Monday, July 9, 2012

Miyagi Them

I keep running into people who were victims of what I've started to call "child-directed curricula": adults who as children attended alternative- or home-schools where each kid decided what she would study. Fortunately most survivors seem also to be the beneficiaries of large trusts. I say 'fortunately' because none of them seem capable of actually doing anything. I don't know what educators call this type of curricula. Perhaps it's "nice try"?

Now, I'm no fan of your standard, bureaucracy-directed curricula or your traditional, age-appropriate curricula where students have little latitude if any in topic selection or where curricula are defined by performance on standardized tests. Tapping into a child's interests in order to teach him is great. I just don't believe that a six-year-old is always the best judge of what she'll want to have learned when she's twenty-eight or forty-five or seventy. You gotta do more than follow your child's interests lest he end up knowing a little bit about everything, but not much of anything.

If Not the Child?
I grew up on the receiving-end of a parent-directed curriculum. It also didn't work out so well. I never faired well in bureaucracy-directed curricula which nowadays seems to be primarily run by companies that produce standardized tests.

So if it's not the child, then who decides?

Ultimately it's a partnership among parents, children and interested third-parties (friends, teachers, family members).

You want to know where a child's true interests lie, but it's the rare six-year-old who's so well versed and clear that she can tell you exactly what she wants from life. To get to her "true" interests, you'll likely need to weed through many a passing fancy, or perhaps more accurately, you'll have to find the underlying pattern in the parade of fancies.

The process is progressive. Your choices become more specific you gain clarity. The tricky part is that the more specific the choices, the more likely it is that you won't be the best person to help facilitate them. If you're math geek and your kid wants to be an olympic runner, you may have to defer to or seek guidance from others.

The trickiest part is that your child won't like to learn plenty of things that she'll later wish she'd been taught. I think this where the child-interest jujitsu comes into play. You relate the undesirable task-at-hand to the child's desired goal. The more directly you relate it, the more effective you will be. Saying that he'll thank you twenty-years from now probably won't be as effective as simply performing the undesired task and then seeing immediate improvement in the desired task. For example, you might run a mile, take a break, and then try singing those notes that were previously out of range.

Miyagi Them
Alternatively, you might pull a little Miyagi. You tell the kid who wants to learn karate, "Wax on; wax off." I've gotta say that Mr. Miyagi's method worked with me when I got to Berklee College of Music. 

My first week at Berklee was spent taking tests, some written, some oral and some performance-based. The tests were designed by faculty to assess aptitude in areas such as ear-training and sight-singing, arranging and composing, music theory, aural comprehension and playing. During freshmen year, every student took a core set of classes that included ear-training, theory, arranging, composition and analysis. Each class was divided into thirteen sections (A-M). Your placement in a section was determined by your performance on the tests.

As a freshmen you had already made your curriculum choice. You chose to come to Berklee. Instead of karate, you wanted music. At that point, it was up to the faculty at Berklee to decide the best way to get you there. For me it was often a wax-on/wax-off experience.

Although I'd never performed well on standardized test, I did really well on the Berklee tests ending up in sections L or M for all my classes. The "M" section was kind of like the heavyweight class in boxing; there was no upper limit. So in addition to being surrounded by classmates with similar aptitude, there were ones who were completely off the charts.

One class I wasn't too sure about was ear-training. I'd heard students talk about it. You had to learn and endlessly practice Solf├Ęge (do-re-mi). You had to learn to transcribe anything you heard. I'd been writing down anything I'd heard since I was fourteen and I couldn't see myself traipsing after Julie Andrews in the sound of music, so I thought, "Why do I have to do this?"

First day of class, the teacher walks in, scans the room briefly catching the eyes of each student, drops his backpack on his desk and pulls out a Coltrane album. He places the record on the turntable at the front of the room, drops the needle in the middle of a solo and says, "Write this down."

Several students (including me) laugh thinking he's kidding. Then I notice the guy to my left writing. He's transcribing Trane in realtime. I found that a bit intimidating, but also highly motivating.

Thankful Later
The other day at rehearsal, I remembered that moment and began cataloging things I did during rehearsal that had resulted from learning something at Berklee which at the time I'd thought, "What's the point?"

For example, A C6 chord and an A minor-7 chord have exactly the same notes (A, C, E and G). Yet, you play them completely differently; it all depends on context. Most musicians don't understand this, nor do they care to because it doesn't make sense to them. "They're the same notes. What's the big difference?" As they play, they'll notice that something doesn't sound quite right, but they can't put their fingers on it. 

I'd be in the same place except for things that they "made" me learn at Berklee.

The second-inversion of a root-chord is often used as a substitute for the dominant-chord. The root-chord in the key of C is C (C-E-G).  The second-inversion has the G in the bass (G-C-E). The dominant-chord in C is G. When most musicians see a chord chart that has a C/G (C over G), they wonder, "Why bother? Why not just write C?", and they run into the same subtle problems. Something is off, but they can't nail it down.

Thank you Berklee.

I'm not sure where the exact answer lies to the curriculum-selection challenge. Perhaps it's because there is no exact answer, or at least, no exact general-answer. However, I'm pretty sure it's not up to the kid to figure it out.

Happy Monday,

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