passage that discussed music. "The regularity of that pattern was supposed to be noticed by Plato's readers," Kennedy says.
Music in ancient Greece was based on a 12-note scale, unlike the eight-note scale of modern Western music. Kennedy posits that Plato deliberately inserted discussions of music every 12 lines to send a secret, musical message.
What Plato couldn't tell people was that he was a closet Pythagorean. Pythagoras and his followers believed that mathematics and music were the key to the universe.
"The Pythagoreans realized that when we hear beauty and music, when we hear notes harmonizing, that's because the notes have simple ratios, like 1:2 or 3:4," Kennedy explains. "So the beauty of music is direct perception of the mathematical order underlying the world. They worshipped that mathematics."
But the Pythagoreans were a persecuted sect, Kennedy adds, sometimes violently persecuted. "They were a threat to traditional religion, like many new sects." Plato's own teacher, Socrates, was famously executed for religious heresy.
"Simply put, they were threatening to overthrow the gods on Olympus and put numbers and mathematics in its place. Prior to Socrates being executed, a number of other philosophers were banished or fled because of threats to themselves. It was dangerous in those days to be a philosopher."
As far as Kennedy can tell, Plato's message was one of solidarity simply by acknowledging the relationship between music and mathematics, but he suspects there's more to it. "Perhaps some scholar will find that — in The Republic, at least — that there is something like a melody or a score embedded in the text," he says.
If that's true, then we've read only half of Plato's writings. "There are all these hidden layers of meaning which will enrich our understanding of Plato," Kennedy says. And maybe what else Plato has to say could help us today.
"Plato's philosophy shows us one way to combine science and religion," Kennedy says. "The culture wars we're having today — about evolution for example — see science and religion as two polarized opposites. Plato's hidden philosophy shows us that he combined an emphasis on mathematics with an emphasis upon beauty, music, art and divinity. The founder of western culture, in fact wanted us to combine science and religion."