Music Production - Course Overview

Music Production

The music production curriculum has been developed over the course of thirty years, combining my experiences as a professional composer/producer and educator. Through analysis, reflection, trial and error, constant experimentation, and judicious usage of technology, the music production curriculum has matured as a powerful method for teaching music. New tools allow for new methods of teaching. New tools also allow for new and different results. Computers in music allow for exciting changes in how we teach and educate our students in acquiring the language of music. Since the very early 1980's we have experimented with computers, MIDI, DAWs, transcription software and sundry digital innovations but the lot of them fail to teach how to create a memorable melody – hence the creation and continuous evolution of the music production course at Miles Macdonell Collegiate.

It is quite common to hear people say that music is a language. Music has a symbolic written code and long-standing oral tradition. There is structure, syntax, grammar, meaning, and spelling, all of which result in communication. Most importantly as with all languages, there are distinctly different practices in transmission between the oral and written traditions. The written score and the audio recording are both powerful forms of the music language, each performing its unique role in communicating the composer's or arranger's thoughts. However, unlike an individual silently reading a book, most people, including many musicians, are unable to comprehend the intent of the composer's communication by silently reading the score. In other words, the written score isn't enough to communicate what is heard in the imaginative mind of the songwriter or composer. To achieve clarity of intent the musical work must be heard.

My intent is not to denigrate the written traditions of notated music but to question the accepted practices of how we acquire our musical language. We initiate our children to our vernacular with the spoken word and in time we judiciously introduce the written word. Both oral and written aspects of one's language are nurtured with the hopeful intention of producing an educated, literate, creative, and thoughtful citizen. Although there are fine programs of study that nurture a fun play-like atmosphere encouraging creativity and self expression, most students endure a path of study that does little to sustain interest and growth. Many people initiate some sort of music lessons but few students experience the joy of actually learning the language for self-expression. Let's examine how most children are introduced to the music language within the context of formal music training.

As a young student enters piano lessons for the first time excitement and enthusiasm abound as the student is taught how to sit on the piano bench and place their hands on the keyboard. In time the student is reading from an instruction book and is well on their way to preparing for their first examination. Eventually there are more examinations, recitals, theory/harmony lessons and a host of certificates that reflect the student's achievements. A prescribed course of study has been completed and the student should be justifiably proud of their achievement considering the years of dedicated practice. My concern with the process is three fold. Firstly, the intent of any language is to facilitate communication and self-expression. Was this intention fulfilled by the prescribed course of study? Secondly, the systemic perpetuation of certain methodologies and course materials perceived by parents, institutions, and general public as immutable encourages narrow-mindedness. Thirdly, it is my contention that a large percentage of the dropout rate associated with music lessons can be directly attributed to the system and standards presently in place in private and public institutions.

Let's consider a scenario involving a young child asking their parent's permission to go play outside. If we were to use the teaching model associated with acquiring the music language as a platform to learn a vernacular language the child would most likely be asked to put their request in writing or select a pre-written sentence that best matches their desire. To continue, imagine the child requesting from the parent the rules of engagement for playing in the sandbox or whatever activity they choose to do, and asking if they passed their test on the play activity. What if only scripted conversations were the norm in a child's education and when they were asked to speak freely they responded with "but I have no conversation" and began searching for a sheet of paper with some writing on it. Such is the norm when students are asked to perform on their chosen instrument, i.e. speak the music language, with their usual response being, "…but I have no music", meaning printed notation, and therefore they cannot perform. Where there is dialogue there is improvisation. When two people engage in conversation the topic usually becomes a launching pad for a journey in communication with an unpredictable destination. Conversations are only possible because there is a command of the language by the participants and a fluid and flexible thought process, which renders a script unnecessary. The written word is truly important but not to the exclusion of spontaneous oral communication. Does the present curriculum develop a child's ability to speak the music language freely; in other words can they "speak music"?

Music is the currency of today's youth – songs are emotional tokens to be traded or shared. The kind of music that surrounds most children and is most likely to be absorbed is melodic/rhythmic popular music. Whether we agree musically with what our children are being exposed to is irrelevant at this point in time, the deed has been done and it is up to music educators to lead children on a path of discovery of other cultures and forms of musical communication. It is very important to take note of a child's musical background and not lay judgment upon the music or the child, for this background is their point of reference - our starting point. Don't fight the music they enjoy hearing, rather use it as a springboard or a point of introduction to broaden their musical understanding and experience. The music production curriculum is a novel method of teaching the language of music. The intent of music production courses is not to endorse any specific type of music as being superior to another but to create the opportunity for acquiring knowledge and understanding of the elements of music and the various cultural applications of those elements. With the focus on the elements of music it is possible to transcend style and find commonalities between apparently disparate forms of music such as Mozart and rock music. As a result when students witness and experience a linkage e.g., between contemporary music and 18th century harmonic practices, they are more receptive to further exploration of other music styles.

When the commonalities of the human experience are used to build bridges of understanding, our differences become a cause for celebration. However, if this commonality of the human experience is ignored then it is likely that our differences will be misunderstood and a culture of distrust and fear will be nurtured - it becomes a theme of us vs. them. This scenario is played out everyday in faculties of music and schools throughout our country with conservatory trained and classically minded faculties vs. students with popular music backgrounds in bachelor of music programs. It has been my experience that many students in post-secondary music studies appreciate their formal euro-centrically based training but express regret that they never received further training in modern practices of harmony, improvising, arranging, etc. These studies should be mandatory for all music education students and not the exclusive purview of jazz studies programs. The music production program at MMC has attempted to bridge this gap in music education with the critical addition of training in music technology. In many cases computers are often used as glorified pencils with little or no change to past methodology thus greatly reducing the opportunity for creative growth. Or, computers have become the unmatchable cut and paste tool to the total exclusion of the rich historical traditions of music. The music production program at Miles Macdonell Collegiate is a synthesized holistic approach to composing and producing music with equal attention to theory and application. Unique methods of approaching complex subjects within the study of music theory have enabled beginning students to engage in writing practices normally associated with advanced music students. Creative thinking and the products of creative thinking require people to develop self-analysis, self-discipline, critical analysis, tolerance, perseverance, vision, non-linear thinking, curiosity, and the ability to value tradition but challenge questionable practices, as well as a host of collateral qualities. It is difficult to imagine any academic discipline or employer not embracing someone with creative thinking qualities. Learning through the arts (music) about ways of thinking and understanding in relation to creativity will benefit not only the student but also the community – a most applaudable win-win outcome.

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