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“I’m so bored. What is wrong with me? This is what I’ve always wanted. I won Nationals. I’m in charge of this committee. But it feels so meaningless. Do all teachers feel this at some point?”
~ (character) Will Schuester
Glee, Season 4, Episode 3: Makeover
Although advocates for music education – especially music education in public school settings – often speak to ideals about “music education for all children”, or the importance of the inclusion of music education in a well-rounded education, the reality of the state of music education in the United States is that music education is not for everyone.
Alongside the inequality of access and inclusion already being discussed by many throughout the country, the role that competition plays in the activities of music education presented to our children has become so pervasive that by their very nature, these activities exclude and discourage many children, who as a result are not receiving a music education, or are receiving an inadequate and impoverished music education.
Confirming what math, english, and other academic teachers have known for generations, recent research indicates a strong correlation between student academic achievement and musical performance. Although a distinct causal relationship between these activities still remains elusive for researchers to pin down, a growing body of evidence asserts that students who excel in their academic classes – students who actually study, do their homework, read books, and pursue good grades in subjects like the sciences and humanities – are also better musicians, with more highly developed rhythmic skills, more accurate intonation, and stronger abilities to concentrate and memorize.
This is good news for music educators across the country, who are always looking for new ways to improve student performance and motivation in band, orchestra, choir, and other ensembles. School districts all over the United States are taking action steps based on these enlightening new scientific findings, expecting to see dramatic increases in the quality of their music programs as increasing numbers of students opt to take more rigorous honors and Advanced Placement® (AP®) classes in hopes of improving their chances of winning a seat in a more advanced wind ensemble, being selected for the honors choir, or simply moving up a chair in orchestra.
Earlier this month – February 9-12, 2017 – our entire Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement Department attended the Sphinx Organization‘s 20th annual Competition and 5th annual conference in Detroit, retitled SphinxConnect this year.
We spent an eventful four days attending concerts, interviews, panel discussions, and presentations, several networking (and celebratory) receptions, and other meetings. Some 500 people were there from all over the country (and some from other countries as well), many of whom only see each other a few times per year. The entire conference was imbued with a heady excitement.
I’m thrilled to share here that my column Off The Podium made its first appearance this week in the October 2016 issue of Choral Director magazine. Off The Podium will be a regular component of Choral Director going forward, featuring the kinds of articles about music education I have been posting here on my blog since March 2015.
And as if this weren’t sweet enough: to launch my column with a splash, I am also featured on the cover!
Why you shouldn’t always tell your students the truth
For more than half of my teaching career, I taught music & performing arts at elementary or K-8 schools – six of these schools in all, with a wide range of approaches to education between them. One common aspect among all my experiences at these schools, however, is that I spent the majority of my time at each school – thousands upon thousands of hours of my life – as the only adult in the room, in front of a group of children. We spent most of our time together singing or playing music, dancing, rehearsing plays, or working on developing our skills to do these things, but over the years we had a lot of interesting and sometimes amazing conversations – both on and off topic.
Early in my career I began to practice intentionally not answering all of their questions, hoping to spur their imaginations and spirit of inquiry, and that they would develop the habit of trying to find things out for themselves. My experience was that often students would come up with very interesting and insightful ideas about the world if I could refrain from shutting down the possibilities that opened with a question by slapping a pat answer on it.
Sometimes, especially with younger elementary school children (K – 3 or so), I took this practice a step further, and intentionally told them things that weren’t true. The story of “The Rhinoceros” that I told to first grade students at Carrollwood Day School when I taught there from 1999 – 2003 is the tallest example of these tales that I told over the years, and became something of a tradition and a legend there among the students, some of whom would even corroborate my story and help maintain the myth among the younger students once they discovered I had been leading them on.
The Count is a concentration exercise – a group activity – that I used with my student ensembles in the last few minutes before going on stage for a performance. It is a very useful thing to do! and became something of a special ritual with my ensembles.
I didn’t invent The Count, although I had never heard it called by any name before my students began calling it this. I first encountered it in the early 1990s when I witnessed Ellen Provost, a teacher at Blue Rock School, use it with a group of 6th graders before the performance of a play – I believe it was either The Conference of the Birds or Monkey. I began using it myself at Carrollwood Day School years later, and it was at CDS that it became a regular practice – something I always did with my students before a performance, if possible, for the rest of my teaching career.
The Name-Learning Stunt®
I urge every teacher who works with groups of children to do this. At the beginning of the school year, or whenever you are beginning to work with a group of students you do not know for the first time – or perhaps a group that is a new constellation, some of whom you know and some you do not – take the time to learn all of their names right from the beginning, and make a special effort to do so. It will take some time and effort, but will reap big rewards in the long run and begin your relationship with the students on a sound footing by demonstrating concretely that you care about them.
It occurred to me to write about this yesterday. I was making a “guest appearance” at a summer choral music day camp to work with a group of students I did not know – I was given a 45 minute period in which to bring them some singing activities. Without any consideration at all I planned to begin my work with them with the name-learning stunt (described below) that I developed at the beginning of my career, and which I used invariably whenever I found myself in front of a new group of students. I did this even though it used up several precious minutes of my brief 45 minute window, because I knew that if I did this first, the rest of the class would go so much better.
Last week the League of American Orchestras held our industry association’s 71st annual conference in Baltimore. The national event was hosted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and brought hundreds of representatives from orchestras across the country – as well as other related organizations – to share dialogue, strategies, networking, and of course music, in several packed days of intense conversation.
I was there for the entire conference, not only as a first-time attendee, but as a speaker – it was my honor to represent Music City and to share about the Nashville Symphony’s groundbreaking Accelerando program with orchestra education and community engagement staff, El Sistema educators, and other interested parties from across the country.
So often when we speak or write about music – when we practice, when we listen or perform – the focus of our attention is on the notes being played. These notes, their pitches and rhythmic accuracy, the articulation and tone with which they are produced, how fast or slow they come one after another, how they blend with those being played by others if we are playing in an ensemble: these notes and the attention we pay to them form the basis of so much of our work as musicians.
Yet there is another element to music making that is just as essential as the notes: silence. Silence is there before the music begins and continues after it ends. Silence punctuates the spaces between the notes and exists even as the notes are sounding, buoying the notes up like foam on the crests of waves on the surface of the ocean. Silence isn’t just the absence of sound. It is what gives music perspective and depth, and the power to penetrate deep into the psyche of the listener.
Without silence, there is no music.
My grandfather died nearly 22 years ago. At that time I was living near New York City, and I drove to his memorial service at a church in Eastern Pennsylvania. More than two decades later, I don’t remember too many things from that experience, unfortunately – my wife and I had a newborn baby, and we had a lot of things on our minds at the time. I do, however, have two strong memories from that day.
The first memory is that it occurred on the day of a solar eclipse, and I remember standing out in the church parking lot after the service and looking at a shadow of the eclipse in progress on a piece of paper with my uncle, who commented on how much Grandpa (a scientist and a doctor) would have loved the eclipse, and no doubt would have prepared a much better way to observe it.
The other memory, which is stronger, and the first thing I remember when I think about that day, is standing in the pew during the service singing A Mighty Fortress is Our God along with everyone else there, and my eyes filling with tears as I sang it. I was told that day (by someone, I don’t remember who now) that this was my grandfather’s favorite hymn.