Why Do We Have Students Play Musical Instruments?

2011Symposium_1_2Today, I want us to think about a question that most of us have either overlooked or taken for granted. I want to explore why we teach people to play musical instruments. This is a deceptively important question, because how we answer it affects everything we do with our instrumental students; it affects what we teach, how we teach, and perhaps most importantly, it affects how lasting the affect and benefit of music education is going to be on students after they graduate from our program. NAfME (formerly MENC) provided us with nine content standards, and among them was this:

Performing on instruments alone and with others a varied repertoire of music.

This content standard, when we stop to examine it, gives us a clue as to how to answer our question. To do so, we must ask three more important questions:

  • Why should students perform on instruments?
  • Why should they do so both alone and with others?
  • Why should they perform on instruments a varied repertoire of music?

Students should perform on instruments because entire musical cultures have evolved with musical instruments as an integral and at times the only means of performing. We know that music has been and is part of virtually every human culture on earth largely because of artifacts and drawings of musical instruments. They are an important part of human history, and merit the attention of educators and their students. Musical instruments have been used to imitate nature, to aid in hunting food, and as an extension of the human voice to give better expression to human emotion. Students should play musical instruments because doing so is part of their creative and expressive humanness.

We have now arrived at the doorstep of the other questions I raised. Students should perform on musical instruments both alone and with others, because in each of these settings, a different reason for playing on instruments is addressed. Playing on a musical instrument alone enables the student to be self-expressive and musically independent. When playing on a musical instrument alone, the player must make all decisions and execute all notes and phrases correctly on his or her own. There is no possibility of relying on others to carry the tune, nor to make interpretive decisions. The student must rely on his or her own interpretive, emotional and physical powers to play well. To avoid doing so would be to play in a perfunctory, artistically bankrupt manner, which would be missing the point entirely. It is in playing alone that the student develops the skills, concentration and will to be a powerful interpreter of art. Instrumental teachers who do not provide ample opportunities for students to play alone deprive their students of the means to acquire fundamental aspects of musicianship.

Playing a musical instrument with others draws people together emotionally, which strengthens relationships Ensembleand harmony between individuals who would not otherwise relate to one another as well. It also enables a player to participate in performing music that would be impossible to play alone; music with harmony, counterpoint, and a variety of timbres. It is upon these very things that Western art music is built, and from which the great masterpieces we wish to familiarize our students with is forged. Western musical culture is, in all of its variety, tonal, and therefore dependent on multiple tones being sounded together, an arrangement that requires, in most cases, the employment of people playing on instruments together. Students should also play with others because that is how music for most instruments in our Western culture needs to be performed in order to produce harmony. Although there is a repertoire of solo works, it is relatively small, with the exception of keyboard and guitar repertoires. Most Western music is written for at least two instruments.

Within that Western culture, there is a large variety of musical traditions. To focus on one while ignoring the others would misrepresent Western music, and deny many students the opportunity to learn about their own musical heritage. Western music is more than centuries old sonatas, concertos, symphonies, tone poems and operas. It is inclusive of many other traditions such as Indian raga and Native American songs, all of which have a rich instrumental repertoire.

Where does that leave instrumental music programs that feature concert bands, wind ensembles, and symphony orchestras? Often, it leaves them playing narrow repertoire that is not inclusive of many Western traditions, or playing arrangements of songs from these other traditions that misrepresents the original music because it is not properly contextualized. It also leaves it lacking in opportunities to play alone, instead providing hiding places for underdeveloped student musicians. To fully implement the standard, and to realize the intent of the standard, instrumental ensemble directors should implement the following action points:

  • Make having every student play alone a priority. This can be done during small group lessons, or by rotating through your large ensembles five or six students every rehearsal, going through the entire roster and then starting again. These playing opportunities should not be for a grade; they should be positive experiences for all where playing is assessed but not graded, and personal musicianship is practiced grown.
  • Teach your students the history of instrumental music. Have them see that band or orchestra is not all about shiny mass produced hardware, but began and in parts of the world continues today as a tradition of hand crafted instruments suitable for local cultural purposes and needs. Having them try to make an instrument from locally available materials is a great eye opener.
  • When students are playing together, focus their attention on each other so that they relate, communicate, and have a shared artistic experience. Students should never feel like a cog, but organically connected to the whole.
  • When you rehearse a transcription, have your ensemble listen to the original first; have them describe and talk about the expressiveness of what they hear and of the composer/performer’s expressive intent. Then discuss how the ensemble can interpret the transcription to preserve the same expressive intent, while infusing it with additional expression, personalized for the ensemble and the instrumentation performing. The same action point applies when rehearsing a work originally written for your instrumentation, but based on a melody from another musical tradition, as, for example, with Variations on a Korean Folk Song by John Barnes Chance.

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