Recently, a sort of firestorm on Facebook was started by a music teacher sharply criticizing colleagues who stop teaching the curriculum after the final concert of the year. He stated that in doing so, these teachers are “degrading” their music programs. He went on to vent and in so doing offended some. The post was probably over stated and too severe, but the author did raise a worthwhile point. It so happened that the evening before, a man whose daughter is a curriculum supervisor asked me, “what do you teach after your concert is over?” His question was born of the same impression the teacher on Facebook was getting at; an understanding that music programs exist solely for the purpose of giving concerts. I answered that I continue to teach music reading music writing, and singing, as I have been doing all year. For me, concert music is some of the material I use to teach the enduring understandings and answers to essential questions that are the backbone of my discipline, music. With this philosophy, preparing concert music is a means to an end of producing learning above and beyond the performance of a concert. Because I approach music teaching this way, my instruction is significantly different from a music teacher who sees learning concert music as the end, and other learning that may take place along the way as incidental.
This discussion is not about scheduling, nor is it about what a particular music teacher is allowed or not allowed to do or teach. It is about what values we hold concerning our discipline, and the importance and relevance we see in music for our students lives now and in their future. Music education is much bigger than the concert. If all that mattered was the concert, we would teach everything by rote, (there is a place for rote learning, but it must not be the only method used) we would teach easy repertoire that we knew would always sound good with very little effort, and we would program from a narrow repertoire of music that is popular with students and their parents. Sadly, I know music teachers who do all of these things. While audiences and maybe even administrators often love the result, if this is what music education looks like, then by it we teach our students a counterfeit for musical excellence, one that is shallow comes cheap. We also teach them that it is not worth the investment of time and effort to learn more challenging music, nor is it worthwhile to experience a great deal of great music that is left out because it just takes to much time to master. We also teach our students that only a minimal amount of skill and knowledge should be brought to bear on making music; that developing advanced skill and attaining true music literacy is not worth pursuing. Every one of these positions should be untenable for a music teacher.
So what place should our concerts take in our music programs? Concerts are evidence of learning within the performance artistic process. They are the result of rehearsal, evaluation, and refinement over a period of time. But the learning on display at the performance which is presented to an audience goes beyond what is possible from shallow, rote only learning. When all teaching is rote, and when the sole purpose of instruction is to prepare a concert, music teachers are doing the equivalent to language arts and math teachers who teach to the test. Students are prepared to score well on a standardized test, but spend so much time preparing for that one test that greater depth of knowledge is never taught, and truly meaningful learning, learning that is relevant to life, is rarely obtained.
When music teaching has been approached correctly, there is an artistry evident, a confidence and interpretation that points toward an understanding of the music that extends beneath the surface to the composer’s culture, expressive intent, and musical vocabulary. There is a passion in the young performers that suggests that they are playing from their own hearts out of an understanding of how to manipulate musical elements to convey a specific, purposeful intent. The playing reveals that they have wrestled with the score, exercising their literacy, and are not just repeating what another has told them to do, but are interpreting out of understanding and love for the music, just as a good actor does not merely read lines, but brings them to life through skillful and expressive interpretation. Students can explain how they are using musical elements to convey an interpretation, how motifs, phrases, themes and sections relate to each other and the overall expressive content of the music. Students can evaluate their own performance and use developed musicianship to solve problems and refine performances. Students who have only been taught by rote can do none of these things, and so are always dependent on a teacher to tell them what to play and how to play it.
Here are some practical things music teachers can do to teach at deeper depths of knowledge.
- Develop with students criteria with which they can evaluate their own playing or singing.
- Teach students the music and teach students about the music, and music similar to what they are learning to play or sing, so they can generalize their learning beyond a few pieces to a repertoire waiting to be explored and experienced.
- Allow students to select music to learn based on their evaluation of their own playing or singing, their knowledge of the music or the genre from which the music is drawn, and their interests.
- Have students examine the composer’s use of musical elements and what expressive effect was produced or intended and from that examination, develop an interpretation. This can be done in an ensemble through questioning and trying student ideas. Insist that they support their answers with evidence from the text (the written music), just as they would support a claim from a text in language arts. Students will more quickly and successfully play or sing an interpretation that is theirs, so time will not be lost in the end compared to imposing a director’s interpretation that must be repeated more before it is remembered and done well.
- Include students in evaluating performance during rehearsal, and use student section leaders to guide less experienced players. Keep this from becoming blaming people for mistakes by making questions specific and not focused on individuals. For example, “how could the trumpets use dynamics more effectively to support the melody in the flutes?” “What instrument did you hear sounding that wrong note? . . . trombones, check the notes you just played. Did you miss an accidental?” This last example incorporates evaluation of others and self-evaluation all in the same teaching moment.
- Include students in deciding when a musical work is ready to present. Students who have developed their own interpretation and who have determined the expressive intent of the music and the performance will have informed input and a vested interest of when their performance is ready.
Teaching with this kind of depth gives purpose to a music program beyond the concert. It also gives value to music education for students who don’t give concerts, such as those in a general music class and who are not enrolled in an ensemble.