Why Instrumental Music Can’t Survive in Schools as a “Fun” Class

Kinhaven 2014-179Playing a musical instrument is fun, of course.  But school administrators, teachers, parents, and students all have a different idea of what “fun” actually means when it comes time for the arts in schools.  I believe that without a unified definition of “fun” as it pertains to music education, more music programs will continue to be cut from school curricula.

I’ve written about why music programs are cut from school, and one of the reasons is that it is not treated like — or approached as — a core subject in the curriculum.  Music is not a “frill” subject — quite the contrary.  Music education has many magical benefits that we read about when it is taught masterfully and supported by the entire school community.

Even after several studies of music’s powerful effects on the brain have been completed, too many parents think instrumental music is simply a fun break in the day that requires little work.  Music teachers are nervous to add rigor to their classes in fear of students quitting, and school administrators don’t know what to think — they just don’t want their schedules to be complicated and need their state report cards to look good.

Here are a few ways learning instrumental music is (and isn’t) fun in a school setting:

First and foremost, it’s fun to sound great.  Creating beautiful sounds is fun; getting better (and knowing how to get better) is fun; striving for greatness is fun.  Conversely, making poor sounds with bad posture in a room with others doing the same thing is not fun.  Not knowing how to practice and, in turn, not getting better isn’t fun.  Performing in public and knowing the product is not good (trust me — young students know this, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it) is certainly not fun.

Getting better and learning is fun.  When teachers identify students’ comfort zones and find that magical place right beyond that zone where each student can achieve great things with a little bit of struggle — everyone has fun.  It’s not fun to be stagnant during what should otherwise be an exciting learning curve.  It’s fun to put away the instrument at the end of each day and know you got just a little better.

Balancing rigor with play is fun.  Instrumental music class is a place where children make friends, solve problems by doing, and overcome their fears by experimenting, taking risks — and even failing — in a supportive environment.  Our schools are becoming more and more standardized, and in the process they are eliminating opportunities for play to occur in the curricula.  Without clear expectations and rigor in the music classroom, however, play becomes nothing but fooling around with noisemakers — not fun.

Being exposed to great musicians is fun.  When students have a chance on a regular basis to have a connection with great performers, their motivation increases several-fold.  It’s fun to have a vision of what you want to become, and then strive to realize that vision a little every day.  It’s not fun to be directionless and lack clear goals.

Taking ownership over learning is fun.  When a student understands “why”, “how”, “where” and “when” to practice, they have been given power.  They will feel a sense of responsibility, which will then lead to self motivation and routine.  Ideally we want our children to have ownership over their own learning in every aspect of life, and music education is a wonderful way to teach this.  It’s not fun to have little or no understanding of how to get better at playing a musical instrument.

Experiencing beautiful music in an ensemble is really fun.  Music is fun when it builds a team.  Much like sports, when an ensemble sounds great it is like a team playing well; when a piece is played well it is like a team “winning” a game.  But a lot of work goes into molding a great ensemble; it takes time, and everyone has an important role to play.  When executed correctly, working on and performing a piece of music is really fun.

Parents must learn what “fun” with music means.  Most parents did not spend their entire K-12 lives in music class.  Those who did may not have participated in great programs, since there are not enough of them in our nation.  Parents’ vision of fun in music may be defined by a (perceived) lack of “homework” and a social outlet during the school day — we call that lunchtime and recess.  While music class is an amazing social and emotional reprieve from a high-stakes testing culture, it is not a time to be less mindful of excellence and therefore careless.

Just because students can opt out of music shouldn’t change the way it is delivered.  When taught well with a high expectation for all students, music is more engaging and fun than many other subjects.  Students can’t quit math or English if it isn’t “fun”, and the same should go for music.  Of course it is true that many teachers feel the need to “entertain” their classes in order to retain students, but that should be done by creating a culture of excellence, not watering down instruction due to a fear of scaring kids away.

Instrumental music is an amazing addition to school curricula when it is taught masterfully and supported by administration and parents.  In order for music to stand up with the other core academic subjects, it must be taught with rigor and a professional-level expectation of children, musically and otherwise.  Music is not sustainable as a class if it is mediocre — it will only be “fun” that way for a short period of time, and then most students will quit because they don’t feel they are getting better and they are not a part of something “bigger” than themselves.

Knowing what we now know about brain development and how children learn, it is unfair for us to teach music without the mindful rigor it deserves.  It is only when students experience firsthand how to become great at something that music education will truly be “fun”.

 

Comments

  1. Dan Fuckett says:

    Thank you for your remarks. You hit the nail right on the head. Instrumental music is an academic subject with rewards far beyond just an “A” grade.

  2. Astrid van den Akker-Luttmer says:

    I totally agree! The “music” of your instrument (when mastered) brings the happiness!

  3. Matt Hill says:

    Great article, but why go to great lengths to single out instrumental music? Choral music has the same benefits, and suffers even MORE from the “fun” tag- as a Chorus teacher, I have a huge uphill battle to fight over increasing rigor and overcoming stereotypes. Kids get dumped into my class with no desire to sing and it’s ok because “it’s just singing.”

    That being said, I’m happy to boost the signal of this important conversation… But a little disappointed it’s so specific.

    • Thanks for this comment, Matt. You are absolutely correct, and I easily could have removed the word “instrumental” from just about every post I have written. These issues are very applicable to many art forms, in fact, which is why I tend to stay more specific. Either way, you are correct, and thanks for sharing!

  4. Spot-on. Even more powerful would be the use of the word “rewarding” or fulfilling” instead of “fun.”

    • I agree, Rich. However, in my life as a teacher and admin, the word “fun” popped up a lot more — and it always irked me.

  5. This article should reflect all performance music, as well as entry level guitar, keyboarding classes, and appreciation type classes.
    There’s nothing wrong with fun. Fun is pretty much the reason why we do anything outside of working, paying the bills and taxes. Fun adds to the quality of life.
    For something to be fun, it has to perk a person’s interest. You spelled that out beautifully. It must be constructive and add to the human need to progress. Relaxation is also constructive, and essential to a person’s well being. Back in school, I never looked at band as work, but that was because I loved it. Even though I spent hours playing, rehearsing, marching, etc,… it really was never work to me, because it was fun.
    I wish the word “fun” wasn’t so stigmatized. Fun shouldn’t be a dirty word when it comes to education.

    • There are plenty of people who have emailed me with the same complaint that I did not include all music — but it is easy to insert any type of music instruction you want, really. I am careful to stay in my area of expertise — instrumental music — and also it is the first thing to get cut often. But duly noted, for sure. As for “fun”, I agree with you completely. I simply redefined “fun” here.

  6. David Hardie says:

    Nailed it.

    If instrumental music becomes the educational fairies at the bottom of the garden, then when things gets tough it’s the first thing to get cut.

    David.
    (Instrumental music teacher)

  7. Even as a music education major in college, I thought of every music class as ‘fun’ or ‘rewarding’. I thought of my ‘basic classes’ as ‘necessary’, though an English Composition II Class was ‘fun’ because the professor made the class so interesting, I looked forward to it every time!

    So many of the kids I teach want ‘instant gratification’, as with their video games and neat things to do with their ‘apps’. A kid can introduce a cool new game to a few friends, and within a week or less, the new players have ‘mastered’ the game. I’ve seen so many of my band students try their new instrument, but seem sad and irritated, almost, that they can’t play 10 of their favorite pop songs within a few weeks. They push a button and their ‘tune’ comes out of a speaker… but it doesn’t work that way on their trombone. So they are apt to give up. We live in that world of instant gratification, and overcoming that as a teacher is key to becoming a successful instrumental (or any) music teacher. I try to show my students examples of great performers and groups, and remind them that those performers started once, in 6th grade, too, just like them.

    • The “instant gratification generation” is a tricky one, but it’s a core human desire for anyone. That’s why I spend my time attempting to communicate with parents to tell them not to give in, and instead allow their children to struggle a little. All it takes is one successful performance to make it all worthwhile.

  8. I will share this with my parents at my beginning bands student/parent rehearsal in November! I use this rehearsal to basically explain what you wrote! Thank you!

    I began teaching middle school band nine years ago. The school had 80 kids in grades 6-8 grade level band classes and two music appreciation classes with roughly 30 in each.

    The culture of the band was that it was “fun”. I used to tell them it is more fun when you know what you are doing!

    I had a handbook, a method book, and a very organized set of procedures. I was very picky about the classroom space. I even put Velcro dots on the carpet to show where the chairs should be. The students AND their parents did not like these changes. They especially didn’t like the accountability of having to do a written assignment and a performance pass off once a week. They weren’t used to it and wondered how their child had an A in band for two years until I came.

    The kids obviously had been lied to. They held an instrument for two years and pretended to play. They made friends with their teacher and experienced little to no learning gains. It’s a good thing I had a handbook contract which explained the grading policy and that band is a co-curricular class! I brought the handbook/syllabus to every parent meeting I had and was extremely fortunate to have administration to support me.

    Today, the program is extremely successful with an average of 180 kids each year. I teach all band classes now with ability based bands, a jazz band, and a percussion ensemble. We perform at our best at every performance including assessments.

    Today, hard work and passion are an expectation going into my program. Every student takes their instrument home five days a week (they walk by me and I mark them off at the end of the day on a seating chart). They each have specific learning goals. Everyone performs a solo once a week for a grade. I have no problem recruiting or retaining students. Students regularly attend honor bands, summer camps, or receive scholarship when they get to college. The culture has shifted!

    I also wrote my own method book with an advanced curriculum for my over-achievers. Last year, I was recognized by my county as the TOY. Our motto is “We are what we repeated do; therefore, excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.

    My program is living proof of your thoughts. Thank you for sharing!

    • What a great comment, and thank you! Sounds like you are more organized than just about any teacher I know, and your students are thriving because of it. Keep up the amazing work, and thanks for sharing this with your parents, Tim.

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