I think I’ve heard this enough now…

“Is this all you do?”
“You teach the students to actually read music right?”

I’m having trouble understanding why creative, open ended composition and improvisation are equated with students not learning to read or build technique with their voices or instruments.
What if I asked the same questions to others who are not doing much or any composing or creative work.  “Is teaching to read and build technique all you do?”
I am becoming curious what would happen if a music class or department decided to focus only on creative work: how music education can be a way to hear and interact with our surroundings, taking into account that each of our creative perception is unique and valid and that beauty can exist in the sounds around us, we are the composers of our soundscape and responsible for how it may or may not effect us.
What will happen if students just composed and improvised pieces for special occasions and locations around their school, to match their emotions or the feelings they want to have?
Really, let’s play it out.
For one, students may not learn to read notation, what will this mean?  No more music schools as we know them?  (How many of our students go on to post secondary music study?)  How might new post secondary music study look?
Would there eventually be no more orchestras as we know them?  Do public schools create orchestra players or do privilege, class, and cultural background do this?  Do we just teach music because we were taught music (and teach it in that same fashion)?  Is there not more to it?
And, what if there were no more orchestras?  What would change?

Does music put food on the table?  What does it do?

My creative idea for the classroom this week is for a challenge for us as music educators to continue to think about what it is we want music education to offer students who might not go on to study music.  What do we believe music offers to them and us?  What might a definition of music, larger than our current one include?  What might our current one exclude?
I truly do not wish to lose orchestras but I would like to suggest that music education is much bigger than that issue.  I feel that if we do not believe this we will fall to even more cuts.  It would seem that we can no longer afford to give specialized technical training to all to benefit the few that might use it.
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Author: soundmarker

music educator

6 thoughts on “I think I’ve heard this enough now…”

  1. I believe you are a trailblazer. You’re breaking away from traditional music education, which has heretofore been show in studies to be failing students as seen through declining participation in school music programs and subsequent funding cuts, and so you will naturally, as all who break from tradition do, invite skepticism, criticism and/or ridicule. However, the merit in what you’re doing is that it comes with tangible and positive educational results because you’re giving music a meaning to them.

    Studying “music history” is one thing (often dry and boring), but when we look from the perspective of “music in history”…well, then, we’re talking about a whole different kettle of reality. Music has always been a therapeutic and powerful expression of personal, social and political change, for example, from the Blues to Slave Songs and the Bob Dylans of the world, respectively, music been more than just the components parts of reading music and building technique.

    Open-ended composition and improvisation allow students to feel music on a visceral, and not intellectual, level. An indescribably joyous feeling comes from within out and we want that feeling to continue when immersed in music created in the moment, whether singing, playing or dancing. Music strikes a universal chord within all of us, as I can attest to after having taught a grade 7&8 developmentally delayed classes (autism, down’s syndrome, etc.) where kids who had trouble tracing alphabet letters on an iPad were breakdancing in their own way, with one student memorably getting down and finally stuck in a push-up position because that was the extent of her physical capabilities. They were happy. And this is the power of Music that all kids can experience when they are connected to the music in their program as a form of personal expression and creativity.

    Because you teach to how students learn best, and not to how we believe they should be learning, they are engaged and truly develop the appreciation of music envisioned in our curricular goals. You method is fun, creative and with musical purpose, and again, on a deeper level, encourages freedom of expression. And beyond that musically, you allow students to be musicians!

    That is, you allow them to live in moments of time where they are free to be musical in their own way…allowing their unique personalities and stories to indirectly come out in ways that can be cathartic (who knows what some kids are going through at home), liberating and just plain happiness-inducing. You provide them with the tools to be able to let out what needs to come out. We spend so much time inputting information that we can sometimes become immersed in our own situations and forget to breath creatively. In short, learning theory and sight reading can be likened to solely learning grammar in French (as I did from gr. 4-13): it doesn’t provide you with the skills to speak the language and communicate with other French speakers (I couldn’t speak at all after 10 years of classes). Teaching open-ended composition and improvisation, on the other hand, is like learning in an immersion class where you are thrust into using the very material that you are learning, i.e., speaking from day 1 gives you a practical skillset to be able to function with other French speakers.

    Music, too, must be relevant to our students and have meaning in their lives beyond what a music program based heavily on learning technique and sight reading can offer so that they remain invested lifelong lovers and learners of music. After all, generations of non-sight-reading and technically unsound musicians from around the world who couldn’t afford music lessons (and the majority of the world can’t afford music lessons) and who went on to spawn many longlasting and popular GENRES of music like gospel, jazz, rock, country, Afro-Cuban music, reggae, rumba, etc. can’t be wrong.

  2. hey doug!

    just commenting again so i can subscribe to the commment thread cuz i accidentally unsubscribed. can you please confirm that i’m subscribed to receive future comments. thanks.

  3. Just being devil’s advocate, and because it’s something I struggle with as a music teacher, whatever happened to music as a discipline? Since Doug compared music to reading, I’m going to compare it to math. While there are ways to teach math that are fun, and math can and should be engaging, at the end of the day, math is a discipline, with a concrete structure, and benefits most from focus, practice and dedication. I’ve seen such pride of accomplishment in the eyes of children who can sit down at an Orff instrument, hold their mallets properly, and play a challenging piece of music from beginning to end, either through reading or by rote, with a good sense of tempo, beat, etc. They can also appreciate the skill it takes to become a better musician, or a better anything, because they now have gone through a process that shows them what hard work feels like, and the payoff at the other end.
    My two cents

    1. Thanks for your comment. I definitely don’t think that creativity, improv and composing should not involve skill or discipline. Not at all. I’m wondering if it has to start with skill and discipline or if they can come out of exploration and creativity. And if the skill and discipline have to be from a western tradition. There are many successful musicians with much skill and discipline that might not even read music

    2. I started jamming with my grade 4-6 band classes this week and they love it. I play a simple chord progression on guitar and ask all band members to improvise for 8 bars first. This allows those feeling shy or uncomfortable to get lost in the larger cacophony of sound and not have to feel pressure. Then I allow each section of brass or woodwind to take a turn for 8 bars. Feedback has been very positive, as kids are asking if we can make this a regular addition to our music classes. Comments include: I feel free to play what I want, it’s original cuz it’s from me, it’s fun, I can be creative, I don’t feel stuck to a page, etc. I see a love of music shining through when they’re improvising.

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