Teaching music doesn’t need to be justified.
And it does.
And it doesn’t.
As a young music education student and beginning service teacher, I was inundated with information about “Why we teach music.”
- Music increases brain elasticity and long term memory
- Music teaches work ready skills such as teamwork, time management and goal setting
- Music is a cognitive multiplier, connecting all sorts of subjects together
- Music rooms provide safe spaces for all students
- Music is physical activity, it is math, it is social studies, it is civics.
On and on the list went, and I dutifully passed it on to my parent committees, administrations and politicians.
There is one inherent problem with this particular philosophy. Why do we need to justify such an impactful, penetrating and important form of artistic expression? Why do we feel pushed into the “yes, but it is also math” corner? The value of music is, at its core, music itself. Music does not need justification as a valid and valuable subject of inquiry. I began to realize that my passion for learning about, performing and teaching music were not based on music’s ability to make students better students or workers, but rather on the fact that the art moved me, shook me to my very core, and made me want to know more about it every day. That is why I teach music.
I often tell my students that every culture has developed some form of music. Not every culture developed written word, but music? Check, check and check (I am not sure if this is exactly true. Sometimes I am creative with the truth.). Our very heartbeat is music, and surrounds us in biological rhythm from birth to death. We all feel something for something musical. The world is filled with such a wide variety or styles, instruments, languages and cultures that everyone can identify with something. Indeed, this is the value of music as an educational tool. Universal language? Perhaps.
However, we also need to work in a world where people ask, “Can’t they just learn that if they want to at home?” People say things like, “ When the system is being cut, why should we choose to keep music?” Administrators, politicians and parents need to know that our subject is valuable beyond playing third clarinet in the marching band; administrators, politicians and parents need to know that the collateral good of this amazing art is all of the things that I discussed at the beginning of this essay and more.
Part of our work is public relations. The money to fund our work must come from somewhere, and we need to be educators of the larger community to the value of the art beyond the art. We as music educators need to create connections that everyone can see, and underline those connections with statistics, facts and hyperbole. (Well, maybe hyperbole only if necessary.) Communication with the community at large is so huge, and we need to funnel our passion for the art into “about the art” so that the art can continue.
As I write I am in my study listening to Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. It is a profound and huge work, and filled with slow development, long melodic statements and beautiful harmonic progressions. Bruckner himself is an interesting story: filled with doubt and insecurity, slow to act, quick to discard and filled with an immense questioning faith for church, music and all things. I don’t need fact to supply a reason to listen to, perform and conduct Bruckner. (If I ever get to conduct Bruckner I will laugh with glee and cry with immense passion at the same time.) I just listen and know that this is valuable to myself and to the world. Music education is the same, unless the people who need to know don’t know. Then they need to be taught by folks like you and me.
Nathan Beeler is a music educator, conductor, and performer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is the Department Head of Halifax Regional Arts Music (West) and conducts the Senior Orchestra and Wind Ensemble. Nathan is the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, one of Canada’s highest awards for teachers. This article and many more can be found in Nathan’s Book Everything Matters: 50 Essays on Music Education.
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