Audiation and Thinking Music, with Cynthia Crump Taggart

Today we’re joined by Professor Cynthia Crump Taggart, the President-Elect of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning. You might have heard that name “Gordon” in the world of music education as associated particularly with audiation, and in fact Edwin Gordon developed a whole approach to music learning which is called, simply enough, Music Learning Theory.

We had been keen to invite a Music Learning Theory expert onto the show for a while because we’ve covered some of the other “biggies” in terms of music education methodologies that really cultivate musicality, like Kodály, Dalcroze, and Orff, and we also talk a lot about audiation at Musical U, a word that Gordon himself invented.

So we were delighted when Professor Crump Taggart agreed to come on the show and this conversation was really fruitful and fascinating.

We talk about:
• Her own musical upbringing and her first experiences learning from Edwin Gordon himself
• The slightly imprecise way we tend to use the word “audiation” at Musical U and what it should really be used to mean
• And the two simple activities Professor Taggart recommends if you want to incorporate Music Learning Theory into your own life as an adult musician.

This was a super cool glimpse into both the history and roots of Music Learning Theory, as well as the practicalities of what it does and how.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Professor Taggart. Thank you for joining us today.

Cynthia: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Christopher: I have really been looking forward to picking the brains of one of the top people in the world of Music Learning Theory, but before we dive into all that juicy goodness, I’d love to just find out where you came from as a musician. What was your own music education like?

Cynthia: It was fairly traditional, but I had some advantages as well. Music teacher and my dad, although he was an attorney, also was a singer, so there was a lot of music in my childhood that supported my classical music training. I had elementary general music in the schools. I began French horn when I was in fourth grade. I took piano from about second grade to about eleventh grade, and then I went and majored in French horn performance at the beginning and eventually music education at the University of Michigan to get my formal education and to get me ready to teach music in the schools. Since then, obviously, I’ve gone on and gotten a master’s degree and a doctorate in music education.

Christopher: I see. That sounds like a very nice, clear, straight path. Was it always obvious to you that you were going to go into music education and do it step by step like that?

Cynthia: It was obvious to me that I was going to go into music. The teaching part of it, actually, came fairly late. I didn’t decide I wanted to teach until about halfway through college, so that was a late discovery.

Christopher: Could you tell us a little bit about the kind of musician you were? You mentioned that you had a fairly classical, traditional music education. What do you mean by that, and maybe what elements of being a musician would you say you were particularly strong in and less focused on?

Cynthia: I actually had a fairly good aural skills foundation, but that was something that came not through my classical music training, but, really, through my informal home environment and just, I think, through my basic aptitude for music. I really had very traditional lessons that were very much notation focused and realizing what was on the page, both in French horn and in piano. Those were the kinds of musicianship skills that were really focused on through most of my music education, although I actually don’t think that those are the most important kinds of musicianship skills now.

Christopher: I see. Well, that’s definitely something we’re going to be digging into a little bit. I thought it was interesting that you used the word “realized” there to talk about going from notation to performance. Is that right?

Cynthia: Right. Yeah, realizing the ideas of others, to some extent, rather than having ideas of my own, which is what I value now in musicianship, but which I’ve had to figure out mostly on my own.

Christopher: Interesting. Were you conscious of that as a musician growing up? Was this something you felt like you were missing out on or was this just something you later discovered was a whole other part of musicianship?

Cynthia: It was something that I really discovered later, and I’ve watched some of my doctoral students at the university discover it as well. They take this class called Songwriting, and in this songwriting class, there are people who are not classically trained musicians, like engineering students and arts and letters students and our music educators. Many of our music educators are humbled by the fact that these informally trained musicians have all of these skills that our classically trained music educators don’t have and wish very much that they had. I think it would make them better overall musicians.

Christopher: Interesting. Yeah, that’s a kind of false dichotomy we often talk about in Musical U, that the sheet music musicians feel left out of the playing by ear world and the play by ear musicians feel jealous of the sheet music readers being able to do that, and of course, there are strengths to both and both are part of being an all-round musician.

Cynthia: I very much was trained to be the sheet musician person, but I trained myself, sort of informally, to be some of the other things, so my aural skills, I think, actually, are better than many of the people who rely primarily on notation, but that was not because of any of the teaching I received until much later in my career.

Christopher: That’s super interesting. I realize we’re going back a little bit in your career, but maybe could you paint a picture or give examples of the kind of things you were doing to learn those skills by yourself if they weren’t being imparted to you in lessons?

Cynthia: Well, my parents, actually, were doing a lot of that thing. I remember taking car trips. My grandparents lived about an hour away, and we would drive and see them almost every single week. We had song sheets that were just the lyrics in the car, and we as a family would sing the entire trip all of these old World War I, World War II Roaring 20s songs. My parents would harmonize, sometimes we would harmonize. We did a lot of music making in the home, and we always had music playing in my home. Lots of jazz, lots of show tunes, lots of classical music. I still laugh because I graduated from high school really having almost no exposure to the popular music scene. It was really more the music of my parents that I listened to.

Christopher: Wow. I’m sure this is something we’ll touch on later, but it’s so interesting to hear that singing is something you credit so much with developing that inner musicality. It’s come up a lot on this show, to be honest, even though a lot of musicians feel locked out of that world of singing. They feel like they can’t sing. We often try and explain how it’s part of your musicality, whether you consider yourself a singer or not.

Cynthia: Right. It’s not about how good your singing instrument is. It’s really more about, can you sing in tune, can you express yourself through your voice? I learned to do that at a very young age, and when I teach, I actually … When I was a beginning band director for a while, in our concerts, we actually had the kids sing what they were going to play before they played them. I want to make sure that the music is going on in their head, not just in their fingers. Singing is a way to get some evidence of that.

Christopher: Fantastic. You had this strand of inner musicality training going on alongside the notation and the instrument technique. When did that start to factor in to your perspective on music education?

Cynthia: A little bit in my undergraduate work, because I actually studied with a professor who had done his doctorate with Ed Gordon. Some of the things he had us do had us playing by ear, but it was the first time I’d ever encountered playing by ear in the university. I look back and think, I should have been doing that from the time I started all of my instruments. So, a little bit there.

I think I really began to understand it as I saw some of the musicians whose skills I just admired. I look at Chris Thile, for instance, who is a tremendous, tremendous mandolin player, member of Punch Brothers, hosting Prairie Home Companion now in the US, and just a terrific vernacular musician, but he’s also classically trained. Some of the musicians that I admired the most had both of those pieces in place. They brought a different kind of musicianship to the classical repertoire, even, than the people who didn’t have that sort of musicianship that really laid the fundamentals down for everything that they should be hearing and doing.

Christopher: I see, and so you had this opportunity with a professor to start exploring playing by ear and see how it could be taught and how it could be learned. Where did things go from there?

Cynthia: They really sort of just laid there for a while.

Christopher: I see, yeah.

Cynthia: And I started exploring that a little bit more in my teaching. Now he, when he was helping us understand how children learned, did understand and really stress the importance of aural musicianship as in A-U-R-A-L as well as O-R-A-L musicianship. So, hearing as well as doing. That was part of why I did a lot of playing for my students. I had them listening to CDs of the things that they were learning. Actually, it was records back then. That was also one of the reasons I had them singing. So I was sort of playing with some of those ideas, but again, I didn’t really feel like I knew how to put that all together in some kind of coherence package to help my students move forward successfully.

Christopher: Interesting. This is something that’s come up a few times when talking to music teachers in the US, is that although there are these traditional philosophies or approaches such as Kodály and Dalcroze and Orff and Music Learning Theory maybe can be put alongside them in some sense, a lot of music teachers get to their first day of teaching and realize they don’t actually have a clear structure or framework for how to impart these skills they want to. What was your own experience with that? It sounds like you had some kind of sense of the toolkit you wanted to bring to your teaching.

Cynthia: Yeah, a little bit. I had an eclectic university education in relation to that. The elementary general music class that I took didn’t really try to support or wasn’t underpinned by a single approach to learning. We had the two weeks on Orff, and the two weeks on Kodály, and not at all on Learning Theory. It ended up giving me a collection of activities, but no real structure to hang those activities on. The instrumental music class, the methods class that I took, actually was the one that had that aural focus, and so I was sort of having to figure out how to take those things that I learned in an instrumental setting and move it down into my elementary general music teaching. I didn’t have as much trouble with my instrumental teaching, doing that, because I’d seen it modeled. I knew what that looked like a little bit.

Christopher: Got you. How did you address that as you began to teach and have to figure it all out?

Cynthia: About halfway through my first year of teaching, I got a letter from one of my friends, who said, “I am at this workshop,” or, “I just did this workshop, and it changed my life. You need to do this.” And it was actually one of Ed Gordon’s Sugarloaf workshops in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. This was someone I trusted a great deal. It was also someone I knew that knew valued the kinds of approaches to music teaching and learning that I valued, and so I thought, okay, this is definitely worth checking out, and I did that the next summer. It really paid big dividends. It changed, really, the course of my life.

Christopher: Wow. It may be a slightly funny question, but Professor Gordon passed away a few years ago, and I’m sure our listeners are curious to know, what was he like? You worked quite closely with him, and this was your first opportunity to study with him. What kind of a person was he that invented this amazing theory that so many people now practice?

Cynthia: He was brilliant. He loved ideas. He loved music, he loved artistry, but he loved it broadly defined. It wasn’t just classical music that he liked. He was on the road with Gene Krupa when he was in his late teens, one of the great jazz drummers of all time. He also played classical bass. He studied at Eastman. But beyond that, he had a brilliant mind and a creative mind. He loved playing with ideas. He loved thinking through things. He read broadly in philosophy and in art, well outside of music. So, a brilliant mind who used that brilliant mind to the benefit of music education.

Christopher: Wonderful. What was that first experience like, that first workshop where you studied with him? What was the workshop experience like? And also, you mentioned how much of an impact it had. Can you give us a sense of what that transformation was? What was the before and after that this workshop brought about?

Cynthia: Well, the workshop itself was really stressful, actually, but also incredible. We got up very early every morning, had breakfast, and started lectures at about 8:00 in the morning. We had lectures until noon, a little bit of lectures after lunch, a couple of hours to practice our musicianship, develop musicianship skills. Mid-afternoon, a little bit more lecture, then we had dinner, and he went until 10:00 lecturing. So, long, long, long days, but it was clear that everything that he had to say was so important, and I never, ever got bored, because it was such important information and it was answering all these questions that teaching had raised for me.

It was resonating with how I, not just in my music lessons, but I as an individual really learned music. Sort of that amalgamation of my informal music learning and my formal music learning, and it put it together a little bit for me and helped me understand what it was that I had accomplished and what it was that I still needed.

Now, in terms of the impact that it had on my teaching, a lot of the ideas were very cerebral and not very practically oriented. If you’ll read Learning Sequences in Music, which is Ed’s definitive book, you’ll see that that is the case. Translating that to practice has been a life’s work, and the publications that I’ve done with Ed, Jump Right In, the music curriculum, which is designed for K-5, K-6, as well as Music Play, which is designed for early childhood, those are the outgrowth of that. They are the translating Ed’s theories and ideas into practical application for different age groups. It’s also been translated into piano instruction, into instrumental instruction, but those are not the things that I have had the major role in, although I’m familiar with them.

Christopher: Got you. I was about to ask you if you could give a particular example of something you took away from that workshop and put into practice, but it sounds like maybe it took a little longer for it to sink in and for you to see how these abstract frameworks could all be beneficial for your teaching.

Cynthia: Although one thing that it really made me understand is the importance of aural musicianship, the importance of listening, the importance of playing by ear, and responding to music first, away from the page, really in sophisticated ways before and at the same time you’re responding to music on the page.

Christopher: I see. Maybe we could dwell on that for a moment, because you said something very interesting a few minutes ago when talking about your professor who started introducing you to playing by ear. You said you suddenly thought this should have been part of my instrument learning from the first day I picked up the instrument. I’m paraphrasing. But, that would be surprising to a lot of musicians, particularly in that group we talked about before who are very sheet music oriented, they haven’t explored the aural skills side of things. Can you give a sense of how that can work for someone who’s never tried playing by ear and sees it as a very advanced or magical skill? What would that look like to incorporate from day one?

Cynthia: I actually got to see that in my own children as they began piano, because they had a piano teacher who started with a really aural approach. What this piano teacher did, Jerry [Asheri 00:18:48], who was just fantastic, was he had them just take songs that they already knew, showed them what the five finger positions were on. “So here’s where you put your thumb, which means here’s what you do for the rest of these fingers.” And had them figure out how to play these tunes. He just took songs that the kids already knew, had them play them, and then the next step was actually to harmonize. Still all with no notation at all, and he would move them into key centers, so they were transposing and taking this song and playing them in different keys. There were fairly easy harmonies, like just one and five or one, four, and five, and the kids learned how to play chords in each of the hands and figured out where the chords went in the melodies, and they knew several songs in both major and minor before they ever saw one stitch of notation.

Christopher: That’s beautiful. This is a topic I really wanted to dig into with you, because the approaches I mentioned before, Kodály and Orff, they’re often boxed as early music education stuff. I know that some of our listeners, having just heard us talk about how playing by ear isn’t magical and heard you describe how it can be learned by children, probably still thinking, okay, if you’re a kid and you start very early, maybe you can learn those skills, but for me, as an adult, it’s far too late. Would you just speak to that a little, the relevance of Music Learning Theory and the stuff we’ve been talking about for adults versus children?

Cynthia: It’s relevant for everyone. Now, I do think that it comes more quickly and more easily for children. Children just learn things faster than adults do. When you think about all the things that are learned in the first two years of life for a child, they go from this little blob hardly able to do anything to walking and talking and doing all of those kinds of things. So if we learned that much every two years, we’d be pretty remarkable. So, we don’t.

But, that aural musicianship is still really fundamental for music learning. The process may a little bit slower, but we also are bringing, as adults, a lifetime of music listening that kids don’t bring. We also bring some cognitive skills that kids haven’t developed yet. Some things will come a little more slowly for us and other things will come a little bit more quickly than they come with kids, and that’s fine.

Christopher: Fantastic. I love that you touched on that, that we do actually bring advantages to the table, not just a brain that’s a bit slower to learn. Yeah, it’s something, I think, adult musicians often underestimate, is the value of that mental database of music and everything they’ve been absorbing passively over the years.

Cynthia: We also bring, I think, a motivation that in school settings not all kids bring. We’re doing music because we want to do music, because we love music, because we want to engage in these things that make us happy, and that alone is a real plus for us as adults.

Christopher: I think we’ve touched on a few of the themes in Music Learning Theory and talked about how it is the framework, it’s a way of thinking about these things. One thing I wanted to ask you in particular because I think it confuses some people is, would you say this is a model of how people learn music? Or is it more a recipe for how we could or should learn music?

Cynthia: I would say both. I think many people have learned music in spite of their education musically rather than because of their education musically, and so I think there are many persons just like me who had their classical music education, but there were a lot of other things that were happening in the background that allowed them to learn some of the things that they’ve learned. I think it is a model for how music is learned. It’s also how music should be learned, which is kind of a mixture of informal and formal music training, but with informal music training laying the foundation, really, for more formal music training.

Christopher: I see. And-

Cynthia: And I would really actually prefer the word education rather than training.

Christopher: Sure. We’ve touched on a couple of things that are big, I think, in this way of thinking about learning music. One is singing and using your voice and the other is aural skills, the A-U-R-A-L sense of the word.

But you can’t dive very far into Music Learning Theory without coming across the word audiation. I actually had an email recently from Joy Morin over at Color In My Piano, someone I really love and respect, but she was very, in a friendly way, pointing out that we had been a bit too fast and loose with the way we use the word audiation at Musical U.

In short, we tend to use it to just mean the musical equivalent of visualization. We say, it means imagining music in your mind. She was reminding me that there’s a lot more depth to it when that word is used in the context of Music Learning Theory. I’d love if you could just explain a little bit, what are we missing out on if we think audiation is just imagining music in our head?

Cynthia: It’s also giving meaning to that music that we imagine. So, audiation is sort of a matter of degree in some ways. Audiation is not a yes or no question. Audiation is a skill, and it’s a skill that we develop. I could ask you to audiate Happy Birthday, the song Happy Birthday. Okay, now I could ask you to audiate it in minor. Now I could ask you to audiate it in minor with the harmonization underneath it. There are lots of different ways in which we audiate, the depth with which we audiate.

When I say give meaning, what I’m saying is, do you have some sort of informal aural understanding of the syntactical context of what’s happening tonally and rhythmically? Can you feel a beat and multiple levels of beat? Can you hear where home is, where the tonic or the resting tone or the most important pitch is? Those are sort of the most fundamental levels of audiation that allow you to bring meaning to what it is that you’re listening to or performing, even.

Christopher: Fantastic. Why is this important?

Cynthia: Because if you can’t do that, you are not really going to be expressive as a musician, because it’s your ability to hear where home is and pull away from home and return to home and stretch the beat and push the beat. Those are the kinds of things that we … To be expressive musically, and if you don’t have those syntactical systems underpinning your musicianship as you perform or even as you listen, you are not going to be as expressive musically as you could be.

Christopher: I think it’s probably fair to say that the traditional approach to music education, the kind of very sheet music based or notation based and very focused on instrument technique, I think it’s fair to say that that doesn’t do an awful lot to cultivate this skill of audiation, and certainly not to the degree you just described in terms of actually understanding and being able to play with and experiment and explore in your mind’s ear. What does it look like if this is done right? If we imagine, let’s say, an adult musician, or, say, an adult who is just beginning to learn music, and they’re going to go to classes with a teacher who has studied Music Learning Theory. How would they be developing that ability to audiate?

Cynthia: Through singing, through moving, through some playing instruments, but through a lot of listening. Listening, however, not just to recorded music, but listening to one another, listening to the music teacher who needs to be a really fine musician in and of him or herself or theirself. So, it’s going to be a lot more like how we learned language. When you think about how you learned language, you learned language through listening to language, through speaking language, playing with language yourself, babbling, and that’s how music really should be learned in the beginning as well. By listening to it, by playing around with it, by hearing others with whom you have a meaningful relationship perform and engage with you musically.

Christopher: With this kind of philosophy or approach or methodology, I think it’s easy for the listener to understand how this might work in a classroom context or if they were studying in person with a teacher, and they’ll get very excited about that idea and the kind of impact it could have on their musicality, but at the other end of the spectrum, we have people who are kind of cobbling together their own music education, often online. We live in an incredible age for accessing resources online, but they’re not always packaged up in a way that makes them effective for people. Obviously, I have a slightly biased viewpoint in that we try and address this to some extent at Musical U.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what an interested adult could usefully do. If they’re getting excited about these ideas from Music Learning Theory and what it would be like to be able to audiate and that kind of stuff, what could they do today to incorporate some of this into their music education?

Cynthia: Learning to play tunes by ear. Listening to recordings that they really like. Figuring out the melody, playing around with it until they get it on their instrument or on their keyboard or vocally. Listening enough to really immerse themselves so that they can learn things aurally first. But I would also recommend listening broadly. Laying a very rich foundation of music listening in a variety of styles, in a variety of cultures, in a variety of tonalities, in a variety of meters, because it will allow you to bring a deeper understanding to the music, then, that you choose to engage with. Playing by ear, listening are really the foundations of it all.

Christopher: Wonderful, and I so admire and respect that you gave that answer and you didn’t just say, “Go study with an MLT professional,” which some people might have been expecting to hear. At the same time, obviously there is tremendous value in learning from those who’ve really immersed in what it means to learn music and how to incorporate all of these things. I think there’s a risk that someone gets excited, plays around with these ideas, but doesn’t really have a sense of the progression they should be looking for or how to self-assess or how to know if they’re making any progress. If we imagine that person who’s tried playing by ear a few times and they’ve been trying to listen more, but then a few weeks later they’re like, “Is this working?”, what would [crosstalk 00:31:31] would you say?

Cynthia: Well, if they’re learning songs, it is working, for starters. But, that being said, I think to really make the jump into becoming really, truly proficient, it does help to have a teacher to serve as a guide. Someone who can assess where your strengths and weaknesses are, can really challenge you in the ways in which you’re strong, but can provide scaffolding for you in the ways in which you maybe are struggling a little bit. I think teachers can really serve in Music Learning Theory and in any approach, really, to guide the music learners so that they’re more efficient, more effective learners, and can plug in some of the holes that they come with naturally, partly as a result of who they are and their background and their experience.

Christopher: Terrific. Is this something that is studied as its own thing? You know, if someone’s like, “Okay, I’m going to get a teacher, they’re going to know all about Music Learning Theory.” Would that be part of, say, an instrument lesson? Would it be studied in its own right? What would that look like?

Cynthia: It could be part of an instrument lesson. There are many, many piano teachers now in the United States who have a Music Learning Theory base for their instruction. There are lots of private instrument teachers as well. Music Learning Theory has a very strong home in early childhood curricula, as well as in elementary general music, beginning instrumental music settings. I think the numbers of ways in which Learning Theory has been applied will continue to grow. I know that someone’s working on a guitar curriculum.

Someone’s working on a choral curriculum. These are all taking that Music Learning Theory framework and translating them to practice in a specific way, knowing that that framework could be translated to practice in other ways as well, so there’s no single way in which Music Learning Theory takes life.

Christopher: And I guess it comes back to what you were saying about Gordon himself being very broadminded when it came to music and music education. You’re soon going to be the President of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning. Could you talk a bit about the work you do there and what people can find on the GIML website?

Cynthia: They can find some theoretical information about what Music Learning Theory is, so just the fundamentals about what is this Music Learning Theory thing, what does it mean to be a Music Learning theorist? But there are also professional development activities, so there are lists of workshops of people who are Music Learning Theory practitioners who are presenting around the country and around the world. There are also professional development workshop opportunities that are on that website. You can become certified in Music Learning Theory and to teach using a Music Learning Theory approach. Those are two-week workshops that happen primarily in the United States, although we are expanding internationally as well. Those are all listed, as well as the dates and contact information.

Christopher: Tremendous. Well, it’s been such a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you, Professor Taggart, and hear the inside story on Music Learning Theory and the positive benefits it can bring to a musician’s life, and I’m particularly glad to have had the opportunity to ask you about its relevance for adults, because I think that’s something people are often a bit confused about.

Cynthia: One thing I’d like to add, too, is that one really fundamental principle of Music Learning Theory is that everyone is musical. Every single person is musical, and we have different strengths and weaknesses within our own musicianship. We’re all unique musicians, and we all have something to say musically.

Christopher: Wonderful. Well, I’m so glad we ended on that point. Tremendous. Thank you so much, Professor Taggart.

Cynthia: Thank you very much for inviting me.

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