Power (of) Play
11 Saturday Dec 2010
The fact is, we don’t play our horns. We serious them. Although the Ur-roots of music making undoubtedly sprang from vibrant, playful, spontaneous expressions of emotion and storytelling, since the rise of organized music education (Paris Conservatory, 1795?), we have increasingly dispensed with the playful, exploratory, expressive nature of music in favor of the more easily measurable elements as accuracy, standard technical requirements, and consistency (be able to do it the same way every time). We’re not so good expressing anything personal in music, but, oh, are we good at recitation. We know how to relate how Herr Strauss was feeling in Bavaria a hundred years ago, but have no way to say in personal music how we’re doing right now. Fun is not really part of it. Music is serious, isn’t it? It’s not supposed to be fun. Fun is suspect. Fun is low status. No fun is high status. Get through that warm-up routine one more time, same as before, get through the scales, arpeggios, other technical work. That’s the way it’s done. Fun? What’s that? What good is it? We think: if I want to get better, I don’t think about having fun. It’s irrelevant.
Fun is, however, well, fun. Wouldn’t it be ineffably peachy if you could have your technical cake and have fun with it, too?
I love the TED.com web site – scads of fascinating short (max. 20 min.) video presentations of all sorts by some of the world’s brainiest cutting-edge folks. One that struck a chord lately was “How Games Reward the Brain” by Tom Chatfield. He wasn’t talking about music. He was referring to video games, but in examining the power of video games to fascinate and motivate action, it’s irresistible to try to transfer the findings to music, to practicing, to music education. He is talking about the power of fun to engage us and inspire us to deep and continued effort at a succession of tasks, aiming at both short and long term goals, which sounds a whole lot like what we do in music. Wouldn’t it be great to find a way around the traditional classical Fun = Not Valid approach and do all we do while enjoying rather than simply enduring the steps toward technical mastery? At least in the privacy of your own practice room where no one could actually catch you having fun while you practice?
I won’t do more than freeform some top-of-the-head thoughts in this direction right now (this is a blog entry, not a thesis); I leave it to you to make your own extrapolations and useful analogies.
How do games reward the brain? A quick list from Chatfield’s presentation:
•Experience bars measure progress.
•Reward for effort: you get credit for every bit of effort.
•Quick, frequent, clear feedback on actions.
• Element of uncertainty.
•Social aspect – competing with peers.
Those are the elements. Let’s go back over them in a bit more detail accompanied by some brainstorming.
-•Experience bars measure progress. Music: we measure progress by being able to play a bit more of a passage the way we want to, taking more or less time depending on the difficulty. Our progress is aural – what just happened? Did we get it or not? Is there a way to make it visible in some way? Not everything is going to translate in to musical terms, but there may be some ways to approximate the “experience bars” as measures of what’s going on. The first thing that comes to mind is that if we want more feedback, we need to play more without staring at the inked page. The ink tells us nothing about what just happened or how the mechanism of our playing conforms to the most effective and efficient model. With a stringed instrument or piano, it’s easy to get visual feedback: just look and see if the hands are in the proper position. With the horn, everything is invisible, even the instrument itself to the player. We can make it “visible” by quickly memorizing the short bit we’re working on and visualizing what’s going on with eyes closed: what is the setting of the aperture? Did I use enough air and at the right time? Release of the air? How about mouthpiece pressure? Did I use a syllable to (e.g.) help a wide ascending slur, like AH to EE? Did the valve movement synchronize exactly with the air and aperture changes? Did the pitch produced by the air/aperture mechanism move far enough during the interval? Did it move quickly enough? It’s hard to think about any of these if you are staring at the ink; feedback remains at the most superficial level (“Oh, a wrong note. Better try it again and hope it’s different). Closing your eyes gives you a “view” of what’s really going on, and sharpens both your kinesthetic and aural senses for more and better feedback.
More thoughts on feedback, rewards, progress bars. The teacher is also there for that purpose. A good teacher can hear (and sometimes see) the details of what’s going on and give feedback (either during or after playing) on what’s happening, of the sort, “Almost, a little more, too much, that’s it! Do it again!” This outside feedback complements and supplements what the student hears/feels. The student may think they hit the note and be content, but the teacher adds, you nicked a note on the approach and then swelled on the note after you arrived; then you missed the following note although it was the same. You’re using pressure instead of air to power the slur upwards. Try again, start with much less pressure, use the syllables ah-ee, make the move quickly when you make it. Better this time, but your second finger was late and not synchronized with the pitch change. Keep the embouchure corners firm, back off on pressure, and move your lower lip up and slightly in this time. ” That sort of thing. The “talent” books by Coyle and Colvin both discuss how Deep Practice is aided by teachers (they give sports examples) who provide such moment-by-moment feedback on the movements. Ours is a very tricky task; the tennis teacher can see the error and diagnose it; we have to hear it.
The element of Uncertainty: an interesting concept to apply to music. Don’t we try to avoid uncertainty, i.e. mistakes? Isn’t the horn uncertain enough? Fun needs some kind of uncertainty. If the same, predictable thing always happens, the result is boredom and inattention. Orchestral playing was extremely exciting for me for some years. Then, when the repertoire started coming around again, less so. And so on. If we do the same warm-up/technique routine every day, guess what’s going to happen? So how do we make playing uncertain in a way that benefits us? One answer is to apply what I call the concept of Fuzzy Music to our practice. If I need to work on my F# scale (and I do), I could play it the way I find it in scale books, which is Up the scale and then Down again. One octave. Two octaves. That’s about it. If I looked really hard, I might find part of an etude that had some F# in it. Or it might occur to me that I could locate some etudes in the key of G and play it in E horn (i.e. transposed down a half step). Better, easier, more fun, more efficient to use Fuzzy Music to conquer F#. There are many ways to do it; here’s one: I am going to pick three notes of the scale to work on (I am not one who reveres the octave unit above all else. It’s just one possibility among many): scale degrees 1 2 3 (F# G# A#), a.k.a. the Core Scale. The Fuzzy part is that I am not going to write out or otherwise set in advance the order I’m going to play the notes. In fact, I am going to go out of my way to discover every possible order of the notes. While I freeform a melody using all combinations of these notes, I will also freeform the articulation and dynamics. I may change registers and do it in different tessituras. I will also gleefully constantly experiment with different rhythms, especially kinds of syncopation. And add accents here and there. I will add rests (silences) on the way. And as I get acquire facility, I will start jacking up the tempo. And perhaps change the meter. Odd meters are especially fun. Whenever I can, I will enlist a friend (on any instrument) to play either a bass line in F# or to pick their own collection of 3 notes. This all gives the CPU quite a bit to handle – lots of calculations to make very quickly – but the result is…. FUN. And flexibility. And familiarity with F#-land. And that’s just three notes. At some point I will start over using three new notes, say, 3 4 5 (A# B C#). Maybe next combine the two to get the major Power Scale (scales steps 1 2 3 4 5; there are three other kinds of P.S.’s). I can continue selecting short and longer scale units and thus develop my technique in this area while having fun doing it. It takes time. But I don’t care – I’m having fun doing it. If it were drudgery, I wouldn’t want to do anything except get in and out as quickly as possible, e.g. up and down an octave (or two) scale and then pronounce myself proficient.
The power of fun and Fuzzy Music in this case has given me a deep(er) familiarity with this common scale, rather than a shallow and fleeting acquaintance with an octave scale. This is one way to use Chatfield’s principle of Uncertainty in a musical context.
Social aspect; competing with peers.
Duets, trios, quartets, chamber music are common ways to be social and enjoy a sort of competition with peers, although collaboration is a better word than competition. We have discovered used another sort of competitive approach to enhance fun and motivation: timing. We (the UI horn studio) do a group creative project and also a technique project every semester. Under technique we focus on scales in the fall and arpeggios in the spring. First timers in scales work on Core Scales (4 kinds of 3-note scales) to acquire facility (speed + accuracy) in all keys. Next is the same using Power Scales (4 kinds of 5 note scales). They compete only vaguely against each other; the competition is more against themselves. They have to be able to play a Core Scale (for example) in all keys in 15 seconds, no mistakes. All 4 types in all keys in 1 minute. A Power Scale in all keys in 20 seconds. One octave arpeggios, slurred, in all keys in 15 seconds. Repeat for each of the four types. It’s different every semester (there are a lot of different ways you can select and arrange scales and arpeggios), but adding the element of timing adds a frisson of excitement to what might otherwise be dull slogging through the same old stuff.
My book will have a lot more detail, but I use this idea of pushing toward limits quite a bit in setting up warm-ups and technique exercises. Instead of doing such exercises at one tempo, do them at 2, 3, or 4 tempos: slow – medium – fast. Or start slow and gradually crank up the tempo until you reaching a maximum. It makes it challenging and fun.
Excuse me. Time to go play my instrument. Really play.