Recently, I was directing a musical theater production. As I coached one of the leads in her song, she became excited over what I was having her do with it. Before we started the session, she knew the lyrics and the pitches, and was close on most of the rhythms. But that was it. What I was doing with her was opening up the beauty, the expressiveness of the song. In just a few minutes, her experience of the song went from ordinary to extraordinary because she was, for the first time, enjoying the expressive beauty of the music.
It is my observation that people who really love music are the ones that fall in love with how it transports them to another level; how it elevates their spirits and emotions to a satisfying and highly human level of happy contentment and excitement. People who love music as these people do are in contrast to those who simply “do” music, because they are in a class or an ensemble, and learn their notes, rhythms and lyrics, but little else. They never or rarely get to the level the true music lovers do, because, frankly, no one ever takes them there, never guides them into the experiences of music that brings them to a place where their music is worthy of falling in love with.
So how do we, music educators, make music lovers of our students? How do we start them embarking on a life-long enjoyment of music in all of its richness? A good place to begin is what first drew us to music. What happened that caused music to take root, sprout, and grow into our own love of music, the one that compelled us to become music teachers, and to continue to enjoy music making with students and on our own right up to the present day? What is that something special within us that music has brought that we so generously and lovingly want to share with others? And what is the effect that music has on us today that draws us to it even still, and keeps it ever as a love of our life?
It starts with early childhood. If things go right, it continues through childhood, adolescent hood and adulthood. But there are so many things that can snuff it out along the way. It is important that we look at the whole path, start to finish, to understand how to foster this love of music, and how fragile it can be.
Most children show an early love of music. They naturally sing, early on as just experimental sounds and then what Gordon called “music babble.” There is a delight in discovering the sounds that one’s voice can make, when so many of them are new. Children need to be afforded this verbal playtime. This is also when being around adults who sing and clearly enjoy singing is important. It’s not important that the adult be a fantastic singer, only that what they are doing is perceived as singing and that they are visibly enjoying it. To a child, if it appears that happy people are ones who sing, then they will want to sing too, and will feel good being around others who are singing. As this stage progresses, a child will discover that there are other ways to make pleasing sounds besides with his or her voice. There are things to bang on. Maybe pots and pans, maybe a toy glockenspiel or piano. Children need to be allowed to band away. It’s part of their love of music growth. I remember being quite young and having a toy piano and a toy glockenspiel. I spent hours with both, and they are two of only a few toys I still remember with such fondness.
By the time I was seven or eight years old, my grandfather gave me a hi-fi. It had tubes in it that had to warm up before it could be heard playing records. It was remarkable that I could so carefully place that arm down on records without damaging either, but I did, time and time again. Even at that young age, I found a way to take good care of what I loved. So much so that my parents trusted me with their records to play when I wanted, and I soon began collecting my own from gifts.
Before long, I discovered Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert broadcast on CBS. They were on in late afternoon. My mother held dinner so I could watch the broadcasts whenever they were on. I think that was the beginning of my love for classical music. And it was the beginning of my desire to be a symphony orchestra conductor. After that, I would set up my little child-sized rocking chair behind me as the rail that I saw behind Mr. Bernstein on television, take a long Tinker Toy and put on a classical music record, and conduct, imagining that I was Leonard Bernstein conducting a real orchestra. After that came clarinet lessons in fifth grade, and playing in the band for many years after.
In high school, my band director gave the freshman band over to me so I could gain conducting experience, and even let me conduct my own composition with the more advanced concert band. He became an invaluable mentor to me, providing that last piece that prepared me for conservatory study and then beginning my career as a music educator.
It is valuable to look back and see how many people were involved in helping me grow my love for music. My parents provided music in the home, and the resources for me to make my own. My grandfather provided the hi-fi and many records. Leonard Bernstein and CBS brought me those young peoples concerts. My music teachers, and that one I mentioned in particular, went beyond the norm to elevate my experience of music over many formidable years. At any point along the way, any one of these could have just said “stop that noise” or “you’re not that good, give it up.” In fact, there were a few years when I was not that good, but those around me stuck with me and my music anyway.
Critically, each of these significant guides to my musical development were music lovers themselves. Each gave me the time, space, and resources I needed to develop musically. And in school, music never became drudgery. I never had to rehearse the same marching show for months, never had to bang out the notes to two or three pieces all year for a competition. My teachers and the ensembles they led that I was in by and large were music lovers, and prioritized being musically expressive, with accuracy being one component of that, not the only goal. So when I showed the woman in my show how to phrase, how to hold back here, push ahead there, how to crescendo and build and then how to decrescendo and relax, I showed her a pathway to a kind of love for music she had been missing and quickly embraced.
Music education has to be first and foremost about a love for music. Everything else is a means to that most important end. Those music educators who get that right have students that graduated from their instruction years ago, but have not given up making music. Those students’ instruments are still in use, either by them or their own children who have had their parents love for music passed on to them. It’s all about why we make music. It should be all about love.