What are we really doing here?

I’ve been an educator my entire adult life, working in what I consider one of the most important subjects a student can choose to undertake—the study and performance of music.  Music and its elements can be found in and connected to every academic discipline.  That students choose to become involved in actual musicmaking in our schools is but one of many factors that differentiates music from the so-called “core” or required subjects studied in our educational system. 

Fortunately, this choice draws many bright young people to our music classrooms.  By any measure—academic, social, or talent potential—music kids are among the best students in any school.  Ensemble directors should recognize that students under their tutelage have made a conscious decision to be in their classroom rather than elsewhere.

The influences affecting their decision will vary depending upon the student.  Some may be drawn to the music classroom because their friends are making the same choice.  Others may have had some prior music experience or a parent or sibling that had been involved in the past.  The rigor of musical study and performance may interest those who have a strong academic background.  The artistry involved in performance may lead the “creative” student into band, orchestra, or choir. 

Whatever the reason, once a student has made the choice to be in our classes, the real trick is in keeping them involved.

So, the initial question posed still stands.  What follows will attempt to move toward either an answer or possibly more questions.

For many students involved in music, it is a way to be a part of something bigger than themselves that includes a wide variety of personalities and abilities all striving for a common result.  There are other things that can provide a similar experience (like team sports, honor societies, and academic teams).  Music performance especially distinguishes itself in that every person is constantly contributing to the end result.  Performance ensembles don’t have a “bench” or a “second string” set of performers.  Ensembles never stop to substitute musicians in the middle of a concert to give the “starters” a rest–all members play an important role in the production of the overall product at every juncture in rehearsal and performance.  Music can be an unbelievably effective tool in developing great team members and collaborators—qualities that are highly valued and increasingly rare in today’s real world.

For some, doing something with friends or others with common interests is most important.  The social aspect of music ensembles is not to be overlooked.  Learning to work closely with others who are friends is relatively easy.  Learning to do so with those who you don’t always agree with or possibly not at all encourages empathy and acceptance of the kind of diversity our society is actually built upon.

For a small minority of students in any ensemble, music becomes who they are.  They can’t imagine a life without music playing a leading role in every aspect.  They are usually perfectionists who ultimately end up having to live with constant imperfection.  Every great performance has its flaws (unless you can edit or auto-tune them out).  No one will ever completely figure out how to play an instrument or compose a masterpiece, although the rare individuals the world calls masters of the craft come closest to that goal.  These students are willing to give enormous amounts of energy to both their own efforts and those of their fellow ensemble members through example and mentorship.  These individuals provide a picture of what passion, commitment to excellence, work ethic, and artistic fearlessness look and sound like for everyone else in the group—in short, they embody what leadership is.

Personally, music is what makes me who I am.  Decades into a career, rehearsing, teaching and performing music still excites me every day, and although I come home every day totally exhausted has never felt like work—unlike a lot of the other things happening in today’s schools that certainly do.

So, what motivates a long-term commitment to music study on the part of students who are in our classes for an obviously diverse set of reasons?

Realistically, very few of our students will become professionals in the music field—and they shouldn’t.  For students who don’t necessarily feel that music is me connection, other means of creating value through their involvement must be developed.

As a music educator, I believe the most important things we must do for all students are:

1) expect excellence from everyone involved, regardless the level of experience

2) cultivate a sense of family, with each member knowing they have an important role

3) provide a rich, significant diet of repertoire in every aspect of the program

4) set incremental goals, with each one just out of reach of the current level of proficiency

5) provide a wide variety of performance opportunities

6) plan in such a way to put students in a position to be successful in their work

I doubt that you can leave any of the above out of your thinking and completely serve students in a music program.  For example, to achieve #1, you would need every one of the others.

With that in mind, if there is a single answer to my question it has to be a little bit of all of the things mentioned above.  Each member of our ensembles is there for a reason, and for some it is not the one we might think.  It is up to us to find ways to understand as best we can and provide the vehicle that validates their choice of music as part of their educational experience.

Brad Rogers has been a director of bands at Oldham County High School in Buckner, Kentucky, since 1987.  He can be reached at bradford.rogers@oldham.kyschools.us