When I hear the words “music education” being mentioned, there’s always a collective chorus of “oh that’s for the rich!”, “only if your kid is talented/smart.”, “but it’s so tough!” from the general population. It is even more discouraging to hear responses from the children themselves, some of whom speak from personal experiences, while others have heard from their peers about how this particular endeavour is an extremely arduous and mundane activity.
As a music educator, I try not to take offence at such deeply-ingrained stereotypes but instead, make an effort to inform the general public about what music education really is about. Indeed, stereotypes exist for a reason. I am myself, a product of a more rigid and unimaginative music education. My first violin teacher, Miss K, was trained in a method that focused on rote learning. She also came from a generation who believed that children should be seen, and not heard. Weekly violin lessons consisted of a cycle of repetitive practice, many times reducing me to tears from the sheer frustration of not understanding what I was doing, or why I was repeating a certain passage. She always also never one to dispense with praise of any kind, preferring instead to challenge her students with a new task as a reward. Having grown up and also becoming a violin teacher, I can understand and appreciate the good intentions behind Miss K’s tough love. She was, after all, the driving force behind my self motivation. I wanted to prove not just to Miss K but to everyone listening that I can, and I will do it.
With all that being said, what do I think music education can be? It can be so many things! When first posed with this question, the first answer/word that came into my head was “fun!”. I believe that music education can and should be fun. I don’t mean running about in a playground kind of fun, but more of a serious fun, as if one were sitting down to a game of chess, or scrabble. The responsibility for making a lesson fun falls on everyone involved, not just the teacher and student, but the parent(s) too. It is a team effort. I wish that parents and teachers alike would put aside their egos and expectations and really listen to the needs of the student/child. I am not against rote learning. I believe that it is an effective method which helps the learner internalize what they have learnt. However, I feel that meaningful learning should be deployed alongside rote learning, to ensure the student/child understands and knows not just the “What”, but also the “How” and “Why” in music, and in all aspects of education.
I was blessed with more open minded violin teachers later in life, and they were key to opening my eyes to the joy of learning. Meaningful learning keeps the student/child engaged, and when someone is engaged they develop an interest and curiosity. With these factors, even the most introverted student/child will open up. If you make music education fun, students will never want to stop learning and acquiring knowledge.
Music education can be fun, but it is also a great tool for our minds. Learning an instrument can be sensory overload for many, and unsurprisingly, it is! Consider this: playing the piano requires your two hands to move independently of each other while you:
1) read music performance directions and articulations
2) keep time and also ensuring the rhythm is correct
3) check your hands on occasion to make sure they’re at the correct place
4) translate all this information to physically manipulate your limbs and fingers
to produce sound/music
If you thought it was difficult to concentrate driving with the voiceover of your vehicle’s GPS switched on, you probably shouldn’t play the piano, and neither should you place any expectations on a child to be able to achieve excellent scores on a graded exam, much less in a few short years. I’m no scientist, but playing the piano, or any musical instrument for the matter definitely stimulates and increases activity in the brain. Why not train your brain while also having fun at the same time?
The truth is, music education can be so many things. It can be nurturing and healing, It also taught me values like persistence and grit, not simply wanting to give up because someone told me I couldn’t do it. There were also moments of great satisfaction and joy when I achieved something I set out to do. It is so many good things at once, but music education can also be pain. It will test your physical and mental endurance. You will face failure, sometimes small and other times bigger ones. What matters most isn’t what you can’t do, but what you can do and can learn.