something borrowed…

Ok, so my plan for this week was to write a series of articles about the importance of instrumental music programs in schools, but that will have to be placed on the back burner for a bit.  Today, I want to address something that, at first glance, is diametrically opposed to the common methods of teaching instrumental music performance—though I think there are commonalities involved as well.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you will have noticed by now a link to an article I just posted titled How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses, and I believe that the information there could have profound effects on the entirety of both primary and secondary education.  If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so now.  I’ll wait…

For many years now, I have been circling around an idea of how to radically transform the education process.  I have observed that kids start out excited about attending school, learning new things, sharing their new-found information, and all of the attendant wonder that is associated with expanding horizons.  I don’t feel this is overblown language in the least.  Kids are thirsty for knowledge at a young age.  But then something happens to them over time… as they spend more and more time in the system, the excitement and wonder begin to fade and is replaced by disdain and boredom.

I used to think this was a result of years of teachers “beating the joy” out of learning.  I’m now beginning to feel that it is more a case of the system leaching the wonder out of discovery.  Teachers these days do as they are told (or else) and are left little room to experiment with new ideas related to instruction.  It is all about the top-down, systematic, metric-oriented concept of education.  “How much can we teach them,” and “Can we get them to stay in line?”  It is a system that prizes the amount of knowledge over the quality of knowledge.  Couple that with a motivational system that leans heavily on punitive measures, then it becomes easy to understand the current dropout rate in this country.20090205classroom

How does this relate to instrumental music instruction, you ask?  (Or not.  I have trouble reading the minds of others.)  In order to effectively teach a child to play an instrument, it requires a lot of demonstration, repetition, and practice.  Teachers must be heavily involved in the standard practice of knowledge delivery as opposed to knowledge discovery; howeverI have found that once kids are given the basics of playing their instruments (along with making many things second nature through repetition and practice) then giving them the reins to their own learning is a huge improvement over the standard practice known among music teachers as “drill and kill.”

So, coming back to general education, how does this impact us going forward?  Two words:  Language Arts.  Without a firm grounding in reading and writing, kids will never be able to really discover knowledge for themselves, regardless of their ability to work a computer.  With this in mind, I am now convinced, more than ever, that the first three years of a child’s instruction should be heavily weighted toward language arts—and not that “writing to read” crap (which has always had it backward, in my opinion)—but real instruction in reading and writing with the highest level of reading comprehension being the ultimate goal.  Sure, teach other subjects, but only in the context of reading, and as the students gain more and more confidence in their ability to understand the written word, more and more of their knowledge discovery is ceded to them, allowing teachers to guide and facilitate.  As students become older, and the material more difficult, more and more of it is through discovery and not delivery.  Some of you will recognize this method from your college courses.  The best professors I ever had simply gave us an outline of what we were to learn, then just guided us there.

This is what we already do as instrumental music teachers.  Students are given a grounding in how to read music, create the proper sounds on their instruments, how to play alone and in groups, and as they mature they are increasingly handed the reins of their own learning.  It is one of the reasons that students involved in great programs do so much practice on their own.  My own philosophy through over 20 years of teaching has been that, by the time they reach high school, they shouldn’t need me anymore.  Hand them a piece of music, guide them, help them, but don’t teach them.  Lead them to the treasure, but don’t dig it up for them!

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