Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chops/Hip/Groove: Cultivating Musical Taste in Students

"Wagner is better than it sounds" - Mark Twain

"Good music is music that sounds good." - Duke Ellington

"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quoi." - Peter Schikile

As every year passes, it doesn't get any easier not to resort to this tired old question: What is this garbage that kids are listening to these days?

From generation to generation, that question has been thrown around with abandon. Kids will always listen to music to which their parents and teachers do not relate, and vice versa.

As music teachers, years of intense immersion in excellent music likely makes it harder for us to cope with that gap, but our role with these kids make it all the more important that we do! I think parents are supposed to have these sort of cultural conflicts with their kids. It might be part of their thawing out the dependence between them. With music teachers, it's different. We have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to facilitate their musical tastes.

Not only that, but we have a golden opportunity. While this assertion is certainly up for debate, I contend that I am the only teacher in my school that teaches a subject that everybody is born loving. While (for example) math and science teachers are trying to get their students to fall in love with what they do, all I have to do is to not let them fall out of love with music. With that comes the responsibility to not mess that up! It is important that I do not belittle their tastes. If I were to do that, would they pay any attention to mine? How could I expect that of them? On a personal level, I hope I am never that arrogant. On a professional level, I hope I never squander that potential connection.

The first step: summon all of your strength to give their music the benefit of the doubt. It makes it far easier to ask the same of them with that to which you are trying to introduce them.

My personal philosophy (maybe more of a goal, to which I sometimes fall short) is that there are two kinds of music: That which I like, and that which I do not yet understand. This theoretically prevents me from dismissing any music right away as being 'bad'. I try to hold my students to the same standard, but I can't if I fall short.

One vehicle toward this end I have used is that in our Survey of Music classes, I begin each class with the students taking turns bringing in a piece of music for the class. One that they consider compelling, for whatever reason. It may be a recent discovery, or an old favorite. It might relate to something we've talked about. It could be impressive, funny (intentionally or accidentally), meaningful, old, just needs to be within the realm of being respectful to the fact that we are in school, and I reserve the right to help them with that decision. My own personal appreciation for many different styles of music has grown significantly in the four years I've done this. My iPod is full of stuff to which I would never have paid any attention, were it not that students brought this sort of music in. I suspect that some of my music sneaks on to thiers. I also contribute to the show-and-tell, at least once per week. The kids, with almost no exceptions, have been open and supportive of each other in terms of listening to what each other has to offer, and then also what I feed them as well.

I have a less passive listening activity called "Chops/Hip/Groove". These three words represent three aesthetic components to music (in sort of a jazz vernacular), and I explain to them that when I decided what it is about a piece of music that speaks to me, I run it through this list to help determine that.

"Chops" refers to technical ability. If a piece has a high chops factor, it is because it contains technically impressive or virtuoso performance. "Hip" refers to the qualities of the music that make it distinctive, unique, or innovative. "Groove" is one I have a harder time defining, and I admit it might be a catch-all. I think "Groove" to what extend the emotional commitment to the music is apparent. Something with a lot of soul, emotion, or momentum. When we listen critically to the music, I ask them to identify on which of these areas a performance reached them. Often it's more than one, sometimes all three.

I always bring The Beatles in on this discussion. I love The Beatles, but I do not find that they carried themselves into their well deserved legendary status on the wings of their "chops". Their songs are groundbreaking. Their sound is distinctive and arguably timeless. It is not difficult for one moment to feel this music. They have not, however, taught too many people anything about how to sing or play their instruments. They were capable, but not virtuoso. They didn't need to be. The "Groove" and "Hip" factors pulled them through.

The students identify music important to them, and then analyze it against these three factors. It's often very eye-opening for them. At least one kid per semester realizes that maybe Dream Theatre is very good at a style of music to which they probably don't offer a great deal of innovation, while on the other hand, a band like Cake is a group of marginally talented musicians whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As soon as this conversation runs its course, we can listen to the The Berlin Philharmonic, John Coltrane, Virgil Fox, Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, Luciano Pavarotti, and run it through the same tests. As they become familiar with these artists they might not otherwise seek out, I start to see what it is they appreciate with hardcore, punk, or death metal.

It is my hope that the barriers (cultural, geographical, generational, etc) that needlessly prevent good music from making into our lives begin to break down. I conclude this discussion with two pieces of advice.

1) When someone suggests music to you, give it a shot.

2) Never ever let anyone tell you what not to like. If it speaks to you, then it's good, no matter what anyone, including your music teacher, says.

You need not subtract music from your tastes to make room for more.


  1. This is fantastic, Joe. It appeals to me both as a musician and as a teacher; I like to think I've employed some relatively similar techniques when teaching writing in the past, and I definitely intend to keep them in mind when I someday get to teach again. Love the "chops/hip/groove" idea; it's got me thinking about all the things I've been listening to lately and how those factors apply.

    May I ask what's been getting the most play on your iPod recently? :)


  2. Heya Lizzie!

    Well...this is a smattering. Dunno WHAT it says about me!

    "Don't Take The Girl" - Tim McGraw (long story..he he)
    "Now That I've Found You" - Alison Krauss
    "Nothing Ever Hurt Like You" - James Morrison
    'Dies Irie' from Verdi's Requiem
    "Harder, Better, Faster, Stonger" - Daft Punk
    G. Faure's "Pavane"
    "Minnie and Alex's Reel" - Natalie McMaster
    "Stay (I Missed You)" - Lisa Loeb

  3. Hey, I actually recognize all of those names! (Of course, the only reason I've heard of James Morrison is from American Idol, and the only reason I remember the name is because of the thought that ran through my head: "Huh... well, clearly they're not talking about JIM Morrison... who's this other dude?") Maybe I'm not so far out of touch as I thought...

    I think what it might say about you is that you appreciate variety. :)

  4. I ran into a little of this last night with my Cub Scout pack. They have to make a CD from at least 3 different records, tapes, or CDs. I took a bunch of records that belong to my parents, my husband, and myself. We had a mix from Tchaikovsky to Uriah Heep with a little Big Band, Aretha Franklin, Kiss, Hank Jr. Willie, etc. thrown in there. Now, my kids, daughter 15 and son 9, have been exposed to all of this music. My daughter still likes a lot of the new stuff that I can't even come close to stomaching. That says a lot, because I am pretty tolerant in my music taste. But they both love my music. My son loves Willie. I grew up listening to Dad's Willie Nelson records.
    One of the boys, though, couldn't pick out anything he liked. I played him some stuff I thought would appeal. I let him look through the records because the cover art is sometimes the biggest appeal. I asked him what type of music he liked. But nothing doing. He likes Kid Rock and Pink (who I also like), but he would NOT step outside that comfort zone. He was the only kids there that didn't know who Led Zeppelin was. He only knew The Who because they played at the Super Bowl. But he wasn't interested unless he could find that song in my collection. A shame. A real shame.