Learning to Distrust Play

A few years ago, I visited a private school where a friend was teaching fourth grade. I improvised a duet at a piano with each of the twenty kids in turn using various Patterns from my books. The other kids danced and moved to the music so everyone stayed involved. What amazed me was that almost every child played in rhythm and responded to the tones. They were really listening.  When I mentioned this to my friend, she said that dance and movement were a big part of the program at the school, though there was no official musical training.  I couldn’t help but note that the two children who did not respond to the tones and rhythm were both kids who told me they had already completed three years of piano lessons.

Then, two months later, over the course of a day, I improvised duets with about fifty kids in a music academy. I was shocked. Only one kid—one out of fifty!—improvised in a rhythmic way and with sensitivity to consonance and dissonance. It was a very LONG day for me and my delicate nervous system! These kids had learned to be “tuned out.”  Their various teachers were nearly all recent graduates with music degrees, some who clearly viewed my work with suspicion, as if improvising were mere “child’s play.”  (Tell that to Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach!) 

I took two lessons away from these contrasting events:  One, the natural instinct to play is inadvertantly trained out of us. And two, as we become trained (particularly in institutions), we inadvertantly acquire a certain distaste for and distrust of play. 

This experience made me more determined to work to restore the rightful place in play in a musician’s life. To create music is, in essence, to play with tones.