TEACHING MUSIC IN THE 21st CENTURY
by Todd Stoll
Three years ago, I wrote a piece that was picked up by Time magazine, it was meant to celebrate the passing of the ESSA Act and encourage music educators to reach deeper into the subject that we love. It is reprinted here as a reminder that we have more support and tools available to us now than ever!! May your holidays, and the accompanying concerts, gigs, and “mayhem” be blessed and we’ll see you all in a few short weeks in Reno!!
In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Congress has just passed the much-anticipated “Every Student Shall Achieve” act and with a stroke of his pen, President Obama has ended the “No Child Left Behind” era. The celebration going on in the music education community this past week is due to the unprecedented inclusion of “music” and “arts” as part of the “Well Rounded Education” provision ofEvery Student Shall Achieve Other sections of the bill refer to “music and arts” as “protected time,” and funding opportunities under Title I and IV, all apparently a huge win for music education. Music and arts educators now have some leverage; for increased funding, professional development, equipment, staffing, prioritized scheduling of classes, and a more solid foothold when budgets get tight and cuts are being discussed.
Of course, the number of pundits who have had an opportunity to dissect the bill have yet to make their voices apparent, but taken on face value Every Student Shall Achieve bodes very well for music education and the lobbying arm of the National Association for Music Education, which spent thousands of hours working the hill on behalf of music teachers everywhere. (#musicstandsalone) To put this in perspective, one must understand the daunting challenges that have faced music teachers for the past decade and a half.
As test scores and international metrics became ubiquitous in everything from local school board debates to political campaigns to television commercials, music education became the convenient subject to reduce, cut, or relegate to “after school”.The national percentage of high school students participating in music classes has been dropping precipitously while nationally, audiences for “art” music have been at historic lows. How do we use this moment in education reform to our advantage, to better educate our kids and build our future audiences?
I’m suggesting a national conversation to redefine the depth and quality of the contentwe teach in our music classes. We need a paradigm shift in how we define outcomes in our music students; a re-imagining of the phrase “to learn” for all our performing ensembles, vocal and instrumental. Let’s go beyond the right notes, precise rhythms, clear diction, and unified phrasing that have set the standard for the past century. Instead of teaching for a trophy a rating or a contest win, let’s teach as if our student’s lives depend on it.
“To learn” should be defined by a student’s intimate knowledge of a composer or artist; their personal history, conception, and the breadth and scope of their output. They should know the social and cultural landscape of the era in which any piece was written or recorded, and the circumstances that have had an influence. We should teach the triumphant mythology of our greatest artists; from Louis Armstrong to Leonard Bernstein, from Marion Anderson to Mary Lou Williams, and others.
Students should understand the style and conception of a composer or artist; what are the aesthetics of a specific piece-the notes have meaning -lets get to that! They should know the influences and inputs that went into the creation of a piece and how to identify those.
There should be discussion of the definitive recording of a piece and students should make qualitativejudgments on such against a rubric defined by the teacher that easily and broadly gives definition and shape to any genre.
Selected pieces should illuminate the general concepts of any genre, the 6/8 march, the blues, a lyrical art song, counterpoint, AABA form, or call and response, and students should be able to understand these and know their precise location within a score and what these concepts represent.
We should embrace the American Artsas a full constituent in our programs-not the pop-tinged sounds of“The Voice” or “Glee” but our music; blues, folk, spirituals, jazz, hymns, country, and bluegrass, the styles that created the fabric of our culture and concert works by composers that embraced these.
Students should learn that the written score is a starting point. It’s theentry into a world of discovery and aspiration that can transform their lives; it’s deeper than notes.A lifetime of discovery in music is a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavor.
Will these be easy to include in rehearsal? Absolutely not, and it will require new skills, extra work outside of class, more research, and perhaps new training standards for teachers. But, it’s not an insurmountable task, and it is vital, given the current strife of our national discourse. Our arts can help us define who we are and tell us who we can be.It can bind the wounds of racism, compensate forthe scourge of socio-economic disadvantage, and inoculate a new generation against the fear of not knowing and understanding those who are different from themselves.
It is time, music educators.
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.