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Random access: should music making be fun?

I ask these questions seriously: should music making be fun? What is your experience when you perform? How about your students' experience?

Personally, I think performing is a blast. For me, that blast consists of a complex set of experiences that does include fun. During the time just before the performance, I may feel a modest or considerable level of anxiety and that anxiety may carry over into the performance itself. During the performance, I experience a range of emotions, some of which are related to the music, while others are related to the fact that I am working hard. At the conclusion of the performance, if I get the sense that I moved the audience, I may enjoy the reward of exhilaration.

Perhaps fun is too simplistic a word to use in this context. However, the sense of accomplishment, personal connection with the music and successful communication with the audience all add up to a high level, emotion-charged experience that bears some resemblance to the elements of fun.

When Should Fun Enter the Picture?

I believe many children and adults begin music study because they think they are going to have fun. They don't necessarily think music study is going to be entertaining. But I believe they expect a sense of enjoyment much like the enjoyment they experience when listening to music.

Students are often disappointed to find out how much work is involved in learning an instrument. To make matters worse, many pieces sound incomplete in the absence of an ensemble, particularly if students are playing a monophonic instrument all by themselves. Older beginners may quickly become dissatisfied with music that is composed or arranged for novices.

In addition to the foregoing matters, there may be issues with the choice of music that is taught. A large percentage of pedagogical music is considerably different from the music students listen to on the radio, television, CD player or in the movie theater. Often students come to their first lesson expecting to learn one genre of music and find that it doesn't exist in the books they are given. This discrepancy may lead to disillusionment with music study.

Many of these issues may go away, of course, if the student practices regularly and appropriately. Practice leads to progress; progress leads to accomplishment; accomplishment leads to appreciation of the assigned music--and maybe even to fun.

I think it is important that we examine every aspect of music study and ask whether we can increase the level of fun.

Locating Fun Material

One of the most effective tools for injecting fun and promoting progress is the large body of MIDI and audio accompaniments that have been created in recent years. These accompaniments are recordings of chamber ensembles, marching bands, rock groups and full orchestras. Many publishers of teaching materials and supplementary repertoire books provide these accompaniments on floppy disk or CD for all music levels and genres; however, many music retailers do not stock this material, therefore you may need to spend time figuring out what's available.

Fortunately, there are easy-to-use technologies in nearly every studio and home that can make these accompaniments very effective practice partners.

Accelerating Musical Progress

Music making is an extraordinarily complex task. It involves precise coordination of a variety of muscles and constant, real-time interpretation of visual and aural stimuli. Learning a piece of music is a real challenge!

Part of the process of learning a piece of music is learning what it sounds like. Musicians need to be guided by their inner ears as well as their eyes. MIDI and audio accompaniments are very effective in this respect.

For example, let's take a 7-year-old student who is playing "Old MacDonald" on whatever instrument he or she studies. An imaginative accompaniment will probably sound like an ensemble consisting of a fiddle, bass, guitar and perhaps harmonica, washboard and barnyard sound effects. The upbeat tempo and the sound of this agricultural ensemble will likely put an immediate smile on the face of the student. A fun experience is about to unfold!

An accompaniment, such as this, provides far more than motivation. For starters, the accompaniment provides the underlying pulse and becomes a very effective and musical replacement for the metronome. Indeed, it is much easier for a student to play in time with a musical recording than it is with a metronome.

In addition to providing a pulse, the accompaniment can help clarify a variety of rhythmic issues, such as how fast to play the notes that come between the beats. A good accompaniment can even provide an effective framework for leading the student to play expressively.

The accompaniment also provides important control over tempo and the student's natural tendency to play faster. By controlling the tempo, the accompaniment can actually facilitate technical development.

Until a student knows a piece of music well, the act of playing can easily provoke musical tension. After all, music performance is a real-time activity. Until all those muscles are perfectly trained, the least bit of uncertainty results in opposing muscles contracting simultaneously, resulting in tension.

One way to deal with this tension is to slow down the performance to the point at which the student can coordinate every muscle with ease. MIDI and audio accompaniments have proven themselves to be one of my most effective tools for slowing the student down and keeping the music interesting. When students play along with a slow accompaniment, I often see formerly tense muscles immediately relax.

Appealing to the Older Beginner

MIDI and audio accompaniments are especially useful for older beginners for another compelling reason: they make easy music sound more sophisticated. Teenagers or adult-beginners will often become disappointed with their musical studies because they cannot rapidly progress to a playing level that matches their intellectual level. Therefore, they may feel unfulfilled or even embarrassed to play easy music.

However, when surrounded by a great sounding musical ensemble, even the simplest arrangements can overcome this problem.

Better Sounding Repertoire

As mentioned earlier, students often elect to take music lessons because they assume they are going to play the music they enjoy. Unfortunately, an arrangement of a particular hit tune or movie theme may not actually sound very appealing on the student's particular instrument. For example, a piano arrangement of a rock tune may not capture the spirit of the original, if the original piece didn't include a piano part. A violin arrangement of a movie theme may fall flat because it lacks the rest of the orchestra.

In these cases, MIDI or audio accompaniments complete the musical picture and provide the experience that the student expects.

Should I Use MIDI or Audio Accompaniments?

MIDI accompaniments make use of sounds that reside in a MIDI keyboard, an external tone generator or your computer. The quality of the sound depends upon both the quality of your playback device, as well as the musicality of the arranger. In any case, with MIDI accompaniments it is very easy to transpose, change tempo or mute parts without any loss of audio quality.

An audio recording may be of either real musicians or it may be an audio version of a MIDI file. Normally you would expect the former to be of better quality. However, the latter may have been made with high-end equipment.

Traditionally, it has not been possible to transpose or change the tempo of an audio recording. Fortunately, there are now CD players that will do this. There is even a $44.95 software program for Macintosh and Windows, called Amazing Slow Downer (, that will do these things quite nicely within limits.

If your students have a MIDI keyboard with a floppy drive, SmartMedia bay or a USB port that supports USB flash drives, then MIDI files are probably the best option. On the other hand, if your students can practice on a personal computer, they can use a software program that supports MIDI playback or use audio CDs with the Amazing Slow Downer.

In either case, let the fun begin!

George F. Litterst is a nationally known music educator, clinician, author, performer and music software developer. He is co-developer of the intelligent accompaniment software program Home Concert Xtreme from TimeWarp Technologies.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Litterst, George F.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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