This Friday I will be speaking to music education majors at my undergraduate alma mater.
I'm not looking forward to it.
That may sound odd, but it's true. When I taught at the college level I was passionate about the need for undergraduate students to take Philosophy of Music Education. I spent the better part of the semester unpacking the assumptions that music education majors bring to college, most of those assumptions being formulated (naturally) by their own high school experiences. By the end of the semester I was hopeful that some of them had at least considered a different way of viewing their future profession. I would routinely tell them that many of things we discussed would not "click" until they were in the field, occasionally during student teaching but more likely a few years into the profession. In this "why do I need to know this" generation, this requires a massive amount of trust, trust that I cultivated over time. Planting those seeds that would take root years later was essential and as I said it took many weeks of persistent, thought provoking questioning and dialog, not to mention a continued follow up in subsequent years. Many college faculty members think that philosophy should be reserved for graduate study. I think that is far too late, but sadly most undergraduates across the nation do not take such a course.
So this week I will have about one hour to "enlighten" a group of music education majors, one hour to somehow make a lasting difference. It seems one of the main reasons for inviting me was my 25 Things About Teaching Music and Education. That article is a summation of everything I've learned and been thinking about for the past twenty years. Any one of the twenty five points is worth several hours of discussion by itself. You see my dilemma.
If you've done any amount of presentation work, you know how to do the magic tricks that get everyone engaged, laughing a little, and leaving an hour later with good feelings..... that rarely turn into lasting change. That doesn't interest me. In this one hour session with what I'm sure is a typical got-it-all-figured-out, mainly (like myself) trumpet-playing music ed. group, I'll be lucky to get one point to stick with them. So what should that be?
Well, for those participants who read this post before Friday, you're getting a sneak peak (not to mention proving yourselves by doing some preparation prior to the discussion). What I want to talk about is this: The way that most music education majors arrive at the decision to become music teachers is diametrically opposed to the reality of what most public school students need.
Great, that should be a very inspiring talk.
But the facts are the facts. If you look at the way most high school music programs are structured, they consistently reward the very "best" music students.
- Students sit in chair order from strongest to weakest.
- Students who get a first place at solo contest are given medals, certificates, or trophies.
- The Drum Majors are heralded and given (oftentimes too much) teaching responsibility over their peers.
Each spring the "senior soloist" performs (usually with a very weak accompaniment from the band or orchestra), and the audience is informed that this senior will be attending such-and-such university and will major in music education. Everyone nods knowingly. The inspired student heads off to college, taking all of those experiences with them, and is typically met by faculty members that taught a little public school (usually five years or so) before leaving to pursue their dream of teaching at the collegiate level. This leaves the music education major in a situation where their beliefs about how music programs should be approached go largely unchallenged, as their former high school teachers usually have far more practical experience than most professors. Five years later (even though you were told it would be four) the student emerges ready to go out and create a near carbon-copy of their high school program that will inspire and empower the few, producing one or two future music educators per year and garnering accolades for the program. And so it goes. The problem?
What about the other ninety five percent of the students?
Are we really supposed to be in the business of gearing our programs to the top five percent? To read that statement it simply rings as ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what happens more often than not.
It's always interesting when my own graduates go off to college and send me an email that usually includes a statement like "everyone here was a drum major" or "I'm surrounded by people I saw at All State last year." Right. Young people who are inspired to teach music usually get to that point because of the wonderful opportunities they had. They rose to the top, they achieved, they loved it. It makes perfect sense. The problem is that we are perpetuating a cycle whereby music programs are designed to inspire and reward the few. As teachers we know that the main purpose of public school music is not to prepare students to be music educators. How could it be? At most only five percent of our graduates will enter the profession, and even then there are not enough jobs to go around.
Out of the remaining ninety five percent of the students, the vast majority will never perform again after high school. What exactly are those students getting that makes our class invaluable? Are we focusing our attention there, both in the profession and in our college methods courses? Or are we continuing to buy into the thought that as long as the band, orchestra, or choir is "successful" that the experience will be meaningful to the lower ninety five percent automatically?
Music education majors need to grapple with this subject if they are going to be able to break the cycle of teaching to the top, and get focused on the learning of all students, especially the "lower" ninety five percent. Music education needs to be relevant and meaningful now more than ever before.
So that's what I'm going to be talking about. Wish me luck.