Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beyond the notes on the page

Image Credit: Angela Thomas

Whenever new music is handed out there is a palpable sense of excitement in the air. I love hearing the students practicing the new passages as I make my way around the band room with the large stack of music. The room fills with new sounds as they test out their parts.

When I take the podium for the first time with these new songs, the attention level is high. They are tuned in to every detail. We sight read music much better than we practice it.  All of our senses and emotions are involved in sight reading as an ensemble-- there is so much on the line.

The next rehearsal, having experienced such success the first time we played the song, the students have let their guard down a little bit. They aren't sitting on the edge of their seats anymore, aren't counting as carefully, aren't listening as intently. It has become the notes on the page and not an experience.

So -- we go back to basics. I sing the melody in the trumpet line, as if I were a robot, merely singing the correct notes at the correct time. I sing the part again, this time using breath support, phrasing, forward motion, dynamics. Everything that the part requires of one person playing a part. We discuss the difference between notes on a page and a phrase -- we compare that to words in a paragraph that have no connection to one another as opposed to a story, where each word is vitally linked to the one before and the one yet to come. We start the song again. While there are still imperfection and kinks to be worked out, the story is beginning to unfold.

The mechanics of playing a wind instrument are mind-boggling. The articulation, the air support, the air speed, the tension and shape of the mouth and lip muscles, the tension in the fingers, hands, and neck, the posture-- so many different elements have to line up perfectly to achieve the appropriate sound. And it has to happen for every student individually at the same time!

That is just the production of sound, and people playing at the same time. When you remember that the students are reading music -- a universal language that transcends language and cultural barriers -- while executing all of the steps in the previous paragraph? Well, it makes me tired just thinking about it. But when we are simply doing it, magic happens.

Magic happens every single day in my classroom. Students exceed their own expectations. Students fail at something and try again. Students learn to have patience with one another, and to support each other. Students learn a different definition of "playing together." In this definition, there are no cool kids, there are no bullies. No one is last picked, or sitting alone on a bench.

A school instrumental music program is about so much more than the notes on the page. It is the absolute perfect marriage of individual practice and improvement and corporate learning and performance.  The value cannot be easily quantified or even defined. Studying instrumental music is learning how to communicate in the language of the heart-- a language without words.

One of the Broad Content Standards in my district is to help students become Effective Communicator(s). I love that the pursuit of musical excellence helps students become better communicators.

After all, when words fail, the music remains.


  1. Through all my years playing I never really thought about everything that went into it but you are right is nothing short of magic when it all comes together. I learned a lot about the value of practice and perseverance. I wish I kept playing after I got out of school. I love that quote "After all, when words fail, the music remains."

  2. It's hard after school ends to keep going. Especially during college, if you are carrying a full load! My full load WAS music! :)

  3. This reminded me of my conversations with second graders about reading. We're not just trying to read each word. We need to read phrases, like we are talking, to make meaning. It's hard to forget all the "work" that is involved in playing an instrument or reading a book.

  4. Exactly-- my oldest son has become a fairly fluent reader, but I still very much remember the stilting, one word at a time, painful process reading books used to be!
    It is just incredible how much the brain is actually doing! :)

  5. "After all, when words fail, the music remains." I could use a t-shirt that said this... or at least a Facebookable photo :)

  6. :) Adding to post now! Thanks for the idea!