Vision for Music Education

I have spent the past two days reading, discussing, and writing about the new draft music standards from the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. What strikes me most as missing from these standards, unlike the specific list in my previous post, is understanding, experience, and vision.

The core writing team that developed this draft is mostly dedicated music educators. However, not a single member of the team is currently working in a PreK-8 setting, and some of them have never taught at this level, or been trained in one of the leading philosophies surrounding this discipline (Orff Schulwerk, Kodaly, Dalcroze-Eurhythmics, Music Learning Theory). The team includes high school teachers, collegiate professors, fine arts district supervisors, and fine arts state DOE coordinators. This is not a team with understanding, experience, and standing to speak to for our field of K-8 music educators.

What I do think this writing team has is a vision of what music education in the future would look like. I just don’t think that it looks like my vision. Sure, we have a lot in common, but I feel they are missing some big picture items in their vision:

Making Music is for Everyone

Sure, these new standards are written for teaching music to all children K-8. And they include creating and performing standards. But the vast majority of the standards, even categorized under creating and performing, are actually about analyzing, discussing, reflecting, justifying, and documenting. Those are their verbs, by the way. Yes, it’s a selective list, and there are better verbs in there (demonstrating) but they are in the minority, which proves my point. These standards are about understanding music, not making music. Making music is seen as a means to an end, rather than the actual point of the subject.

I’ve seen this before. Many people unfortunately still believe that making music is all or in a large part a “talent,” and that most students will therefore not be performers throughout their lives. Speaking as an experienced and trained music educator and as a father, I can assure you that, while talent exists, it is dwarfed by the regular skill-building process that all children use to learn to walk, speak, do math, etc. Music is a set of skills first and foremost. Some are talented at quickly learning those skills, but everyone (barring learning disabilities) can achieve them. The Zimbabwean proverb is familiar to most Orff teachers: “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.” Making music is part of the human experience.

Making Music is the Foundation for Understanding and Appreciation

With a strong foundation in music-making skills, and literacy skills to support the music-making, students will inherently have an appreciation for music and desire to learn more. In the new draft standards, rehearsing and presenting a performance come after selecting, analyzing, and interpreting the music. I get why this was done. First music must be selected, then as it is taught, skills and details should be highlighted through analysis and interpretation (although isn’t this part of rehearsal?), and finally it is polished and performed. The problem is that the selecting skill talks solely about the students making the selections, never the teacher. So to follow this “process,” you can’t get to the performance (even in-class performances) without first turning over selection of repertoire to the children. Wait, how do they know which music to select if they haven’t performed any of it yet?!

Allowing students to have input on the selection process is a wonderful learning tool and standard. It just doesn’t belong in it’s elevated spot, implying that this is the primary or only source for repertoire to be performed. It also misses the bigger picture of time and skills. Students must learn first by doing. They perform first, then they have the skills necessary to speak intelligently about their choices and preferences.

The third Artistic Process in the new draft standards is Responding, and here too, they begin with students making a selection, before any analysis or interpretation has taken place. Also, there are certainly active music-making skills that can be used to respond to and learn about music while listening, such as moving/dancing to the music, performing with a recording (body percussion), conducting, or listening and then recreating. These are downplayed with the single verb “demonstrate,” which is then only used through second grade. So 3rd-5th grade students are implicitly expected to do the selecting, interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating all in a passive manner.

Music Education is about Elements, Repertoire, and Media, not just Process

In my book Creative Sequence, I show teachers how to build their own curriculum around the Elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, etc.), varied relevant and culturally diverse Repertoire, and using multiple Media (singing, speaking, moving, playing). We then tie this all together in each lesson using a Process for teaching, which includes experience, analyze, and create strands.

Most of what I have discussed so far about these draft standards is the skewed perspective of their process. However, in the big picture, shouldn’t elements, repertoire, and media be addressed in national standards?! They were all there in the previous 1994 standards. Most people I have worked with on standards development would say the standard should show you what to teach, not how to teach it. This draft does the opposite. It doesn’t tell us at all what skills or knowledge to give students (except high-level thinking skills with no foundation), but it certainly prescribes a process, the “how.”

Vision for the Future

Where are we going? I envision a future where every adult in this country is moderately fluent in making music. Families and friends would think nothing of bursting into song during a conversation, gathering around a piano, or sitting on the porch with a guitar. Community get-togethers in the park would feature spontaneous or planned folk dancing, and most of the visitors would be participants, not observers. Many of our ancestors had these skills, do we want to be less alive and musical than they were? Our children love these activities, and it is slowly beat out of them by our culture’s cool attitude towards public performance by “amateurs.” Music is too important to be left up to the professionals (I think I stole that last quote, but don’t know who to attribute it to).

This to me is the reason for music education. How do we get there? Not by making higher-order thinkers who have limited experience in the craft. We get there by first sharing and training students to make and love making music. If we have time and can skillfully include analysis and reflection into our teaching, great! But this should be the icing, not the cake. If we don’t get to every advanced process by the end of fifth grade, have we done our students a disservice? Or have we equipped them with the age-appropriate experiences to allow later exploration and analysis of music?

What’s your vision?

5 thoughts on “Vision for Music Education”

  1. Tim,
    I am agreement with you that the Selecting processes in Responding and Performing are not something that should have much emphasis placed on it. It took me a long time to wrap my head around why this was chosen as an essential piece of the music learning process and what significance it really has for the future if children become adept at explaining their musical choices for listening and performing.
    First … try to think of this separate from all the other processes. This was not put in to have students select the music that they will be learning (although that may have been in the later grades I’m not sure). As the groups delved into the performance standards for this process it became apparent it was more to have students be able to reason what song would be appropriate in a certain situation and why that song is appropriate (for example – for a concert). Alright … makes sense. My question then became “why is this important”?
    So we are supposed to be preparing students for the ivy league college level or something along those lines. Music students at the college level need to be able to make informed choices about repertoire for listening and performing (even though in my college years the most informed choices were made by my professors). O.K. …. so just how important is this? In many ways it comes down to personal preference.

    I choose this because I like the way it makes me feel.

    This makes me think then “why is selecting of such high importance that it stands at the forefront of this very important set of national standards?”

    From the beginning of my teaching career Singing was at the top of the document. It is hard for me to put Selecting in it’s place. The organization of this new set of standards is where I have some real concern. I am very concrete sequential. The lack of emphasis on music making and musical literacy gives me great pause. When I have to dig through layers of language before I finally reach the essential skills I have a problem.

    An additional concern is that now we have to teach students some a new skill. In this case, how to verbalize and express why they have selected material. Second graders have to explain what song they would like to perform and why they made that choice. Ummm … my second graders can barely write in some cases. Never mind having them express and explain in coherent thought why they choose a song (beyond “because I liked it”). So now on top of teaching them to sing, teaching them to understand a little about the rhythm and pitch they are singing, now I additionally have to teach them to write and express why they choose music.

    1. Select is a great idea…for an assessment of understanding. Do they know how to make a good selection? What do they base it on? But why wouldn’t this be in a supplemental assessment document, and singing skills be in the main document, not the other way around?

      Even as assessment, these are not comprehensive. What about assessing pitch accuracy or steady beat? If these are the skills I am expecting students to learn, why would I not assess them?

  2. Tim – I loved this post and your thoughts on the future of music education. My perspective is a little different as is my vision. I’m hoping future music educators will be more proactive OUTSIDE of traditional school teaching. I hope we adopt more business practices in communities and I believe that’s one way to help your vision of “Community get-togethers in the park”…that would feature spontaneous or planned folk dancing and music making where “most of the visitors would be participants”.

    Here’s one mans thoughts on how we arrived at the current climate:

    1. Thanks, Eugene. A lot of great ideas on your blog post as well.

      While I applaud all private music instructors (I married one) and programs like yours, I do not believe that these can ever be scaled up to accomplish what you are envisioning. There is simply not the public will or dollars. It may be hard to create/maintain a quality music program in the schools that meets the needs of most students. This is for a required or at least freely-offered course of study. The students at my school cannot afford to even rent their instrument for the band/orchestra program, let alone pay for private lessons (or get a ride). Like it or not, education is a socialized and subsidized endeavor for most Americans, and private instruction will always be for the few who can afford it and are willing to seek it.

      Speaking of seeking it, most won’t. The reason they won’t (the “trouble with kids these days”) is not the style or age of the music. The reason they won’t is that they have become conditioned now over several generations to view music as a passive activity. Just like sports, they think that “consuming” the music is the primary way to engage with it.

      The only ones who reach EVERY child are the elementary music teachers in the public schools. If you want to increase involvement in private music, your best bet is to support them in their role as ambassadors to a lost activity – making music.

  3. Tim, this is a great exposition of why music belongs in schools. Thanks for your thoughtful writing. I share your desire for active music making and applaud your vision of a musical future (though I think it will be difficult to achieve). I truly agree that children should be allowed to make their own musical choices, but I believe they already do that outside of school. Education is about broadening perspectives, and for generations competent teachers have guided students to greater understanding through study of solid historical examples. That’s what seems to be missing from the standards as they are articulated now. My greatest fear is that the music that has stood the test of time will be lost in the midst of all the creative process that has no apparent foundation in skill. We have lost so much of the cultural foundation that build our society. I hate to think we would lose our music, too.

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