How to learn to play in the key of E

By Lawrence Henry
web posted July 12, 1999

I've been playing clarinet for six years, and doing actual jazz gigs for about two. After a recent job, I came home feeling pretty good about my performance - until, for some reason, I started thinking about the songs I had played, and remembered the keys they were in.

I had spent virtually the entire gig playing in F (clarinet F, concert E flat), one of the easiest keys for a clarinet - an easy habit to fall into. Look through a fake book of standard tunes: You'll find about a third of traditional standards written in E flat, a third in F, and the remainder split between the keys of C, G, and B flat.

Well, that would never do, I thought. So, for the next few days, I practiced playing in a number of unfamiliar keys - doing it very badly at first, and taking quite some time to get better. In the process, I confirmed once again what I have discovered - resoundingly - since I took up clarinet as an adult of 45:

You don't learn principles, and have principles help you learn stuff. You learn stuff, and the stuff leads to learning principles.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? In fact, it's the key to education. And, importantly for today, it's almost the exact reverse of the way school teachers try to teach kids nowadays.

"Diffusing Culture" - How Teachers Teach Today

E.D. Hirsch, in his landmark book, "Cultural Literacy," documents this split. He characterizes the teaching of so-called "principles" as "romantic educational formalism," and traces its development to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the "noble savage" concept) and John Dewey. You don't have to look far in today's education world to find evidence of the practice.

Maria Montessori, quoted on the web site of the Montessori Foundation: "Our aim is not only to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his innermost core." And "We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated, without any need for direct instruction."

From the web site of the National Education Association, one of the two major teachers' unions, a description of the goals of the so-called KEYS initiative (I never did find a definition of that acronym):

  • Strive for a shared understanding about achievable education outcomes. Work collaboratively to define purpose and goals and to decide quantifiable outcomes along with the best methods, strategies, and actions to achieve those outcomes. Involve the total learning community in quality improvement planning and in carrying out the necessary changes.
  • Use organizational problem-solving for continuous improvement. All stakeholders -- teachers, education support personnel, administrators, parents, members of the community, leaders in business, the Association -- must be involved in efforts to identify and remove problems and barriers, thereby improving processes.

Those are the first two of nine "goals," and any thinking person's response to them would be "Huh?" Maybe that's the point - to keep us yahoos (like parents) out. "Assessment" does figure on down the list, but one suspects that what will get "assessed" are the process-based ideas like "shared understanding" and "organizational problem-solving."

This is no generalized slam on teachers. Sandra Feldman, president of the other major teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, said in a press release on February 4 of this year, about TIMSS, the Third International Math and Science Study of 12th Grade Achievement:

"…One thing leaps out right now: strong standards and strong curricula. We've made some progress on standards, but we've been ducking curriculum, and it shows. It's now time for school officials to bite the bullet and devise the kind of rigorous and clear standards that permit you to devise rigorous and clear curricula, starting in the early grades."

Ducking curriculum: Exactly. Two examples.

My son attended a Montessori pre-school, with classes extending through sixth grade. At Bud's first all-school assembly, for Thanksgiving, the second graders (approximately; Montessori schools group three ages together) told the audience of parents what they had learned about Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims stole the land from the Indians. That was it.

Among the "stuff" they did not learn ("…still less to force him to memorize…"): Who the Pilgrims were, why they had come to North America, what the Mayflower Compact was, who Squanto was, why the Pilgrims dressed the way they did, what the Pilgrims and Indians ate for the first Thanksgiving (and why), what different Indian tribes they encountered, and so on. All the fundamentals. Plus, no enterprising little boy did a report on that fascinating odd-looking gun the Pilgrims carried, the Dutch origins of its name (blunderbuss), its use, or its significance. And we're in Boston. There was no tracing of the names of the Mayflower passengers, no connecting those names to current events, places, and monuments in Massachusetts - some of them literally right outside the front door of the school.

Surely there must be some politically correct way to impart all these facts. But no. They weren't imparted at all, simply erased.

Not entirely happy with this evidence of instruction in the upper grades, my wife and I began to look at other schools in the area. In one of the most famous, while we were waiting in the outer office for a tour, I asked the secretary if I could see the curricula for the various grades. She handed me a thin three-ring binder. I looked through it, and found one-page outlines of subject matter for every grade, K through 8. I sought out "Social Studies" and found that it began in the second grade with instruction on the Caribbean and China. I looked through the remaining years. Western Europe and Christianity never figured in the instruction at all, according to a series of (again) one-page outlines for each year.

"Where's the detailed curriculum?" I asked the secretary. I was thinking, of course, of a week-by-week description of books to be read, projects to be undertaken, test material to master, and so forth.

"That's the curriculum," the secretary said.

This school costs more than $13 000 a year. If we had chosen to home-school, and had presented that expensive private school's curriculum as our curriculum for home use, we would not - at a very good guess - have passed muster with the state education authorities.

Learning "Things" - What "Things"?

Teachers are absolutely right about one thing, and they've been right about it since the earliest years of the public school revolution. John Dewey knew it. Before him, Noah Webster knew it. Education imparts culture.

But how does it do that? Maria Montessori said, of her early school in Italy, "We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated, without any need for direct instruction." But there's a problem: No matter how assiduously you prepare a "diffused culture" classroom for kids, they learn things - concrete, specific things, thousands and thousands of them.

Today's classroom teachers, in my experience, through my son and through other children, try very hard to maintain a neutral (they say) cultural atmosphere in their classrooms, tossing in an occasional bone of fact. The facts are almost always the same ones: rain forests, "teaching peace," world geography (heavy on the ecology), George Washington owning slaves, and so forth. It sets conservatives' teeth on edge, of course.

But, while we make absolutely valid complaints about those few and widely separated "things" our kids bring home from school, we should be complaining more particularly, and more forcefully, that our kids simply aren't learning enough things. Not nearly enough.

The Things We Need to Teach - and Know

For my part, as a jazz musician, there are thousands of things I need to know. I need to know how to play all the scales and arpeggios in every key on my instrument (thus my work recently on unfamiliar keys). I need to know about a thousand songs from the standards composed from about World War I through 1964. (There's lots more, but it's beyond the ken of non-musical readers.)

Whenever I get stuck for something to practice, I've got a simple dictum: Learn another song.

E.D. Hirsch, in "Cultural Literacy," lists 5 000 things every American should know. An entire movement has sprung up around Hirsch's groundbreaking discoveries, called the Core Knowledge Movement. Based on my experience with my own five-year-old, I'd say Bud could learn those 5 000 things in about a year.

Teach things. Don't "teach peace." Teach the names of all the sails on a square-rigger. Teach things. Don't "teach multiculturalism." Teach how to sharpen a lawn mower. Teach things. Don't "teach self-esteem." Teach how to throw a ball. Teach things. Teach how to carry a tune, how to load a musket, how to plant petunias, how to paint a wall, how to recognize letters, how to comb a cat.

Teach things. Learn another song. Learn another key. Do it thousands and thousands of times. And then do it again.

Here's the truly subversive kicker: Once you really understand about learning things, anybody - anybody - can be a teacher. Anybody can be a great teacher.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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