Throw Away the Keys
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.
"It was my one chance to show them this really does communicate to them," Lepinski says, adding that almost all the teachers said they'd be willing to sit down with Meloz again for a full introduction. He's planning to offer classes over the summer to beginners and seminars for music educators through the University of Colorado-Denver.
Lepinski conducted a six-month, $40,000 feasibility study for the Department of Education last school year. His subsequent contract was one of nine Small Business Innovation Research contracts the department handed out in 1995. Ten other federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, participate in the thirteen-year-old program, which is designed to cut small companies in on a greater chunk of federal research dollars.
George Arasamowicz, chairman of the music department at UCD, says that contracts such as the one Lepinski received "are not really super common," but he doesn't venture a guess about whether it's a waste of money: "Should there be funding for anything that's new knowledge, that's speculative? Should there be money for the space program?"
Jim Conder, program director for classical radio station KVOD, attended a session with Lepinski a few weeks ago and is now a believer. He says Meloz will "open up the piano as a viable instrument for youngsters. That in and of itself could be worth a quarter-million dollars if it can help a potential Herbie Hancock." Still, Conder says that if he had a quarter of a million, "I wouldn't invest all of it in this."
Lepinski has already gone after another quarter-million-dollar SBIR contract, this time to teach Meloz to developmentally disabled students. Though his first request was rejected (one proposal reviewer wrote, "Nothing new here. Taking a new 'product'Eand just trying out a new teaching methodology"), Lepinski just submitted it again. "How many developmentally disabled kids can learn standard notation?" he says. "Not a one."
Special-ed teachers at Standley Lake High School say it's rare for developmentally disabled children to read music. But the six such kids that Jean Hightower teaches at Standley, she says, are all making progress on Meloz. "In his system, what you're reading is just like the keyboard, so you don't have to look at it and convert it mentally," Hightower says.
The current musical-notation system--which evolved from a system created by European monks several centuries ago--is made up of a five-line staff that places the twelve notes (or pitches) into "keys," which are organized around seven-note scales. So if you play in the key signature of C, for example, the seven notes that make up the C scale are given more importance than the five notes that are left over.
Meloz does away with key signatures--and their complicated use of sharps and flats--in favor of a twelve-note system that gives separate names to all the notes. Here, all twelve notes are of equal importance. Meloz also uses a staff of seven lines that corresponds with the keys on a piano. Spaces represent white keys and lines represent black keys. Some of the lines are darker than others so that musicians have an easier point of reference.
The letters Z, U, R, I, O were borrowed from the name of Guido A'rezzo, the monk who's generally given credit, Lepinski says, for the current system.
Lepinski developed Meloz in 1985 as a "mental exercise to square the circle." He tucked it back into his mind until 1992, when he became convinced there was a better way to teach people to read music. He says Meloz addresses the major problems with the system: the difficulty of reading music in complex, changing keys; the fact that notes change positions in different octaves (in one octave the note G is on a line; in the octave above, it's on a space); and the difficulty some composers--such as Debussy--have had composing music.
"Conventional notation is at its best when you're dealing with conventional scales, the key signature is not six or seven flats and the chromatic changes are not extensive," Lepinski says. "It's at its worst when you try to step out of bounds or when you're trying to teach people."
His proof is that the majority of professional musicians (most of them pop musicians) don't read music. Paul McCartney, to name one, "is just the tip of the iceberg," Lepinski says.
But many think the current method is just fine. Meloz is "not something we have any use for," says Hal Tamblyn, chairman of the music department at Metropolitan State College. Tamblyn, who got a look at Meloz a few years ago, adds, "Nor do we think it has the benefit that Jerry feels it has." Tamblyn says removing key signatures oversimplifies the music.
Several elementary-school music teachers--whose students would presumably benefit the most from Meloz--say they can manage with the system just fine. "In my experience, if you're just talking about learning what a note is and what basic music theory is, I can teach that," says Bill Stevens, the integrated-arts teacher at Fairview Elementary School. "You can give it to them in small enough doses that they can handle it pretty well."
However, at the Havern Center, a private school for learning-disabled children in Littleton, teachers say their children are having success with Meloz. Fifty-one children are enrolled in classes that have been meeting twice a week for thirty minutes since last November. No one has quit the class, they say.
During a recent visit, one could see five children, nine and ten years old, playing on their keyboards in a small storage room that's been converted into a music lab. Their learning disabilities range from difficulty in paying attention to more serious reading, writing and motor-skill problems. Today they're playing the opening of the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in three-part harmony, which they've been working on for a few weeks.
One boy, Carl, says that he thinks Beethoven "wrote lots of cool music," and some of the kids have even composed their own songs. "I like composing music," Carl says, "because I can write it well."
All the teachers are familiar with standard notation, and they think Meloz works. "I'm very impressed with their focus," says teacher Betty Ney, speaking of her students. "Under the old system, my guess is they would be frustrated as anything."
Even old hands can feel comfortable with Meloz. Lepinski's assistant Jennifer Long, who is a flutist by training, says it took about a month to get comfortable with Lepinski's system. Now, she says, using both systems "isn't a problem at all." In fact, she thinks Meloz has helped improve her sight reading. "It's like being a writer and messing around with a crossword puzzle," she says. "It frees everything up."
The students are enthusiastic; Carl, for instance, says the system is easy to learn. But the catch in making comparisons between the systems is that Carl has no experience with standard notation.
Lepinski wasn't required by federal officials to set up a control group to compare the systems. He says he wouldn't have had the funding, anyway, and he didn't want to create a sense of competition between the two systems. But even though Lepinski says "we can use all of history" as a control group, it's impossible to know which system these kids, or any kids, would best respond to. The Meloz kids play Beethoven, but so do children at Timberline Elementary. Candace Hansen, an elementary teacher at Timberline, says her kids can play a simplified version of the "Ode to Joy" chorus in Beethoven's Ninth on recorders. Bill Stevens says most kids pick up simple melodies by ear, regardless of notation.
Lepinski is confident that, at the very least, Meloz will co-exist with the current system and "inevitably, eventually" supplant it. "But there's nothing to fear," he says, describing what he hopes is a peaceful transformation rather than a revolution. Students, he believes, will either use Meloz or use both systems together.
"One way or the other," Lepinski says, "people are going to look back and say, 'Lepinski really solved a problem for the world.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.