At 3:15 p.m., class is just beginning…

Much of my recent non-music writing has been in the area of music advocacy. This article should come as no surprise that I am once again waving the flag, but this time I am looking to get the attention of a different audience. As I look ahead to my doctoral studies at Kent State University, the area of music advocacy is one area that I feel that music educators (and future music educators) must take greater care in developing as part of our profession. We must strive to make every class (like that being offered by the creative Owen Bradley) and every academic and extra-curricular ensemble provide a meaningful connection with music for our students and grow within them a respect and admiration for this art to which we have given our careers.

Of all the battles I have faced during my tenure in the public schools, this is the easiest. We sometimes are the most consistent factor each day in a student’s life – and like Uncle Ben said to Peter “With great power comes great responsibility.” It also just so happens that we teach the most dynamic, cross-curricular, aesthetically appealing unique subjects in the history of the world – and if you missed it earlier reference Peter Parker’s uncle listed above. Our students may have trouble admitting it, but they want this exposure to everything that music can offer them: Appreciation as an individual? Step up to the mic and play over the changes Coltrane Jr. Contributions to a team that can achieve great things? Ask the GCC Marching Band how they felt after the Clarion County Festival a few weeks ago. Experiencing the height of human emotion and beauty? How about the Vaughan William’s “Variation on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”, Morten Lauridsen “O Magnum Mysterium”, or even “October” by Eric Whitacre (yes, he’s a youngster, but he is so good!). Power? Intensity? Drama? Mahler, Beethoven, Respighi. This is the easy battle. It’s when they leave the school day at 3:15 p.m., or after marching band, or show choir, or district festival practice….the battle at home begins.

No matter what they tell you in your methods, education psychology, foundations of education, or learning theories classes it comes down to this: Kids struggle in school because of heredity and environment. Why is being a public advocate of music so important? If you lose the battle at home, YOU WILL LOSE THE WAR. Educating the students about music is easy. Educating the parents who we only see at concerts, games (where a music group is performing), and booster meetings is ultimately tougher. We have limited time with them. We don’t have time to build the relationship of trust and communication with them like we do their children. Worse yet, talking with several colleagues who had recent confrontations with a parent, there seems to be less and less parents who have established a value system for music within their family setting. The impression I am left by some parents is that music is not a “real” subject. It is a course designed to give the core classes their prep time. It should therefore stand to reason that discipline problems within music do not matter, and attendance at a concert should be optional not mandatory.

I feel sorry for any family who feels this way. They are cheating themselves of the greatest of human experiences. Worse yet, they have cut off another generation from this experience because of their own myopic, uninformed, and uneducated point of view. They will pass this off as “I don’t understand music, so why would my kid?” Le the trained music educator expose your child to something you don’t understand so that maybe – just maybe – your child will become something greater than you. And as a parent, that is what I want for my three daughters – how about you?

Why is this battle so tough today? I can offer a few thoughts that we should consider. But I am more interested in giving some suggestions to all of you about how to start winning the battle on the home front for the good of music education and your program. First of all, I believe our microwave society is a detriment. We want instant gratification – something that goes against the very core of music’s being. Parents want instant success for our kids, and there are many bad avenues out there to explore. We can roll a ball out on the grass, watch six children swarm around it like bees around a hive and they call it a soccer team. Put six instruments in a room with six children and at the end of a day you have a music shop repairman’s nightmare. I use soccer as an example – we aren’t concerned with the quality of the experience, just so the child has the experience….and has time to get to another experience….which gets me to my next point. Will someone start telling the college and university admissions office that filling a resume with line after line after line of meaningless experience as officer for every tom, dick, and harry club in high school does not constitute a quality student? All this experience, but yet: what is this student actually good at? What did they really apply themselves in during these years. I grow increasingly frustrated with the over-commitment that stems from some parents making their kid do it all. Finally, my last suggestion as to the battle points towards the cheapening of the musical experience that has occurred thanks to MTV over the past 20 years. The students in high school and middle school now are products of the first MTV generation. Pop music has reigned supreme, and we all let the TV beast with its mindless stories of the pop star, their entourage, their trite songs of getting wasted, having a good time, their hardships growing up in Detroit suburbs (sorry Marshall Mathers….) tell us that this was music. Let me be clear on this point: Pop music is junk food. It isn’t bad to have once in a while. Too much of it and we are all going to be obese and blame McDonald’s…er….wait a minute! Do we have another instance of art imitating life?

We must fight for what we believe to be true about music all the time, and that means stepping outside our “box” and taking the battle home. This can alter the future of music education either way. My friend Joe and I go back and forth on this very point: What will music education be in the public schools in another 40 years? Will the traditional school ensembles and music classes exist as we know them? Or will the deluge of curriculum trimming, lack of financial support, and collapse of support and appreciation by parents and community members relegate music as a mystic art studied for the sole purpose of being able to play “Brittney Spears at age 50: Whoops I’ve fallen again, and I can’t get up!”?

The fight is on, and the fight is now. Some solutions I would offer to all of you as the education outside the school day begins:

1) Program Notes at Concerts: I use program notes at every concert. I am very particular about what they say and what information it reveals to the audience. It also allows me to expand my own notes to the audience when I choose to speak. As many parents drop their students off for a concert, they might actually enjoy having something to read! On a PSSA related note (hope your reading this Governor Rendell), it does promote literacy.

2) Host an “Informance”: Hold an open rehearsal with your ensembles in the evening. Allow the parents to sit side by side with their child in a live rehearsal. It might be loud (suggest earplugs), but they will have a better understanding of what their child is expected to do in your ensemble. If any of the parents are musicians have a side-by-side rehearsal. You could even program a song at an upcoming concert and invite them to play. Choruses do a great job with this at Christmas with the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus”.  Ed Lisk originally developed this idea and has some great formats in his books.

3) Parent/Student Contracts: For several of my after school groups, I make use of a contract. It gives the family the opportunity to declare known conflicts with the ensemble, and I know that the family reads the material about the ensemble as it requires parental and student signature before it is returned. It is one form of communication that can prevent unwanted and unpleasant confrontations.

4) Monthly Newsletter: I compose a monthly newsletter to distribute to my students. It includes news about the curricular and extra-curricular bands. It also includes news from our Booster organization. Special kudos to outstanding musicians and a full calendar on the reverse side of that month’s band dates. A great way to communicate and administrate without sacrificing rehearsal time to read through a list of announcements.

5) Say Thank You: Express your gratitude frequently to the parents who are supportive of your efforts. It may only start with 3 or 4, but it is a start. A handshake and a kind word to let a parent know that you appreciate how they have raised their child, how much their support means to music and the program will sometimes go a lot farther than a pizza fundraiser. Tom Zumpella always told me that a phone call to say thanks is an easy thing to do, and if you can’t find a phone they do make nice little cards you can write in and address yourself.

I will leave you with a quote/paraphrase from Dr. Jack Stamp that I heard a number of years ago, but am only beginning to understand. At a Region Band, he was commenting that a parent said his choice of music wasn’t very “entertaining”. He responded by saying “I am a music educator. If you want entertainment, turn on the television.” We can find moments of entertainment to share with our community, our students, and our parents as long as they align with our goal to allow every student to connect with music in a meaningful way. What we must find is our desire to educate both in school and at home. We have tremendous power as music educators. Share the vision you have and empower music education at school and at home.

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12 Comments

  1. Travis,

    You’ve opened up a few of the proverbial “cans of worms” with this well thought post. I am glad to see them out in the open for people to discuss. I hope this post becomes well circulated and more people have a “global converastion” about it’s content.

    There are a number of specifics in the article that you state that are very controversial and very much in need of further investigation and consideration. You state that pop music is “junk food” and many would make that argument that, although not nearly as complex of a genre of music as classical or neo-classical, its can provoke one into further intellectual query or have an emotional response just the same if not more. I don’t take the attitude that one genre of music is better than another, because I don’t believe that, but rather; I try to find the best examples of each genre of music and hold them up as the standard of that genre. Every genre has compositions that are for better of examples of what the “best there is to offer” for each set.

    Which leads me into your next example of Jack Stamp’s comments… is music simply to be a higher mathematical exercise or should we be allowed to enjoy it? Dr. Stamp if one of the finest composers and conductor I personally know and I certainly can understand the intent of his comments, we all feel at times that our profession is viewed, at times, as one that is not as important to others. To that I say: Balderdash! Let them try to write their documentaries that air on the History Channel without a soundtrack…

    What we need to do as educators is find the middle ground. Why can’t a concert be fun and technically challenging and intellectual at the same time? Think of the best of teachers or professors that you’ve had in your lifetime; Of all of them, who taught you the most? The ones that were so smart and educated that bored you to sleep as they made the class as uninteresting and unexciting as possible or the ones that were so smart and educated that also provided a learning environment that was exciting and fun?

    We most not fool ourselves as musicians that we are not, a least, a part of the entertainment industry. Sure, in music, there are at least as many materials to master, if not more, that other disciplines but the end result is music. Music is something that people want to listen to…or at least they should. Even the most bizarre and cerebral forms of music I have heard over the years is entertaining at some level. But we must think of are audience as well. They are the other part of the concert.

    You are “dead on” with your list of solutions; I particularly like the idea of “informances”. We should be doing that more, even inside our departments….elementary kids sitting in on middle school etc… I also think that concerts are a great place to advocate what we do to the public, but I don’t think it is a place for us to lecture them. Nobody wants to come to any concert to be lectured…remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks…

    Last thing… I think we’re the first MTV generation…MTV’s been around a long time and we’re getting older you know… 🙂

    J. Pisano -mustech.net

  2. “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Matthew 7:3

    I hope that the readers of this blog will take the following response to Mr. Weller’s post in the constructive manner in which it is offered.

    NAMM’s Gallop surveys show that popular support for music education is high, and The Music Trades’ annual data shows that sales of beginners’ instruments have never been higher. Therefore, the problem of music education isn’t a lack of popular desire to understand and make music, but rather an increasing quit-rate. Beginners buy an instrument and start learning music, but faced with hard work and slow progress they quit to go play video games, watch cable TV, surf the Net, or whatever. Music education’s “Return On Investment” (ROI), which was competitive fifty years ago, has stayed essentially the same while its competition’s ROI got a whole lot better. As a result, people increasingly see music education as a bad investment, relatively speaking…and they are right.

    Let me emphasize that I fully understand the myriad benefits of music-making. These benefits are not at issue here. The problem is that the cost of acquiring music-making’s benefits has remained very high, while the cost of acquiring alternative benefits has fallen like a rock. Let’s say that one such alternative activity delivers only 10% of the ultimate benefits of music-making, but that the cost of acquiring the alternative activity’s benefits is just 1% of the cost of acquiring the benefits of music-making. In that case, that the ultimate payoff to the alternative activity is ten times the payoff to music-making. People are not choosing to invest their time in alternative activities because they are stupid, ignorant Philistines. They are doing it because they are smart.

    Therefore, I submit that the effort currently being expended on music education advocacy is wasted, and could be better invested in finding a solution to the problem of returning music education’s ROI to competitive pre-eminence.

    If such a solution were found, then the problem of music education advocacy would disappear, because the majority of people already want the benefits of music-making. The new solution would simply deliver those benefits at a much lower total cost.

    Now, any such solution is likely to be radically different from current practice – how else could it deliver such a big change in outcomes? Therefore, it’s inevitable that any such proposed solution will challenge a lot of assumptions, gore a lot of sacred cows, and generally cause a ruckus. Why? Because such a radically-different approach forces one to answer the question, what is music education about? Is it about means, or ends? And if it’s about ends, what ends matter? Fortunately, history shows that approaches that are sufficiently simpler, cheaper, and more powerful than their predecessors do tend to succeed in the marketplace of ideas. So we can safely assume that once an ROI-reducing solution is found, it will be adopted reasonably quickly, despite the ruckus.

    I would be ungentlemanly of me to challenge others to achieve a goal which I was not myself willing to strive towards along with them, so I offer the following as a small token of my sincerity. At http://www.thummer.com/blog/2007/09/thummusic-system.html, you can find the description of an approach that could perhaps be a first step along the path to a solution to the above-described problem. I am working with the University of Texas to initiate open-source development of computer-based courseware using this approach, and would welcome the assistance of the readers of this blog in that effort. A new electronic music controller (www.thummer.com) is also part of this new approach, offering a new level of expressive potential – one version of which could be so small as to fit in one’s pocket, and priced to challenge the recorder.

    Lest this approach be criticized for “dumbing down” music – about which I was once quite concerned myself – I also offer this paper (http://www.thummer.com/blog/2007/06/isomorphic-controllers-and-dynamic.html), which is an early draft of what will shortly be the cover article of the Winter 2007 issue of the peer-reviewed Computer Music Journal from MIT Press (with a related article appearing shortly thereafter in the Journal of Mathematics and Music). The theoretical basis of this new approach appears to be firm, and offer new opportunities for expanding the reach of tonal harmony. In short, this approach may be able to decrease the cost of music education, and increase its benefits, too.

    I do not suggest that this new approach can, by itself, raise music education’s ROI sufficiently to return music-making to competitive pre-eminence. Reasonable people may conclude that it is not even be a step in the right direction. However, I do submit that this approach is an example of the kind of deep re-examination of means and ends that is necessary if music education is to cast the beam out of its own eye.

    Respectfully eager for feedback from the readers of this blog, I am

    Sincerely,

    Jim Plamondon
    CEO, Thumtronics Inc
    The New Shape of Music™
    http://www.thummer.com
    Austin, TX

  3. Jim,

    Thank you for stopping by the site. Your work with this technology is very impressive, but it does bring up a number of questions on my part and some thoughts about your product.

    After visiting your site and watching the on-line videos, I am not seeing how the introduction of this piece of technology is going to assist public educators in our advocacy mission to parents (as the blog was written to address – not to sell a product). I take this minute to remind you that many of the great popular and classical musicians who have ascended from the United States were benefited by music teachers (not corporation presidents) who cared enough to help them connect with music. Teachers all across this land are contributing to the positive support you reference in the NAMM Gallop survey. Support may never be higher than it is right now for music education in our country, but I point to the amount of advocacy work that has been set in motion by music education leaders in our country. It is our job to educate our students and our community. Every student that comes into our classroom could be a future doctor, computer programmer, school board president, or building principal. One thing they will all be is a community member in a school district – and hopefully they can reflect on the music teachers who helped them have a positive experience and continue to support the arts.

    While I respect your drive to bring this product to mainstream America and have it be embraced, I have a number of questions regarding application in society – especially in the field of education. It seems to be marketed heavily as having plenty of commercial application for the “hobby” musician. Do local musicians in the Austin area see the value and potential?

    There could be an obvious entry into the field of education in music technology classes. I am curious if your work with the University of Texas has included any consultation and involvement of the Music Education or Music Technology Faculty. Knowing the reputation of the University of Texas’ Music Program, it would be interesting to hear their thoughts about the practicality and potential of this technology. As a band director, I have been very impressed with the work of Owen Bradley at his school in Florida reaching students who are not part of the instrumental music program. The Thummer could be an avenue to reach that portion of the student body who does not make music as part of an ensemble.

    I have concerns with your business analysis of the cost of acquiring the benefits of music making versus other activities. Of all the subjects’ students study in school, music in my (biased) opinion stretches the mind and its creative abilities the furthest. The research regarding the brain and music is out there, and when you consider the demands of music making in relation to the hemispheres of the brain it becomes very compelling. This fact alone pays big dividends to music students as opposed to other activities. It is my perception that the Thummer removes much of the brain’s involvement from actual music making, and while you state you are not “dumbing it down” it is hard not to perceive that this device is doing precisely what you set out not to accomplish.

    The Thummer is a significant technological accomplishment. It could allow students to explore a variety of theoretical concepts within music. The novelty of its design and ability to expose the full range of the sound canvas really provides an interesting entry point for an untrained musician to explore music. I am concerned that students may not get to a point where they are actually reading music. As an example, the “tab” revolution in guitar has really enabled a lot of students to arrive at a point where they are able to play in a garage band, a worship group in church, or alternative group. However, I believe there is a significant portion of those students who do not go beyond the ability to read tablature, and they never take the next step of reading music. Literacy (thanks to NCLB) is important nowadays – and music literacy is too.

    Students don’t aspire to Derek Jeter and then spend their lives playing pool – they go out for baseball. Music students don’t aspire to be Dizzy Gillespie, or Gustav Holst and then spend their lives playing computer games – they immerse themselves in music and become Sean Jones, Jonathan Faddis, Mark Camphouse, and Andrew Boysen. A student who learns the basics of a guitar from his classroom music teacher may want to go study guitar so that he can play like Clapton, B.B.King, Hendrix, The Edge, or even Eddie Van Halen. The fact your controller cannot be separated in appearance from an X-Box or Wii game controller is not going to inspire a student to become the next great anything. It seems to me it is closer in line to a Dance Revolution Mat that can be purchased at any local retailer and used at the next teen party as “Guitar Hero 2” on Steroids.

    I wish you well with your endeavor. If it does indeed help to reinforce the value of music in our culture with our students and our parents, we will all be better off and can look back on this exchange as a good moment in helping music. My target in this blog was to offer educators some of my thoughts for helping to reinforce the value of music and music programs at home.

    Sincerely,
    Travis J. Weller

  4. Travis:

    This is my first ever entry into a blog of any kind. So be gentle with me.

    I am not a brilliant man in any way but I am a passionate when it comes to music education and the idea of advocating and educating as many of the masses as possible. I have read over your entry as well as the other entries into this strand and have a few comments and thoughts.

    I agree entirely with your idea that the education of the students is in some way the easiest part of the day. As a parent of two children, I find it a constant battle to get my children to each practice with the level of focus they need to succeed. MANY parents do not want to put the time, effort, and resources into this. As a music educator, I see the whole “competition” between parents and the numbers of activities they can get their children involved with destroying this generations ability to get good at anything. We are creating a “Jack of all trades and a master of none” generation. (Wait, they are very good a Halo 3 already).

    I looked at the blog about the Thummer and was truly amused. I love your comparison to the “tab” generation. I teach guitar and refuse to teach or even talk about tablature. I teach the actual note reading and INDEPENDENCE of music.

    This generation of students (an adults) need to learn the wonderful skills of creativity. Our county will no longer be an industrial giant. We will never be the “IT” giants either. China and India have taken that. We will be the future innovators, inventors, creators. Music is one the best ways for students to learn to work hard, problem solve, and think out of the box. Not Thumm.

    I am also a director of a community band. Every summer we play concerts for the community. I have to constantly remind the audience that my job is to not only entertain, but to educate. I will not play all marches and Broadway songs, even though they would probably like it. I told a woman that was complaining last summer about the fact that she did not recognize all the songs we did that my job was to help her find “new favorites” in the world of music. I explained to her that every song she loves…she had heard for a first time.

    I am talking in a circle and feel that my point may be lost. I just agree with you that our JOB as musicians and music educators is to open hearts of all people to quality music and the expression thereof.

    BTW… I agree 100% as well with your comment about the popular music and fast food. Everything in moderation.

  5. Jeff,

    Thanks for stopping by and well said!

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of our current condition against the global market and competition. We have a creative edge in our public schools that is ours to lose. Part of our job, is to make sure that experiences, like those in music, continue to exist, progress and challenge every future music student.

    I also applaud your effort as a community band director to continue to preserve an ensemble that is part of our heritage. The more our communities can see that music making can be an option outside of school years the better off we will be.

    And finally, I have taken some ribbing for being “anti-fast food”. Untrue. Everything in moderation. Do I like pop music? Yes. Some. Do I like the band music of the last 100 years better – without a doubt. Yes a hamburger in a paper wrapper is ok in a pinch. At the end of the day, give me some steak!

  6. Gentlepersons,

    I wrote that “any proposed solution [to music education’s high failure rate] will challenge a lot of assumptions, gore a lot of sacred cows, and generally cause a ruckus.” It seems that the ruckus has already started. 🙂

    First, let’s make sure that we’re not getting the cart before the horse. I started investigating music education because my wife and daughter quit their piano lessons after six months of diligent practice, saying that music was too hard, their slow progress made them feel stupid, and they wanted to end the pain.

    The outcome of these investigations was the ThumMusic System. Having spent years in the computer industry driving new ideas into the mainstream, I knew that it would be nearly impossible to get anyone to study music using the ThumMusic System unless there were a very expressive musical instrument that used its note-pattern and gave its students the opportunity for virtuosity. I invented the Thummer to fill this need. So, the Thummer is just a vehicle for popularizing the ThumMusic System.

    The bottom line is that we’re all in the same business: increasing the percentage of people who can read music fluently, compose music knowledgeably, and perform music expressively.

    As to how the ThumMusic System can “assist public educators in our advocacy mission to parents,” I’m sorry if I did not make this clear. If ThumMusic System can (as many music educators are telling me) make the benefits of music education available at lower cost (in cash and time), then the Return on Investment of music education will rise, possibly regaining its previously-competitive position relative to alternative activities. If the ROI of music education rises, then the need for an advocacy mission to parents will decline. That’s the whole point: to slice through the Gordian knot of music education advocacy by making so much music easier to teach, learn, and play, that it does not need to be advocated per se.

    Because I expect to make online courseware based on the ThumMusic System available for free to public schools – although the details of this have not yet been worked out – then there could be a significant rise in the success rate of music education at public schools. If this increased success rate were to require schools to invest in new traditional instruments, then many school administrators would be less than entirely pleased. So any increase in the success rate must be accompanied by a reduction in the cost of musical instruments, to keep music education budgets constant. Hence my interest in a very low cost “Pocket Thummer.” Again, my focus in not in pushing a product, but on solving a problem.

    As to the musical hobbyists being the Thummer’s first target market…public schools can’t be the Thummer’s first target market, because they have a very slow buying cycle. In Texas, for example, new music education materials aren’t scheduled for review until 2011 (or is it 2015?) – quite a while from now. By selling Thummers to hobbyists now, I can generate the revenue needed to continue developing the ThumMusic System into something that the public schools can use.

    Travis, you also mentioned that you questioned by ROI-based analysis of music education, going on to say that music education delivered benefits far in excess of alternative activities. I agree with the massive benefits of music education, and said so in my initial posting. That’s why my analysis assumed than the hypothesized alternative activity only delivered 10% of the benefits of music education – a statement that music education returned ten times the ultimate benefits of the alternative activity. The problem lies not in music education’s ultimate benefits, but in the cost paid to acquire those benefits (in time, mostly). If 10% of music education’s benefits can be acquired at 1% of the cost, then these lesser benefits can be had at 10 times the efficiency of music education. That’s the issue. Music education advocates can shout louder and more often about the ultimate benefits of music education, but unless the cost of acquiring these benefits drops significantly, they are fighting a losing battle.

    Your posting continues that “It is my perception that the Thummer removes much of the brain’s involvement from actual music making, and while you state you are not ‘dumbing it down’ it is hard not to perceive that this device is doing precisely what you set out not to accomplish.”

    There are two statements here. One is that the Thummer removes much of the brain’s involvement from actual music-making, and another is that this ‘dumbs down’ music.

    I suspect that part of the problem is that you’re talking about the Thummer, and I’m talking about the ThumMusic System (of which the Thummer is but an optional part). But there’s a deeper problem, which has to do with the source of ‘simplicity.’

    Please allow me to introduce an analogy between the ThumMusic note-pattern and the Periodic Table of the Elements. The Periodic Table exposes, in a simple drawing, the simple underlying structure of the atom. The simplicity of the Periodic Table not only made chemistry much easier to teach and learn, but also led to the discovery of new elements (to fill “holes” in the Table). Does using the Periodic Table ‘dumb down’ chemistry? Does it remove the brain’s involvement from chemistry? Hardly!

    The power of the Periodic Table arises from the fact that it captures, in a very simple display, the deep structure of a complex system.

    The ThumMusic System works the same way. It exposes, through its geometry, the underlying structure on which tonal harmony is based. Not only does this make music easier to teach and learn, but it has already resulted in the discovery of new musical principles such as ‘tuning invariance’ (as described in articles forthcoming from the peer-reviewed Computer Music Journal and Journal of Mathematics and Music), and new musical effects such as Dynamic Tuning.

    So the ThumMusic System does not ‘dumb down’ music any more than the Periodic Table ‘dumbs down’ chemistry. Unless I’m missing something?

    Thanks! 🙂

    — Jim

  7. Gentlepersons,

    I made an error in my first posting, mistakenly including a comma in the URL to information on the ThumMusic System. The erroneous URL leads people to information about the Thummer, which helps explain why those who followed the URL didn’t see why an new instrument could make such a big difference.

    Here’s the correct URL:
    http://www.thummer.com/blog/2007/09/thummusic-system.html

    I apologize for the error, and hope that you will find the information of the ThumMUsic System to be worthy of comment.

    Thanks! 🙂

    — Jim

  8. Gentlepersons,

    I often hear from music education advocates is that one of the benefits of music education is “an appreciation for the benefits of hard work.”

    However, this benefit can be obtained from lots of alternative activities, including team sports, weight-lifting, macramé, and even competitive video-game playing, just to name a few examples. Therefore, doesn’t emphasizing this common benefit distraction from, and devalue, music education’s unique benefits?

    Here’s another way to frame the question. Let’s say that the music education community had to choose between making music education 10% easier or 10% harder, with all else being equal, and the status quo not being an option. If “an appreciation for the benefits of hard work” was considered to be an important outcome of music education, then of course the “10% harder” option would be preferable. Surely one can’t increase a student’s appreciation for “the benefits of hard work” by making something easier!

    Finally, consider this hypothetical case. Let’s imagine that someone could take a free pill which changed their bodies overnight – brains, muscles, cardiovascular systems, etc. – with these changes being identical to the changes that result from twenty years of musical study and practice through traditional methods of music education, starting at age 5 (but without the Repetitive Stress Injuries). Let’s further imagine that the pill was guaranteed to give the pill-taker “the unique benefits of music education,” whatever those might be, with no unpleasant or unexpected side-effects. Talent and inspiration would not be guaranteed, but then, they never are.

    If the unique benefits of music-making are good for individuals and for society, then this hypothetical pill would be, too, wouldn’t it? If not, why not?

    Thanks! 🙂

    — Jim

  9. Hello again Jim!

    Thanks again for stopping by and adding some more thoughts. Don’t worry about goring the sacred cows – I happen to like steak, so it might as well be from a good cow!

    I was disappointed to hear of your family’s experience with music that led to your investigation into music education. I admire your zeal for pursuing this beyond what many would even consider. It also raised several thoughts in my mind. My reasons for being in music education were because of a series of powerful connections with music through performances in an ensemble. I was also fortunate to have a number of teachers who gave me the opportunity to experience the aesthetic side of music through exposure to the great composers and performers of the last 500 years, as well as music of other cultures and styles. Part of my advocacy stems from the way I was raised in music, and as a great art that is free from God it is my honor to pass that on to future generations. Perhaps that piano teacher did not make that connection evident for your family, and if they did not – shame on him or her. My second thought that I recognize there are many more cases like yours that exist. Why was the connection not made? And if it was not did a value system for music ever begin in that home?

    To be honest with you Jim, in the grand scheme of things a high school band director is certainly the most visible music educator in the community. Because we are visible, it also provides with a podium to send the right kind of message. But make no mistake about it, our elementary general music and pre-k music teachers are the ones who plant the first seeds and establish the first value system for music in the home. They plant seeds, the plant grows, and I receive the plant many years later and must tend to it so that it blossoms. My attention that the plant is fed good things at home in later years is critical. Their job looks so less important to the community, yet is more vital to the root structure of the plant. Do not mistake music advocacy for weakness in our profession – I am not always defending my program in my community. I am usually in pursuit of a new project to bring a heightened level of music appreciation to the community.

    Jim, if the following statement you shared comes to pass – “If this increased success rate were to require schools to invest in new traditional instruments, then many school administrators would be less than entirely pleased. So any increase in the success rate must be accompanied by a reduction in the cost of musical instruments, to keep music education budgets constant. Hence my interest in a very low cost “Pocket Thummer.” Again, my focus in not in pushing a product, but on solving a problem.” – I ask this question: How will my high school marching band play the fight song for the football team on the field without tripping over the wires coming out of each student’s Thummer (as this is all we can afford since we were too successful at music)? And again for someone not interested in pushing a product, you keep bringing said product up.

    My point in regard to ROI-based analysis is this: If alternative activities are only paying out 10% of the benefits that music does, they are still missing the other 90% of the benefits! Will playing a game of soccer teach you the value of teamwork? Yes. Will you have a better understanding of a foreign culture? Maybe if you are in the World Cup. Will it enlighten you as to the history surrounding the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky? Chances are no – unless they are playing the World Cup in Moscow. That is where we as a profession must focus part of our advocacy: on the group of non-performers who need a better appreciation and respect for music cultivated.

    Your analogy with the periodic elements doesn’t work for me and this is why: Music cannot be contained as simply as you think it is. I see no difference in the ThumMusic note pattern and a clarinet fingering chart in a beginner’s book. Is this not a simple display of a complex system? Through immersion, practice and experience does the beginner at some point arrive with a deeper understanding of music? Yet this is only a small part of music. If I hold the Thumm against the nine National Standards for Music, I am hard pressed to see how it could be of use for at least 5 if not 6 of the standards. Yes it is a vehicle for playing an instrument (#2), Improvising and Composing (#3 & #4 respectively). But looking at the others, it begins to be stretched thinner spandex on the late Pavarotti. The Thumm system does not help us to make connections with other cultures, or understand music in relation to history. It does not help us to analyze, describe, or evaluate music and music performances. These standards are where we can find opportunities to advocate our art to the community, and even find ways through concerts and other venues to get them involved.

    Your final post to me is very alarming; it reveals to me a value system that places emphasis on getting the desired results at any costs. Emphasis has been placed on product, rather than process. I have heard this tone before, and it resonates in the framework of the NCLB policy, which has caused considerable damage to art and music education in the public schools. A pill for music education? Just like our pill to cure depression? Our pill to burn fat so we don’t have to take care of our bodies? Your desire to eliminate steps and make things easier go down a dangerous path. Once you lower the time and cost that is put into a product, does the quality and effectiveness not also wane?

    For those of us who have to come music like me, with childlike innocence, reverence and appreciation for beauty, an innate desire to express the music that is within us, the benefits for music education are self-evident and a guiding force in our professional lives. We recognize the feeling of deep satisfaction in creating an art with others, contributing musically to something larger than ourselves, and the aesthetic feeling that resonates in our mind and soul. If that is a step you have never taken personally, then you have no right to tell us that our efforts in music advocacy are a waste of time.

  10. Dear Mr. Weller,

    I appreciate your taking the time to reply to my comments so thoughtfully. I am confident that we share the same goal of bringing the greatest possible understanding, skill, and appreciation of music to the greatest possible percentage of the population. To the extent that we differ, it appears to be on the issue of means rather than ends, and this is something about which reasonable can respectfully disagree. 🙂

    I originally wrote this posting to be much longer, but on reflection I want consolidate this discussion around what appear to be its main points.

    I submit that:
    1. Music education delivers unique benefits, such as the ability to read music fluently, compose music knowledgably, perform music expressively, and appreciate the music of many eras and cultures. (I do not claim that these are the only unique benefits of music education, or that all of its benefits are unique to music education.)

    2. The unique benefits of music education could be attained through non-traditional approaches, with some of these benefits inevitably being emphasized relative to traditional approaches, and some benefits being de-emphasized.

    3. A non-traditional approach could exist that delivered the unique benefits of music education at lower cost (in time, money, and/or effort) without sacrificing overall quality.

    4. Reducing the cost of attaining the unique benefits of music education – without sacrificing overall quality – is a good thing.

    5. The ThumMusic System is a non-traditional approach to attaining the unique benefits of music education.

    6. Using the ThumMusic System, students can attain the unique benefits of music education a lower cost.

    It appears to me that our major points of disagreement are #3 and #4. I can’t tell if you disagree with Point #6 (“the ThumMusic System is easier”), or are simply stating your disagreement with Points #3 and #4 in terms of the ThumMusic System.

    Could you please clarify your points of agreement and disagreement?

    I look forward to your answer.

    Thanks! 🙂

    — Jim

  11. Travis,

    FYI, a number of people have posted at my site about your original topic intent (not the asides about the ThumMusic System). You may want to check them out as well.

    Best Regards,

    J. Pisano -mustech.net

  12. Travis –

    I’m glad to have found your blog after the recent post on Joe’s site. This is a very interesting discussion, and it’s one that music educators, as well as music education students, need to be made aware of. I will certainly take some time later on this week to read the post and comments more thoroughly.

    One thing I would like to add after my first reading: music teachers need to be able to advocate for their program not only to the parents, but to their fellow (non-music) teachers and administrators as well. A few uncooperative teachers can really put a crimp in an otherwise healthy program when that program requires pull-outs from class time (as do most elementary instrumental programs.)

    I’ve found that parents are your most important ally in this “battle”. Though many of them may not be “knowledgeable” about music, they can’t stand the idea of something (the chance to play an instrument) being denied to their children.

    I would also add that, in many schools and communities, it’s more important to just get the instrument in their hands than it is to worry about “the quality and depth of their commitment to study”. First things first, right?

    Thanks for the great post, and I’ll be sure to read more.

    Stan

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