those troubling students

Working with CITS has been an interesting experience. First off, trying to find time in an hour to see about 10 different compositions is incredibly challenging. Also, just how many different experiences i can get in that brief hour (actually, it's 50 minutes. lol)

I am really amazed at the level of creativity paired with the level of laziness i see in the group. It's frustrating, to say the least. They'll kinda loosely jot down something...that almost looks like western notation, but with the stems going the wrong way, no dynamics, durations being quite relative. heh. And then, the student will play it and, boom, makes sense.

Still, here's a run-down of some of the commonalities i am seeing in these young composers

--fear of rests.

--repetition (direct and possibly changed by octave)

--homophonic part writing (single melody, sometimes with accompaniment, sometimes harmonized in thirds, but always exactly together)

--performance vs. notation (playing only one sharp, but writing in two; playing more dynamics than written; not playing written dynamics, etc)

-- lots of ideas

--"i don't want to write it down" (i have heard this way too many times. lol. to me it sounds of laziness or insecurity in their own skills as far as transcribing their ideas).

--"I don't know what to write" (i believe this is related to the above, mostly thinking they CAN'T write. they actually do have ideas up there, lots of them, just have to coax them out)

--"But does it sound good" (there's a general fear in this age group of rejection, and they seek peer acceptance. So, "does it sound good?" is certainly a social statement more than anything. if you talk to them one on one they will say "Well, i like it!" I try to stress that is most important.)

some of the problems i attribute to age and practice. one must practice notation, just as one practices anything else. I still get my stems going the wrong direction sometimes (i cover my tracks by suddenly writing another line on the other side, like i was THINKING two things, and so that's why the stems are doing that...mmmmmhm.) the same with the performance vs. notation. they are only in 7th grade, i don't expect them to read with perfect dynamics every time yet.

The fear or rests is inherent in a lot of music. Actually, i think fear is the wrong word. Confusion might work better. One student embraced rests, and had them throughout her composition. But what ended up happening was that it sounded like it either needed a second line with her that would play through part of the rests, or it was just a very fragmented piece. So, when to use rests?

I try to tell younger students that rests are more like accents. They focus the ear on what just happened and on what will happen. it's like a build up in a song, with a big crescendo, getting louder and louder, then suddenly, a brief silence, then BOOM, everyone enters in the loudest passage of the piece. That loud moment was made louder and more unexpected by that brief silence. The crescendo into it makes us believe that it's going to that huge loud moment. but that brief break makes the mind go "Oh man, wtf is going to happen!" it could drop to nearly inaudible dynamic levels, it could explode in cacophony. who knows!

So, i usually begin students thinking about rests as accents. The next step i usually through in is rests as breaths or sighs. It is a release after a moment of high energy in a piece. This energy can come from any number of places; harmonic tension, active rhythmic schemes, etc. Sometimes, it's nice to just stop and take a breath.

The biggest problem is probably the "I don't want to write it down." I've tried a few ways to get students past this. Questions like "how will others play it? how will you remember it in 20 years?" and then ideas like "sometimes seeing what you're hearing can give you more ideas of what to do with it." heck, even sometimes i try "well, i can't make you write it down. i gave you some good reasons [above] but, in the end, your teacher has given it to you as an assignment. if nothing else, you better get something down." I dislike that last option, but, for some students, the fear of "F" is more than fear of peer mediation. mostly i try and coax the music out of them onto the paper.

One student, in particular, is giving my trouble with this. he has tons of ideas. every time i come in, he plays me something different. this week he said "i have two ideas, and i think they'd go great together. but how would i put them together." He then proceeds to play me two short phrases.

This student has not written anything down all semester. My answer (which as truthful) "It's hard for me to come up with something off the top of my head on one hearing. If you write it down, it's easier for me to see it and hear it in my head. Then i can come up with some ideas. Just jot those two ideas down and we can work on how to get them together."

His answer was "i don't like writing them down." and i replied "I really want to help you, but i am not the kind of musician that plays by ear well. You've got a gifted ear and gifted memory. I just don't have that. If you write it down, i can come up with lots of ideas. I just need to see it."

after that he just stared off into space and started playing. It's an interesting problem. He has some definite social problems, namely missing verbal and physical cues in conversations quite often, borderline obsessive interest in specific things (for him, music), difficulty with authority, a lack of interest in socializing, and sometimes seems to go into fugue states, where he'll just start playing and be completely in his own world.

Ok, fugue start is far to harsh of a term for what happens. its not like he forgets who is, wanders around the school, and comes up with a new identity, and then his memories come back in a flash. lol. it actually reminds me almost of a complex partial seizure, where he gets stuck in a bit of a repetition and spaces out doing it. his teacher thinks he has symptoms of Asperger's. I agree with that in some sense, but i'm not professional, and i don't see him every day.

Did you know that they think Mozart may have had Asperger's Syndrome? seriously, i had no idea until i looked up some more info (one student has been diagnosed with Asperger's so i was trolling info to see how i could best help her) and it was up on a couple different articles. random. Anyway, there's a single-mindedness to what this student (the one not diagnosed with anything) does. He does quite well in school, when he does his work, aces tests, and gets preoccupied. hm...sounds a lot like me in school. LOL. except i did turn in my work, i just happened to do it moments before it was due. I am merely lazy

Anyway, it's a conundrum. I'm just trying to get him to write it down. If i was any good at transcription (easily my weakest point of being a musician), i would just write it down as he plays it, and then get him to work with it after that step. Alas, it's not my forte at all, so i have to find a strategy to get him to notate something. I get the feeling like if he breaks that one barrier, he could write whatever he wants.

hm, maybe i'll address my thoughts on the other things later. This has gone on long enough. lol


Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

perhaps what your student with autistic tendencies needs to hear is that he must write it down. Make it a part of the process. Give him a specific routine to follow so that he can go through the pattern every time he composes. If you're right about his condition, strict unwavering behavioral patterns should be more helpful to him then saying "well consider these things and make your own decision" because he doesn't pick up on behavioral subtlety

Although, for the other students, I'm not surprised at the reluctance to write. I teach writing and encounter a reluctance to write. Oh, they know they'll have to eventually, but when it comes to reading aloud the writing (for instance) they'd much rather summarize in their normal speech because we're a performance based culture -- and if they have technical issues with the writing they can hide them from the group by not writing and only performing verbally. Writing's very private and at this age they're looking to impress the group not the individual.

Possible suggestion: can you structure something where the students have to look at each other's writing/play from that writing w/o talking to the composer? OR (since these kids seem so good at doing it by ear) do notation quizzes where they hear however many measures and then are asked to write them down. Prizes to the most accurate!

But what do I know, I'm an unemployed English teacher.

El Johno said...

We've actually been trying some of these techniques. the assignment is most definitely for a grade. in fact, they get graded on it weekly. he shows 0 interest in that fact. When i try to force him to write it in some way, he tunes me out completely. I'm a bit at my wits end, though after class today i have a new thought. Since he writes things for an instrument he can play, and he has a tendency to memorize everything, i think i'm going to force him to write for trombone. and then bring in my trombone and play the parts for him, but, till that moment, he won't be able to "play it" and "memorize it." He'll have to figure out an external way for me to be able to play it. This is, of course, if he even has interest in such a thing, otherwise, he'll just tune me out and never do it anyway.

It's one of the subtle things with Aspergers, the complete distrust of authoritative figures. i think, perhaps, being straight forward, but instead of punishment, using rewards might be the way to go. That's how it's done with more severe forms of autism. and that's the other problem, while he doesn't pick up social clues, he's quite bright, and looking for help...i just can't help him with how he's doing things...

and we are also doing the play the pieces for the class. Part of that is to fulfill the standard "listening to and discussing music" something that is actually a bit hard to do in an ensemble.

The notation quizzes could be a good way to get them going. it would, at least, be able to point out if there is a certain disconnect between hearing and notation. I believe there is, and that they would be able to play back exactly what i played, but not write it down.

I think you're onto something with it though. I'm not sure i'll be able to incorporate it in this class at the moment, but as a step toward getting them to more properly notate what they are trying to play, it's a good step...

and prizes seem to get good reaction. heh. sometimes, it's about rewards not punishment. We're trying for the ultimate reward in this being a concert, but the students are too young to realize how precious that really is...hm, if i only knew more string players i'd haul a couple along and then its "hear your piece played by PROFESSIONALS!" lol

lots of great ideas...all have been journaled in my mind now. Thanks!!!