Monday, June 4, 2012

What's your story?

This past Friday we attended the release party of the Harvest Queen cd at Kauffman Auditorium in Marquette, Michigan. (The story of how this project came to be is told here [Kickstarter Video] and here [WNMU interview].) The concert, which included traditional and new waltzes, was amazing, but it was only a portion of the overall event. Crossing Paths was intended to be an opportunity to explore various connections between local food and music.

In the afternoon, Kailin Yong conducted a violin master class for players of all ages and abilities. While my wife attended this hour-long class, I went for some local coffeeWhen I returned, Kailin was answering questions from those assembled on the stage. Someone asked him to explain when he started improvising in music.

Kailin responded by playing a beautiful, classical melody and then said (to the best of my memory), "I was very good at telling this story - an old Italian's story. But I wanted to tell my own story. I had been playing for years before I felt free to improvise. I do not want my students to have to wait as long as I did, which is why I had you working on improvisation today."

This reminded me of what Jonah Lehrer shared in Imagine about Yo-Yo Ma
"I was nineteen and I had worked my butt off," Ma told David Blume of The New Yorker in 1989. " I knew the music inside and out. While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, 'Why am I here? What's at stake? Nothing. Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored' Perfection is not very communicative." (p. 86)
In both cases, expert musicians found being perfect was not enough. They longed to express themselves. They wanted to tell their own story or, at the very least, find a way to add a part of themselves into the retelling of the story of some other songwriter.

It seems to me we spend a lot of time in math class trying to get our students to retell someone else's story perfectly. The standardization of the curriculum leaves little room for learners to improvise and add their uniqueness to the mathematics. It is no wonder that most students see mathematics as a static set of rules. Whether we "tell" them the rules or have them "discover" the rules it amounts to the same thing - they are playing someone else's tune.

I am glad that I returned before violin master class was over (It turns out my compulsive timeliness can come in handy.) Thanks to Kailin's answer, I want to plan more opportunities that allow learners to improvise. I, too, do not want them to have to wait as long as I did to pick up this skill.

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