Music Education

bogus standards of competence, musical inhibition, dog howling, and Wagner

I’ve had young students whose parents are excited about enrolling them in lessons because they feel as if they can live vicarious musical lives through their children.

That is, they believe that they harbor absolutely no musical talent, but have always wanted to try. I’ve tried my best to convince them that it’s never too late to try, and that it would help motivate their kids to practice if they struggled alongside them. In fact, I’m proud to say that this week alone I’ve had two parents call asking for phone numbers to private teachers because they have decided to start playing, or continue where they left off years ago.

I strongly trust that inherent musical ability is a trait of humanity. So often, the concept of musical ability includes a bogus standard of required competence. I grew up in central Massachusetts where it’s okay to be a young kid starting off on a trombone – cracking notes, making the dog howl, annoying the neighbors, and interrupting mom’s show on TV. Yet after a certain age, you’re either very good or you’re not. You choose to continue by playing in ensembles, pursuing it in college, or you give it up entirely. There seems to be no middle ground – playing for the sake of playing… for the sake of having fun. There are exceptions for those who play in community ensembles – and it’s for that reason that I believe they’re so important to prize – and fund (but that’s another post).

In general, the American population is creatively inhibited by their own standard of musical competence. As we are a conflict-ready society, I can only imagine what would happen if instead of communicating with words, Americans were able to sit in musical ensembles and juggle their emotions with the help of little black notes and the expressive qualities given to them by composers.

The manic folks would love Baroque terraced dynamics, the white collar folks who have trouble emoting would delve all over the emergent Classics & Romantics, those folks who dig reality TV would slice into transcriptions and arrangements of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and all the true professional geeks would become giddy over the 2nd Viennese School and their mathematical composition techniques. I feel like it would be the equivalent of a ‘cookies & milk break’ every day for Wall Street execs – a good and necessary idea for a thousand and one reasons (plus it would drive up the Oreo stock).

Perhaps that’s one reason why New Orleans (and its music) is so different. There are no required standards of competence. Ever (at least on the level of community music). If you want to pick up a fiddle for the first time and screech that bow across a string or two in the middle of the street, do it. Instead of telling you not to quit your day job, people here would rather dance to it – then they’d either join you or give you a shortlist of musicians to jam with and learn from.

Read more about innate musical ability in the text of British ethnomusicologist John Blacking: How Musical is Man?… published in 1973.

Field Advocacy Swap: Lobbying for Music Education & Ethnomusicology

For many years I’ve learned to advocate for the field of music education. The concept of advocacy seemed so important even, that it became a main proponent of my first degree program. Early on through my mentors and professors, I learned which educational buzz words to use in conversation with educational stakeholders so that if the dreaded topics come up: Why is music education important in today’s society? Why should music be part of the core curriculum and not extra-curricular? Why does every child need a music education? … then I’d be armed with the right answers, which would change depending on the political, economic, and social climate of my surroundings. In essence, I became a lobbyist for music education. I think it’s a great thing.
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Teaching as a Community of Music Educators

We don’t think enough about how to teach music as a community of music educators. We think about the importance of it, and the narrow sequences of how to do it in individual classrooms… but there’s no strong standard on what kinds of music should be taught, what students should be exposed to (and at what age), or what we completely leave out. We spend a lot of our time defending the art, the profession, the curriculum – talking about the value of music education for all students.
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Indian Classical Music meets the Kids of New Orleans

I don’t use the term ‘classical’ with my students. Admittedly I treat it, sometimes, like it’s a “bad word” – there’s a stigma attached. The age-range of kids I teach is wide, but there’s a good chunk of them who see classical music as ‘evil’ music full of dead white men. Who can blame them with how we teach it? With how I approach it (or don’t)?

This weekend, I introduced them to Badal Roy, an Indian classical musician (see previous post). He came in as our guest artist on Saturday since he had a short residency in town anyway. He is an amazing musician, yet I also realized he is human, and flawed – a good lesson for me, and one I keep coming across with all of these amazing people I’ve been exposed to lately.

My students enjoyed the tabla, and enjoyed Badal – but I felt as though he didn’t talk enough. I wanted more. He walks through the door – a foreign accent, a foreign instrument, sitting on a rug in front of them, playing unfamiliar rhythms. I was itching to hear him teach the kids about the traditions of tabla, about the ensemble settings, the venues for performance, how to learn tabla, the spiritual aspects of playing. He burst that bubble pretty quick. He spent a long time teaching the tabla language, the syllables, the integration of syllables, the transfer of the language to the right hand, the transfer of the language to the left hand, the integration of hands plus syllables, Bol – the way Indian musicians talk about what they’re going to play (instead of “this piece is in B”, it’s “play dha tin tin na”).

As an aside, in the past month I’ve been exposed to Brasilian, West and North African, and Indian drumming – they all have so many similarities. They’re all based on spoken language, they all consider their drums to have an identify, a self.

About 20 minutes into the program, he asked some of the kids to play with him and trade 4 bar solos on their instruments. Well, these kids have no fear. But they are still brand new instrumentalists. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well and he wasn’t sure what to do. The kids are learning 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 – not 11, 13, and 17-beat measures. So, as a result I asked him a few questions – gave him a few lead-in things to talk about: i.e. traditions, Indian classical music, his teacher and how he learned, information about ragas…

I was so impressed with his playing, and yet not so impressed with his ability to answer questions. Then again, if his answers are full, then my stereotypes of Indian classical musicians (based on all the previous ones I’ve met, which include some pretty prominent ones) are incorrect – which is good as well as thought-provoking. He didn’t seem as disciplined. He improvised rather than learn specific ragas and rhythms (any in fact). He had a teacher, but was not part of a lineage. All surprises to me considering his impressive resume.

I did learn a bit more about the language of tabla – and appreciated that a great deal. I walked away wanting (of course) to learn more about it, to play myself. I’ve always had an innate sort-of technique for playing drums with fingers rather than palms. Perhaps its early tabla exposure…

I am so grateful to have such great musicians at my fingertips these days. I know I keep saying that but it’s true. I’m so relieved when I find out they’re human.

(***Disclaimer: All of my students in these photos have parent-signed release forms allowing me to post photos & media)

Professional Goals, Integration, Ethnomusicology

Things tend to write themselves when they’re important. I was asked today to describe my professional goals, and since I recently realized that on paper my goals don’t line up with my background (they do – just not in a bulleted sequence without explanation), I need to be particularly clear about them. This is what I came up with. I think it’s something everyone should do – to have an idea of where they want to go and the important part – how to get there. As an aside, that’s also why I feel so strongly about Irvin’s “Road to Carnegie Hall” project.

My response to this has changed dramatically in the past ten years. While I agree with Frank Battisti on the concept of music teachers as teaching artists and the need for a conservatory education rather than a liberal arts education, I also strongly feel like I never would have been exposed to nearly all of my current interests if I had gone that route.

So, my response:

My professional goals include an integration of the European art music and music education background I’ve already received with the research in ethnomusicology that I plan to do. My ambition is to research and publish topics related to this integration, and ultimately hold a faculty position at an institution with both a growing ethnomusicology department, and a strong music education department.

On a large scale I wish to study individual non-western traditions, and more narrowly to research and archive the music of eastern religions. I aspire to discover their learning processes, gain a deeper understanding of musical transmission, learn the impact of both the social and political context of music, untangle the global effect of technology on music making and its reception, and lastly, to study the struggle between traditional and popular music. While lofty, this subject matter will enable me to connect with the global community of ethnomusicologists and network with music educators to ensure that traditions are kept alive, and that a logical sequence to world music education is produced.

Traces of Colonial American Music Education

Throughout the years of my own formal music education, I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to talk about music from a historical perspective. Sometimes the musical language regardless of notation system is so emic that it can seem like secret code – even among similarly stylistic composers certain terms are not identical – and most of the time I walk away just knowing that the sounds and dates by which we recognize styles and genres are probably older than the written proof of its existence. (more…)