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?