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

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.

On Gary Marcus’s “Guitar Zero”

About five years ago I began playing acoustic guitar. I played off and on for a while, learning chord shapes, and trying (without success) to build callouses on my fingertips. I also experimented with alternate tunings and used a capo, recording a number of chord progressions I thought sounded interesting (hear the audio file at the end of this post). As a musician familiar with the keyboard’s horizontal layout of black and white notes, the guitar presented a puzzling new geography that was both horizontal (notes getting higher as you move from left to right) and vertical (notes spanning the near low strings to the high ones located further away, down towards your feet). I learned a bunch of chords but also realized that it would take me years of practice/enculturation to groove a relationship and any kind of musical fluency with the instrument. Plus, I never really felt like a guitarist, only like a guy playing guitar. So I did the sensible thing: I quietly put away the instrument.

I thought about my guitar experience recently as I read psychologist Gary Marcus’s excellent Guitar Zero: The New Musician And The Science Of Learning, a memoir and neuroscience exploration of learning to play a musical instrument. The book is a story of the author’s journey learning guitar from scratch at age 39. Can he do it? He’s not especially young, and to make matters worse, he’s admittedly somewhat unmusical too–cursed with what he humorously describes as “congenital arrhythmia.” So this is the book’s conceit: Can dogged persistence, practice, close listening, and a good teacher set Marcus on his way to a musical life? Well, yes, kind of. Through the book we follow the NYU professor over the course of a sabbatical year from teaching as he takes lessons, learns chord changes, practices with metronomes, performs songs (on bass guitar) at an NYC children’s rock music camp, and even tries his hand at songwriting. Marcus doesn’t become a virtuoso but does achieve a newfound balance in his life through his guitar playing. Music, it seems, has a unique power to make our experiences meaningful: it gives us the sense of having a voice while simultaneously drawing on an array of physical and cognitive skill sets to make that sense possible in the first place.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of Guitar Zero is its fresh take on the cognitive complexities of learning and playing even the simplest of music. Rarely do we reflect on skills we already have, but any experienced musician reading this book will be energized to do just that, thinking through his or her own journey of coming to know music making as a physical-mental-spiritual presence by following Marcus’s progress. If nothing else, the reader may reflect on how making music requires a high degree of perceptual mastery (e.g. sound pattern recognition), the coordination of multiple muscles (e.g. think about the four limbs of the drum set player, each doing something different), and the engagement of memory and anticipation (for musical experience has no past or future, only the fleeting present). In terms of engaging, whole body-mind workouts, there’s simply nothing like making music.

But learning about the author’s musical progress—a story which in fact is fairly brief—is just one of the charms of this book. Other pleasures await in the many byways he opens up alongside the main story of learning to play guitar. These byways address a number of pressing questions about music, and they had me enthusiastically marking passages on my Kindle. What follows are elaborations on some of those questions.

To start, what makes great musicians great? While there are as many answers to this question as there are great musicians, one answer might be that great musicians have an ability to continuously monitor their performances, learn from them and then improve–a cycle that lead to their skills getting better and better and better over time. Case in point: the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who tells Marcus that he makes detailed written notes after every performance which then become study guides for what went wrong and what went right. “A good part of expertise” says Marcus, “comes from diagnosing one’s own likely mistakes.” Surely not every great musician makes notes like Metheny, but setting up a feedback loop for continuing refinement seems to be a hallmark of expertise generally.

This idea of musical diagnostics brings us to the question of what makes a great teacher. Marcus observes a number of skilled teachers and notes that they’re all highly perceptive, with ears and eyes sharply attuned to spot technical and physical problems. Great teachers can propose solutions to musical problems too, connecting with their students by maintaining their attention and motivating them to improve. It can even be fun. One teacher observed by Marcus, J. Cirt Gill from Weaver Academy in Greensboro, NC, impresses the author in how he guides students to design their own podcast projects for his music production classes. Here, the teacher functions as a spark used by students who go on to light their own fires.

Marcus also considers the fire that is music performance and how performers–especially improvisers–know and create through their actions in the moment. A key question in this context: What’s the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge in music? The distinction between the two is important for aspiring artists studying master performers for clues–that is, for ways to extract theory from performance. But the catch is that procedural knowledge is all about working by feel in the moment. Here, Marcus cites the great jazz pianist Bill Evans as a model of procedural knowledge. Evans’ improvisations innovated new varieties of harmonizing that were only later codified into (written) theory. So, there’s good reason to believe that artistic innovation comes about not by consciously thinking about it (“I want to innovate…”) but by letting “the ways of the hand” (Sudnow 2001) do their thing, in the heat of the moment.

Marcus also examines the alleged connections between music and language, unpacking the sources of music’s omnipresence. “Why is music virtually ubiquitous” he asks, “when many other arts have a smaller presence in daily life?” Why is it that music is so pervasive in everyday social life no matter where you go in the world? No one knows for sure, but music’s ubiquity has led many to wonder whether or not there’s a music “instinct” in our DNA. Is there? No, there isn’t. Our “being musical” is the result of neural circuitry that’s been finely tuned over the course of human evolution, though not for music per se. Music isn’t the product of evolution, “but the product of artists evolving their craft in order to tickle the brain in particular ways.” Music’s ubiquity, then, is just something we’ve cultivated.

And perhaps music’s staggering variety of idioms reflects its ongoing cultivation. Indeed, there also seems to be a connection between the variety of personality types in the world and the varieties of musical taste. Marcus tells of how the perceived value of a piece of music “derives partly from the temperament of the listener.” Thus, extroverted types are said to prefer energetic and rhythmic music, and so on. This is interesting stuff to think about as a way of understanding the roots/routes of one’s own musical affinities.


One of the most compelling ideas in the book is the author’s contention that music itself is a technology “refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow.” This experience of flow can be felt in the euphoric feeling experienced while “jamming” with other musicians or while improvising. And what an invention music is! Consider a few things about it. First, its complex formal structures allow us to experience both novelty and familiarity at the same time. Second, because music unfolds over time and we can’t remember all of its details at once, it’s perpetually new. Finally, the physicality of music and its connection to our sense of motion makes it immersive and flow-inducing. What a package!

Many of music’s innovations are intellectual and not physical. For example, Marcus reminds us that the plainchant practice of 9th-century monks singing two different pitches at the same time (as opposed to singing in unison) lead to the development of organum, harmony, and eventually chord progressions as a way to organize music’s melodic flow over time. Likewise with the innovations of steady rhythm: “Virtually every song you hear on the radio nowadays” Marcus says, “combines these two musical techniques–harmony and steady percussion–both of which in essence had to be invented.”

As a technology, music has changed quite radically over the centuries, the two-dimensional quality of that 9th-century plainchant (“like paintings from before the discovery of perspective” says Marcus) giving way to the multidimensional, flow-inducing properties of harmony (which become increasingly expressive over the centuries). As a technology of sounding, music adapts to our ever-changing appetites, as each “new generation of artists craves new ways to broaden the palette, and hence better ways of keeping both listeners and performers entranced, in a state of flow.” Thus, electronic and digital technologies of 20th- and 21st-century music such as multitrack recording, synthesizers, electric guitars, microphones, and computers “are the musical equivalent of new species, which open up new niches and are in some ways better adapted to the environment than many of their predecessors.”

Finally, to return to music’s unique power, Marcus describes the philosophy of eudaimonia–the sources and cultivation of long-term, slow-burning human happiness. Making or listening to music, says Marcus, is a special way of being in the world “because of its potential for combining the hedonia of enjoying [it] in the moment with the eudaimonia of a constant sense of progress, as the musician continues to learn new techniques, create new songs, and make new discoveries.”

Guitar Zero, then, documents a wide-reaching musical trip. There’s a lot of material here, yet it’s covered in an accessible and engaging way that makes the journey fun. Yes, Marcus learns to play guitar decently. Yes, he performs with a band in front of a crowd. Yes, he even composes his own song. But, for this reader at least, the author’s worthy practical goals have also provided the perfect excuse to unravel some of music’s most enduring questions and experiences.

On Piano Lessons: Tricia Tunstall’s “Note By Note”

“An instrumentalist is an athlete.” –Tricia Tunstall

For many people, taking piano lessons is an initial gateway to learning to make and understand music for themselves. Knowing that 88-key terrain of black and white tones and semitones is a giant step towards understanding the pushes and pulls of tonal music, and piano playing makes mind and hands dexterous, connecting the physical with the emotional through sound. Last but not least, taking piano lessons–probably, it’s safe to say, more so than taking guitar or drum lessons–is a marker of social class and badge of having a well-rounded education. If you’ve learned and practiced your scales, played Beethoven’s “Für Elise”, some atmospheric Debussy maybe, or even mastered a clinical Bach invention or fugue, you’ve partaken in the canon of western classical music–that grand 1000 year-old behemoth that continues to inform and influence so much other music around the world even as it risks becoming a museum piece itself.

In her book Note By Note (2009), Tricia Tunstall explores the experience of teaching piano, that “weekly session alone together, physically proximate, concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is complicated and difficult” (3). Tunstall, a veteran teacher of children and teenagers of all ages and stages, conveys well the relationships among herself, her students, the piano, and the notes on the page in this fluid, insightful, and eminently readable memoir. Every student has different needs, interests, and abilities, yet each must learn how to really listen to sound and learn how “to rescue music from its ubiquity–to pull it from the background to the forefront, free it from its uses” (7). Piano lessons, Tunstall says, are about (re)situating music as an autonomous practice–to save it from being merely a thing downloaded and listened to as a soundtrack for something else. Note By Note captures the piano lesson itself as a kind of autonomous practice. It’s a space to learn about the development and limits of skill, concentration, and the musicking body.

Young children especially seem to intuitively understand music as an object of inherent pleasure, taking delight in finding the right keys and “enjoying pure sonority” (18). But as their piano lessons progress over time and make music increasingly a process of serious study, the lessons also discipline the students in ways that will curtail that intuitive enjoyment of pure sonority. As Tunstall notes, sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse” (18). For example, for many piano students, learning to read notes on a page entails “the death of the improvisatory impulse” (21). Tunstall admits to being uneasy about this fact of western music enculturation: on the one hand, one needs to learn how to read in order to have access to all that great music; on the other hand, as our eyes become adept at interpreting notes on the page as “music” some of the subtle connections between the ear and the “improvisatory impulse” are muted. Tunstall addresses this fact by having all her students improvise at the end of their lessons. It’s not a perfect solution, but it reinforces the idea that music is a living activity and not just an acquired skill of note-decoding.

Not surprisingly, popular music is of great interest to many of Tunstall’s students, and some of the more interesting sections in Note By Note chronicle the author’s assessing the musical qualities of rock, jazz, pop, and especially hip hop musics as she helps students figure out how to play their favorite songs on the piano. Many sample-based hip hop songs are, of course, impossible to render (for how does one render spoken word and a rhythm track on a piano?) and it’s fascinating to learn how Tunstall negotiates the terrain of rhythm-based musics while her students look at her expectantly with a please help me figure out how to play my favorite song look.

But for all her attempts to engage with popular music, Tunstall’s allegiances are firmly in the classical world, which she considers “still the most eloquent and compelling manifestation of the musical language we all know” (85). (A minor quibble here: Who is this homogenous “we” Tunstall addresses? “We” don’t all know this musical language–many of us speak in alternate tongues…) And, remarkably, as her students “use their iPods to construct their own musical neighborhoods out of the vast territory of what’s available” (117), somehow classical music finds a way into their listening lives, over and over again. Tunstall marvels at this, but doesn’t take it for granted; she’s receptive to students wanting to learn music that they once heard somewhere and were hooked. For Tunstall, this is simply evidence that the canon of classical piano music has a power “to move those spirits that are open to being moved” (82).

Which brings us to Eddie, one of the dozen or so students whose progress Tunstall carefully maps over the course of her book. Eddie is smitten by Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor) and desperately wants to learn to play it. Tunstall worries that Eddie has neither “emotional experience nor aural image to guide him” (129), yet Eddie is undeterred, driven by a musically-triggered desire to make Beethoven’s music his own, to get it into his fingers and embody its notes. And so student and teacher embark on the slow process of learning the sonata together. Eddie eventually learns to play it, note by note, and play it well too. “Through playing” Tunstall observes proudly, “he was actually learning a new way to feel” (130).