Music Instruction for 2020

Thank you all for giving me the privilege of addressing you, the members of the Music Educators National Convention and the National Association of Schools of Music and colleagues in the field of music gathered here for the Vision 2020 conference. It is a true honor to speak with you and I promise to use this brief time wisely. Minnesotans are known for many things, among them our "niceness" and our notorious wrestling Governor. We are also known for our directness, because of our weather; When its -40 degrees and your life depends on strangers you learn to be direct. I am a Minnesotan. I'd like to be direct with you about Art Music. My observations are as a composer, a practicing parent and a student of Parochial and public music education. My speech takes the form of some observations, a pop quiz and some questions. We are gathered here at this Vision 2020 conference, to take a good hard look at Music and Music Education with the purpose of attempting to envision its future in our educational system, as far ahead as possible but at least to the year 2020, a year when I will be 70 years old and my daughter's children will be benefiting from the work we do here today. The law of the Iroquois Nation states that every decision we make affects the next seven generations. I must say that I am impressed with the decisions the MENC has made over the past seven generations. Through dedicated work of 160 years of music teachers and the guiding counsel of the MENC and NASM we have developed a strong and effective system for studying and learning music in our public and private schools nationwide. Yet over these same 160 years, as the cultural immigration patterns of our country have drawn non-European cultures to the US and incorporated them into our public school system;

  • as the availability of music in our lives has shifted out of the concert hall and churches and into a wide variety of venues and contexts; as the revolution in sound, the biggest thing to happen to music in 1000 years, which began 100 years ago with the invention of electricity has completed its journey, introducing new foreground parameters in music and eclipsing former ones;

  • as our American culture has evolved formal musical ensembles unimaginable to us 100 years ago, including rock bands, studio bands, gospel choirs, technoartists, visual bands, performance art;

  • as the world of music and music education have evolved into a full scale corporate industry;

  • as amateur activities in music have shifted from performance to listening;

  • as the commercial world pushes music into the role of passive accompaniment to other activities including sports, elevator rides, car driving and film watching;

we, as music educators, are faced with the best of all times and the worst ofall times. These are the best of times because there is music everywhere. Everything can be learned from performing and studying all the musics that surround us, and the students who come to us learn about their passion: music. But these are also the worst times because, I believe, some of our basic approaches and methodologies to music education are working at cross-purposes with the music of our culture. It is about these methodologies I'd like to speak. WHO EDUCATES ABOUT MUSIC? Do we educate about music or let music educate us? This question is at the heart of good music education. That is, of course, because music is always changing. It is always ahead of us. Yet our job as educators is to try to fix music in time, to make it stand still long enough so that we can figure out how best to teach it. Sometimes we hold music captive to our purposes too long. It?s then that we are in danger of micromanaging it and imposing definitions on it which ultimately remove its immediacy and drain music of its spirit. I know this syndrome because I am a composer. My instrument is the air and my palette is the infinity of sound. I must make sense out of infinity by placing sound in order in time and space. That is what composing is -- placing sound in order in time and space. And so in each piece I must find the ever changing balance between the moving and the standing still-ness of music and constantly deal with music?s spontaneous spirit while attempting to control its direction. NOTATION This ordering of time and space can be controlled (or notated) by one (the composer) or it can be evolved (non-notated, through performance) by many (an ensemble). While Music Education has many, many tools to teach about notated music, it also has some serious obstacles in bringing our pedagogical skills to non-notated music. How do we codify spontaneity? Is it possible to pre-code spontaneity but maintain room for the inspired momentum of improvisation? Can we teach music effectively both through controlled notation and spontaneous performance? We must begin to find ways to do just this so that we can begin to teach the non-Western European musics of our culture. If we cannot forge this path, our music educational practices will grow far apart from the culture in which the majority of our students live. For instance, this year I am involved in a project of the American Composers Forum, which pairs composers with middle school bands. This has given me a chance to look carefully at children who have participated in pre-school and lower school music education but who are now moving into middle school bands and choruses. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. There is a gaping hole between lower school music methodologies and middle school music methodologies and it is causing distress in our students, both the average student and especially the musically gifted students; the ones who would naturally move on to become musicians. The problem looks like this: From pre-school to the end of 5th grade students explore music through Orff, Kodaly, Suzuki, Yamaha -- all the methods which encourage students to feel music with their bodies, to explore sound freely, to compose sound pieces, to sing, to dance, to let music in and out of their naturally syncopated bodies. They play recorders, xylophones, handbells and percussion. During these years students learn the elements of music. They learn counterpoint, complicated rhythms and interdisciplinary work. They perform pieces that they compose or pieces written beautifully for their ensemble. But they do not learn to write or read music well. Then, at the end of lower school they "try out instruments" so that they can "choose one." Oddly enough the orchestral instruments they try out have not been part of their regular music education unless their parents have given them extracurricular musical study. I remember my eight-year-old daughter sitting on the front steps of our house blasting away at passing cars on her trumpet. It was hilarious. Finally, she decided on saxophone. When I brought one home, she told me to play "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the piano because she wanted me to accompany her. I was skeptical, but sat down to play. She picked up the sax and played the song by ear -- perfectly. She joined the middle school band, spent the next year learning to play the Bb scale and count eighth notes, and by the end of her second year of band, the music in her was so stifled by the pedagogy of the curriculum that she quit. I noticed that almost every other musically gifted child also quit. They already knew what music was. They knew when they joined the band how to make music, how it should feel. They learned that well in lower school. But they could not bear the unrelenting methodology that brought music to a standstill in their young lives. It made them sad, and confused. They left music education to make music in other ways. I've found this happens quite often all over the country. The proportion of households with at least one person age 5 or older who currently plays a musical instrument has declined from 1978 when it was 51%, to 1997 when it was 38%. And it still is dropping. Further in our middle school and high school music education programs we are reaching only 12-15% of the student population. It does seem odd to me that pre-school and lower school music education prepares children to receive and practice music globally in whatever form it way take. But middle school and high school music education starts from the medieval units of rhythm and pitch as found in the central European monastic notational system and explores only very narrow rhythmic and harmonic aspects of these systems--the whole note and its duple divisions-- the ionic (major) and aeolian (minor) scales. I too experienced the shock of music education in my own life. I grew up in the Midwest. I went to Catholic school, Christ the King School in Minneapolis, MN. During my first eight years of school, I sang only Gregorian Chant -- we all did at Christ the King. We all learned to read and write music in the first grade. We used the movable doh system of solfeggio. I also took piano during that time. And so I studied and learned keyboard harmony and key signatures as a distinctly different methodology from movable do solfege. When I moved on to high school at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I had my first truly hideous musical experience. I joined the choir. On the first day of rehearsal the choir director had us "learn" the music by listening to the piano. I was stunned. The piano has nothing whatsoever to do with the voice. The piano is the only unnaturally tuned instrument we have. It is always out of tune except with itself. And yet the director preferred voices that sang in tune with the piano. I had to re-train myself to sing out of tune. So I stayed in choir but I joined a rock band too. The rock band was much more akin to my 8 years of chanting, conductorless music discovered through performance by the ensemble itself and made in real, spontaneous time. By the time I entered college I had an enormous repertoire. It included all of the chant I'd studied, piano repertoire, all the rock and roll I'd heard and learned, Broadway and boogie, which my mother loved and played on her record player. My dad loved Dixieland and so I knew that repertoire. I knew all the Nick at Night television music, plus I'd been to a few symphonic concerts so I knew a bit of symphonic music. I entered college thinking I'd be a coloratura soprano. Before I entered, a professor friend of mine told me that I would need to prepare an audition piece. He counseled me to prepare a piece that showed my voice to its best advantage. He instructed me in the look and demeanor of a classical singer. I took his advice and even though I felt unmercifully awkward singing in a dress and high heels with proper concert demeanor, I proceeded. I walked into the audition, took a breath and sang my song – "Georgie Girl." The look of shock, amusement and disdain on the faces of the teachers told me I was doing something horribly wrong, but I plowed on. At my first voice lesson, my teacher kindly explained that I was to sing no more "Georgie Girl." Instead, she gave me "Caro Mio Ben." I was puzzled. Wasn't this the equivalent of "Georgie Girl," only in Italian? It took me my entire freshman year to understand that most, if not all, of the multiple repertoires I brought with me into college were irrelevant to the classical study of music. Further, if I were to continue to proceed towards degrees in music, I would need to create a sustainable daily practice of studying classical music while listening to and living my regular life reflected by multiple other musics, none of them classical. As I became more proficient with the parameters of classical music I noticed my worth as a student and potential purveyor of the classical tradition growing in the academic world. Still, as I applied tools I'd mastered through classical education to non-classical musics, I noticed that when I wanted to discuss the results and observation I?d made I had no sounding board in the academic world. Still -- amusement and disdain. Still I lived in two worlds. My story, quite typical of a non-conservatory student, highlights an interesting and challenging conundrum facing us as music educators. The conundrum looks like this: more and more, our students come to us as individuals, passionate about music and hungry to investigate their passion. More and more these students bring customized repertoires along with them and often these repertoires include music which cannot be examined or taught easily using methodology derived from the study of classical repertoire. Yet our skills as teachers have been developed and honed to teach and always refer to classical parameters developed from the retrospective study of classical repertoire. What do we do? Do we continue apace, valuing our students first for their potential to grow into classical musicians, developing them in this way? Or: Do we take each student as they stand before us and build individuals into better, more educated, more self-sufficient individuals who deal with multiple musical genres, each according to his or her passion? Or: Can we find a way to reconcile the two? I, of course, vote for reconciling the two. This means more work on our part, because we will need to build a different kind of relationship with young students than we have had to in the past. It means we must study musics beyond our core repertoire and learn how and where the intersections between music we know and music we don't know lie. Then, we start teaching at the intersection, using our best analytical and teaching skills. Here comes the pop quiz. As most of you know, there is an entirely new genre of music, ELECTRONICA, which has developed over the past 20 years. It has a history, it has a repertoire. It has its own musical parameters. It has performers. It has its own historians and musicologists. It has a very large audience. The second generation of Electronica audiences is being born now. Your incoming music students whether they are virtuoso cellists or fledgling coloratura sopranos know Electronica. How much do you know about it? Answer the following questions:

Now for the question part of my speech. Will we continue to assume that the study of music is built around musical parameters that are central to Western European music? Will we continue to side bar the music of the last 5 generations? What happens when we save reading skills until middle school -- do not teach young children to read music as a founding educational logic? What happens when we continue to define success in music chiefly through the performance of music? Can we recognize the influence of commercial timing in our musical lives? How we deal with the necessary but neglected art of listening?

Can we learn to value our students more for their individual passions and less for their potential to become classical musicians? How do we reconcile our central curriculum, which depends on the Western notated tradition with the growing need and demand for high pedagogical curriculum and standards for non-notated music? Thank you for honoring me today with your time and thank you for listening.