Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ideas about learning: Jeanne Baxtresser and flute performance

Recently I've been listening to the former principal flute player of the New York Philharmonic on my ipod while I take a morning walk. She recorded all of the major orchestral flute solos with a commentary about each one. A virtuoso, a genius, an accomplished artist. She is all of these.

One of the solos is by Prokofiev from Peter and the Wolf. As I listened to it perpetually in awe of Ms. Baxtresser's abilities I realized something. Peter and the Wolf was my very first piano book when I was five. Newly graduated from the clapping classes of babies I had progressed into simple melodies of the treble clef. Peter and the Wolf was the introductory piano reduction my early teacher had chosen.

How is it that the difficult music demonstrated by the virtuoso Jeanne Baxtresser could also have been my initial baby food as a tiny pianist? This is the concept of levels that I'm learning in my chemistry teaching.

Everything has levels. The challenge is to find the level that relates best with the audience to whom you are addressing. In the case of flute/piano music, there is no way a five-year-old could relate to the difficult double-tonguing passages of the full-fledged Prokofiev piece. No way. However, the simple melodies are appropriate for learning how to read music. 

Perhaps I am pointing out something that is incredibly obvious. However, on some level it must not be obvious to everyone. I think this is why so many people find introductory science classes so very difficult and boring. We are not presenting students with material that they are equipped to grasp at an appropriate level. We throw Jeanne Baxtresser's virtuosity at them without ever having fed them the piano reductions that so simply and beautifully embody the melody on the five black keys of the treble clef of the piano.

For this reason, context and culture is really critical to the betterment of science in society. People must understand the concepts of chemistry and physics in terms of how it makes sense for their everyday life. After they understand it in everyday life perhaps it might motivate them to memorize chemical mechanisms, difficult vocabulary and other mundane flashcard activities. (I promote these to the hilt.)