How Can it Be Better?

If it Ain’t Baroque…

It all started when my principal told me I have to teach literacy and critical thinking in Band to help support the academic progress of the school.

“Yeah right,” I thought very loudly in my head. “I have to get these kids playing enough music for a concert that doesn’t make the audience’s ears bleed, and I’m pretty sure I just saw that saxophone player put his mouthpiece on upside down to see how loud he could make a squeaking sound.”

My first reaction was to share battle-tested articles on the scientific evidence that participation in music can enhance executive functioning skills and strengthen memory. If the principals read the articles, I’m sure they were amused but not impressed. My first formal observation of the year was coming up soon, and I needed something to use at the meeting.

I kept brainstorming ways that I could comply with the request of the administration, but still prepare for the concerts. Maybe I could set aside a specific time of year to do my “literacy” exercises or to download a Beethoven article for the sub to pass out while I was at a conference.

I sat down to map out the year to find a spot to squeeze in this “extra work”.

Let’s see – there’s Pep Band in the Fall, then Holiday Concert, then a Concert Band Festival… well, then Spring Concert, of course… Jazz Contests… then… get ready for next year’s performances.

I stopped and looked at the calendar. All we did all year was prepare for the next performance. We sight-read periodically, but mostly we just worked on getting ready for the next event.

We didn’t create music. We didn’t listen to music. We didn’t improvise. We didn’t arrange or transcribe music.

Maybe we could do this a little differently…

Maybe we have had lessons where these things occur once. Or “novelty” lessons where I set aside a day for some kind of musical exploration, but no real intrinsic inclusion of these very important musical skills. We spend so much time preparing music and such little time building actual transferable musical skills, that if I’m not present, the students wouldn’t be able to have an authentic musical rehearsal. When they leave the school, how could they still play music without a teacher? Maybe they could practice their notes and rhythms. But composing, phrasing, style, intonation, expression…

Then, a guiding question popped into my head: What life-long musical skills would a student have after taking four years of music with me?

In that moment, the answer was: “None.”

Not that my students would not have built relationships with their peers and learned teamwork, or that they hadn’t had some great performance experiences, just that they are lacking some essential musical skills after having four or more years of formal music training.

I don’t think it’s important for students to continue as professional musicians, but I do think that it is absolutely essential that music programs are churning out life long appreciators of music.

A student who is involved in a garage band with his friends where they learn music they love by ear and then jam every weekend is more likely to have performance music as a part of his life than a student who plays third clarinet in the top Concert Band and doesn’t ever have an opportunity to engage in creating music (or even playing the melody to the music they do play!). This ultimately isn’t serving either music students or the music community well.

What is the alternative and how do we get there?

Students need to build musical skills that allow them to learn music independently, build a sense of ownership through creating music, and engage in music as a lifelong art through becoming critical listeners and consumers of all styles of music.

Students should be able to choose or create music for themselves to perform, to learn music by ear, to listen to music critically and describe it with informed language, and to arrange and transcribe music for groups (whether that’s informally or correctly notated).

To reinforce these skills through music class, we have to practice them during class. We, as music teachers, need resources and strategies for teaching composition, transcription, arranging, ear training, and improvising.

My hope is that through developing and reviewing materials to accomplish these instructional goals, nothing is taken away from the performance experience or the concert schedule, but rather we are able to find a better, more comprehensive and more sustainable method of teaching music.


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