Question: What does music education have in common with the way we learn foreign languages?

Answer: A lot of the teaching is the way it is not because it’s any good, but because it’s easy to grade.

We learn a foreign language (at any level) and we are crucified for missing genders, declensions, and so on. Be perfect or suffer the consequences! So we as students memorize the proper endings and learn syntax and grammar and get all A’s. There’s just one thing. We can’t speak worth a damn, and if we go to a country where they speak this language that we have mastered by our education’s standards, we can’t understand a word they’re saying. The current system, by forcing us to focus on “perfection”, has left us unable to communicate. But, hey, it’s very easy to grade when we simply check endings and genders.

A more telling and useful way would be to allow beginners to make a lot of “mistakes”, but require them to get in a great quantity of practice in communication. Order a cup of coffee 200 times in the foreign language. Each time through you’ll get a little quicker, a little more fluent. After forty or fifty tries, you may be able to add some extras: decaf, fat-free milk, sugarless hazelnut flavoring, a spritz of cinnamon. Make it espresso. Single short. No, double shot. And so on. Don’t worry about grammar. Get your point across. Add expression: emphasize words, syllables. Gesture with your hands. At the end of your session you will be fluent in ordering a cup of coffee. At that point, you may want to have a look at how you can start to tidy up the grammar. And perhaps try expressing what you just learned in writing a bit, taking more care with the spelling. That part of it will come with time. Start communicating right away. Order that cup of coffee until it becomes easy. Do a bit of clean-up on the grammar as you go, but don’t let it stop you from communication and expression. Then go on to the weather. Nice day, isn’t it. Looks like rain. Or snow.

You get the idea. Instead of one time through getting the “rules: perfect, you will have a comfy, fluent, and effortless command of your new language (starting small and building outward). You will be able to communicate and express yourself. You will have something that is immediately and permanently useful. Instead of just an “A” and paralysis in the face of the real language in a real situation. The niceties of grammar and spelling will come with time. Just keep talking, communicating in real situations about everyday things. Imagine if we demanded that babies learn language the way we insist adults learn it. No babbling! Be perfect right away! Or no bedtime story! No horsie! No one would ever learn to speak that way.

Cut to Music Education.

Same thing. Why do we do so much stuff that doesn’t work? Doesn’t prepare us for the world? Doesn’t give us useful skills? Isn’t any fun to do?

You know the answer: because it’s easier to grade this way.

To take a single example: at sophomore barriers, we require them to play two octave scales – all major and minor keys. If they can get through without unreasonable stuttering or freezing up, we pronounce them “proficient.” For their part, they don’t have to think about them any more, although they may run them down from time to time because it’s ‘tradition’, because it’s ‘good for them.’

Think: have you ever seen a piece with a two octave scale in it? I haven’t. We are asking them to demonstrate proficiency (and thus devote considerable time and energy and wear and tear on the nervous system) in something that does not exist in nature. We are asking them to study brontosauraus anatomy when they are going to doctor dogs and cats every day.

Why do it that way? Because it’s easier to grade. It’s the easy way out.

What would really tell us something about their ‘mastery’ might be to ask them to invent a piece using, say (draw a card a random with a key on it), all the various A flat minor scales about someone at 3 in the morning who just lost the love of their life. Make it 2-3 minutes long. Invent a strong rhythmic or melodic motif and develop it along the way. The piece should have form: a beginning, middle, and end. A short cadenza near the end. That’s it. You’re done. One scale, picked at random, turned into a piece of spontaneously created music. Missed notes here and there will not be counted against you if you make it beautiful and expressive.

It would be harder to grade. And you’d have to start much earlier introducing players to the idea of practicing technique in creative musical contexts. Much earlier than they do now, which is… never.

We could also de-canonize the octave as the only unit of scale material to study. Most music is made up of parts of scales that happen in a much narrower range. Why don’t we learn scales in all kinds of ways, why don’t we learn patterns, why don’t we experiment with scale material? Why don’t we learn scales in all lengths? Why don’t we learn to be fluent and comfortable in many many permutations of a scale rather than just one version of it (the octave or octaves)?

It would take a lot of work and a lot of re-thinking to change the “easy way out” approach of current music education. But you would end up with players who were comfortable with themselves, their instruments, and the music. Players who could “think” in music. And enjoy the process.

It may not change any time soon. But you could start the change in yourself. See what happens. Nobody’s grading you…