“Music as a Language”, reflection after the inspiring TEDTalk by Victor Wooten
As a piano teacher, I am always thinking about all the possible ways to approach music education. That is why when I was scrolling on YouTube and suddenly read “Music as a Language” I thought: isn’t this approach of a language the way I want to transmit music to my students? Then, I just decided to click on that video, which was such an inspiration for me. Here you can click on the video, but you can also read some of the quotes I found more inspiring and my own reflection about how this applies to piano teaching nowadays.
“As I’m older, I’m looking back right now that I’m called a teacher. When I look back on that, on how I was taught, I realize that I wasn’t really taught, which is why I say that music is a language. Because if you think about your first language (...), if you think about how you learned it, you realize that you weren’t taught. People just spoke to you. And the coolest thing is (...) you were allowed to speak back. Now, if I take the music example, in most cases our beginners are not allowed to play with the better people. You are stuck with the beginning class, you have to remain there a few years until you are elevated to the intermediate, and then advanced, and after you graduate the advanced class you still have to go out and pay a lot of dues.”
“That’s the mistake a lot of us, music teachers, make: we teach kids how to play the instrument first, before they understand music. You don’t teach a kid how to spell. Teaching a kid how to spell “milk” before they’ve been drinking a lot of it for a few years doesn’t make sense (...). But for some reason, we still think it does in music. We want to teach them the rules and the instruments first.”
“By the time a baby can speak a real word, they know already a lot about the language. So I was learning music the same way. By the time I had the instrument in my hands, I was already very musical. (…) I wasn't starting from the beginning. I was musical first. Now, I just had to put that music through an instrument. And looking back on it now, I realize that's how I learned to talk. It wasn't about learning the instrument first. Who cares about the instrument you talk with? It's about what you have to say. (...) When the teacher teaches you a new word in English, she has you put it into a sentence; in the context, right away. A music teacher will tell you to go practice it. Practicing works but it's a slower process than putting it into context.”
“A lot of us are talked out of our musical freedom, when we are first given a lesson. Because we go to a teacher, and the teacher rarely ever finds out why we came in the first place. (…) We need to find a way to keep that freedom. And it can be done! It's not gone forever. A kid playing air guitar will play with a smile on their face. Give them the first lesson, the smile goes away. A lot of times you have to work for your whole musical life to get that smile back. As teachers, we can keep that smile, if we approach it the right way. And I say approach it like a language; allow the student to keep the freedom.”
This speech has definitely opened my eyes a lot. I always say, and it is true, that one of my goals is transmitting to people who aren’t close to the classical music world the message that music is for everyone and anyone can learn it. After watching Wooten’s TEDTalk, I thought about this goal from a different perspective. How am I going to convey that music is for everyone and that anyone can learn it if in the process I don’t show that they can start making music (using the language) from the very first moment? If the image I give is that it takes a long time to start having enough tools to make music, a lot of people might feel overwhelmed or lack interest very fast.
This concept makes me look back to these sentences by Wooten: “When the teacher teaches you a new word in English, she has you put it into a sentence; in the context, right away. A music teacher will tell you to go practice it. Practicing works but it's a slower process than putting it into context.”
I believe that if you let students feel that they can express whatever they want to express from the first lesson even without having a lot of tools, you open a gate to their creative freedom. If “mistakes” were not that important, music and expressing yourself would be much more.That is why I feel that the easiest way to work on difficult aspects or finding a way to express through music is by playing music which students love. And it doesn’t matter if they loved it before, because this love for a certain kind of music can also be taught in a very natural way.
On the other hand, I think that as a teacher it is very important for me to understand that not all the students have the same wishes. I shouldn’t teach everyone by taking for granted that they will want to spend a lot of hours studying, that they will be disciplined and that they are happy with learning first and trying after. It is fine when a student wants discipline but it is also fine when he/she just wants to have fun with the piano. However, I believe that in both cases it is very important to use this approach of using music as a language.
Also, I find it very important to reflect on the sentence of “in most cases our beginners are not allowed to play with the better people. You are stuck with the beginning class, you have to remain there a few years until you are elevated to the intermediate, and then advanced”. If I want to engage people to play the piano and I want to give them motivation, it might be impossible to achieve this if the image they see of the pianist they admire or their piano teacher feels too far away or unreachable. At the moment, I think that these ideas can help to solve this problem:
Letting my students play from the very first moment.
Teaching them with the idea that they might “make mistakes” or find some things difficult, but also great pianists or me as a teacher have difficulties.
Playing together with them.
Improvise (giving them some examples so that they feel in a safe atmosphere to improvise).
Making small steps they can accomplish so that they feel capable.
I hope with this reflection I could transmit a bit of the inspiration I got from this talk and I made you reflect a bit as well about how to approach piano teaching.
Would you like to share your thoughts? Let me know what you think about the approach of freedom in a music/piano lesson!
Thank you very much for reading.