Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cake Dat Cake Spratnass Tay

"Rote" is four letter word in music education, and perhaps in education in general.

I find it difficult to have this conversation without appearing to undermine the importance of music literacy. I put a great deal of effort in trying to bring my students through a process that leads them into a genuine relationship with reading music.

While it is not hard to find less than intuitive and contradictory aspects of music notation, I find that as a quasi-language, its iconographic and aesthetic qualities are remarkable. As much as any other symbolic imagery of which I am familiar, music notation looks a lot like what it's intended to represent. It is beautiful and clear, if quirky. Yes, without question, I feel that my music students need to learn to read music.

Having said that, I also acknowledge that music is an aural art. When learning music, the ear needs to be as at least as important as the eye. Music is far older than music notation. Modeling and demonstrating are not only acceptable, they are paramount. Don't feel too guilty or inadequate as a music teacher for 'showing them how it goes'. We all do it, all the time.

I have a lesson I teach that I hope demonstrates the importance of modeling, in addition to using notation. I accept the challenge here of using only notation to demonstrate this, because due to the very point I am trying to make, I believe this lesson is way more effective when I deliver it in person.

Before I say a word, I write this array of 'words' on the board:


I ask them to read it...then again...and build it to a good level of unison fluency. I ask them what it means. Typically nobody has any idea. I explain to them that this is at least phonetically in English. (That often at least gives them a hint).

Still no luck? Then I ask them to imagine that they just walked into a diner in South Carolina, and they want to start off with a soft drink. They ask the waitress, clearly a local, what the choices are. She answers...


Some folks begin to catch on, but not too many get the whole thing.

This array of words is designed to use one's knowledge of phonetics (notation) to trick the brain into producing the words "Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Iced Tea" with a southern drawl. The combining of "Sprite, and Iced" into the one word "Spratnass" is not intended to throw anyone off the scent. It is designed to get someone from (for example) New England to read this with the inflection that one might confuse for that desired southern accent.

The point I try to make with this is that, using notation and only notation, one can come pretty close to creating a composer's intended idea, but only through a context and aural understanding do we really know that we are making music, or that we are reading a list of soft drinks with a southern drawl. If we the musicians have this context...this awareness...then they, and their audience, have a far better chance of a genuine music experience, and not just an audio 'paint by numbers.'

The desired effect of this lesson is an understanding for the importance of seeking this context, this understanding, the connection. It doesn't dismiss the value of notation, but it demonstrates where it might tend to fall short.

It's also kind of a fun lesson.


  1. i'll take your word for it I guess your a very complex man ....

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