When you teach a child to play an instrument, what is the goal of doing so? This may seem like an odd question, because we are inclined to answer that the goal is to lead the child in gaining proficiency on the instrument. There is nothing wrong with this goal; it can be defined, growth can be measured, and a child can work to gaining a degree of proficiency as measured on an assessment. But is that the only right answer to my question? Is gaining performance proficiency the only legitimate goal for learning to play an instrument. I would argue that no, it is not.
An example is my third grade classes, to which I am teaching recorder. Certainly, as I teach them how to play, I want the quality of their playing to improve, but that is not the reason I am teaching them recorder. My goal is not to make recorder players out of them. My goal is to improve their music reading, and to build in them skills that will transfer to band instrument when they are old enough to join the instrumental music program. I know that every child will enjoy their music lessons more if they experience success at sounding good on the instrument, but if the class is not ready for a concert at the end of the recorder unit, but can measurably read music better, and demonstrate good articulation, breath control and cover the holes on the instrument so that a pleasant tone is emitted, then my goals will have been met.
Another example is my seventh grade classes. These students are learning to play the guitar. Guitar is one of those instruments that is ultimately difficult to play, but initially easy to get a good sound out of and enjoy quick success. It is also an instrument that many adolescents are interested in learning to play, so it is the perfect means through which to teach music concepts, especially rhythm and standard music notation. It is also an opportunity to teach guitar tableture, preparing students to be self-sufficient in learning hundreds of songs on their own once they are finished with my class. Again, my goal is not to make world class guitarists out of any of them, but to use the guitar to improve their musical skills, and give them a means by which they can enjoy music making throughout their adolescent and adult lives.
I was somewhat opportunistic with these students. They had just gone to New York to see Aladdin on Broadway, so when they returned, I began teaching them “A Whole New World” on the guitar. They were excited to learn this song, probably because of having just seen the show. They learned to play the melody from tableture faster than it normally takes. Now I can write other songs and riffs on the board and they can work on them from the tableture. Furthermore, because they studied piano earlier in the year and have proficiency reading standard music notation, I can also connect tableture and notes they are pressing on the fingerboard with notes written in standard music notation. I have them find notes by letter name on a blank chart of a guitar fingerboard, and write in the note name on the right string and in the right fret, and circle the note name. They can then transfer the notes they have labeled to the actual instrument, and know what notes they are playing. As long as I use a liberal dose of popular songs and riffs, they are more than willing to deal with the notation issues. From a class management perspective, having the combination of written and performance work keeps everyone engaged when some need to wait for their turn on a guitar (we have fewer guitars than students). It also affords me the opportunity of assessing students through more than one means. Some students do better with written work, some with performance work. Always using one or the other to assess students and assign grades is unfair, so using both and then weighting the class grade toward the student’s strength gives me a better reading on how each is doing.
From all of this instruction, some students will usually emerge as accomplished beyond the mean. These students exceed my goal and take what they have learned beyond what is required and done in class. That, of course, is wonderful. The best learning is learning that is taken out of the classroom and applied to daily living. For others who meet the goal, they are more proficient at reading music and playing an instrument than they were when we started, and are equipped with a foundation for further growth and enjoyment should they choose to pursue playing the instrument further at a later time. I think this is what so-called “general music” should be: an opportunity to enjoy and experience music for a lifetime without the pressures of having to partake in formal performances.