What must we do to really make inroads into how new music is learned and appreciated beyond the concert hall? Recently I had lunch with an extraordinary group of people who are tackling this issue head on. They are working in ways that turn upside down how most of us approach teaching the skills deemed necessary to be a musician of the Western Classical Tradition. I am talking about the teachers and staff of the Walden School. For those of you not familiar with this entity, Walden is a young composers dream—a five-week intensive summer camp for students ages 9-18 with a mission to foster the exploration of one’s creativity through the medium of music. Previous compositional experience is not required. In fact, it is not necessarily a “camp for composers”: the only real music requirement is to have studied an instrument for at least a year.
For over thirty years the Walden School has had huge success with its approach to educating young musicians through their innovative approach of learning harmony and other elements by taking things out of context. Chords are not taught in terms of function but as isolated intervals, in line with the harmonic series. Voice leading is learned not by memorizing rules and examples but evolves out of a series of improvisation games and other sandbox play. From day one, the students are encouraged to explore music by making it up, diving right in and attempting to create sound regardless of the outcome. Through this process, by summers end students attain high proficiency in musicianship skills mastered through the process of composing and improvising works which fellow campmates and resident professionals then perform. It squarely puts into question the assumptions made about Western art music—that in order to master it we must study the way composers have treated it before we can use the materials ourselves.
Even though the final product is not their goal, the results are amazing. Anyone who has met a Walden kid can tell you that the quality of music composed is astounding, showing an originality and technique rarely seen in a pre-collegiate musician. In fact, many of the school’s graduates go on to successful music careers as composers and performers. More importantly, those who do not enter the arts as a profession are instilled with a love for creativity and an appetite for classical, new music, jazz, and indeed all music. It sticks with them throughout adulthood and is passed to their children and students, as evidenced by the high percentage of support and participation Walden receives from alumni decades after their last campfire.
Walden has started a one-week intensive Teachers Training Institute where any musician— whether performer, composer, teacher, or amateur—can experience the teaching techniques used in their musicianship program. As a participant, one essentially becomes a Walden student and dives deep and quick into the game of learning by doing. All are encouraged to leave at the door any previous assumptions or goals one has about music. By the end of the week, choral directors are improvising short vocal pieces, piano teachers are composing avant garde computer music works, and professors are letting loose and doing performance art.
As one of the participants notes, the effect of the program can be wide-ranging:
Learning the Walden Method in this setting gave me fresh eyes with which to examine my teaching methodology and our curriculum. Being a student for a week reminded me of how much fun the process of discovery really is. My middle school students are now composing on a weekly basis using both “found sound” and more traditional methods. My upper school students are now a more cohesive group because of the exercises I learned while at the Institute. Since my students are already quite adept at technology, they find it really useful in their own discovery/creative process. In our 7th grade classes, I have been able to integrate discussions of the harmonic series with the science department’s discussion of sound waves. They get it!
By starting this Institute, Walden’s goal is to impact music education beyond the doors of the camp and their students. It is, in a way, a sort of “viral marketing.” Instead of increasing the number of students in the summer camp, Walden has decided to show adult musicians how to teach this methodology to their students, in whatever setting they find themselves to be working. Eyes and ears are being opened to the possibilities new music has in education and in the culture. It is daring. It is unsettling. It is freeing. And it is beginning to make a real difference.