The Three Treasures of Musical Learning

Pathways for Teaching

We all have a “teaching philosophy”, whether we realise it or not.

Mine strongly advocates holistic, personalised, life-centred education. My model of The Three Treasures of Musical Learning is a key component to complement these values.

Paying attention to all Three Treasures – and at all stages of learning, from the youngest beginner to the most advanced professional – leads to deeper learning, fuelling progress and fostering a lifelong love relationship with music.

In this article I will explain what the Three Treasures are, and offer some tips on how focusing on them can help us develop as effective teachers.

What are the Three Treasures?

The Three Treasures are:

  1. Musical Essence –  aural / creativity / engagement
  2. Musical Technique –  physical movement / process / breathing
  3. Musical Understanding –  literacy / analysis / context / awareness

These are three crucial elements which all contribute to our response when we hear a performance. They are central to music at its best, and are hence commonly assessed elements of musical attainment at auditions for music schools and colleges, and in graded examinations:

  • Essence –  aural tests, composition, improvisation, interpretation;
  • Technique –  scales, arpeggios, studies, accuracy;
  • Understanding –  sight-reading, viva-voce, music theory.

It is important to notice that there is considerable overlap between the Treasures – each contains the seeds of the other two, which is why a holistic approach to musical development is so essential.

Taking care not to neglect any of the Treasures in our teaching, we can help students become independent learners, expressive, accomplished players, and well-rounded musicians.

This table shows a simple summary of The Three Elements of Musical Learning including suggestions about how each is developed, which I will discuss in more details below:

The-Three-Treasures

Musical Essence 

People often talk about aural acuity, the “inner ear”, and allowing our “creative juices to flow”. It is clear to me that these are fundamentally linked, and I like to use Musical Essence as an umbrella term to identify this wonderful Treasure.

Musical Essence is that which gives birth to all our musical imagination and expression, bringing music into being.

I believe that the most fundamental way our Musical Essence can be nurtured and developed is through attentively Listening to lots of music. The earlier in a child’s life such listening beings, the more likely it is that their Musical Essence will subsequently flow powerfully.

The value of our listening can be further enhanced through careful, progressive aural training, and especially by singing.

The stronger the Musical Essence, the more readily the player will be able to pick up pieces by ear, copy and assimilate musical phrasing, develop expressivity in their interpretations, and improvise their own music.

However – Musical Essence is not sufficient on its own. Technique is necessary in order to execute musical intention, and Understanding is required in order to properly make sense of what is heard …

Musical Technique

It is not unusual to come across players who know exactly how they want their music to sound (essence) and why (understanding), but who simply cannot reproduce that music when sat at the piano. To reduce in any way the importance of developing technique and good playing ability would obviously be a mistake.

Musical Technique here refers to our entire physical relationship and engagement with the piano. It is not limited to the activity of the brain and the fingers, but encompasses the whole person.

All aspects of playing need consideration, not merely finger independence, tone control, and fluency – important though these obviously are for pianists. Scales, arpeggios, exercises and studies can all be helpful, but must be executed with an understanding of why they matter, and what is being developed.

Above all, our physical engagement with the instrument should be healthy, mindful, personal, controlled and fluid.

The most important way that our Musical Technique can be improved is through Practice. However, we must not become confused into believing the common misconception that practice is the primary engine of musical development and progress.

Practice is certainly important for securing Musical Technique by developing the mechanics of our movement and kinaesthetic memory, etc. But the impact of practice on Essence (aural development, creativity, etc) and Understanding (learning about the music and how it works) is less measurable.

Musical Understanding

While we are nurturing our Musical Essence through listening and developing our Musical Technique through practice, we must also foster our Musical Understanding through learning.

This might include learning:

  • how to read and write music fluently;
  • an understanding of music theory, and compositional techniques;
  • a knowledge of the historical, social and cultural background of pieces;
  • an awareness of the background and genesis of the piece itself;
  • and ultimately some insight into the mind of the composer;
  • and into our own mind, engagement and motivation.

It is possible to travel a fair distance as a player simply by copying pieces by rote – for example, from a YouTube video or imitating a teacher. But the limitations of such “learning” always become apparent sooner or later, and a dearth of Musical Understanding will cause considerable frustration.

Similarly, we might allow students to focus almost exclusively on the music they already enjoy, rather than broadening their knowledge of music through the ages. Once again, we should question our effectiveness as educators if we aren’t succeeding in developing our students’ breadth of musical experience, engagement and taste.

In my view, then, the most important way that Musical Understanding can be developed is through proper Education. For those of us who are teachers, this is perhaps our most fundamental responsibility.

A Simple Case Study

How do these Three Treasures relate to each other and work together? How does a recognition of their important and mutual connectivity enhance teaching and learning?

Carol is rattling through the twelve harmonic minor scales as a warm up at the start of her lesson, and all is going well until B minor, at which point she gets completely and inexplicably stuck, repeatedly at the same point.

I can observe that the problem is with her fingering – a small error in the LH descending pattern is throwing her off course. It would be easy for a teacher at this point to focus on correcting this problem (which is of course a matter of Musical Technique).

However, working exclusively on correcting a fingering pattern can, depending on the context, prove very frustrating. Focussing on one Treasure without reference to the other two is rarely, in my experience an effective way to teach, and unlikely to result in lasting learning.

How then can the Three Treasures combine to provide a more effective learning solution in Carol’s case?

Musical Essence here affects Carol’s ability (or otherwise) to hear whether the scale pattern itself is musically accurate. Playing the scale incorrectly and asking Carol to identify any mistakes as soon as she hears them might be an effective way to jog her aural engagement.

We can also use the note pattern as the basis for improvisation, taking care to use the correct scale fingering. To help here, I could improvise a simple vamp in the key of B minor while Carol explores the musical potential of the scale.

Fostering good Musical Technique of course involves sorting out effective fingering, but rather than simply point out mistakes as they occur it can be more helpful to isolate the point in the scale where there is a problem and make up a simple exercise limited to the two notes either side of the problem moment.

How important, too, to remember the clear links that exist between movement and breathing, and between tension and mental focus. My recent post More Breathing at the Piano combines awareness in breathing with the development of these other technical assets, showing how breathing can be integrated with technical exercises such as scales and arpeggios.

Musical Understanding has a hugely important part to play in sorting out the problems in scales playing, too. What are the notes in the scale, and the melodic intervals between each? How does the fingering pattern in B minor compare and contrast with that of the relative major (D)?

By exploring a theoretical understanding, it is often possible not simply to sort out problems in playing, but also to make the process a far more musically interesting, educational and fruitful one.

A Holistic Solution

In Carol’s case we soon realised that her understanding of scales and keys was too limited.

Carol is not unusual in this regard. Many who choose to learn the piano are active music lovers with an enjoyment of listening, and correspondingly healthy Musical Essence. With regular practice, Technique also soon develops. But Musical Understanding can all-too-easily fall behind, and there can be a reluctance to embrace the benefits of studying music theory.

The solution for Carol is to develop her understanding of music theory, learn key signatures, and develop strategies to be more conscious and mindful when practising scales, rather than “going through the motions”.

Conclusions

Understanding the Three treasures of Musical Learning enables teachers to be more efficient and effective at helping their students to make secure musical progress.

Learning which fully involves and integrates all three treasures might be described as Deep Learning, and contrasts the Shallow Learning which has become too prevalent in music education.

Being a model for reflection in my own teaching and playing, I have certainly found that remembering the importance of The Three Treasures helps me to:

  • structure balance into my own teaching practice,
  • more accurately identify and address roadblocks in learning,
  • help my students continue to learn more effectively,
  • and assess their progress more meaningfully.

By calling these three aspects of musical development Treasures, we – and our students – learn to give each its proper value.


Further advice for teachers can be found in the Pathways for Teaching section.
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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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