June 30, 2007

Understanding yourself as a musician

By Tom Foote

This year I decided to get even more serious about learning how to teach other musicians more effectively. In making this commitment, I realized that one of the most difficult things to do was deciding how to communicate with those students – not verbally, but musically.

Everyone learns differently and each individual responds best to different methods of communication. It became apparent that a communication methodology would be needed for me to be an effective instructor to all the different kinds of learners. I have found one and wish to share it.

Musician behavior and communication

I’m not saying that this is the only method, nor is it the best. It is a work in progress, as all art forms are. This really made sense to me and might be a good starting point when both learners and teachers start communicating.

Some of the following concepts come from the Manhattan Music Curriculum Program, which was encouraged and sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Program of the United States Office of Education from 1965-1970.

First, let’s consider the following statements:

. . . that the purpose of education is to open minds and to provide the substance and enthusiasm for continued personal discovery and growth.

. . . that notation is only a coding device, a storage and retrieval thing. It is a system for translating musical ideas for future recall, not for developing musical sensitivity or sensibility.

. . . that composition is merely a statement of someone’s musical thoughts, and everyone has musical thoughts.

. . . that music is sound, not symbols, diagrams, formulae, idiomatic practices, or skills.

. . . that there are three categories of skills related to music: Dexterous, Translative, and Aural. But none of these necessarily produce attitude, cognition or aesthetic judgment.

So how do I become “a better player”?

First, we need to define our strengths and weaknesses. Since everything we do as musicians is really related to how we communicate to other musicians (yes, the judge and audiences are considered musicians), we need to look at how effective we are in the various methods of communication.

Here are several communicative behaviors we do with each other:

  • Hearing and distinguishing sounds – What our experience has been listening to others and ourselves play and the ability to remember those experiences.
  • Creativity – improvisation, formal compositions, fresh interpretation of existing works. Always involves intuitive thought in music.
  • Playing the instrument – dexterous skills that meet the demands of your musical thought.
  • Judge and interpret – extremely complex and involves understanding, judgment, confidence, and listening skills.
  • Notation skills – sometimes unnecessary, but play an important role in receiving the musical ideas of others or communicating your musical ideas to others.
  • Technical proficiency – knowing how to make your instrument sound good. May involve orchestration of many instruments, arranging and conducting which would be more structural.

Now, how can we use these different behaviors to understand our own musicianship?

These behaviors are not isolated within themselves. Each contains parts of the other, but we can use the categories to isolate specific tasks that would help round out one’s ability to communicate better to your fellow musicians.

Here are some examples:

Click to supersize!
A well rounded musician at any level of play has the skills to communicate very effectively with others at or below their level of abilities.

Click to supersize!
The Avid Listener example may have very creative ideas but has a hard time communicating these to others unless they develop their notation skills further or pair up with another musician like the one below.

Click to supersize!
The Avid Notator is a marriage made in heaven.

There are countless variations one could derive that would make up wonderfully complementary combinations of musical characters and iterations.

So, where do you go from here?

Try to figure out how you rate in each area and study items that are regarded as your “smaller pieces of the pie.” Find ways to stimulate those areas to grow. Because each area is so interrelated, as you enlarge one piece it will positively affect the other.

Musical communication is what we all are doing whether it is at private lessons, band practices, parades, concerts, other functions or contests. Taking time to think about how you rate in these behaviours and acting upon that analysis will pay off in appreciation from those who are listening, and it will strengthen your ability to communicate your musical ideas.

Tom Foote lives in Rochester, New York, and runs the Tom Foote School of Drumming. An experienced snare drummer with several top-grade Canadian bands, he is also an accredited judge on the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario’s Adjudicators Panel.p|dWhat do you think? We always want to hear from our readers, so please use our comment system to provide your thoughts!

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  1. This was quite well written, Tom. Sometimes we all have a tendency to take the art of communication lightly and of how important it is to be able to communicate one’s thoughts and ideas to others clearly, whether in pipe bands, work or personal lives. Well done, Tom.



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