Thou Shalt Not

by Mark Dvorak

And when Moses came down from the mountain with his stone tablets, robe and whiskers flowing in the breeze, he paused and said, “Thou Shalt Not,” and the moral curriculum for the entire Western world was begun.

By now though, the perils of issuing commandments in the negative are fairly well documented. Research suggests that negative instructions actually suppress one’s ability to make associations and remember. Often, when we are told, “Don’t do that,” we wind up doing it anyway. And sometimes we wind up doing it on purpose.

In teaching, and in teaching music, negative instruction, and other didactic pedagogies, are all over the place. And they have their place I suppose. But it seems that didactic instruction winds up being more about the teacher, and less about the student. “Thou Shalt Not,” leaves a student very little to work on, and very little to work with.

The object of teaching is to bring others forward, to set useful examples, to foster self-confidence and a love of the medium. Music is a difficult thing to learn and difficult to teach. Music is full of abstractions and booby traps of all kinds. Music is theoretically complicated. Learning to play an instrument well takes physical strength and takes a lot of time. Music begins somewhere beneath the surface, and is not governed by the normal rules of society or mathematics. Music does not give itself up easily, and if you want to get serious with it, you have to pay a lot. And what you have to pay, is attention.

But there’s the catch. You the teacher cannot make anyone pay attention to anything. Particularly so with respect to those who are unwilling or distracted. And that’s where Moses and his eternal drama come in. When your charges seem restless or bored; when your authority over a group seems to have slipped some, try disappearing into the mist for forty days or so. And when you return, be sure to bring back some solid evidence of a divine interaction.You will need something to wave in front of everybody before they get back to their golden calf and dancing. If it so happens that an etched stone tablet isn’t available, try digging one of your postgraduate degrees out of the closet. Or perhaps a copy of that book you wrote. Maybe see how a new suit works for you. Go get a bigger hammer.

Enough nonsense. Everything that is good about music comes to those who learn to listen. Listen again to yourself and to others. Learn to listen to everything that is around you and to everything within. Just listen. It’s that simple. When reading off a sheet, or concentrating on technique, our ears do not work so well. It’s more difficult to keep a tempo and stay aware of how loud we are playing, when our eyes and minds are occupied. It’s just that simple.

In a group situation, it’s really easy to tell which players are listening to one another and which are off on their own, doing their thing. And when too many of those, and not enough of the other try to play together, the music comes unglued and before long hurtles out of control. And when that happens, I get this urge to act just like Moses: “Thou Shalt Not!” I want to shout. I want to point fingers and I want to name names. But soon enough such feelings subside. "Listen again,” I say to myself. “Listen again.”

In this space are human beings. They have gathered again to play music, and to do their best. They blow and they strum and they noodle. They pick and they bow, and they sing their heads off. They are my students, they are my friends.


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