Musical Vocabulary and Tree Climbing

As an undergraduate music theory student, I took my reserved seat on the struggle bus every week. Harmonic analyses that seemed effortless to my classmates could hold me captive for hours of frustration. It seemed as if my brain was missing some small but critical component to decode whatever harmonic hieroglyphics were hidden in those encrypted musical excerpts.

Exasperated, I indulged in imaginative self-pity sessions while doing my theory homework. My introverted and idealistic brain would mix some grand chemical cocktail and I’d roll around in it for a while:

Surely these master composers did not envision generations of mediocre theory students being torturously dragged through their musical wake, forced to analyze every chord of their works! This cannot be what they intended. I want a music degree—not this soul-sucking tedium.

And then I would imagine Brahms—the young, broody, handsome Brahms who had those crystalline eyes. This was before he got surly and grew his Santa beard. And this particular Johannes would always be disgusted by the knowledge that future-Andrea was being forced to waste her entire Sunday afternoon trying to figure out what chord he was implying on beat four of measure 82. My imagined Johannes-ghost would whisper that he never intended this for me: “Go create, be passionate, make beauty, make angst, make meaning, Andrea!”

And then a few seconds later, measure 82 would still be right there in front of my face, conjuring whatever fresh hell it intended for me.

Sometimes the universe would smile, and our professor would present us with an assignment that involved creating rather than analyzing. And those moments were heaven. Not just any heaven, but the sparkling, “Thank–God-I-can-finally-do-something-right” kind of heaven—which happens to be the most satisfying kind of heaven when you’ve been feeling incompetent for a very long time.

Those assignments would liberate me. Unleashed, I would sketch the fire out of that assigned harmonization or two-part invention, craft it to fit the guidelines, and unlike some of my better-at-analysis classmates whose tunes sounded contrived or robotic, my compositions would sound like actual, desirable music. Sometimes the professor would even play my composition for the class as an example. You better know I grabbed that short-lived glimmer of glory with both hands. I didn’t get to do this very often though. The bulk of our work was analyzing.

To this day, I still struggle with analysis. I’m also still pretty awesome at creating music. It feels good to finally be comfortable enough in my own skin to write both of those sentences. These are my truths. I learn, I grow, and I try. Analysis and creation are both important tools for a musician to have, but I no longer feel less-than because I struggle with one side of that coin. The other half has turned out to be far more valuable for me than I could have imagined. It is okay to embrace our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses.

My friend, composer Kurt Knecht sees music differently than me. His analytical skills confound me. He can dissect harmonic and structural minutiae in real time upon first glance. I watch him do this as if it’s some sort of musical superpower. To me, this is a foreign way of being with music, and I find it spellbinding.

Kurt and I will sometimes share our new music with one another. His feedback helps me see my score through a different lens and gain new insight from a more structural perspective. Similarly, I can occasionally throw an idea his way from my imaginative way of being. Often though, I feel insecure about my offerings because they come from some weird innate feeling that the music just needs to do whatever it is that I’m suggesting. I expressed to Kurt recently that I gain far more from these music-sharing sessions than he does. He’ll analyze my chord structures and my choices in melodic motion, and in return, I’ll say to him something like, “The music just feels like it should build to something more dramatic here.”

Kurt’s response to my concern: “Same thing. Different vocabulary.”

At first I thought that was just a kind response, but upon further reflection, and given Kurt’s tendency to be incredibly honest, I think he meant it.

I also think he’s right.

We are all hardwired differently as musicians and learners. We can head toward the same goal through any multitude of ways. To quote Albert Einstein: “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Quality music educators realize this and differentiate instruction on a daily basis for greater learning impact with their students.

Isn’t it delightful to consider the varied and resplendent ways in which we learn? And how much richer and more interesting (and functional) the world is with the existence of these different perspectives?

So, here’s to the learners and musicians with unique ways of being. And here’s to all the fish climbing trees, and the teachers working so hard to ensure that the fish get to swim every once in awhile, too.



December 15, 2017 • #, #, #, #, #, #, #


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