I think one of the most difficult things about teaching music in 2016 has to be the difference between how society has been conditioned to think of learning versus how music teachers know learning exists within their content area. Objective assessment is obviously important, but music teachers are often frustrated at how poorly music-learning translates into objective grades. Letter grades and percentages only provide parents and guardians with a very surface-level view of what their kids are learning in music–and that has some undesirable side-effects. Some of the most common side-effects are a view that music is an “easy-A;” that music study is expendable because “my son/daughter isn’t going to major in music,” or that music study is expendable because “my son/daughter needs more time for their academic classes.” I think the most common one that I hear is that music “just isn’t for him/her,” which accepts the idea that what music teaches is not for someone’s child. The problem as I see it is that not enough people know what music teaches to the extent to which they can be truly informed when they say that music “isn’t for him/her.” Why is that…?
A lot of this is our own fault–and when I say “our,” I’m speaking of the music education profession, which is perpetually conflicted on what it is that we believe music teaches kids. Very generally speaking, music teachers fall into two camps–the “music is a great vehicle for teaching kids all sorts of things” camp, and the “music is important enough that it should be taught for its own sake” camp. Since the early 1800’s, the music education profession cannot make up its mind about which camp is a better way to convey the importance of music education. In mid-19th century America, music education was marketed as a cure-all….something that would be a vehicle for improving everything about a student’s academic performance, socialization, and even their physical health. Tuberculosis got you down? Singing some folk songs in solfege will cure what ails ya! Not kidding. Fast forward a century and in the 1960’s, John F. Kennedy went against the political grain. With a nation shaken from Sputnik and convinced that a focus on science and mathematics should supercede all else when hoping to give American citizens a global advantage, Kennedy was a steadfast defender of the arts for their own sake–repeatedly reminding citizens that the arts not only nourished the roots of society, but are in many cases the roots of society and culture themselves. We’ve had early New England public schools, John F. Kennedy and everything in-between (and several times over…). Suffice it to say, if the music education profession can’t make up it’s mind about what camp we’re in, it should come as no surprise that we have failed as a profession to unequivocally cement an understanding of the importance of music education in American culture as a whole.
Personally, I’m a “music is a great vehicle for teaching kids all sorts of things” kind of guy. To me, while I’m not against the idea that people should know about music just for the sake of having knowledge about something that is greatly intertwined in the human experience, it just makes more sense to say that we know kids learn from music participation, and we know that most kids don’t grow up to become professional musicians–let alone hobbyist musicians. Yet former music students repeatedly cite their music instruction as being formative, and research backs up their claims. My two cents: kids should get as much music education as we can provide, even though we know most of them will likely only engage with music as a listener after leaving high school, because we know there is a depth of learning experiences there that are only possible through music. That’s not easily quantifiable using objective numbers in PowerSchool….and I’m not sorry about that. The learning kids get through the arts isn’t less valuable because we can’t measure it in PowerSchool-friendly numbers and percentages–if anything, PowerSchool should be viewed as a less valuable tool to parents than it is currently viewed precisely because it does not account for anything that might constitute “valuable learning” other than cold, hard objective numbers. I have no problem with objective numbers–I have a problem when people don’t think that learning leadership skills is important because we cannot reasonably develop an objective “leadership test” (nor should we).
Of all the music endeavors that tempt with the appearance of being expendable, none is more obvious than Marching Band. It has all of the “problems” of other aspects of music education plus more! “My kid has a B- in his math class and you want him to spend Friday night at a football game?” “My kid can’t get their homework done, but they’ll spend hours spinning that flag…maybe if I take away the flag, the homework will get done.” “My kid moving their feet in time is not going to be what gets them into a good school.”
Yes…I want them to spend Friday night at a football game–children who don’t learn the importance of work/life balance become adults who don’t know how to balance their lives who have to face adult consequences for that lack of balance. No…if you take away the flag, the homework won’t get done–at least not without deep resentment–this is a motivation problem, not a time-management problem. No…your kid moving their feet in time is not going to get them into a good school–but the discipline, persistence and concentration that they’ll develop through learning various marching band tasks will translate well to other things that will get them into that “good school” (whatever that means, but that’s another topic…). Why? Because deep learning happens in marching band.
How do we know? Very simple–we ask students what they’ve learned and we measure that against whether or not they demonstrate that learning. We have plenty of evidence–just not the kind of evidence that can be read by a bubble-scoring machine. This past Friday, I gave the marching band students an open-ended anonymous survey. We’ve done this before to get student suggestions on music they’d like to play, suggestions they have for how the band operates, etc. I was curious…if we simply asked students “what did you learn?” what would they come up with? We gave no direction as to how to answer the question. A few said something directly related to music, marching or spinning flags. Objective, bubble-sheet type answers. But when it came to the majority of the answers about what they’ve learned, the depth was unexpected and deserves to be shared. Below is a large sampling of the answers to the questions “What did you learn in Marching Band this season?” “What was your best experience in Marching Band this season?” and for the new members, “What do you wish you knew about Marching Band before you joined?”
Please read these. Enjoy them. Be proud of the fact that these are the results your school’s music program yields. Spend some time thinking about whether or not the learning described here is “for you,” or “for your child,” or for your neighbor’s child, for your friend, etc. I happen to think the learning described here should be for everybody…if you agree, please share. The phrase “music isn’t for him/her” becomes ridiculous when we have a clear understanding of what music teaches. Too many students and their parents simply do not know what they’re missing. It’s certainly not just music.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN MARCHING BAND THIS SEASON?
- High school and high schoolers are not as intimidating as I thought
- Leadership/how to be a leader
- I learned that I can be a leader even though I’m quiet. I really like helping people and watch them succeed. This has made me want to study education in college.
- How hard it is to be a leader and develop respect
- Why leadership is both important and difficult
- Things can turn out okay even when you expect the opposite
- How to be a team-player
- Not being perfect is okay
- The importance of good communication
- You will get over the bad things that happen
- I learned how important practice is and how to work through problems effectively
- I learned that working and stressing less but doing things at a higher level of quality yields better results than working and stressing a lot
- Quality work doesn’t have to feel arduous
- I learned how to work together with others as a team
- I learned how to stand up for myself
- That music brings people together
- How to improve myself
- How dedication and hard work can make every aspect of life better
- Teamwork and how to support others
- People and organizations are not destined to be defined by their pasts
- How to be there for other people and trust other people
- There’s more to life than just being “the best” at something. It’s about creating relationships and environments in which you and the people around you can flourish
- How to help others
- I discovered my self-worth this year
- I learned a style of leadership that was new to me and one that I am sure will help me in life
- How to be a better person
- Who I am and what I want to do with my life
- How to be organized and responsible for myself instead of depending on others
- Age is just a number—you are equal to the upperclassmen here and it’s an amazing experience to be with them
- How to connect with new people
- Marching band is an amazing thing to be a part of—they are the best group of people ever
- Marching band gave me a platform for showing true compassion for my friends and learning how to be a true friend
WHAT WAS YOUR BEST EXPERIENCE IN MARCHING BAND THIS SEASON?
- The people
- Meeting so many great people
- Getting quality time with my friends
- Spending time with the people in the band
- Bonding with other people
- Hanging out with people I didn’t really know that well
- Getting to know all of these people I otherwise would not have met
- Learning that I didn’t have to be a captain to be a leader
- The experience of realizing that this was much less difficult than expected
- I really can’t choose—I loved it all
- Honestly, everything—especially the people
- The best experience was walking into the band room every Friday and getting to leave everything else behind
- I’ve met so many amazing people that are so nice. Marching Band has been the best experience of my life
- The very first rehearsal—everyone is super accepting and really awesome
- This year, between the band’s excitement, the students’ excitement and the football team’s excitement, I have never felt more pride and unity for/with my school and community
- How can you pick a favorite when it was all so good?
IF YOU’RE A FIRST-YEAR MEMBER, WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU KNEW ABOUT MARCHING BAND BEFORE YOU JOINED?
- I had no idea everyone would be this nice and welcoming
- I wish I had known that the things the band does are not as hard as they look
- People are aggressive about getting you to join because it is fun and worth it to join
- This is a place where everyone is so inspiring, encouraging and enthusiastic
- I was hesitant to join at first—I wish I knew how close everyone gets. If I knew how amazing this experience was going to be, there would’ve been no hesitation
- I wish I had known how Marching Band actually is cool. This is a family.
- I honestly felt close to everyone in the band this year
- I originally didn’t know if I should join or not, but now that I did, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made