Instrumental Music has been proven time and time again (Davenport, 2010, Skoe E, Kraus N., 2012) to be beneficial to student academic learning, cognitive development, spatial reasoning (Graziano, A.B., Peterson, M., & Shaw, G. L. , 1999, Hetland, 2000) and the personal-social-emotional development of the student. Even students who voluntarily take instrumental music for a few years are found to have higher test scores and better cognitive processing abilities than their peers.
Instrumental music is not simply ‘learning songs‘. The skills of musicianship – attention to detail, analysis and synthesis of multiple concepts (higher-order thinking), immediate self-reflection, adjustment and correction, personal leadership, individual discipline, the ability to work with others toward a common goal and the interpretation and communication of a foreign language – are transferable to all other subject areas and professions. These are what instrumental music classes teach. When students master these skills and the content of these skills, they not only become better performers of music, but better people. All of these things have been the essence of music education long before there was a Common Core, AVID, or STEM focus in educational circles. These initiatives, though new to some core content teachers, are simply repackaged concepts found in music education for centuries.
On many college campuses, the instrumental music program serves as the ambassador for the school, often being the largest and most visible organization on campus. Students not associated with the program proudly speak of their school and hold their program as a badge of honor and pride.
While there is some informal debate about the role of ‘natural talent’ in musicianship, all students are capable of becoming musicians with the proper and consistent training. Some students learn slower than others. Some students are visual learners; others tactile-kinesthetic. Instrumental music teaches across multiple learning styles simultaneously and trains the student to learn via multiple styles. All students, barring physical and cognitive restrictions, are capable of learning the more complex and abstract ideas presented in music (including performing music on an instrument). Meaningful repetition, regardless of learning style, trains the students’ entire body to make music (muscle memory).
Instrumental music emphases personal responsibility, builds character, self-reliance and self-image. As President Barack Obama pointed out to the 2013 graduating class of Morehouse College, “No one is going to give you anything that you haven’t earned.” Once a student masters a skill, no one can take it away from them. Their accomplishments give them an objective basis and emotional basis for pride in themselves and a strong sense of self. In addition, the lesson of work-before-reward (delayed gratification) becomes a part of their work ethic.
Solid instrumental music instruction begins with the conductor asking themselves several questions:
Once the questions have been answered, the teacher must focus on developing a regimented and structured program of study that is designed encourage all of these things. It must be appropriate to the students being educated, the standards must be high (because music is a mistress who demands perfection and she will castigate you for wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong dynamics, wrong articulation…..she demands that you respect the craft enough to seek these standards and nothing lower if would name her as your love) and the consistent daily practice of the instructor must be to seek these things. This includes regular playing tests to gauge student progress, appropriate literature for the ensemble to perform successfully, an appropriate use of method, technique and etude books (both intermediate and advanced) as well as solo and ensemble material to allow the student to develop a strong sense of personal musicianship.
The concert band/symphonic band/wind ensemble (for the purpose of this post, they are used interchangeably) in the classroom should be the primary focus of any strong program. Indeed, it must be: without the basic skill sets taught by the learning of high-quality concert wind literature, students will have no foundation to build upon and expand into extension ensembles (i.e. jazz band, marching and pep band, chamber ensembles). Tone quality (as a concept) is first taught here – if it is not, you will have a harsh, often bright, spread and distorted sound in every other ensemble. Brass instruments may overblow to compensate for poor tone quality.
Intonation is taught here as well – balance (the sound pyramid), proper articulation, note lengths and much more are the focus of solid classroom instruction. The instrumental music classroom measures the mastery of these skills (and many more not listed) via rubric so that students, parents and other interested parties can find a point of access to understand what students should know and do instrumental music and how it should be done. Frequent concerts and performances (both small group and large ensemble, usually separated by ability level and difficulty of music) are also assessments – for students and the instructor – to gauge progress and plan instruction leading to future performances. Yearly assessments (sometimes called “festival” or “contest” depending on the state/region) from a panel of instrumental music instructors (some retired, some currently in the field) objectively reinforce this pattern of assessment and help determine what type of instruction should be occurring in the classroom.
The strongest programs promote leadership at the student level. The joy of every band director is having a group of students who are capable of conducting aspects of rehearsal, paying attention to detail, proper musicianship and discipline. Every director’s goal should be to have a program where, if they were to pass onto the next life suddenly, the students would be able to carry on the work of the ensemble as a way to honor the work of their director. Every director should train students to work toward this goal.
In order for the program to adequately succeed, school administration must be fully committed to the flourishing and improvement of the program. This includes adequate yearly financial support, proper scheduling and placement of all students in the appropriate classes (because beginners don’t belong in an intermediate level class since they lack the skill set to participate properly), access to relevant technology (yes, band directors use smartboards, ELMOs, visualizers, laptops, desktops and projectors and we have content-specific software we need permissions to load on school computers to properly teach our curriculum). Schools where master schedulers and guidance counselors are unwilling to make changes to help the band program grow are akin to asking a runner to compete against the best in the world at a 100-yard dash, shooting him in the leg, but still expecting him to win.
High parent involvement in the band program is essential to its’ success. Every model band program (i.e. Oxon Hill and Eleanor Roosevelt High Schools in Maryland, Marcus High School in Texas) has a parent booster club to assist in the supervision and care of the students and the external support of the program. Every good director needs a support system.
The final responsibility for the program rests on the shoulders of the director. Therefore, the successful band room is a benign (good-intentioned) dictatorship. A dictatorship because even with solid student leadership, students still require instruction because they are still students. They still require limits, guidance and structure. At the same time, the students are people, not slaves. All things should be done for the benefit and growth of the student into mature adulthood. The wise director knows when to value student input and leadership and when to make executive decisions. Too much of one and you encourage anarchy. Too little of one and you stunt growth.
Many aspects of my personal philosophy of education have been shaped over time by my music education philosophy. The same basic principles that apply: all students, barring any physical or cognitive restrictions, are capable of learning. They all may learn at different rates, but they are all capable of learning and understanding. I believe this is true of all subject areas, provided the correct teaching techniques are used.
General education (math, reading, science, social studies), unlike music education, has been in a constant state of flux during the past seven decades, especially in the United States. The advent of each new government initiative (the most recent being No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core) along with each new educational trend (Danielson’s Framework for Teaching being the most recent) have left teachers constantly seeking to build and rebuild their teaching skill set. Teachers are being reviewed, re-reviewed, observed, evaluated, reflected upon, evaluated, assessed, certified, highly-qualified and brain fried. They must reflect, plan, call, collaborate, pre-plan, pre-pre-plan, justify, e-mail, post, update, correct, instruct and adjust as more rules, regulations, restrictions and initiatives are thrown at them with blinding speed.
Less time for instruction. Less pay. More work.
It’s not working.
Student accountability for work is delayed until high school. Teachers and administrators are held responsible for student achievement….but the students themselves are not (at least not at the elementary and middle school levels). Children are reduced to test scores and numbers. We spend more time on standardized testing, we’ve changed curriculum over and over again, we’ve relaxed discipline rules, we’ve given students ‘incentives’ and tried to bribe them with programs, we’ve taught to the test and called it teaching to the standards. We’ve assigned multiple hours of busywork. We’ve had pep rallies to eliminate test anxiety, we’ve pumped up students’ self-esteem to the point of semi-arrogance. We’ve had practice test after practice test before the actual standardized test is given.
And we’re still in the bottom half of the world on test scores in reading, math and science.
It’s not working.
Money from educational grants meant to increase teacher pay and put resources in classrooms….never gets to the classroom.
It’s time for real change.
Teacher and administrator unions are not the enemy. Classroom teachers are treated as expendable. Unions provide some level of protection for them, since stories of teacher shaming, intimidation and bullying by those in power above them are stories too often told in print after a person has been released from a teaching position.
Value all teachers. Nothing builds teacher resentment like an administration that will not support teachers in the area of student discipline, refuses to hold students accountable and one that puts students ahead of the people appointed to instruct them. No teacher gets into education for the money. None of us minds working additional hours as long as we feel appreciated, supported and encouraged. It’s more than one day or week, a card, pen, and catered breakfast/lunch. Discipline and grading policies that take seriously what we do need to be in place.
Student accountability. Policies which simply allow students to skate by without working and earning a passing grade are an insult to teachers and their work. They are also a huge disservice to students and an insult to parents. Over the past twenty years, there has been a rise in the number of remedial classes offered to incoming college students to catch them up on things they should have been educated on in high school. Who dropped the ball ? Are we really helping students by making them feel good, even though they may not know very much ?
Many school districts have begun tying standardized tests to a students’ quarterly or semester grade. Many states make these tests graduation requirements. When teachers do their primary job of delivering instruction, it falls on the student to study the material, internalize and master it. We must prepare them for a world where the harsh reality is that no one is going to give them anything that they haven’t earned. This policy needs to be in place not just at the high school level, but at the middle school level as well.
How should our students be educated ? Students learn best when they personally reinforce whatever instruction has been given to them in class. In music, we do this by having a student engage in meaningful repetition (practicing particular sections of songs slowly with gradually increasing speed and technicality until the students master that portion of the song). Students spend their time engaged in learning the subject matter (in this case, the music – the notes, the dynamics, articulations, rhythms, and other expressions) instead of learning ‘technique’ to answer questions on a test. To illustrate the difference further, a student who learns to skim a paragraph for keywords in order to answer questions has not learned how to comprehend text properly. The student has learned how to answer a question on a test, but not how to understand what he/she has read nor how to make sense of it and relate it to other subject areas. This is not education. The results of this form of teaching are seen when students find themselves unable to read, let alone understand and construct, complete sentences (and this is a problem even at the graduate level of education).
Critical thinking and reasoning. Culture and popular media reinforce notions of reacting emotionally to every issue instead of critically analyzing thinking and thinking about what’s being said and presented. Every educator can tell you stories of students who have become involved in physical altercations based on how they immediately felt about an issue rather than reflecting on what the actual reality of the issue was.
Private schools and homeschooling curricula prominently feature classical education, including formal debate and rhetorical discussion. Better public schools also follow this example. Our job is not to indoctrinate students but equip them to think through a complex world and make wise choices.
Depth, not breadth. Mastery, not standardized assessment. The content of each course is crucial. Teachers should only teach in their area of specialty. Following the essential schools model, each student should be made to demonstrate mastery of the content being taught to them, not simply being prepared to pass a test. Further, in each content area, essential skills and concepts should be covered deeply (versus covering a large swath of content which most students will not retain). This opens the door to empowering students to continue their own learning and gives them the tools necessary to master any subject area they devote their time to.
A return to ‘old’ things with a new twist. Technology is a wonderful servant, but a horrid taskmaster. Handwriting (including cursive) must be a part of the general curriculum if for no other reason than to facilitate attention to detail, develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Civics and government, grammar, spelling, and sentence structure should be stressed again in classrooms across America. The reason for this is that thirty-plus years of whole language and focusing on other countries’ governmental systems have produced adults who can barely construct a complete thought, can barely write a complete sentence and rely on spell-check and Wikipedia for their knowledge. Teach students to evaluate sources accurately and use technology the same way students decades before them used encyclopedias and books.
Professional development for teachers is done best when teachers are given information directly related to their field. Education has gradually become an industry over time, with more being spent on ‘how’ to do teaching than what to actually teach. Content has been subjugated to technique. As a result, we have teachers in the classroom with brilliant ideas on how to deliver content and a wikipedia-level understanding of the content they are expected to deliver. These deficiencies get communicated to students and they are academically poorer as a result.
Davenport, Kevin O. (2010) “The effects of participation in school instrumental music programs on student academic achievement and school attendance” (January 1, 2010). ETD Collection for Tennessee State University. Paper AAI3404569. Retrieved May 3, 2013 from http://digitalscholarship.tnstate.edu/dissertations/AAI3404569
Graziano, A.B., Peterson, M., & Shaw, G. L. (1999). Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial temporal reasoning. Neurological Research, 21, 139-52.
Hetland, L. (2000). Learning to make music enhances spatial reasoning. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3-4), 179-238.
Skoe E, Kraus N. (2012) A Little Goes a Long Way: How The Adult Brain is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood. Journal of Neuroscience. 32(34):11507–11510.