When do you introduce contemporary techniques to your students?
You might have anticipated that there is no one answer fits all but you can… Recognise your instrument’s “proper” timbre in the first lesson or two, but allow them to discover it on their own and praise them for hitting that gorgeous air sound. Quite early start introducing contemporary techniques. If you opt for giving your students pieces from many eras including 21st century pieces then they will get used to them sooner.
Sometimes, technical words aren’t needed, AT. ALL. Just space and time to play and discover what the instrument can do. Especially if you have very young students, allowing discovery time where we can find lots of ways the instrument makes noise and music will keep things separated in their head (why can I sometimes blow a lot of air and other times I have to try to focus a specific pitch?). You don’t want them to come to the lesson and just bang the the keys with no purpose.
Here, I recommend a few more ways to go around with it, Games or Distractions as I call them:
- Listen! Share many recordings with your students and talk about emotions and thoughts. What does this remind you of, the piece is called —– can you guess why, what do you hear in the music when you feel nervous… Introduce music from different eras and styles as well as music that was performed yesterday!
- Choose your words. Try avoiding absolute words like right and wrong and proper as it suggests there’s only one way of playing. You may also encounter problems later on when you would potentially want to break that pattern. Instead say something like, this type of playing is appropriate here for reasons yxz. You are throwing in a bit of music history without even trying!!!
2a) If a child is very young you don’t even have to say the words “contemporary techniques”. You can describe a sound (i.e. ringing bells, the roaring sea…) and let the child experiment to find ways of representing these sounds with instruments available.
- Storytelling time where the child has time to discover different sounds independently based on a story (a concrete concept) and find out how all sounds can fit together to make music.
- Dedicate 5 minutes at the beginning of each lesson to create sound colours. You can base each lesson on one theme, musical or non musical – using only percussive sounds, or only harmonics, or only multiphonics / describe emotions, places, animals, circumstances…
- If your students are over 11 years old then they will most likely be able to separate to recognise what playing is appropriate in each situation. You can talk a bit more in depth about contemporary techniques. So try introducing short phrases from pieces that use them, if not full pieces*.
- Demonstrate and listen to recordings (yes, it is very important to listen)
*I have a piece for flute that can easily be arranged for any other instrument that is like a beginner’s piece to contemporary techniques, available on request
These are only suggestions. You know your students better and you can invent more!
In school classroom settings
It might be a bit tricky to show or teach your students a piece that uses contemporary techniques. That’s what they are playing before you enter the room!!! Depending on your year group, the school (how open to new sounds they are) and the classroom you will get different reactions. As early as we can normalise that ‘proper’ music has many forms is usually better. So again, listening is one of the easiest tricks to introduce contemporary classical music – any music for that matter – and that timbre matters in music. This philosophy, normalising what is proper, goes beyond the music boundaries to understanding their world.
There is not one proper, right sound (thing) that is law binding and then some other sounds around it of less importance, called exceptions. Each sound serves in its era and has its purpose, its value and usefulness according to that time period and region, when it was used more prominently. In different eras the purpose, usefulness and value of a sound changes because the resources and human needs change. Today, we know how that sound was important in the past and what it represented. We can evaluate its necessity in our present. Each person’s present is different and each present changes every few while. Those values and uses and purposes change as well. Sometimes we have to re-evaluate a technique or a sound and maybe we have to let go of it if it’s no longer useful to us in the present; or at least put it aside. It is okay to not use it anymore, we learnt a valuable lesson. It is less okay to condemn anything new because we have not learnt to live with it yet.
The ambiguity that comes with music becomes more prominent when we talk about timbre, the sound colour in a piece. This is the entire story of the piece and it becomes personal to each listener. This is what makes music so arousing and perhaps confusing. It is okay not specifying what is right or wrong, embracing experimentation and play, establishing new findings, and living as a contemporary musician. It is another muscle to work on!
© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020