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Thomas J. West Music

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The Hard Sell: Getting Students To Buy Into The Learning Process

Posted on September 30, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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I teach in a unique public school setting. My classes are part of an elective program where students can audition to attend an intensified pre-professional course of study in any of the performing and fine arts. The students in my instrumental music classes are interested in learning to become proficient at a musical instrument and are willing to learn about all aspects of the art form, including music theory, improvisation, and composition.

 

Yet even in my setting, I still have students who "wash out" and are not willing to do what it takes to learn and grow as a musician. I had a ninth grade violin player leave my program yesterday because "He/she just isn't into the violin anymore." This student is new to our school this year and came from a previous school orchestra experience where the majority of their repertoire was popular, yet simple music and sequential skill development was not a priority. After experiencing my curriculum for two weeks where we emphasize scale study and sight reading chamber music right out of the gate, she decided to focus her energy elsewhere.

 

So much of what we do as teachers is finding the right "spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down", to quote the Disney song. The learner's expectation of what they will be learning and what value that information will have for them has everything to do with how far they progress. As students grow older, their sense of self develops to the point where they pre-judge people and events based on their perspective. "This is going to be hard/boring" is the battle cry of the secondary student.

 

Modern Western culture, with its fast pace, information overload, and ability to deliver nearly instant gratification has made it increasingly difficult for young people to move past the surface chatter and develop a life of depth and substance. So many of our young people have never had to focus their attention for extended periods of time, work together with other people, or put in long-term effort for an outcome that is released to them in small doses. So many young people are used to completely personalizing their life in every way, making it "all about them" right down to their profile picture, buddy icon, and phone wallpaper.

 

Music students have before them the opportunity to be "better than the average bear", as a colleague of mine was fond of saying. Being part of a performing music ensemble helps them grow into magnificent people willing to see a task through to its completion, to sacrifice their indivduality for the benefit of a group, and to seek out beauty, depth, and quality in their world. The rewards of long-term involvement with music are fantastic. Finding ways to get students past that initial difficult skill-building phase to the realm where they can be creative and expressive is where the true artistry of a music educator comes in.

 

So much of what we do as teachers of any subject is finding ways of giving students a series of small successes that help build their self-esteem. These are the real threads of gold along the path - not gimmicks, incentive awards, false praise, lollipops, and rainbows. When teachers create short-term expectations that students can achieve, they take pride in their learning. My students are proud of the fact that they can play all their major scales and tonic triad arpeggios in two and three octaves. They take pride in knowing what the primary chords are in a major key, and they certainly are developing a sense of ownership as I continue to provide opportunities to write their own original work.


Music education needs to be more than just "fun and games". It has the ability to significantly enrich the lives of those committed to its study. Music education also needs to be more than just "prepare for the next public performance". Developing the skills necessary to perform well is only one facet of what it means to be a well-rounded musician. Performance only can only carry the student so far, and it certainly does not make the vast majority of students life-long participants in the art form.




This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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Categories: Music Education, Editorial

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