It happens much more often than any of us like. Some well-meaning parent, administrator, or friend delivers the piece of advice that they are certain will fix everything wrong with music education. “Simply teach the music that students actually like.” We smile and graciously accept their input. Inside, we are fuming! Would anyone tell an English professor to only teach popular fiction like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games? Will a history teacher skip a discussion of the Holocaust in their unit on World War II? Teaching requires much more than simply giving what students want; as pedagogues, we are expected to determine what our students need to know and the skills that must be developed for future success. We have a responsibility to introduce students to concepts, traditions, and experiences that they never knew were realms of further investigation.
I recently heard a similar statement made about my own teaching. Initially, I was annoyed. When teaching recommendations come from other people in my field, I tend to listen and give their suggestions the appropriate weight. When it comes from a person with no training in my field — other than their personal biases about music as they know it — I try to let it roll off my back and simply not consider it anymore. Unfortunately, this comment stung and I could not shake it.
As I reflected on the flippant comment, I determined that the statement is missing a word. Did the speaker realize the error? Probably not. But I think the missing word makes all the difference and is becoming a personal mantra for my own teaching. “Teach music so students want to play.” No longer does the statement dare to tell me to limit my teaching to repertoire that is current, hip, and fun (and what will probably be gone as soon as the next “hot, new style” hits Spotify). Now I am being permitted and encouraged to expand my horizons. Use a variety of music that will reinforce the concepts that I as the professional teacher determine they most need. Will there be things that they simply have to do despite how much they don’t want to? Yes. There is truly no substitute for a Bach Prelude and Fugue to help a developing pianist understand the challenges that come with thick polyphonic music. But, playing Bach can also open doors to exciting music of the 21st century as well. That’s when we get to explain to students that understanding the music of the past — and mastering its performance — opens enormous avenues into appreciating and performing music that is being composed today.
As children, one of the most thrilling experiences was discovering something new and getting to learn more about it. We can cultivate the same level of fun in our lessons as we explore music together — student and teacher. Teachers should not be the only ones who can introduce new sounds into the music lesson. Always looking at new repertoire in all styles and from all eras is an easy way to bring discovery back into the lesson. What would happen if I brought a contemporary flavor into my current study of Mozart? Is it stylistically correct? Probably not…..but in the exploration and the fun, I just might discover a sound that can be the key to unlocking something exciting and new in my approach to the instrument. Of course, there still must be discipline and careful attention to developing a healthy technique for a lifetime of performing. We just have to constantly allow our students to experience the fun and joy that comes from music SO they will want to have a lifetime of performing.
So……that one little word makes all the difference. Even though it is not often included in the comment, I am choosing to always hear it said. “Teach music SO students want to play.”