What’s the point of music education?

Some time ago, Lowell Mason went to church, an activity that was fairly common for Americans of his time. While there, he noticed that people weren’t singing nearly as well as they could be, and he figured he had a solution to that problem. As a result, he essentially founded the entire infrastructure of American Music Education.

Now, in our modern, more-enlightened time, we may scoff at this original intention. Singing in church? That’s the sole aim of music in schools? And of course now we all know that there is no God, and that when we die there is only infinite blackness. So there’s that, too.

However, I might argue that at least Lowell Mason had some purpose in mind in his teaching. His goal as an educator wasn’t simply good teaching for good teaching’s sake, but in order to serve some larger goal that his students would be able to demonstrate as adults. His educational philosophy didn’t end in high school.

As I learn more and more about the culture of school music–and the culture of school music in Texas–I grow ever more curious if anyone has any clear idea of what the point of their teaching is. This isn’t to say that there aren’t excellent teachers, who are really doing some great work and teaching their students to be excellent musicians. But it really doesn’t seem like anyone is thinking much about what exactly their students will be doing once they graduate from high school. There is lip service paid to creating “life long love of music,” whatever that is. But there are very few clinics at TMEA devoted to life long love of music. It’s really all about getting that 1 at UIL.

The problem with this is that it seems like every music educator’s focus in Texas is on short-term goals, for which there is no real analogue in the adult world. A student may be able to operate at the highest levels in a High School Band–going to all-region, then all-state, then (I think) maybe even all-nation–but once High School is over, unless that student is interested in pursuing a career as a High School Band Director him or herself, there’s not much more to do with those skills.

In the real world of grown-up music*, there are no Band Directors, there are no tryouts, there are no competitions, and there sure as heck are no judges besides an overstimulated and easily bored concertgoing public. Instead, it’s chaotic and random–every musician is kind of on his or her own to find people to play with and people to play for. And the public’s taste, rather than being clearly defined by an adjudication panel, is difficult to predict or understand. And nowhere in any student’s high school or college career as a member of a school band do they learn how to navigate in such difficult and unpredictable waters.

Now, this isn’t to say that everything that happens in a high school needs to remain in a student’s life after high school. I played football all four years in high school, and I haven’t touched a football since. That doesn’t mean that that experience wasn’t valuable for me.

What matters, though, is the evident lack of concern that most educators and education reform advocates have with the outcomes their programs are producing in their students as adults. If we as a society and as a profession are ok with the only goal of music education in schools being short-term victories in the way that short-term victories are the only focus of a high school football program, that’s fine. But we should then throw out all this garbage about inculcating life-long love of music or whatever if that’s not any kind of concern. A football coach justifies his existence by the character lessons that his players learn. Band directors could do the same.

The reason why we don’t feel comfortable with this solution is that there aren’t any music teachers I know who don’t feel a little sad when a student of theirs stops playing after high school. We all love music desperately, and our whole raison d’etre is to share that love with our students, and to have it stick with them until they die. We want them to raise their children as musicians, so we can teach them too. We want people everywhere to hum Mozart as they walk down the street, on their way to rehearsal for their community band, and as they’re lining up to buy tickets to see Yo Yo Ma.

Behaviorist that I tend to be, I start to wonder why this piece is so absent from any of the incentive structures surrounding music teaching. What if a teacher’s success wasn’t measured in UIL scores, but rather in how many of his students still played music when they were 18? What about when they’re 22? What about when they’re 30? What if that was the yardstick by which Band Directors were hired and kept their jobs? How different would high school music education be?

This question is totally generalizable, of course. The focus on STAAR testing or whatever the test is called now in Texas may be helpful, but it (like UIL) completely ignores the long term. Students may be excelling on basic math and reading, and that’s great, but to what end? Again, the whole of education and education reform is focused on short-term measures of educational excellence, and I find it mind-boggling how little we seem to care as a society about the long-term. While it might be likely that the highest performers on standardized tests are doing quite well in life ten years down the road, has anyone even bothered to check? Do we have any statistics at all about that?

For the most part, the answer to all the above questions is no. And yet the sole measure of teacher and school quality is the short-term victory. How’d you do at UIL? What about your kids’ test scores? Is that really all we’re here for?

*Of course, all of the statements I’m making here don’t apply to the professional symphony orchestras in the US and elsewhere. It bears pointing out, though, that of the thousands of students an average band director will teach over the course of her career, maybe one or two might be able to make a consistent living as a member of one of these orchestras.


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