It is good to recall from time to time why we became music teachers. In my case, it was the desire to find something to do for a living that would include music making, and that would bring the immense enjoyment I had for making music to others; a kind of give back opportunity. I suppose many of you who are music educators entered the profession for similar reasons. Perhaps you also found that however sound those reasons were, they were not adequate to sustain a career. In time, it became apparent to me that I could not just dedicate myself to delighting all my students with what I enjoyed doing, because many of them had musical interests that were different from mine. If I were to insist on just making them do what gave me enjoyment, then I would be forcing them to do musical things they did not enjoy and were not interested in, which would have the undesired effect of alienating them from music education which is quite the opposite of what was intended.
Students almost always enter into a music education setting eager, motivated, and excited to learn something they feel strongly about wanting to do. Those expectations are most often met when students are making music together with friends, and when the music they are making is music they have selected, have an interest in, and is within their ability level to perform well. The music must sound reasonably close to how the students know it should sound in a reasonable amount of time. It simply isn’t enjoyable to invest time and effort into practicing music that is not of interest. My own love of music was fueled by the opportunities I was given to perform music I liked. For me, these included playing in the pit for musical comedies, and playing in the concert band, especially transcriptions of classical works such as the Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach transcribed for concert band, Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, and the first movement of Dvorak’s symphony from the New World. I mention these works because nearly fifty years later, I still remember the works and how much I enjoyed playing them. I also remember sitting in band rehearsals very bored, looking forward to it being over. I don’t remember any of the works being rehearsed at them, and would be hard pressed to say what I gained by sitting through rehearsals of them. The point here is that I learned music and learned to love music by playing works I enjoyed and was interested in. The only way to know what our students enjoy and are interested in is to know our students and be in conversation with them enough to find out.
Our music classes, including our ensemble rehearsals, should be an invitation to students to develop their musical abilities through pursuing their musical interests. This happens sometimes, as, for example, when a student comes to his or her private teacher with a solo they will be playing for an audition. The student has a desire and a need to learn that piece, and comes to the teacher to be the guiding force in successfully preparing the audition. The student is not committed to learning repertoire the teacher chooses which is not of particular interest to the student, but rather is seeking out instruction in repertoire they want to master, and which is, in all honesty, probably just as worthwhile and conducive to the teacher’s objectives, as what they otherwise would have placed before the student.
This is not to discount the expertise of the teacher. It is to say that the expertise of the teacher should be directed toward meaningful pursuits, ones that will not just produce reluctant yet proficient performers, but will, through true collaboration, result in multidimensional growth that positively affects the student musically, spiritually, psychologically, and cognitively. Music education must make a positive impact not just on musicianship and musical proficiency, but on the whole person.
Before I realized all of this, and I was embracing the mission of duplicating my personal musical preferences and loves in all of my students, I often met with disappointment. Why, I wondered, don’t all of my students share my exact love of music, including musical preferences? As obvious as the answer to that naive question is now, it went unanswered for longer than I’d like to admit. The musical model I had been brought up in, that of the traditional dictator/maestro on the podium, never allowed for me to question or reject the musical selections, decisions and interpretations of conductors. My musical tastes were varied enough so that I survived this kind of environment, but my students’ musical preferences and their tolerances of dictator maestros was often not as robust as mine had been. At this point in my career, I am sure that the day of the dictator/maestro is past, and that we all need to be more user friendly and much more responsive and concerned with the musical contexts and aspirations our students bring into our classrooms. Instead of being disappointed that my students do not share my musical interests, I have found joy in guiding students to interact with , practice and perform music that is within their musical interests.
To some it will seem that what I am proposing will compromise excellence, or the teacher’s prestige with students. I assure you, neither is the case. On the contrary, as students realize that you are first and foremost interested in them and not you, they will respond with more commitment to excellence, not less. And because you have positioned yourself as someone who matters to them, your prestige will rise, not take a hit. Your teaching style will change somewhat. You will find yourself asking more guiding questions as you steer students to think through problems you used to think through for them, and find solutions you used to find for them. You will need more patience and be willing to wait for results longer than is needed when you just jump in and show them the solutions. But education is not all about the answers, it is just as much (or I would argue more so) about the process of seeking and finding answers as it is about the answers themselves.
Hendricks (2018, p. 12) has posed some important questions that I would leave you with. Among these questions are, what are your primary priorities as a music teacher? What kind of questions do you use to instruct and motivate students? Do you use an effective balance of guiding, inspiring, connection, and goal-clarification questions? Are there any aspects of the teaching approach described here that you hesitate to try? If so, what are they? Why do you think you might feel the way you do? What would help you to feel more comfortable in trying out this approach? This approach is by no means “dumbing down” anything. It is acknowledging that the models for teaching that were developed for use in the early 20th century must give way to ones developed for today’s very different societal and cultural environment.
I would also like to mention my gratitude to Feedspot.com for including Mr A Music Place in the top 100 Music Education Blogs on the web. You can visit them at https://blog.feedspot.com/music_education_blogs/
Hendricks, K. S. (2018). Compassionate music teaching, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.