Repertoire: a “well-defined” or “ill-defined” problem?

Creativity is a goal oft-cited by parents wanting their off-spring to take piano lessons, and yet I find myself wondering how quickly this goal is jettisoned for performance-oriented goals such as “able to play the Moonlight Sonata” or “can play a cool blues lick” or “can play duets with a sibling” and so forth.

A lot of what happens in piano lessons is devoted to the art of performance rather than to the art of being creatively engaged, and yes, there really is a difference.

A recent Lego-brick based piece of research explored the two dominant ways children have of interacting with Lego products: the more prevalent recent approach of following the instructions to use the bricks in the kit to make the object shown on the box (the study calls this a “well-defined problem), and the more traditional approach of sitting down with a bunch of Lego bricks and just building something (an “ill-defined problem”).

What was discovered is that the more exposure to well-defined problems people had the less interested they were in engaging in solving ill-defined problems. Furthermore, when people were exposed to the intended outcome (by being shown a picture of the completed product on the box) their capacity for original thought was much reduced.

This completely fascinates me as a music educator, as a piano teacher, and as a writer/composer of music designed for learning, and I think this research has (quite important!) implications for our work as piano pedagogues.

The first implication to strike me is this: how much does the score operate as an instruction booklet, and how much does the score operate as raw material?

Many teachers across the many decades of piano teaching now have seen the score as a series of instructions – push this key down for this long at this dynamic level and you’ll be making the music the way God and the composer intended it to be made! This kind of instruction booklet thinking shows up in all kinds of ways – from students writing the names of each and every note into the music notation through to unmusical performance options being chosen in order to be strictly true to the score (a refusal to engage in rubato, for example, when it would be stylistically appropriate, or a refusal to engage in phrase shaping because the dynamic arc of the phrase is not detailed in the score, etc.).

When the score is used as raw material, however, the student is forced to have an opinion. How does the meaning of the musical phrase change when we alter the articulation? when we manipulate voicing? when we change the register? when we transpose or (gasp!) improvise on the music matters at hand?

But possibly even more important and fundamental is the second implication that struck me on reading about this research: what happens to the creative process when we show a student a picture of the finished product (have the student listen to a recording of a performance of the piece being learned)?

It’s been a long tradition in classical piano music that students should NOT listen to one single recording as a model for their performance (other than, in more recent times, in the Suzuki method, where students are required to listen to a single recording repeated times as a part of their learning process). And the overt reason for refusing to permit the student to listen to recordings is that this will prevent the student from creative engagement with the possibilities of the work.

Of course, students whose families have a lot of music happening every day in their households end up being exposed to much listening in any case (albeit probably not of the exact same pieces that they are currently learning at any given moment), whereas students whose families are not engaged in a great deal of music making simply have less sonic input, and it shows.

On the other hand, the late intermediate/early advanced piano student who has been trawling through YouTube is all too easy to spot! Crazy rubatos and overwrought tempo changes are the usual signs, but equally pertinent are the deviations from dynamic markings that bear no connection to the dramatic arc of the performance.

There is something about being shown the final product through a recording (audio or video) that seems to miss a great deal of the construction of a convincing performance.

And yet… How can the student have a clear conception of what they are building unless they’ve seen the picture on the box, right?

I would be fascinated to see some research* that takes this Lego brick-building exercise (comparing originality of thought when the image on the box is seen or not seen) into the realm of piano performance. The pedagogical tradition is in complete agreement with the findings of this research, and yet we also know how important it is for the student to be able to audiate and imagine what it is they are trying to say through their playing. Has our quest for better audiation missed the point rather completely when we have our children listen to recordings again and again?

And the final implication to strike me emerging from this research is this: how often do we ask our students to build their own performance from the musical materials available to them, without reference to an instruction booklet or a picture on the box? And do we even know how to set about asking this from our students?

Many children find this task entirely overwhelming. So many notes! So many options! Especially if they are set to the task with not much more than a “put your hands on the keyboard and start to play” approach. Of course, a wise teacher will reduce the options and will provide context, making it easier for the child to imagine musical meaning without having to sift through so many of the infinite options available.

But how many children will baulk at the musical equivalent of the paper clip test? Take this chord (let’s say C E G in this case), for example, and see how many different things you can make from it. What is it that is missing from our student’s lived experience that makes this paper clip test so much harder than the actual paper clip test? And why is this aspect of creativity not more foundational in music education, both as a goal and as an activity?

These questions are neither rhetorical nor impossible to answer. Some of it is cultural (these creativity-based approaches are more common in particular Western music education cultures than in others), some of it is structural (what do we expect a musical education to be about? and is it able to be assessed?!), and some of it is traditional (teachers tend to teach the way they have been taught).

But this is what it comes down to:
how should piano teaching practice change as a result of these kinds of research findings?
how can piano teachers create a teaching practice without seeing the picture on the box or being given a booklet of instructions?!

9 thoughts on “Repertoire: a “well-defined” or “ill-defined” problem?

  1. Thought-provoking post, Elissa! I, too, am fascinated by the implications of experiencing “well-defined” problems versus “ill-defined ” problems. I was extraordinarily good at solving well-defined problems in music (BA and MM in piano performance, music education and conducting) but stayed far away from anything that was not clearly defined. However, I’m a creative person (jewelry designer, photographer) and consider it necessary to my well-being to solve creative problems in my artistic adventures. Except music. And there I continued to run into a wall, many times over. It has taken me years of searching but I’m finally onto a solution for this limitation and it’s working! I’ve taken away the music in front of me and am learning how to play by ear. Improvisation is part of this process (recognizing that we improvise everyday in our conversations and tasks was huge realization) and with the work I’m doing, I can feel the creative muscles growing stronger and the language and freedom to “speak music” is flowing. Thank you for your research and curiousity – it’s much appreciated!

  2. Great post. Unlike Sarah, I am the “ill-defined” problem solver and was always better at “hearing” and “creating” my own music rather than “seeing and interpreting” the language on the page. I was lucky to have had a grandmother who taught me both sides of the coin, and a music teacher who was forgiving. Together they both helped me become what I think is a well-rounded musician. This is what I try to do with my students….notice their strengths…..and create an experience that supports both sides of the coin while allowing them to flourish at how they learn best.

  3. Hmm the findings are interesting and not entirely unexpected as it pertains to the loss of interest in ill-defined problem-solving. Having tried to transition from classical music to playing improvised jazz, I found similar parallels in that after being exposed to so many well-defined problems, I desired a much more structured and through-conceived curriculum than the melting-pot approach that pervades the idiom (jazz), although in all fairness, I’d attribute that mostly to a curious personality. What makes me disagree with the article’s relevance to musical pedagogy is that after being exposed to the pedagogy of said “ill-defined” idiom (jazz), I learned from a multitude of teachers that focused listening was paramount in learning to improvise in the style – without it, how would you ever be able to conceive of the various rhythms, articulations, note selections, etc., let alone mimic them (and in doing so, develop an individual style and taste for all of these to then come out freely while improvising). Just as it would be impossible to become proficient at playing jazz without spending a great deal of time absorbing the genre aurally and thoroughly developing tastes and opinions, I think it would be impossible to develop a cultured, respectable style in interpreting the classical repertoire without studying the various interpreters that we have the privilege of listening to (both famous and infamous).

    Nevertheless, the topic is an interesting one and the article doesn’t go unappreciated. Thank you for the read.

    • Joey Lee, I’m with you! I think the picture-on-the-box listening in a classical sense is *profoundly* different to the listening you’re talking about in jazz pianism/musicianship, where the listening is to find the pieces, not to create the whole picture. Those differences are very, very interesting, and you’re prompting me to tease out those ideas in another blog post!

    • I was thinking the same thing Joey. I’m also interested in figuring out if listening only (not watching…youtube or otherwise) can be considered being given “the picture.” The more I teach the more I realize using our sight to understand something often takes away from what our other senses realize they have learned. And when we just listen with our eyes closed, we are learning to create our own picture of what a piece means to us. Maybe listening doesn’t make me feel trapped because I’ve always felt the freedom to play like I feel, and not exactly as written, but I can see how others might hear (without watching) and feel trapped as well. Would be interesting to compare learning styles (auditory vs visual) in light of this research.
      Elissa – I just barely read a book last week that mentioned a study like this. It’s called “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” Fascinating read if you just want to follow a new parent’s journey through their misconceptions and how they find a balance between culture, media, and personal influences on children. May be more of a US view-point though, as I have no idea of the influence of Disney, princesses, barbies, Monster High, etc. in Australia.
      Great article!

      • Nicole – YES! The listening without the looking *to me* seems like not-at-all the whole picture – the kinaesthetics are missing! So important, imo, for real learning and engagement!

  4. I teach piano and composition, and consider informed listening to be a vital part of each student’s studies. I give weekly listening assignments, both for repertoire the student is learning and for additional pieces, particularly those for different instruments. Piano students listen to many versions of any piece they are learning, and we discuss the differences in interpretation, and whether or not the performance is convincing, moving, worth listening to again. Each student will find his/her own interpretation, but also develops the ability to truly listen to and evaluate his/her own performances. Too many students entering my studio have never developed their ear or ability to listen as an active participant. Listening is especially vital for the composition students, in the same way that reading is vital for writers, or tasting is vital for cooks! We’ve learned that even the most famous or beloved performers often veer from the written score, and we learn to determine the musical reasons they might do so. The composition students become even more aware of good notation and written instructions, but also become aware that a performer may discover something unexpected in their music which goes beyond the original score. Students who are trained to be vibrant listeners will also be more likely to attend concerts, buy recordings, and support other performers. The isolation of the practice room is not necessarily the best incubator for creativity!

  5. I can see merit in listening to the piece — but not just to a single recording. Listen to a bunch of recordings. In the classical repetoire, I will admit that I cannot hear much difference between two versions, assuming similar accoustics, and similar tempo. But in jazz every performer brings a different perspective to a piece that is more readily apparent.

    (Exception: Gould playing Bach. Man imitates machine. Too precise. To perfect. Clockwork.)

    Some of this however is tradition. Certain styles are ‘accepted’ others not. Students should understand those traditions, but shouldn’t be bound to them.

    In addition there are good and bad versions of a piece. I can see merit in having students listen to bad renditions of a piece. This may be done after a student has mastered a piece. Play good and bad versions of something he played a year ago. Why is it good, why is it bad? How does it differ from a literal interpretation of the score.

    Engineers in school spend time studying mistakes and failures. Perhaps budding musicians can too.

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