Old School vs New School in Music Education

Some would say we are missing the mark in Music Education. What say YOU? 

The OLD school of thought on teaching music was that it prepared people for life. Students in a band, but especially in a marching band, learn lots of life lessons.  But the newer schools of thought are that, unless you can justify teaching the arts for arts sake alone, school systems will continue to cut programs as insignificant.  Before I make any conclusions, I’ll go through both and let you help me in the conclusions.

Old School

From the OLD school, which you must understand is where I have spent most of my life, makes a strong case for marching band’s contribution to a student’s education in music and life. Band has a hierarchy that most students haven’t experienced elsewhere in school. We have section leaders (flutes, clarinets, trumpets, etc) responsible for at least the musicianship of the others playing the same instrument. Squads are a fading category, but used to be small groups of 4-6 people with a squad leader in charge of their marching fundamentals. Color Guards have sergeants or captains responsible for their group. Due largely to experience, seniors have authority over freshmen. Above the others in band, but below the directors is the drum major (for a while called field commander and more currently identified by some drum corps simply as “conductor”) who is the conductor on the field and often the go between directors and the rest of the band. Since drum majors and section leaders are often selected by the directors, many bands elect band officers to represent the student perspective. Along with responsibility comes accountability and that combination is a strong life lesson.

The shy student assigned leadership responsibilities must balance meekness and modesty with the necessity of assertiveness and accountability. Recently, when confronting a particular section about some less than expected behavior, it was the senior section leader who took the hit as I told that person, so that the others could hear, that I would hold her accountable for an infraction in her section.   

Students from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds must learn how to work together with people they likely would not associate with otherwise. The student whose family can afford any instrument puts on the same uniform and lines up next to the one who can’t buy a new reed and both are judged without consideration of anything other than performance excellence. Take any section of the band and you might find a child of college professors, lawyers, fire or law enforcement officers, of a convenience store clerk and someone on government support, an out-of-work parent – who must rehearse, communicate, cooperate, practice, support and respect each other.  In our current world of mostly segregated churches and neighborhoods, only sports and the arts throw everyone together and expect a homogenized result. …and get it.

Students involved in band have less time to get into trouble. He/she learns a level of discipline other students not only do not understand, but will often scoff at. A graduating drum major explained that band kept her out of trouble because it kept her away from those she would have run around with otherwise.

Band improves people skills. When you spend as much time together as marching band members do, you have to learn to deal with tough, tense times. You have to learn how to give and receive instruction, criticism and forgiveness.

In band, in addition to cooperation, collaboration and chain of command, you also learn the value of appropriate submission.  I heard a preacher once say that society cannot function without submission. That is certainly true in a marching band. Listening to input is one thing, but a democracy it is not. There can and often be discussion and even voting, but once a decision is made, it is made. Without submission there is chaos. And instead of learning this after getting fired from the first job or two, band members know many of the skills they will need to survive in corporate America.

In band, one learns that there are things more important than self alone. We talk often about doing things for the good of the cause, or about not doing things that would hurt the group as a whole. Band graduates are fortunate to learn this important life lesson before the work force learning curve costs them their first job or two.

Unfortunately, the very things the OLD SCHOOL has claimed as the major advantages have been used AGAINST the arts because critics claim the arts cannot stand on its own merits. So the NEW SCHOOL of promoting the arts, music, band…..and marching entails making the case for ARTS FOR ARTS and Arts for Education’s sake.

New School

The purists in this NEW SCHOOL emphasize utilizing the State and National Standards for Music Education.  Here are the current Indiana State Standards for High School Music Education. Words in italics are mine:

1.       Singing alone and with others.

How are we doing on that one? Not very well….but we should be singing. There is a good correlation between listening, hearing, singing and playing on an instrument.

2.       Playing an instrument alone and with others.

Ok here, right? Remember this one, though, when we ask you to play something alone.

3.       Reading, notating and interpreting music.

Hopefully you are reading what you play. You interpret by performing articulations, dynamics and other musical markings. We are lacking in the area of notating music.

4.       Improvising melodies and accompaniments.

This is really difficult to do in a large band class. Can you imagine this in marching band? Even a concert band setting? This works for Jazz and in smaller classes or ensembles.

5.       Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.

This happens on a limited scale (pun intended) in Music Theory Class.

6.       Listening to, analyzing and describing music.

We should strive to provide more time for this. But when?

7.       Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and other disciplines outside the arts.

Marching Band involves choreography….so does Show Choir. Our flags and guard uniforms are “artistic” and designed for specific reasons. But what about band class and Algebra?

8.       Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

There is a General Music class (Music of the Twentieth Century) that studies that era of Music History. When we play pieces like “Christmas Through The Ages”, we combine old carols with classical music of those different historical periods.

9.       Evaluating music and music performances.

We do this a lot for ourselves and in reviewing judges comments from performances.

 A major problem that I have personally with these Standards that I am bound to teach, is that they OMIT TWO CRITICAL COMPONENTS OF WHAT WE DO! So are we wrong? Some would say we are.

Tell me what they are and what you think …. And I’ll finish this in a future post.

Thanks for reading,
John Gardner

ps A response from Dr. Tim TOMORROW! Scheduled for 6am.


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