A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with one of my third grade classes about my elementary school music program. They were shocked to hear that music was my least favorite class. My elementary school years were a particularly tough time for public education funding, and arts education took a huge hit in my urban school district. We were lucky if we had 20 minutes with the music teacher (a new one nearly every year) every three weeks, and when we did, we sang from dusty, outdated textbooks. That was it. No instruments, no composition, no music history, no music literacy – no fun – and definitely no resemblance to my students’ current music education experience.
One of my students asked me how I got from there – honestly wanting nothing to do with music, to here – holding multiple degrees in music education, making music with 360-something children every week, presenting and teaching at the university level, writing for an arts education blog – and I couldn’t give her a good answer on the spot. It did make me think though, how did music go from being something I despised to being something that defines me?
Thankfully, the music program at my junior high school was marginally better than the one at my elementary school. I took the required general music classes and followed a few of my friends into the chorus. The music teachers had the tools and the skills they needed to teach us and left us wanting to know more. While there I learned a lot about music. I learned to plunk out a couple songs on the keyboard. I learned to read notes on the staff. I learned about famous composers. I learned to sing in harmony. Most importantly, I learned that music might actually be fun.
It wasn’t until high school I learned that music wasn’t really about any of that. Music isn’t about old dead guys or written notes on a score. It isn’t about pressing the right key at the right time to get the right sound. It is about connecting – connecting with the music, connecting with the audience, connecting with other musicians, connecting with the composer’s intention, connecting with something inside you didn’t even know existed. It is about turning butterflies into goose bumps, hard work into standing ovations, black and white dots on a page into an energy that knocks you off your feet. Music, at its best, is a spiritual, life-altering experience.
Looking back now, I can clearly see that my high school music teacher was the driving force in changing my viewpoint. She wove the essential skills of creativity, confidence, problem-solving, dreaming big, accountability, communication and adaptability outlined in Lisa Phillips’ book, The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need to Succeed in an Increasingly Right Brain World, seamlessly into everything we did – from first rehearsals to recitals to fundraisers to competitions. She gave us each a voice. She made sure that we knew exactly how much we mattered to her and to each other. She taught us that the only way to succeed was to put in the time and do the work. She expected nothing less than our absolute best at all times. She asked questions instead of giving answers. She allowed us the freedom to create something more powerful together than any of us could ever create individually. She didn’t just teach us about music, she taught us why music mattered, and through that, why we mattered. She is the real reason I am here writing this blog today.
My ultimate goal as a music educator is to provide that same experience for my students. I don’t want them to just know about music. I want them to know music. I want them to know themselves. I want them to see they are part of a tradition that goes as far back in human history as we can trace. I want them to find ways to connect with others on a truly spiritual level. I want them to find their voice, their place, their purpose, their power – and once they do, figure out how to use it to make this world better.
I am here because one incredible music educator took the time to show me what really mattered. What brought you here?