Barry Lee Komitor Band



Teaching Music As A Language – A Different Approach

I am sometimes asked to describe my music teaching methodology. Having done this frequently, I have distilled my basic philosophy to a few key themes, which accentuate the contrast between how I approach music education with Art for Progress, and how music is traditionally taught in public schools. There are clear differences in goals, in repertoire, and in what information is considered important to convey.


First, the goals are different at their essence. Traditional music instruction involves learning the mechanics of an instrument and the written language of music notation in order to reproduce pieces of music that have earned their place in the vocabulary of music educators, often, though not always, centuries or decades ago. There is little explanation of the relationships between the elements of music, or consideration of building skills toward creating original music. Traditionally trained players are often discouraged from improvising, and develop an aversion to it and even a fear of hitting wrong notes if they dare explore uncharted territory.


On the other hand, many untrained musicians, often referred to as self-taught, are undeterred by the pitfalls of exploration because they know it to be the path toward discovery. These include many folk, blues, rock, reggae, indie, pop and hip-hop musicians. Rather than learning music note for note from transcriptions, they develop a modular understanding of chords, scales, and riffs, which enables them to reproduce the primary elements of pieces they learn by simply hearing them. These musicians sometimes do not even read music notation, and yet are able to compose and share the music they make up with others. They use a spoken vocabulary unique to musicians that describes the mechanics of music differently from notation. This vocabulary often conveys information about parameters that are not described by or even addressed by traditional written music. These parameters include feel, groove, the nuances of articulations like bends, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, and subtle dynamics that are too specific and singular to notate.


These days, new musicians have an unprecedented number of resources at their disposal, and a nearly equal number of attitudes and philosophies about the best way to learn. In my opinion, any student should avail him or herself of any and all methods and technologies, but it can be hard to prioritize, or even to know what is effective when one is inexperienced.


I think it is equally important to learn the mechanics of your instrument or instruments, music notation, basic theory, the spoken vocabulary of musicians, a varied repertoire, and to listen attentively to examples of great music of all kinds. That may seem like a lot, but good musicians can benefit from all of these ways of looking at music. When you approach all of these subjects organically, you can see them as one integrated path. It becomes less important what is explored in what order, and more important that there is a fully engaged experience happening. Once a student can be encouraged to persevere through the fact that any aspect of learning that is of any value is going to be challenging and frustrating; he or she usually starts to develop enthusiasm on his or her own.


In order to be a capable musician, or just to get the most out of being a learning musician, it is also worthwhile to study the inner workings of the musical language. Unfortunately, this is all but ignored except at the highest levels of the established music education system. Only jazz students, who have already technically mastered their instruments, are encouraged to understand the relationships inherent in western diatonic music, or the 12-tone system. Clearly, new musicians do not need to understand all of the implications and nuances of modern jazz theory, but a working knowledge of the primary factors at hand can help any musician.


There are conventions and recurring themes, especially in modern popular music that can be grasped using a methodical approach, and observing exemplary pieces. A working understanding of these conventions, which include: tension and release, movement around the cycle of 4ths/5ths, scales, the common uses of intervals, frequently encountered chord progressions, and song form, can demystify the elements of a song in short order. They can therefore pave the path for a new musician to play a familiar song in a short time. This almost always results in a huge confidence boost, in addition to the satisfaction and sheer joy of being able to reproduce the piece.


When I was growing up, I was asked to choose an instrument in elementary school. I chose alto saxophone, and had band class in school, as well as individual lessons from the music teacher, Mr. Lulewicsz. I was not particularly diligent, and stopped playing after a couple of years. Despite taking piano lessons for a few years after, I had pretty much given up on being a musician before high school started. I find this to be the case with many of my students. I think for me, it was that I was never encouraged to learn music that interested me, or to play with others informally and experiment.


Those are the key elements of my personal style of teaching music. I explain to my classes that my goal for them is to be able to play any song they want learn, within reason. I then begin to break down for them the elements that make up all pieces of music, including rhythm, melody and harmony. We spend about a month taking a brief look at the ways in which those systems work, all the while including familiar examples in order to illustrate the relevance of each topic explored. We also look at how the information translates to the layouts of the piano and of the guitar, and I illustrate how certain musical concepts are organized on those instruments. By the time students get onto instruments and start learning songs, usually in small groups or individually, everyone has at least some familiarity with the language, and can build upon that first exposure as they put things together.


Working with small groups, or taking the time to focus with one student at a time for a good portion of a class period enables me to tailor my approach to the learning style that works best for each student. While I can’t spent time with everyone individually every day, if I get the ball rolling with one student or group one day, I can work with another student or small group the following day while the initial group works on perfecting the task they learned the day before. As the class gradually builds the skills to learn the first songs they tackle, the basic concepts begin to sink in, and set the stage for playing with others. In fact, some days I’ll just abandon repertoire altogether and give everyone in the class a simple role on an instrument and focus only on playing rhythmically together.


In a very short time, with simple tools, music students turn into beginning musicians, who turn into capable players and singers before they realize they are actually learning in school.


Pretty sneaky, huh?



Arts Education Programs Wrap Up Another Fantastic Year

photo-1-500x500 arts ed

This spring AFP Arts Education programs are celebrating the completion of our eighth school year serving NYC public schools with exciting, confidence building visual art and music classes and after school programs. AFP arts ed programs at the James Baldwin School and Humanities Preparatory Academy, and Hudson High School all expanded this year, and we continue to provide after school music programs at Quest 2 Learn, and at Hudson High School for Learning Technologies. Students at the James Baldwin School asked for an after school program where they could learn music production and beat-making, so AFP implemented a program that brings aspiring producers, rappers and singers together to learn the skills necessary to create professional quality recordings. Humanities Prep’s music program had unprecedented success this year, introducing a number of talented students to their first instruments, and fostering the continued development of returning students through after school opportunities. In general AFP has helped to cultivate the creative culture that is now a primary component of the school. Students and faculty performed in a talent showcase on June 6. Sophomore Abril Tiburcio brought the house down with her interpretation of Lana Del Rey’s “Ride”, while 2014 valedictorian and class president Michelle Bello sang The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” backed by Tiana Bush on bass and Genesis Castillo pounding out the infectious rhythm on the drums. Junior Sean Carey performed a challenging classical piano composition “openings” by Philip Glass, and  senior Aaron Pierre wowed the crowd with his rendition of Matisyahu’s “One Day”, and Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What a World”. AFP teaching artist and Chemistry teacher Rajni Tibrewala performed Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluia”, and were asked to do a repeat performance at the Humanities Prep graduation ceremony. Afp also brought instruments and art supplies to community events in Brooklyn, at the Save Our Streets Block Party hosted by the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, and in the Bronx, at the Urban Yoga Foundation/American Heart Association Health Fair at the Bronx Museum of the Arts; helping kids make art projects and offering beginner lessons on guitar, bongo drums and piano. Stay tuned for highlights from this spring’s after school programs and AFP summer music workshops.

Some Music

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