Too Busy for Music?

Cory NevilleUncategorized

“How are you?”

This question can elicit many different responses, but there is one response that seems to be occurring with greater frequency when this question is asked:


Perhaps this is not a surprising answer to hear from adults, but the degree to which this is the answer I hear the most from students *is* surprising.  The point at which a student is in high school is the point at which they are the least busy they will likely be between now and the time they retire decades from now.  Yet, you wouldn’t know this by speaking with many of today’s students.   Their perception of time is markedly different than that of every generation that has come before them—technology has made it possible for them to cram more studies, more information, more activities, and more experiences into their time than ever before.   This isn’t a criticism of these students, but rather just an observation that when a high school student says “I’m busy” or “I don’t have time,” those perceptions are based upon ideas of how time is best used that are much different than those of their parents or grandparents.

We should be concerned when students feel pressured to fill every minute of their days or when students are adamant that they are as busy as they can possibly be.  If this is how students manage their time in high school, life can become very challenging for them in the collegiate environment or world of work—where, whether they know it yet or not, they will be much busier than they are now.  It is also concerning to think that, while very little of what will make these students successful in whatever they choose to do in life will come easily, fast or without persistence, students are all too quick to turn away from classes and activities that they perceive to take up too much of their time—citing the perceived need to do as much as possible in the smallest amount of time, and the belief that this is what is best for their education.   Quite the contrary, educational psychologists contend that *grit,* not IQ, GPA, or any other measurable characteristic that today’s students are trying to develop through being “busy,” is the primary determinant of long-term success (Check out Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth’s excellent TED talk on this topic here).

As a music teacher, this issue of students’ perception of time is apparent in my classes every day.  “Busy” students with above average musical talent who claim not to have time to practice, be a part of extra-curricular music, or even have time to take a music class during the day, often show less achievement than those students with average or below average musical talent who make the time to practice, view their musical studies as a marathon instead of a sprint (to borrow the phrase from Dr. Duckworth!), and balance their time with both short and long-term goals.  Regardless as to whether or not a student decides to major in music (and of course, most will not), which student do you think will be more successful in life:  The student who learns from an early age that they must occupy every moment of their time with what is fast, expedient and efficient?  Or the student who learns from an early age that true success does not come easily, but yet is completely possible for just about anyone who accepts that the road to success is paved with setbacks and failures, and slow, persistent, methodical hard work?   Which of those students will be less deterred by the inevitable failures they will face throughout their lives?  Which of those students will persevere better in a future society and workforce that will place more demands upon them than ever before?   Which of those students will be happier and less stressed regardless as to what life throws their way?

In this month’s issue of “Teaching Music,” published by the National Association for Music Education, teacher Jesse Willie points out music’s importance in setting up today’s students for success in life:


Like it or not, we live in a world of instant gratification.  In just the past decade, society has been bombarded with a dizzying array of technological developments, all of which have facilitated access to enormous amounts of goods and information at never-seen-before speeds.  Never in the history of the world have we had to exercise less patience in obtaining our wants and desires than at the present time.  While this instant access to everything affords us wonderful advantages over previous eras, we may find our modern good fortune manifesting itself in some educational casualties that we, as music educators, did not face even 10 years ago….

When so much comes so instantly, it becomes difficult for many individuals to persist in anything that requires more time and effort than a mouse click.   Kids especially are so accustomed to immediate results that (school music study) can sometimes seem boring, frustrating, useless, or all of the above.  Why should they spend time trying to learn to recreate music from scratch when they can download the same piece in 30 seconds?  It is almost as though society is undergoing “attention-span atrophy”….

Learning to play an instrument is a long-term, acquired skill, which requires patience, persistence, and practice—the very attributes that are sometimes negatively affected by the rapid technological advances of the past decade.


Willie goes on to write about how the intrinsic motivation that becomes necessary for students to succeed in school music study is crucial to develop in the next generation of our fast and extrinsically-motivated world:


When a student is intrinsically motivated, that student takes individual responsibility for his or her own education….

When students are intrinsically motivated, they will do what it takes to fill in their own educational gaps.  They practice because they want to become better players.  It’s no longer about (extrinsic rewards)….

Success breeds success, and nothing is more powerful in a child’s life, or leads to more success, than self-motivation.  There is no doubt that the world needs more self-aware, self-motivated, confident people…


Music education is hardly about the music.  It is about using the countless benefits of music study to help students to be more successful in life.   Everyone today is “busy,” but please keep perspective.  Quality music education programs know that there is no “app for that.”  There is no magic bullet, no substitute for putting in the time—for having the grit necessary to succeed…not only in music, but in life.

Time on quality music education is time very well-spent.