THE ANSWERING VOICE
I've been trying to finish the umpteenth draft of the sequel to my book entitled The Anatomy of Melody. As often in these cases, it is proving recalcitrant: offering up new insights at inconvenient moments, showing evidence of less-than-clear reasoning here, and duplicated phrases there. But The Answering Voice is finally falling into place, enough so that I can finally see what it is that I have been attempting.
It turns out to be nothing less than a new approach to teaching music theory, very different from the process most of us have gone through in preparation for a musical career. It is based, of course, on Melody (I knew that much!) and I thought of this second volume as an Introduction to Counterpoint. But it turns out to be much more: A summary of all that I have learned in my forty-odd years of teaching.
It begins with ears and voices, these bodies that we are born into, and the equipment that we are given to make music with. So beginning theory starts with singing and imitating, just as small children learn, but at a higher level. Now we are focusing on musicality first, on imitating a song-well-sung, getting those subtle turns of phrase into our own voices. Then we learn to notate what we have just sung, the single-line melody. We do not begin with reading, but with listening, singing and writing.
Every theory classroom should be a chorus, made up of whatever voices are there. All students learn not only to sing many melodies 'by ear', but also to listen to each other in the singing, making a beautiful sound together. The repertoire should be varied, founded on folk tunes (Yes! to Orff and Kodaly and Suzuki) but also including simple composed songs and popular music. The student is introduced to the idea that the page cannot tell you how to perform the music --at best, it reminds us of how the music should sound. We do not learn abstract rules of structure, but work with communicative sound. All of this is presented in The Anatomy of Melody, which seems to me the way to begin any music study -- vocal, instrumental, historical or theoretical. I've often thought ruefully of students who arrive at college eager to take a music course, and then are completely turned off by dry facts and figures with seemingly little connection to their love for sound. This method connects seamlessly with their past experience, introducing them to basic disciplines through learning to sing together.
The real problem arises when moving to the next step: how do you teach two-part song? I discovered that requiring students to improvise a response to a sung melody --on their feet, in front of the class -- always resulted in a musical phrase. Asking them to notate a response almost never did: the music stopped on the page, and what was written had little connection to the ongoing energy of the song. It took me a long time to realize that The Answering Voice had to be organized exactly as I had learned to teach: first improvisation, and then writing.
But improvisation is quintessentially sound: how can one teach that through written words? It's not easy, and I'm not at all sure that I have succeeded. But by giving many examples of possible first entrances, and by restricting that answer to musical sounds just heard -- words, rhythms, pitches -- I can demonstrate that the 'answering voice' begins with hearing and imitating. Just as we learned the tune in the first place, we learn to respond to it with intuitive musicianship. We make a habit of contrapuntal response. And then we learn to write down what we have sung, not some disconnected idea.
The second part of the book explores the whole process of writing a two-part arrangement, from first ideas through to the completed piece. It is founded on the concept that the writer must hear the whole structure in imagination before writing a single note. And that imagination must be based on actual human singing and improvisation, rather than computer-generated or keyboard sounds.
It's the way that I work, that I learned through the years of arranging with Robert Shaw, and of analysis with Julius Herford, and of leading SINGS where I encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to improvise together. I think it's the way that humans have always responded to song, before the introduction of the page and the rules of harmony. When students progress to those other disciplines, they will do so with musical responses in their ears and voices. And that can only be helpful to any life spent in music-making.
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