Vision for Music Education Part II

In my previous post Vision for Music Education I laid out my argument for what I see as the purpose of music education, and did so in the context of the new draft national music standards. After reading other blogs, comments here, and the ongoing facebook and twitter conversations surrounding the drafts, I feel the need to express my beliefs and argument even more strongly.

Then, I realized that I have already written it. So in the desire to further the public dialogue, below is the opening chapter to my book, Creative Sequence: Teaching Music with Flexibility and Organization.

The Importance of Creativity and Active EngagementĀ in the Music Classroom

Children today are bombarded with “media” and “entertainment.” These passive and/or interactive technologies have, for over a century now, replaced many more traditional activities. Instead of playing ball, we watch a ballgame on TV, or use a controller to make a digital avatar “play” the sport in a video game. Instead of making music with our own voice or an acoustic instrument, we listen passively to a recording, or strum a plastic controller along with a prerecorded track.

While there are many ways in which the technological explosion of the past hundred years has enriched and expanded our lives, Creative Sequence is based on the premise that music, dance, drama, art, and physical activity are still essential human activities that every child should learn to DO, not just watch. Children inherently love to move, drum on things, make noise, and explore their environment. As teachers, it is our duty to engage this natural tendency, and to lead them to discover the joys of an active lifestyle.

The primary goal of quality music education is guiding children to create, love, and learn about music. Notice that, in this list, learning about music is the last item. The rationale is simple. Children who love and are engaged in a subject will want to learn more about that subject. Children who are not actively engaged will learn only when forced, and retain as little as possible when they leave your room.

All children can and should learn to make music.

To some, this statement may seem obvious. Yet, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, some still hold to the antiquated notion that singing and music-making areĀ  “talents” gifted to a few children at birth. This flies in the face of modern educational psychology, cultural evidence from around the world, and the day-to-day experience of parents and educators with young children.

Children learn at varying paces, according to their background, interest, and attention span. Of course, there are students who struggle with certain musical skills. Many students also struggle to learn mathematics or reading. No one questions the basic assumption that all students (excepting those with serious disabilities) will master these skills. When it comes to music and the arts, we should accept no less for our children.

In cultures around the world where technology has not yet completely changed the pace of everyday life, there are numerous examples of entire villages where music is a community activity in which everyone participates. Even in more advanced societies, there are pockets of close-knit communities where music and dance remain vital to social events. Unfortunately, mainstream Western culture supplants community gatherings altogether with digital communication, single-family homes, and private transportation. No wonder we seek to fill our desire for artistic expression by turning to the pre-recorded music of professionals.

If musical expression is going to remain an integral part of the human existence, it must start in the home, the preschool or elementary school. By the time most students are given the choice to play in an ensemble like band or orchestra, many have already made up their minds about whether they consider themselves musicians or not.

All other curricular objectives, including music literacy, are secondary to a positive, expressive experience making music.

Toddlers must speak before reading language. They must be able to count before identifying numerals. Yet as trained musicians, we educators have spent so much time learning and perfecting our reading skills that we often equate notation with music. In fact, the English language encourages this confusion by calling paper notation “sheet music” or even just “music.” You hear trained musicians use this all the time. (“I forgot my music! Can you see the music?”)

Let’s be very clear. Music does not exist on paper. Music is human expression in sounds organized through time. Notation is the written record of what a piece of music should sound like. Therefore, music literacy should only be taught at the appropriate time, and following the appropriate development of musical skills.

Appreciation of music arises naturally from making music, and exploration of cultures, styles, and history should be interactive whenever possible.

The advantages of modern society and technology include affordable means to record, play back, and share music around the world, as well as access masterpieces from throughout history. What once required musicologists to travel the globe and attend universities with large research libraries can now be found online and for free. Music teachers must take advantage of these technologies, showing their children the songs, games, and styles of music from different corners of the globe. They should compile at least a cursory introduction to music history, highlighting famous pieces (Bach’s Prelude & Fugue, Pachelbel’s Canon, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, etc.)

The danger of teaching children music history and culture, however, is that it can be a passive experience. Children sit at desks silently for so much of the day, and have so little time in music class, that they should be actively involved whenever possible. Instead of simply listening and talking about musical examples, students can draw a picture while listening, or move expressively to the storyline. Choose musical excerpts from various styles that children can recreate and explore on barred percussion, recorder, or singing. When studying a time period or culture, look at not just the music, but the dances and games that accompany the music. By interacting and performing the arts of another culture, students can learn to embrace differences in all aspects of life.

Music should be a creative art, not simply a recreative art.

Our final guiding principle highlights the different ways of “making” music. When vocalists and instrumentalists in our Western culture traditionally perform a work, they are re-creating the music of a composer. All the basic musical elements – melody, rhythm, form, dynamics, tempo – are laid out in the score. Of course, great performers and ensembles make interpretations to go beyond the written notation. But the piece is essentially unchanged in any serious details.

This is not the only way to make music. Jazz musicians, folk musicians, and pop artists are much more accustomed to adapting, arranging, or even composing or improvising their own music. Composers create everything from lullabies to symphonies by writing new melodies, rhythms, and forms. By manipulating the very materials that make up a composition, these musicians gain a greater depth of understanding and sense of ownership in the resulting performance.

Children can and should be led to take this same ownership of their musical experiences. Rather than all of the decisions being made by the composer or the teacher/director, the master teacher guides his or her students to make creative choices. Students can compose accompaniments based on repeated ostinato patterns, improvise solos on given scales and phrase patterns, choreograph dances and games to accompany a song, and combine all of this to create longer performances out of simple songs.

6 thoughts on “Vision for Music Education Part II

    1. Carol,

      Thank YOU for being very deliberate and thoughtful in filling out the NCCAS survey! It makes up for hotheads like me who filled it out too fast, with so much more to say…

  1. I have really enjoyed hearing your views on music education and the new standards. This post is exactly what I feel music education should be, especially at the elementary level.

  2. Once I did an improvisation demonstration for our PTA using barred instruments. My principal participated and admitted to a feeling of pride and ownership about his creation. Kids improvise much more freely than adults and have an intensely positive, personal learning experience “making their own song.” Thanks, Tim, for working for further understanding on the value of active music making.

    1. Thanks, Carol! We definitely all need to be activists as well as teachers, and reach out to our administrators and parents as much as possible. I’m going to try to put together a community folk dance night at my school this year, where the students partner up and teach their parents. I know it’s not a new idea, but it will be new for this community!

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