On Teaching Music: Visiting A Friend’s College And Elementary School Classrooms

by Thomas Brett

A few weeks ago I traveled to Boston to visit my friend Fred at his college and elementary school music classes. Fred is an ethnomusicologist, musician, and craftsman (primarily an instrument builder) who spends his mornings teaching college students and his afternoons teaching kids at a Montessori elementary and middle school. Teaching the two different groups five days a week has Fred drawing on all his musical and social skills to keep everyone in the zone–listening, thinking and talking about music, as well as playing and singing it.

On Monday morning, we were up at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic and make our way out to the University Of Massachusetts-Boston. On the leisurely drive we discussed what I might teach as guest lecturer for the day. I had decided the week before that I would speak to the college students about some of the musical remix work I’ve been doing on my laptop, re-fashioning some older music of mine into new pieces. As Fred negotiated the south Boston traffic, he asked me what relationship my composing work might have to his class–an ethnomusicology theory and methods class as it turns out. I thought about it for a moment and then told him that I could present my material as a kind of auto-ethnography. After all, I said, not only was I working on a remix project, but I was writing about it too in an effort to document and better understand the creative process. I told Fred that I wanted to bring the class through the steps I had taken so far to transform an old piece of music into something new, as well as demonstrate how the computer software (Ableton Live) was shaping and enabling my work. But beyond that, in the spirit of Fred’s interest in improvisation, we agreed to keep things loose. Besides, we were basically out of time anyhow. “Cheer up Tom, it’ll be great!” Fred said exuberantly, staring at the road in front of him as I watched the traffic around us inch ahead.


When we arrived at the school, Fred brought me into the windowless classroom and we connected my laptop to a large video screen. Students tricked in as we got set up, and by the time I began 15 minutes later the class would be about half full. I improvised my 45-minute presentation, playing my original music, explaining how I sampled parts of it, and then playing excerpts from the new tracks in progress. Fred sat off to the side and listened.

It struck me as I was talking–and my ideas usually occur to me while writing or talking–that the project was an opportunity to revisit and recycle my own musical past. I also told the class that the most challenging part of making music with a computer is somehow limiting the staggering number of possibilities the machine makes available. “I’m always looking for constraints” I told them a few times, as the students looked up at my piece’s Ableton Live file projected onto the screen behind me. Near the end of the presentation, after I had spent some time pointing to the various parts of my virtual mixer, I grew frustrated. I wanted to convey some sense of the keyboard improvisation underlying these new pieces, but pointing to waveforms on the screen felt clinical and it was hard to gauge student interest in my pointing to what may as well have been an x-ray. “What I usually do” I said as I opened the lid of the grand piano sitting at the front of the classroom, “is just play the looped samples and then improvise on top of them until I find something that sounds good.” Then, just before the class ended, I improvised a descending sequence of piano chord clusters to let everyone hear what I meant. It felt good to have a real instrument in the room–though I realize that saying that says something about my view of computers in music.

After the class there were a few questions from two students who were also budding electronic musicians. One student asked me about why his music sounded so strange on his headphones. “What do you use?” I asked, and he pulled out his tiny earbuds to show me. “You”ll probably want to get some neutral phones that don’t accentuate any frequencies too much” I said upon seeing the buds. Another student asked me whether he should master his music himself. After all, he said, “all these great mastering plug-ins come with my software.” “You’ll probably want to get a professional to do it” I told him. “It’s good to have another set of ears listen to your stuff.”

After the two budding electronic musicians thanked me and left I waited for Fred downstairs in the coffee lounge. Sipping my drink it occurred to me that all the questions for me after class had been gear-related. And that’s the somewhat frustrating thing about playing in the electronic music universe: there are so many nuts and bolts, so many moving parts, so much gear–from headphones to mastering software– to potentially distract us from the more essential questions of whether or not the music conjures emotion, fascinates and holds our attention, and maybe even speaks to others. After a few minutes Fred emerged to break my reverie and we headed for his car and a quick lunch on the way home.

***

After lunch we headed over to Fred’s other job–teaching music to children at a Montessori elementary school. Fred’s classroom at the school is pretty scenic, its large windows opening out onto the school’s tree-filled yard. Today Fred would be teaching second and third graders and I would be watching. One of the tenets of Montessori education (founded in the early 20th-century by the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori) is that children and young adults are given opportunities to develop a sense of self through meaningful sensory interaction with their environments. With this in mind I suspected that Fred would use his classroom to create some kind of environment for the second and third graders to explore, though I really had no idea what he was going to do.

“What are you going to do?” I asked him, imagining that the answer would probably have something to do with improvising or creating opportunities for it to flower. As a musician, Fred is a veteran performer of a Turkish end-blown flute called the ney, and great players excel at making extended melodic improvisations called taksim. Not surprisingly, Fred brings his interest in taksim wherever he goes, choosing a few topics for the hour and treating them like melodic tones on which to improvise an entire class. “Well Tom” he answered my question of what was on the afternoon’s agenda, “I thought today we might organize the kids into these little instrumental sections.” As he spoke he began moving wooden benches and instrument stands into formations. “Let’s make a triangle shape for the kotos here” he said as we moved the furniture around the quiet room. “Did you make these benches Fred?” I asked. “But of course Tom!” Fred had also built the wooden kotos (Japanese plucked zithers) and the stands that we were placing them on. Off in the corner we then set up three more Fred-made instruments: a Chinese erhu two-stringed fiddle, a violin, and an acoustic guitar. “And Tom, why don’t you put that little marimba over on the other side.” In a few minutes we had set up a small chamber ensemble for seven young musicians:

Fred decided on a D pentatonic scale and we checked the tuning of all the instruments against the marimba. I detuned a few strings on the guitar and removed a few keys on the marimba (the F and B keys) while Fred made last-minute adjustments to the violin:


Soon the kids were arriving, one by one, breathless and excited. Fred greeted them individually and asked a few of the more winded ones a question: “Did you just run here?” (A quiet assenting head nod.) “Okay, I would like you to go back out, get a drink of water, and walk back into the room calmly. I need you to be focused like an arrow.” Once everyone was in, accounted for, and as focused as they could be, Fred introduced me (“Today I brought my friend Tom to watch our class. Tom is a professional musician and he might even play with us today”) and then got down to business. Each child chose an instrument and then waited for further instructions. Fred picked up his homemade acoustic bass, and then, like a Charles Mingus of his Montessori band, explained in simple terms what he wanted to try today. “I’m going to introduce a three-note pattern” he said, “and you can play your own version on that…If you feel the need to change your pattern after a time, you can do that too if you wish.”

With that the class was off and running, each student playing a repeating pentatonic pattern on his or her instrument with focused concentration while Fred plucked out low tones on his bass to mark time. The resultant sound was like a slightly unsteady old watch with layers of gears interlocking, sometimes clean, sometimes clunky-squeaky, yet it all held together. After a while, Fred stopped the class and asked the kids what they thought of the music. One girl said she couldn’t hear her koto. Fred used this as an opportunity to make a suggestion to his band: “I would like us all to play softly enough so that we can hear everyone around us.” The children thought about this advice for a moment and then Fred invited further layers of musical participation. “If the music so moves you, you can even raise your voice to sing a song to go overtop of the music if you feel to do so.”

Then the pentatonic music started up again, and this time I joined a girl on the small marimba. Our hands went out of phase a few times, but each time they did she snapped to focus, slowed down, and regained sync with me. After another few minutes, another girl who had been playing guitar began to sing softly over the music. I couldn’t make out her words and none of the other six children seemed to mind, focused as they were on playing their repeating patterns. After another interval, Fred asked the girl what her song was about. She told him it was about a bunny and explained the bunny’s back story as the other students listened while sitting at their instruments. “Putting our emotions into song is one of the most magical things we can do” Fred said as the girl who sang the bunny song beamed.

At the end of the class, the students excitedly lined up at the door to play a quick round of Exit Games before they left for the day. One by one, Fred asked them a skill testing musical question: “How many quarter notes on a whole note?” The boy thought for a moment, then responded “Four?” before dashing out the door. “The note between Mi and So?” asked Fred. “Fa” said the girl, grinning, and one by one the seven children disappeared and class was over.

***

As we walked out to the school parking lot and I prepared to get back to New York, Fred and I discussed the day’s events. I told him that after attending both classes it struck me that a major difference between the two groups of students (besides their age differences, of course) was how open they seemed to be to new ideas, to doing new things in the moment, to embracing the special ways of being that music makes possible. The college students were always polite, but also visibly reserved and reticent. Teaching them–and I say this having spent time over the years watching Fred teach as well–sometimes seems like a matter of convincing them that the musical topic of the day is inherently fascinating. In other words, there is always a bit of inertia in the college students that needs to be overcome. In contrast, the second and third graders seemed to find everything in their school music room fascinating, eagerly embracing whatever it was they were asked to try (even singing a song about bunnies in front of one another if they felt so moved). No reservedness, no reticence, just unselfconsciously going with the musical flow. “I’m glad you noticed those qualities in the young ones, Tom” Fred told me. “They’re amazing in that way.” With that, Fred and I made our goodbyes and I was off, racing towards the I-95 to head back to New York.

I’m always glad to have made the 190-mile trip to visit Fred’s music classes. Not only do I get to see his ever-changing groups of students, but my trips are also opportunities for us to continue our Long Conversation about music (we started talking in 1996)–what’s essential about it, what’s at stake in its various styles, and how it can help us live our lives more, well, soundly. The main thing I bring away from my visits is a renewed sense that all of Fred’s classes, his musical activities, and even our conversations are essentially all part of a single educational-investigative cloth. In Fred’s world, there’s minimal differences between teaching at a college, grooving on pentatonic riffs with second and third graders, playing a taksim on his ney with a band of Turkish music aficionados, or talking about music with me on the phone. It’s all about music. Music, in the end, may not be a universal language, but talking about it and making it has a way of tying everything together.

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