Balance, Equilibrium and Kodály

About practising part 5: When I first entered Chetham’s school of music many years ago as a 14-year-old pupil, I was presented with a homework diary on my first day. Wise words reproduced on the opening pages instantly made a strong impression.

Before you continue reading, you might want to catch up to the previous article on the subject of practising:

Part 5: Current blog
Part 4:
How to begin? >
Part 3:
 Internalisation and working away from the instrument >
Part 2: Micro practice >
Part 1: Both sides of the brain >

 

Zoltán Kodály 

‘The characteristics of a good musician are a well-trained ear, a well-trained mind, a well-trained heart, and a well-trained hand. All four parts must develop together in constant equilibrium.’

This is one of the most famous quotations from the great Hungarian composer and educator Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), and we would all do well to keep them constantly in mind.

Whether we are a young musician starting out, or a teacher, parent or adult amateur enthusiast, the dangers of prioritising mechanical facility over aural awareness, or memorising skills over physical and mental wellbeing in our playing are considerable. It is all too common – if entirely understandable- for budding musicians to spend considerably longer working at their finger facility and motoric skills than on phrasing and sound production.

Of course, mechanical security and memory are two of the obvious areas to spend time on when you are developing: There is no question that hours upon hours of practising can and will evidently soak up and ‘cure’ memory and accuracy issues. But obsessively prioritising security and total recall of scores over sound production, health and well-being can lead to trouble.

When pianists or violinists are faced with thousands upon thousands of fast notes in Chopin études or Paganini Caprices, survival and accuracy of execution can lead to a total loss of perspective.

When we forget to engage our ears in what we play we risk losing interest in the repertoire we love. If we are not consciously concerned with posture, we risk injury. If we motor on day after day with repetitive practise despite feeling bored and disengaged, then our mental and spiritual health will unquestionably be at risk too.

Kodály’s wise and important words are important not only for musical development, but also for life generally. To lose balance and perspective in life and art by overly concerning we with one aspect is unquestionably unhealthy. It is potentially dangerous to our well-being. Of course, life is about actions, but if we act in life without listening, thinking, and feeling, the consequences can be devastating.

In music we can instil balance and equilibrium from the earliest years by stressing the importance of learning core musicianship skills such as singing, clapping and movement before going near an instrument. Sadly, we live in an era where it is increasingly common to find children who never sing at home or at primary school. I will return to this theme in a future blog, but meanwhile another quotation from Kodály seems most appropriate for consideration.

 

 

‘To teach a child an instrument without first giving him preparatory training and without developing singing, reading and dictating to the highest level along with the playing is to build upon sand.’

Sound, essential advice that few would surely disagree with. But the practicalities of modern life can make it hard, if not impossible for instrumental teachers to work according to this approach. Conversations with the wonderful music educator and writer Karen Marshall recently reminded me just how tough it can be for instrumental teachers at the grassroots level in 2022 as they struggle to develop musicianship through instrumental lessons with students who have never even danced to, let alone sung along with the music. I look back with nostalgia to the 1960s when radio programmes such as ‘Listen with mother’ encouraged basic musicianship in the home- and reached peak audiences of over a million: video left.

And BBC Radio 4 also presented a wonderful series for schools that introduced music in a context embracing dance and basic musicianship that I well remember from my earliest years: ‘Music movement and Mine’ made a huge impact on the lives of many children in the UK: video right.

This was all part of a general culture that accepted subsidised support for the Arts in a manner that seems utopian for the state sector today. Assemblies at primary schools in my day encouraged daily singing. Nearly every classroom in my local primary school in Aberdeen in the 1970s had a piano in it (which was used in lessons regularly, often by non-specialist amateur playing teachers). Where have we gone wrong? 

Last year I reviewed what I thought would be a musicianship book for pianists by Sally Cathcart: Ready to Play: Off We Go! 1 (Alfred Item Code 2021UK). In fact, it presents a ‘listening with mother’ approach for the 21st century, with lots of wonderful games, activities and concepts that would be extremely useful to ‘pre-lesson’ children universally, whether they end up having formal Violin, Piano or Flute lessons. ‘Jelly on a plate’ is one of the wonderful chants from the book.

 

Ready To Play: Off We Go! 1

The songs in Cathcart’s colourfully presented introductory volume will make children, parents, and teachers alike smile. Finding patterns, assimilating rhythms, memorising, and clapping. All fantastic things to do but so worrying that they need to be presented formally and laid out for publication in the first place.

Order on Musciroom.com

This is the world of home education. We should all be doing these things, whether we are trained as musicians or not- as a core part of education and development for our families. Just as parents teach their children to dress, eat with a fork, knife and spoon and clean their teeth, so too should they teach them to clap and sing. The book makes for a sad reflection on the times we live in. It should not be necessary but for many it probably is. Perhaps the root of our problem lies in the fact that our society does not value music as a crucially important aspect of the curriculum.

Order on Musicroom.com

Karen Marshall’s own early piano books are able to address basic piano learning skills alongside essential non-playing skills in a most engaging way. “Get Set Piano” the original tutor and also the new My First Piano book (for 5 to 7 years) were written with musicianship weaved in using traditional songs and rhymes so to provide piano teachers with the tools to bridge the gap when nothing had occurred in the curriculum music lessons at school.

It is so distressing to realise that in 2022 children often arrive for their first lesson unable to clap a rhythm, mark a pulse, sing with correct pitching… or even sing at all. Karen is well aware of the issues at the grassroots level:

“The problem is compounded by some non-musically trained nursery teachers singing to children in their chest voices (deficient in pitch) so tiny ones can’t match the sounds they are hearing as they are not physically able to do so. Things can really be problematic from the very beginning.” 

But it is not all doom and gloom. There are wonderful teachers and approaches out there for those with the time and wherewithal to seek and find. Here is a fantastic charity which is doing excellent work. Teachers and choral leaders could certainly do well to visit their courses:

Sing for Pleasure

Website

Perhaps the root of these problems is money. Music seems too often to be the ‘soft’ option for cuts- yet evidence strongly suggests that music has huge power and enormous benefits for everyone. It should be a ‘core’ subject. There is nothing new in suggesting that music is of vital significance as a core subject in education.

Plato suggested this thousands of years back, looking to music as education for inculcating moral values. If Art reflects reality, then authenticity in art encourages honesty and goodness in society. Plato’s idealism remains fascinating and inspirational today. From his perspective music reaches directly into the mind. It also reaches the soul. It heals the body.

 

Belinda Gough

Belinda Gough, Head of Woodwind at Chetham’s, takes these three perspectives in her reflections as the basis for development in her stellar work as a teacher and pedagogue. It was both inspirational and fascinating to listen to her reflect on some of the core reasons for problems in the development of young musicians, as much of what she believes tallies directly with Kodály.

 

Interview

MM: I began by asking her to outline the basic elements that have guided her in her development as a musician and educator:

BG: The keys are simple, and like all simple things, sometimes offer us a challenge to release, embrace and liberate. They are already Inside us/ with us since we were born… yet we often seek them outside of us or feel we’ve ‘lost’ them. We may feel that they need to be ‘found’ again.

MM: I asked Belinda why do so many aspiring, hardworking musicians have periods of struggle and frustration? When studying the thing you love the most, why can it be so hard to relax and enjoy it to the full?.

BG: We gather blocks or imbalances as we live, grow & develop. Mostly, I see our process as educators as helping students to disperse the blocks, liberate the keys, and acquire balance between them during cycles of constant random change.…a constant would be useful …?

MM: And how does this tally with Kodály’s approach and famous quotation?

BG: When the basic elements are In balance, we’re empowered, effortless, happy, and intuitively creative. I observe 3 elements:

🔵 Our MIND
🔵 Our BODY
🔵 Our EMOTIONS (spiritual /emotive/ energetic being)

I notice that when one of the three areas overdrives or dominates, it creates an imbalance. Many of the problems and issues we encounter that hinder progress stem from DISCONNECTION or IMBALANCE in one or more of these essential elements.

Intellectually students can have noisy busy minds and over-think. This can extend to the extent that leads to a lack of sleep, stress, and poor mental health.

Physically poor posture can lead to tension/ pain /dis-coordination. Our body systems can be too active (or too inactive). There can be too much physical effort (or the reverse).

Emotionally intense mood swings from optimism to pessimism (highs to lows) can of course cause much negativity. Shifts from high to low, the inability to filter reactions and the overshadowing of physical and mental control can cause great harm. Disconnection or lack of understanding of spirituality can also be damaging.

Towards rebalance

Belinda is positive and optimistic about ways in which musicians can be encouraged to redress imbalances in their approach to learning and development:

‘Often, we can find a way forward by simply embracing our natural body energy systems to a much greater extent. With good support, friends, family, colleagues, and community we can absorb the changes necessary, heal and rebalance.

The good news is we were born with everything we need in harmony. And as we are just frequency, we all have the ability and tools within us to disperse & move away from any blocks we may create.

Think of one problem you may have: either yours or one of your students. Think Mind, Body, Emotion. From which of these elements does the problem stem? Observe and decide how you can help yourself rebalance. The easiest way is to activate one of the two areas inhibited due to the third overriding. In this process, we need to choose lots of varied tools & skills.

For example, by activating the feet through movement, you can activate your legs & core and fire up your body for action. Exercise your body, so you can understand how it responds & how it functions. Perhaps even better than exercising is dancing: Dance (full body flow between Mind-body heart). As a musician, dancing also gives you a real/ tangible physical awareness of pulse, Rhythm & fullness of movement.’

Belinda is a strong advocate of the power of breathing as a means of developing, inspiring, invigorating and healing musicians. In the next instalment, we will look at breath control and its vital role in music-making, pedagogy, practice and performing psychology.

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