Sound Advice from the Pitch

Mike Lawson • Archives • December 12, 2011

By Kenneth Wayne Thompson

If you follow soccer, or football as it’s known around the world, the title of this article is not only a play on words, but rather is intended as a serious commentary on what we might learn about teaching music from a seemingly unlikely source. Growing up as a trumpet player performing in bands and orchestras, and later becoming a professional conductor, I assumed my first child would study music without complaint. Surely he would be a cellist, the instrument I would play if I could do it all over again, or he would play the piano, or maybe even the oboe.

As usual in situations like this, I was wrong. He doesn’t play the cello, piano, oboe, or even the banjo – my six-year-old son is a “footballer,” and he’s pretty good. He plays with a grace and agility that mirrors what I try to achieve on the podium. I played soccer as a child, but because of my son, after many years away from the game, I have begun to play again. Unfortunately, what I realize every time I walk onto the field is that my son is much better than I am at this game.

As much as I enjoy watching him play, I most enjoy watching his academy training sessions. I am grateful to have rediscovered the game as an adult, as the sound advice from the pitch has been quite a personal and professional revelation. I find the relationship between soccer training and some inherent problems I find in instrumental music teaching in this country to be insightful. We are very fortunate to have brilliant soccer teachers in my son’s academy, and the academy philosophy of “fall in love with the game” is evident in every training session.

Numerous times, we hear there are relationships between music and athletics. I agree with this statement, primarily because we should first and foremost consider learning to play a musical instrument a physical endeavor, not an artistic one. The development of technique, no matter if it involves learning F# or dribbling a ball, is training the body to physically replicate a specific act. Artistry is the application of technique – perhaps playing that F# with slightly more emphasis because it is a suspension that will resolve, or dribbling a ball with the outside of the foot in order to set up a pass or shot. These are both applications of physical skill for a specific purpose.

In American sports, there is an emphasis on winning games. This can, and often does come at the expense of actually developing more proficient technical skill, and importantly, usually comes at the expense of learning to appreciate and love the sport. The parallel to this is readily seen in many instrumental classrooms across the country. There is an emphasis on performing, which unfortunately comes at the expense of learning to develop better technique, and definitely at the expense of falling in love with music as an art. How many programs put away the beginning band methods and technical drills to prepare for the first holiday concert? It starts a vicious cycle, because when you might want to get back into the method books and technical development, it’s time to prep for the winter concert, and then the spring concert, and on and on… we continuously try and get our ensembles organized to present performances. In soccer we see the same thing as coaches get their teams organized to win games. Organization without individual skill is useless.

The soccer equivalent to a concert preparation model is having kids play lots of games and practicing in a very tactical, or organizational manner – as a team – in order to win games. This happens in excess with young players and the outcome is that the tactical model does win games at early stages of development, just as the young musicians likely have no trouble pulling together to play simple tunes in 3 or 4 parts. At some point, however, children must possess individual technique, and it is at this point we really begin to see deviations between various instructional models. The emphasis on winning, or concertizing, has catastrophic consequences for youth development. How many goals have U.S. strikers recently scored in international matches? Not many, because the emphasis on winning at an early ages reduces an emphasis on technical development. When placed in difficult situations, technique matters above all else. Our bodies need to be able to react quickly and with purpose.

Without individual technique, everything we know becomes specific to a situation. Ask a small child on the soccer field why they are standing in a certain spot and you might receive different answers depending on how they were trained. The young tactical development approach will yield a response similar to “because my coach told me to.” In the ensemble, asking the student why they placed an emphasis on the middle of a particular phrase might result in “because my teacher told me to.” Is that really learning? Is the child really developing anything other than a reliance on someone else to tell her what to do? I think this is why if you see a youth soccer game, you will often hear the coach screaming at the players about where to go, what to do, and when to do it – and that sounds shockingly similar to some ensemble rehearsals we might have experienced. Neither seems like a method for talent development to me because there is no opportunity for transfer. The screaming coach/instructor is teaching children to react to instructions, not react to situations.

If we want to begin to develop great musicians, we need to cultivate great technique and allow students the freedom to apply the technique to all situations. This means they are going to make lots of musical mistakes, but they will be learning how to make individual decisions independently. If I am thinking about my technique – for example, the fingering for F# – then I must be told by my teacher to emphasize the note. If my technique allows F# to be an automatic reaction to seeing the printed note, I can actually listen to what is happening around me in the ensemble and hear that it is a suspension resolving, so I know, without help from my teacher, that the note needs emphasis. This may sound complex, but even young musicians can achieve this when the teaching intentionally leads students to these situations.

My son will run into open space during a game, and if I ask him why, his response will indicate he is reacting to play as it unfolds. “The ball came from the left through the center so I needed to go out wide right” is a far cry different from a “because-my-coach-told-me-to-go-wide” scenario. There is no wasted energy thinking about technique, the energy is devoted to playing the game. In the ensemble, we need to cultivate technique so there is no energy of thought devoted to technique, either. All of the thought needs to go toward playing in tune, playing a phrase, or any other musical element.

Soccer is a player’s sport, and the art of music is a player’s realization of sound. When trained with intentionality, in a way that places an emphasis on player development for a higher purpose – one that is directly related to group effort while still founded in individual skill – we will have many more successful musicians in our schools. These musicians will have developed a thoughtful means to solve their own problems, and apply the solutions to creating great music. That recipe yields life-long learners that will have a greater chance of continuing with music beyond their school years, and truly develop a passion for our art.

And we might even win a World Cup.

Dr. Ken Thompson serves on the faculty in the College of Musical Arts at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Additionally, he serves on the conducting staff of both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where he directs the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Civic Wind Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, where he serves as artistic director of the Toledo Symphony Youth Orchestras and conductor of the TYO Philharmonic.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!