August Rush and the state of music education

My family and I went to see the movie August Rush this weekend.  I had read the reviews and was prepared for the obligatory Oliver redux, but I was intrigued to see how they dealt with the whole musical child prodigy thing.  I left the theater with mixed feelings- not the least of which was disappointment (yet again) of the attempt to portray the emotion of a fine musical performance. (They always TRY to have their fingers in the right place and hold the instruments correctly- I guess it wasn’t too bad…).  I can’t help but think about what we are wrestling with in music education today regarding students who are not “traditional”.

Yes, I know that seems to be my theme of late, but I have had so many eye-opening experiences this year dealing directly with the issue that I have become a bit hypersensitive to it.  Here is a movie about a child (August) that comes from two talented musical performers and has inherited an amazing talent and sensitivity for music.  Hollywood always tries to cram the entire exploration of music into two hours and ends up glossing over many important steps in the maturation process (In the case of Rush– from orphanage to street corner musician to Juilliard all in the span of six months…) but the one thing that stood out for me was the absolute acceptance of his musical ability.  Just because he had never seen notes or could did not grow up playing “au claire de lune” on a recorder with his kindergarten class- his talent was unmistakable.  I daresay he could not notate what he was playing (at least not before he went to Juilliard) but nonetheless, it was brilliant.

This really opens up the proverbial “can of worms”.  Does a musician need to be able to read and write music in order to be considered a TRUE musician?  In these times of Garageband and Audacity, perhaps we are seeing an evolution.  I of course have my own feelings on the matter, but would be very interested to hear your opinions!

If you would be so inclined to share your thoughts on the matter in the comments- I think it would make for a lively debate!

Powered by ScribeFire.


33 Responses to August Rush and the state of music education

  1. KMBP says:

    The act of writing music is a recent phenomenon. For most of human history, music has been handed down from one generation to the next and learned and memorized by ear, or created spontaneously as a response to a particular moment in time. In many ways, I find improvisation a more satisfying musical experience than completing a piece that I learned by reading (although, performances of written pieces fulfill me in other ways). If we exclude non-written (and therefore “non-read”) music and “musically illiterate” musicians as somehow incomplete and therefore not TRUE music or musicians, then we exclude the vast majority of music, musicians, and music history. Interesting topic, I look forward to the debate!

  2. obradley48 says:

    You are right about improvisation- we DO consider that music and it is not written- just the structure is notated, and it really doesn’t have to be at that!

    Maybe a silly comparison, but we went from cave drawings to heiroglyphics to cuneform, etc. We had a rosetta stone to translate it all and found that we could communicate in many different ways. We STILL have many forms of written and spoken language- and just like western music notation, English is the most “common tongue”. Who says that standard notation is the only way to communicate music?

  3. tjweller says:

    Hi Owen,

    Great question. It makes me think of a young Louis Armstrong. At what point did he finally arrive with the ability to read what he was playing? I am by no means a jazz authority, but in everything I have read I cannot find much record of him ever receiving formal training in reading music. It didn’t stop him from playing, from getting better, and finally becoming the sound that cast a shadow on many a jazz trumpeter that followed. At the height of his career, his virtuosity was never questioned. He certainly was able to communicate with his audience and other musicians. His improvisational skills became the model for others to follow. I look forward the discussion continuing!

  4. J. Pisano says:


    Great post. You’ve struck a “chord” with me as I have been internally trying to answer some of your very questions. Music is evolving, but more interestingly the methods of which we “make music” are evolving. This is true especially in the “instrumental” category of music and in composition and the creation of music.

    One thing that won’t evolve is the voice. We all have one and we all can use it to sing (some obviously better than others). The very tenants of music production and creation that have been staunchly supported and advocated for over a thousand years are being questioned, reconsidered and in many cases, abandoned by a number of people in “today’s” world.

    For countless centuries, music has been a socially creative process. Even the composer that locked himself away to create music had to use an orchestra, choir, or some type of ensemble to perform it, unless they we’re closet singers. Today, through the advent of electronic technologies, people can create music simply for themselves to hear (mashing and looping it all up, never even having to know what a note is) or have the computer create the entire sound of an orchestra for them without bothering another living soul. They don’t even need to understand traditional musical concepts to do this nor do many of them want to…

    Programs like “band in a box” allow people to put in basic chords and have royalty-free music created for them… you don’t even have to put in the chords…just click a button to create an entirely new piece that you can claim as your own. Pitch2Midi devices are making it now possible to “hum” in a tune into the cutting edge notation programs and have them notate what you sing…don’t sing on key? Run it through a pitch corrector before you “jack your mic into Finale”. Best thing about this whole scenario is that you can then “auto-harmonize” your freshly notated pitch into an array of new staves with decent notation automatically created for you based on your original pitch-inputted melody. This is possible now in programs like Finale.

    Pitch2Midi2Sound devices are on their way and soon you will be able to sing or hum your musical ideas and have them sound like a flute, saxophone, or you pick it in real-time (truth is you can already to this)…. The advent of Midi based sample libraries like those from Tascam and Kontackt make for unbelievably real sounding fake orchestras … all from standard MIDI files… There is even WAV to MIDI software available so you can have the computer notate music for you from real live audio recordings of an ensemble, group or soloist.

    Students are even loosing interest in learning….guitar! Why take years to master something like the guitar when you can play guitar hero or rock band and sound amazing in a few days? I’m not advocating a future based music curriculum based on these technologies but they will come into play in the near future and “we” will have to adapt to them or deal with them in some way. What if an entire 3rd grade class could create auto-pitch corrected music (based on a tonal key center) through a kazoo-like pitch input device that was connected to real audio samples of the various orchestral instruments and percussive devices? It’s coming. Do we fear this and why?

    Back to your question about “notation”… Personally, I have a great deal of respect for both those that are “readers” and those that are “not needers”. The truth is that making music is what makes a person a musician not whether or not they can read music. Although I’m a jazzer and can play by ear and improvise, I’ve also come through the traditional schools of music and have played in every conceivable type of ensemble. Many times, I hear the non-music major college students, at my school, playing in their “garage bands” and I’m filled with excitement for them as they are experiencing music in a way that many of the traditional music majors do not, listening intently to each other, creating riffs, playing back and forth off of what each other creates… it’s an exciting process and why I love the jazz idiom so much.

    I often speak of traditionally trained music readers as being visual to aural decoders… that is they look at the “music”, translate it from a visual (aural barren) encoded document and then process it through their brain to decode it through their instruments as aural output. Other than for memorized pieces of music…what would happen if at a concert we “stripped” all the music from the players and the downbeat still had to go on? Playing music off of printed music can surely be done very musically, full of technical prowess, emotion, and with great musicianship but so can playing without music. Where is the musical idea and concept of the composer without the written music in front of the ensemble playing it? Still on the paper -waiting to be decoded. Don’t get me wrong here… I love playing off of music and ensembles…I’m just posing a question, devils advocate if you would…

    Certainly the complexity of the orchestral environment demands written music given all of the various parts and this, of course, is one of the reasons that we have written music…that and also to preserve the composer’s musical concepts for future generations and for others to perform. Until recently, with the advent of recording devices, it was the ONLY way to preserve something as complex as the Operas and complex instrumental compositions. Passing something down this complex by rote and memorization could not be done, not for something so intricate and detailed. Without written music we would have very little idea as to what was produced and created by the music makers of the past.

    Electronic technology is making some very strange things happen in music. Things that could never have been possible before… as a “music society” we are not ready for it. We are not ready to give up our hard fought mastery of our vocal or instrumental prowess to someone or a group of “someones” that do not even know the concepts of rhythm, melody, and harmony. It’s not only happening in our field but electronic technology is causing this to happen in almost every field. Think about the accountants and what was primarily their domain of understanding and the movie directors and what was once their sole domain of ownership. It will be interesting to see ourselves and the “state of music education” in 20 years! (wow, this is long…maybe I should have posted at my site…)

    anway… thanks for the thought provoking post!

    Joe Pisano –

  5. […] education and our future as a profession, make a quick journey over to Owen Bradley’s blog (The Digital Music Educator).  He has written a great blog in reaction to the movie “August Rush”.  He poses a […]

  6. […] on over to the Digital Music Educator’s website and his article about August Rush and JOIN the conversation […]

  7. Kyle Gardner says:

    Joe I really liked your comment I think you made mention of a lot of god points. Especially how important it is to be ready for the changes that technology is making on music. Our students are playing with these new technologies every day on the internet. We can sit back and complain about why this isn’t real music or why its bad or we can use it to inspire new ideas and new passions for creating music.

    “They don’t even need to understand traditional musical concepts to do this nor do many of them want to…”

    I disagree that this truly the case at least not for quality music that will have an impact on our world. If you have ever seen someone use things like loops to create music the knowledge of music makes this possible. Other wise it is just noise. But lets be honest we don’t write music to fulfill musical concepts. Musical concepts are discovered in music that is inspired and inspires us.

    It has never been easier to create our own music is this a bad thing or a great equalizer that puts more people on an equal playing field. These new technologies are another example of the World becoming flat.

  8. J. Pisano says:


    Maybe you’re right about my comment “nor do they want to” in a large sense. But, it’s been my experience that music-makers (especially young students) using technology, many times don’t want to know the theory or melodic/harmonic mechanics behind what they are doing…and not that this is bad. That is, they want what they are doing to aurally sound good, after all sound without structure is noise as you stated.

    Perhaps, you’ve hit on a great concept, one that I’ve thought about as well… that is that if all this technologial momentum is makeing the music-making world “flatter” and is becoming an “equalizer” then this may be what is scaring the pants off of long time traditional music hardened artists. That is, someone may be able to achieve something in hours, days, weeks, that took them/us a lifetime to learn and master. Why should we be protective? Why do we feel threatned? Do we feel threatned?

    I wrote an article about what guitar hero does for the non-performing/non-non-musician and how it gives them a taste of what it is like to experience the enthrallment of being in and an active player a live performance of such incredible music and music making creation… perhaps this is also an ancilliary…. do “we”, as trained musicians, harbor some type of content for those that are now do some things that has only been the domain of our profession and possible by us only after years of work? If we can reach the END without even having the JOURNEY, what does that do the process… If it’s always been the JOURNEY that counted then what happens when people have never taken the trip and can end up at the END anway?

    These are questions that will be spanning more fields as the emmergent technologies allow people to do things without truly understaning the theory/knowledge behind what they are doing…. We’ve always sat “on the shoulders of giants”, those that came before us… now, it seems, we might not even have to climb up to that lofty perch for the view.

    J. Pisano

  9. obradley48 says:


    VERY interesting point- this is a good example of the “flatness” of the world. When Friedman wrote the book, I doubt if music was even a blip on his radar, but whole chapters could have been written on the examples in music.

    One of the “problems”? (lack of a better word) is that kids now have the same access to information about music and the music creation tools that we do via the internet. We are no longer the “gate keepers” and are being forced to re-examine our roles more as facilitator.

    I have taken this to heart in my classroom, the funny thing is- it really doesn’t feel like teaching! THAT is a post for my blog in itself!

  10. Trina says:

    What an interesting post, and so many fascinating points about the evolution of music learning facilitated by technology. It seems almost that the “traditional” method of learning might evolve in a way that moves side-by-side with the new opportunities to just play with the form–in many ways a much older approach to music, facilitated by modern technology. I think there’s a place for both in the learning process, and which works better depends on the individual. I know plenty of musicians, and as many of them are well versed in music theory as aren’t, and that element doesn’t seem to reflect on their talent or passion at all.

  11. mystro2b says:

    I know I’m late to the comments, but I just blogged about Eric Bluestine’s book “The Ways Children Learn Music” He is a Gordon Music Learning Theory practitioner who makes a distinction between audiation and imitation- I think the entire quote might be worthwhile to this discussion:

    “Let’s teach our students to strive not for perfect imitation, but for imperfect audiation. Why imperfect? Because a musician who audiates the music she performs is never satisfied with her performance. There is always “something wrong”-audiationally, technically- with the phrasing, dynamic choices, articulation, intonation, or rhythmic accuracy. Perhaps only the musician herself is aware that there’s a problem. A music student who imitates has no such problems. Her perfect imitation leads to perfect satisfaction. By contrast, the mark of any true musician, of any serious artist, is dissatisfaction-and a life of thrilling and unending artistic growth.” -Eric Bluestine

  12. Barbara says:

    Not only does music study promote artitic growth; it also promotes character!
    Nothing is ever done in a vacuum. Whatever we do, however the way we do it, whenever we do it, why we do it always leaves consequences on us and on those who are effected by the thing that that we do. Skipping steps in the school of life makes for a person who is not as fully developed as he could be otherwise. Even the born geniuses among us have to study and through this study be reminded of how far they have come and then they go on further.

    The result of skipping steps is seen in the young people of the “push=button” musicians who do not take the time to develope their craft. Can we truly say that the music they create is as profound as the music that is created by the musician who took the time to thoroughly learn what music is all about? Studying music is much more than just learning to read the notes. All of those who really study are not necessarily the best music readers. Neither, I might add, does it follow that some of those who read very well are the best musicians; but I have never met one person who studied his craft, whether music or other, who is not a more than shallow thinker. Much has been said about this generation of children and youth who are not willing to experience life but who “know-it-all” from a two-hour segment of television. They (as a group) do not read in-depth and thus reflect, but want everything told to them as quickly as possible. Their memories are not challenged—-all they have to do is look for what they want on the internet. Should they not at least learn something about what they are doing?

    Learning music (the subject we are discussing here) in-depth would help (if not solve the problem of concentration, logic, the why of personal opinion, etc. and therefore develope real charcter instead of the many shallow personalties we are witnessing in today’s times.

    Yes, some of the music that is “push-bottoned” is enjoyable—-but it comes across as just that: sounds without real substance. Music that endures is produced by the person who has a gift that has been developed in the “wood-shed” where he chopped lot of wood and even perhaps banged his fingers. He developes in many ways because he takes the time to reflect upon the reality of what he is doing. Profound thoughts about one thing or subject can make one profound about life and ultimately about one’s fellow man and something else bigger than self.

    Of course, it may be that what we are discussing here is just about having fun with a toy.

  13. obradley48 says:


    Well said. I am not seeking to create “push-button” musicians, rather take them deeper into the craft of music by “filling in the gaps” that have been formed by “skipping steps”. I am a classically trained musician myself, and know full well the discipline that is required to become proficient on an instrument.

    There are many students who we would never reach through the traditional model (learning the basics from a young age) that we will have some influence with by embracing the path that they have taken and recognizing their potential for real musical gains if they just devote themselves to learning the theory behind the technique they have developed.

    These kids are NOT shallow or lazy, they have just been exposed to a great amount of information and been left to their own devices. I find working with them refreshing, as they are eager to learn and can apply what is taught extremely quickly!

    All that being said, I am still a strong supporter of learning gradually from an early age and “paying the dues”! It is MOST CERTAINLY the best way to go!

  14. Tony says:

    I think that you have definitely opened the proverbial can of worms. I grew up as a home musician. I couldn’t read anything more complicated that twinkle twinkle for piano. However, I am one of those people that is hypersensitive to music. I am not saying that as a boast, to me, it is merely one minor fact on the musical jou rney I have been on since I was 4. Even without the ability to read standard notation, I have learned to play a variety of percusion instruments, guitar, piano, trumpet, and for a brief period, harmonica. I also managed to compose three albums that hit topped billboards for several weeks running. However, despite all of that, I was frowned upon when I wen t to college to pursue a degree in music because of my lack of classical training. Eventually, I moved out of the music program at the university and moved on to other things in life. Does the lack of my ability to read or write music in standard notation make me less of a musician? Or does that lack of form allow me to be MORE creative, unfettered by the rules and doctrine of so called classical musicians? Art is art, not science. That is why there are different degrees for them. Yes, you can apply rules and structure to it, but in doing so you truly lose the emotional impact. It is like writing a love poem. If you force every two lines, or every other line, to rhyme, you limit what words you can use. If you limit yourself to a certain measure or meter, the flow of your words feels forced and false. I am not saying that classical musicians are not talented, or that they are any less or more than a free form musician. I simply mean that history is made and greatness achieved by those who are unafraid to do, or say, or believe, what everyone else said was wrong. Why would anyone think that music is the exception to the rule?

  15. Stengel99 says:

    My father, a retired high school drafting/artchitecture teacher, often makes a statement about the user-friendliness of new software and its effect on education. It goes something like this: “Just because you own AutoCad doesn’t make you an architect any more than owning Finale makes you a composer.” (He is also a brass player and often makes connections between the various disciplines.)

    There are certain skills one learns in a formal music education situation which are nearly impossible to learn in a garage band or with Guitar Hero. A fellow blogger recently lamented about the fact that a rock band class he taught had a difficult time grasping basic rehearsal techniques one learns in a traditional music class.

    Having said that, it is inevitable that the world will produce another Elvis, John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix who changes the course of music, yet can’t read a note of traditional notation.

  16. Considered a prodigy of sorts at “one time”, I had the unfortunate experience of a set of parents that did not feel the need to expand the gifts from an educational standpoint…even though I was offered a FULL SCHOLARSHIP and a chance to CREATE a major around those gifts and abilities. I was 15 years old, and those who could see it, knew it. I didn’t understand at the time, i just knew what i heard in my mind, could see around me, and that’s what i wanted to do. When that was surpressed, I did not know what to do, and just did whatever I was told at that point.

    25 years later, married, with 4 children with their own talents and abilities, I see that nothing should stop them (my children) from accomplishing what is in their hearts, minds, and souls. After seeing this movie, I felt an incredible release from what seemed to be years of regret that I had not done what I was supposed to do in life. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I do, and I still write, compose and record. But this movie gave me hope to expand, and expand quickly on what I know is and has ALWAYS been there…the music in my mind…and soul. Like Evan said in the movie…”believe in music like other people believe in fairy tales”.

  17. Sue says:

    When I was a freshman in college, there were several students in my music theory classes that could not read music. Most of them were percussionists, had a keen knack for improv and all were very talented. I felt it was such a loss when they had to drop because of poor grades. In this day and age of technology, we should be able to accomodate these people. Yes, they were talented musicians. The world of music loses everytime someone is excluded. We have ways for people who are unable to read and write to express themselves and have materials read to them. What is the difference? When we start to exclude people who have an interest or talent in something because they don’t meet our preconceived standards, we need to step back and evaluate.

  18. Owen Bradley says:

    Thanks for your insightful comment on my blog post “august rush”. I certainly agree with your point of view- and I have seen firsthand talented student musicians that have huge problems reading music. These are most often kids who have a hard time reading anything and are in lower level classes or level one on state tests- dropout prevention, etc.

    There are rare ones that are very bright, but these usually are the ones that don’t do homework, don’t follow procedures, etc. Our “gifted” kids (musically or academically) have a tendency to go A-F rather than A, B, C, D, E, F (referring to sequence not grades) so is it any wonder why they do not see the value in systematic reading of words or music? They are most likely to say “I’m already at F, why do you want me to go back and retrace my steps?”

  19. Maestro says:

    One of the things that has troubled me as a music educator and a musician is that lip service is often given to creativity in music classes, but when we focus so much on reading music notation, so much of the creative process is taken away from the students. The focus rather on the students creating a work of art is on the students imitating the conductor’s idea of art.

    It feels almost like a color by numbers sometimes. In an art class, we might give a student a blank sheet of paper and some pencils or paints to create with. What would anyone say about an art class in which the students didn’t have to create, but merely imitated the ideas of the teacher or filled in the boxes with colors?

    Who is more the musician then, the kid in the garage band that is creating his own music by playing with his band mates and listening, or the kid in the school band who must plays the dots on the page?

    That being said, I wouldn’t advocate abandoning music notation. The music that I write has given me some sense of immortality if you will. I’m only on this earth for a limited time, but the music I have written has potential to exist perpetually.

  20. […] Bradley presents August Rush and the state of music education posted at The Digital Music […]

  21. […] Bradley presents August Rush and the state of music educationposted at The Digital Music […]

  22. i really lov the story becoz it can touch ur feeling wen i saw this movie i thngk im the boy playd the guitar me and my classmates instructor watch this i see the movie u can get some good value and i thnk the director of this story is very professional Good job i like this story

  23. writers software…

    There is a new article re-writer software on the market….

  24. Torri says:

    Fantastic goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff

    previous to and you’re simply extremely fantastic. I actually like what
    you’ve acquired here,

    certainly like what you’re stating and the way wherein you say it.
    You are making

    it enjoyable and you continue to take care
    of to keep it

    wise. I can’t wait to read much more from you. That is actually a

    great site.

  25. It is appropriate time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I want to suggest you some interesting things or

    suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to
    this article. I desire to read more things about it!

  26. Emanuel says:

    Hello! Do you know if they make any plugins to help with

    SEO? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I’m
    not seeing very good

    success. If you know of any please share. Thanks!

  27. Oscar says:

    I am really enjoying the theme/design of your blog.
    Do you ever run into any

    web browser compatibility issues? A couple of my blog audience have complained about my blog not
    working correctly

    in Explorer but looks great in Opera. Do you have any tips to help fix this problem?

  28. look into says:

    Hurrah, that’s what I was exploring for, what a material! present here at this web site, thanks admin of this web page.

  29. Denice says:

    I think that everything published was actually very reasonable.
    However, think about this, suppose you were to create a awesome post
    title? I mean, I don’t wish to tell you how to run your website, however suppose you added a post title that grabbed people’s attention?
    I mean August Rush and the state of music education | The Digital Music Educator is a little plain.
    You could glance at Yahoo’s home page and note how they write post titles to grab viewers interested. You might try adding a video or a related pic or two to grab people interested about what you’ve
    written. In my opinion, it might bring your website
    a little livelier.

  30. Hi there to all, how is everything, I think every
    one is getting more from this website, and your views are pleasant designed
    for new users.

  31. Howdy! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog.
    Is it hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things
    out pretty quick. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure
    where to begin. Do you have any tips or suggestions? Appreciate it

  32. Hey I am so grateful I found your site, I really found you by mistake, while I was searching on Google
    for something else, Anyways I am here now and would just like to
    say thanks a lot for a remarkable post and a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and
    also added in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be
    back to read a lot more, Please do keep up the fantastic work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: