I have the wonderful charge as a Music teacher of putting on two concerts a year. After reading various literature regarding performance and educational purpose, I made a connection to a certain issue plaguing many other teachers today.
How much is concert preparation similar to teaching to a test?
Let’s back up first…
I read a quote last year in a comments section of a post on a music teachers Facebook page that stuck with me. The commenter said that performances should take place only if there was educational justification; students are not school spirit groups and their job is not to entertain an audience.
I’m sure that schools don’t think of music teachers as producers and students as entertainers. But in my experiences over the past 18 years as a student and then a teacher, I find that there is a certain expectation that the music presented will be recognizable or at least pleasant on a surface-level. This comes mainly from students, who want to sing songs they know from the radio and balk at the thought of learning something new because “they don’t know it.” Additionally, when I was a music student in concerts of my own, I knew that parents and family commented about how long the concert was, or how strange the music was. My own family members were some of them!
Length and relevance are things to consider as a music teacher programming a concert. But so is educational purpose, which I feel might only be readily apparent to the teacher and the students who have been working for months on the repertoire. They’ve had the time to dissect it, to mold it, to learn from it. But the only thing their parents see is the final result. By the nature of concert preparation and arts in general, it’s difficult to see progress with only that one performance. You see the final painting, not the time that went into it. You see the musical, not the scene-by-scene rehearsals. You read the novel, not the numerous drafts and revisions. It reminds me of that iceberg poster…
Still, I understand where this desire for familiarity and pleasure comes from. Sitting through a seemingly never-ending concert is tedious, especially when I don’t know the works. And I’m sure that from a parent’s perspective, they want to see their children having fun, participating, and being a positive member of a team. They’re not going to walk away commenting on improved intonation or breath control. But the solution is not for teachers to eliminate great composers and arrangers for the sake of others’ immediate enjoyment or appreciation or even to program a certain grade simply because they teach that grade.
In other words, music teachers shouldn’t construct concerts primarily around nonmusical justifications or expectations. Performances must be educationally justified. Every group performing must be able to demonstrate an age-appropriate yet skilled performance in a facet they’re working on in class, as long as it can translate to a concert setting.
This means that if grade 3 has been working on rhythm for an entire unit, that’s something that should be programmed. It’s relevant, it’s skillful, and it’s fun for the performers and the audience. But if grade 5 is not doing a performance unit, they should not learn a song or a drum routine for the sake of being in the concert.
Still, I think with some creativity, there’s a lot that could translate to a concert setting, even if it’s not performance based, such as a short movie students created or a description of the instrument families or brief explanations of vocabulary
Music teachers shouldn’t be teaching to a concert, similar to how other subject area teachers shouldn’t be teaching to a test. When instructional time is spent preparing students for a finite performance rather than a learning experience with applications and opportunities for growth beyond the performance, it limits the time they can spend being creative, asking higher-level questions, realizing their full potential.
Concerts are ways of teaching- teaching about goal-setting and follow through, teaching about musical styles, about teamwork, about self-expression… I could go on and on. The things students learn from preparation and performance are vast and diverse.
Should most students get the opportunity to perform at a concert? Yes. Performing is one of the four artistic processes outlined in the National Standards. But the other four- Creating, Responding, and Connecting- may not be so readily translatable to a concert setting. Good curriculum mapping, teacher collaboration, and creativity can help foster a learning environment where a concert is a natural extension of what students are already learning.
The suggestions and details about ideal concerts in this post may already be a reality for a lot of music teachers, and that’s great! This post, like most of my others, is meant to encourage conversations about the value of arts in education and society.
I’m reminded of a platform of mine, which I still stand by. Music, though an aural art, is not always about performance. Performance is not at the top of the musical pyramid- it stands on equal footing with the other process that help performance come to fruition, and every one of those is just as valid as the others.