“The value of this experience transcends what you put into it. You will learn what it is to develop self esteem, teamwork and striving toward shared common goals. Getting out in front of hundreds of people who have turned out to cheer you on will make you feel seven feet tall, and you will have earned every opportunity to be out there to enjoy it. In turn, you’ll also inspire them as well. By the time you are finished with this program, you will have grown in many ways and made friendships and connections that will last a lifetime. Developing your discipline and skills – collectively and individually – will bring you to heights you could never have imagined and will never forget. You’ll forever be a better person for it.”
I don’t think there are many High School music teachers who would be surprised to read this and find themselves agreeing with how valuable the experiences are which we offer to our students. We each remember and know for a fact how the music programs we grew up in formed these in ourselves, and it is a joy and a labor of love to offer these same experiences to our own students now. I would argue, and perhaps so would you, that any music program devoid of these characteristics are flawed at best, inadequate at worst. It’s what drives us and keeps us working so hard to be at our best for our kids.
What MIGHT surprise you, however, is that the quote above is not an overview of a music program:
it’s an overview of the benefits of the York High School Football program.
I came across a post in the Facebook Music Teachers forum a month or so ago where a music teacher was second guessing a colleague for attempting to turn around a choral program by teaching academic fundamentals all the time. Their argument was that this is an impossible way of going about it, and instead suggested that the teacher should focus on the “why” of chorus: the social element; the sense of community part, the pride of contributing to something special part. And I cringed.
To rail against these things would be stupid. These are all desirable outcomes, even deeply essential outcomes. But there is a clear distinction being made here. If the “why” of what we do is to create the same outcomes as co-curricular drama productions, co-curricular service organizations and every athletic team in your school, it is not others who have marginalized music as being a “less than” academic, it is US.
The difference between teaching and being a coach? I would say not much. Maybe nothing. Some of the best teachers out there are the athletic coaches in our school. And some of the very best teaching occurs on the practice field. These coaches teach fundamentals and are brilliantly carrying out their objectives in ways that do change kids’ lives. So what’s the difference between being a teacher and a coach? For one it is about academic content, and for the other it is not. Are the objectives for both valuable? Yes. Are both the same? No. I know that, and you know that. A school with all academics and no co-curricular activities would be a really, REALLY lame school. A school with no academics and all “activities” would be really awesome in many ways… but not at all a “school”. It certainly would be one with a worthless diploma. The best schools have both… but do not have them concurrently; there is a reason students do not get Phys Ed academic credit for being on the Football team. So then, why are students getting academic credit for being in band?
One is about academic content, the other is not.
Or is it?!? Let’s get back to the quote that starts this post. Is that quote the POINT to your music program? The goal? Then game on and congratulations: you have somehow conned your school district into giving you a full time salary to run a school-day co-curricular program. You also give legitimacy to the voice of every person who has ever argued that music should be placed outside of the school day.
On the other hand, is the POINT to your program to develop and assess concrete, measurable and rigorous academic skills in each of your students – individually? If so, then you are daily advocating for your profession as a core academic subject. You are dispelling the myth that music is not core, and you are developing in your students the ability to become emerging musicians. The quote above? That is your byproduct. It’s called good teaching.
You’d better be sure that your intent aligns with your practice. More to the point, your intent will ALWAYS align with (expose?) your practice, so you’d better do some regular, routine reflection to make sure that your intent is in fact moving this profession forward… and merely putting on inspirational concerts alone doesn’t get it done. “But they have to have developed those academic skills to get the inspirational concert.” I’ll say this one more time: intent. If you had to choose between doing away with concerts but still developing and assessing individual academic skills, vs. doing away with developing and assessing individual skills but still putting on your concerts, which would you choose? What is the foundational intent of your program? Be careful with your answer.
One is academic and the other is not.
You wrote: “…it is not others who have marginalized music as being a ‘less than’ academic, it is US.”
Ah, yes! The dark secret about our American music education system is that most elementary classroom teachers were insufficiently trained in how to implement sequenced, skills-based (“academic”) instruction using playful rigor so that ALL students become musically competent. So, it’s no surprise that musically incompetent students become disillusioned and disengaged; by age 14, 2/3 stop taking music in school (NAEP results). Blaming parents, principals and the public for not valuing music is just a rationalization for our overall poor music instruction.
In contrast, excellent athletics programs are based on the loop between competence and confidence; as children gain skills, they gain confidence, and that helps them hang in there as they build more skills.
But, it wasn’t always that way. Before JFK launched the U.S. Physical Fitness Program, the idea that our entire population, starting in elementary school, should be physically fit was radical! “We are under exercised as a nation. We look instead of play. We ride instead of walk. Our existence deprives ourselves of the minimum of physical activity necessary for healthy living.”
(President John F. Kennedy, 1961)
So, what would MUSICAL fitness look like? Would an American president ever launch a U.S. Musical Fitness Program? Hmmm….