Any classroom will run more smoothly and be a place of effective learning when the lessons taught are both interesting and important to students. Lessons that are interesting to students are about things that students can use, want to use, and to which they can make connections with their personal lives, their other classes, their families, and/or their culture. While music often has a higher interest level for many students than other subjects, not all music is of equal interest. At times, one student or another will spontaneously break out into song. While this could be a good thing, when it comes at my mid-sentence to the class, it interrupts what I am doing. When asked to stop, the student typically will respond, “but it’s music, and this is music class.” This little vignette illustrates interest. The student is interested in the music he or she is singing, not necessarily the music that I am teaching at that moment. On the other hand, if I plan a response to listening, or creating, and base it on rap music, (I teach in an urban school district, and rap is by far the genre of choice among my students) their interest is high, and they are much more engaged and productive.
Music that interests students is also likely the most familiar to them. Many of my students can play the intricate hip-hop rhythms, sometimes better than I can, and they never tire of playing along with their favorite artist recordings or in some cases writing their own lyrics or free-styling. I am using rap as an example. Genres of interest will vary with different students, different school districts, and different cultures. The point is that this music of interest is something the students have largely taught themselves to be fluent in, and they are ready to make music together with their classmates in music class. This opens up many possibilities for authentic musical experiences in my classroom. With students already proficient and familiar with music making in a genre, I am free to have them create and perform in various forms, with various expressive intents, and with a variety of instruments including technology. Their interests form the basis for teaching and learning musical concepts, using the skills they already have. Of course, I can also improve their technique, showing them, for example, how to hold drumsticks, how to take their beatboxing or body percussion onto a drum kit, and how to add instrumental backgrounds such as synth pads, to their created musical works.
From their current musical interests, I also have the opportunity to develop new interests, not by forcing other kinds of music on them like convincing them to like it was some kind of crusade, but by making connections between what already interests them and other styles of music. For example, here are two tracks that combine elements of jazz and hip-hop, giving me the opportunity to teach both, or to bridge from hip-hop to jazz, always retaining just enough hip-hop to keep my students’ attention.
That’s music that interests students. Now what about music that is important to students? Interest and importance are certainly related, but they are not the same. Things that are interesting are connected to one’s personal life, and the lives of others directly involved in a person’s life. Interesting things include what self, friends, family, and those with which we come in frequent or daily contact. Important things go beyond our immediate sphere of influence (and of being influenced). Important things affect people on a larger or even universal scale. Patriotic songs, or recordings to raise money for the needy such as the “We Are The World” projects are examples of important things. These songs are only important to students if the universal context, purpose, or intent is also important to students. For example, Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame once wrote as one, “With Your Face To The Wind” to honor a young woman fighting cancer. To me, this was an important song because of its purpose, and I found the passionate live recording of the trio’s performance moving. I shared the recording with some students who were apt to be outspoken on many issues, and was surprised to find they attached very little importance to this young woman’s struggle or the encouragement the musicians were trying to offer. Her battle was not their cause, so they didn’t see the song as important.
I think music teachers run into this problem often when teaching classical music. We consider the so called masterworks of the great composers important from a historical and cultural perspective. These are great works of music and should be known by all Westerners just as surely as should Shakespeare or any other author one would care to name. But these creators of artistic works aren’t important to many students. They have grown up in an environment where everything including artistic works are much more disposable than a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Classic rock is old enough for them, and then only if the message of those old songs connects with their contemporary experience. The answer to the unimportance of classical music to young people is not to water it down, package it with sexy marketing of artists, or jam it into a rock or hip-hop beat (remember Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven?”). If classical music is going to be important to anyone, it will have to connect with the very spirit and reality of existence that young people have today. My students almost invariably like Beethoven music because they marvel at how anyone could write something like that and not be able to hear. Beethoven’s symphony becomes not so much about “great music” as it is about a person with a physical handicap overcoming his disability to accomplish something great. That’s important to kids. I know there will be some who will disparage that last point, arguing that I am basing the importance or even meaning of music on something extramusical. But no one would care one wit that Beethoven was deaf if he had written mediocre or bad music. It is the greatness of the music itself that makes his achievement as a deaf composer remarkable and interesting. So it is about the music, and also about the composer.
Music as we teach it is not an object that comes through earbuds to individual people. It is an art form that is created by a person for other people, with an expressive intent, a purpose, and within a context. Every musical work, be it a symphony or a rap song is intended to reach a community of people, to bring among other things a message or expression or affirmation. The more we can help students connect with those messages, expressions and affirmations within their own contexts, the more important, and interesting, music will be for them.