Pages

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Stop "Defending" Music

Today I ran across one more xeroxed handout touting the test-taking benefits of music education, defending music as a great tool for raising test scores and making students smarter. It was just one more example among many of the "keep music because it helps with other things" pieces out there.

I really wish people would stop "defending" music education like this.

I get that music programs are under intense pressure, that all across America they are sitting hunched over with one nervous eye on a hooded figure stalking the halls with a big budgetary ax. Music programs are watching administrators race by, frantically chasing test scores and ignoring music in schools. So it may seem like a natural step to go running after the testing crowd hollering, "Hey, I can help with that, too."

Don't. Just don't.

First of all, it's a tactical error. If your state gets swept up in the winds of test dumpage and suddenly tests are not driving your school, what will you say to the ax guy (because, tests or not, the ax guy is not going away any time soon)? If your big selling point for your program has been that it's actually test prep with a horn, you've made yourself dependent on the future of testing. That's a bad horse on which to bet the farm.

Second, it's just sad. And it's extra sad to hear it come from music teachers. Just as sad as if I started telling everyone that reading Shakespeare is a great idea only because it helps with math class.

There are so many reasons for music education. Soooooooo many. And "it helps with testing" or "makes you do better in other classes" belong near the bottom of that list. Here are just a few items that should be further up the list.

Music is universal. It's a gabillion dollar industry, and it is omnipresent. How many hours in a row do you ever go without listening to music? Everywhere you go, everything you watch-- music. Always music. We are surrounded in it, bathe in it, soak in it. Why would we not want to know more about something constantly present in our lives? Would you want to live in a world without music? Then why would you want to have a school without music?

Listening to music is profoundly human. It lets us touch and understand some of our most complicated feelings. It helps us know who we are, what we want, how to be ourselves in the world. And because we live in an age of vast musical riches from both past and present, we all have access to exactly the music that suits our personality and mood. Music makes the fingers we can use to reach into our own hearts.

Making music is even more so. With all that music can do just for us as listeners, why would we not want to unlock the secrets of expressing ourselves through it? We human beings are driven to make music as surely as we are driven to speak, to touch, to come closer to other humans. Why would we not want to give students the chance to learn how to express themselves in this manner?

Music is freakin' magical. In forty-some years I have never gotten over it-- you take some seemingly random marks on a page, you blow air through a carefully constructed tube, and what comes out the other side is a sound that can convey things that words cannot. And you just blow air through a tube. Or pull on a string. Or whack something. And while we can do a million random things with a million random objects, somehow, when we just blow some air through a tube, we create sounds that can move other human beings, can reach right into our brains and our hearts. That is freakin' magical.

Music connects us to other humans in amazing ways. I have played in concert bands, a couple of jazz bands, and pit orchestras; I have directed church choirs and community musical theater. It is both indescribable and enormously compelling to see the many ways in which humans making music come together and connect to each other. I imagine the experience of playing team sports is something similar. You are part of something-- something bigger than yourself and more than the sum of the parts. I can't think of any other school subject that so completely fosters cooperation, collaboration, and connection between students. Students learn to help and mentor each other, support each other, lift each other up, and come together into something glorious and way, way cool.

In music, everyone's a winner. In sports, when two teams try their hardest and give everything they've got, there's just one winner. When a group of bands or choirs give their all, everybody wins. Regrettably, the growth of musical "competitions" has led to many programs that have forgotten this-- but music is the opposite of a zero-sum game. The better some folks do, the better everybody does. In music, you can pursue excellence and awesomeness without having to worry that you might get beat or defeated or humiliated. Everybody can be awesome.

Music programs give back to communities forever. See that big list of community music groups I've worked with? I am not in a large community, but all those groups exist, and they can all exist because every single person in them came through a school music program. Your community band, your church choir, your local theater-- all those groups that enrich the cultural life of your community are the result of school music programs.

Music programs can be a huge source of pride for school and community. Just like a football team, a band or choir can draw a crowd of fans who take great pride in the traditions and accomplishments of the groups. And if you're not getting your program out in front of the public to help build that following and support, you're messing up.

My high school band director is a hell of a guy, and he absolutely altered the trajectory of my life. When people talk about him, they often talk about all the music teachers and professional musicians that came out of his program, but I think his greatest success was all the students like me who went on to do something else, but whose lives have always been enriched by music.

Music is awesome. It's human. It's universal. It's big business precisely because it is something that everybody wants.

Music does not need to make excuses for itself, as if it had no intrinsic worth. It does not have to dress itself up in test-taking robes or mathematical masks. It has deep, powerful human value, and all of us who love it should be saying so, over and over and over again.

Do not defend a music program because it's good for other things. That's like defending kissing because it gives you stronger lip muscles for eating soup neatly. Defend it because music is awesome in ways that no other field is awesome. Defend it because it is music, and that's all the reason it needs. As Emerson wrote, "Beauty is its own excuse for being." A school without music is less whole, less human, less valuable, less complete. Stand up for music as itself, and stop making excuses.


53 comments:

  1. I agree with you in general, but in our school district at least, they're always doing competitions for who gets to be first chair, second chair, a complete ranking system, the same as if you seat students in an academic class according to their grade average, and at 12 years old my daughter did feel "defeated" and "humiliated".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 12 is young to be doing any sort of seating challenges, but there are music teachers who like to inject a little blood sport into their programs.

      Delete
    2. Well, that is the point of the article. Music teachers, band directors in particular, have long heeded the siren call of extrinsic concerns like festival scores and trophies rather than actually teaching music. I remember being quite insulted and shocked when a principal called me "coach". He thought he was paying me a complement! The acceptance of music as "activity" or as "co-curricular" enables much of this program cutting. If we run a music program like a team, what else can we expect?

      Delete
    3. I didn't see that as the point of the article at all. And I actually took it as a compliment when my tuba player, also a wrestler, called me "Coach" one day, because it meant that for that moment he saw me as the person who was taking the "team" to a higher level of ability/performance. That's not necessarily a competitive thing....is it? O.o

      And most of the music directors I know who take competitions seriously, for scores, rather than as opportunities for performance first & foremost (and to see/hear other units perform), are the ones whose principals expect them to go to these things, and to bring back trophies. Yes, there are directors who'd do that anyway - and IMO they give the rest of the profession a black eye with that emphasis. I took a fledgling middle school band to Festival the same week the piccolo player's family took her to Paris and the bari sax player was suspended for fighting (so no bass voice) and got my backside hauled into the principal's office for getting average numbers instead of straight 1's for my trouble. :-( Talk about missing the point!

      Even now as an adult I perform with a community band comprised primarily of other music teachers (many of whom are band directors), and the level of musicianship and camaraderie combined means that when we nail a performance, it is SUCH a high for us and for the audience. We all remember why we do what we do - and it's not for the sake of competition.

      Delete
    4. We (oh, yes! I have been a part of this.) bought into the fantasy that we could have it both ways - teach an academic subject but only to the students with the talent, desire, money, free time, etc, to be a band member. In what other subject is it ok to teach, at best, 25% of the students at a school. Honestly I have no idea how to untangle this. I don't want to throw he baby out with the bath. Band has been a fantastic way to learn music for generations of students, just not enough of them. I always suspect that discouraged last chair clarinet who bails out of band his freshman year in high school will be a future superintendent of schools.

      Delete
    5. "I always suspect that discouraged last chair clarinet who bails out of band his freshman year in high school will be a future superintendent of schools."

      I wish I could say that I didn't LOL at this, or that I didn't believe it....

      That said, I've found that oboe players make THE worst principals (and VERY unresponsive to a band director's ACTUAL needs LOL).

      That said, now that I teach and play outside the public school system, I find I'm loving doing it enough that I often forget that I get paid to do it. For realz. There is NOTHING like the thrill of seeing a 2YO consciously sing the resting tone of a song, unprompted, or seeing a baby just go into arm-waving paroxysms of joy at her favorite song. NOTHING, except possibly seeing a parent/caregiver recognize it for what it is and start to nourish it him/herself outside music class. It's not even *teaching* as such....it's....nurturing? enabling? guiding? It's just BEING musical. :-)

      Delete
    6. (For the record, the oboe comment was tongue-in-cheek; one of the most obstructive principals I had to deal with had been an oboist in her own high school band. In truth, a good oboist is worth his/her weight in gold. :-) )

      Delete
    7. The other problem at the high school I taught at was that Honors orchestra was only for the students who had the money to have private lessons because otherwise they weren't good enough. And since honor class A's were 5 points instead of 4, the students who were in Honors band or orchestra could end up with higher class ranking than students who didn't take music, and that caused some rancor.

      I don't really have any problem with festivals, because there the students are working as a team. But I thought it was ridiculous to do the inside-class ranking in seventh grade. Saying "This is the way it's done in the real world in a professional orchestra" to me is not a justification for doing it in seventh grade. I still think it's exactly the same thing as seating students according to their grades in a class of math or English or any other subject, and I haven't heard of anyone thinking that had a positive effect since my sixth grade teacher did it in 1963.

      Delete
    8. The article points out that music is intrinsically a part of human nature. Well - surprise! - so is competition. Kids are constantly searching to see how they measure up to their peers. This is a good thing. One of the things we're teaching is how to be successful. Chair tests are a safe way to let them know where they stand.

      Delete
    9. So do you think seating kids in, for example, a math class according to their grade average in the class is a good thing?

      Delete
    10. i think in the real world they seat people in offices according to their accomplishments. when IS a good time for kids to learn that?

      Delete
    11. I think kids know school isn't the real world and that the real world isn't only the business world. I think it's sad if you have to beat someone else to feel you've accomplished something musically. And especially at younger ages, I don't see how this type of thing is helpful to encourage a love of music.

      Delete
    12. "Encouraging a love of music" is important, but there is a lot more to the dynamic than that. Teaching values and success skills is major as well. If you are comparing the chair tests to academic classes, consider this: Many an underachiever in, for instance, Math, will say that they "just aren't any good" at Math and leave it at that. But if they were seated in order of accomplishment, most would look at the person just above them and think, "But I'm smarter than THIS guy! Next time, I'm moving up." I know that was my experience as a 12-year-old band student. Competition is "sad"? The competitive impulse is often the ONLY drive for success. If so, then success is "sad." I don't agree.

      Delete
    13. Yes, I think it's sad if that's your definition of success, if you think trying to be better than the other guy is the only motivator to try to do your best to excel at something, if you think this is even a motivator at all for some people.

      Delete
  2. Ask the released music teachers from Atlanta Public Schools if they agree with this blog post? The aesthetic qualities of music does not entice any beleaguered school board from cutting music programs (APS). Finally, if you think music is not competitive, you live in a land I can not conceive and I am a music teacher.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There's no questions that programs across the country are being cut without regard for aesthetic, intellectual, humanistic or just plain decency concerns. We can't fight that wrong if we don't call it out by its name.

      And yes-- the upper reaches of the music biz are extremely competitive. I compare it to writing; if you want to be rich and famous and have the highest standing in the field, then yes, you will have to climb some mountains and step over some bodies to get there. But for the vast majority of the population of creators and consumers, that's not the experience.

      Delete
    2. Billy - music in and of itself is not competitive. Music in and of itself truly exists in a spirit of cooperation, whether it's between/among performers or between a solo performer and the audience.

      Music *programs* and the music *business* are another matter entirely, but music becomes less thru competition IMO/IME.

      I get the competition aspect - heck, I judged marching bands for years, and I chaperone my own kid's trips to Festival adjudications - but that's brought in artificially and isn't a component of *music.* Where it's introduced, it detracts from the whole POINT of music. (I'm a music teacher too, but I've left public schools for now and teach privately and I also teach Early Childhood music, and let me tell you, THAT is something to behold! :-))

      Delete
  3. Ask the released music teachers from Atlanta Public Schools if they agree with this blog post? The aesthetic qualities of music does not entice any beleaguered school board from cutting music programs (APS). Finally, if you think music is not competitive, you live in a land I can not conceive and I am a music teacher.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes, but. But the rephormsters aren't human, so arguments about humanity don't appeal to them. Or, well, they're human, as we all are, but they've buried their humanity under layers and layers of "data" and "student performance" and "results". Yes, hopefully the rephormsters (the neo-liberals more generally) won't be in charge forever, but they're in charge now, , and power and control are all that they understand. Talk about developing students' humanity is probably the quickest ways to get your program shut down these days, unless you're in a very affluent district. After all, what does a future worker bee/corporate drone need with humanity?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, thinking about it, I don't know if they are human. They're certainly not humane. They also have no imagination, at least the kind that makes you able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. I don't know how much of an empathy deficit you can have and still be considered human.

      Delete
    2. I hear you, but if we want to remain the good guys (which I think we are), then we can't deny other people's humanity - that only brings us to their level. They may be inhumane, but they are human.

      Delete
    3. They are afraid. . .of their political careers, of perpetuating the insults they received as children ("Just mouth the words, don't sing, Jane."), of their children not having a sustainable career, of something they don't know or understand . . .

      Delete
    4. I just don't know, Dienne. They may have human form, but if they're lacking compassion, sympathy, and consideration for other human beings....maybe they're sociopaths. Or cyborgs. They sure seem like alien cyborgs come to take over humanity.

      Delete
  5. Even seating challenges allow both students to play. I was the losing end of many a challenge, and I didn't have to leave the band or sit on the bench because of it. And the challenges were optional, initiated by students, not by teachers/coaches.

    Our district parents successfully defend our broad programs by hailing them as areas where students have immense personal growth, maturity, and leadership opportunities in addition to potential career success. It doesn't work everywhere, but it can work.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks so much for this insightful, passionate writing. Forwarded to our band teacher.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was probably a mistake. Most of the music teachers who have commented on this post have disagreed with what the author had to say.

      Delete
    2. Not really, at the least it makes you think. And it's not that they disagree that music ought to be able to stand on it's own, it's just that it's hard to make that case with the bean counters. But we shouldn't forget that all the arts and humanities have intrinsic value.

      Delete
    3. I'm sure they agree deep down in their artist selves, but reality has made us all, understandably, quite cynical. This often manifests as disagreement.

      Delete
  7. You make some valid points but over all I disagree with your assessment. There has to be something quantifiable in anything schools put money behind. Saying music is awesome or freakin' magical doesn't rally parents and teachers to help justify why it must stay in school. It's merely preaching to the choir. Let people share their facts, numbers, stats. After they win their battles to keep music, the real reason music touches people, the true side effects, will become abundantly clear.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's how schools and societies justify spending money, but I disagree that they should have to, at least in the traditionally quantifiable sense.

      Generally credited to Einstein, himself a violinist: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

      The arts make us human. That alone is justification to me, as a parent, teacher, and taxpayer.

      Delete
    2. Of course they shouldn't have to. But they do. It's unfortunate, and that was my point.

      Delete
    3. Can you quantify happiness? Maybe school boards are looking at the wrong numbers. Maybe schools with happy, cooperative music programs turn out more students who don't kill themselves or become drug addicts because they have an outlet for their emotions. Maybe their graduates have an overall better quality of life, greater peace of mind, greater sense of joy and connectedness to their communities. If you have to measure something, figure out how to measure those things. I'm a private teacher, not in the school systems, and most of these comments are really depressing to me. Really? In elementary school, we want kids to be trying to one-up the student next to them? WTF? Is this how you want people to grow up thinking about life? What kind of society is this generation of kids going to build? How about we try to teach a generation of people how to reach out and include everyone, how to communicate, how to share? Yes, competitiveness is a theme of humanity but that doesn't mean we need to exaggerate it. I'm sure we all encounter competition soon enough in life - we don't need school teachers to deliberately foster it. Gee Whiz!

      Delete
  8. Peter, I am with you. Music needs no justification. (Disclaimer: I am a professional bass trombonist and play in a regional orchestra, so I am invested in the art form.) Even so, the apologists go back to Plato and Aristotle, who both recognized the power of music is so great it can inspire the expansion of empires or destroy entire societies. Or lay waste to entire viola sections. :) Are we in the business of developing human beings, or are we job trainers? How we answer that determines whether music is important in schools or is a "frill".

    ReplyDelete
  9. "'Ah, music,' he said, wiping his eyes. 'A magic beyond all we do here!'"
    -- Albus Dumbledore, from Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," page 128

    ReplyDelete
  10. yes, but, in Silicon Valley that is so incredibly STEM, where parents insist that music is a waste of time, where students change to a music class on the last day to change classes so their parents cannot change their schedule, where parents refuse to buy materials for their child's music class to force them out of a music class, we DO have to defend music. We have to begin where the parents' mindset is and, if possible, change their viewpoint. Many parents are afraid their children will be lured away by music and will not choose a "sustainable" career. I could tell you heart-rending stories but I can also tell you amazing stories where fiercely angry parents have changed their minds. So yes, we do have to defend music and then slowly educate people to the REAL benefits of music. The parents who refused to provide materials, and who were fiercely angry that their son changed his class schedule on the last day? They are now the program's staunchest supporters!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Susan, tell us your secrets! What did you say to these parents to change their minds? I need your talking points brochure!

      Delete
  11. It would help if students like myself would approach these issues regarding the funding and appreciation of music programs ather than parents/guardians. As one of the drum majors at my high school, I can safely say that music has helped me grow as a person more than anything else has or ever could have. It has been more influential than my own parents (and they are good people). It has grown my leadership skills, social abilities, awareness of the world in general, and countless many more aspects of a devolving human being. Without music I am no longer myself. It hurts so deeply to know that many school districts, including my own, are hesitating to fund the development of their students not only musically, but in a plethora of other ways. It would dramatically help these issues if the students approached district members/administration members instead of parents/guardians in a completely professional manner because it shows the determination and passion within the students to see the program grow and develop. I personally ask my parents to stay out of all of my issues regarding funding and what not, and I handle them personally by going to district office meetings and meeting with school administration members and such. I do not let my age define my power. As cheesy as it sounds, I follow Music's example. It's been around for almost forever, and it still has the power to make humans feel things that nothing else can.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Request permission to quote you? This is wonderful!

      Delete
  12. Since I had the great privilege to have Brian Thomas as a music teacher in high school, I couldn't agree more.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you for this post, you speak my heart and mind! By the way: music preceded speach and thus touches our deapest self.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Peter, while I really appreciate why you wrote this (and agree with it in sprit), your strategy simply does not work. I will be addressing your article and others like it on my blog next week (thanks for that!), but in short: when you have school leaders, teachers, parents AND some students who do not believe in the value of music education, you have 2 choices: 1) Keep preaching about how music is "awesome" , "human" and "universal" (yes, it is) or 2) Meet the people where they are at in order to later make them believers through experience. #2 has worked for me all my life as a teacher, administrator and music advocate. Anyone smart enough would not "sell" music just for its benefits elsewhere -- but we MUST mention it over and over again. Besides, there is more research of the brain that has been done the past 25 years than the last 250 years combined -- let's not ignore it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Had I known this would blow up so widely, I might have nuanced a bit more. I agree that in specific dealings with specific administrations, you have to use whatever tools work. But when it comes to blanket, public, just kinda puttin' it out there defenses of music and music ed, I stand by the above piece. Be practical in the specific battles, but in the larger struggle, don't back away from speaking about why music has value in and of itself. I believe that if we did more of the latter, we'd have to do less of the former.

      Delete
    2. "I believe that if we did more of the latter, we'd have to do less of the former." = makes a lot more sense than "Don't. Just don't."

      If we are to continue to attempt to elevate music education into the forefront of the minds of everyone from all walks of life in this country, we certainly need to carefully differentiate our approach to each audience.

      Delete
  15. Music is awesome. It's human. It's universal. It's big business precisely because it is something that everybody wants.Just more click :
    guitarscamp.com/best-electric-guitar .

    ReplyDelete
  16. Mr. Greene,
    I am so tired of defending why there must be music education in our schools. I am tired of justifying music with words such as "It helps improve test scores', "Music can be used to teach other subjects", "It utilizes the same part of the brain that develops language". Music is such an integral part of our lives that we take it for granted. Music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives. Early man could not do many things; however he knew that he must have music. True, music is big business. Many people are making much money for mediocre music. But the heart of the true musician speaks volumes. I traveled in Europe many years ago. I could not speak the languages. But we connected through music. Beethoven, Miles, Coltrane, the Beatles,they spoke the true language. No wonder music is recognised by Howard Gardner's as one of man's 7 intelligences. Cuckoo cu-shoo!

    ReplyDelete
  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  18. New music programs are watching administrators race by, frantically chasing test scores and ignoring music with schools. So it may seem like an organic and natural step to go running after the examining crowd hollering,

    guitarscamp.com/best-electric-guitar

    ReplyDelete
  19. New music programs are watching administrators race by, frantically chasing test scores and ignoring music with schools. So it may seem like an organic and natural step to go running after the examining crowd hollering,

    guitarscamp.com/best-electric-guitar

    ReplyDelete
  20. Why would we not want to know more about something constantly present in our lives? webpage

    ReplyDelete
  21. The greatest experiences of my life were ones with music where it was the power of music alone to inspire, thrill, hurt, and just move me. Having said that and being the first to admit that the instrinsic benefits of music are the MOST important and we can NEVER act otherwise, I am also the first (or among the first) to stand up and teach my music advoacy students that good music advocacy is creating and delivering the best case or argument, with the right partners, to whomever the target is and often that means employing what this author calls "defending music." I can report this unequivocally--the Every Student Succeeds Act that was just passed overhwelmingly by both houses and signed by the president as the re-authorization of the El and Secondary education act, was passed, in large part, by the cases that were made to those to whom they had to be made, that music's instrumental benefits are critical to a balanced and necessary education and social health. NO ARGUMENT for effective respect of the vitality and seminality of music to humanity should be off limits to us, regardless of how much more real and noble the instrinsic value of music for its own sake is.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm a music teacher, and I happen to agree much with what he says. I wrote an article on our blog with a similar thrust. I understand the desire to sometimes make a good argument to someone else, but I think it's more important to be concerned with the long term trajectory. We do need to change the conversation about this.

    https://www.sagemusic.co/music-is-a-good-in-itself/

    ReplyDelete