Paint Me a Picture

I have a number of friends who are amateur classical musicians. Some of them are quite accomplished — but it always astonishes me that they can’t improvise. I mean, how can you not improvise?

It doesn’t really astonish me, though. Improvising is a separate skill, and they never learned it. Nobody taught them how.

Music education, at least as it’s structured in American public schools, is quite different from art education. Remember “paint by numbers,” where you’re given a canvas or a sheet of paper with numbered areas and you’re supposed to fill in each area with the correspondingly numbered paint color? Even in primary school, your art teacher didn’t teach paint by numbers, did she? No, you were given a blank sheet of paper and some paints, or possibly crayons, and you were encouraged to paint a house, or a cat, or a rainbow, or whatever.

Music is taught almost entirely in the form of paint-by-numbers. Here are the dots. You learn what the dots mean, and how to produce on your instrument the sounds that correspond to the dots. If you do a tidy job of it, you’re a talented young musician!

In every art class in school, students produce original work. But with possibly a handful of exceptions here and there, no students are taught to produce original music until they get to college. This is a damn shame.

The first reason for the difference may be neurological. Any six-year-old can look at a picture of a cat and use his or her visual memory to compare the picture to the appearance of an actual cat. The proportions and the parts (ears, tail, paws, whiskers) are all a matter of immediate experience. Music, in contrast, is entirely abstract. There’s no way to tell whether your melody and harmony are well formed without going through a fairly laborious process of learning music theory.

The second reason is practical. Dots on a page make no sound. Unless the student happens to be a pianist, he or she has (historically, at least) no practical way to hear an original piece of music. And nobody else can hear it either. You don’t accomplish anything interesting by putting a bunch of dots on a piece of score paper. If we imagine a ten-year-old showing her mom a picture she drew of a cat, and then imagine her showing her mom a page full of notated music, the difference will be glaringly obvious.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way any more. Today it’s eminently practical for any student, from the age of eight or nine up, to create original music that other people can hear. All you need are a computer, a pair of decent speakers, a MIDI keyboard, and some suitable software.

“Mom, come hear the music I just did!” It’s a different picture now, isn’t it?

The reasons why this isn’t happening yet, except in a few isolated schools, are to do with administration. Some schools don’t have the budget for a computer music classroom. If they have the budget, their computer staff may be completely untrained in music software, and may have no idea how to install or maintain it. And of course most school music teachers would have no clue how to teach creative music-making. They grew up playing the dots, and that’s all they know how to teach.

Last year I volunteered to judge the music side of a student art contest. (By now I’ve forgotten who sponsored it.) What struck me as I listened to the entries was the amazing ineptitude of the student compositions. The kids were trying to compose original music, but quite obviously nobody was helping them learn to do it.

Maybe I ought to buy a dozen music computer installations and teach it myself. If I had a great big room to do it in, I’d be tempted. Trying to work within the bureaucracy of the local school district, though — even thinking about that makes me a little crazy. Anyway, they couldn’t hire me. I don’t have a teaching credential, or even a B.A. I’m a dropout. But damn, somebody ought to do something. I purely hate to see the next generation of kids suffering through paint-by-numbers and never knowing that they could actually make their own music.

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