David Otis Castonguay - Radford University
originally published in Virginia Harmony - Virginia ACDA state newsletter Spring 1998
Reflections on the search for quality in music and education.
Not long ago I had the opportunity to watch a distinguished conductor of international reputation work for several days with an ordinary group of high school students. Not a festival or honor choir, just an ordinary group of non-auditioned singers who had come together to learn more about music and themselves. During an afternoon rehearsal the conductor and choir were engaged in a struggle for accuracy of pitch and it was clear to everyone in the room that the various singers and the conductor had different standards for pitch accuracy. While exhibiting the patience of a saint, it was equally clear that the conductor was becoming frustrated with the inability of some of the students to recognize the very noticeable discrepancies in the unison pitch. With a smile and a sigh he asked, "How out-of-tune does a pitch have to be before we consider it to be a wrong note? Five cents, an eighth or a quarter of a tone? Isn't there just one right pitch?"
The guest conductor spent his days with these students seeking to raise their standards, sharpening their perceptions and establishing distinctions about what was right and wrong about pitch, rhythm, tone and interpretation. It was an epic struggle, this insistence that every student in the room raise their performance to the highest level possible in a given period of time rather than find a common denominator of ability for some to come up to and for others to lower and accept in compromise. These young people were intellectually stretched and musically strengthened by this experience while the high school teachers watched someone else battle for musical success in the trenches where they spend their days.
Whatever one of the "catch" words of the '90's. It's right up there with "ya-da-ya-da-ya-da" and a sitcom about nothing and yet how many times have we, as teachers, heard students reply, "Whatever." "Whatever" - in reply to being late for a concert warm-up, or turning in a permission slip, or in response to an admonition about irresponsible or inappropriate behavior. "Whatever" is more than a slang word it is also an expression of attitude about education and life.
At an ACDA convention reception I stood in a crowded room with the wife of the conductor mentioned in the first paragraph. We talked about how this man was now at the end of his career, how hard he still worked every day to push the envelope of the choir's performance towards perfection. We talked about how teachers burn out after a few years in the classroom, and she spoke with wonder of how he was able to arrive successfully at the end of a forty-year career without compromising his aspirations. She looked around the room, sipped her drink and then turned to look me in the eye, "You know, he's one of the last of the true believers. He still believes in the beauty and truth of music; but the pursuit of that truth is getting to be such a struggle." There was a look of admiration for her husband in her eyes, but it was colored with sadness.
Consider the illustration as it relates four stages of learning:
Your ten-year-old brother finds the keys to the car and decides to take the vehicle for a spin. After all, he has seen his parents do this thousands of times. He hops behind the wheel, starts the car, puts it in gear and turns around to back out of the garage blissfully ignorant of the fact that he cannot drive a car, he is unconsciously incompetent. As soon as he steps on the gas and the car moves forward through the garage wall because he has put the shift lever in drive rather than reverse he becomes acutely aware that he cannot drive the car. He becomes consciously incompetent.
Our choirs pick up a new piece of music unconsciously incompetent and despite our best efforts at teaching sight reading become consciously incompetent they recognize that they don't know how to sing the work.
It's six years later, the young man has completed an approved course of driving instruction and in the first few weeks after earning his licence every time he drives he scrupulously follows the rules he has been taught. He sits buckled up, the radio is not on, he signals exactly 150' before every turn while holding the wheel with two hands and turning it hand over hand and during this ride his young female friend sits all the way across the bench seat. He is consciously competent he knows how to drive, but he still must think about the individual tasks in order to integrate them into the one action of driving the vehicle. Fast forward a few weeks, the radio is now on loudly, he sits behind the wheel holding it casually with one hand and with the other arm draped over the shoulders of his friend who is buckled up next to him in the middle seat. He has become unconsciously competent he no longer needs to think about every action necessary for driving the car.
The choir also goes through these two stages. They have learned the piece but still must think about certain discrete elements of the work during performance such as adjusting tuning in this spot, or remembering to count a rhythm accurately, but they can sing through it completely without error. They are consciously competent. After a few more weeks of rehearsal they eventually become unconsciously competent they no longer need to think about the piece, it's committed to memory and they can sing it flawlessly.
Some conductors and choirs are relieved at this point, to have finally reached the top step in the process assuming now that the musical journey is complete; however, while some see the illustration as four, finite steps in a learning process I see them as four steps at the front stoop of a house. Four steps which lead you to the entrance of a house filled with many wondrous rooms. The musical journey of the choir and conductor has yet to reach its end. These four steps enable the musicians to experience the elements of a work correctly and in the proper proportion and it is only at this time that all of the musicians can explore the depths of expression in the work. Should study of interpretive elements be left to the last step in the process? Absolutely not! Knowledge of text, historical perspective, personal experience go hand-in-hand with the tuning of each chord. They provide an impetus to sculpting the shape of each phrase and a guidepost along the road as the choir strives to become the composer's advocate in the performance of the work. At each step along the way elements of interpretation must guide and urge us forward, but it is only when the discrete elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, text and texture have reached this sense of corporate agreement that the musical comprehension of each individual singer come together to create the critical mass of synergy necessary for the performance to achieve artistic expression. This expression communicates in sound the feelings for which we can not find words.
So what do we do when confronted with those who choose to limbo rather than hurdle? Surely their lack of effort will diffuse the positive energy which every conductor brings to the rehearsal. Each day we must be willing to enter into the struggle for truth in our musical experience. Be insistent that pitches and rhythms be correct beyond question. Robert Shaw said "God loves a pure heart but he likes right notes more." (Berlioz Requiem rehearsal )
With the close of the academic year looming ahead, the store of patience often is exhausted and the optimism of September can be a distant memory. During these days, perception is everything. View this graphic, from this direction it looks like a circle. After months of struggle for excellence both choir and teacher may feel that they have been moving in circles. Step back from the process and try and recall in your mind's ear how the group sounded a few months ago.
With a change of perspective one might see that instead of a circle what you were seeing was the top down view of a coil spring. You might feel like you have been going around in a circle, but viewed from a different perspective that circle is really a spiral leading upwards to a better musical reality.
With patience and humor, insistence and kindness a teacher with an unwavering eye on musical truth can win over those who would say "whatever" and foster a new generation of true believers.
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