Several years ago, I was an aspiring music teacher. During college, I learned about violin pedagogy, which I found very interesting. When returning home, I acquired violin students, and so I taught about ten children weekly, on a one-on-one basis.
I delved deeper into the world of teaching, by enrolling in a two-year post-baccalaureate program to become a New York State certified K-12 public school music teacher. The first year of classes went swimmingly well. My grades were fine, and I was cordial with my colleagues and professors.
I got cocky. For the second year, I took on a near-full-time teaching position at an alternative private school in Brooklyn. I was to teach classroom music to grades 1-5, and strings classes to grades 4 and 5 also. All this, while continuing to take college classes in Queens. I wanted to be a high-achieving superstar, more than anything.
To be clear, I was a highly-educated music teacher even before I started working, perhaps more so than my college peers. While enrolled in classes, I also completed two summers of Kodály music education training, which armed me with an effective methodology and a huge collection of songs to use for pedagogical purposes.
A bit about the Kodály method: Zoltan Kodály was a twentieth-century Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist. He collected thousands of Hungarian folk songs by traveling from village to village, and catalogued them for records. Many of these songs also had accompanying dances, which too he recorded. Kodály then developed a comprehensive method of music education, to be implemented in Hungarian public schools. The folk songs were used to teach musical literacy and concepts, and they also served to enhance the children’s specific sense of their national Hungarian cultural identity.
The Kodály methodology has since been appropriated by music teachers all over the world. Expectedly in the United States, the cultural identity concept is a bit complicated, given that the country’s population is incredibly diverse. Therefore, the “folk song” concept has been adapted: Students learn folk songs that of the English language. Perhaps equally as prominent though, are folk songs from other countries and in other languages, broadly termed as “World Music.” The imparting of World Music serves to broaden children’s awareness of cultures around the world.
When I took on the teaching job in Brooklyn, I was armed with my Kodály textbooks and books of songs. Indeed, the implementation of this curriculum is no cake walk. Aside from imparting the skill of reading music, teachers minutely deconstruct songs to teach solfege (do, re, mi, etc.). The teacher also fosters healthy development of the child singing voice by employing various vocal pedagogy techniques. Ultimately, as children grow older, their capacity for choir singing should emerge. Perhaps the pinnacle of the Kodály education is an accomplished high school choir, conducted by the music teacher.
I must say, I was fully prepared to remain a teacher at this school for the long term, so as to see this Kodály “dream” to fruition. Not only would this be incredibly fulfilling personally, but it also would serve to positively influence the lives of the children involved. And so, I began the year with enthusiasm, confident that I would be successful in this endeavor.
At first, I was completely impressed with the children. When teaching songs, I was totally blown away by how quickly they learned them. They also sang with the most angelic of voices. An absolute dream for a vocal pedagogue. They seemed to love music at a fundamental level, and so I had high expectations.
But this was where the dream ended. When I taught a song, they would learn it quickly and then expect to move on to another song. When I attempted to remain on a song to teach literacy and such, they grew restless, unfocused and uncooperative. It was hard for me to enforce any sort of stern discipline at the school, because it was a “nurturing” place that strove to acknowledge that “each child is a precious gem” who “learns through play.”
Three weeks in, I developed laryngitis. Quite hampering, given that I sang during all of my classes. With a painfully hoarse voice, I attempted to run my classes by having the children singing alone, but to no avail. They fooled around spontaneously, and I was forced to strain my throat in order to enforce discipline. I repeated often to them that I was in pain, yet they were too unruly to modify their behavior for more than thirty seconds at a time.
I wearied as the weeks passed, and I became aware of the “bigger picture.” Before I arrived on the scene, the children had already attended a few year’s worth of music classes where they simply sang songs together with the teacher; this had started in nursery school. It was thus difficult for me to take the class further than this. For after they learned a song quickly, they would expect to learn another song right away. To keep their attention, I had to race through my songs without teaching their accompanying musical concepts. My plans for a Kodály curriculum became thwarted, and I raced through a year’s worth of songs within three months.
The children were also just unacceptably unruly. During strings class, children chased one another around while holding violins and cellos in their hands. While I taught classroom music, children would pick up their desks and move them around when they got mad at one another. The “nurturing” environment of this place also stripped me of sufficiently enforcing discipline. My hands truly were tied behind me…
And yet, I was trying to juggle this (basically) full-time job with full-time school in another borough. Trying to juggle, with my hands tied behind me. Such did it feel like.
I became incredibly stressed. At least twice a week, I would commute (aka race) from Brooklyn to Queens, with a cello case strapped to my back, and a violin and viola case in each hand.
And for what?
In my college music education courses, we once discussed the importance of music education. Indeed… why is music education important? The answers we brainstormed together were good ones:
For millennia, music and other forms of art serve to reflect the culture in which they are developed.
Music is a form of creative expression, and everyone should have a chance to learn about it.
Musical study is linked to better academic performance.
Our society is inundated with music, so it is important for children to learn about how it works.
But I still was not convinced. Given my rocky teaching experiences at the private school, I began to think to myself:
Is music education really important? I don’t think so. Music is not as important as reading, or writing, or ‘rithmetic.
At work, I felt like nothing more than a glorified babysitter. The children I taught perceived music as nothing more than a recreational activity. A source of entertainment, and I was the clown. What an exhausting endeavor.
Why am I becoming a music teacher? How am I benefitting the children I work with? Are they even learning?
Perhaps I can blame the times. Children these days have easy access to instant entertainment 24/7, thanks to iPhones, tablets and the Internet. School and learning in comparison is less interesting. Teachers now have to become circus clowns in order to make any sort of impact.
But this goes even further with music. People these days gravitate towards music that is entertaining, with catchy lyrics and vibrating bass frequencies. A “music class” seriously can seem boring when the curriculum comprises of do-re-mis. Kids would rather sing along to Katy Perry. The best that a teacher can hope to impart is the skill of producing rap beats with Ableton.
Perhaps my inner classical musician snob is surfacing here. But at the same time, I am incredibly distressed. Society’s relationship to music is absolutely warped. The most popular singers and songwriters and production crews simply engineer a “product” that will make millions. They create music that is sassy, trendy and entertaining. It appalls me, that so many people do not think music is anything more than this.
As a violist and violinist trained from childhood, I learned that music is a discipline. The expertise required to play the instrument well is akin to the training of an Olympic athlete. Music aside, the physicality of playing an instrument is equally as stunning. Yet people don’t get this. What’s worse, musicians are often underpaid for their services, simply because their work is perceived as “fun” and is therefore “easy work.”
This attitude has to change… yet I realize that it’s basically a lost battle. Will music ever again be perceived as a somber discipline to children? Likely not. And so my heart grieves. This is precisely why I cannot stand teaching classroom music anymore. Children expect to have fun, and are too mentally scattered to focus their attentions past the recreation. They either sit there bored, or they “want it their way.”
Although my teaching days are (perhaps) over, I still at times imagine myself developing a music teaching curriculum, if only in my mind. I would use much of the Kodály method, but instead of using folk songs, I would use Top 40 songs. The class would analyze them using classical terminology, which would include chord progressions, form and rhyme schemes. In doing this, students would eventually bridge the gap between today’s music and the music of old. Indeed, the I-V-I chord progression is found in Top 40 as much as it is in the classics.
Perhaps the days of studying the classics are gone for good. The classical composers and their musical masterpieces are now merely considered “elitist.” Products of “white male supremacy.” People listen to these works, and they figure that they’re “boring” when compared to the catchiness of Katy Perry or Taylor Swift.
But in the process of forgetting the past, we not only forget it, but we despise it too. Dare I say this? It absolutely scares me. If we continue along this trajectory, it might be believed one day that “books are elitist, because you have to know how to read” to enjoy them. I truly hope this will never happen, and that society will reverse its current course towards “fashionable ignorance.”
I am an idealist when it comes to life. I have many ideas about how I wish the world would go, and usually my whims are “not realistic.” Such as the one I mentioned above. Yet, the primary force that motivates me in my life’s work is to transform positive idealism into tangible realism.
I hope this attitude will become more popular in future years. For perhaps it is this sentiment that will reconnect today’s unfocused society to the more disciplined times of past. It will take a miracle, I know… but I am optimistic. Optimism is the only option we have, if we are to have good outcomes.