When students first enter my music room, I begin to play music with them almost immediately. This is one of my favorite ways to greet them, especially those who come from more structured school environments, or who have little experience. It is so interesting to see how they react to someone who is inviting them to just make some noise and have fun. Most students have never been told that they are allowed to play freely on the instruments in their school’s music room. Many have been taught that there is a strict regiment of exercises that they must follow until they will be able to play freely. Perhaps this is true, but the way I see it, this is only true if one’s goal is to be a professional, world-class, virtuoso musician. What about if you’ve just had a bad day, and you need to make some noise? What if you’re a wiry teenager and you’ve had one of those weeks when you feel like no one ever listens to you? Maybe you just need to be heard.
I love to listen to the sounds they create. We often begin with an exercise called One Quality Sound. This exercise presents one of the fundamental truths of my approach to music – all music begins with one quality sound. If you can make a sound that authentically expresses who you are at that moment in time, then you can make music. In his guide for facilitating improvisation, Return to Child, Jim Oshinsky says, “One Quality Sound is one note or tone – just one! – that authentically expresses how you feel at the moment you sing or play it” (18). This is a total reimagining if what music instruction is. Notice Oshinsky’s use of the word “tone” in addition to “note”. “Note” implies a right or wrong choice. But “tone” simply means that you are to make a sound. And if you can make one sound, then who’s to say you can’t make two? Once you’ve made two, why not three? And once you can make three sounds on an instrument, why then you’ve begun to play a melody! By this line of reasoning, anyone has the ability to play any instrument; if only they are able to forget everything else they have learned about what is “right” or “wrong” about musicianship. If only they are willing to listen to themselves. If only they are courageous enough to let their inner voice speak.
The rules for what is right or wrong go out the window when we view music in this way. I take away the top-down instructional model that says the teacher has the right to dictate what the students should play, and in its place I set up a model where the student is the center, and their own sound, originating from deep inside them, becomes the measure by which I assess their musical ability. They create music based on what is happening inside them in the moment, not based on what someone else is telling them should be happening. In this way, as Victor Wooten argues, students can learn music the same way they learned to speak as babies.
“Think about the first language you learned as a child. More importantly, think about how you learned it. You were a baby when you first started speaking, and even though you spoke the language incorrectly, you were allowed to make mistakes, and the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled... As a baby, you were allowed to jam…” (TED-ed).
Not only can this free play in the music classroom help break down the initial walls of inhibition and open doors to deeper understanding of music, it has the power to transform students. Beginning with the simplicity of One Quality Sound, I meet the students where they are, and permit them to discover the music that lives inside them, and by extension I give them the opportunity to be heard in a new way. Because my students learn differently, they have only been told what they are not able to do, and what they need to change about themselves in order to survive academically. But here, I have the power to throw that thinking away and ask them, “What do you have to say? How do you feel? What are you experiencing right now? What can we learn from that?” I allow the student to show me what they can do. The experience of making music, of hearing and expressing the inner voice, becomes the teacher. I become nothing more than an awed listener. Arguing the value of such an experientially based approach to education, Malcolm McKenzie urges, “Let the students loose … They will soon convince the adults in the community of the learning that takes place there” (McKenzie 28).