This is the beginning of what I hope will become a multi-part series about music pedagogy. I have noticed a lot of conversations being sparked lately about what the future of music education will look like in a post-pandemic world and I think that these conversations are much needed and long overdue. It’s clear to me that the existing structure has stopped working; whether due to rising costs, decreasing value of what they offer, rigid thinking, non-relevance to the modern world, growing bureaucratic over-reach, government cuts, or an intricate mix of all those, plus more.
This is something I’ve been thinking of for a while being a musician, a guitar teacher and having gone through the university/ college system myself. I figured I would try to organize my thoughts into this weekly – at least I’ll aim for weekly - blog. There will be many more of these, since the subject is so dense and because I’m effectively using this as a way to explore my own thoughts on the matter, but I’ll try to make it an interesting read so we can all win here.
In this ‘episode’ I’ll spend a bit of time on the private lesson industry, which will eventually lead into some thoughts on college/university. This is very much a scratch of the surface, but I look forward to digging deeper in the following weeks.
How many music teachers find themselves in a similar scenario? You feel like you’re giving everything you possibly can to a student and in your mind there seems to be no shortage of things for that student to practise. Yet lesson after lesson they come to you without having worked on the material sufficiently enough to move on to the next thing that you have planned. After all, humans learn best in a building-block approach, each block laying the foundation for the next. Though as we often see, this presents a challenge in the scenario that a student doesn’t put in the needed work into one of the blocks.
In this scenario the teacher is left with a number of options, the two most observable being;
The problem with these approaches, and additionally to many teaching approaches, is that it fosters within the student a dependence on the teacher and robs the student of the ability to self-learn.
One of a paranoid persuasion could almost be driven to see it as a conspiracy to keep students dependent on the school out of fear that if they had the means and the motivation to progress on their own, they would stop taking lessons. Conspiracies aside, this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that to many teachers, it just seems easier in the short term for a number of reasons. They want to avoid appearing too authoritative, they want the student to enjoy themselves and to continue to come back, they don’t want the kid to just lump them in with every other authority figure, etcetera. These are all perfectly valid concerns, and they can be achieved successfully with the aid of a little more tact.
The fact is, these results are best achieved by not informing your actions by those seemingly noble wishes but rather with the larger, more ‘meta’ wish to impart onto someone a deeper love and ability to understand music. The rest will come.
There’s an analogy to be drawn here between parenting and these examples. There are super strict parents, which suffocate the child’s growth and often cause them to experience a delayed adolescence in adulthood. On the flip side, there are parents who want to be the kids ‘buddy’ with similarly disastrous results. Obviously as a music teacher you’re far from being on the level of parent, but I think the analogy still holds.
I am very much of the “Catch someone a fish they’ll eat for a day, teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime” persuasion. We’re not simply teaching people music; we are teaching people how to teach themselves music. We are supposed to be giving people the tools to discover things for themselves, not just giving them things to train into their muscle memory so that they ostensibly appear to be able to play an instrument.
Where do we (musicians) go for musical knowledge/ wisdom? The source obviously, the music itself. If we don’t impart onto our students the ability to go directly to the music itself for answers, we have effectively failed them.
To use another, further removed analogy: when the printing press was invented, and subsequently when literacy became more common among the general populace, knowledge and power became consecrated more and more within the people and less so with the high classes of venerated priests of the time. Before then, people could only receive the ‘word of god’ through the mediation of select priests.
In the case of the written word; for an immense amount of time only a select few could access ‘the source’ that is, by directly reading the literature. Literary progress moved very slowly in those days. Being able to read, much like being able to really listen to music, is a mental commodity which effectively transcends every physical barrier the world has to offer – I say effectively because it takes time to learn, time which not everyone has – and its commercial value is infinite.
In short, literacy is power. When more people can read and write, the entire body of literature becomes richer. Similarly, in the case of music. More people than ever before have access to musical literacy and as a result there is music being created that people 20 years ago could have never conceived of (for better or for worse). Some of the most envelope-pushing music of all time is being made in our lifetimes thanks to increased access to information (the internet after all, is a kind of printing press). The problem in our field don’t stem from lack of innovation, but rather a lack of monetary compensation. I often feel like our world is becoming more and more visually oriented and that we live less and less in the aural world which is all the more reason for us to teach people how to listen. Teaching someone to play music without teaching them how to listen is like teaching someone how to write before they can even read.
It’s difficult for musicians to imagine that someone could perceive playing music as a completely visual task, but we forget that many people these days do not grow up with music around them. When you take those people and teach them an instrument without spending any time on listening, and you just give them work sheets and books and other visual things; and then you explain where everything is on the instrument in visual terms because it take less time that way….. they will not perceive the actual sound of that instrument. They will think “I played the notes on the page and put my fingers on the right spots so that was good” without knowing at all that the sound, and the emotional contentment therein was the whole point. It could sound terrible and they won’t know, because you never showed them what the guitar (or what instrument ‘X’) is supposed to sound like in the context of actual music. To that person you are essentially teaching them finger dancing if you don’t spend a significant amount of time on listening. The number of teachers who don’t assign listening homework to their students at all astounds me. I generally want to avoid coming off as judgemental, but it is really the bare minimum that they should be doing as music educators.
Too often it seems music educators have the tendency to think of themselves as high priests interpreting musical wisdom for their students to understand, turning the world of sounds and textures into blots of ink on the page. All the student will ever know are those ink blots unless you teach them how to listen.
Many of us (musicians/ music teachers) were taught how to listen organically, from infancy around the same time our brains were acquiring language. For those of us who were lucky enough to be exposed to music as babies, the world of musical sounds became intertwined with the world linguistic sounds. Because our linguistic frame work informs our perceptions of reality, those of us who have music intertwined in our linguistic framework have a much more lucid and somatic perception of music compared to those who don’t. Now, if you are one of these lucky ones – most musicians are, chicken and egg – you may find it incredibly difficult to imagine how someone who doesn’t have this advantage perceives music. Things that you take for granted as self-evident are likely not at all on the radar to those people who are less aurally inclined.
we all too often take for granted that we (musicians) know, on an experiential level what music is. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not. The fact is, no one in their right mind would become a musician without some extremely strong, invisible force propelling them. It’s not method books and scales and theory and ink on paper. As musicians, we know this on a deep level because we all have moments etched into our memory of music providing us with intense, inner experiences which can’t be effectively expressed on paper.
Many musicians of my generation are as of late, becoming keen on creating a new kind of pedagogical structure to compete with the existing ones, which I think is much needed and long overdue.
One small critique. I’ve noticed that what kind of approach we will take to be somewhat absent from the conversation. There have been plenty of valid critiques of existing structural problems in the university system but I worry that we are ignoring what is most important: what exactly is this ‘new education’ going to look like? Will we just continue the same old approaches under new names? Will we continue to sacrifice the experiential in favor of the academic? Will we continue to make the mistake of belittling music to the level of an intellectual exercise? My hopes are that we take a good look at ourselves, what propels us, and that we find a way to effectively nourish other people’s propelling force.
I’ll leave this one off with some epigrams by Heraclitus, one of the primary founders of dialectical thought. I find these to be applicable here:
Thanks for reading, look out for the next one. – Aidan