In piano lessons we necessarily must spend much of our time focused on learning things and getting better. There’s just not enough time to spend much of it on playing with or simply enjoying music. Yet, those are two of what I consider the three primary values music has to human beings. The third is expression. In piano lessons most of our work is focused on developing the things a player needs to create musical expression.
Music’s expressiveness is an important part of what we enjoy about music. It’s why music can make us feel joyful—but also why it can make us feel sad or nervous or scared.
But playing with music is not so natural. In some ways, studying music formally, as in piano lessons, can create an impression that you either work at music to do it well, or you don’t do music at all. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not easy to avoid. It’s also reinforced by how music exists in our society. We encounter it almost always either in live or recorded performance in which the listener is separated from the performer. There is only one form of music in which the performers are not presenting something they have worked hard to perfect, but rather playing. That form is Jazz. In Jazz, performers work hard not to get the performance perfect, but to be ready to play.
Jazz has its roots in Ancient Africa. Nowhere that I know of has music been as integral a part of daily life as in Africa. Before modernization under Western influence, villagers had music for every event, even things like welcoming men back from the hunt and working together to pick the crops. Even things they didn’t have specific music for they tended to do in a rhythmical way. Things have changed there since Ancient times, but music is still that integral part to a large degree. Last Spring I came upon a video on Youtube that documented how attuned native Africans are to music in their daily lives. Below is an edited excerpt I made (with permission) for a presentation on music history I gave in July, 2019.
The original movie in its entirety can be viewed here https://youtu.be/lVPLIuBy9CY.
What intrigues me about this is that music for these people is as natural as speaking. It doesn’t have to be a performance to engage in it, just like most of our speaking is not a performance. In fact, we’d look silly if every time we spoke, we seemed to be performing! Yet, speaking can be a performance, something that one works out and practices. We call it a speech. For jazz musicians, music very much encompasses the full range that language does, from informal conversation to polished performance. We can do that with our native language because we are fluent in our native language. Jazz musicians are fluent in the language of jazz.
What if this were the aim of music education? Not merely to play an instrument or perform some pieces, but to become fluent in the language of music?