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Throw Away the Keys

Every good boy does fine? Not according to this Denver music teacher's new system of music notation.

What began as a mind exercise for Jerald Lepinski ten years ago has become a crusade to challenge the music notation system that's dominated Europe and America for hundreds of years.

Lepinski, a Denver music teacher and choir conductor for more than thirty years, is not the first to suggest an alternative to the current system, which is so entrenched it doesn't even have a name. But he probably is the first who's received a two-year, $250,000 government contract to teach a new method.

For an unassuming man, Lepinski is thinking big. "If this goes well," the 65-year-old Juilliard-trained music educator and vocalist says of his "Meloz" system, "this will be the most important thing any musician has done this century."

But no musician this century has managed to devise a new method that's caught on, largely because the music establishment of educators, publishers and musicians has resisted that sort of change. A typical response is that of Andrew Salas, a musician and composer who works at a northwest Denver music store: He hasn't seen Lepinski's system, but he already doesn't like it. When it's explained to him, Salas replies, "It is not actually new. If something better were coming along, it probably would have come along by now."

Some people, however, believe in Lepinski. He got his contract from the U.S. Department of Education in part because officials deemed it commercially viable. John Christensen, who oversees the contracts awarded by the Department of Education, says Meloz is being funded on the expectation that people will eventually purchase it and use it.

Whether the music industry itself will buy into Meloz is another matter. "Unless Leonard Bernstein is out there saying this is the manna from heaven and he convinces a thousand teachers who teach a whole generation around the world, I don't see how you could do it," says an official for a New York-based music-publishing company that receives several new notational ideas a year but publishes none of them.

Nevertheless, Lepinski is in the middle of his first year teaching Meloz to 51 learning-disabled children at the Havern Center in Littleton and to several more such students at Englewood High School and Standley Lake High School. The differences between Meloz and the current system are significant: Lepinski's musical staff has seven lines instead of five, no clefs and no key signatures. A, B, C, D, E, F and G still exist, but instead of sharps or flats, there are five notes named Z, U, R, I and O.

Sharps, flats and accidentals often discourage budding musicians. "The problem," Lepinski says, "is not the number of people who read it and want to stay with it--they're a minority, they're a precious few.

"The number of people who want to learn music but are not about to learn the current system outnumber us all--like insects outnumber mammals."

Musicians familiar with standard notation say they have no trouble switching back and forth between it and Meloz. And Lepinski insists that his system, which he named after the Greek word that means "melody," was not created as an either-or alternative.

"Something that would make people change would be dead in the water," Lepinski says. "When you don't have to choose between the two, people relax."

Nevertheless, getting the music establishment to relax even a little won't be easy. "The impression I have," says Herb Kress, district orchestra director for the Aurora Public Schools, "is that there's a lot of practiced musicians and educators who are resistant to the program. I think they feel that because they struggled through learning it, the traditional system is still viable for anyone."

Virtually all offers for free demonstrations of Meloz at Colorado's major universities have been turned down sight unseen. "If you have a new music notation system, you're considered a kook," Lepinski says. "Musicians don't want anyone to know they sat down and looked at it." In a fall seminar Lepinski conducted with musicians and music educators, some participants reported a mood of "skepticism" or even "divisiveness."

"Some people took the approach that it was a waste of time, this is not going to work," says Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association. "On the other hand, there were people who said this is the greatest thing since sliced bread."

The tenor of the dispute rests in part on Lepinski's sales pitch. And even his supporters say that's part of the problem. "He talks over people's heads without explaining, and a musician who's educated doesn't want to ask," says Lepinski's assistant, Jennifer Long. "If they don't get it, they're afraid to raise their hand, so they lay the blame on him."

Lepinski admits that at first he "probably took a little too much for granted" when explaining Meloz, "but there have always been people who just jump on it. It's awfully hard when you walk into a group to know where to hit them."

Recently he was invited by a dozen music teachers in Littleton to give a brief presentation of Meloz. Lepinski moved swiftly through his presentation, trying to assure people, he says later, that he wasn't crazy. He asked the educators to sight-sing two whole pages of music using the Meloz method, and while the teachers seemed surprised and then somewhat annoyed, Lepinski pushed on, pointing out when they hit a wrong note, then picking up the exercise again.

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