It’s 8:00 am Monday morning and the day of my first class on Music Theory. I’ve been planning this course for months now and I’ve attempted to consider all contingencies: what ages will the students be; will the class size be small or large; will the students have any prior musical exposure; will they be enthusastic or have they been forced to attend; do they speak English. I believe I can handle all items except the last.
I’m over-the-top excited and can’t wait to do an outstanding job, teacher of the century, my students will become famous, blah, blah, blah. I’m directed to trawl all my instructional material, percussion instruments, and piano, up to a second floor classroom. As I enter the classroom I halt, frozen – the classroom is absolutely empty and is the temperature of a sauna. Well, I feel pretty silly standing here by myself. What am I supposed to do now? I keep telling myself not to panic – think positive and remind myself that He is in control.
I begin setting up the piano and arranging all the chairs so that the students will be facing the piano – and me. There must be fifty chairs and I’m drenched as if I just climbed out of a pool. I carefully lay out all the percussion instruments for display and begin second-guessing my teaching strategy. All the preparations are complete and I’m still the only person occupying the classroom. Now what do I do? I wait. And I wait. And I keep waiting.
My waiting pays off when a single solitary boy about ten years of age steps tentatively into the classrom. It pains my heart to see the apprehension on his face – he is obviously feeling more intimidated than myself. I’m tempted to tell him “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you”.
As I shuffle and reshuffle my teaching materials – a blatant attempt to portray myself as a serious teacher and not just an impostor – a few more children begin to straggle in. In my most authoritative voice I smile and say “welcome, please come in”.
To my surprise the room continues to fill to near capacity as the children begin chatting excitedly amongst themselves. I take a deep breath of relief as I notice that the students are smiling. Yes, these are my students.
As I mentally prepare to kick off the class, who else but Rocky appears at the door. Oh sweet Jesus – thank you. Rocky steps in and greets me as though I were a long lost friend. He turns to face the class and warmly greets the students, thanking them for their attendance. It appears that Rocky knows each and every student and that he holds a position of high respect. Rocky introduces me to the class and informs me that he will remain present so as to be of any help. I couldn’t be happier.
What happens over the course of the next four hours will remain in my memory forever. I’ll attempt to convey the events but words alone fail miserably.
My ‘lesson plan’ is to assume that these children have had no prior exposure to music theory, and that I will need to start from the very beginning. Although I was prepared to teach up to an ‘intermediate’ level, that would typically take a year or more to accomplish – and I have only one or two days. I figure we’ll take one small step at a time and just see how far we get.
As an ice-breaker I decide that, rather than diving immediately into the grit of ‘music theory’, I will lead them gently into the shallow end of the music pool. I explain that a large component of music is ‘rhythm’ (I do not tell them that this is something I do not possess). I begin by explaining the concepts of tempo and time signature. I tell one student to clap along with me, beginning at a slow tempo, and he nails it. I gradually increase my tempo and he stays in exact step with me. I retard and he anticipates me without my need to say a word. Lesson #1 complete, Grade = A+.
Now it’s on to ‘time signature’, an intimidating title to say the least. For Christ’s sake it involves the concept of fractions! Most of my American friends don’t understand this mathematical concept. I feel faint of heart.
I write carefully on the blackboard the fraction “4/4”. I regretfully refer to the top number as ‘numerator’, and I swear I hear that word reverberating around the room as though it had been spoken by Satan himself. I suppress the feeling of panic and ask the class to count “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, …”. They have absolutely no problem with this. So I stop them and change the fraction on the board to “3/4” and have them count “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, …”, again with no problem. I explain “that is all the numerator means – it tells you how high to count before repearting”. Again, Grade = A+.
The student’s enthusiasm is palpable as they apparenlty realize that there is nothing mysterious being taught here. I then explain the concept of ‘whole’ notes, ‘half’ notes, ‘quarter’ notes, … by passing out the percussion instruments and having the first student count aloud in ‘4/4’ time signautre: “1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,1,…”. I have the next student play the cowbell on the count of “1” – whole notes. He does so with perfect timing. I have the next student play the tambourine on counts “2” and “4” – half notes. Again, no problem. I show the next student how to play the cabassa on the counts “1”, “&”, “2”, “&”,… eighth notes, and before I know it I have an entire percussion section playing with perfect timing – absolutely incredible. In my excitement I decide to push the envelope by having the next student play the claves in a ‘Bossa’ Nova’ style and she nails it! I’ve played with professional drummers and percussionists that did not have such a precise and innate sense of rhythm. I can barely contain my excitement.
With ‘rhythm’ and ‘tempo’ under our belts I take a big step and move on to ‘music notation’, using such big words as ‘Grand Staff’, ‘Treble and Bass Clef’, lines and spaces, measures, … and with Rocky’s gentle clarifications the students seem undaunted. After exposing them to these terms and drawing each on the blackboard, I show them a printout of a standard Hymn, one that they have sung many times but have never seen the actual sheet music. They seem mesmerized as I sing a few notes of the melody and point these notes out on the sheet music. I sense that they actually begin to see the connection between music that is performed and it’s equivalent music notation.
The students are now obviously ‘hooked’ and I’ve got them eating out of the palm of my hand. We’ve been going for over an hour and there is absolutely no indication that anybody wants to take a break. To reward them, I move to the piano and the room goes silent with anticipation. I ask them if they have ever heard the melody “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do” and to my surprise most of them raise their hands. I explain that this is called a “Major Scale”. To reinforce this I play the notes of the C Major Scale on the piano – all the white notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.
Now I introduce the students to the concept of ‘pitch’ as we play and sing notes of varying pitch: high notes, low notes, and mid notes. But here is where I hit them with a doozey: “whole space” and “half space”. With Rocky’s invaluable help (and translation into Chichew) these students begin to grasp the concept and sound of ‘distance’ between two notes that are either a half step or a whole step apart. I ask them to close their eyes, listen to two notes that I play, and tell me if they are either a ‘half’ step or a ‘whole’ step apart. Within minutes they all have no problem recognizing the difference. Grade: A+.
What happens next astounds me. The students are introduced to the concept of ‘melody’ (single notes played sequentially one at a time) and ‘harmony’ (a chord of 3 or more notes played simultaneously). I play a melody for them and then I play a chord for them. Then I play either a chord or melody and ask which is it? Their grasp of this concept is amazing. I have no recourse left but to move on to the concept of ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ triad chords (chords comprised of only three notes). Keep in mind that two hours ago, these kids had absolutely no training in music theory!
I play a Major chord and show them the number of ‘half steps’ and ‘whole steps’ between each note – and they have no problem with this because they had just learned this. I bring students up to the piano one at a time and have them play a C note, count up four half steps to an E note, and count up another three half steps to a G note. Now I have them play these three notes together and Wahlah! They have just played their first C Major triad. Grade A+.
I repeat the process for ‘Minor’ triads – 4 half steps and 3 half steps – D, F and A. I ask them to close their eyes and listen to me play both Major and Minor chords. I explain how the Major chord has a slight ‘happy’ sound and that the ‘Minor’ chord has a slightly ‘sad’ sound – and they grasp this immediately. I play a Minor chord and they scream ‘minor!’. I play a Major chord and they all scream ‘major’. They are all laughing hysterically at this musical ‘game’.
We are into our third hour and Rocky suggests a 20 minute break. My old body is exhausted at this point so I grab a soda and sit down at a ‘child-chair’. The kids are obviously NOT tired, as they are all huddled around the piano vying for their turn to show off their expertise in playing Major and Minor chords! I’m incredulous.
Break time over and the kids are hungry for more. I’m left with nothing else but to pull out all the stops. The students have a solid grasp of tempo, rhythm, time signature, note duration, melody and basic chords – after only three hours! So here is my plan…
Not everyone is aware of the amazing technology contained within a $500 Yamaha portable piano, but I am. These pianos possess the capability of performing complete songs while providing all the accompaniment of bass, drums, guitar, strings – you name it. All you need to do is set a Tempo, select a Song Style, and then play a chord to start it off. So what do I do? I bring a student up to the piano and prep him on playing a sequence of C Major chord, F Major chord and G Major chord. Within a minute he has nearly mastered the three chords. I set the piano for a nice upbeat tempo and select a ‘Calypso’ song style – very close to what I had heard in Sunday’s service. I press the ‘start’ button, pause, and tell my student to play a C Major chord. You could hear a pin drop as everyone waits for what comes next. And he plays a perfect C Major chord. And as he does, the piano erupts into a beautiful Calypso rythm to a C Major chord. As I look around the room, all I see is the excitement and amazement that you expect from a child on Christmas morning when he first sees his shiny new bicylce.
As the music plays, I begin counting in ‘4/4’ time and tell my student to alternate between C, F, and G chords on the ‘downbeat’ or ‘1’ count, and he does so. By now, all the students are on their feet and surrounding the piano eagerly awaiting a turn to play their own music. I step back and begin to dance to the music. Yes, I broke out into dance – clapping and singing a melody to the song that my student is playing. I pass out the percussion instruments and the students begin playing in perfect tempo to the song. I fear I will never experience this happiness again. If I were to die tomorrow, I will die a very, very happy man.