Who are you, Comrade Questions?

If there’s one thing that grad school has made me exceptionally good at, it’s questioning the why of what we do as music educators. That’s something that’s simultaneously great, and terrifying. Great because asking difficult questions will make me a better teacher, and terrifying because some of the answers I’ve been coming up with don’t really fit with what we currently do.

Why [insert large ensemble here]?

The easy answer is because that’s what I did as a student, and I loved it. It’s what parents and administrators have come to expect out of a secondary music program. We teach what we teach because that’s what school music has looked like since 1920. Change is tough.

But over the past five weeks, I’ve read in quick succession, John Kratus’ Music Education at the Tipping Point, David Williams’ The Elephant in the Room, and Thomas Regelski’s Musicianism and the Ethics of School Music. Each author in their own way questions how long we can maintain our current model of music education. And while I don’t agree with all of their ideas (Williams, for example, advocates removing large ensembles from the picture entirely), they raise some salient points.

Are large ensembles the best way to reach the maximum number of students? Are they relevant to a large percentage of students, including the ones who currently participate in them? What changes could we make to our approach to large ensembles that might revitalize their role in music education?

Some potentially scary questions, and equally uncomfortable answers.

Why elevate Western art music?

Look, I love the works of Gustav Mahler, I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’ve performed the Holst Suites, and Lincolnshire Posy. But, is music like that the best thing for my students? You can easily make the argument that music of that nature can really help our students develop excellent technical skills, and help make them proficient with regards to expression. But, how many of our students go home and listen to Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms on their iPods?

Regelski says we fail in our ethical duty to “do no harm” to our students when we select music that disengages them. He says that imposing our own musical values, elevating our own choices above theirs, infringes on their right of musical self-expression. Is that something that you find agreeable? Again, difficult things to consider, and we might not like the answers that result.

What should we add?

The quote from this summer that has most strongly resonated with me is David Williams’ belief that “it is essential that we offer interesting, relevant, and meaningful musical experiences for all students.” On the surface, I think we all agree that music education is something that all students should experience. Disagreement sets in when we think about how to accomplish that goal.

What can we add to existing music curricula to reach more students? Is this something we can accomplish without adding staff (a big consideration in today’s age of massive budget cuts)? Should we try to add new musical opportunities even if it means stepping way outside our comfort zones? How do we present these opportunities to skeptical superiors?

Who are you, Comrade Questions?

I’m not going to pretend to have the answer to any of the questions posed here. An answer that applies to my reality would not fit all other realities. These are merely things to consider if we’re going to push ourselves to be better teachers.