“Canon-Splaining”: Harvard’s Curriculum Change and the Formerly Sacred Cows of Academic Music


Harvard University’s music department recently caused some controversy in academic music circles with a plan to change their undergraduate curriculum in a way that eliminated certain core theory requirements and included some previously neglected topics such as world musics and pop.

Now, I love the canon as much as anyone, but I actually think this is kind of a cool idea. Harvard is by its very nature an elite institution that attracts lots of the sort of students who’ve had 10+ years of pre-college private music education, so to expand their offerings to students without that background is surely not driven by a need to recruit. Even though I teach at a university at the opposite end of the privilege spectrum, I can imagine that Harvard’s ideas might enrich any music curriculum.

You only need to scroll down to the comments section to hear about the outrage of many academics. (Summary: “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOUR-PART CHORALES?????”) I agree with them that academic rigour and advanced understanding of music are important. I disagree with their view that Harvard is “dumbing down.” Nowhere in the explanations of the new curriculum does it say that they’re making it easier. Nowhere does it say that they won’t be studying any traditional Western music fundamentals. What it does say is that they’ll be taking  classes called “Thinking About Music” and “Critical Listening.”

Which are surely concepts we could all get behind. Aren’t critical thinking and listening what we’re trying to accomplish anyway?

I’ve thought for some time that certain aspects of traditional college curricula have been given more importance than they perhaps deserve. Being incurably nerdy, I relish the geeky pleasures of four-part writing, species counterpoint, and all the rest of it, but I don’t see why our theory and history textbooks focus so much on, say, serialism, an episode in Western art music that I consider rather overstated in the academy and much less important to the long view of twentieth-century Western music history than octatonicism. And I say this as an enthusiast of the Second Viennese School. Sure, let’s study Berg’s Lyric Suite and so forth, but I admit I have very little interest in the post-Webern serialists, and if we’re talking post-WW2, I’d rather listen to what the composers in the politically constrained Soviet Union were doing because I find that their music speaks more meaningfully to me.

And to audiences, who will typically only give a “modern” piece of music one chance. No wonder music lovers feel so alienated from the Western “art” music of the past fifty years when the academy insists on feeding it to them as if it’s some kind of yucky vegetable that you have to chew through virtuously before you can have ice cream (Tchaikovsky). And when the academy insists that pop and rock music aren’t as valid as “art” music, and confines anything non-Western to non-compulsory electives within the music degree.


I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that students oughtn’t to learn the fundamentals of what make Western music work. But I do wonder if music educators everywhere, myself included, couldn’t do a better job of explaining why we do these things. In addition to teaching cello, I get to teach a two-semester course in aural skills, and I’ve started presenting the material as a class both in professional-level musicianship (i.e. “you gotta count, people, it’s what gets you gigs”) and in the nuts and bolts of what makes great music great. That is, why we cite Mozart so much when we’re talking about phrase structure. Why we base the rules about parallel perfect consonances around what Bach was doing. Bach and Mozart didn’t know they were obeying the “rules”; those rules were written by nineteenth-century music theorists. Mozart and Bach just thought they were writing some good music.

This, as opposed to “Write a four-part chorale and don’t you dare have any parallel perfect consonances OR ELSE” without explanation or rationale. (Should we get in a time machine, travel to medieval France, and explain–canon-splain?–to the polyphonists of the Notre Dame School that they were “doing it wrong”?)

And you know what? I think we could all stand to know what makes great Indian music and Balinese music and Ghanaian music great too. What makes a well-written pop song work? What is it that differentiates the good from the mediocre in any genre? What does this music mean to the people who make it? Mightn’t studying a more diverse range of musics help us all learn something about what it is to be human?

But when you talk about dispensing with a sacred cow or two (Schubert seems to come up a lot in this discussion, for some reason), this drives some folks crazy.

And in a way this un-diverse mindset reminds me of some episodes in the history of, say, race relations, where certain sectors of white society were very reluctant to give up white privilege because they saw this as favouritism towards people of colour. To them, requests for them to give up their white privilege were an outrage, a prejudicial attack on white people, because it disrupted a hierarchy that they assumed to be innate, to be the natural order of things.

No one likes to give up their particular position in the academic musical firmament. (I should know: I’m a cellist who performs mostly canonical works and whose current major research interest is Bach.) I too have devoted my life to studying and performing Western “art” music, and I love it passionately. But this current controversy goes to show that we should think very, very hard about why academics are getting so mad about what Harvard is doing.

And by the way, Schubert isn’t going to go away. I just Googled him and in less than half a second I got 40.6 million results, so I will make the assumption that if he gets skimped on in the new Music History 101 class, people can, if they wish, learn something about Die schöne Müllerin.

Masterclasses: personal vs. musical?


Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Music Lesson. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This morning I read Strad interview with the violist Kim Kashkashian about things she’d like to tell her younger self, and was very taken with her assertion that we should “remove the personal and concentrate on the music.” She illustrated this with an anecdote:

I once saw the composer György Kurtág teach a masterclass during which he reduced one student to a puddle of tears. His wife Márta, who was sitting in the audience, came up to him and said ‘György! György! Stop now!’ Only then did he see that the student was upset. ‘Why are you crying?’ he asked. ‘We’re just working on the music – we’re one musical family. Why are you crying?’

I liked Kashkashian’s advice to take the personal out of it. It’s good to remember that most criticism is a gift. It may hurt at the time, but it’s rarely meant personally and almost always intended to help us get better. But I was taken aback that Kurtág hadn’t even noticed the effect he was having on a student (though to his credit, his response to his wife’s warning was kind). Surely most of us would recognize that a student couldn’t handle what we were saying, and back off?

That made me start thinking about the whole tricky phenomenon of the masterclass. Now that I’m on the giving rather than receiving end of them, I wonder more and more what they’re actually for.

Clearly, they’re a chance for a student to have a lesson they otherwise wouldn’t get to have–but how much is truly accomplished under the pressure of performing in front of one’s peers, and possibly one’s own regular teacher?

Is it so the visiting maestro can posture and grandstand in front of a captive audience?

Is it to give some amazing life-changing revelation to the student so that she will now be able to play far better (in the moment, at least, under the influence of a jolt of adrenaline), while her regular teacher sits in the corner feeling sad that he’s never been able to get her to play half so well?

Is it one of those chores that touring musicians just have to do when they visit a conservatory, but find a bit boring and annoying?

When I was a student, I hated masterclasses. I always felt awkward and embarrassed, but it was impressed upon me that I ought to take every chance I could to be in one. There were good ones and bad ones. I never had a truly awful one myself, but I remember being in the audience for several where the student on the stage was fighting off tears, or lost the fight altogether.

Maybe the teachers thought they were toughening the students up? But were they oblivious to the fact that they were having exactly the opposite effect? What good came of this?

Once, at an international competition, I watched a member of the jury well known for her terrifying personality reduce a student to jelly by shouting at her to take her woolen hat off. It was an icy winter day and the hall was far from warm, and I didn’t see what a big deal it was for the girl to keep her hat on. The jury member wasn’t having it, though, and delivered a five-minute monologue on how incredibly rude it was not to take one’s hat off in a masterclass, even after the girl had removed it and was sitting there in tears, her head bowed over her cello in shame.

What exactly was accomplished here? Did it help the student improve? What would she take away from this class? Probably nothing, besides an anecdote that might one day become funny about that time she met Mme. So-and-So and got screamed at.

On another occasion, at the Manchester Cello Festival, I observed a leading international soloist ridicule a way the student played the chords in the opening solo of the Dvorak concerto by comparing him to a duck. “Da-dee-da-dee-da, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK!” he bellowed. “That is how you sound!” The audience tittered sycophantically. I don’t think the student found it all that funny.

There are times, I think, when it is personal.

When I’m teaching a masterclass, I’m mindful of the fact that the student is probably nervous, both because she doesn’t know me well and because she’s having to perform both for a stranger and for an audience of her fellow students and possibly also her teacher. There’s a lot at stake for her.

The balance of honour and loyalties is a fine one. I’m always careful to set students at their ease by making a joke, usually at my own expense, and to precede my advice with “Now, I’m sure you’re already working with your teacher on this concept…” so that the regular teacher isn’t embarrassed. (Not “Has your teacher ever talked to you about playing closer to the bridge?” The nervous student, put on the spot, looks mystified and mutters”No!” even though the teacher has, in fact, told her repeatedly to play close to the bridge. Meanwhile, the teacher goes hot and cold with mortification in the audience.)

Sometimes you get a student who really is hopeless, like the poor Dvorak-player in Manchester, but what’s the point in ridiculing? Under the right conditions, anyone can improve their playing, even if they aren’t going to be the next Yo Yo Ma. It’s my job to help people get better. If I’m being paid to do something, I need to do my job.

Sometimes I wonder if masterclass-givers ought to sign some kind of equivalent to the Hippocratic oath before they’re allowed to teach one. “First, do no harm.” Second, really don’t make it personal. Hold people to strict standards of musicianship, but be gentle with them. If we expect a student to focus on the music, so too should the teacher.

Show up, look at the camera, face the music


A student and I were discussing stage fright, one of my favourite subjects. “This might sound like a silly question,” she said, “but where are you supposed to look when you perform?”

No such thing as a silly question.

I’ve written about this quandary before in the epilogue to my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance Several years ago, I had a moment of revelation when I realized that one of my top technical problems–bowing my head and hunching over while playing the cello–was caused by my introvert’s fear of other people.

“Even after what I’d learned about my habit of looking down while playing, it was incredibly hard to stop doing this. My natural shyness made me incredibly reluctant to look at the audience while I played, for fear of accidentally making eye contact.” (1)

I found a solution to my problem by taking inspiration from the way that television newsreaders appear to gaze steadily and naturally at the “audience” (even if it’s only the camera). What would happen if a newsreader delivered the news with her head down? Her message would be lost.

And it’s not that different for us, the performers of music, and the messages we want to share.

I asked my student “What would happen if you looked at the audience while you were performing?”

She looked taken aback.

I continued: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? That they might look back at you?”


But seriously, would that be so terrible? Why does a musical performance have to be this hallowed thing where the person on the stage seems so remote that they might as well be on TV?

News flash, they can already see you and you can already see them. Why do we pretend that we can’t see each other for what we truly are? 

I’m reminded of another student who came into my office a couple of years ago with an end-of-semester gift for my assistant. “But if I can ask you for a favour,” she said, “don’t tell him it was from me.”

“But why?” I asked, and then “Oh.

The student squirmed. “Please just don’t tell him.”

“If that’s how you feel about him,” I said, “why don’t you ask him for a date? The class is over, you’re graduating, he’s graduating, and he’s no longer your teacher in any capacity.”

She was shocked. “I couldn’t!” she exclaimed. “He might…he might see me.”

I repeat: would that be so terrible? To make ourselves vulnerable, to give ourselves a chance to share our true feelings in the hopes that love may be reciprocated?

Why do we hide our innermost and most beautiful feelings? Why do we worry so much about what “they” might think when in reality, chances are that “they” are so wrapped up in their own pain and their own anxieties that they aren’t thinking anything negative about us at all?

The answer is that sometimes our displays of vulnerability don’t end well at all. The question is whether or not we take the chance to do this at all. I’m here to say that I think we should. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson reminds us in section 27 of In Memoriam, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.”

Those lines have become a cliché, but they’re good words to live by. Performing is like that. Putting yourself out there and truthfully expressing the emotion of music to an audience who needs that music now more than ever.

We live in troubled times. In the face of this horror, it’s so tempting to withdraw into silence. When we are scared or we don’t know what to say, it’s all too tempting to fix our gaze on the floor, to hide behind the music stand, to go inwards.

Or we can be exceptionally brave, and speak the truth. There’s that expression “facing the music.” Even when there are a few things in music—and in life—that we don’t want to face, it’s the artist’s job to do so. We must show up. We must speak the truth. We must be grateful when others show up to hear and see us.

The world may be falling apart, but we still have music. And it’s in music that I find answers. When I’m at my saddest, I turn to one of my most beloved pieces of music, Bach’s Actus tragicus BWV 106 (“Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit”).


The crossing recorder parts remind me of all the crossroads at which we find ourselves. The “footstepping” basso continuo line (my job!) reminds me that we are always walking towards the unknowable, and we mustn’t look away.

We still have music, and we still have each other. My answer to the student was that we must walk out onto the stage and look out at the audience, look at their faces, and think–or say!–“Thank you for showing up. I’m grateful for you.” 

And then do what we do best, in the hopes that it may, even in some tiny part, take some of their pain from them.

© Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.

(1) Miranda Wilson, Cello Practice, Cello Performance (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 116.

When money can’t buy music

Under normal circumstances, musicians don’t have much political power.

We don’t like to admit this, because we want to be the “critic and conscience of society.” In the face of oppression, we want to speak the truth fearlessly, like Pete Seeger. Or fearfully, like Shostakovich.

In reality, our protest songs and our satires go unheard or misunderstood. We may stir the hearts of our audiences, but we don’t soften those of our leaders.

That’s under normal circumstances. But recently? Nothing’s been that normal. Nothing at all.

Case in point: the phenomenon that several top musicians have declined to perform at the upcoming American presidential inauguration. Elton John turned it down. Andrea Bocelli reportedly considered it, but also declined, possibly fearing a backlash from his fan base. A member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir quit because she “could never look myself in the mirror again with self-respect.”

All of this creates quite a big problem for America’s soon-to-be rulers, doesn’t it?

I’ve written before in this blog about music as political protest, and about the at-times uneasy relationship between musicians and the ruling class. (And in case anyone accuses me of liberal bias, I’d like to point out that in my experience, liberal elites can behave just as badly towards musicians as conservative ones.)

Ever since there has been such a thing as a ruling class and a music profession, each group has had something the other wants. Consider the troubadours, wandering around the south of France pretending to be in love with wealthy patronesses, who were presumably fond of showing off their pet troubadours to their wealthy girlfriends. Consider just about the entire career of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is how it goes: musicians provide the rich and powerful classes with status symbols. Music, being expensive, is “classy” in every sense of the word. By the same token, musicians are the perennially broke supplicants to the ruling class, whether we’re looking for sponsors or applying for government arts grants. That’s how the world has always worked.

Until now. Under normal circumstances, money could buy pretty much everything. Until now, it was always clear which one of us was singing for his supper and which one was paying the piper.

But just as so many things have been turned upside down recently, so has this. The only precedent I could think of where musicians have made their point by not performing is the famous story of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony–surely the most imaginative response to a labour dispute in music history.

Obviously, since I’m not an international superstar, no one’s going to ask me to play at the presidential inauguration. But I did ask myself what I would do if–by some wild leap of the imagination–I were offered a substantial sum to do so. I’ve never been averse to the idea of selling out, but in spite of my modest avarice for the largesse of rulers, I think my conscience would compel me to turn it down too.

What we did before AirTurn and PageFlip

I recently came across this ca. 1617 painting of St. Cecilia playing the viol by Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641), known as Domenichino for his small stature. The picture struck me for a number of reasons: the instrument (how many strings? The fierce lion’s head on the scroll! The large size–a precursor of the modern double bass? The shadowy suggestion of frets on the fingerboard); the most unrapturous expression on the face of the saint; the redness of her nose (was it cold in the artist’s studio?); and the cherub standing at her feet holding the score (which she isn’t looking at), presumably turning her pages.

That cherub. Who among us couldn’t use one of those? I guess the page-turning problem has existed for a long time. How many times have I been playing some composition with few or no rests in which one might rapidly turn a page, necessitating a moment of panic where you think you might get lost or not come in at the right time? The creative photocopying-taping combinations I’ve had to make, the binders I’ve had to augment with pieces of cardboard secured with duct tape! And all along all I needed was a cherub to do it for me.

I’ve thought of another use for him: he could put St. Cecilia’s mute on and off too.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A different three Rs


A sign I saw on a school visit

There exist a number of websites for complaining professors. OK, everyone needs to vent sometimes: goodness knows professors have the right to be a bit peeved about low pay, budget cuts, departmental skulduggery and so on. Whether the internet is an appropriate forum for such complaints is another matter; I figure they’re grown-ups and if they want to put themselves out there for public scrutiny and possible damage to their careers, that’s their business.

But then there’s one type of whiny-professor website that really gets on my nerves: the ones where they complain about their students.

The complaints fall into four broad categories. (a) “Students are lazy, whiny, immature, and entitled.” (b) “Students don’t do what professors tell them, but if they just did these very simple things we recommended, all would be well.” (c) “Students pretend their grandmothers have died during Finals Week and this is always a lie.”* (d) “Students don’t know anything, don’t read, can’t write, are hopelessly unprepared for college, and generally dumber than a rock. We were never like this. What’s wrong with millennials?”

(d) is followed by “What are their high school teachers actually doing? Are they teaching them anything?”

This, I think, crosses a line.

When I become the emperor, I’m going to make it illegal for professors to grouch about the shortcomings of high school teachers. Teachers have a lot to do, and they’re doing their best. Chances are they’re already trying to teach students all the things professors wish they knew, but they’re stymied at every turn by bureaucrats who expect them to be fundraisers and therapists and moral exemplars and get their class to score highly on standardized tests. It’s no fun.

Here’s another thing. It’s OK with me, as a professor, if students begin university not knowing anything. Because there’s a presumption, isn’t there, that it’s my job to teach them things. If they leave university still not knowing anything, then shame on me.

I sat down to write a list of things I wished students would learn before university–a perfectly shaped, flexible bow hold? a natural sense of intonation? knowledge of how melody and chord progressions work? some idea of how to practise? Well, of course those would be nice. But the more I’m in this business, the more I think character has more of an influence over how someone does at college than prior knowledge. In fact, I think the predictors of success could be reduced to just two character qualities.

  1. Curiosity.
  2. The ability to deal with frustration.

Curiosity, passionate curiosity, about music is a driving motivator. Human beings are motivated by curiosity and desire. The desire to be good at it and do whatever it takes to improve in the practice room. The desire to take it to bits and figure out how it works in the theory class, and to understand its historical-philosophical context in the musicology class. The desire to know everything, understand everything, find out more. The curiosity that motivates you to practise ambitiously, listen voraciously, read widely, argue passionately, work obsessively.

The other thing is that music is hard. It’s hard to get good at it, it’s hard to break into the profession. If you crumple at the first sign of adversity, that’s a big problem. I see so many music students who have never been told anything other than how smart and special they are who, the first time they run into something they aren’t good at, dissolve into tears and/or decide they don’t want to or can’t do it any more.

And then you see a certain type of student who comes to college maybe a little less prepared than you’d like, with some technical problems, or limited musicianship skills, but something about her makes you take a chance on her, and she ends up being your best player. Because she genuinely loves music enough to want to be good, and patient enough to hang in there long enough to get that way.

Further to the same kind of idea, I recently read The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, a book that seeks to quantify the personal qualities that produce success. It got panned by the critics (justifiably, I think) for certain racist and poorly-researched aspects, which is a pity because there’s a lot of persuasive arguments for character in there. Chua and Rubenfeld came up with three success traits: (1) a superiority complex, (2) a sense of insecurity, and (3) good impulse control.  That’ll work too: the contradictions of a high-achieving personality combining to motivate you, and the self-control to make things work. I wish Chua and Rosenfeld hadn’t tied their thesis to certain ethnic and religious groups (including their own), however. Might it not have been better to frame it as a set of universals that people of any race or social group could cultivate?


*I give a free pass for dead grandmothers. Mine died at the beginning of an exam week during my second year at university, and my teachers were all very kind about it.

What music is for

Music is....

It’s not easy being a school music teacher. I don’t know this from personal experience, because all my teaching experience has been in universities and my own private studio. But as hard as I work, I’ve never experienced the daily stress of having to defend my own job against a board of education that believes a subject is only worth studying if it’s directly applicable to the needs of the job market.

This, I suppose, is why I keep seeing articles like “The Scientific Reasons We Should Teach Music To Kids in School” by Tom Barnes that stress the cognitive benefits of studying music, with the usual reasoning that doing so will improve students’ test scores and abilities in STEM subjects.

This reasoning is understandable. School music teachers are overworked, underpaid, disrespected, harangued. They’re overwhelmed with the expectation that they’re supposed to be administrators, fundraisers, and the moral exemplars of society in addition to the very challenging work of teaching music. They know that if there are budget cuts, music will be the first to go. Then art, then drama. (The football team is usually safe, for reasons of bread and circuses.)

But here’s the problem with touting the extramusical benefits of music. Saying children should study music because it’s “good for them” undermines the very thing music teachers do in their classrooms. Music is not a daily vitamin or a nasty vegetable that you have to eat before you can have ice cream. Music is worth studying because music is wonderful.

Music isn’t just wonderful. It’s sublime, profound, challenging, polarizing, life-changing. Brain scientists have demonstrated that music activates our pleasure circuits. Survivors of suicidal depression report that music has saved their livesMusic is our companion and our consolation. Music is how we communicate with the divine. Music accompanies every significant ritual of human experience. 

As William Congreve famously observed, “Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” It hath a few other charms too, such as stirring the savage breast back up again.

Music is dangerous.

If it wasn’t, why would so many political and religious establishments seek to suppress it? Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a drama with a text, might have provoked Shostakovich’s initial problems with Stalin’s government with its immoral subject matter (plus a shockingly suggestive trombone solo in Act One), but his other works, even those with no text or story, were enough to get him officially censured in the sweeping cultural reforms of 1948.

Music is so dangerous that even a dissonant interval between two notes–the tritone–was considered so subversive by the medieval church that they called it the “devil in music.” If those musicians were allowed to use this diabolical interval, who knew what unholy Dionysian chaos they might wreak with it? After all, Orpheus’s lyre was powerful enough to persuade the guardians of the Underworld to let him cross the Styx. The implication is clear: music breaks rules. Music is above the law.

We musicians have always had a little problem with authority.

This being the case, is it really any wonder that those in authority are so quick to cut the music budget?

Official antipathy towards music–whether you’re going to call it philistinism, utilitarianism, or some other ism–is nothing new. People have been calling music superfluous and frivolous since the Dark Ages, when St. Basil the Great opined “Of useless arts, there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing, of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it.” (All I can say is that St. Basil didn’t have Spotify.)

Music isn’t going to go away, no matter how much those in power try to suppress it. People will always write and play and listen to and talk about music. What will happen, what is already happening, is that the joy of making our own music will be the exclusive preserve of the middle and upper classes, i.e. the people who can afford to study privately, if it disappears from schools. Do we really want music to be a polite middle-class profession? We might be shocked that Mozart had to sit at the servants’ table in Salzburg, but it goes to show that music study wasn’t always for the moneyed class. Mozart was singing for his supper.

What I’d like to see–not instead of, but alongside the plea that music makes you smart, or competent, or more likely to exercise your right to vote, is a plea for music for its own sake. For the sake of all that is beautiful and good and truthful.

As I wrote in a recent essay, “Can we please stop pretending that music isn’t a matter of life and death?”

I stand by this statement. You can’t turn on your television for five minutes without learning of disaster, war, the violation of human rights, torture, epidemics, starvation, and the abandonment of hope. We can do almost nothing about any of it, except to give whatever money we have to the cause that horrifies us the most. But making music is one of the very, very few ways that human beings can do something. Music affords us a chance to create beauty in a world that is full of ugliness. If we expect today’s children to change the world, we must honour their right to make music.

The Illusory Promises of Training Wheels

training wheels.jpg

This morning, as my dog and I were jogging behind my daughter while she rampaged up and down a bike trail near our house on her Doc McStuffins bicycle, I started wondering if I’d been right to teach her to ride using training wheels.

Training wheels do exactly one thing: balance the bicycle so the child doesn’t fall off.

Which is the one thing they need to do themselves once the training wheels come off.

It’s really hard to do this when you’ve trained yourself to ride a bicycle in a way that ingrains techniques you have to learn later, while skipping the ones that are fundamental in being able to ride self-sufficiently.

This got me thinking about all the training wheels we use when teaching children to play instruments. Some years ago at a string teachers’ conference, a persuasive vendor talked me into buying a CelloPhant, a cute little device in the shape of an elephant that you place over the frog of the bow to train children in correct bow-hand shaping. I was excited, since one of the hardest things about setting up a beginner is training them to hold the bow naturally and flexibly.

The problem was that it didn’t work. Sure, it gets the kid’s hand into the right shape, but as soon as you take the CelloPhant away, the hand collapses into a supinated claw, because it doesn’t teach them what it actually feels like to balance the bow in your hand.

I thought more and more about all the crutches we make for ourselves when we try to learn musical concepts. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job here at the University of Idaho is that I get to teach a class in ear training and sight singing. I love this class, which I wanted to rename “Being A Badass 101” (though mysteriously, this was frowned upon by the writers of the course catalogue), because it trains students to hear and make music with the ears and eyes of a professional. In addition to the twice-weekly lecture, students visit me one-on-one each week to perform sight-singing exercises using solfege.

This can be a nerve-wracking experience for some of them–after all, what could make the average person feel more vulnerable than singing solo in front of a “judge”? However, sight-singing tests are just one of those character-building things that really help you articulate music theory and understand how music works.

If you practise it the smart way.

Here’s how to practise solfege wrong. You prop your textbook on the piano and play the assignment before you sing it. Perhaps you sing along with it. You do this a few times, nail it once or twice without the piano, and scoot off to your sight-singing lesson with that tyrant Dr. Wilson.

And you totally bomb it, because it turns out that you can’t replicate your practice-room success under the pressure of performance.


Because you trained yourself to imitate a skill without truly understanding how to do it self-sufficiently. And then you couldn’t perform that skill, because what happens in performance is a direct reflection of what happens in practice.

You thought you were riding a bicycle, when all you were really doing was pedaling. But when you ride a grown-up bike, you have to be able to balance before you can pedal.

The whole point of learning to sight-sing is that generating your own pitch. Of course you can use the piano to play a tonic triad; of course you can hit your starting pitch. But then you have to step away from the piano, otherwise those training wheels never let you sing self-sufficiently.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn by copying others–I’m actually a huge proponent of this, when it’s done thoughtfully. Neither am I saying that I expect everyone to be perfect when they’re first learning to sing using solfege: that’s why we start with the simplest exercises, excerpts that move in mostly stepwise motion, or outline the tonic triad. Julie Andrews wasn’t wrong when she melodiously opined: “Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.” You have to master the fundamentals unshakeably before you can add the other stuff.

At this point, I’ve developed a near-clairvoyant ability to tell who has been learning music using the correct procedure and who hasn’t. Learners who use training wheels have to relearn everything they thought they knew because true self-sufficiency comes from practising like a self-sufficient musician.


Which brings me back to my bicycle problem.

A Google search and a few minutes of wading into the stormy waters of various bicycling and parenting forums alerted me to the phenomenon of the balance bicycle, which doesn’t have pedals, but trains children in the arguably more important skill of balancing first. I ordered one. We all have to learn to walk before we can run, but we also have to balance before we can pedal.


Stage Fright Is A Troll (And Other Observations)

pack of cards

Well, it’s been quite a week. My last post, “Disarmed: Dropping the Protective Armour of Stage Fright,” went kind of viral. I’d been writing this blog for five years for a small audience, and then suddenly my readership was in the tens of thousands.

To my delight, I made a bunch of new friends. Some were people I’d admired for years. Several readers were kind enough to write to me to share their own moving stories of how they overcame, or didn’t overcome, stage fright. Many shared my essay on their own websites, Twitter, and Facebook pages. Norman Lebrecht generously brought me a huge amount of traffic by linking to me on Slipped Disc. For this, I am hugely grateful. It means so much to me that something I wrote might have helped others through this most universal of human experiences.

The shadow side to all this attention was that I got some trolls.

(I love it that troll is the word we use for such people, don’t you? The idea of a hideous monster skulking about in a cave—or in its parents’ basement— is a perfect metaphor for the sort of person who has the time and inclination to look up the email address of a stranger and write to her telling her she’s an idiot.)

This could have hurt my feelings a great deal, but it didn’t. Because the more I thought about them, the more the trolls’ voices sounded oddly familiar.

Those trolls sounded exactly like the nasty little chattering monologue of self-criticism that pops into your head when you have stage fright. (“You’re stupid. You’re nobody. You’re doing it wrong. Everyone thinks you’re terrible. Who do you think you are?”)

I had to smile at this.

Wouldn’t it be funny if we performers learned to picture our Meanypants Interior Monologues™ as shouty internet trolls?

The conversation might sound something like this:

MIM (sneaking into the green room, trampling all over the carpet with dirty boots): “You’re so dumb and untalented, you shouldn’t be allowed to perform music in public.”

You: “Whatever. I love music and some people showed up to hear me making some. I’m going to focus on them, not on you. I don’t have to listen to you.”

MIM: “You do! I have a right to freedom of speech!”

You: “The First Amendment only protects your right to speak without government censorship. It doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be listened to. I choose not to listen to you.”

MIM (jumping up and down with rage): “You just can’t stand to have anyone disagree with you, because you’re stupid. Don’t you know that you’re useless and incompetent at your instrument? Don’t you know that you’re just embarrassing yourself by imagining that anyone will enjoy your playing? What makes you think you have anything important to express? You shouldn’t even be allowed to make music in public! Nobody likes you! Nobody wants to listen to you! You should listen to me as I bully, patronize, and bore you!”

You: “I shall now hit my real-life Delete Spam button.”

(Cue a decisive clicking noise as you do just that, while MIM stamps around shouting furiously–and now, inaudibly.)

Ah well. They’re nothing but a pack of cards. In the words of the immortal philosopher Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate. Thank you, old friends and new, for the outpouring of support and enthusiasm. I look forward to hearing more of your inspiring stories.

Image: Sir John Tenniel, illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Credit: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tenniel/alice/12.3.html