Ironically enough my readings this past week at Kent State, a Facebook discussion thread, and Valentine’s Day collided at spawned this post. Pushing students to achieve levels of tonal and rhythmic accuracy is important – it is all part of getting them to a point where they have the technical proficiency they need to execute the big fundamental structure of a piece of music. Tone quality and intonation awareness are two other dimensions that if mastered, start to create degrees of separation in the quality of the ensembles we hear. When we can educate the individual musician (the musician inside their head) they can use the instrument as a vehicle of communication to as they display phrasing, dynamic contrast, and stylistic interpretation. These are all worthwhile and important goals of instrumental music education – but if a trophy on the wall is more important than guiding students towards a meaningful life-long relationship with music…
Dr. Stephen Gage is one of my favorite people on God’s green earth. It usually takes about 5 minutes of talking with him to feel better about life, faith, and music. His status on Facebook was the impetus and with his permission I will share it here:
“I am beginning to worry that in our quest to ‘get it right’ that we forget why we became musicians, that we lose sight of what is really important, and that we compromise what we know down deep in our musical souls. When all of these things are in an alignment, EVERYONE grows and everyone falls more in love with music!”
Love is a pretty important word in that last sentence. But to get all Tina Turner on you for a second “What’s love got to do with it?” Is love a second-hand emotion? For the musician – absolutely not. I am sure there are physicists that love calculus, but it is hard to see that. Football players love to play football – thus the over-extended celebrations when they score a touchdown. But a football player cannot play forever – and even from the booth or the sideline a retired player will never get that degree of love back again. But musicians have the opportunity to extend their love over a lifetime, and whether it is conductor of community band, a local rock group, or a church organist they have the opportunity to keep making music. Whether its covers of the Beatles, Corialan Overture by Beethoven, or hymns by Martin Luther, the love affair never has to stop and it is a relationship they never have to leave.
But we as educators, where is our love? Where is our love for our students in which we profess to “have the best interests”? Do they see our love and passion for this art that we teach? Do we model it? Do we help them build their own loving relationship with music? It saddens me when I meet a student teacher from another discipline in the building in which I teach, and they tell me “Oh, I used to be in music in high school…”. I will ask them why they stopped, and usually the answer often turns into a rehearsal schedule and expectation level for competition that pursued a trophy on the wall instead of instilling a song in their heart. Competition can be healthy – but if it is destroying student’s love of music, I am not sure that in the grand scheme of life it is appropriate or worth it.
How many of our students will play that final concert their senior year, and never consider how they can continue playing their instrument later in life? Too many. How many of us as educators consider ways in which we can offer them avenues to pursue to keep playing? Too few. Do we love teaching music? Do we share our love of music with students? If the answer to those two questions is yes, why don’t we think about ways in which this future music-lover can engage with music? Unlike the song by Meatloaf folks, two out of three ain’t good enough. I have already extolled on the possibilities of one avenue we can pursue, and I encourage you to read it about in my post entitled “Small Ensembles and the Chamber of Doom?”.
I would like to share a comment by Brian Balmages in response to Dr. Gage’s response that I think is particularly appropriate when we consider our role as an educator: “I think the biggest problem is not the music itself – it’s the passion for music. When everyone started playing an instrument, they did so because they were excited about it …just a pure love and excitement for music itself. We need to instill that same passion for music in our youth. I try to do that every time I guest conduct. Passing on our passion is a sure way to keep music alive. Many of our students will not go on to be music majors or educators – but some of them will be community leaders, politicians, school board superintendents, etc. They can make as much a difference from the outside as we can from the inside. I love that we all discuss the irrelevance of getting a “1” at festival, but the problem is deeper than that – we need to instill passion. Absolute love for music. Things like that do not go away as you get older.”
Bravo, Brian! Another great quote about music, its importance, and the passion that it brings out was shared with me by Francis McBeth at Midwest my Senior year of College: “Don’t forget why you became a musician. It was because of a love affair with sound. It was not a love affair with organization, techniques, or competition, no matter how commendable these efforts may be. A musical experience has no substitute; and when it is experienced by the band, the conductor and the audience, it is desired above all else.”
The benefits of instilling passion and love of music are now coming to the forefront as an important role for which the music education profession must take seriously. It is a passion and love of music we must instill – not in the sense of puppy-dog utopia love – but a passion to engage with all kinds of music and let the music work on us and we work on the music to transport us to a different emotional and mental state. In an article about brain research as it relates to emotion, Bennett Reimer (2004) wrote that music can designate any easily identifiable emotions, and though drawn out through its context, can make something musical out of any and all various images, stories or events. Where else would people choose of their own free will to engage with sad music not to feel sad, but to move beyond sadness to where the music takes them? As the music unfolds, feelings and emotions unfold that powerfully and precisely reveal the conscious condition achieved by the human brain and body (Reimer, 2004). Reimer calls upon music educators to be nurturers of consciousness. Music has a boundless capacity to expand the intricacies, depths, breadths, and range of conscious awareness made available to our minds and bodies through a felt, sonic experience. Our true self begins to form and take shape as our experiences with music accumulate.
I was surprised to find an article by David Elliot (2005) written about the same time that takes a similar stance to Reimer in relation to the emotional education of students. It is Elliot’s view that “musical understanding” is often equated to reading music notation, knowing musical facts and concepts, and how to perform (I am sure he would they “music”…) by some parents, students, music teachers, and music education professors. Elliot questions how often are teachers and students engaged in “expressional” musical meanings, and the role of such meanings in their enjoyment of music.
Elliot cites part of his own philosophy of music education when he states that musical expressions of emotion occur within specific musical-cultural contexts. For the listener to recognize a musical pattern as expressive of an emotion, that listener must understand the vocal customs or gesture customs that musical pattern seeks to resemble. The implication for music educators then, according to Elliot, is to provide opportunities for students to listen, reflect and interpret works that are clear examples of emotion in music, and perform and create works that express emotion. Furthermore, educators need to be musical role models by providing regular demonstrations of expressive music making, and use emotional language and emotional analogies so that students attend to the expressive features of a work.
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle for me came from an article that appeared in the NBA Journal by David Whitwell (2009). Whitwell discusses that language is an important form of communication, but anyone who has tried to write a love letter knows it is quite inferior in the realm of expressive emotions (Thank God for Hallmark!). Language expresses ideas, while music expresses feelings, and expressing an emotion or feeling has something to do with becoming conscious of it.
Whitwell continues that music offers the listener the opportunity to discover his experiential right hemisphere of the brain, to discover individual emotional identity, and to contemplate his reaction to that discovery. The student must be given opportunity to hear the emotion in the music, and through this process it causes him to become aware of his emotions. As long as the music is authentic, the listener cannot fail to perceive the generalized form of the emotion. So music education needs to be in the school where a child becomes aware of it, begins to explore and understand, and finds a means of expressing his own personal emotional being.
Any composer who wants his music to communicate joy can do exactly that – music in other words, is a form of communication that transmits emotion, and speaks about emotion in precise ways. Musicians use this language in order to communicate emotions and qualities to others who recognize the language. Whitwell contends that the great artist looks for the emotional content in music, and not the abstracted data elements, the “grammar” of music.
It is more than just love. Music has a fundamental ability to communicate emotion. We, as a profession of music educators, have an oath to present this dimension of music to our students as passionately as we contend that trombones should play B natural in 4th position! It is easy to get ground down by the bureaucracy of that is forced upon us by mindless state departments and politicians (see also Ed Rendell) who think that the only way to show a school is succeeding is to publish their standardized test scores in the local fish-wrap. Despite their worst efforts, music and music educators continue to rise up and confront these problems. We keep many different musical styles and traditions alive in the public schools because of knowledge and abilities as educators. I contend that we make them attractive to students because of our passion for them. Remember to take your scores, baton, metronome, and tuner to the podium at your next rehearsal – but don’t forget the love. You and your students need it!
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
– Arthur William Edgar O’Shaugnhessy, Ode from his book Music and Moonlight (1874)
Elliot, D. J. (2005). Musical understanding, musical works, and emotional expression: Implications for education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 37 (1), 93-103.
Reimer, B. (2004). New brain research on emotion and feeling: Dramatic implications for music education. Arts Education Policy Review, 106 (2), 21-27.
Whitwell, D. (2009). Music education of the future: Two paramount new purposes. NBA Journal, 50 (2), 43-60.