A good friend of mine who is a visual artist, musician, theologian, among other things, sent me the link to this TEDx Talk by Victor Wooten, a five-time Grammy Award winning professional musician known for innovating, composing, and teaching with music.
In his talk, “Music as Language”, Mr. Wooten describes what it was like being born into a musical family. He equates learning music with learning language and makes several interesting observations. In doing so, he happens to touch upon some of the same understandings that help guide us to be better language teachers. Here’s one:
I realize that I wasn’t really taught, which is why I say that music is a language. Because if you think about your first language, … if you think about how you learned it, you realize you weren’t taught it. People just spoke to you. But the coolest thing, and this is where it gets interesting, you were allowed to speak back.
He contends that he began learning music far before he learned how to play an instrument. This is analogous to the idea that input precedes output – comprehension precedes production. His brothers jammed around him and he pretended. They didn’t criticize his playing or make him play the right notes. They probably even gave him solos.
Beginning music students, he notes, are traditionally placed with other beginning music students and are expected to master skills and content in a linear fashion. Sound familiar? Then, eventually, they become proficient enough to begin finding their own voice.
He goes on to criticize what Krashen has identified as the Skill-building hypothesis in the music world:
A kid playing air guitar plays with a smile on his face. Give him his first lesson and the smile goes away. And a lot of times you have to work for your whole musical career to get that smile back. As teachers we can keep that smile if we approach the right way.
By the time I was old enough to hold an instrument, they gave me soemthing to hold. Just for the sake of holding something. Preparing me for the later years. It wasn’t about playing that instrument. That’s the mistake a lot of us music teachers make. We teach kids how to play the instrument first, before they understand music. You don’t teach a kid how to spell. Teaching a kid to spell ‘milk’ before they’ve dranken a lot of it for a few years doesn’t make sense, does it? But for some reason, we still think it does in music. We want to teach them the rules and the instruments first.
His experience, though, was one of acquisition. It was the opposite:
They didn’t start by putting a base in my hands. No. The first thing they did was play music around me.
My brothers somehow knew I was born musical, but they wanted me to be a base player. So when I was old enough they put a toy in my hand and they would play. So I would just bounce up and down and strum along too.
It wasn’t about the instrument. I was learning to play music, not an instrument.
He was making music – experiencing joy in “playing” together with his family.
He equates this to language:
I usually say, yeah, I started [learning music] when I was two or three. And I say that just because that’s more believable. But, when did you start speaking English? Did you wait until you were two or three? No. I’d probably say before birth. Whenever you could hear is when you probably started learning it.
So, here we have a musician advocating that students be allowed to acquire music, as we acquired our mother tongues. That they be included in groups of proficient musicians, just as we were included in groups of proficient speakers.
And here, for me is the winning quote. jamming with professionals to the point that you don’t even know you’re a beginner. This is Krashen’s compelling input hypothesis as applied to music:
But with language, to use a musical term, you’re jamming with professionals. All the time. To the point that you don’t even know you’re a beginner.
When we engage with our students, expect them to respond creatively with limited language and accept and honor their contributions, we are inviting them to jam with native or near native speakers of a language like Victor jammed as a 2 year old, Mickey Mouse toy guitar in hand, with his older brothers. It’s an invitation to join a special club – to be one of us.
Not until he was older did he learn to channel his music through an instrument:
And so Reggie actually started teaching me to put my fingers in certain places to produce notes to songs I already knew.
Songs I already knew… He could already communicate. Now he needed to know certain skills, rules, hand positions in order to more clearly articulate that which he wanted to communicate. Learn to communicate first. Improve your accuracy over time… after you’ve already become a card-carrying member of the club.
He goes on to talk about a program at Stanford in which his band was invited to welcome incoming freshmen to campus. He tells the story of how a young woman, with no musical experience, was invited to play bass with the band. She was brought up on stage. He showed her where to put her hands. Then the band began to play. As she caught the rhythm and her body began to feel the groove, she began to play notes. She began to communicate. Wrong notes. But that didn’t matter. She was part of the club. She was a member of the band and she was making music and her music would improve over time.
All of a sudden, she’s a bassist. More so, she’s a musician.
All of a sudden, that kid in your class is a Spanish speaker, instead of Spanish learner.
Because we’re great, she doesn’t have to know anything.
And while that second statement could be misinterpreted, I see it as a group of professional musicians lifting her to a higher level by allowing her to jam with them.
I think our role as TCI teachers is synonymous. Students jam with us. We deliver meaningful, understandable messages to their ears about topics of high interest. We empower them to respond, reply, negotiate, clarify and drive communication in new directions with limited vocabulary. We build their confidence while their subconscious improves their competence. They don’t see themselves as learners. They are speakers of the language – equal participants in crafting the messages we are all sharing. That’s powerful stuff. And they, like Victor Wooten, develop an implicit understanding of how their language works without realizing that they’re “learning”. And by the time they realize they need to improve their accuracy, they’re already invested in themselves as language learners and more likely to continue:
The more they play, the more they will practice on their own.