The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) leads a music education awareness campaign each year during the month of March. This year’s campaign is themed “Music Inspires.” The month long celebration of music in schools typically includes stepped-up performance schedules for school ensembles, special events, and classroom activities designed to increase awareness of the presence and benefits of music education. Calling attention to all of this is a good idea. When it comes to things that are constantly present, we tend to take them for granted. Calling awareness to music in our schools raises value in the public eye, which is always beneficial to any cause. But if this is as far as it goes, an efficient publicity blitz and some extra concerts, when the month has passed, music education fades back to where it was before, and music educators pack away the pins, pencils and posters until next year, like the Christmas decorations going back into the attic every New Year’s Day. No, we must take this opportunity to go deeper, and to bring to light the more meaningful and lasting attributes of a school and civic community that includes music education.
A good place to start is by pausing to reflect on the slogan, “Music Inspires.” When I think of influences on my life that have truly inspired me, I think of people, places, and overall experiences that made such a positive impression on me, that the memory hung around long enough to shape and change me for the better. There are a few teachers and a few musical performances that fall into that category, but there are many more teachers and musical performances that do not. So in what sense is it accurate to claim that music inspires, when from my own experience, I can only claim that some music inspires and that music sometimes inspires. The claim is therefore conditional on what inspires an individual person, and on what music is being experienced. There are times when a whole audience is inspired by a single performance, evidenced by the audience giving a performance a standing ovation and recalling performers to the stage for additional bows. There are other times when we hear a performance alone on our phone or music player, and are excited enough by what we hear to be compelled run to a friend and tell them all about the music to which we have just listened. I did not hear the original broadcast, but when I later listened to Lady Gaga’s performance of the American National Anthem at Super Bowl 50, I was excited; truly moved and inspired, and had to play it for my wife right away. These moments that animate, brighten, enliven, and yes, inspire our lives are deeply personal and highly shareable. Whether shared within a large audience, or one on one or one on a few friends at a time, music does inspire us. But not all music at all times.
This is the critical point for music educators. If we are to bring the inspiration of music to our students, we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that whatever inspires us will inspire our students. We must move thoughtfully through the world’s musical repertoire, observing what already inspires our students, and introducing musical works and genres to them that are likely to awaken new highs in their musical experiences. I believe that certain kinds of music universally inspire people in similar ways, tapping into our emotional and physical makeup. The primal beating of sections of L’Sacre du Printemps set our bodies in motion and raise our heart rates, and the flowing of a Native American flute calm and sooth us, drawing us to a peaceful repose with the earth’s natural beauty. But these two examples go beyond eliciting a particular affect, they are also exemplary specimens of creative musical work; they rise above the glut of other highly percussive or highly soothing examples one could find. We discover in this that inspiration draws not only on substance, but on quality of plan and execution. Things that inspire us stand out from similar thing that do not.
We must also notice that music inspires us in a different way when we perform or actively participate than when we are merely the objects of another’s performance. While I am inspired by Harold Wright’s recorded performance of the slow movement from Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet in F minor, I am inspired in a much more active and personal way when I perform that music myself. While I am roused by a live performance of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, I am all the more roused by being in the band that is performing it. Furthermore, there is a way in which musical performances have a greater impact on me because of my own performance experience. I can physically relate to what a clarinetist is doing to produce the sound I am hearing, or to what a musician is feeling emotionally and physically as he is performing in a concert for which I am in the audience. It is something like what Jeff Gordon is bringing to the commentary of NASCAR races. He is showing me the race from a driver’s perspective in a way none of the other commentators have been able to do. The more involved, I might even say enveloped, in music making we are, the more the music is apt to inspire us.
For music education to be the catalyst music inspiring people, music educators must bring all of these aspects of inspiration into the classroom. They must choose repertoire thoughtfully, create an environment wherein students can share with each other music and musical experiences that have inspired them, use music that exemplifies excellence in planning and execution both in composition and performance, and must equip all students with a functioning level of competence in music performance, so the they can relate music they hear to their own musical performance experiences. If we as music educators are accomplishing that, then we truly must let people know what we have and are accomplishing.