Monday, August 04, 2008

Musical Maturity

Everyone wants their child to get a head start on reading, and many people want their children to get a head start playing music. To this end we have Suzuki programs that take advantage of the natural grace, balance, ability to memorize, willingness to do anything for approval, and physical flexibility of small children. Good Suzuki teachers can give children a truly efficient technique, and can give the illusion of advanced musical intelligence in children due to their natural ability to mimic. There is nothing wrong with this approach, really, as long as children are able to grow as musicians because of the music they are playing.

Most of the children I know think of their progress as something measurable: which book they are in, what position they are learning, and where they are seated in orchestra. I was that way too. When I was a violin-playing kid I wanted to learn higher and higher positions in the same spirit that I wanted to be on the top of the "monkey club" at school (the monkey club was a rope climbing club--and I was, for a short time, on the top). Both my violin playing and my rope climbing were history by the time I hit the sixth grade.

I was also a pretty good reader, but I had a hard time finding books that were really challenging that were also interesting for me, until I came upon the "Discovery Book" series (I read them all), and the fairy books that came in all the different colors, like the SRA reading cards that we all used for reading competition stuff (kind of like the monkey club). I wanted to be on the top of that too. Yes. I guess you could say that I was a competitive kid. I imagine that I was also not playing music on the violin that was age-appropriate, or appropriate for my interests.

My competitive nature fueled my speedy flute progress, but at the age of 14, and in the rush to acquire technique, I seemed to have missed a lot of musical substance. My problem was that I could hear it. I could hear maturity in other players who had the same "amount" of technique that I had. I could recognize, through listening to myself on tape, that my interpretations were "all over the place." I wanted more than anything to be able to play a single phrase that had continuity from beginning to end. No amount of technical practice could give me that. No teacher seemed to understand how to "fix" my problem, and it was something I felt that I could not talk about with my friends.

I tried other routes. Early music, with all of its 1970s "rules" gave me at least a way to structure phrases so that they made more sense. Playing the recorder, with its greater tactile sense (there were holes instead of keys), helped as well. Playing baroque flute helped me to re-interpret the superficial way I played the baroque flute repertoire during my accelerated musical adolescence. Perhaps the closest I ever came to achieving some kind of musical maturity while playing the flute was when I was teaching, partly because I could usually relate to the immature musical personalities of my students, and because they were not me, I could help them to organize their musical thoughts and phrases.

I read a lot when I was a teenager and when I was a young adult. I tried to use every extra-musical experience to help achieve some kind of maturity in my playing. And then I started, essentially from scratch, on the violin when I was 31 or 32 (I keep forgetting). I used every piece I practiced as a stepping stone, and I consciously built my way towards a new form of musical maturity--one that included inner voices, through playing the viola, and one that used music of all periods, through a lot of study. It was hard to do, but now I actually have my reward. At 49 I now no longer feel like a musical adolescent. I know where my phrases are going, both when I am playing them and when I am writing them. I now understand rhythm, something that was never really explained adequately to me when I was a child or an adolescent. Sure, I knew how to count, but I never really understood meter or harmonic rhythm.

Through abandoning competition at about the same time I abandoned the flute, I have learned to open myself to a wider world of musical enjoyment. I feel for the speedy adolescents. I wish them all a lifetime of slowing down the roller coaster, and doing whatever they can to grow through the music that they are playing, and I hope that they can reap the musical rewards that come from aiming for total engagement rather than achievement.

3 comments:

Maria Ljungdahl said...

I am not an active musician or an accomplished composer, and I don't think of myself as a competitive or ex-competitive person, but all the same I can relate to much of what you say about musical growing and musical understanding in this interesting post!

Elaine Fine said...

I would say that you are quite an accomplished composer, after hearing some of the music on your website!

Maria Ljungdahl said...

Thank you! Ah, btw, I have changed the link to the Maritune site from my blog now to something that works! Good of you to find it anyway.

You seems to have a nifty catalog of works online. I have just started to look at it! Viola works (and the sound of it) interests me a lot, even if I can't play myself. Have tried the instrument a few times, and I even own one, but it doesn't suit me, unfortunately.

Viola is a composer instrument, often, I guess. Good for learning the inner voices, as you say in your blog, and also good training, for having to think in and read alto clef, and for a lot of other reasons.