Do Your Students Know Why They Are Playing Notes?

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Is it weird that as I stood there on top of Mt. Washington, this was the question that crept in to my mind? Probably, but here we go!

Every note has a purpose. Do your students really understand what they are playing? How are we helping them, and how are we hurting them? We hopefully know that just telling our students to play louder, softer, etc… is not teaching them music. “Teaching” this way is great for winning competitions and getting high ratings at festivals in some cases. But it isn’t really teaching. And in the long run, you aren’t helping students or yourself as a conductor by telling your students what to play, and how to play it. You are creating a stagnant ensemble that will never grow musically.  If you are telling your students what to play with no explanation as to why they should play it that way, then your students aren’t really learning much about music. What they are learning is to obey what you want and not ask questions or explore what the notes really mean.

The beginning of the problem and the beginning of the solution is in your score study! If you don’t know the purpose of a note, how can you expect your students to know the purpose of a note. It is true that at the end of the day we want our students to know why they are playing something, but they will need some guidance, and as the conductor, you really should know more about the music than your students. Once you know why the notes are in the score, you can begin to teach your students much better. And, yes, teaching music is important, but we do also want to sound good, don’t we? We do want our concerts to not send family and friends screaming from the auditorium in aural pain and anguish. How can you accomplish both a good sound and a more educated ensemble?

Ask questions! Don’t tell. Ask your students to explore the notes they are playing. Get the students thinking about what the notes they are playing mean. How can that knowledge be spread across multiple works?

  • Is it the melody?
  • Is it the harmony?
  • Is it a countermelody?
  • Who else is playing it with them?
  • Do you pass what you are playing on to another instrument?
  • How should you shape that note? That phrase?
  • Where is that note leading?
  • Does it fit in the chord or is it a nonharmonic tone?
  • Does that dynamic really mean what you think it means?
  • you get the idea… ASK QUESTIONS! DON’T TELL!

We live in an assessment kind of world now! So assess away. Give assignments! Send your students off to not just mindlessly practice the notes in front of them. Let them figure out why the notes matter, and where each note fits in to the grand scheme of things. The very questions above can be turned in to exploration assignments. And the best part is, you might get different answers from people with the same part! Guess what, that is what we as conductors and teachers should want! Then we get to do our job! Then we get to ask them to discuss why they came to their different conclusions. Maybe a student will change our mind on something. We then get to open our students mind up to what the notes they are playing mean, and then when we start a new cycle of music for the next performance, the hope is the students can see things differently from the start! Now your ensemble can grow.

Here are a few ideas to expand on this:

  • Have a few scores available of music you are working on that students can check out. Let them see everything. Let them see where their part fits in.
  • Have students listen to different recordings of works and ask them to compare the music. What did they like? What didn’t they like?
  • Record your rehearsals and have your students listen to themselves play. Did the notes sound like they should?

And if you are worried you need a little brush up on the purpose of notes, or how music should be performed, here are two great resources:

Sound in Motion: A Performer’s Guide to Greater Musical Expression, David McGill

Note Groupings: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance,  James Morgan Thurmond

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to ask a student why they played a certain note, and get a musically sound reason as an answer instead of “Well you told me to play it that way…”

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