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  • Writer's pictureJorge Caballero

How to talk your way out of a problem

By Jorge Caballero


Some time ago, a student consulted with me about Bach's Loure from Lute Suite No. 4. His problem, as he presented it, was that he couldn't find a way to play the note values correctly. He wasn't wrong. Within the first measures of the piece, he began rushing at times, or slowing down at others. I would point them out as they happened, but that didn't solve the problem.

Normally, when faced with this problem, almost every teacher would recommend using a metronome. Since that day we didn't have one, I became one. I marked pulses by snapping my fingers as he played. It didn't work. Something became clearer in the process, however. My student knew which notes would be wrong before they were wrong. In other words, he had awareness of the problem, but not a solution to the problem.

This gave me an idea. I told him, "we are going to put down the guitar and treat this piece as an ear-training rhythm exercise." This is the process where you sightread rhythms on a page while conducting yourself or marking the beats –part of the standard training for any musician. As he began, he noticed the wrong points and began, by speaking rhythms out loud, to correct their durations. We tried this for the first four measures. After that, I asked him to then speak the rhythms, but this time, without tapping the beats, keeping track of them mentally. After that, we came back to the guitar. His rhythmic problems with the first four measures were gone. Problem solved.

I learned several lessons from that experience. First, it seems obvious that awareness of a problem and solutions to the same are very different things, but it is interesting to see how often the nexus between those two is seldom reached in music instruction. Students will often arrive with two sets of issues that hinder their progress. They are either unaware that something they are doing is incorrect and needs to be fixed, or they are aware, but lack the experience or resources to solve it. That is precisely where a teacher has the responsibility to assess the actual needs of the student and provide the right kind of instruction. As Arnold Schoenberg said in the preface to his Harmonielehre, "In my teaching I never sought merely 'to tell the pupil what I know.' Better to tell him what he did not know."

The second lesson was that there is a difference between understanding conceptually how a musical element functions (such as rhythm or note values), and how it feels to produce them. Anyone with sufficient education in music knows that two eighth-notes are to a quarter note what three eighth-note triplets are. But to play 2 eighth-notes followed by a 3 eighth-note triplet accurately is a different matter. My student knew, conceptually, the note values of the piece, and how they fitted nicely in the 6/4 meter of the Loure. That, as he himself knew, was not enough.

Third, talking through your problem helps. Speaking rhythms out while tapping beats is the musical equivalent of talking through the problem. By taking the guitar away, my student effectively removed his "self" from the process of playing, and could sense the temporal experience of the rhythms in Bach's Loure more acutely. Once his brain recorded this experience, correct playing came naturally.

So whenever my students (or I) face problems with a piece or an exercise, I begin with a simple step: remove the guitar, and describe in detail what you/I need to do to play this well. Try this yourself, and prepare to be surprised!

© 2021, Jorge Caballero. All rights reserved.

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