Why Do Music Teachers Teach What They Teach?

2011Symposium_1_2Motivation is important to everyone and to everything we do. Motivation is not about what we do, but about why we do it. People do what they do for a reason. There is always something that drives a person’s motivation. Today, I want to ask the question, “what motivates music teachers to teach what they teach?” I’m not interested in why we teach; that we do so because we want to make a difference in students’ lives, or because we want to share the joy of music with others. No, I’m interested in not why we teach, but why we teach what we teach.

Most of us have curriculum guides and state content standards, and all of us have national music content standards; therefore, one possible answer to my question is that we teach what we teach because that is what is in the curriculum. After all, dedicated music educators have spent countless hours discussing, debating, deliberating, and declaring that curriculum and those standards, so it must accurately indicate what is important for us to teach. Maybe it does, but one must ask, important to whom? Is what is prescribed in the curriculum guide what is important to students? Does what is prescribed in the curriculum guide prepare students for participating in and interacting with music as it exists in the culture and society in which they live? Is what is important to music educators important to the students they teach?

When making this argument to colleagues, I have had it said to me that students do not decide what goes into the Math or Science or Language Arts curriculum, so why should they counsel us in drawing up a music curriculum? My answer is that students don’t make Math, Science, or Language Arts; nor do they express themselves or find their identities in these subjects the way they do with music. They study them, and apply them, but they don’t expressively make them. But students do make music, do find their identities in music, and do express themselves with music. Music is more personal than those other subjects, and so must be taught differently; in a more personal way.

If we insist on students learning classical music, and exclude popular music from our classrooms, relegating it to their personal lives, then we are saying, “you must learn about someone else’s music, but not about your own.” For English-speaking student populations, it is like saying, “you must learn about French but not about English.” A student taught this way will have a knowledge base about French, but be unable to express him or herself with French, and will continue to get by with English, but not learn how to more effectively, expressively and creatively use English. The same is true of music. Just substitute classical music for French and popular music for English in the analogy.

We must encourage students who want to learn to play an instrument or sing to perform songs they select, in whatever genre they are comfortable with. That is much better than only taking students as far as composing or performing with provided loops and rhythm tracks. Along the way, we can and should add in classical repertoire and technique to teach the students important aspects of musical performance, and genres they may have overlooked to round out their music education and give them more landscape to explore. But we must value students’ present knowledge and interests as we guide them along the process of developing truly comprehensive musicianship.

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2 thoughts on “Why Do Music Teachers Teach What They Teach?

  1. This was part of a letter that Kurt Vonnegut sent to a group of high school students. Thought it pertains to what you say about the personal nature of music education.

    “Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to EXPERIENCE BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to make your SOUL GROW (Kurt Vonnegut, 2006).”

    I whole heartedly agree with what you are talking about and as a classically based singer and teacher I find that popular music is an essential connecting point for many students. The classical music we teach was in fact once popular music, and making this connection for students is vital!

    • Abram, thank you for providing that great quote. I love the phrase “to make your soul grow.” It’s too bad such a divide has been built between classical and popular music. You make a great point in pointing out that classical music was once popular music.

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