A recent experience in my High School Jazz Choir took me back in time to when I was an elementary music teacher. I began to reminisce about trying to inspire creative musical thinking in the elementary setting and again in the middle school. While thinking about this, I realized something that I thought was quite profound and decided to share it with you.
While teaching elementary school I went to the University of Kentucky to receive my Orff-Schulwerk Certification. This process taught me a great deal about facilitating and valuing student creative abilities. This helped me formulate a philosophy that currently guides and shaped my daily work with middle school students for 5 years, and currently with High School students. My personal philosophy has 3 major points. They are:
- Value literature of the highest quality for all students, groups, ensembles, and choirs that I work with.
- Value music literacy and fundamental musical principles.
- Value the student’s individual musical creativity.
Value Literature of the Highest Quality
I will begin with literature. As you can imagine, the literature at the elementary school looked quite different than the literature of the Bismarck High School Concert Choir. It may seem that there would be nothing in common between the two, however this would be an untrue assumption. I have found, at every level, there is literature of high quality. This is the music that in itself is rewarding. I believe with everything in me that quality music stands regardless of the personal taste of the individual. When selecting music for performance or for classroom use I believe that a concentration on the key musical and emotional attributes is key to ensuring the sustainability of the piece. I believe that music professionals have a responsibility to work diligently to push students into works that they themselves never would have selected. Exposing them to emotions and feelings they never thought possible from anything other than “their music.”
Value Music Literacy and Fundamental Musical Principles
The next item of value is music literacy. I have had many conversations with other choir directors regarding how to teach the fundamentals of music in a choral classroom. I think each of us finds this to be an area of great difficulty. Creating a classroom that values the student’s own ability to be independently musically literate is essential to pushing choirs forward. I believe this is accomplished through focusing on the fundamental musical principals that students need to know. This will help ensure that their ability to make music will not end when they leave our classroom. It will encourage them to be musical for the rest of their lives.
In a recent conversation with a friend who is a coach he was talking to me about the importance of basic fundamentals. He was sharing with me the importance of teaching young athletes the basics of the “game” so they can make the simple plays happen when they need to. This started my thinking about music. This is true for us as music teachers. If our choirs cannot read music well, it slows the process of rehearsal. If our students have not been taught the basics skills of good vocal production, the sound of the ensemble suffers. This is all included in the fundamentals of music. We must ensure that our students are given the opportunity to experience and grasp music through their own literacy. This is a gift that we can give them that will sustain through their whole life. I have never met an adult that regrets learning to read music. I have, however, met many adults that regret not learning how to read music.
Value Student Creativity
The last item is the most rewarding, but can also be the most difficult because it is dependent upon getting the first 2 principles right. Once high quality literature is selected, and students have a basic level of fundamental music literacy, this opens the door for creativity. I believe that music is an inherent trait that each of us is born with. I remember fondly as a young father watching my son, who was barely walking at the time, pulling out containers, pots, bowls and wooden spoons to make music happen in our kitchen. This is musical expression at its earliest. Carl Orff said it this way: “One should not lead the child to music, but rather music should arise out of the child. The important thing is that the child should be allowed to play naturally, bringing outward what is within, and that this activity should be protected from external distractions.” I think it is not our job to “teach” music as much as it is to find the music that is already a part of the student. We all experience music in different ways. Students need to feel a sense of freedom of expression through the music they perform. This will ultimately make every piece they perform come alive and be a living, breathing experience for them. As young people, they have already been exposed to a myriad of musical ideas, sounds, and other information that can be used in performance. As teachers we can guide them into a method of organizing these thoughts into something that expresses their intent.
I use these three basic principles to guide the structure of my classroom. I have often expressed to my choirs that learning the notes and rhythms is step 1 of 1,000. This is to illustrate the importance of turning the music into an experience for the audience and the performer, rather than just singing a work. This experience transcends the notes on the page and becomes a communication between singer and spectator. I believe this is key in developing young singers. Teaching them to express rather than sing. Singing is the vehicle for creativity.
Oh, and if you are curious the experience with my Jazz Choir went like this. We decided to do a current top 40 song for a pep rally. My co-teacher Natascha Bach and I created a framework of how the song would go, then we divided the group by section to go and “create” a part from what they heard. After 10 minutes of working in groups, they came back to the room and performed the entire song. We have a bit of cleanup work to do, but it is easily the fastest process so far this year. It confirmed that when you allow students to be creative, to take ownership, and work as a team the music comes naturally from within!
I would highly encourage you to develop your own philosophy of music education. Write it down and reflect upon it often. This will assist you in making decisions, choosing literature, and in working with your groups. If something does not fit my personal philosophy, I have no guilt in letting it go. That doesn’t mean it is bad, just bad for me.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” –Scott Adams
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if you only try!” -Dr. Seuss
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” -Steve Jobs
“We all do ‘do, re, mi’ but you have got to find the other notes yourself.” -Loius Armstrong
“I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns.” -Ella Fitzgerald
“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” -Ludwig van Beethoven
“I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.” –Igor Stravinsky
“You compose because you want to somehow summarize in some permanent form you most basic feelings about being alive to set down……some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.” Aaron Copland.