The Daily Star
---- — There is new, long overdue attention being paid in our institutions of higher education to the use of directed practical experience as an essential partner to the classroom lecture.
Students are being encouraged to participate in co-ops, internships, service learning, field experience and research as part of their academic endeavors.
Chemistry and engineering majors, for example, can learn to connect their classroom lessons to experiments in corporate labs. Music industry majors participate in internships at record labels and recording studios. The music industry department at the State University College at Oneonta has such a strong belief in the value of practical experience that its majors are not allowed to graduate unless they have served an internship under the joint supervision of a qualified faculty member and an industry representative.
Many professors are realizing that their own professional development is greatly enhanced by visiting their students during the internship and sharing knowledge with industry experts.
Musicians, of course, are pleased that universities are finally embracing this combination of classroom and “real world” learning, but this is a lesson musicians have always understood. Reading books about Mozart or Van Halen won’t help anyone to play the music of Mozart or Van Halen. Conversely, playing Mozart’s or Van Halen’s musical notes without studying the musical style of these composers won’t result in a performance that matters to anyone. Successful musicians know they need theoretical AND practical knowledge to be effective performers.
Some people think that early days of playing an instrument are merely learning where to place the fingers to get from one note to the next. This is not true. In fact, the physical skills required to play an instrument or sing a song are only a small part of the early learning necessary to perform music.
From the first days of music lessons, music teachers talk to students about correct tonal quality, note length and volume of musical style for each composer, and effective translation of the musical symbol on a page to the heart and soul of those listening in an audience. Every moment of learning to make music is experiential education fueled by intense intellectual activity that guides the learning.
How does this marriage of theory and practical experience work for musicians? What are some of the things a musician learns first in classroom theory, but must eventually learn through practical experience?
One of the most important lessons a musician learns through experience is how to judge time.
Every human being has a sense of time related to his own heartbeat. Audiences, whether they have any musical training or not, are instinctively drawn to a regular, steady beat in music, just as the human body needs a regular, steady heartbeat. Professional musicians are able to keep a steady beat, but they must learn through experience how to do so.
When musicians perform on stage, the exhilaration and tension that can be part of any live performance may affect their performance. Musicians’ hearts beat faster under the strain of reaction to a live audience, and the sense of time can be affected by this quickened heartbeat. A musician can only learn to control the speed of the musical beat by having the experience of a quickened heartbeat on stage, and understanding that music should not necessarily be played more quickly simply because the heart is beating more rapidly.
Every musician who performs outside of the circle of his own family and friends must learn how to control the sense of time in the heightened circumstances of performing in front of a live audience, and the only way to gain that learning is to deal with the problem on a practical, personal level. Each professional musician has his own way of responding to the problem of a quickened heartbeat during performance. After many years of dealing with this problem, I have found my own answer to the issue. All musicians face the problem and deal with it on a personal level.
The combination of classroom learning and practical experience can offer a truly superior method of higher education. Musicians are glad that universities are becoming partners in this effort.
Musicians know that an effective education combines academic theory with “real world” performance. “Experiential education” has always been the basis of music education and musicians applaud the general adoption of these principals in the world of formal education.
Musicians acknowledge that a good measurement of educational success is whether the student can actually do the job for which he has been educated. Can the musician perform the music he has been hired to play? Many musicians feel this is a good standard to apply to any academic endeavor. Musicians are glad that colleges are seeking to offer programs that clearly relate theoretical concepts to actual applications after graduation.
Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/musicbeat.