Monday, October 15, 2012

Pion-Ear Training: A Reflection to Cook's Reference in Chapter 7

    This is not so much a reaction so much as it is a reflection on what Nicholas Cook said in Chapter 7 of Music: A Very Short Introduction. The line I'm referring to is:

"An even more basic example of how education institutions construct and naturalize musical culture is provided by what is sometimes revealingly termed 'ear training', a kind of conditioning that takes place at an early stage of conservatory or university education..."

     After reading this I had to stop and think. It's been a good 6 years since I sat in an ear training class, but what I remember is very clear. I had 4 semesters of ear-training instruction plus an extra semester of Atonal Solfege. Atonal Solfege sounds horrible, but it was really one of the most practical classes I ever took. The 4 semesters of basic ear-training were a mixed batch. At Berklee I never had a class smaller than 25 students. Ear-Training was one of those things that weeded people out - separated those who were going to succeed from those who were going to inevitably drop out by the end of their first year. (in 2006 65% of students dropped out after their first year).  No one ever took ear training seriously. It was a joke to a majority of the student body, and to some degree, still is. Students would blow it off and grind the day before to memorize all the material in hopes that they could pass with a C or B.

     Very few of my classmates ever wanted to practice ear training with me cause they were embarrassed. Pop culture today seems to imply a certain sense of shame when singing. If you couldn't sing well then you couldn't pass the test. Singing the notes was always the hardest part and the most essential. The cleanness of the pitch was secondary to the actual pitch. This detail, more than any, caused so many people to drop out or quit. I can't begin to tell you all the friends I made who just didn't came back the next semester never to be heard from again. Even those that finished and graduated will all say that of all the classes they had ear-training was the 'worst'.

    Even more so were the ones who openly questioned it's importance. Just today I had a Berklee student who was complaining to me that ear-training was useless and impractical in today's 'scene'. She seemed to feel that music wasn't something you heard any more, but something you felt. It was the idea of knowing what the pitches were that was throwing her off. "What does it matter what a perfect 4th of minor 2nd sound like?", she asked. "All that matters is that whatever you decide to sing you sing it well." I can leave that statement as it is and open for discussion. She did happen to believe that music theory was important though, but only the first semester.

     There is a point here, though, not about ear training, but about this pioneering spirit I referenced last week. Whether it's ear training and sight singing, a horrible ensemble or a new job where the only music training we get is the whistling between the copy machine and the cubicle, it's all towards this one purpose. We have to take all this training, and even some of the non-essential bullshit, and make the best of it. There is something to be learned from making 200 copies a day at the copy machine just as much as there is from playing in a horrible group or singing ascending and descending minor 6ths and 7ths. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be a point and sometimes is seems to be just a thing we have to do to get by. There is always a point and it is never a thing we just have to do to get by. Everything we do to better ourselves is a step in the right direction. The moment you begin to delve into the futility of something you need to do is the moment you've taken a step in the wrong direction. We can't continue to make the mistakes the ones before us made, but we can learn from them. The first step is to take what we do with more than a 'grain of salt': more like a packet of salt.

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