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Excellence in Performance and Education

The Benefits of Breaking Down the Mental Processes of Music

When I was at university, in addition to studying music I studied Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. There was a significant focus in that course of study on Semiotics. Semiotics is the study of how one interprets symbols. Semiotics has informed my musical practice by making me aware of the mental processes that I undertake in my daily life. Each time I read music I am instantaneously recognising the pitch of a note, its duration, its articulation, and then linking that to the finger combination that is used to play that note, the tongue action, breathing technique and embouchure that I have to use to play that note realise the music that is on the page. And that process all happens before I try to express anything of my own!

Breaking down the mental process like that has played a significant part in my teaching. I approach it with my students by asking them what the note is, how they play it on their instrument, how long the note is, whether it is tongued or not and what volume it is played at. As students respond to these questions they begin to develop their capacity to recognise the symbols (notes) and process what they mean. Initially, they do this in isolation, and as they become more fluent with symbol recognition they begin being able to recognise multiple aspects of the symbol at the same time. Usually, students first manage to put pitch and duration together, then dynamics, and finally articulation.

As I continue to develop this aspect of my teaching, I realise that I often ask my students to engage in incredibly complex mental processes and expect them to be able to do it instantly. Sight-reading, for example, is an incredibly complex process, and students often find it stressful. Yet, as teachers, we often just tell students “the more you do it, the easier it will get.” However, I find this to be untrue, because attempting to do something complex without breaking it up into its component parts is usually a recipe for disaster. More often than not, students attempting to sight-read make mistakes, and lose confidence in their ability to sight-read. Sight-reading becomes something incredibly stressful for them, and when they are confronted with the task of sight-reading in an exam or ensemble context they are often overcome with anxiety.

Yet, the contrary is also true. If students are taught to break down complex processes and decipher the components from early on in their music education, they will begin to gain confidence in their abilities. As students learn how to decipher duration, pitch, articulation, dynamics and the other elements of music, they start to get quicker at doing so. The speed and accuracy with which students can process the component musical information increases their confidence. As students become more confident, their enjoyment increases and they start to believe they are good at music. It is that belief which propels students to a lifelong love of music.

1 Comment

  1. Chilly Chrysler

    July 19, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Thank you for this article…resonates with me very much

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