What’s Wrong With This Picture?

This diagram has been making the rounds on social media again: Mnemonic Mistakes

“What’s wrong with it,” you might ask. Clearly, this is well-intentioned, and meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But let’s take it seriously for a moment, and look at it as if it were designed for practical, educational use.

The real problem with it is that most people don’t say these words metronomically (and/or consistently) in everyday language, therefore making teaching with them unnatural! Prosody is out the window. Sure, “Sasquatch” is two syllables, but do you really say them with equal weight and duration?

And don’t even get me started on “Want some cat antlers?”

Reaching Your Target Audience and Communicating Strategically

A big, kind of “behind the scenes” part of musicians’ work in education has to do with publicity and messaging. It’s not news that social media is a big part of most everyone’s lives, and almost everybody who has any kind of online presence has fewer and fewer time to pay attention to anything in depth!

Articulating what we do as teaching artists or music educators is more crucial than ever. Almost everybody who plays music also teaches! In order to tell your story, you will have to be strategic about how you communicate to the public. You’ll need to begin to consider the following things:

  • How do you articulate what you do and why?
  • What online “channels” are most appropriate for what evidence?
  • Does the story you tell align with your intentions and your outcomes?
  • And how do you ensure that you’re able to reach your target audience?

This post won’t (directly) answer any of those things for you, because entire books and careers can be dedicated towards exploring those questions. However, what this post WILL do is show you how your MIE Guided Internship is helping you practice and prepare for a lifetime of communicating your work.

Every MIE Guided Intern gets some practice with strategic communication. Here’s a breakdown:

Blog Posts
The blog posts are intended for consumption by the general public. The Internet is a publicly-accessible place (does anyone even call it the “World Wide Web” anymore?) and so first and foremost, your blog posts have to be simple and clear. They should give your audience a bird’s eye view on your internship or topic, but have enough detail/realism to keep things interesting. (Nobody likes to read things that are too bland or vague.) Children’s full names should be omitted for privacy reasons, and anything that’s potentially embarrassing should be avoided or re-worded. Interns write a minimum of 3 blog posts throughout their internship, and the posts should be structured to lead from one to the next.

Internship Proposal
The internship proposal is modeled after the kinds of proposal forms one may encounter when applying for real world grants. While not “public” (like blog posts), the intern should consider that anything put down in writing could be read by a large amount of people. Most foundations have reading committees that critique proposals with a fine-tooth comb, then score the proposals in relation to a rubric and one another, before making a final decision. Rarely is a proposal funded based on the decision of a single person. Writing a successful proposal means being able to:

  • Articulate your goals, story, agenda in ways that are authentic to you/your project, but understandable/relatable to others;
  • Be clear and concise, often within specific word or character limits set forth by the grantor;
  • Provide evidence or data that demonstrates how/why your project should be chosen;
  • Set realistic, attainable goals for yourself, within the specified time period;
  • Show the funder or grantor that you understand their needs and that your program will help them accomplish their goals, objectives, or metrics.

Digital Portfolio
The digital portfolio is the intern’s opportunity to “dig deep” and provide real evidence for what was achieved in the internship. It’s challenging, because in most cases, the intern will be juggling two sets of goals/work samples—their students’ vs. their own—while putting everything under a single umbrella. Most interns will find a way to incorporate elements of their blog posts and internship proposals into the digital portfolio, which usually provides a nice starting point. Yes, the digital portfolio is like creating a website, but unlike a website, it focuses specifically on you as an educator. It’s also semi-private, meaning that it’s not totally open to the public (unless you request that it be made to be).

The digital portfolio gives interns a chance to show their trajectory:

  • How did the internship progress, as compared to their planning?
  • What strides were made?
  • What unexpected challenges came up, and how were they resolved?

Something that an intern just quickly referred to in a blog post might warrant a longer vignette in a digital portfolio. Or, a long reflection in the portfolio might trigger the intern to write a short blog post on the same topic, to see if any commenters at the blog have input.

When the MIE program first started, portfolios were in hard-copy, which made it cumbersome for interns to include videos, recordings, and even photos of them teaching. But since we have progressed into the Internet Age, interns who provide rich artifacts really help to bring their internships to life. Not only is it more interesting to read a reflection that goes along with a video, but it gives the interns the practice they need to make a good video. (Things to think about: Video length? Camera angle/frame? What you say/context? Etc…)

More and more, grantors and funders are asking to see digital portfolios as evidence that the monies they gave really went to good use. And, even if a “digital portfolio” isn’t requested, a final report is. The final report nearly always refers back to the proposal in some way.

All of these elements of the guided internship are meant to help you, as interns, practice and learn strategic communication skills. As you progress through the MIE Concentration, you will improve these skills. And, the more you invest yourself in your internships, the more you’ll want to tell people what you’re doing, how and why. It’ll no longer be “good enough” to just do the work. You’ll want recognition (which is a good thing), and you should reach for it, because doing so will help you obtain the funding and community support you need to continue to do it. The more people you affect through your love for music, education, and all of the intersections in between, the more you will be doing to improve things like quality of life, access to the arts, etc.

And, that brings me back to the subject line of this post, “Reaching Your Target Audience.” Only you will know exactly who your target audience is—but I can bet that, through consistent and strategic communication skills, you’ll eventually find and reach them!

Leading by Example / Error Detection

As a teacher, one of the things I find is most difficult to do CONSISTENTLY is “leading by example.” Whether it’s in the course of a private lesson, during a classroom session, or throughout the span of a semester, modeling the behavior you’re shooting for is the best way.

When your teacher “leads by example,” s/he will:

  • Set up clear expectations for students. The modeled behavior will show them that what you’re asking them to do is possible—and reinforce why that behavior is desirable.
  • Demonstrate proficiency and accuracy. Students love seeing their teacher be able to “nail” something that they’re working to achieve.
  • Develop trust & respect. Forget the old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That mindset creates double standards. The goal instead is a growth/meritocratic mindset, in which progress is an achievement.

I’ve noticed that most of my “beginning” interns are most comfortable “leading by example” on their instruments. I suppose this should be expected, because they were accepted into NEC based on their proficiency on their instruments. What’s generally more difficult though, is for them to consistently lead by example in general music contexts—e.g. casual singing, Solfege, recorder, clapping. etc.

You may think that I’ll be asking “why” that is… there are many reasons! But the most important reason, is that it’s easy to take for granted the skill required to perform seemingly basic songs & concepts.

Recently I observed a mixed class of interns, children, and parents singing “Frere Jacques.” The amount of notes, harmonic rhythm, and form are incredibly simple, compared to a Bach prelude or a Billy Strayhorn song. But that doesn’t mean the song can—or should—be performed with less precision, less thought. If anything, it means it will take more concentration. If “Frere Jacques” is being sung in hocket, with a new person singing or clapping each successive phrase, then that means doing so—on time, in form, and in the same key. If it’s being sung as a round, then it’s very important to pay attention to intonation, so that the harmonies are always clear. You can probably see what I’m getting at!

One way to mitigate some of these difficulties is to actually practice (yes, rehearse) how an activity like that is going to go, and iron out the challenges of pitch, rhythm, form, etc. But since that isn’t always possible, there is another way: You can emulate an actual rehearsal in the classroom. When you do this, you’ll need to “break the 4th wall” a bit to allow for a change in persona or “teacher voice.” For example, if you catch yourself doing something incorrectly, you might ask the class, “Did anyone hear what I did wrong there?” which will push your students into error-detection mode. Then, you can model it again, the correct way, and see if they catch on.  It might mean slowing things down, to really capture the essence of what needs to be accomplished.

 

 

Don’t Forget About General Music!

“My son’s school no longer has a marching band.”

That’s the kind of dreary, depressing sentiment, oft-expressed on the news today. When we hear about music programs getting cut from schools, it’s always the instrumental ones, usually at the middle or high school level. [1][2][3] Maybe that’s no particular surprise; after all, high school band programs are typically paired with athletic programs (e.g. basketball pep bands; football marching bands), and are therefore the most visible. Then, a huge instrument corporation might come to “save” the day with instrument donations—but perhaps, all of a sudden, you have a “program” with lots of instruments but no educators or curriculum!

Even more distressing is the decline of programs at the elementary school level, which typically means the loss of general music classes that teach fundamental musical skills that all secondary school band, orchestra, and choir programs depend on.

To understand this, one has to look at college-level teaching artist preparation programs. Though 95% of music performance majors will eventually teach in some capacity, few actually take any classes in education, or do any kind of teaching, before graduation. Even fewer college students who teach while in school will teach general music, Solfege, or recorder. Many will seek the opportunity to teach private lessons on their primary instrument, followed by group lessons/sectionals/ensemble rehearsals in their instrument family, then perhaps general music or something interdisciplinary.

At NEC, we’re lucky—approximately 25% of the student body will take at least one Music-in-Education course during their degree, and dozens participate in one of NEC’s many education-minded opportunities, be it through MIE, the Community Performances and Partnerships Program, a Teaching Assistantship, the Prep/CE programs, or another opportunity. Also, many NEC MIE students seek general music and/or interdisciplinary teaching opportunities.

Because relatively fewer students have training/expertise in teaching general music, it stands to reason that fewer graduates seek opportunities to teach/create general music type programs. Of course, this is not to say that college graduates are solely to blame for the lack of general music programs; of course there are zillions of reasons (mostly from the hands of politicians, school boards, and funding cuts) that dictate which/where music programs are cut!

But that being said, the shortage of general music offerings makes it even more important for musicians to seek opportunities to teach general music and to improve their abilities to teach fundamental skills.

In fact, fundamental musical skills programs are some of the most desirable, attractive programs out there to funders and parents alike!

A good fundamental skills program will:

  • Allow access to children, regardless of previous musical background or experience. (In other words, no prior knowledge needed! No auditions, private lessons, or instruments necessary!)
  • Teach all children the same skills, on equal footing. (E.g. everyone in the program will get to play recorder and sing. Kids won’t be segregated into those that “can” or “can’t.”)
  • Be inclusive. Believe that all children can achieve in music, and equally stress the importance/development of traits like quality, work ethic, motivation, and focus. (The program should not discriminate against those with learning challenges or physical challenges, and should be aware of the different ways that children learn and develop.)
  • Provide equal opportunities for children to perform, create, be recognized for their efforts, and progress through some kind of continuum. (Again, that everyone performs/creates, not just the selection of a few.)

Most programs that follow these kinds of rules will also have some kind of funding that makes it possible for students of all financial backgrounds to participate. Usually that means that the program will be offered for a very low cost, and that the organization presenting it will subsidize, or completely cover, the cost of basic instruments, supplies, etc. (See El Sistema USA’s “Guiding Principles” for more great guidelines!)

Another feature many programs share is that they are housed in a community center, like a residential development, a Boys & Girls Club, a YMCA, or somewhere else that’s school-agnostic and allows a mix of kids from a variety of schools to participate. This inter-school element is a very special value, because it really drives children’s development through music’s inherent interpersonal and social-emotional qualities.

To a large degree, these kinds of general music programs are take on a fairly “new,” popular perspective—that music education can be a social equalizer or provide some kind of social change. That music making will make possible opportunities for students to learn and grow where other activities might not have the same kind of success. Programs like El Sistema USA, MusicLaunch Boston, and Hawaii Youth Symphony’s Music in the Clubhouse are all examples of these kinds of general music programs. (Disclaimer: I have helped to develop these programs, and similar ones.)

There’s a rigor that comes from high quality general music instruction. Why? Because it takes a lot to learn the very fundamentals of music. As a general music instructor, nothing can be taken for granted. You’ll teach concepts like reading, notation, proportion/ratio, pulse, pattern recognition, contour, and form—just to name a few—in the service of getting children ready to understand melody, harmony, rhythm, and music appreciation. And that’s not including all of the musical vocabulary words (yes, even things like “melody” and “rhythm”) that so many people take for granted.

Teaching general music is about teaching the higher-order concepts, breaking down musical concepts without any jargon, and helping students develop skills that they could apply throughout their lives!

 

 

The Beginning: Freelance Teaching in Boston

To make things clear off the bat – this internship was originally going to take place at the EKS Music School in Quincy where I am faculty.   Because I have yet to teach any brass students at the school, I will be focusing on the teaching adventures with my own private students and the strange way that I acquired them:  TakeLessons.com.

Strange, because I never thought I would be the kind of person to “buy into” this kind of thing.  It seemed too convenient, too easy, yet after only two months of making a (minimal) online account, I acquired my first piano student.  Fast forward three months and many MIE 501 readings later, and I have acquired some very interesting and life-changing perspectives regarding music and music-in-education.  But that’s for later – for now, we must set the scene of the beginning of true freelance teaching in the Boston area.

I had freelanced my first year in Boston as a horn player and a collaborative pianist specializing in the Suzuki Method, but never had I had any students.  Late summer going into my second year of my master’s, my friend told me that he had acquired a piano student via this website.  Intrigued, I began an account and filled in all the appropriate information.  I had never really written down or contemplated my own unique, logical teaching philosophy before, and when I saw this requirement on the website, I simply wrote what I had always thought:

Through all these experiences, I can safely say that my theory of teaching and learning music is that it’s all about connections. To learn music is to learn a completely new way of looking at the world. It is an inward journey of strength and discovery as much as it is an outwards one, learning to successfully and compassionately communicate with fellow musicians and anyone else who might cross your path. I have collaborated with individuals in both the instrumental and vocal realms – trumpet, trombone, tuba, (French) horn, clarinet, flute, violin, viola, bass, sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, baritones, and have taught piano, horn, and beginning/intermediate wind instruments in both private and group settings. I love music, and even more, I love teaching music!

For areas that I taught, I put (using their categories) Accompaniment, Accordion, Audition Prep, Classical Piano, Ear Training, French Horn, Music Performance, Music Theory, and Piano.  Fair enough, I thought.  I had played accordion all through high school and undergrad, busking on the streets of my beloved college town, but never had I thought that I would teach the instrument (little did I know).

The account sat there for awhile, being added to with various pictures and videos, when all of sudden, I received a notification from TakeLessons saying that someone from Milton has signed up for piano lessons.  TakeLessons in a way is more reliable than the old-fashioned show-up-and-pay-as-you-go method.  People must pre-pay for lessons, specifically five to start out with, and then can only withdraw from lessons if they seriously dislike their teacher.  The teacher is paid either way, whether or not the student shows up, by direct deposit.  The only catch is (and I know you’ve been waiting) is that for the first fifteen lessons, trust must be established, and that trust comes in the form of 25% of your lesson going to the website that so conveniently hooked you up.  You set your own rate of pay, however, and after fifteen lessons, you can earn 90% of what you charge.  It’s just a switch of convenience – either have the student, that either you or a friend has recommended to you, hopefully pay you after the lesson has taken place (and not give you a check that bounces or not show up and you’re out that time unless you have a no-show plan), or have the money from the student who chose you amongst a list of individuals on a conveniently accessible website go straight into your bank account with a slight cut for the middle man.  Personally, I’m enjoying the latter option very much as it is very convenient and everything you could ever need to access regarding the financial state of these lessons is stored in an online account.

So, I had my new student.  Awesome!  How did that happen?  Why did she choose me?  I’ve honestly thought quite a bit about this, comparing myself to the other profiles of piano teachers in my zip code.  One thing I am sure sticks out, and this is not in any way facetious:  I’m a friendly looking, 20-something female who doesn’t have any particular instrument in the picture with her to alienate those who aren’t looking for that particular kind of lesson.  I would look up people who were listed as horn teachers, and when they had a trumpet in the photo with them, I would be taken aback and shake my head.  What are these people thinking?  You can’t claim to teach violin and have a harp in the picture.  Silly, silly.  So, common sense aside, what else set me apart?  For the piano side of things, I teach all piano, not just classical piano.  Most people (and I used to be one of them) seemed to be in the classical rut.  I wanted to teach only classical because that’s the best rep and you can collaborate and blah blah blah. . . Look, some people just want to play an awesome song they heard once, and to me, that’s so much more genuine than sticking to a canon because of archaic constraints of “classical music” and the days when ladies were “bred well” because of their literal “parlor tricks.”  Nah.  Done with that.  If that’s your thing, though, of course I’ll teach you the parlor tricks.  Hell, I’ll teach you ALL the tricks.  But if you just happen to really like that Yann Tiersen song or that one song by that techno band that for some reason decided to compose a beautiful piano piece, that desire is so beautifully genuine, and I will more than help you learn it.

It turns out that this student was one of the “Classical Piano” students, which is great, because that’s my forte (pun completely intended).  And, because she’s fourteen years old and her mother enrolled her in piano lessons, she is one of those modern incarnations of the well-bred individual.  In modern society, girls of the middle class are still taking music lessons not to be married off as acceptable stock, but ALL children are as a part of this new over-satiated-with-activities generation.  I am so incredibly grateful that I was able to be the multi-faceted artistic individual that I was throughout my childhood and young adulthood in a specialized sense.  I loved creative writing, I loved language, and I loved music.  Done.  Sports, nah.  Acting, not so much.  Visual arts, yeah maybe.  I took ballet.  I took vocal lessons.  I took violin lessons then switched over to viola because duh C-strings are awesome.  But these things were all eventually sloughed off of my extracurricular epidermis.  I wasn’t shoved into French club, Greek school, baseball practice, basketball practice, CCD class (aka “Catholic Church Detention” because we were clever) – my mother rode that line of respecting me and my right to choose as an individual while guiding me because I was not yet an adult, but when I decided on something, boy, did she crack down.  (We could open the whole can of worms on parenting and discipline, but the energy required into writing that would manifest in the form of an entire article – not now, but perhaps stay tuned!)

To elucidate, I am not one to belittle the act of taking music lessons, much less exploring the world around you; but exactly that, exploring the world around you, doesn’t always come in the structured form of a lesson.  Exploration and curiosity are things to be bred, for sure, but to satiate our kids so that they have no room to breathe, no room to feel like they can explore, no opportunities for them to discover how they learn, how they can explore, is more of a disservice than a leg-up on life.  Trying to reschedule with this particular student is a nightmare.  This time, inconveniently placed for the traveling music teacher at the peak of rush hour, is the only time she can receive lessons.  And to what end?  To show that she practices?  That there is that spark of intrinsic, volitional learning?  Why take music lessons at all if you’re not one to take time to develop a craft and through this craft realize these subtle truths?  of your nature?  of life internal and external?  of these connections that hang, suspended in this vast network of life, just out of reach until some sort of realization hoists you up, and at last you realize the awe-some depth of existence, and that everything connects to everything else, and at this same moment you paradoxically admit to knowing nothing?  (That escalated quickly. . .)  But in all seriousness, why continue skimming all these surfaces hoping to find hidden treasure just bobbing at the top?

One can probably tell by now that I am a teacher who lives in the fractal paradox (don’t worry, I don’t usually tell people that).  By that I mean the lesson is a constant ebbing and flowing of specialization, via technique, music theory, and broad application, playing through a piece to see where we are, discussing general musical ideas.  This in addition to personalized Socratic methodology, in which I guide the students to the answer based off what they know and their way of learning and discovering.  This has been a heavy-hitter for a first of three articles, so I shall divulge more information regarding my teaching methodology throughout the next couple of articles.

A Response to Mark Oppenheimer’s attack on the value of arts education published in the New Republic

As indicated by his article that admonishes parents who force their children to study music, Mark Oppenheimer reveals that he is mightily ‘dazed and confused’ about the value of music and the arts in education.  And the New Republic is guilty of publishing a speciously argued article that recommends that parents no longer need to take responsibility for providing an arts education for their children’s general education.

It is difficult to know how to respond to all of Mr. Oppenheimer assertions in his fractious and presumptuously article titled “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument.”

The presumptions are stunning with regard to questioning the motivations and intelligence of parents who for many reasons believe it is their responsibility to ensure that their children achieve the benefits of a rigorous education in the arts.  Despite its short length, Oppenheimer’s article is boundless in its insensitivity to the needs and feelings of our children who come to enjoy facing the serious challenges of arts learning and yet must learn also to survive, from time to time, the urge to quit their music and dance lessons whenever when the process seems too difficult.

I will start with Oppenheimer’s first argument: that is, the astonishing assertion that ballet and musical instrumental training are both “pointless” activities.  According to Oppenheimer, learning music and ballet can be characterized as hobbies that are as inane as “eating candy corn”.   Apparently Oppenheimer feels that parents who commit themselves to providing an education in the arts for their children — an education that is no more ‘forced’ than when schools or parents insist on required school subjects such as reading and math — should cease and desist from requiring their children to play an instrument or take ballet classes.

Though the pointlessness of arts learning is a central theme of his article, early on we learn that Oppenheimer does support his daughter’s education in ballet and playing the violin despite the inherent uselessness of either.  This paradox is explained by his second assertion: that education in the arts can be provided, but only if the child asks for it and continues to enjoy it.  Thus Oppenheimer feels he can be responsive to his daughter by paying for his daughter’s arts education because he thinks this ‘pointless endeavor’ is nonetheless temporarily enjoyable.  Rebekah reports to him that she loves her teachers, she is making progress, and Oppenheimer concludes that is all a parent needs to know if they are to support a pointless course of study.

But Oppenheimer also insists that those parents who decide to ‘force’ a child to engage in music lessons without assurances from their children that they want to play an instrument, have gotten the “unfounded” or “overblown” idea that serious arts instruction holds benefits for their children that go beyond a child’s immediate experience of having fun in the course of a ‘pointless’ activity.  That is, some parents and educators have discovered that many others believe that there is considerable experimental and informal evidence of music’s significant association with children’s cognitive, neurological, and social-emotional development that translates to higher levels of achievement in our schools.  Yet, according to Oppenheimer, the unfounded or overblown notion that an arts education is anything more than the fleeting pleasure of engaging in a aimless or nonsensical activity is a misconception.

Oppenheimer is troubled also by the lack of evidence for the need to perform music or dance in our current century.  He reminds his readers that  “before the twentieth century, there was a good reason for anyone to study music: If you couldn’t make the music yourself, then you would rarely hear it. “  Thus, in this age of total access to musical recordings, Oppenheimer is warning misguided parents that there is no good reason to put in the hours of practice it takes to perform music well because we can enjoy music without having to perform it ourselves.  Listening to music is important to millions of people, but learning to make music, or learning to read or analyze or compose music is completely unnecessary: we have access to all the recordings we need to enjoy or understand music.

Furthermore, Oppenheimer assumes that there is no empirical evidence that music or ballet training has any measurable benefit to our children other than the joy of doing a pointless activity reasonably well.  To prove this presumption Oppenheimer completely ignores the numerous studies that suggest important attributes of arts learning and their possible association with other kinds of learning, and instead engages his readers in absurd ‘thought experiments’ intended to illustrate his argument.   He claims, for example, that no one would be able to distinguish differences in body movement when observing ballet trained versus untrained students going about their normal school day activities.  In his imagination, dance has little effect on the way students stand in line, walk with their friends, etc.  His opinions notwithstanding, Oppenheimer’s loosely described thought experiment not only does not warrant his conclusions, it shows a complete disregard for the nature of meaningful learning transfer effects that researchers report when, for example, strong associations are discovered between measures of early musical training and phonemic awareness in early language development,  or keyboard training and the grasp of spatial reasoning.  And, while dance teachers might disagree completely with Oppenheimer’s conclusions, if Oppenheimer’s readers to agree to accept his opinion that there ballet training will have no impact on physical movement of students during school then, by this logic, we would have to embrace also the unlikely notion that musical training presumably would have no influence on their ability of young musicians to discern, analyze, or reflect on music or other sonic environments any differently from untrained students as they are exposed to music during in-school or after-school activities.  And because Oppenheimer does not mention anything in his article about students who have been  ‘forced’ to learn language arts skills or to engage in the study of literature, we are left to wonder whether or not Oppenheimer would also believe the absurd hypothesis that learning reading, theater, creative writing, or poetry are also pointless activities that will have no impact on the language skills exhibited by children during their school day.

Oppenheimer’s pitifully small range of evidence also draws on his recollections of dinner party conversations with friends.  From this level of discourse he concludes that not every middle class adult continues to play the instrument they learned in their youth and musicians who learned to play Bach’s music early in life don’t think much of his music later on.  This finding is apparently important to Oppenheimer’s sense of the worthlessness of learning classical music when he states that “the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach.”

This conclusion will seem very strange to musicians for two reasons.  First, musicians I have talked to haven’t found much evidence of music students not being able to appreciate the value of performing or listening to Bach or other classical composers later in life.   Secondly, it appears perfectly normal that music students expand their listening interests to include many kinds of music they haven’t studied on their instrument.   However it seems to Oppenheimer that listening to popular music or jazz is evidence of the failure of arts education in classical music.  However, music educators would normally expect that, as music students mature, their listening interests routinely expand beyond the boundaries of the music they learned in their music lessons.  The fact that music students can enjoy all kinds of music besides the classical music they play, strikes me as a very positive results of a comprehensive education in music.  Similarly, I would think English Language Arts teachers would assume that when readers to pursue their interests in literature beyond the boundaries of their experience reading Shakespeare or other authors they study in school, it is a positive outcome of their language arts education.

I am not sure what Oppenheimer means by classically trained musicians not being “fans of Bach” but arts education professionals know that anyone who has struggled to learn to play an instrument well enough to render a Bach Minuet or Invention — or who has studied ballet long enough to experience part of Balanchine’s choreography of the Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or who has studied literature enough to memorize a scene from a Shakespeare play— is highly likely to have a life-long appreciation of these artists and their works.

We also have to question Oppenheimer’s view of the role of arts education in our society when he elaborates on his idea that it is also pointless to engage more children in the arts learning than will be needed to supply the cultural organization of our society.  This overly pragmatic and myopic view of arts education is articulated in the paragraph below:

“Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students. We all love paper cranes, I think, but we aren’t rushing to give our children to the cause.”

The quotation above reveals that Oppenheimer thinks only the gifted few who will contribute directly to our nation’s cultural institutions need apply themselves to the rigors of an arts education.  As long as the continuing development of this generation of artists can still serve Mr. Oppenheimer’s and others’ appetite for well-performed classical music or ballet, then he would most likely approve requiring that persistent music instruction be made available to children, but preference should given only to the most ‘gifted’ of students at a young age.  As a result of this position, Oppenheimer is clearly not much invested in the notion that a rigorous arts education can serve all students well.  And he is probably unaware that most career musicians  — those assumed to be gifted or not at an early age — benefitted from parents or teachers who required them to work at their discipline in a way that motivated them to practice deeply the lessons they learned from expert teachers.

The next quotation below reveals Oppenheimer’s snobbish desire to be able to listen to live classical music and his pretense that listening to music is a pointless pleasure that is not enhanced by acquiring the ability to play music at any level of skill.  It is as if learning to read and speak well is unnecessary to appreciate the language arts.  Once again the author fails to provide any rationale to insist that children experience the opportunity to cultivate a deeper understanding of music by virtue of being able to play challenging music well.  Through Suzuki, parents today now know that virtually all children can learn to play classical music (and folk songs, fiddle songs, and string orchestra music) to a significant level of quality, but Mr. Oppenheimer fractiously asserts that learning to play the four chords of a current hit song on the guitar will be “more of an asset” to a child’s education in music than pursuing music that would contribute to a far deeper development of musical literacy skills.

“I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.”

Though we live in a society that justifiably supports freedom of opinion among all parents and arts educators, we have to question the purpose of this article.  Why does Oppenheimer make irresponsible and illogical statements about the nature and worth of arts education when he surely must realize that his statements could be used for fodder for those parents who want an excuse not to provide a viable musical education for their children?   Why is he choosing to denigrate the accomplishments of all children who participate in violin or ballet programs — and the teachers of these programs who dedicate themselves to every child they face — when he states  “there is no special virtue in knowing how to play the violin, unless you have a special gift for the violin.”

Music and ballet don’t just provide benefits to the highest achievers in music.  And they do not preclude the value of learning sports or going to good movies or reading books.  It’s just that responsible parents and educators now know that children cannot learn to love music, dance, or the language arts without an education that includes learning how to read, perform, and understand what it is they eventually choose to do in life.  By equating the serious study of music and dance with origami, watching a movie, auto repair or “endless hours of foosball” Oppenheimer appears completely insensitive to challenges that parents face when faced with the decision to support arts education for their children or not.  Hinting that a music education through pop music studies would be altogether preferable to classical training is Oppenheimer’s being flippant at best, or profoundly ignorant of the process by which educators establish the basis for a comprehensive arts education at worst.   What young instrumentalist would not benefit from learning to play both a transcription of a Bach and a Beatles composition?  What classically trained musician would not benefit from instruction in improvisation based on the substantial works of both classical and popular songwriters?  What dancer would be better off not benefit experiencing the choreography of both Balanchine and Alvin Ailey? What children would not benefit from experiencing the music dramas of Mozart and Alan Mencken?  It is the domain of an education in the arts that can provide these and many other sources of lasting inspiration for our children’s education over many years of study.

In the last analysis, it seems that young Rebekah is responsible for educating her father on what all adults should come to know as the timeless value of an education in the arts.  She is insisting that beginning ballet and the violin studies as a child, two very challenging enterprises, are rewarding to her despite momentary difficulties and disappointments that might cause other children to quit their studies — especially if their parents continually imply that she can quit at any time.  And, despite the hard work, it appears that the study of dance and music could simply make her happy.  And I would predict that, if she does stick with her arts learning disciplines she is likely to argue later in life that public education should at least provide, if not require, many types of opportunities for all children to practice the arts well and not just those who are presumptively deemed innately gifted.  Oppenheimer should have learned by now that learning the violin or ballet is not just an excuse to parade our kids through the fleeting pleasures of pointless arts experiences, but rather a reason to provide all children with the benefits of a life-long love of learning based on a growing appreciation and participation in the arts.

Though Oppenheimer is at present willing to continue providing a serious music and dance education for his daughter for the time being, he makes clear it is contingent on her enjoying every moment of the process, otherwise he is willing to throw away his investment in arts education and gladly watch his favorite movies with her instead.  This closing quotation from his article makes this fearsome contingency very clear:

“Rebekah, for her part, will continue with ballet. And violin. Periodically, we ask her if she’d like to quit, and she always says no. That’s good enough for us. If she finds a lifelong pursuit, that’s great. But if one evening, at her usual practice hour, she decides enough is enough, maybe I’ll suggest the guitar. Or maybe I’ll just ask if she wants to sit with me on the couch and watch Dazed and Confused*.”

Because Oppenheimer and many other parents may continue to be ‘dazed and confused’ about the value of a required arts instruction for their children, leading educators and researchers need to make more clear why all parents need to ensure that our son’s and daughter’s do have the right to comprehensive education in the arts in this new millennium.

Lawrence Scripp

*According to Wikipedia, Dazed and Confused” is a cult comic movie about high school hazing and all the expected hilarious depictions of fighting, alcohol and marijuana use and is known to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies.

Lawrence Scripp is a life-long musician and music educator, arts education researcher and consultant. He has been the founding co-director of the Conservatory Lab Charter School, Founder of the Center for Music-in-Education, Inc., and most recently the author of  “Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning” in Arts Education Policy Review May 2013.

The MIE Concert: From ‘Power Song’ to ‘Power Program”

Editor’s Note:  This is the 2nd post in a long series with an inside view of the planning and production for our department’s first-ever intra-departmental MIE Concert!

Planning for the MIE Concert continues. Devin Ulibarri, our MIE Graduate Assistant and also faculty at NEC MusicLaunch, shares the following:

Purpose

To showcase MIE teaching artists in the context of MIE philosophies. Allows MIE
students to connect with an audience in the context of their rationale for MIE- one
can experiment in creating a concert that communicates music to an audience in a
unique way.

I also understand the need for MIE concentration students and the department as a
whole to express themselves through performance. I also hope that the department
can gain more exposure through performances, however it is imperative that this is
within the context of the MIE concepts and values.

Possibilities

  • MIE concentration students could collaborate – solo, chamber within their
    discipline, or chamber cross-disciplinary (CI+classical –personally, I think this
    is great, because MIE is the one place where all different backgrounds can come
    together and learn from one another so the process of collaboration itself would be
    a learning process)
  • MIE projects performed – A kick-ass version of a cups exercise, Pachelbel’s canon
    etc.
  • MIE students perform (with or without teachers) – Students display what they
    have learned from internship
  • Between pieces and within the program, MIE students can detail their philosophies
    and their rationale for MIE
  • Experiments in audience contributions
  • MIE concentration composers may write pieces for event that reflect their
    rationale for MIE