Enjoying the ride

As I ventured into my graduate studies, looking for new challenges, I had no idea what was in store. The twists and turns that my musical, educational, and professional brains would journey through have been exciting, frustrating, and of course, left me with more questions than answers. My background as a musician (and music educator) is firmly rooted in the instrumental ensemble tradition. This was where I came from… this is what I recreated in my own classroom… but now it feels different.

The more I learn about the weaknesses of our current music education model in the US and better understand the rational for the model to remain prominent, the more I am looking to work outside of the box. Don’t get me wrong, I love and respect the process and opportunity to perform our standards of wind band literature (Holst, Grainger, etc.). But… I have never been one to return to the same experience multiple times and maintain an unwavering interest. For me, this is true about music, food, hobbies, and so many other aspects of my life. As frustrating as that is for my wife (who does an amazing job of entertaining my need to have a fresh culinary experience), it is a journey that we embark upon together. The joy of looking for new twists on old ideas has allowed us to discover flavor combinations that we would have missed had we just cooked the chicken the same way every time, because that’s just how we (“traditionally”) cook our chicken. Bringing this idea back to music, what are our musical traditions? Why are they our musical traditions?

As a performer (yes, a tuba player just called himself a performer), I look for new ways to respond to the musical opportunities of the moment to provide variety to my own experiences.  There are a number of pieces that I have played MANY times throughout my career (you know, the “standards”), but I don’t think that I have ever played them the same way. Now, this isn’t in reference to the idea that every live performance is slightly varied because that is a characteristic of  human nature. I specifically mean that I have made significant musical choices about my contribution to the ensemble in order to respond to the context and setting of that experience. Sure, my fundamental understanding and appreciation for the opening phrase of the Holst Suite in Eb has remained the same, but my approach and interpretation has changed each time I have performed it. I find myself maintaining my musical core while evolving my expressive shell around it. Can this happen in a classroom as well.

This brings us to where I am right now… exploring this potential opportunity in our music classrooms (in both thought and action). I struggle with trying to answer these reoccurring questions: What is our philosophy of music education? What are our goals as music educators for student learning? What do we do because it is what has always been done versus what do we do because it is a part of our core? Can we feel fulfilled (as professionals) in a classroom that doesn’t look like the classroom we “grew up” in? At what point does student interest and prior knowledge about music take a front seat in driving the classroom goals? I know that I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I am enjoying the mental ride of looking for those answers. As I talk with many of my colleagues, I see that there are cracks in our shells that provide us a space to have these conversations… where we can challenge our traditions, our philosophies, our goals, our methods… and feel safe in our professional (and personal) evolution. We music educators do a lot of things really well… but are we doing them as well as we could? That is our ride to enjoy.

2 Responses to Enjoying the ride

  1. Paul says:

    Nice! I say keep asking the questions thus, keeping yourself sharp. It is also interesting to think that most of your students will experience for the FIRST TIME what you have already experienced time and time again, but decide to come at from a different direction each time. Which of your new approaches will reach the most of your ever changing (yearly) classroom? Is it even possible to line the two up (your approach + their experience) on a consistent basis? I feel this is why the fundamentals of playing are what is most important (In Tone, In Time, In Tune, In Technique) as a essential approach so that when students become members of this journey you talk about (at least aware, even though they were already on it) they too can apply the same questions for musical growth. I also find that when students begin to “master” the 4 T’s they start to think they have reached the finish line of musicianship… I spend a lot of time welcoming them to the start of their musical journey. Thanks friend! Always an inspiration. PK

  2. I think it’s important to remember that looking for new opportunities, new directions, and new approaches doesn’t necessarily mean we have to let go of everything that is familiar. I like your cooking analogy. Just because I’m trying new recipes and new flavors doesn’t mean I’m going to let go of my favorites I enjoy. I’m just expanding and evolving my palate. We should all strive to do the same in music education. After all, if we’re going to ask our students to look beyond the familiar, shouldn’t we be prepared to do the same?

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