Polyphony: The Rhythm of Musical Development, the Music Lesson and the Academic Year

By Magrath, Jane | American Music Teacher, April-May 2005 | Go to article overview

Polyphony: The Rhythm of Musical Development, the Music Lesson and the Academic Year


Magrath, Jane, American Music Teacher


The teaching year has an unmistakable rhythm to it as we come to a junction where students suddenly seem to perform with more depth and sensitivity and deeper musical insight.

Whitehead and the Stages of Romance, Precision and Generalization

In the 1920s, British mathematician and educator Alfred North Whitehead wrote an essay titled "The Rhythm of Education," in which he discussed the progression of a student in a formal learning situation. (1) He speaks of the stages of romance, precision and generalization as means to acquire knowledge as a kind of a rhythmic progression. Whitehead describes the romance stage as the initial time when the subject matter is vivid, exciting, entrenching. It becomes so fascinating that the student cannot stop thinking about it and perhaps becomes obsessed with the topic. Hopefully, we all have experienced this student. In this romance stage, the student, who's sometimes a beginner, only wants to play and make music and learn all she can about this fascinating subject.

The next stage is precision--where a student learns the mechanics of the subject--in this case, the technique and mechanics of playing an instrument or singing. Benjamin Bloom describes precision as "... the stage of technical mastery. It is learning the rules and the exceptions of the language of the field. It is coming to terms with the discipline at its current level of evolution." (2)

For the musician, it is a stage marked by detailed music practice and attention to detail. This probably is a time when technique is developed in detail and depth and where repertoire and physical playing skills are built.

Whitehead describes the final stage as generalization, during which the individual returns to the stage of romance, but now with the experience of the depth and synthesis that come from the period of precision. The individual is able to apply techniques and insights gained from prior study to a larger picture. It could be for musicians, a time when they are aware of style, performance practice and sound ideals for much of their own literature, as well as of subtleties in individual performances; here, they can generalize with depth and renewed meaning.

Stages of Development

Many teachers can see this in their work with students. Bloom, in his book Developing Talent in Young People, talked with twenty-four American concert pianists under age 40. Bloom says highly accomplished pianists move through three phases of learning during their growth as musicians and pianists, similar to those stages outlined by Whitehead. Bloom found the early years of study were playful and filled with excitement, yet carefully planned and structured. The student often is caught up in the excitement; learning was enjoyable, and activities provided "surprising rewards and continuous excitement or challenge. The effect of this first phase of learning seemed to be to get the learner involved, captivated and hooked and to get the learner to need and want more information and expertise." (3) Often, first lessons were filled with positive reinforcement, as the student explored possibilities and engaged in a wide variety of activities. This was a time for developing a routine--lessons and practice were integrated as a natural part of life. Bloom stated that it is important for all pianists to go through this phase of romance with music study.

Bloom's second stage parallels Whitehead's stage of precision, where the pianist spends much time on details. Knowledgeable criticism from teachers and juries of musicians became as rewarding as applause and adulation had been earlier. Here, pianists came to understand that music could be studied. Recitals, competitions, performances became more frequent and important. For many of those interviewed, the lessons changed dramatically during this time. Instruction became more rational and less formal and personal. Technical skills and vocabulary became the core of the lessons. …

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