Washers, Dryers, and Music Education

March 16, 2010


My wife and I purchased our first washer and dryer from funds we received from wedding gifts.  This was one of the first, and biggest, declamations we made as we moved into marital bliss, “we are officially married folk”.  We were thinking that this would be great way to spend our wedding gifts.  My father-in-law mentioned his washer and dryer lasted him twenty years, further concreting my thoughts on the decision.  After twelve years of marriage my wife and I have replaced our dryer twice and washer once.  A few bouts of still wet clothes in the dryer lately lead me to believe we might move on to dryer number four soon.  The old adage, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” comes to mind.  Really, with all the advances in technology why can we not have a washer and dryer that at least will last ten years?  I mean, I’m not asking for the moon am I.

This leads me to the music education component of this post.  While in the world of washers and dryers the adage might be appropriately applied.  I fear, though, that in music education we believe this as well.  “We don’t educate music students, or students in general, like we used to” and therefore need to go back to the way it was done before.  There is something in us as educator’s that believe the world of education was better then than now.  We did make washers and dryers that lasted twenty years, right?  My fear is that we are stuck in an old mindset when it comes to music education.  Musicians were better then, musicians appreciated “good” music then, etc., etc., etc.  What we have done is move backwards, embracing old systems and wanting a return to old results, results that exalted good music (read here classical) and turned our noses at bad music (read here pop-music).

In the early part of the twentieth century art music was appreciated, so they say, primarily expressed in seats being filled in concert halls.  The music educating that was going on then worked, they would say.  In today’s world where classical music is a blip on the radar screen of the iTunes recently downloaded list and high school students could not tell you who Aaron Copland is, is the way we are educating students in music working?  Is this old way of doing music education producing results that we are proud of?

I don’t have the answers to questions that arise as to how to we educate students in music today, just thoughts that will hopefully open a dialogue that will be a catalyst for change.  A few of my many questions:

1) Why do we teach as if classical music is the only kind of good music we have?

If classical music is the only “good” music out there then why do we not see that portion of the Grammy’s on primetime TV, for example?  By thinking that we, as those trained in universities and conservatories of the world, hold some special knowledge that is only revealed to the chosen of music we are embracing musical snobbery. This attitude is demeaning and does not help people appreciate music in all facets and genres more deeply.  Music has many functions; most of them social, and when it is degraded so are those that enjoy it.  All musics’ are valuable and needed for us to be better citizens, human, and become part of our social groups.  It is integral in the process of enculturation.

2) Why do we not view people as musical experts?

Music is a universal phenomenon, not a universal language by the way (this thought is another post), and is and has been at the center of every culture in the world, no exception.  Students come to music education then as musical experts.  They have had a lifetime of music listening, participation, composing, improvising, before they have entered our classrooms or studios.  For some reason, we have ripped this from them and either told them, not always explicitly, that they are ignorant or, sometimes worse, non-musical.  In our society there are those that are considered musicians and those that are not.  In non-Western cultures this is not so.  Everyone is a musician.  My youngest daughter creates music daily, with no prompting by her overly trained, sometimes musically-snob, father.  I never want to steal this from her; she is musical and a musician.  But yet, we do not acknowledge and value the expertise that students bring to music education.  We must trust their musical instincts as much as we do ours.  They might be able to teach us something.  We as educators need to, at times, become the student.  The banking concept of education that Paulo Freire spoke of must cease.

3) Why educate the way we were educated?

I know this comment is not going to be popular.  When I was learning the guitar, 80s’ hair bands were all the rage.  My goal was to become one of them.  I studied every major guitarist and learned every major lick and solo.  Something happened in the 90s’ though, Nirvana.  With the release of one album the music industry changed and I had to cut my hair and sell my full-stack amplifier and crazy 80s’-esk guitar.  I cannot teach a contemporary guitar student solely with the music I learned, with the techniques I learned.  Most techniques are universal and some of the music is important to pass on.  Does every student need to know how to play the guitar part from Autograph’s “Turn Up the Radio”?

Students today are different from me.  If I do not embrace this difference and find ways that are relevant and meaningful to deliver my educational content, the impartation of knowledge will cease.  In my music history class, I am giving students the opportunity to explore the content on their own, placing them in the drivers seat of the learning process.  I am there to point out the scenic views along the way.  Students no longer have to have the database I did (I did not have Google… I sure wish I did).  Answers to questions are only a click away.  Why do I insist that they have the same database as me when they find the information faster than I can recall it?  I’m not saying we don’t expand their database.  But does a student really need to know the finer points of neumatic notation?

Another element of this question I have, and continue, to wrestle with is the banning of laptops, texting, and twitter updates in class.  Why not ask students to send a question out in the twittosphere about something pertaining to the discussion?  If we allow texting in classes we give students the chance to get thoughts of “who wants to meet for Starbucks” off of their minds and back on to the subject matter (see David Allen’s GTD for more thoughts on this).  This is how our students engage so we should not strip this from them, but embrace it.

My mind is full of many questions and concerns; I will spare you from more.  My point in this post is to question our advocacy efforts and the way we educate.  If we truly want music education to be a fundamental right of all students then we must embrace newer fluid paradigms and newer adaptable means of educating students.  We must operate from a philosophical stance and not the old adage and not from I teach this way because this is how I was taught.  I’m for music education and I believe that music makes us human, and more human, and more human (much like Shakespeare teaches us to be human – Harold Bloom thought…. Deep thought there) and it should be an integral component in how we educate.  I’m not for a “they just don’t educate like they used to” mindset.  There are many things we do well as music educators, there are also many “sacred cows” that need to be buried…. Much like my dryer.

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