spot on teaching

RYesterday I had correspondences with two colleagues of mine, both of whom coincidentally are former students as well. One of them forwarded me a wonderful blog post on the value of music education to 21st century learners (please take a moment to read it, you won’t be sorry). With the other I had an awesome conversation around the goals for Jr. High/Middle School music students… philosophical beliefs as well as tangible outcomes. Here’s the crux of the issue I was thinking about by the end of the day: do we have music education in place a) to impart a love for the art form, b) to have students become literate in the art form or c) to develop our young adults as people to an extraordinary degree via our art form as a means to that separate end?

Love for the art form… the joy that can be obtained from playing and listening to music is profound. “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”  ~Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name. Everyone I know who has a passion for music wants (needs?) the world to know that same joy and love for it. They somehow have it so intertwined with their mere being that they can’t stand the thought of being alone in that joy; enveloping the world – everyone around them – in that same joy is an essential part of their being. For many, this is the reason they entered into music education. It is not difficult to understand that this is, in the end, the only outcome that ever really matters to them when it comes to their students. And they teach accordingly: imparting their love for music at the core of everything they do as music educators.

Music literacy… “Basically, we live in a non-literate society in terms of functional music literacy. We know that children who are not read to or who have little experience seeing their parents or other role models read and write don’t learn as readily themselves. So, as (Bennett) Reimer says, music literacy is irrelevant in our current society. As someone committed to music literacy then, I see the job I have as a music educator is to make music literacy relevant. ~ Kit Eakle, Teaching “Whole Music” Literacy. Many believe that music literacy is as essential a component of music education as it is to any other language. If a French teacher has a classroom of students who speak fluent French but can’t read a word of it, that teacher will get fired. And we get that. We might even applaud it as an active way to remove an incompetent teacher from the profession. But no one has ever explained to the proponents of this goal how that corollary doesn’t apply to music teachers as well. Anyone in this corner will tell you that literacy is the cornerstone to any language, of which music is included.

Means to an end… Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself – John Dewey. Steve Smith taught me that if you’re not careful, you might just make a permanent life impact on someone for the better, and it won’t have anything to do with your subject matter. Humanistic education. His references to Peter Pan were apt. Those who teach with this goal in mind understand that the role we can play in our students’ lives can transcend the mere dissemination of curriculum. Along a parallel train of thought, that blog post I allude to above really speaks to the value of music education to the whole person; the value of the arts to people who don’t actually go on in the arts but who have received transformative instruction that can translate to any field or profession. Is it not true that the deepest value of music education goes well beyond music?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

It is my belief – through experience – that the motivation for music teachers becoming music teachers has been due to the first and third items: love of the art form and/or music impacting them as people and they want to impact others the same way. I’ve NEVER met a music teacher who decided to devote their entire life to the profession because they remember the first time they successfully read the treble clef (those teachers may exist but they are well hidden… 🙂 ). The “love” piece tends to be in place for teachers of any subject area, and the impact that music can make on a person is tied to that. So why bother with the literacy piece? Here’s my thesis: public school music programs are not in the business of developing future music educators. This may be a wonderful byproduct of our programs (re-read my first sentence) but I don’t believe it’s an overt goal. Consequently, the reasons WE became music teachers really becomes irrelevant to me. 98% of our students will not teach music. So why then are we even teaching it and what are our goals? I came up with the following chart: chartFor me it comes down to whether or not we are an academic subject. Developing a love for music and/or developing people further via music is not academic! There, I said it!!!!! Chess Club. Math Club. School Newspaper. Athletics. All these are venues through which students can develop a love for what they do, and develop personal characteristics that will benefit them as people throughout their lives. Music is in the same boat (co-curricular at best) until there is formal curriculum, instruction and assessment that involves rigor, demonstration of concrete skills and application of deep knowledge. I would argue strenuously that music has the capacity to be enormously academic and essential to the education of every child. And NONE of it has anything to do with whether or not the student loves music or applies it to their personal lives.

But here’s the punch line: we – ALL music educators regardless of grade level or circumstances – have an obligation to transfer that rigor to the other two elements despite its inherent disconnect. Rigor/academic content does not have to negate the other two elements… rather, it can bring the other two elements to life in an extraordinary wayMy involvement with the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative and my philosophical shift towards standards, etc, etc has been founded on enhancing the other two elements through academic rigor; not to diminish the other two goals but to give them greater meaning via academic demands. The chart above displays the missing elements if only two (much less one) of the broad goals are addressed. The green circle is the odd one. The other two are more easily connected. But I believe that we must have all three to be effective, truly effective, in being “spot on” teachers. I’ve often said that singing is fun but music is work – and the reason we commit to the work is because it’s a labor of love. We love the subject, we grow via the subject, but the greatest value is when we connect both to the rigor. To me, Robert Shaw said it best:

“The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow…”

Spot on teaching (in my humble opinion) fosters the glow, the personal connection and the fatigue. And each of the three enhances the other two. I would submit that this is a great recipe for any teacher in any subject area. Yes, accomplishing all three as they relate to music is a difficult balancing act for us. Absolutely. It requires continuous reflection and revision of how we carry out our craft. Perhaps it’s not even realistic to think that balancing all three is perfectly attainable. But neither is presenting a “perfect” concert performance, and I don’t recall ever seeing anyone striving for anything less than that. So keep going after it. Foster the love for music, develop the person, and insist that your students experience how the rigor and fatigue connects to both – – – that to me is spot on teaching. That to me is Music Education.

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7 Responses to spot on teaching

  1. Jane Kirton says:

    Rob, this is brilliant!!! I couldn’t agree with you more. I am currently working on an oratorio that is very difficult for my students. I once had a colleague tell me that I couldn’t
    perform this with my students as it was way too hard. I am about to prove him wrong. Will it be perfect, no. But I will tell you, they (we) have worked incredibly hard . . . 1. on literacy, 2. Developing strength in themselves, proud of their accomplishments and 3. On loving this piece of literature and will hopefully get to spread the love to the other children of our District. I have never been prouder of “my kids!” Yes, I say “my kids” – there’s a love you develop, like a parent, as you watch them grow and “get it!” Had I not joined the MAAI, I might have still been listening to my colleague, instead I will prove him wrong!! Hard work, rigor, fatigue and love what a great combination in achieving success. I need to retrieve your chart and post it in my office as a reminder of what we do on a day to day basis. I might also add, I think it’s time I revisited my philosophy of teaching again. Change is good for the soul!!! Thanks again Rob, as usual, I believe you are “spot on” my friend!
    Jane Kirton
    SHS Choral Director

    • mllama4 says:

      Jane, so cool to hear!!! And there’s not a single original thought in this entire blog post, but I felt like this was one way to articulate what’s been swimming around in my head for awhile – glad you liked it 🙂 Rock on!

  2. Scott Lounsbury says:

    For years, I have been saying to people that it is the “disciplined *study*” of music that makes it the whole-brain activity that it is. I have seen many a music teacher whip out the latest Mozart Effect article, but who does not acknowledge that it takes work, effort, sweat, blood & tears for that effect to happen. We cannot just sit around and participate–it is one of the reasons why I tend not to hop on the latest band wagon that comes around. (e.g. the African drumming craze does more harm than good, in my opinion, if it is simple mimicry. However, when one ties it to patterning, music theory, and literacy (i.e. developing the skill of writing a rhythm that is beaten, then it is simply fun parrotting, and kids do NOT need a professional to facilitate that!), then *and only then* does it have its own place in the professional music teacher’s lesson toolbox.)

    Oh… ‘scuse me, I think I just had a rant.

    But SPOT ON, my friend.

  3. “Are we not formed as notes of music are? Discordant if kept apart…harmonious when joined together.”
    Your blog today just shows how complex the idea of music education can be. It can teach us so much more in the “develop the person” realm. It can even teach us history; it can teach us how a society reflects on what has occurred within that society (think about the song “Strange Fruit” as it references slavery, lynchings in the early 20th century). Or, even now with songs like “Taxed to the Max” by Tower of Power. It can also be a vehicle through which we learn other subjects: using music to reach students who’s learning style may be auditory-remember “Schoolhouse Rock”?
    The conversation must continue.

  4. Drew Albert says:

    Just the Monday morning boost I needed! Thanks Rob!

  5. Pingback: the interconnected circles | Goober Music Teachers

  6. Pingback: think different show different be different | Goober Music Teachers

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