I have the special opportunity to study under Lansing McLoskey while receiving my Masters in Music Composition at the University of Miami. UM has been a unique experience so far, and I feel like musicians can learn a lot from how the musicianship/aural skills coursework is set up here. I'd like to share what I find intriguing about this system and then share a little bit about what has happened with me musically since my last post.
Aural skills traditionally consists of a sight singing course and a dictation course. They are typically separated in teaching, even if they are found under the same class name and run back to back in a day. Students usually will not bring their instruments to class, and because of the nature of the course, many students find these courses to be irrelevant and have little motivation to do well. When will a classical performer ever want to dictate a melody? And when will an instrumentalist ever need to sing solfege (other than in Michael Hicks's The Idea of Domes found on his album Felt Hammers, except the solfege syllables are on the same pitch as an allusion of sorts).
Now, the UM way is exciting to me. I help teach students this same coursework, but it is organized with an element of improvisation that I believe makes the experience much more musical. But some may ask, "Why improvisation? Is the school wanting everyone to learn jazz?" Yet to ignore improvisation as a part of any music history is to cater to a less than 200 year tradition from Europe. Every time period in Western music up to the Romantic period allowed for improvisation, so why did we let that part of music slip? And this is not to mention other traditions around the world like Indian raga, where improvisation is so important it takes a lifetime to become an expert in the style. So jazz, rock, pop, raga, Beethoven, Mozart, Leonin, etc., we should definitely include at least a little improvisation in our abilities.
But pedagogically, I don't believe there is a better way to develop the ear than by exercises in imitation. Instead of telling the students the "rules" of voice leading, they are allowed to experiment with these principles in small groups. The students at UM mix sight singing with their instruments; they learn how to apply the abilities of audiating (sounding out the music in one's head before playing) that are inherent in sight singing to their performance, a confidence booster to wind players especially who need to hit into different registers with a nice sound and on pitch. Plus, it's fun. We do not need to restrict ourselves to strictly classical music or jazz; there is room in the curriculum for experiments and grooves.
By the end of the two years, students will be able to improvise through all the types of music covered in the first three semesters of the theory curriculum with some extra knowledge about jazz harmonies. I am grateful to be learning with the students this year; this will first and foremost open our ears to be more sensitive and precise, and secondly, open a lot of doors for future gigs/inspiration and so forth all of us. I recommend this method to anywhere that has a faculty dedicated to trying something radical and new.
Since my last post, I wrote a small jazz chart for the wedding anniversary of two good friends in my hometown. I have improvised with Table Nine, a local jazz group in Provo, but I had never had the opportunity to write a number like this before. I wish I were there to hear it, but they shared the video with me, and I'm glad it worked out. Happy 30th anniversary to the Nelsons!
I am currently writing a piece for chimes, oboe, and clarinet for my friend Julia Lougheed. It's great to be able to write this piece for her and take advantage of the sound capabilities of these instruments, especially the chimes. Today I was able to meet with a percussionist and try out different techniques on the instrument. Different mallets, bowing, harmonics, and hitting different parts of the chime gave interesting sounds that will help the piece. Of course, the techniques are to add to the piece, not to become the piece. So I hope to use these techniques as part of the symbolic nature of the work. But I'll put more details about the work when I'm finished (by my next blog post). Enjoy this wonderful month of September!