Soapbox: Learning Tracks

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soapboxI know the arguments in favour of giving people recordings of the music they need to learn to sing their part in a choral group. It’s a very common practice in the barbershop world, and an increasingly common one in classical choirs. And it’s true that it enables people who don’t read music to participate with very little effort, and indeed to perform much more complex music than they would be able to without it.

And, yes, having people participate in singing is a Good Thing. No argument there.

But still, I do think that every so often someone needs to point out the problems that learning tracks create as well as their opportunities.

Like many wonder-drugs, they do have long-term side-effects, and while these mostly seem unimportant at the point you start using learning tracks, they becomes increasingly problematic over time – by which time your learning tracks habit may be so ingrained that it’s much much harder to step back and do things another way.

So, the fundamental problem with learning tracks is that they prevent literacy. People who learn music using recordings because they can’t read virtually never go on to learn how to. Of course, in theory there’s nothing to stop them – but very few ever do. This is partly because the learning tracks let their choral directors off the hook for helping them learn, and partly because the way you learn to learn music using recordings develops mental habits that makes literacy even harder to acquire.

And why is this a problem?

Well, first, it disempowers the learner. It reduces their learning process to the parrot-fashion, which is the shallowest and least flexible form of learning. It is learning in a single groove – to know something ‘better’ entails being able to reproduce concrete operations more reliably. You become a production-line singer instead of a craftsman – let alone an artist.

You have also effectively out-sourced your learning to people who can read music. This develops a much steeper gradient of power between those people who can read music and those who can’t. The former get to dictate how the music goes, and the latter just have to go along with it.

In some contexts, this emerges as an extra burden on the literate, as they have to produce the learning materials, then test everyone in their section to see if they’ve learnt it correctly. In other contexts, it becomes a business opportunity for producers of learning materials, so that the illiterate end up paying higher membership dues so they can pay the literate to read the music for them.

And as a singer develops in general skill level and confidence, they will probably find themselves wanting to take on extra challenges and responsibilities. And with each new step their musical career, lack of literacy becomes more of an obstacle.

Want to become a section leader? If you can’t read, you can’t check if your singers are getting their parts right. Okay, unless you’ve paid for someone else to do the tracks and you compare by ear…but how do you know the tracks are actually correct? Okay, you delegate that to a member of your section who can read. Well, they’re after your job now, aren’t they? Or maybe you leave that to the director…

Want to be a director? How are you going to tell if you singers are singing the right notes? Okay, so you’ve paid for learning tracks and learned all the parts by ear. How do you know the tracks are accurate? Okay, you delegate that to your section leaders – hang on, they were relying on you for this.

It’s not that it’s impossible to operate as an effective director without reading music (as several people I know and love demonstrate). But it’s just much harder to make informed decisions, and you keep having to hand responsibility for things that should be in your control to people who can read music.

As a visiting coach, for instance, I not infrequently find myself sorting out note accuracy issues that result from inaccurate learning materials. And it’s not just the waste of money that bothers me here (that they’ve paid for learning tracks that have mistakes so have to spend time they’re paying me for sorting things out), but the huge waste of human time and effort spent learning something wrong then having to re-learn it right.

And of course, things learned by rote are much harder to change than music learned through literacy, so the whole rehearsal process is more laborious when you rely on learning tracks. Your basic method of teaching repertoire encourages automatic, habitual responses, so that when you want to improve the performance, the rubber band effect keeps snapping the singers back into how they did it before.

Of course, it’s easy for people like me to say this – I had the luck to learn to read music at the same time as I learned to read words. Learning literacy is harder as an adult, not least because there just isn’t the infrastructure to dedicate time to it in the way there is for children. But it’s not actually that hard, and many more people would achieve it if their musical leaders would stop handing them crutches and telling them that walking doesn’t matter.

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