The word "subversive" became beautiful to me a long time ago.
I enjoy subversive people . . . you probably enjoy a few yourself without really thinking of them that way. Mohandas K. Gandhi (obvious, right?). Mother Theresa - less obvious - she could not accept the regional norm of allowing the dying poor to spend their last days and moments in gutters and ditches. I could go on, but I think you get it.
When I was in graduate school I had a beloved professor who used to pound his fist on the table, shake his head at me, and say, "That's subversive, Trotter! That idea is subversive and it's not going to win you any friends in the educational system! . . . but I like it."
I am not the first music educator to think this subversive thought.
I'm also not the first person to say it out loud.
And now that I am "in the trenches" daily I don't think about it very much. I don't spend time meditating on it the way I did when I was a student myself.
But recently I was reminded of it . . . and I had that old sense of urgency to speak it out loud again . . . just to reinforce for myself that it's true, and that even though it goes against the grain of the educational culture I'm part of, it's a worthy thing.
Out with it.
I teach music and write songs for the same reason - to communicate joy, compassion, and a sense of humanity to other people . . . with other people. I teach and write music because music has intrinsic value.
"Music exalts the human spirit" - yes. It does. I'm sure of it.
Because I believe that music has intrinsic value, I see no need to justify it to other adults in my profession using a list of lesser secondary connections.
Arts integration is a good idea, but it's a two way street. And I feel it's necessary to remind myself and other music teachers from time to time that we are NOT responsible for teaching in a way that makes us valuable to politicians or other adults in situations of power. We teach children. We are responsible for teaching music in a way that makes us valuable to them.
A child sees no value in my ability to prove that music equals math. And, by the way, music equals no such thing. The famed "Mozart effect" is not statistically significant in the way most people have come to think. Music does not teach math and math does not teach music. Nothing is that simple.
Let me just say (for all you math teachers) - math has its own intrinsic value. And I would never say to a math teacher that they should cease valuing their subject for what it is. Or that they should stop teaching the rules of math. Or that they should no longer teach students to be literate mathematicians. No! Math is important. Students need to know how to do it . . . how to perform it.
I teach using a methodology developed by friends of the late composer, Zoltan Kodaly. Some people call it the "do re mi" method, but it has more to it than Curwen hand signs (and he didn't come up with the syllables anyway - it was a woman!). Put simply, I teach music in a way that mirrors language acquisition - sounds become symbols, and symbols are ascribed certain meaning. It's just like learning to speak and then learning to read and write in English. And they play! My students believe that it is a game. Yet they leave our school reading music better than I could as a college freshman.
I don't teach language arts.
I don't teach history.
Or underwater basket weaving.
I am a music teacher.
Many of my musical colleagues are moving with the educational pendulum. Some, because they think it's right. Others, because they want to be valued by other adults in our systems of education.
I have great bosses.
In my own working world I generally don't need to think about this because my happy, music reading, song singing, dance dancing kids are proof enough that I'm doing my job.
And like I said - arts integration is ok if it's all of us teaching only the natural connections. Example: I can teach songs from the Civil War era to 5th graders who can sing and read those songs. But it would be ridiculous for me to stop teaching music literacy (a curriculum I have spent 4 years fine tuning) in order to teach a song set to the tune of "What Does the Fox Say?" or "Single Ladies" naming the dates of famous battles. That's just not high quality material for my bright children. And it has no place in a curriculum designed to spark their curiosity or creative spirit. More importantly, it would be a created connection. Yes - you heard me. Created. We grown ups would have forced this connection rather than drawing from the real, meaningful, historical, beautiful connections available to us. And my students would know it! They can smell that kind of thing a mile away! And they don't buy it in my class.
Memorization jingles for math, science, etc. are GREAT tools for kids in the classroom, but not my classroom . . . respectfully, I just can't . . . I just don't have the time . . . and I desperately want my kids to learn the subject that my position promises to them.
Here is an example from my high school years: there was a geometry teacher who wrote songs about triangles. They were cheesy and funny and he played the guitar. He made us sing them. We rolled our eyes but secretly loved it. I aced his class because of those songs. But if my high school choir teacher had used those songs in her class, I would have dropped it for a different elective. They were valuable songs, but they were not for teaching music. They were a tool for teaching math. They worked best in a math class.
I love to teach connections where they naturally occur. I'm a liberal arts girl (Emory born and Emory bred, and when we die we'll be Emory dead! - E&H raised me right!) - I believe in the connectedness of most things. But forced connections are not going to build lasting bridges in the minds of my students. The only thing I remember about "Fifty Nifty United States" now is that it annoyed me in elementary school and that I dreaded singing it in class. But I remember the day that my music teacher explained "prepared piano" music to us on the week of Halloween and played a recording of a piece called "The Banshee" that used the piano in a way I'd never heard before. So when I was 20 years old in college I leapt at the chance to play some piano music by George Crumb, who wrote for prepared piano! A connection that lasted! Because it was meaningful and natural.
I value a good English teacher.
I value a good Math teacher.
I value a good Science teacher.
Or History teacher.
Or any other teacher doing his or her best.
Can our culture value a good arts teacher? Could we teach arts because of their beauty? Because of their levity? Because they exalt the human spirit and help us to communicate more effectively? Could we value arts because they ARE the meeting place of so many different disciplines?!?
They are the meeting place of so many different disciplines.
Think about it: A person who writes music or creates art uses an entire life experience . . the lens of a unique world view. Music can't help but be connected to other things. But the connections are passing and they are secondary . . . teach music before connections, folks.
I don't need to write a song about the fifty states for music to teach a child slowly and meaningfully about what a state is. Instead, could I teach "Alabama Gal" for the purpose of working with the pentatonic scale and show the kids how to form a longways set for a dance? Could I talk about the origin of the song? Could we create a project where students go home and search for songs that include the name of the state they came from? Or songs with the names of states that did NOT come from the state named? And then could we learn to sing some of those songs? And read the music? Wouldn't that be meaningful?!?
I. Love. Teaching.
I. Love. Music.
Music teachers, let's teach music. Stop struggling to make it something that it can't ever be.
In my head I can see my graduate advisor saying, "Trotter, that's subversive!" He's calling me on it . . . but he's smiling.