Recently one of my dear friends said something about the idea of "art for art's sake" and "music for music's sake." He turned this sentiment on its head and suggested: "Music for humanity's sake!" It resonated with me and I told him so. As I often do, I shared a story by way of explanation. My friend responded that the story was wonderful and that it was wonderful for students with specific needs (physical and otherwise) to feel that they could belong in a musical setting, which (as my friend pointed out) is a counter cultural thing. I'd like to come back to the word "feel" in a moment because it is important.
I teach K-5 music in a public school, as many of you know. Day in and day out I tell children things like, "I'm so glad you're here!" and "You sound wonderful today!" and "Don't worry about the footwork - we can find a way to show it with our hands!" and "Shoulders can keep the steady beat just as well as toes can tap it!"
Our culture has such warped ideals about competition and success that some people will likely read the above and think, "She's just babying them and they probably aren't learning much." Nothing could be farther from the truth, my friends. These children are incredible - any child or group of children can be incredible, given the right environment and opportunity. These children can sight read rhythms, sight sing without the help of a piano (holding whatever key they're in for a good while, mind you), and they can do it all without belittling each other.
Nobody sits out in my class. Sometimes an individual can't sing due to illness, and that's ok. Sometimes an individual doesn't have the ability to perform a traditional folk dance traditionally, but there are ways to make the dance achievable. Occasionally an individual is having an emotionally stressful day (we all have those - right, grownups?) - there are things that can be worked into and through a lesson plan seamlessly that allow a student the space he or she needs in that moment without sacrificing one single state standard or any of my personal teaching goals. Music is an art and teaching music musically is an art. It pleases me when the children perform correctly and sound good. It thrills me when the children read a difficult passage easily. But my job has very little to do with perfection. It has much more to do with experience and involvement. Happily, these two things will inevitably lead to musical aptitude. I've been teaching just about long enough to see it for myself.
Now, let's go back to that word "feel." My aim is not to make children feel that they are part of the musical activity in my classroom. It's a good thing for them to feel this way, of course, but I have a bigger goal in mind. The goal is for individuals to truly be part of what's happening. Intention is everything. Rather than intending to make a student feel a certain way, I go into it intending to actually get the student engaged in a beautiful, musical task. When I speak to students about what they can do in my classroom (and what they'll do later on in life) I make it a point to tell them how they'll relate to other musicians along the way. The community is responsible for welcoming the individual. The community is responsible for using tolerance, respectful challenge, and encouragement to bring individuals to a point of actual musical engagement. If the community (or class or choir or ensemble) is set up to receive and encourage individuals there will be no shortage of actual participation. There will be musicality. There will be success. There will be growth.
Yes, I've seen children come through the door with the, "I don't think so" look on their faces. There are at least a few every year. These are not hopeless moments. These are puzzles waiting to be solved. As I am working to figure out how to support each new puzzle I'm faced with, my classes are asked to rise to the challenge of meeting each other "where they are." Does it always move along as quickly as I hope? No. But if the community has been appropriately guided in its task of welcoming and if I have done my job in seeking out solutions and bridges for the individual, we will not end the year without finding a point of joy and participation.
So much of this must be left at the door of the teacher. A community like this doesn't just spring up from nothing in our Western climate. It has become counter cultural to suggest that singing is for everyone. As a music minister I can't tell you how often I've heard, "Oh, I just can't sing." or "Nobody wants to hear that mess!" I've also heard folks talk about others in a negative way - not wanting to sit near a struggling singer, not wanting someone to be involved if they aren't "radio ready." Leaders, teachers, and conductors have a unique position - if we want to, we can rewrite the script. We can change the way entire communities think about music and singing. For instance, at my school there are two music teachers committed to healthy community singing practice. Sometimes we tell our students, "We're a singing school. Everybody sings." And we really mean it.
I paid close attention to each of my music teachers. All of them were talented. My early teachers, band directors, choral directors, piano teachers, voice teachers, and college professors - they were all serious about what they were doing and they all cared deeply about it. I'm not entirely convinced that all of them knew how long their words would stick in the minds of their students. It was easy to tell the difference between the ones who wanted musical communities more than they wanted credit. Looking back I can see that the few who heaped insults on their mediocre students were acting out of fear and insecurity themselves. When our definition of "success" is unhealthy our teaching is unhealthy.
A musical community that values compassion and inclusion more than it values perfection won't lack growth, artistry, or healthy competition. It will have all of these if standards are maintained, and what's more it will outlast those programs built on cut throat interpersonal practices and rough language. It is never necessary to threaten our students with a music-less future. Such tactics are not motivators . . . death dealing language has nothing to do with any creative art. Creativity by nature denotes growth and newness. We should never, ever tell children (or adults) that they won't make music in the future. We know from the start most of our young students won't become professional musicians - knowing this, why would we choose to encourage only the one or two per cohort who seem to be headed in that direction? Our work has more to do with offering them the skills they need to read the map than the step by step directions to a particular destination.
Because I came to my work with education by way of music ministry I tend to approach teaching, even in a public school, the way I would approach a music program in a church - guiding philosophy and pedagogical choices, for me, both begin with the belief that every human being I meet is God's kid and deserves my respect. My students are not objects to be used as I seek to justify my professional worth or a tool to be used as I pursue some kind of pie in the sky artistic success. In fact, my students aren't mine at all.
Just as my faith calls me to be counter cultural (after the example of Jesus), so my professional calling invites me to be counter cultural. When I think about the climate of my classroom I want to know that 1) kids can make mistakes comfortably, 2) kids can ask questions without fear, and 3) students will experience the invitation and joy of every artful experience offered.
Brennan Manning has written beautifully about our culture's misinformation regarding "success" and vulnerability in his book, A Glimpse of Jesus:
The world does not understand vulnerability. Strength is made to look like weakness and freedom to look like failure. Vulnerability is flatly rejected by the world as incompetence, and compassionate caring is dismissed as unprofitable. The great deception of commercial television advertising is that being poor, vulnerable, and weak is uncool and ineffectual . . . Social-climbing, power-plays, and winning breed a spirit of competition that bids farewell to compassion. The spirituality of the Servant (Jesus) is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry.
It's a tall order - undoing so much cultural abuse.
Our society could use a new generation of folks who think of music as a human activity rather than a product to be consumed or an idol to be worshiped. And, by the way, bringing music into the realm of the "common man" doesn't take away its artistic core. I'll never forget walking through the Art Institute in Chicago for the first time. As I passed by works I'd only ever daydreamed of seeing in real life I had no urge to grovel - I was elated! It was an uplifting, humanizing experience. Art is humanizing. It's made by humans for humans.
Hmmmm . . . who could undertake such a task? . . . Oh! I know! Teachers. Really good music teachers!
Alice Parker, in her Forward to The Anatomy of Melody, says the following about our culture's need for community oriented music:
All we need are ears and voice - no expensive paraphernalia, no extended study. (That can come later.) Memory and the will to communicate take over. For this is a societal process: we sing individually, but the collective sound of a singing group is one of the great life-affirming experiences open to us as human beings. When our ears and voices connect in song, this makes possible a transcendental moment that releases us from our human limitations. Our society is wounded by its absence. Let's find a way to have melody again. Let's sing.
As I type this I'm smiling to myself because as I finished adding the above quote my 2 and 1/2 year old son came up to me and said, "Mommy, I need to make a noise!" When he says this he's asking for pots and pans and also for me to be available. He wants to make a noise with me. He wants both of us together to lock eyes and raise a ruckus. In an hour or so it will be bedtime and he will curl up in my lap. We will rock in his favorite chair and I will sing "This Little Light of Mine" as he taps the steady beat on my shoulder, looking at my face the entire time, sometimes singing a word or two after me. To make any of this happen the television has to be turned off, distractions have to be set aside, and I have to make myself available to him.
It's not easy work, Teachers. And it's not always popular. This sort of work won't produce flashy results. It's probably not going to get us on TV (that's cool if it does, though!) It will produce human results and artistic results.
I remember talking about some of these ideas to my graduate school advisor one day - back when they were just ideas, not yet put into daily practice. He grinned at me and pounded his fist on the desk, "That's subversive, Tullock! That's subversive. I hope you can see it done."
Well, I have seen it done. And I'm not the only one doing it. I work with another music teacher who is making it happen daily. I know good teachers all across the state of Tennessee and beyond who are approaching their work this way. We sometimes seem to be few and far between . . . but we're out there, working for ideals greater than the educational status quo.
Don't give up.