Being Musical… Being a Music Teacher…

March was a month of conferences for me, the most recent of which was a conference where I had been asked to speak about (amongst some number of other things) the benefits to music education of utilising the opportunities social media affords.

This did not go well.

I began by talking about the ways in which high school students use music rather expertly without the assistance of teachers, for:

  • identity formation;
  • communication (especially in regard to emotion);
  • making sense of, or organising emotional experience;
  • organising executive function;

and I went on to assert that these four uses of music are more fundamental to human musical experience than are the ‘performance’ / ‘composition’ / ‘analysis’ modes of musical experience dictated by the curriculum; that it is a kind of concert hall-think that permits us to structure music education in the 21st century primarily in regard to such a narrow set of musical experiences (performing, composing, analysing) and to blithely ignore the rest.

In retrospect I think this, long before a mention of facebook (which was poorly received, needless to say), was where I lost most of my audience.

Once upon a time school music education was assessed by theory exams, harmony exercises and essays about music history; it was a triumph of some considerable magnitude when music educators succeeded in prioritising the performance of music in school music marking systems, a triumph that many still feel great pride in having helped to achieve.

So it was completely naive for me to waltz in and start talking about the function of music in the formation of identity or in the organisation of executive function and to fail to attempt to connect the dots from what is still perceived in classroom music education as a recent breakthrough of transformational proportions, let alone to acknowledge the history that was/is within the professional lifetimes of half the members of my audience.

I very much suspect that this first section of my presentation was apprehended as a babbling prologue to the real business of my presentation (talking about social media). This was a terrible pity, because the value social media might have for you and your students will change, vastly, depending on what you think your job as a music educator might be.

Surely we all believe that we are training musicians? And if we all think we are training musicians then surely the main game is teaching students to play musical instruments, no?

Well, no.

Before the instrument comes musical thinking. And musical thinking is exactly what is going on when kids choose one style of music to listen to, and to share with their friends, rather than another style; any act of selecting music to accompany life is an act of musical thinking. In fact, in the 21st century musical thinking is what we use to make it through the day: from choosing a ringtone to understanding the plot cues a soundtrack signals in a film or a piece of TV pseudo-journalism or advertising.

Everyone is musical these days in ways we could not have imagined in the 80s when teachers were fighting for instrumental performance to be included in the curriculum.

And if you, as a music educator, don’t acknowledge how musical the world has become, how underscored our lived experience is, how imbued with musical fragment, rhythmic motif, decontextualised timbres and insistent tone colours our days now are, you have no idea what you are doing.

You know what you were doing, back in the day. Back when intervals were learned with reference to song openings and modes were taught via medieval folk tunes. Back when a backbeat was still quietly considered to lead to promiscuity and chromaticism was widely believed to be to blame for political upheaval.

But in the age of YouTube, GarageBand, SoundCloud, Spotify, facebook shares and twitter retweets, you haven’t got a clue. Not if you think that being musical can be measured by how well someone plays an orchestral instrument. Or how well they write an 8-bar tune.

So…. if everyone is already engaging in musical thinking, what is the music teacher for?, I imagine you’re asking (possibly with a disapproving facial gesture and a bit of an eyeroll).

The music teacher is there to structure experiences that lead to more nuanced musical thinking, more informed musical thinking, more conscious musical thinking, more creative musical thinking. (Feel free to keep adding to this list – it is by no means intended to be comprehensive!). The music teacher is there to help students develop critical thinking skills in relation to their musical experiences; to build a vocabulary for the many experiences that students have no words to describe; to build a fluency in musical reasoning and an understanding of the musical narratives that have built the range of musical experiences the 21st century has to offer.

But we can’t even begin to be that kind of music teacher if we think that music education is about delivering performances, compositions and analyses. These are just not appropriate means of assessing what it is to have a good musical education anymore.

And I wish I’d spent the whole session exploring that. The first mention of facebook brought outbursts and outrage (it’s the end of PRIVACY, don’t you know?!), and there’s no purpose to exploring the opportunities social media brings as long as educators believe that their job is about cultivating and assessing 19th century ways of being musical (performance, composition, analysis).

To be continued…

21 thoughts on “Being Musical… Being a Music Teacher…

  1. I wish you had been a teacher when I was at school. I now have a teenage son and understand exactly what you are saying. I don’t know how he would have coped with many experiences he has had if it weren’t for his relationship with music. Keep chipping away, sooner or later they will have to acknowledge what is right there under their noses xo

  2. I am an Independant music teacher in Alaska, in an area where competitions, classical concerts, exposure to other classical music teachers and the like are unavailable and, frankly, a foreign concept to many of my students. Therefore, if I do not insist on unplugging their “constant feed” earbuds, putting an “appropriate” piece in front of them, force feeding them form and analysis, music history and good technique, am I failing them, and my profession? I think not. I can see why this did not go over well, Elissa 🙂 Our profession is rooted in tradition, and you are an iconoclast, shoving reality out there for us all to not only consider, but to realize that if music education is to move forward, it must embrace the pace and musical perspecitive that is relevant to our students in today’s world. One of my favorite phrases in this blog is your last one: “to be continued….”

  3. I’ll be interested to read your follow-up to this post. I agree whole-heartedly with you…music is inseparable from the lives our students are living. When we fail to bridge the gap between the music that is the soundtrack to their lives and the muaic we have been trained to teach and perform, we will help make ourselves obsolete. There is still a place for hardcore classical practicing and playing and teaching, but how do we make that relevant to our students? And to ourselves?

  4. I find your topic very interesting even though a music teacher of very senior years. I enjoy FB and find it a useful way of communicating with my students.One of my students sends me links to Sound Cloud where he puts his own creative tunes which I feel are quite brilliant. I do not know what to recommend he does with these if anything. I feel somewhat locked in to what the syllabus requires to pass exams and your concept is quite outside of the square but extremely relevant to today’s music students.

  5. I would love to slap this on my wall and write “My Mantra” in red Sharpie on the top. I’m in the midst of trying to reimagine a middle school music curriculum and I know this is the kernel of what it needs to be. Getting students to actively connect with their existing musical lives, building in creativity, expression, engagement to a dynamic curriculum, it’s all part of transforming the music classroom.

  6. Thanks Elissa, for these strong, clear, succinctly-argued points that give me a big energy rush just reading them :-). Even if the presentation wasn’t well-received with the most vocal audience members at the time, I bet it planted seeds among some of those present. I always like reading your posts, but I too am particularly looking forward to the next instalment of this thread.

  7. I really liked this post. Especially as one who has a 11year old daughter who has recently taught herself to play a nice song by One Direction just a few days before her Grade 4 piano exam. As a parent, I find social media invaluable for her musical development now and as she gets older.

  8. Great story. This week, I’ve been thinking about one thing…teaching critical thinking. It seems to be looming bigger and bigger in the faults of music education. Somewhere along the way the point was replaced with winning.
    Hope to see more posts.

  9. Great read Elissa! I love that you are addressing what I see as the new music literacy; technology, social media, accessible means of communicating and being creative with music, all too often bemoaned by teachers whose preference is a museum practice. I look forward to reading part 2.

  10. Elissa … I enjoyed your article.

    If you could take this quote, “In fact, in the 21st century musical thinking is what we use to make it through the day” and your observation that we are living in a mucsical world and explore how this all relates to sales & marketing, you would have the beginnings of a very interesting set of articles for my blog, as per my eamil.

    On an initial viewing, I grant you, it does not appear to have much relevance to music teaching, but I am sure, if you were to go down this path you would find insights that would help you get your message across to those, who at present cannot see the wood for the trees.

    Well, just a thought. Look forward to your next article. (PS Blog is still with the web developer :()

  11. Dear Elissa, I thought I’d respond creatively but a little bit negatively to your inference that new technology negates the need to teach skills. Love your books, use them all the time, infuriated by your blog this time!

    • Gosh, I’d be infuriated by that inference, too!! I think I’d better get a wriggle on and write the next installment. 🙂

      I’m trying to say that there are new skills we need to add to the set, not that there are any skills we need to be subtracting!! Hmm, I’d best just get on and write that next blog as quick as I can….

  12. Sorry to hear it wasn’t well received but am not surprised. I think that the catchcry of “But it’s an invasion of privacy” in regard to Facebook comes from those that have no experience of it. I recall similar reactions to the use of computer software and sequencing back when that technology opened new doors of possibilities. I know of ‘music educators’ who still believe that the danger of Protools or Logic, Nuendo etc is that it will create a composition on behalf of the student :/ Rather, these are tools/instruments that extend creative possibilities for teachers and students. I believe that your argument is an extension of this same paradigm in regard to social media….. Well said. I am certain that in 10 years time you will be quoted at conferences.

  13. BRILLIANT post. I’m writing a book that deals with a lot of what you are talking about right now; music is what creates the need for the instrument to be created- not the other way around. I love how you describe the teacher as one who helps the student structure musical consciousness. AWESOME!

    -Ernest Chapman

  14. Hello, Elissa! Thanks for your comment on my blog post today! I followed your link back and enjoyed reading this post, even though I have some disagreement with your reasoning.

    As you said, fighting against passive activities like theory tests was a big parrt of the active music making push of the last half century. The problem I see with maintaining a goal of “musical thinking,” is that you list a lot of passive activities. Yes, I consider listening, and even selecting music, passive activities compared to playing, singing, dancing, or composing.

    Not everything new is better. It is not an improvement of the human condition that we now spend more time staring at screens than communicating with each other. It is not an improvement to watch sports or listen to music over playing sports or making music. Listening and watching are the easy choices, which is why students teach these to themselves. As educators, our job is to engage and train students in the activities themselves, not as audience, but as participants. This participation then informs their choices as consumers.

    Consider an elementary PE teacher who regularly played and discussed videos during PE time. According to many states, he/she would actually be failing to provide the mandated minutes of physical activity. These are mandated because everyone agrees that physical activity is an important paart of a healthy lifestyle. My argument is that actively making music is equally important to a healthy lifestyle, and given the limited time (30 minutes per week for many) allotted to music education, there isn’t a whole lot of room for secondary goals.

    • Tim, to be honest, I think this formula changes depending on the age of the student. High school age students can have their lives significantly enhanced by learning more about what they listen to – and remember, these kids are often dancing to the music they listen to, even if it’s not happening in class. And there’s also the ethical issue of teaching students musical literacy (in the broadest sense) so they are not manipulated by musical choices in the media they consume.

      I’m not arguing that students should not engage in physical musical making. But if the assessments are focussed on how well they can perform a Bach Two-Part Invention (or equivalent) we are almost certainly failing to engage many of our students (who do not receive instrumental tuition) in meaningful musical education.

      And an insistence on an assessment regime that (highly) prioritises solo performance (which is the case in Australia) denies many students the opportunity to be educated as regards the musical experiences they will be engaged in for the rest of their lives.

      And that’s without getting into musical skills that are essentially performative (like mixing and directing/conducting) which are no assessed at all.

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