Teaching Music in the 21st Century

Three years ago, Todd Stoll, president of the Jazz Educators Network, wrote a piece on “Teaching Music in the 21st Century,” which was picked up by TIME Magazine. Encouraging music educators to reach deeper into the subject they teach, he re-ran the article in the current JEN newsletter because of its appropriateness in 2019. We run it here because it has become part of the national debate around music education.

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?

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I’m suggesting a national conversation to redefine the depth and quality of the content we 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.

– “The Notes Have Meaning” –

Students should understand the style and conception of a composer or artist; what are the aesthetics of a specific piece—the notes have meaning. 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 qualitative judgments on such against a rubric defined by the teacher that easily and broadly gives definition and shape to any genre.

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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. Students should be able to understand these and know their precise location within a score and what these concepts represent. Students should learn that the written score is a starting point. It’s the entry 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 for the scourge of socio-economic disadvantage, and inoculate a new generation against the fear of not knowing and understanding those who are different from themselves.

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