What Do You Do?

Version 2When striking up a new acquaintance, sharing what we do for work is nearly always one of the first things we talk about. I have always responded by saying that I’m a music teacher, an answer no one who knows me would dispute. But lately I began to wonder just how accurate that really is. After all, I’m not teaching the music anything, I’m teaching children–teaching music to children. That makes me a children teacher.

While the distinction may seem nit-picky or like a bad pun, I believe it reveals something I have from time to time lost track of. If I am principally concerned with teaching music, then I am less likely to be concerned with those to whom I am teaching it. I am interested in covering material, and transferring knowledge or skills from me to my students. To be sure, this is an important part of teaching and learning, the imparting and receiving of knowledge and skills, but it is apt to be accomplished with limited success if more attention is given to the content than to the learner.

Even on my most successful days, when my students have done well playing or singing repertoire, or have demonstrated knowledge on an assessment, if I have not taught them something that they want to use in their daily lives, they will at best tolerate my class, and then quickly lay aside what I have taught them. The fact is that most children, and I include adolescents, enjoy music in some fashion, and have willingly made it part of their daily lives. For many, this involves listening to recorded music, and responding in some way to what they are listening to, be it moving, dancing, singing, drumming, or just taking emotional pleasure. Honestly, they can do these things without much or maybe any help from me. So I ask myself, what value can I add to their musical experience that will amplify their lifelong interactions with music?

One way is to teach them to play musical instruments on which they can play the music they enjoy. Band and orchestra are great for those who enjoy it, and there are plenty who do, but for the rest who make up a majority, as long as there are rarely if ever trumpets or clarinets, violins or timpani in the latest hip-hop or pop hits, there is little interest in learning “orchestral” instruments. There just isn’t a connection between playing these instruments and what the students want to do with their music, nor the incentive to invest the time needed to sound good playing music that is perhaps of marginal interest. But present the opportunity to play the guitar or keyboard, and suddenly there is immense interest in learning a musical instrument. These are the instruments they hear in the music they enjoy and encounter daily. This will add value to their moving, dancing, singing, and drumming. This will also draw students together in a new way, as one plays a guitar, another the drums, another a keyboard, and still another sings. It is discovering for them, and rediscovering for us the joy of making music with friends, as families and friends were apt to do in a time that preceded recorded music.

Part of succeeding at this rediscovery is showing students that they do not have to make exact reproductions of the recordings they know. Just consider all the remixes being done today. Their remix can be a simpler way of playing and singing, one that suits their present technical ability on an instrument or voice. Students can divide chords among themselves where chord changes come to quickly for one player. They can eliminate chords or slow down strums to give them more time to get their fingers to the nextthis-approach-to chord. They can move a complex strumming pattern onto a drum kit where the rhythms are easier to play. These accommodations don’t in the end spoil the musical experience. On the contrary they bring it within the reach of all students, and open up the world of playing in a band to those who have not achieved the skill to play the original versions. Unlike transcriptions for wind ensemble or orchestra, the modified versions of popular music still have enough of the original sound and feel to satisfy the students, and make it fun for them to play there favorite songs. It also brings to the fore what is perhaps the most attractive part of making music–that of doing it together with friends.

This approach to teaching music to kids is a natural by-product of putting relationship building first. It recalibrates how we think of ourselves as teachers and how we think of our students. Yes, we are the experts, the ones with the college education and conservatory musicianship, but the students are our equals in terms of who they are as people, and what they are about to do, feel, cherish and be. Rather than considering ourselves as lauded overseers of our students learning, it is more respectful of them and effective to see ourselves as collaborators who bring indispensable resources into the collaboration, but who are as eager to make music and learn from them as we want them to be those things toward us. So we demonstrate, teach, explain, but we also listen, encourage, and at times just step back, out of the way, and let them take what we have given them and let them run with it through what now can be a self-directed musical experience.

It is something like teaching your child to ride a bicycle. They are the ones seated on the bike and pedaling and steering, and maybe holding on for dear life, and you are the one holding the bike so they don’t fall, running along beside but not hopping on and taking over, and then when they are able to go, you let go and watch them ride ahead, unaware that they are doing it all their own now, until they look and see you’re not needed to hold them up. That is what good music teaching should be like. Train them as long as they need it, but then get out of the way and let them go it alone. At that point, you are the proud teacher, applauding their accomplishments, and enjoying their success right along with them. That moment of bringing them to the point of independence is something they never forget. It is born out of the relationship that grows from collaboration, which is the working together of equals, not from sitting at the “feet” of a presiding pundit, a relationship that demands superiority over students. Teachers must retain their academic and scholarly superiority, while allowing students to be equal in other ways so that the learning I’ve described will flourish. I am a children teacher. I teach children music.