A Different Kind of Music Advocacy

Music advocates, and who isn’t one that reads this blog, are sometimes like that child in a class that always strenuously raises their hand—“ooh, ooh, ooh, call on me, call on me,” but is rarely called on because either that child is always answering questions, not giving anyone else a chance to answer and learn, or is likely to deliver some wise crack that will set the whole class off on a tangent. So the teacher tries to call on others, essentially because they don’t really want to hear what that child has to say. 

It can be surprising that with all the research and science supporting music education in schools, we are still struggling to justify music education, in spite of over fifty years of advocacy; or is it surprising? I propose that we look at this problem from a different perspective. Let’s look at it from the perspective of the rest of the school. 

Math, Language Arts, and Science teachers, and elementary teachers who teach it all, have a different view of our students. They are focused on the combined results of all of those subjects. They go over assessments of individual students with each other in team or grade level meetings. They strategize and plan how they can implement and address problems students are having in math by addressing the application of it in Science, or how students can improve their success in science by reading scientific articles in Language Arts. 

Music teachers generally don’t go to those meetings. Music teachers are brought in when somebody needs a song for memorizing different types of rocks, or memorizing the letters of the alphabet. Music is treated as an “as needed” auxiliary discipline that otherwise exists on its own, preparing for the next entertainment event: the concert, parade, adjudication, etc. These entertainments are wonderful, everyone celebrates them, enjoys them, supports them, (maybe), but they’re often regarded as more a diversion from eduction than an integral part of it. Successful music advocacy changes that.

I recall one year at a faculty meeting, every teacher had to make a presentation. We had to share a teaching strategy that was successful in our classroom. I presented an overview of Gordon’s Music Learning Theory. Afterwards, the reading teacher came up to me, astounded and excited. “You used reading strategy in your music teaching” she said, quite surprised. I matter of factly responded, “yes, I know. That is very intentional.” That one presentation changed the whole perspective of music education in that school. My colleagues now understood that for them, the issue wasn’t what I was teaching it was how I was teaching. I was using strategies that were transferable between disciplines, and that was valuable to them; much more so than what repertoire my students were able to perform.

This kind of demonstration and understanding of how music is taught is much more effective in advocating for music education within the school than simply saying that music makes people smarter and trotting out citations from research. Of course the research is true, and music does contribute to cognitive growth, but that statement is too abstract to make an impact on the people we’re trying to advocate to. 

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide music for units in Social Studies or Math or any other subject. Interdisciplinary collaboration is great, and enhances both the music education and the other subject education. I developed a unit on Native American music in response to a request from a fifth grade teacher who wanted authenitic classroom activities for her Native American Unit. I taught a few songs, along with the ceremonial purpose and use of them, and then taught them to sing, dance and play them in an authentic way, including making the drums and going outdoors. The teacher was delighted, and I had another feather in my cap in the eyes of other teachers too. 

If there is one take away from all of this it is that effective music advocacy is done one school community at a time by one music educator at a time. Like many things in education, the most effective method is not the one that comes from a centralized source that everyone must use, it is the one that is educator-developed for a particular school or class within a school. It is the things we do that are visible and that result in a measurable success and gain that is of value to teachers, students, and the greater school community, and not just to the music educator and department. 

These are trying times for education and educators. Problems that were of concern before the Covid-19 pandemic have been made worse by it, often elevating those problems to crisis status. Music education cannot solve all of those problems. No single agent can. And if there’s a discipline that doesn’t transfer well to on-line learning, surely it is the performing arts. But in that situation there is opportunity for us to reflect on what we do, why we do it, and what our value is beyond the public performances. Have we engaged our students in higher level thinking and problem solving in our rehearsals, as well as in our non-performance classes? Have we gone beyond teaching songs to building music literacy, which goes beyond rote learning, beyond singing and playing and includes improvising and composing? Have we given composing its proper place in the instructional sequence as the most advanced activity, to be undertaken after students have gained substantial competency in audiating aurally and orally, according to Music Learning Theory and Conversational Solfege?

Music education worth advocating for is grounded not just in the results that are measured and reported on in research, it is grounded in best practice pedagogy that organizes learning according to the same principles as good teaching in other subjects. It is grounded in a process that engages students in scholarly activity. I recall writing a proposal to change my band course from an “academic” ranking to an “honors” ranking. I mentioned kinesthetic, visual, and aural learning, and the high level of performance that my students achieved. My principal was unimpressed. His response was essentially, what higher level thinking are you requiring of the students? What are you doing to utilize their verbal and writing skills? To be honest, he was looking for me to turn band into a kind of Language Arts class, but his point was not lost on me. Getting students to perform music at a high level can be achieved with only lower level cognition. Music educators must be intentional in requiring high level cognition in order to legitimately lay claim to the value so many advocacy presentations seek. Music is essential, and should be part of every comprehensive education. But we must make sure that our music programs are indeed comprehensive and intellectually rigorous.   

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