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!