A Different Language to Learn
Seniors Alyssa Weinberg, Matt Clark and Ben Hart are exploring septuplets in Marianne Ploger’s advanced ear training and sight singing class. Referring to Robert Starer’s Rhythmic Training, they count and clap together, examining rhythm in a basic way.
“Ta! Ta! Ta-ta-ta-ta!” the student trio intones, all the while lightly clapping their hands on their thighs.
“It’s important to count while sounding ‘ta,’” Ploger says. “Counting and speaking are processed in different parts of the brain.”
The students nod, and after several of these exercises, Ploger decides to work on atonal melody and harmony. She asks the students to identify tetrachords as she plays them on the piano. The students listen intently, and it’s many more hits than misses as they differentiate between Ionian and Dorian chords.
“I’ll respond faster and stop thinking,” Alyssa says at one point.
“That’s it. Bravo!” Ploger exclaims.
The hour quickly draws to a close and Ploger concludes with a few comments about memory and imagination, referencing cooking, language and psychology.
“We have to practice the imagination, always imagining all possibilities to keep from falling into a groove,” Ploger sums up. “The greatest stuff goes into the brain and sticks there. As artists, we have to really develop our memory so we can see the patterns and remember.”
These students are studying the fundamentals of what makes music succeed. Septuplets, Ionian and Dorian tetrachords, atonal melody—these terms may mean little to the nonmusician, but those who want to play music well need to be able to hear and identify them easily. Tuning the ear to hear correctly as music is being made is the foundation of good music-making. But musicianship or the acquisition of aural skills is also one of the most misunderstood areas of study in music. Marianne Ploger, senior artist teacher of musicianship and director of Blair’s musicianship program, is turning around the assumption that one either has aural skills to master pitch, rhythm and intervals or one doesn’t.
“In the past, a high level of musicianship has been associated with natural talent and aptitude,” Ploger says. “As a result, a commonly held belief has been that, because natural aptitude and talent are inexplicable, uncontrollable and unteachable, musicianship training has been largely gratuitous—easy for the gifted and nightmarish for the less gifted. Yet I have found that all musicians can learn to recognize and understand what they are hearing in music, at the same speed that they recognize and understand what they hear and read in their native language.”
Ploger’s approach signals a new direction in teaching musicianship, according to Dean Mark Wait. “The way Marianne teaches musicianship is fundamentally different from the way it has been taught at Blair in the past,” Wait says. “Marianne gets students to respond immediately by making aural skills part of the nuts and bolts of their equipment that is ready to go.”
Prior to joining the Blair faculty in 2008, Ploger spent years exploring musical perception and communication to discover what enables a musician to master aural skills. An accomplished composer and pianist, Ploger founded and directed the Institute for Musical Perception and taught at the University of Michigan’s top-ranked conducting program.
“The greatest stuff goes into the brain and sticks there. As artists, we have to really develop our memory so we can see the patterns and remember.”
“My work parallels research findings of the last few years on the neuroplasticity of the brain, its ability to continue to build new pathways and structures and to learn new tricks long past what is generally considered our primary period of cognitive development,” she says. “It’s been known for some time that we use very little of our potential mental capacity. My goal is to show my students how to bring more of that capacity to the process and work with musical sound in real time. Not only does this make them far more developed and fluent as musicians, these skills in perception and trained attention also apply beyond music to any work that requires focus and both analytical and sensory modes.”
In traditional sight singing classes, an assignment was given, and students would practice at home, then take a test. “But memorizing or practicing at home so you can take a test isn’t sight singing at all,” Ploger says. Instead, she works with the students to help them develop tools to create their own “sound imagination.”
“Marianne’s approach differs from others in that she has managed to articulate specific sound markers that anyone can hear inside musical intervals,” says Joshua McGuire, senior lecturer in musicianship at Blair, who studied with Ploger at the Conductors Retreat at Medomak in Washington, Maine. “A visual artist begins by knowing the names of the colors, but the typical musician begins without really being able to identify in tempo the intervals in which most Western music is composed. Marianne’s methods help bridge this gap and allow people to be more deeply aware of what is happening as they listen and perform.”
Through her decades of research, Ploger has observed these specific sound markers in each of the 12 pitches and 11 intervals and has developed techniques to teach others how to instantly recognize these features at the speed of music.
“We can now objectively articulate the sound factors that make up the elements employed in music,” she says. “It works much the same as language. As musicians, we learn the vocabulary, consisting of notes, triads, seventh chords, inversions of these, scales, key signatures, rhythms, instruments, rhythmic note values, rhythmic notation, pitch notation in various clefs and so on. But to be fluent, it is not enough to have a passing, halting knowledge of the elements of music. We must be fluent in real time.”
Ploger draws an interesting analogy between her approach to musicianship and the evolution of the art of cooking. “In the past, musicianship classes were more like cooking classes in which you were given recipes and told what to do without any real tutelage,” she says. “If you were lucky and had been around a good cook for most of your life, you were more likely to succeed. If you were not so lucky, the results could be unfortunate. Even if you were successful in following a recipe, you would not have learned how to prepare a dish of your own design. Nor would you have learned why some recipes taste so wonderful and why others fail so miserably.”
Ploger believes that musicianship classes are moving in a direction that more closely resembles the kitchen science courses now taught at major culinary institutes. “Aspiring chefs now learn food chemistry and how things combine to create specific effects, both in terms of taste and nutrition,” Ploger says. “Similarly, Blair’s musicianship courses train students to be able to identify the specific elements employed by composers in the creation of good music of any style or genre.”
Ploger’s approach is also used in lower-level ear training and sight singing courses taught by colleagues Joshua McGuire and David Williams. “They have found that freshmen are very receptive to this new approach,” Ploger says. “Students seem to appreciate the fact that virtually anyone can now learn to hear well. What a good place to start!”
Besides teaching upper-level musicianship courses, Ploger offers annual intensive workshops each spring at Blair for professional musicians and teachers from around the country, including Blair faculty and graduates.
“We have faculty members who have taken Marianne’s intensives and they call them life-changing,” Wait says. “Because Blair has a very good undergraduate student body in the formative stages of musicianship, this is a wonderful lab for Marianne. Her intensives give her a national platform for her work. So Blair is an ideal match for her teaching and research. She really is a star in her field, and we are lucky to have her.”
Amy Jarman, senior lecturer in voice, took Ploger’s intensive workshop last May. “Many years ago, when I was a student, I was taught aural skills with a fixed set of expectations,” Jarman says. “You were given a cassette tape to play over and over so you could identify intervals—with the assumption that everyone would do that basically by rote. The most remarkable thing about Marianne is that she acknowledges that individual musicians hear sounds differently and learn in different ways. She’s extremely interested in the cognitive process and how the brain works.”
Ultimately, Ploger hopes that Blair’s musicianship courses will provide students with a strong understanding of how the human mind processes and interprets musical information and how to better use this information to fluently communicate inspiring, edifying and illuminating music to listeners of all types. “In music there can be a disconnect between craft and art,” Ploger says. “Playing a musical instrument is a technical craft. Expressing music, by contrast, has been viewed as an art. The alternate view is that expressing music is also a craft. It is the craft of musical communication. The greatest musicians, of course, are highly skilled in both crafts.”
In the process of learning a composition, Ploger explains, musicians decode the abstract symbolic code written on the staff into meaningful expression. “Unfortunately, sometimes in the process of learning the right notes and right rhythms, we lose our love of the composition with endless hours of practice resulting in performances that, like overworked dough, have turned tough and tasteless,” she says. “The trick is to decode complicated scores in a way that brings us to an increasingly rich and textured understanding of the music.”
That understanding leads to better musical performances—and performers. “So many passionate people in music have had terrible experiences with musicianship training and come away feeling they can never really get it,” Ploger says. “Many have expressed their feelings of anxiety and frustration to me in private. My job, then, is simply to help musicians to be joyful in making music.”