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Bridging the Great Divide Between Classical & Contemporary Music & Creating Well-Rounded Musicians

Musicians tend to be one or the other a ‘classical musician’ or a ‘contemporary musician.’ There are many differences between the two – the way they learn music, the way they perform it, the style of music that is performed, the equipment that they use and their knowledge base. Often these musicians are envious of each other. ‘Classical’ musicians want to know more about contemporary styles of music. They want to play the piano for hours without music and be good at working out music by ear. ‘Contemporary musicians’ on the other hand, want to be able to read music and understand the theory behind it. They want to know more about classical music, musicians and how to perform classical music. They are often in awe of the technical prowess of classical musicians. In the following, aspects to be included to create a well-rounded music program for students will be considered, and also how to practically apply these aspects.

To begin with, it is necessary to establish some form of definition for the two words ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’. For the purpose of this paper, ‘classical’ refers to classical or art music. ‘Contemporary’ refers to jazz and ‘pop music’. This is a generalization and there is no clear line between the two but a definition to some degree, needs to be established. It has been the custom that the areas of classical and contemporary music were very separate: how these musicians learnt music, how they performed it, what they performed and the environments which they performed in. Over the years, we have developed an idea of what constitutes classical or contemporary musicians. The stereotype of classical musicians are that they are good music readers, learn music through reading, have a good understanding of classical music theory, are technically proficient, have a good classical playing technique and perform and understand classical music. They are not good at improvising, composing, working out music by ear, or arranging music and have a limited understanding and appreciation of contemporary music. The contemporary musician is one that learns music by ear, is good at improvising, performs with a contemporary style of technique and often performs in bands and using electrical equipment. They have a poor understanding of theory and can not read music well. It is necessary to use these stereotypes when looking at the differences between the two.

There has been a shift in music education in recent years to a more integrated approach between classical and contemporary music. This is evident in examination bodies, tertiary institutions and learning methods. Exam syllabi now include contemporary music and contemporary exams. Classical music degrees now have some elements of contemporary music as part of their curriculum and contemporary music degrees have been introduced. Also piano methods include more contemporary music. However, even though there has been a shift in the mentality and content of music education of today, there remains a great divide between classical and contemporary musicians. As a jazz musician will tell you, just because a student learns to perform a jazz-style piece of music, this does not make the student a jazz musician. Today the position still stands that that many piano students and performers alike, are not well rounded. They tend to be classical or contemporary and have many of the strengths and weaknesses that are typical of that performance style.

There are reasons why there is this great divide between the two types of musicians, one being that both styles of music are very different. Also in the majority of cases it is found that musicians become the type of musician that they are because of the music education that they received. A teacher can only pass on to their students, their own experiences and knowledge. Therefore if the teacher does not possess certain skills, it is difficult for the students to acquire them. Music education would remain unchanged generation after generation, unless music teachers continue their own music education after their own music lessons have discontinued, or learn further than the education that they receive from their teachers. This also applies to current students. They will need to look beyond their teachers to receive the skills of a well-rounded musician. Another reason for this divide is that often the emphasis of teachers and students has been only to reach the next grade and not acquiring a broad education. This pressure for grade reaching may come from the competitive nature of the student, parent or teacher, or simply a deadline that needs to be met. It could also be that the teacher is following a method or syllabus that is not well-rounded.

A point to consider is the necessity, importance or even desire that musicians are well rounded, or should musicians remain classical or contemporary. Look first of all, at the musicians themselves. If you ask them this question, it will be found that both types of musicians are generally envious of each other. They would like to have the skills and knowledge that the other possesses. Also there are many benefits of having a well balanced program for piano students. It will assist them in becoming flexible and capable musicians that can accept and enjoy the many musical challenges and opportunities that come their way throughout life. This is applicable to students that continue on to follow a career in music, and one that enjoys music for recreation only. In both cases, though, it is beneficial for students to have a variety of skills. For a pianist that becomes a professional musician, there are many skills and much knowledge that they will require outside of being able to play the piano. There are many careers options that a pianist may pursue: arts management, composition, song writing, conducting, private or classroom teaching, arranging, concert pianist, pianist for restaurants, parties and weddings, accompanist, pianist or a recording artist. For many of these careers, varied skills and knowledge are required or desired. For the recreational musician, useful skills to possess are to have a performable repertoire, be able to accompany sing-a-longs, improvise and play with other musicians. For the student that does not pursue a career in music, it is hoped that when they discontinue lessons, they continue to play the piano and enjoy music and have also acquired skills and knowledge that they will be able to use throughout their life. Also it is to be argued, that well-rounded musicians will have a greater appreciation, knowledge and importantly, love of music.

A well-rounded piano program is one that incorporates aspects from both classical and contemporary music. It is one that develops piano students into musicians that can read music, learn music by ear, can improvise, arrange music, compose, perform, have a varied repertoire, an understanding of classical and contemporary theory, can use music technology, has a varied knowledge about many styles and forms of music and has good aural skills. In the following, these aspects shall be considered in more detail, with ideas for teachers on how to include these in their programs.

There are several methods for learning a piece of music: reading it, learning it by rote (be shown by someone), working it out by ear, making an arrangement with the given chords, composing your own piece or improvising. Each of these methods has its own strengths. Learning music through reading is essential for learning much of the classical repertoire. It is necessary to read the music to be able to follow the instructions from the composer on how to interpret it. Pianists that can read music have the advantage of being able to pick up a piece of music and read and play it. If students can read music, they can learn independently, not being reliant on their teacher to teach them the next piece. The benefits of learning music by rote or by ear, are that it improves listening, aural and memorization skills. Also, if the piece is learned without reading, it immediately becomes memorized repertoire. It is important for students to have memorized repertoire so that the student can play pieces on the piano when they do not have music with them. Time and money is also saved in looking for an appropriate arrangement of the music and buying it. Also students will feel more confident when they hear a piece of music that they like, to then sit down at the piano and try to learn it independently. They will also have more freedom to make their own interpretation of the music. Learning without music also has a great advantage for beginner students who can not read music well yet. They can enjoy playing without the strain of reading music. Some pieces are easier to learn by rote than by reading such as the main theme of Fur Elise or the Pink Panther theme. Students can then enjoy playing these pieces before they reach the level where they are able to read them. It is beneficial for students to learn music both through reading and without reading. The trend for classically trained musicians has been that there tends to be too much emphasis on music reading and that students rarely learn music through any other method. This limits students into becoming sheet music dependent musicians. Alternatively, contemporary musicians tend to be poor music readers that struggle to cope with being capable of performing a piece at sight. Learning pieces by rote or by ear should be encouraged with beginner students. Suzuki is well known for his ‘mother tongue’ learning philosophy: children learn to speak before they learn to read and write. This same concept is then applied to music; students first learn how to play the piano, and then learn how to read and write music. There are some methods that take this to the extreme and do not teach music reading at all, or too late. Ultimately, to create well rounded and flexible musicians, it is important to keep a balance between learning methods.

There are some theoretical concepts and knowledge that tend to be learned or used by classical or contemporary musicians. For example, some such concepts that fall under the umbrella of contemporary music are: bridge, slash chords, the blues and jazz minor scale. Examples of classical terminology are harmonic minor scale, symphony, perfect cadence and adagio. Some concepts have both classical and contemporary terms such as the tremolo or shake; Dominant 7th chord or 7th chord; and coda or outro. Other concepts are used by all musicians such as the major scale, arpeggios, staccato and time signatures. Having an understanding of theory is necessary for performance, composition, improvisation, arrangement, aural and music appreciation. For a musician to gain a thorough understanding of music and to be able to play a variety of music styles, they should understand many theoretical concepts for both classical and contemporary fields. The areas of theory that students are exposed to, is normally closely related to the type of music that they are experiencing in their music lessons. Some areas that classical musicians tend to neglect to teach their students are the construction of scales such as the natural minor, jazz minor, pentatonics and modes. They also do not teach the spelling of chords such as 9th chords, minor 7ths chords and suspended chords. They also do not learn about contemporary genres such as blues and bossanova and boogie. Contemporary musicians tend not to learn many Italian musical terms such as presto or maestoso, or classical genres such as the sonata or fugue. For students to have a real understanding of music, and not just a particular style of music, they will need to learn the theory behind each of these styles.

In music education, aural refers to training which heightens the understanding of sound. Ultimately, aural can not be removed from a music program because music is an aural art. Good aural skills provide students with a greater appreciation of music, they will be able to work out music without the written music and it generally improves listening skills. It also assists composition, improvisation and arrangement. Aural skills can be developed in both a structured and unstructured way. There are many aspects of aural that should be included in a well-rounded program: rhythmic and melodic imitation and dictation and the ability to aurally recognize chords, chord progressions, modulations, tonality, meter, instruments, style, form and work out pieces by ear. There are many similarities between the aural learned by contemporary musicians and that from classical musicians. Some differences however are that contemporary musicians focus more on contemporary rhythms, chords and contemporary styles and classical tends to remain within classical styles. The aural development of many students is often restricted by the aural requirements in exam syllabi. Often aural is taught to a level where students can pass their exams, but there is no real developmental, well-rounded aural program that is followed. Having good aural skills is an important component in creating flexible and capable musicians.

Arrangement is the ability to play a piece of music in many styles. There is much knowledge that is required to be able to arrange music. Students need to understand scales, chords, chord progressions, chord voicing and musical styles. If students have the ability to arrange music they will also have a deeper understanding of the construction of music. This will assist them in both performance and composition. It will help them to be more creative and they will find it easier to play without written music. Once they know how to arrange, they will find this a fun and easy way to play music. It will become like the ‘instant cake’ way of making music: just add water and stir. They will be able to play more music, because they will not have to learn ‘all of the dots’ in a written score. They will also be able to perform a piece at their playing level rather than trying to find a suitable arrangement of the piece. Students that can arrange will find this useful for sing-a-longs, for accompanying and for sight reading. An important aspect of arrangement is the ability to read and understand chord symbols and have the ability to play these chords in various ways. Students need to be able to ‘spell’ chords, that is understand their construction and then also understand different ways to play these chords. Some chords that should be included are major, minor, 7th, diminished, augmented, diminished 7th, minor 7th, major 7th, half diminished, suspended 4th, 9th, major 6th, minor 6th chords. Another aspect of arrangement is transposition. Understanding transposition is an essential tool for musicians. Students should understand I IV V, and other chords in all keys and play The Very Useful Chord Progression (The simple way of playing I IV and V7 in the close hand position) in all keys. Arrangement is an integral part of contemporary music but is often neglected in classical lessons. It is an important aspect of a well-rounded music program and if incorporated into these programs, would contribute much to bridging the divide between classical and contemporary musicians.

Improvisation is creative. It is musicians creating their own music ad libitum. It is a method of freeing the musician from the restrictions of composed music. It is also a means of developing coordination and an understanding of phrasing. Improvisation is useful in reinforcing the knowledge of scales, chords and chord progressions and musical styles. Also it assists in composition. Most commonly with improvisation there is a given, such as a chord progression and a scale and the remainder is for the student to create for themselves. Improvisation tends to be an area of music that is often explored or essential in contemporary music, and often not as commonly used in a classical music programs. Music has often been taught as a discipline, similar to math or science, and not as a creative art. The creative element is one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing music. It is similar to how interpreting notes is the enjoyable part of playing the notes, and it is a great shame if students miss out on this. And it is an essential element of a well-rounded program.

Composition projects can be based on a motif, chord progression, lyrics, tonality, form or style, and once again, this can be used as a means of reinforcing knowledge in these areas. It can also be completely free and unstructured. Composition is often seen as a separate learning area that is not incorporated in the subject of learning the piano in both the classical and contemporary fields. This is unfortunate, because it can be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. Many see composition to be a talent for the gifted few, but contrary to this belief, composition is actually something that everyone can do. The ability to compose is one that sees musicians again become flexible, capable and well-rounded.

Electronic media is a large part of music today, whether it is listening to music or recording, performing or creating music. Some basic music technology that is useful to know how to use are such things an ipod, downloading music, burning CDs, using equipment such as a digital piano, mixing desk, amplifier and microphone and using computer programs such as Garage Band for creating electronic music and Sibelius for writing music. Classical musicians often only perform on a piano in a purely acoustic setting, and feel lost when it comes to connecting cables, choosing settings on equipment and experimenting with electronic forms of music. Contemporary musicians tend to use electrical equipment more. Musicians need to be familiar with music technology to become comfortable in creating and performing music in a range of environments.

Music appreciation covers the areas of music history, composers, song writers, bands, musicians, musical genres, styles and instrumentation. Exploring these aspects of music, provides students with a deeper understanding of the pieces which they perform. Also students will need to delve outside of their repertoire to gain a broad and rounded understanding of the areas included in the field of music appreciation. Once again music appreciation tends to be aspect of private piano lessons that is not covered in much depth. Perhaps it is because teachers depend on elsewhere to provide this to their students such as classroom or university, or even their parents and peers. For students to gain a broad understanding of music, both classical and contemporary music appreciation will need to be incorporated into the program.

Piano playing is very often a solo art. Rarely do piano students have the opportunity to play in an ensemble. Yet if they follow a career as a piano player, ensemble skills are essential. Playing in an ensemble is very enjoyable and should be something that all piano players experience. There are various types of ensembles for a pianist to be part of: accompanying singers and instrumentalists, being in a small group such as a trio or playing in a band, or a large group. It is very motivating being in an ensemble. It is an opportunity for pianist to put into practice, many of the skills that they have learned. Also playing with other musicians inspires them to play more. Because of the lack of experience in this area, often pianists shy away from ensemble opportunities that come their. Playing in ensembles should be part of the experiences and skills of a piano student. For students to gain a well-rounded education, they should play in contemporary and classical ensembles.

So that students gain a well-balanced repertoire, it is necessary that they learn pieces from all styles of music. In this way they will acquire the techniques, performance practices and understanding of these styles. Teachers should create a checklist of styles of classical and contemporary styles of music, and ensure that their students are exposed to each of these.

Aspects of music that can be incorporated into a music program to help create well-rounded musicians have now been considered. The next stage is to look at how to put this into practice. There are some impediments, which may limit the execution of a well-rounded program such as the knowledge of the teacher, time, learning methods, exam bodies, tertiary education, opportunities and equipment.

The private teacher is the manager of the music education of their students and therefore responsible for the education that they receive. Most piano teachers are not experts in the classical and contemporary fields. There are three options for a piano teacher that has not received a well-rounded music education. One is to send their students to experts in various fields, the second is to become experts in all areas themselves, and thirdly, they could gain a general knowledge in many areas and then send their students to a specialist if they would like to specialize in a particular area. The third option is what most teachers would prefer, not having the desire or time to become experts in all areas. It does make one consider whether there should more formalization of the qualifications of music teachers, so that they have a balanced skill set, before they begin being responsible for the music education of students. There are very few fields in the workforce, that allow people to practice without formal qualifications. It is often difficult for teachers to find the time to extend their knowledge once they are already teaching, and it would be better if they could do this beforehand.

Time is a considerable issue when attempting to deliver a well-rounded program. It is very difficult for teachers to cover all aspects of the program discussed, in a half hour lesson per week. In many countries, students have a private lesson and general music lessons in addition to this. In Australia, many students have classroom music, but this may not cover all aspects of a well-rounded program. An option for teachers is to run classes for students in addition to their weekly private lesson. A few teachers could combine together to achieve this. Teachers could also offer longer lessons to their students. It is also possible that more may be achieved during lessons if teachers use the lesson time efficiently. If more is planned into the lesson, more will be achieved.

Learning methods, exam bodies and tertiary education institutions can make a considerable difference to the music education that students receive. If they offer courses and exams that require students to have an understanding and skills both of classical and contemporary music, then teachers will be required to teach these to their students.

Opportunities can be generated for students to be part of ensembles or use music equipment or music computer programs. Piano teachers could connect with other instrumental teachers to group students together into ensembles. Not all piano teachers will have the technology or equipment for students to learn to use. But they may find that there are courses available for students to participate in, or people that they know that could offer these experiences to their students.

By bridging the great divide between classical and contemporary music, and creating well-rounded musicians, students will gain a greater love and appreciation of music, and will be able to cope well in the many musical situations that they find themselves in throughout their lives. It is also hoped that they will continue to enjoy performing music once they discontinue piano lessons. It has been a sad fact of the past, that many piano students once they have discontinued lessons, have given up playing the piano all together. This is a true indicator that this person did not really enjoy playing the piano or did not acquire the musical skills that would encourage them to continue playing. A reason for this may have been that creative element was missing in their music education. Other reasons may be the lack of ensemble playing or not learning repertoire that the students really enjoyed. It is the ambition of all piano teachers that their students love and continue to love playing the piano throughout their lives and that they have the skills and knowledge to cope with the musical challenges that they face. It is the ambition of musicians themselves, that they feel confident to take opportunities that come their way, knowing that they have the skills and knowledge necessary. If a well-rounded music education is provided to students, there is a greater chance that these ambitions will be achieved.


About the Author

Julia Sykes began teaching piano at the age of fourteen. She completed a Bachelor of Music at the University of Western Australia and has developed the Sykes Piano Program which is now used in her school and also by licensed teachers. She has produced books and CDs for the use of students and teachers and developed a teacher training program. She was also a finalist in the Telstra Young Business Awards in 2007.


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