As this year draws to a close, I have been reflecting upon how this year contained some absolutely outstanding performances by our music students, and that both the high school band and orchestra performed more this year than in years past. A fellow music teacher I greatly respect from another district recently said to me “if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.” So I got to thinking…did I have a good answer for exactly why we do student performances? In almost no other content area except for the arts do we take the culmination of things students have learned and present them in some sort of large public demonstration. Why do we do this?
Initially, I got to thinking that there are actually a lot of potentially negative issues with doing concerts. Concerts and other public performances can be problematic from the educational standpoint because a performance is largely a one shot deal—months of hard work and music learning boil down to just one opportunity to get things right…and with the pressure of an audience to boot. A bad performance should not negate the months of successes students experience within the four walls of the classroom, but it sure can feel like it does when things do not go well! “Snapshots” of student achievements are not great measures of what students are actually accomplishing (*cough*….standardized tests….*cough, cough*). Balancing the educational value of concerts with the entertainment value of concerts can also be problematic—everything from the music choices to the length of the concert has to be carefully balanced. What music will meet the educational needs of the students while meeting the entertainment desires of the audience? What amount of time is the appropriate amount of time to showcase student achievement?
But with further thought, I came up with what I think are solid answers to the question “Why do we have concerts?” It’s not that concerts have to be defended—concerts aren’t going anywhere: students love playing concerts and parents and community members expect to be able to hear students play. It’s that I think students, parents and community members can benefit from the perspective as to why we do concerts in the first place.
Concerts showcase student WORK AND EFFORT—NOT “TALENT.” Talent, or natural aptitude as I’d rather call it, is not the name of the game in music education. Different levels of natural talent exist in music just as different levels of natural talent exist in all academics (and yes, music is an academic subject…). Yet, the “T-word” seems to be the go-to explanation we provide when we hear student musicians play music very well. Only musically “talented” students can be good at music, right? Wrong.
We need to keep in mind that, like in any subject, the natural ability of a student to understand and/or perform music is just the baseline from which they are expected to grow. What makes music performance so extraordinary is that it demands “A” work from every student regardless of “talent.” In another content area, you may expect that students who have a strong natural aptitude to understand that subject will be “A” students and students who have a very weak aptitude in that subject area will be less than “A” students. Music requires “A” work from all students in order for the finished product to sound good. If anything, concerts are a superb showcase where even students that may have a very low natural aptitude for music can achieve and be successful to the extent to which they are willing to work hard and be responsible for their progress.
The most heartbreaking thing I hear all year is when a student at any stage of their music studies decides it’s time to quit because they are “not good” or aren’t “talented enough.” This is without question the most misguided thinking that happens in music education. Here are my criteria for good music students: 1. Wants to learn. 2. Willing to work to get better. 3. Understands that learning music is a (life)long process.
Where’s talent fit in here? It is the starting point from which to build—not the crutch to be relied upon, or a benchmark that will be used to exclude students of lesser natural ability from the opportunity to achieve equal success through work.
(By the way, the “work over talent” idea is not just my opinion—it’s backed by really good research: Google Dr. Carol Dweck for more info)
Concerts first allow students to experience success—not audience members to experience “entertainment.” Because most students have significant ground to cover to make up for whatever difference may exist between their natural aptitude in music and what would be considered an “A” performance, they deserve validation of that work in a tangible way. This can be done in a variety of ways—through teacher and peer validation, audio recordings showcasing the progress the student has made, etc. But a performance is the ultimate manifestation of music—it allows for the student to demonstrate, not just for themselves but for others, what they have accomplished.
We hope that concerts are entertaining for audiences, but that is never the main goal. The main goal is to give students an opportunity to validate their own success in music—and hopefully the end result of that just happens to also be entertaining (and usually is—successful students are happy students, happy and successful students play great music, and great music is entertaining!). While we always hope for large audiences to attend concerts and show appreciation to the students, we would still perform concerts even if no audience members attended, as the goal of a performance is oriented toward the students—not the audience members. This is a fundamental difference between student and professional musicians that we should always keep in mind.
Student performances should only take place when we can ensure this focus on work and effort over talent, and the value of student success over audience entertainment. As a music teacher, I appreciate that I am approached often with requests to have our students perform, and almost all of those requests are entertainment-based. There is no problem with that whatsoever as long as I am able to ensure that our students are presented in the best possible light—with their work and effort being strongly apparent and that the performance is first and foremost an opportunity for our students to experience success.
So do I have a good answer as to why we do student performances? Absolutely. But me having a good answer is not enough—you have to have a good answer also. As a community of people who care deeply for our music program as I do, I’d ask that you always take the time to remind yourself the true reasons we do student performances.
Most of all, the next time you see or hear our students perform well, know that it is because of their superior work ethic, not whatever natural talent they may or may not have, that they were successful.
Have a wonderful summer and thanks to all of you for a milestone year!
All the best,