Confessional

So, I’ve decided that it is time to confess. I have participated in, vehemently supported, and even led the perpetuation of a tradition, without every questioning it. Now, by the very nature of a tradition, newbies are not usually in a position to question. The focus is on conformity. As I grew up within this tradition, I learned the inner workings, the subtle variations, and became skilled at keeping the tradition intact. The past couple of years, the tradition has felt incomplete (for me) and I started looking for alternate opportunities. Now, I feel comfortable enough to offer my formal confession… My name is Nathan Johnston, and I am a band director.

On the surface, being identified as a “band director” seems harmless. And in many ways, I still feel that it is harmless. But, when working with students from a variety of communities, cultures, interests, and abilities, being ONLY a band director can be limiting. In the big picture of ‘music as a part of the human experience’ (cliché, I know), band participation is a small sliver of that music. Our traditional model of exclusively offering only general music experiences in elementary school, preparing students to enter the large ensemble performance classes later in school, funnels the creative interest and opportunities out of the students. As I look back on my own participation in school music, there were many interests that I explored in my head, but never felt comfortable to express them to my music teacher. Eventually, I convinced myself that I wasn’t capable of exploring those interests.

When recently reading “The Elephant in the Room” by David Williams, I was reminded of the emotions I felt that led me on this new journey towards expanding. I watched my school community shower accolades on the program, we received a number of high awards, yet I couldn’t understand why numbers were going down. It wasn’t a feeder issue (their numbers were growing). The students who chose not to continue expressed that they just weren’t “into band anymore”. It wasn’t the class culture because those same students remained a part of the social side of the band room. It wasn’t the friends because most of them maintained the tight friendships they had while in band. Something was going on and I couldn’t figure it out. Later, I would also find out that many of them dropped band to work on other types music – garage bands, composing, take lessons on guitar (when they never took lessons on sax)… What?!

I said “expanding” earlier because I am in no way suggesting that the large performance ensembles should not exist. I am taking the stance that they shouldn’t exclusively exist and that every musical opportunity in schools shouldn’t lead towards participation in them. Nowhere in my core philosophy about music education and why music should exist in schools do I narrow “music” into large ensemble participation – yet I practiced that. That is problematic for both me and the students I interact with. So I’m left wondering if there are different ways of approaching those large ensembles while still allowing them to be large ensembles. Are there additional musical interests that students have that could be included within or offered ad-hoc to the large ensemble?

So, in the interest of doing something about my confession, I need your support/help. There are many ways to teach in a music classroom. Are you doing something different? Do you use a technique that would be considered non-traditional? Are you curious about ways to be non-traditional? Are you or your students looking for something new and different? You can post your ideas to this Padlet wall (it’s an online post-it board). Let’s see what our collective ideas are and how we can be non-traditional, even in our traditional classrooms.

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