Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

"Choose Something like a Star"

Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

"Choose Something like a Star"

Article excerpt

The title (with italics added) is a familiar line taken from the same-titled poem by Robert Frost. It is a probing urge to find depth of meaning beyond us despite the confusion around us:

So when at times the mob is swayed

To carry praise or blame too far,

We may choose something like a star

To stay our minds on and be staid.

Creating and sharing meaning from what is within and beyond ourselves is the challege and the comfort of art, of music, and of singing. When as teachers we set to ignite the imaginations in others, it also sparks from the imagination within ourselves. It comes from what includes, but surpasses - the "elements we blend" (Frost). The legendary American mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne, once told young singers that she used to get very nervous and agitated when trying to memorize her music. She got to the point where she couldn't take the pressure she regularly put on herself to meet important rehearsal and performance deadlines. Her rigid memorization system broke down under this strain. She finally tossed out her learning system altogether, and adopted a "whatever" attitude. She turned to a new habit of absorbing her music: she blithely did it while watching television. ...and it worked. She memorized it with comparative ease. Her focus on the music was no longer about drill, deadlines and discipline. It was about imagining, making meaningful associations, and through the invitation to repetition, affirming her smooth storytelling.

As teachers, we have a habit of instructing systematically, and even make it a goal to impart knowledge in that way. While that is how we have learned to teach, it is not how our students actually learn. It is not even how we ourselves learn. We can use systematic training and learning as but one of many aspects of our ideal holistic learning. In our best encounters with our own music, we can benefit greatly by moving from a breakdown of the music's elements, to a breakout of its larger possibilities. Then again, we can also embrace the essence and overall shapes of our music as a motivator for internalizing the details of its smallest elements.

This calls for repetition. Creative repetition. Building the brain's pathways for memories in our muscles and in our minds is essential to executing skillful musicianship and articulate musical statements. We cannot experience the pleasures of performance without the discipline of the practice room. . An emerging leader in this field is the Australian violinist and music teacher, Philip Johnston. His books for music teachers: The Practice Revolution and The PracticeSpot Guide to Promoting Your Teaching Studio, and his web resources:, and, offer exciting and compelling ideas to bring all musicians to their best practicing and performing. Such creativity can help you spark or extend the reaches of your own imagination in teaching.

What is eventually shared sequentially and systematically through performance is actually developed by adding layers of discovery, and an ever-expanding spiral of realizations. These are made out of curiosity, a sense for problem solving, a desire to make meaning, and the converging of many little, well-coordinated steps into a greater wholeness of expression.

Going beyond healthy tone production, articulation, and communication (which are all skill based) to telling the story meaningfully is a leap of the singing spirit. …

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