Still, there is a niggling at the back of my mind. I am uncomfortable with the notion that music instruction must be this almost militaristic discipline in which fun may occur---but only under the aegis of excellence and striving for perfection.
To be fair, the author does recognize the value in risk-taking and experimentation:
“Instrumental music class is a place where children make friends, solve problems by doing, and overcome their fears by experimenting, taking risks — and even failing — in a supportive environment. Our schools are becoming more and more standardized, and in the process they are eliminating opportunities for play to occur in the curricula. Without clear expectations and rigor in the music classroom, however, play becomes nothing but fooling around with noisemakers — not fun.”
But the caveat of “clear expectations and rigor” seems to negate the promising notion of the opening sentence.
I mean, really?!
Must experimentation and problem solving and risk-taking exist only in an environment of “clear expectations and rigor?” Doesn’t this statement seem almost at odds with itself?
My early childhood memories include a lot of unstructured free play. Much of that time was spent “making noise” on a sweet potato (ocarina) and a remarkable harmonica---a three-octave monstrosity that I think was called a Hohner Giant. I could not read a lick of music and had no formal instruction. I just knew it was fun to make up tunes---and occasionally to imitate tunes I “knew.”
Formal music instruction for me did not begin until I was seven years old. And even after that (piano lessons) I continued with the unstructured joy of the ocarina and harmonica---and added ukulele a few years later. I also remember being fascinated by the weird noises my Dad’s guitar would make depending on where you touched the strings (I would learn only many years later about harmonics). And, I remember my brothers and I would love to take off the bottom panel of the upright piano in the den and sit on the sustain pedal, and make “echo” noises and pluck or thump on the strings. It was hilarious….unstructured……and magical. Finally, I remember a seventh-grade general music teacher encouraged us to play with a stereo tape deck. He taught us how to splice tape, how to slow the tape down and speed it up. Then he encouraged us to make our own instruments and make a tape piece! That was one of the coolest, mind-blowing experiences I had as a middle-schooler back in the early 70s.
I was, of course in band, and chorus, and jazz band, and continued my classical piano training. Yes. All of these experiences were disciplined and structured. And I learned a great deal about being professional and prepared and disciplined. But I would not underestimate the power of pure, unadulterated play---sans structure, sans rigeur.
In a college freshman theory class I am attempting to introduce my students to some of that spontaneity and unstructured play that I think truly does generate creative problem solving. Many (if not most or even all) of these students will not likely be concert artists (nor is it necessarily their goal or desire). One of the early exercises I have been doing with them is a blues improvisation on the black keys of the piano. I do engage in a little discipline (call and response), but I also have been leaving a lot of open time for them to simply jam. I do not comment on proper fingerings, good phrasing, correct feel or rhythm. In fact, I rather try to avoid making any judgment calls at all (save for the occasional “yeah, man.”) I just lay down the chord changes in E-flat and tell them to play on the black keys. They are experimenting and problem solving and risk-taking (believe me---nothing quite so risky as improvising in front of your classmates) without the soul crushing, creativity crushing mantra of clear expectations and rigor. Does it devolve into “playing around with noise makers?”
I think not. I actually think there is an awful lot of learning going on in this exercise. However, even if it were just “playing around” I hope I might be okay with that. After all, I think some of the greatest advances in science, literature and arts likely came, at least initially, from “playing around.”