Some years ago, the district music coordinator I worked for had one guiding principle that she seemed to bring up more often than any other. It was the idea that we, the music teachers, should not be spending our precious class time teaching our students music they were already familiar with, but instead music that they had little or no experience with and that was of a quality to justify including it in our programs. Set in opposition to this principle was the view of many students, a view many of my students still hold, that they would rather spend their time in music class with the music they already know and love. Music class should be for listening to and performing music they like, is what they will tell me.
As with most things, I believe both positions are correct, and the best music programs are the ones that find a good balance between them. Students should be given the opportunity to enjoy the music they love in a class setting. Experiencing and enjoying music in community is a fundamental activity that people everywhere enjoy and value. On the other hand, because the music that people experience and enjoy in community everywhere is not the same music or even the same genre everywhere, gaining familiarity with a wide, even vast array of musical cultures and styles is an excellent idea, especially because most if not all of the world’s musics are so readily accessible through the various music delivery services now available.
In Connecticut, there is presently a very difficult contract negotiation going on between the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and a new management configuration. In writing about the issues surrounding the negotiations, Steve Metcalfe observed that “In the arts, however, the customer relationship is more complicated than it is at Nordstrom’s or The Gap. An orchestra — like any theater company or museum — has to be prepared to sometimes stretch its ticket buyers, to challenge them, to take them to places they didn’t even know existed, and to which they certainly never would have been able to declare they “wanted” to go.
Finding the exact right balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, or as the case may be the “serious” and the “popular,” is, as everyone in the business knows, tricky and probably getting trickier. But the calibration is essential and is itself now an intrinsic component of the art-form.
In most instances, including both familiar and unfamiliar music is not an either/or proposition. Most music has some commonality, especially in the area of rhythm, beat, and meter. At times, creators of one genre of music will use elements or even outright quote from another genre of music, facilitating the making of connections between the two genres for audiences and students. I have also noticed that although my students don’t immediately take to, or even ever like some of the unfamiliar music I play for them, they sometimes absolutely delight in a musical work they are hearing for the first time. Sometimes, the emotional content of the music draws them in quickly, while at other times they immediately make a connection to their own world, as when they have heard a classical piece on “Little Einsteins” or in a favorite video game soundtrack. Sometimes, the students themselves can be the source of music that is unfamiliar to their classmates. I have had students share traditional music from their family’s culture, even singing in another language. The very fact that it was the music of a friend’s family, and that it was in another language, made it of interest to students, and initiated worthwhile conversation about the music and the student’s knowledge of it.
There is a sense that is easily lost amid popular culture that the arts are only reflections of reality. While this has sadly become true of some art-forms, it is not the traditional role of artists, and I include visual artists, dancers, dramatists along with musicians here, to merely reflect their surroundings. Art at its best has always elevated quality of life, and showed humanity what we could and can be when we too are at our best. Again turning to Steve Metcalfe, music is meant to “advance something edifying and ennobling in [our] community… art is edifying and ennobling. It can also be difficult, complex, costly. And sometimes it not only fails to conform to the marketplace, it – beautifully and defiantly — flies directly in the face of it.” Music is most likely to be all of these things when it challenges us without going beyond our ability to relate to it. It is in that challenge we encounter with unfamiliar music, as well as in the challenge of finding the edifying and ennobling qualities when it is familiar, even all too familiar that music makes a lasting impression on our lives. It is this kind of impression that we, music teachers, must bring to our students. We do so, in part, by both challenging them with unfamiliar music and with pushing them to go further with familiar music.