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Teaching music with structure.

Any teacher of music, or of anything for that matter, must constantly strive for a balance between addressing the student's immediate problems, and affording him a deeper, more grounding experience. By no means are these two concerns mutually exclusive, yet much music teaching I have encountered is balanced too heavily toward the immediate or reactive; in this mode, the teacher often attempts to correct every mistake or address every problem as it arises. I have found this approach, although obviously necessary at times, often creates a somewhat disorienting dynamic in a lesson and actually can exacerbate problems students tend to have, such as physical tension or myopic focus. Moreover, this approach lacks depth: it often relies upon verbal cues, such as "be more expressive," as opposed to exploring a variety of experiential exercises by which the student can learn to be more expressive, for example, in a natural and organic way.

The teaching mode I advocate, by contrast, aims to create a more coherent and multidimensional experience for both student and teacher. In this approach, the teacher will not confine herself to the surface of a piece, but will help a student uncover its structure to facilitate the learning process. Likewise, the teacher will not confine herself to the "surface" of the student--his immediate mistakes and problems--but will ascertain his underlying issues, both within a lesson and over a course of study, and confront them in myriad ways. Finally, the teacher will acknowledge her own depth--her underlying values and biases that are bound to permeate all aspects of her teaching--and mobilize such values in a purposive way. Although I will explain this methodology most often with reference to one-on-one piano lessons, it can be readily applied both to classroom teaching and to the pedagogy of other instruments.

Structural Elements

The most obvious site of structural teaching is the piece itself, since art music is abundant in structural subtlety and complexity that we can utilize in teaching and performance. For example, the student might initially find the opening measures of Chopin's Nocturne in F-sharp Major (Example 1) difficult to read, as the contour is rather disjunct, making it difficult to discern a clear thread among the pitches. However, a consideration of the voice leading (Example 1, bottom staves) reveals two underlying motions: first, the right hand traverses a descending third 3 2 1, which is counterpointed by parallel sixths in the uppermost voice of the left hand; second, the C-sharp in measure 1, right hand, is subsequently displaced an octave higher via the elegant flourish in measure 2. Hence, intricate though the melody may seem on the surface, the underlying motions it elaborates are actually quite simple.


The relatively inexperienced student, say an average college freshman, who in this scenario is learning the piece, cannot be expected to arrive at such a voice leading reduction by himself--the teacher will have to lead him to it. One way to do this is by purely performance-based means. For example, the teacher might convey the following instructions:

* "Play the F-sharp major scale." Obviously, this will ground the student in the difficult tonality of the piece.

* "Play 3 2 1 in that scale, accompanied by parallel sixths below in the left hand." This will afford the student a tactile experience of the underlying counterpoint.

* "Improvise a melody in the key of F-sharp major that outlines and embellishes 3 2 1 and that at some point transfers middle C-sharp to the octave above." This is analogous to expressing another's point in one's own words; such paraphrasing, in music as in language, is essential for fluency and understanding.

* "Play the actual melody as I sing the right-hand melodic structure"; alternatively, or in addition, the student can sing the melodic structure as he plays. Through this, the student can perceive where the structural tones are placed metrically, as well as the particular manner in which each is embellished.

* Finally, the student may play the passage as written, without any assistance from the teacher.

Through these exercises, the student will gain a concrete sense of some essential features of Chopin's passage, which will render him less susceptible to errors while learning it. For example, on a first reading, the right-hand F-sharp in measure 2 might fall through the cracks if not for the realization that, although extremely brief, it actually completes the descent of an underlying third and is thus quite important. Likewise, the left-hand B in measure 1 may appear to be an arbitrary leap if not for the awareness of the line to which B belongs (C-sharp-B-A-sharp) or of its intervallic relation to the right hand. Simply put, exposing the student to structural tones provides him with a safety net and affords him a greater sense of security when rendering the passage than he might otherwise have.

An understanding of contrapuntal structure has ramifications not only for note learning, but for interpretation as well. For example, knowing the structural importance of the right-hand F-sharp in measure 2 might compel the student to take a little time on that note, expressively pulling against its short note value. Such emphasis would arise from and express a sense of melodic resolution to the tonic. To be sure, this resolution is extremely brief; no sooner does it occur than the less stable C-sharp bounds up an octave to undermine it. Perhaps the student could express this with a slight crescendo to the high C-sharp and by playing it with a subtle intensity that contrasts with the more relaxed F-sharp.

The relationship of analysis to performance is a fascinating topic, one beginning to take its rightful place alongside other, more conventional topics in music theory. Although I cannot pursue it more fully here, I hope to at least have hinted at some technical and interpretive benefits of uncovering the voice leading of a piece or passage. Of course, in a more extended encounter with a piece, one would also want to examine its harmony, form, rhythm and meter, and motivic treatment, all of which could prove fruitful for note learning and expressivity.

Structural Lessons

One can structure a lesson in the same manner as a composer often structures a piece. Chopin might have had 3 2 1 floating around in his mind (perhaps subconsciously) and then devised melodic figurations that would express that basic progression in a beautiful and particular way. The teacher, likewise, can structure a lesson around a basic premise or aim and then elaborate that basis in manifold, creative ways. Importantly, the creative manifestations of an underlying idea are never fully reducible to that idea. The fact that 3 2 1 is implicit in Chopin's melody does not mean the sole import of the melody is the 3 2 1 it embodies. Rather, the 3 2 1 is a foil and a source of coherence for the more interesting elaborations to which it gives rise. Likewise, the underlying premise of a lesson will often be in the background relative to the exercises and activities the teacher devises to explore it. Nonetheless, these underlying ideas, in music and music study alike, are indispensable sources of coherence.

A relatively advanced adult student, "Alyssa," was working on Mozart's Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 281 (first movement). Alyssa knew the notes well, but was preoccupied with accuracy and somewhat musically stifled. I wanted to find ways to help her imbue the gestures and phrases with a greater sense of direction, distinctiveness and vitality. To begin, I asked her to sing and conduct (students who can't, might simply chant and gesticulate) to the music as I played it, to capture the spirit and motion of each phrase. Sometimes she played and I conducted her. Finally, I asked her to play without my participation, channeling into the keyboard the spontaneous, broad and vivacious physical motions she was able to produce away from the keyboard. As she did this, the music began to come to life.

For the next exercise, I asked her to consider the character of each gesture and play a more overt version of that character by embellishing Mozart's music, extending his passages in an improvisatory fashion. Since I knew Alyssa liked and had a special rapport with children, I asked her to imagine that she had to translate Mozart's sentiments into terms a child would understand--that she had to speak to that child in a clear, demonstrative and imagistic musical language. So, for example, the triplet figures in measures 1-2 (see Example 2), which Alyssa described as "winding and meandering," became in her realization a longer, more ornate and more circuitous passage. The rolled chords in measure 3, which she characterized as "regal," became slow, grandiose chords in both hands that she rolled up and down several times with great flair and emphasis. Finally, the 32-note figure that follows, which she called "brilliant," became rendered approximately as in Example 3. We continued this exercise for the entire exposition, exploring the character of each gesture not only in isolation but also in relation to those before and after, thus planting the seed for an overarching narrative that would ultimately tie together the entire movement.


When we returned to the actual score, playing it as written, she was able to transfer to it the qualities of expansiveness, freedom and clarity she experienced during the exercise. The gestures now felt and sounded substantial rather than fleeting. Just as improvising on 3 2 1 helped the first student see that progression embedded in Chopin's music, so these improvisations helped Alyssa to uncover the characters embedded in Mozart's piece.

Hence, the lesson centered on a single basic aim: to increase musical vitality by arriving at a distinctive, full-bodied shape for each gesture. We approached this with a methodology emphasizing both improvisation and movement. The first exercise employed spontaneous movement and vocalization as a means of uncovering musical motion and emotion; the second employed improvisation that expanded Mozart's gestures to include more notes in which to arrive at a convincing shape for each. Movement in this second exercise was largely metaphorical: the exercise gave Alyssa the sense that she had more "room," in terms of both creative space and musical length, in which to manifest the shape of each gesture than would be possible by playing Mozart's actual music in a continuous fashion. In short, I structured this lesson according to a precise musical goal that was approached by two contrasting, yet complementary, exercises: one emphasizing movement in physical space, the other, movement in creative space.

This lesson had a two-part form, emanating from two related exercises centered on a central theme. In this respect, the form of the lesson could be understood as analogous to a musical binary form in which two sections, A and A', center on a theme or particular figuration and unfold it in analogous ways. Of course, many other lesson structures are possible. For example, one might structure a lesson according to ternary form, involving a main idea or exercise (A), a contrasting or oppositional idea or exercise (B) and, finally, a synthesis of the two (A') in which A is reconsidered in light of B. To take a simple scenario, one might spend the first part of a lesson working with a student on the overall character and rhetoric of a passage, the second on a harmonic analysis of that passage, and the third considering subtleties of character that arise specifically from knowledge of the harmonic progressions.

Organizing lessons according to these common musical forms has two advantages. First, these forms are useful vehicles for conveying information and arranging exercises in particularly organized and lucid ways. Second, and perhaps more significantly, appropriating these forms as the framework for a lesson affords the student a first-hand experience of those forms. Musical form within this approach is not just something we understand and identify, but something we experience. Such an experience can beneficially affect one's playing. For example, if the student is taught in clearly defined and discrete segments, as in ABA' form, he may be more likely to bring a sense of clarity and separateness to his phrasing than if he was taught in an amorphous fashion. That said, what is ultimately most important are not the forms per se, but the content they encompass and from which they emanate.

In sum, a structural lesson is one in which a primary point or goal is realized by analogous exercises couched within a musical form. Again, teaching in this manner does not preclude a teacher from addressing more localized issues and concerns as they arise, but ideally establishes a framework within which these concerns can be addressed with greater ease and clarity.

Overall Structure

Taking structural music teaching one step further, the teacher also may bring a sense of structure to a student not just within a single lesson, but over many lessons. Just as both a piece and a lesson may elaborate underlying ideas (musical ideas and ideas about music, respectively), so, inevitably, will each student have underlying issues. These might be specifically pianistic in nature--for example, fingering, hand position, touch, physical stance at the keyboard, pedaling and such. They might fall within the category of general musicianship, such as rhythm, phrasing, musical style and so on. Or these concerns might be of a more personal or psychological nature--say; difficulty in being present while playing, reluctance in committing to a lengthy learning process, excessive dependence on the teacher, a propensity for self-deprecation in the face of mistakes, a fear of judgment in performing for the teacher or an audience and the like. Such broad issues, far from being mere nuisances to be quickly eradicated, are a potential source of depth and coherence insofar as the teacher can build on them, employing them as catalysts for creative endeavors. Such endeavors always yield dividends that far exceed the benefit of merely solving the problems from which they emerged. Indeed, problems and challenges are not impediments to creative work and artistic insight, but the very precondition for them.

The next logical step is to extend a sense of structure to one's student body as a whole. Every teacher possesses a firm sense of what she deems important in music, art and life overall, and these basic assumptions inform her teaching of not one but of all her students.

By way of example, the following are some of my own assumptions:

* Art, in general, is essential to life. It illuminates aspects of existence that other, non-artistic forms of discourse cannot. Music, in particular, is essential to life; it illuminates aspects of existence that other art forms cannot.

* Music flows from the composer--his conceptions and improvisations--to its representation in a score, to the sounds when the score is realized by the performer, to the perceiver. Music is not fully music until it is performed and perceived.

* Music is a language with sounds, "grammatical" combinations of those sounds and meaning behind those sounds.

* Music is a sounding, moving analogy to our inner life it embodies the shape of our feelings and thoughts, their ebb and flow.

* The ultimate goal of performance is to be physically relaxed and agile, mentally present and lucid and emotionally expressive; it is also to capture the improvisatory spirit in which most music is conceived.

* Music, like anything else, can embody the more refined or more ignoble aspects of human nature. While composing, performing and teaching, it is essential to realize music's positive and life-affirming potential. The models for this realization are, in my view, the music and music-making practices of the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

These assumptions, among others, guide everything I do as a teacher and everyone I teach, albeit in different ways. All teachers have deep-seated musical assumptions. Reflecting on and becoming more cognizant of them can empower a teacher, enabling him to prioritize those essential ideas and values he really wants students to take away from his instruction. Granted, he does not necessarily explicitly communicate these beliefs to his students--that would often prove ineffectual and even inappropriate. But once these beliefs are accessed and affirmed, they inevitably infiltrate all aspects of teaching, from the broadest methodological tenet to the most concrete statement and exercise. The teacher who has not fully acknowledged and examined his beliefs is less able to employ them purposively in his teaching. But he possibly faces a greater drawback still--that he implicitly conveys in his teaching certain assumptions that, if made conscious, he might reconsider or even disavow. Indeed, more important than the awareness and activation of values are the particular values themselves. If these are positive and of high artistic merit, the teacher will not so much have to create depth as surrender to it. In this sense, we teach not just by what we do but with even greater consequence by who we are.

Structure on All Levels

One may manifest a sense of structure on all pedagogical levels--those of the piece, the lesson and the students. Significantly, in teaching with structure, we embody in our very approach to teaching a virtue that we strive to instill in our students' playing; teaching with structure provides a model for playing with structure. I would even suggest that holistic qualities, such as structure, unity, cohesiveness and so forth, must be taught by way of example, since they are too subtle and elusive to be taught primarily by conveying instructions pertaining to tempo, dynamics, phrasing and the like. For these qualities are never reducible to the demonstrable processes with which they are associated--they always transcend them. This is why we cannot reproduce the uncanny sense of structure in a Vladmir Horowitz performance, for example, merely by reproducing all the physical and interpretive things Horowitz does, assuming that were even possible. Put another way, the qualities of coherence and depth that emanate from the approach I have described are bound to permeate a student's thought processes, even if subtly and subconsciously, and thus have an impact on his playing. Indeed, I truly believe the student responds as much to, and is affected as much by, the underlying qualities of a teacher's methodology as by what she explicitly expresses.

Hence, when our words and actions as teachers coalesce into a structured framework, we implicitly transmit the importance of structure to our students, who may then assimilate it in a natural and partly subconscious way into their playing and practice habits. Conversely, it is contradictory to profess to our students the importance of structure in playing if we do not exemplify it in our own teaching. In general, we ought to strive for congruence between the values we seek to instill in our students and those that underlie our teaching methods. At the very least, teaching that possesses such congruence will be more efficacious than teaching that does not.

Finally, this ideal of congruence certainly extends to qualities other than structure. Novelty, energy, spontaneity, economy, variety--these and other qualities we admire in the music we teach and wish for our students' playing may form the core of our own teaching, whereby they are taught more effectively. Indeed, the model for our teaching methods should be the very music we teach and how we want it to be played.


(1.) Heinrich Schenker's more extended analysis of the right hand of this passage can be found in his Free Composition (Der Frei Satz), trans. Ernst Oster (New York: Schirmer Books, 1979), supplement volume, Fig. 117 (also see his explanation of the graph in the main volume, 96-97).

Jeffrey Swinkin is a pianist, music theorist and an adjunct professor of music at the University of San Francisco, He holds degrees in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan. He has concertized, lectured and given master classes nationwide.
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Author:Swinkin, Jeffrey
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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