Why Notation Doesn’t Always Help

I got an idea!…Why don’t we write it down?!

A jam session last Saturday, consisting of student guitarists grades 7 – 9, offered numerous insights into the collaborative learning process of beginner/intermediate  musicians.  The goal was to learn and perform a popular rock song, “Last Resort” by Papa Roach.  Most of the six guitarists were familiar with the song and some had learnt it’s parts privately as part of their own study.

The writing-it-down suggestion was a better idea in theory than it was a solution in reality:

For one 1), the writer needed a guitar to reference and guide notation.  This distraction was only a slight time management issue in that it forced the group to sit and wait for the writer(s) to get organized, whereas expert musicians can refer to their instrument in their heads or, eventually, instictively without thinking.

Secondly 2), the complexity of the chords being written complicated the process.  There were questions from the start concerning how to indicate an additional fifth in the bass of standard power chords, as heard in the song.  The relevance of such indication varied among the group and suggestions for the chords’ notation prompted many revisions, edits and re-writes – the early versions of which included scribbled words in English instructing the use of specific fingers.   *** 1

Also problematic was 3) the non-standardization of chord names knowledge from person to person.  Some had become used to seeing Bb written as A# for example, and had to adjust their visualization of the fretboard accordingly.  Others wanted to read their power chords as fret numbers instead of root-note letters and indeed could not participate without it, because of their lack of familiarity with the note names on their fretboard.

Most interesting was 4) the actual disregard of the finished product when it came time to use the chords written on the whiteboard.  Having written the chord progression using mostly standard chord names, some of the students (including the one from the beginning who suggested writing it down in the first place) quickly found it more productive (and intuitive) to look at their peers and watch what they were doing as opposed to reading the chord chart on the whiteboard.   Looking over to watch his friend, the student quoted at the outset was now asking “Hey, how do those chords go?” despite having just written them on the board for the entire group. **2

Finally 5), the over-attention and hyper-priority given to “how the song goes” and resulting disinterest or irrelevance of A) accompaniment parts, B) variety from guitarist to guitarist or C) interest in improvised embellishments resulted in a group attachment to a single specific part and playing with the unintentional effect of drowning-out or overriding their fellow musicians.  Without dividing certain parts amongst individual players the parts of the song were more easily played without attention to others and the unique roles that could have been taken on by multiple instruments, and without the appreciation of ensemble playing.  ** 3

Jam sessions between musicians and expert-guided peer-to-peer collaboration is the most authentic way to use and learn musical knowledge.  The desire to perform with others is usually what fuels the middle-school through high-school age group’s initial interest in the study of rock instruments.  It was my pleasure to learn as much about this process as (hopefully) my students did.

View our rehearsal of the intro, verse & chorus, here: http://youtu.be/8HFOpIq4Cwg

**1    Simplification is indeed stressed during performance-based instruction with the understanding that a more complete and authentic representation of the song will follow from it naturally.  To preserve our progress often times beginners will intuitively draw a picture representation of their instrument to write down notes or chords of a song.

**2     Reflecting on this issue at the time, I related to them my experience as a band member.  Throughout all my years as a guitarist in a band, from 7th grade on throughout high school and college, I never once relied on written music to learn or rehearse a song.  (As part of private study in college, yes, but not otherwise.)  As a band that performed covers and wrote originals, we learned without notation or, as in my early years, knowledge of note names on the fretboard.

**3     This type of awareness and responsibility is most usually found in mature players who have developed a more complete understanding of “musicality” and can hardly be expected of beginners.

Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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