A philosophy of music education

Singing funIntroduction

Music and children have been two central themes in my beautiful life, so I’m thrilled to begin articulating my point of view as a music educator. In case you don’t know, we’re at a critical juncture, at least here in Southern California, where arts programming has been of late and remains either scarce or at best vulnerable, and where new catch phrases like “arts integration” are currently going down the wrong road, minus substantive input from seasoned arts specialists. It’s essential that we re-focus on time-tested approaches to excellence in arts programming and commit to new ones grounded in what we know. So this piece is, as much as a philosophy statement, a defense of consistent, truly collaborative models for music and arts education.

First, very importantly, my approach is, yes, fundamentally integrative. I don’t want the term to become a pejorative! My natural, joyful focus is on providing avenues through which children and young people can express themselves, build musical skills, and perhaps catch the expressive “bug”, with its happy itch for deeper musical exploration, while meanwhile benefiting from the musical elaboration of all kinds of curricular themes. This translates to endless excitement, for my students and for me.

ricardo-in-belizeI’ll also declare here that I’m a generalist, a term I was introduced to beautifully a decade or so ago by my gifted architect/artist collaborator Ricardo Accorsi. (More about the relationship between architecture and music someday, with pleasure.) As a generalist, I provide opportunities to challenge and enrich all students, not just the most musical ones. It’s a privilege, and amazing terrain: the positive energy, playfulness, openness, curiosity, and courage of children. They teach, lighten, inspire, and delight me daily. So, with this background info as context, I’ll share an overarching educational philosophy that rings true to me these days, within which I’m passionate about integrating music, the arts, and more.

Individualized Learning for Individual Learners

I think about how many times a new declaration of what to teach and test has been made in recent years. In the midst of it all, and armed with everything I’ve learned since my own early childhood, through teaching, and in raising my three grown sons, it seems to me now that everything comes down to individual learners, to who they each are and what makes each one tick, to going deep into projects that interest them as fulcrums through which all kinds of learning can occur, including critical thinking, analysis, research, synthesis, expository and creative writing, and substantive exposure to relevant technologies.

Primary school children making music in Tower Hamlets.

More than three decades into my life as a mother and educator, this individualized focus feels absolutely right to me now, for our time, for our 21st century learners. Its differences from “one size fits all” models are challenging, but it’s also a pragmatic approach, potentially rigorous, and inherently meaningful to each student, facilitating lived experiences of the relationship between personal interests, personal responsibility, and satisfying outcomes. And of course this looks very different in kindergarten than in high school! These days I’m passionately exploring the relationship between an individualized educational vision and curriculum development, the roles of the arts in that “marriage”, and the exciting process of constantly crafting—based on actual, individual learners—relevant learning objectives and outcomes in which students have the chance to assess their own progress.

I’m also intrigued these days by little ones who exercise ever more effortless natural capabilities to use smart devices. Clearly something revolutionary is afoot regarding the human experience and technology. Clearly a 21st century education must include creative efforts to connect our students’ studies to their larger lives, and to anticipate and prepare them for the ways they’ll live and work in the future.

Roles of the Arts

Let’s face it, my friends, it’s a “no-brainer” now, pun intended: we know that consistent, sequential musical studies in childhood enhance neurological, motor, and social development. And there’s a bonus prize: music and the arts can very enjoyably enliven and express all kinds of educational content! I’ll share two related beliefs of mine that I find especially inspiring:

1. All of childhood isn’t preparation for adulthood. Children, young people, and their families deserve and relish arts experiences as unforgettable life events in their own right, beyond any other inherent value.

2. Arts experiences do in fact prepare children and young people for the future, with all kinds of physical, intellectual, and psychological benefits.

Stop. Read those two statements again. Really, take a moment. Compelling, yes?

So I believe that children and young people have a fundamental human right to consistent exposure to arts disciplines and experiences, with schools one natural bastion of arts awareness and development. I say there’s nothing like the creative “buzz” that vibrant arts programs generate in schools in which they’re accessible to all students, rather than to a specialized few, and especially when they support and express curricular themes.

An Integrative, Experiential Approach to Music Education

From a movement piece demonstrating the life cycle of a butterfly, to a group rap and dance about simple machines, to a student-written song based on Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, to a dramatized piece by down-and-out gold miners, weaving curricular themes into music instruction is win-win-win! And again, there’s a buzz that builds school-wide in the process of creating and preparing to share these kinds of experiences. The ante is upped again when we include in the mix the visual arts, poetry and other literary arts, movement, and theater. And we truly strike creative gold when we go even deeper, to a focused intent to integrate the sciences, math, and technology. More on this auspicious approach shortly.

Looks like a blast!Meanwhile, in my view all children are musicians, just as they’re scientists, builders, storytellers, and artists. Some make straighter lines than others care to, and include more—and more fantastical—details, but I believe the impetus is innate in children to explore the world through their voices, bodies, and imaginations, through evocative objects and media, whether with gusto or quietly, with others or alone. Just as we introduce children to wholesome foods that nourish them, to stories and images that inspire them, and to concepts that whet their natural appetites for more, they deserve to hear, sing, play, create, and move to music that resonates with them and encourages access to the whole of their emotional range. Yes, anger could be expressed like this, and sadness like that, and joy, and fear, and surprise, and silliness, and grouchiness, and tenderness, and… fun!

Music is logical, too, and mathematical, and a language, and a way of building or constructing, much like playing with blocks or clay, all of which children love discovering. They deserve musical experiences that are harmonically, melodically and thematically age-appropriate, while also not ‘”dumbed down”, but rather intentionally chosen and crafted to develop their minds, voices, gross and fine motor skills, and much more.

All of childhood isn’t preparation for adulthood. Children, young people, and their families deserve and relish arts experiences as unforgettable life events in their own right, beyond any other inherent value.

And again, continuing brain research on musical training in childhood indicates increased auditory and verbal memory, enhanced language-based learning skills, and augmented connections between the motor and sensory regions of the brain that have lifelong implications. Children’s authentic musical experiences encourage them to expand their sense of themselves, of their bodies in space, of what individuals can do alone—I tapped the rhythm/sang that line!—and together—we did the work and saw it through! Do you suddenly flash on an unforgettable childhood experience of yours, or your child’s?

Music and Movement – a Happy Marriage

Kids and hiphopI think it’s deeply significant that music naturally engages the body. Children of all personality types and temperaments are ever ready to move to its rhythms, from school to home and home to school, humming as they wiggle-dance in the grocery store check-out line, playing eons-old music games spontaneously on the playground, making big beats as they smash bubbles in the bath and laugh, laugh, laugh. So these days I’m more and more intentional about an integrative approach to music and movement, toward keeping children healthy and happy, enjoying the present, and developing and relating holistically.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Working at cello

As in the rest of school and life, some children work at music, motivated to master concepts and skills, valuing the content and thus their own efforts toward satisfying progress. Some just want the fun of music, thank you very much, and are primed to learn through their enjoyment if we can catch their vibe: two times ooooone is two. (Rest.) Woooo! Some are moved by the togetherness of musical experiences; some want the separateness of playing distinct parts and characters. Some who challenge us hour by hour with their drive to do and be to the max will readily channel all that energy and intensity into the musical experiences that we facilitate.

STEAM as a Collaborative Model

In my experience so far, the new buzz phrase and acronym STEAM—adding the Arts to an intention to stress Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—is a holistic mindset that impacts use of human resources, schedule, and technology, and in which creative collaboration across disciplines is the critical puzzle piece. There’s that buzz again, born of truly integrating the arts into potentially rigorous STEM programming. Resulting projects and experiences are fresh, relevant, engaging, and can run the gamut from small, daily, and micro to yearlong, school-wide themes and explorations. For me, again, that’s win-win-win… win!

And there’s a proviso: collaborations between arts and sciences specialists and classroom teachers must, must, must be real, with time taken for buy-in, team-building, and helpful structural changes. This process takes time, and requires support, encouragement, and incentives from administration and the school community. It’s a sea change, which takes extra fuel to propel, and teacher life force is a precious commodity. They—we—need practical and emotional support as we work to catch the wave. Once on, it’s a very, very satisfying ride. And I believe the second year is the pay-off, so continuity and commitment are key as well. In any new collaborative exploration, have at least a 2-year plan.

Music Education as a Human Right

These days, with so much that I want to do within the limits of time, resources, and an ever-wider body of musical knowledge and multi-cultural awareness, I prioritize rich experiences over more abstract forms of instruction, and I strive to deepen and broaden them in collaboration with classroom teachers and arts and sciences specialists. I’ll declare explicitly here that I want these evocative arts experiences available to all children in 21st century, civilized societies, no matter the neighborhood, type of school, or set of overarching educational values. And not seasonally, or once in a while, and not managed by overworked music and arts specialists whose fragmented responsibilities aren’t sustainable.

I say let’s ensure that all of our natural young musicians are consistently engaged musically, in age-appropriate ways, without downgrading music programming to communal kid-sitting or only offering it to a select, talented few. And in societies that do lip service to valuing the arts, let’s fund, support, and cherish arts educators as the “artist-teachers in residence” that they in fact are.

Arts experiences… prepare children and young people for the future, with all kinds of physical, intellectual, and psychological benefits.

And again, let’s risk new, collaborative models, in which the work of children and young people is enlivened by opportunities to explore and integrate musical elements into academic studies and goals. Through experiences combining speech, song, body percussion, pitched and un-pitched instruments, story, drama, improvisation, movement, and curriculum-driven and interest-based themes, let’s truly facilitate artistic self-expression in childhood, and then reflect on and celebrate what children create as individuals and in collaboration, what they share in school and in the larger community, what they enjoy just for themselves and with one another. Let’s demonstrate, with substantive music and arts programming in integrative formats, our commitment to fostering children and young people to be their deepest creative selves—like continuing to love learning—for life.

Rock guitaristFinally, two more critical points: first, from that integrative foundation, let’s encourage children and young people to pursue musical interests, aptitudes, and careers that they discover along the way, and facilitate their connections to appropriate expert mentors. And very, very importantly, my dears, let’s make “grownup time” to experience and support the arts, and to continue expressing ourselves, growing and risking as artists or in whatever ways keep us happy, healthy, and continuing to develop and thrive in our own balanced, enjoyable 21st century lives. A Philosophy of Music Education coverLet’s practice what we preach, and model healthy pursuit of the deep creative satisfaction that we want for our children. Whew. Gotta go get at all that, here in the beautiful summer of 2014! Thanks for reading, and for your interest in music and arts education. Please share your experiences, insights and feedback with me here! Also, I’ve published this piece on Amazon and would greatly appreciate your review there.