Music Class and A Student’s Life

2011Symposium_1_2We all need to be connected. Our humanity demands that we make sense of our lives, and our environment, and the only way that can happen is if what we are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling can be connected with something we know. When this happens, the world at that moment makes sense, and we can go on relatively undisturbed. If everything all at once is unfamiliar, we are likely to panic and become agitated, threatened or even fearful. Our relationships with people help us stay on firm ground, and the thoughts we have are all constructed of thousands of stimuli being connected together in some way.

There are a few curious surroundings we find ourselves in that are unique to themselves. These places are familiar because we keep going back to them, but they have a culture and a familiarity that are all their own. Musically, traditional Christian church worship services can be like that. Where else but in church music does a person come across hymns? Another place is music class. The repertoire of bands and choirs often is comprised mainly of music that is unlike music students are likely to hear elsewhere. Those “contest and festival” pieces we all find in the J.W. Pepper catalog are nowhere to be found on our students phones or on popular radio stations. Even more obscure are the works referred to as “educational music.” Though they serve good pedagogic purposes, they are rarely either masterpieces of musical art or mainstream music. The result of this is that our students are forced to exist in an unfamiliar musical world, dissimilar from the one they live in once they leave the music classroom.

While all of this is going on, many of these same students are also existing in another musical world, one that we music educators have little or nothing to do with. It is a world within which a kid learns how to play a popular guitar riff from a peer who is taking guitar lessons from a teacher who plays in a rock band. It is a world within which students share music videos and songs with each other on their phones, and perhaps sing along with both the recording and a friend or two. It is a world that I often get a glimpse at as two or three students walk down the school hallways on Dance-and-Movementtheir way to their next class, all the time chanting or singing part of a popular song. It is a culture that has changed the look of fashion and taught boys to wear their pants lower than we would like. Imagine what our musical world, the one we create in our classrooms looks like to our students, who step out of their musical world and into ours for a mere hour or less in their day. It is nothing short of a culture shock, repeated every time we have them for a music class.

We certainly are and must teach our students a diverse repertoire of music and styles, and much of what we teach will meet with resistance at first because it is so different. In order for students to accept and succeed in our musical world, we must help them transition into it. We must show them that there are more similarities than first meets the ear, and that differences and diversity are as rich and edifying in music as they are in people. There are a variety of musics that can give us similar emotional feelings and experiences, and those responses are one of the entry points. Another is expressive intent. Composers of all time periods and styles have written about love, war, stormy emotions, and tranquil peace. Exploring commonalities can help bring these two musical worlds together, a uniting that I believe is crucial for music education to succeed.


2 thoughts on “Music Class and A Student’s Life

  1. This is an interesting post to me because just the other night, after reading your post about intervals, I came across the following on the internet:

    Her experience seems to have resulted in her moving in the opposite direction from what you recommend – you’re trying to help students appreciate older, established pieces, and her approach is to incorporate music which younger students enjoy into their musical learning.

    What do you think of her vantage?

    • I think she and I are both using the same strategy for different purposes. Music teachers need to use current music so that what they teach is relevant and interesting to students. Many concepts, intervals among them, can be taught effectively with any style of tonal music, and with advanced students well-grounded in auditing tonalities, atonal music as well, because all melodies contain intervals. On the other hand, popular music cannot be allowed to take over a music curriculum, because there is limited learning in studying what one already knows. Musical diversity must be a priority. Popular music can be a bridge between familiar and unfamiliar musical genres. Where she and I may differ in approach to teaching intervals is that I view referencing songs to form intervals as a temporary aid which must be abandoned when audiation skills are fully developed. Developing audiation skills must be the end goal, not building a repertoire of references upon which the student will always be dependent in order to sing or identify intervals. Use of tonal syllables (moveable do) for aural training and fixed do for music reading training are time-tested tools for doing this. With tonal syllables, the descending minor sixth can be heard as ^1 descending to ^3 or ^4 descending to ^6 in a major tonality, with the student auditing those functions rather than calling to mind a melodic fragment from a familiar song.

      I appreciate your continued interest in this subject.

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