Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Music Pyramid

I was at the Thomas Jefferson Education Forum and the keynote speaker was James Ferrell, who is the CEO of Arbinger. In his lecture, he described the pyramid shown below.

While listening to Ferrell, I did something a mentor of mine had suggested once. I restated in my notes and in my mind what I was hearing as if I were going to teach it to someone else. But my mind wandered a bit and I wrote down how I'd teach it if I were to apply it directly to music.

It was quite eye opening. First, though, I probably need to explain quickly a few things about this pyramid for those that aren't familiar with it. You can also download a free article at the above Arbinger link called "The Parenting Pyramid" that is short and will illustrate the idea better than I will in a few sentences. As you will see, this pyramid applies to more than just parenting.

What James Ferrell illustrated in his speech was that level two of the pyramid and everything above it are behaviors and behaviors can be done in one of two ways of being:
Seeing others as people.
Seeing others as objects.

That's what the lowest level refers to - where is your heart - are you putting up walls and not seeing others and/or yourself clearly (are you in "the box") or are you open to others, letting them and their humanity touch you and your humanity touch them - do you have a heart at peace with others.

The three lessons as Ferrel taught that day are in slightly different words below:

1. Live from the bottom up (on the pyramid). The idea is - you strive to spend more time helping things go right (those things on the bottom levels of the pyramid) and end up spending less time correcting things that go wrong (the top of the pyramid).

2. Solve from beneath (the solution is always below). If your correcting isn't working, you need to improve your teaching and communicating. If your teaching and communicating isn't effective, you need to focus on the listening and learning step. If you that isn't helping still, then you probably need to build a better relationship with that person or those that influence that person. And foundational to all those things, that which effects all the others is our way of being. We can say anything, do anything, give anything, teach anything from either of those two ways of being (seeing others as people with needs, hopes, desires, weaknesses, strengths, just as we have OR as objects we use or that stand in our way. The important thing to realize here is that as humans we have an ability to sense another person's way of being - you can't fake it.

3. Act from the right foundation. Instead of asking,

"What can I do?"
"How have I been with this person?"
"How am I being?"

Okay - with that crash course in Arbinger philosophy we'll plunge ahead into my application of it with music. Now, obviously, someone who lives or tries to live with this paradigm will already notice it effects every aspect of their life, and if music is an aspect of their life than it can only improve their efforts therein. BUT - it is my experience recently, that adapting it specifically to music is a very helpful exercise that is providing me with many hours of pondering and experimental application because of what is "says" to me.

While sitting in the lecture I went through each level of the pyramid and wrote how it would correlate to music. The perspective I write from is my own, but it covers three perspectives - as a teacher of music, a parent of little musicians, and a student of music.

Starting from the top,
"Correct" became . . .

Correcting wrong notes, posture, dynamics, rhythm, interpretation, practice habits, attitudes towards genres, attitudes towards performing, attitudes towards practicing. You get the idea - pretty much everything a teacher might try to correct in a lesson, or a parent might try to correct while practicing with a child, or a student might notice about their own playing and want to correct.

"Teach & Communicate" became . . .

Teaching music and communicating through music. In other words, performing and teaching are covered in this level.

Right there I thought, "Wow - if the advice is to 'live from the bottom up,' the smallest portion of this music pyramid I'm making is actually what musicians typically spend the largest amount of time and focus on!"

"Listen and Learn" became . . .

Listen to music that has inherent in it that way of being that we're going for - music that encourages us to see others and ourselves with love and understanding, that helps us open ourselves to others. It is also the level where we remember that if those things mentioned above aren't helping us, than maybe we need to learn more deeply and broadly - learn for the sake of wanting to communicate and teach more effectively, not with the focus of paying the bills, or earning popularity, but to learn skills of teaching, or composing, or performing, that will help us do what Leo Tolstoy describes as the purpose of art. He believes that "art is infection." That great art conveys our experiences with truth in such a way that others are "infected." They feel and understand the "aha" moments or moments of power or inspiration that we or a composer has experienced.

A few more examples are:

-Listen and learn what music the student loves and is motivated to play
- Listen and learn if my audience is receptive to what I'm playing
- Listen and learn from others interpretations of a piece of music that I am learning
- Listen and learn from the response of a teacher
- "Listen" and learn what a child's tone, posture or responses to music can teach me about what they need right now in a lesson.

"Build relationships (with the person and) with others who have influence" became . . .
Build relationships using music as the starting point, or in other words: build memories around shared musical experiences. I also think that increasing your knowledge of the person behind the composition, the composer, falls into this category. Why did they write the music? What did they want to communicate? What was the historical time period like when it was written? What was the composer's philosophy about music, life, etc.?

Before I go to the bottom level let's apply those three key things so far. First, musicians traditionally spend MUCH more time at the top of the pyramid correcting and teaching than they do in the lower areas discussed. This philosophy - if I'm applying it correctly - would show that there might be value in changing our paradigm and investing time in the foundational levels of the music pyramid.


Would there be as many adults saying,
"I wish I wouldn't have quit piano when I was young" if teachers spent less time correcting and more time listening to the student, learning what their needs are, setting an example of their own continued adventures in learning and communicating music.

"Solve from beneath" takes on new meaning when we notice that our child isn't liking all the correcting we're doing while practicing, or when teaching a student. Maybe we haven't taught them effectively enough. Maybe we're expecting them to come up with things they couldn't know how to do yet. Maybe they feel they're overwhelmed because we haven't taught them in a way that helps them feel successful and able at every step.


Say you're a teacher and you're dreading the next student you are about to teach. "It's always a power struggle. They never do anything I ask them to do during the week." or "I can't get them to progress. They're sick of lessons and I am too." Maybe the answer lies beneath. Maybe we haven't been listening to what the student is trying to tell us in their resistance or apathy. Have we considered learning what the student wants to play? What their reasons for learning an instrument are? Are we really trying to learn what the root of the problem is, or just treating the symptom - or hoping it will go away. Maybe if THEY listened to a recording of their song they might find a piece and its rhythms and dynamics much easier to get "right."

Would our kids fight us to practice as much if we spent less time getting the practicing done and more time listening to our children, celebrating our kids accomplishments through impromptu family concerts. How about making up songs together, or a variation of a song their learning, listening to live concerts or musicals together, or creating more opportunities to enjoy listening to music in the home:


If our child is saying they want to quit music lessons and we don't know what went wrong - could it be that our relationship with them is where the problem lies? Do they feel we truly love them and understand their needs? Do they feel their performance determines their worth? Did we take the time to help them develop a relationship with music themselves? Have they found music they love that influences them? Did they choose their instrument? Do they know and love the music that we're paying for them to learn?

And then at the heart of it all:

Our "Way of Being"

Getting out of the box. There are many styles of "boxes" as well. This is the part that doesn't have to be directly applied to music for it to directly apply to music. It's a personal, individual question that is all-encompassing in its effects. Reading any of the Arbinger books would be a much better way of understanding this part than anything that I can say, but some thoughts I wrote down that day during the lecture were,

"Is music an object that I use to prove I am better than others, or that I am worse than others because I can't play music, or can't play as well as _____, or that I deserve respect because of my "accomplishments" or my student's accomplishments? Do I simply get a thrill out of being thought of as a "musician?"

"Do I feel my worth as a person is based on my performance or how the
audience/teacher/parent responds to my performance?"

"Does the music others listen to determine how I view them, how much respect I give them, or whether I see them as worse than or better than others because of the music they enjoy or play?"


"Is music a gift I want to share with others? Is it a channel through which I can communicate to others and others can communicate to me things which words alone cannot express? Am I seeing the performer/audience as people just like me? People who want others to succeed and want to be successful, people who love, who make mistakes, who have greatness in them, who have a desire to be heard, who want to understand others? Is music a tool we use to facilitate all that? Do I seek out the kind of music that communicates messages that create a desire to be better, that help me find comfort in productive ways, that remind me of cherished moments in my past or create a vision for things I desire to be in the future?"

Most important to me is the way this all applies to our efforts to communicate music to others. True or universal music (as Tolstoy puts it in What is Art), in my experience, is not performance proof. Meaning, the "way of being" of the performer(s) and the audience determines the level of "infection" (sorry, Tolstoy again) that is created by that piece of music. Yes, some music has more potential to infect listeners with its message than others. There are also messages inherent in many pieces of music that I'd rather not "infect" my ears, that probably will no matter how the music is played/sung. It is my experience, though, that the performance is usually the determining factor.


So what happens when music with great potential of "infection" and inherent with uplifting universal messages is performed for the most part by musicians whose way of being is in "the box?" It doesn't "infect" others. It stops being popular. It is desired less and less. Its audience wanes. It can be lost.

There is another kind of music that seems to simply fill the void of sound, but not uplift - it can be deemed "classical" or not. It's the kind that distracts, but does not instruct. That entertains, but does not enlighten. That kind of music is thriving. It is often written "in the box" and played "in the box" and those two situations seem to have a kind of synergy when it comes to popularity. Uplifting and good desires are not the only kind that are infectious.

If we teach our children, or our students or perform ourselves in this way - in the box, closed off to others because of the walls of pride or scorn or shame or judgment we've built around us - we are perpetuating the problem no matter how good our intentions. We can learn, prepare and produce concerts of the greatest music there is and do more harm to our cause if the whole concert is performed with a "better than . . " attitude or "wanting to be seen as _____" really guiding our efforts.

The problem is - all of this is usually going on without our knowing it. We deceive ourselves into thinking we're doing something for reasons we're not. Once again - the question and focus, Arbinger would say, is not in asking "what should we do to make classical music popular" or "what should we do to help the arts?" The question should be,

"How are we playing the music?" "How is our way of being influencing our performance, our teaching, all our music endeavors?"

I have found that when I play with a "heart of peace" when I play with a clear mind devoid of self deception, open to the story and emotions of the music - and if it's the kind of music inherent with goodness and uplifting - the effect is therapeutic. It's infectious. I want to play the music again. I want to feel and experience that beauty again and I know I can only benefit from it. Music communicated in that way brings me closer to others, it speaks to my soul things I cannot express with words, it reminds me of feelings I cannot explain, but dearly love to re-live.

"For beauty (i.e. 'that which pleases') - though it depends on taste, and can furnish no criterion for art - will be a natural characteristic of work done, not for hire, nor even for fame, but because men, living a natural and healthy life, wish to share the 'highest spiritual strength which passes through them' with the greatest possible number of others. The feelings such an artist wishes to share, he will transmit in a way that will please him, and will please other men who share his nature."
(xxvii of the "Introduction" to
What is Art by Leo Tolstoy)

That kind of experience, that kind of beauty can only catch fire and create a larger audience who wants to listen to it and a larger populace who want to be part of such an experience through playing music themselves.