Why Can’t the Students Pick Their Own Music?

Soul nourishment is what gives them the possibility for one of those rare transcendent million-dollar moments...

I received this question from a colleague at the end of her tether, wondering what she should tell parents who were hounding her, and students who wanted to play endless concerts of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pharell Williams and Beyonce. "We like that music, why can’t we play it in band?"

I received this question from a colleague at the end of her tether, wondering what she should tell parents who were hounding her, and students who wanted to play endless concerts of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pharrell Williams and Beyonce. "We like that music, why can’t we play it in band?"

Like my colleague, I want to give students choice, and empower them to take ownership of their own learning. I want students to enjoy their music making. I want them to be invested in their ensemble experience. And yet I’ve also been afraid to let them choose. Because I am afraid the don’t have taste. Afraid they don’t know what they need.

Kids don’t know what’s good for them.

It sounds arcane to type, and even more strange coming from me, in my early 30s. And yet I also know that it is true. It is true that ensembles (especially young inexperienced ones) don’t know what they need, until we teach them to do so.

When we expose them to a wide variety of music, beyond what they hear on Top 40 radio or their latest Spotify playlist we broaden their aural horizons. When our excitement and passion is palpable as we introduce them to the Holst First Suite, or Portrait of A Clown we broaden their aural horizons. When we excitedly highlight an interesting harmonic sequence or a neat thematic connection we teach them what to listen for in music. We teach them to go beyond the superficial feel-good level to real appreciation and connection.

This exposure to great works of art teaches discernment. I don’t want my students to have the same taste as me. But I do want them to have the tools and understanding to make their own informed, independent choices. It’s impossible to do that if their field of vision is limited to the Top 10 new releases on Apple Music.

It’s our duty as music educators to educate. To educate, to care, and to listen to our students. All simultaneously, in ways that are often conflicting nad messy. We are teaching an art here, and art is about beauty. Creating it, appreciating it, being moved by it. There are of course beautiful, masterful works throughout the canon of popular music. Indeed there are even many quality arrangements of music from film, broadway, TV, pop and rock for school and community ensembles. And it’s okay to share these with our players too, in appropriate contexts.

But this is candy music. It is not an everyday food. It’s a treat. Sweet, fun, but lacking in substance. Problem is, kids (and adults!) love candy and often don’t have the ability to self-regulate when they are around something that is hitting all their dopamine receptors and don’t know any different. (Mobile phones, anyone?) Keep giving them candy and they’ll keep wanting it.

But our other option, which I believe is our duty, is to give them nourishment. Soul nourishment that gives them the possibility for one of those rare transcendent million-dollar moments where they are united with what they feel, what they are playing and the audience they’re playing for. Because once they really connect to the music in this way, the candy loses some of its appeal. They want to eat the vegetables because they like how the vegetables make them feel.

I’m not just talking about broccoli kind of nourishment, though. Putting Schoenberg in front of your students when they’re not ready for it isn’t going to work out very well for you, or them or Schoenberg (especially if they’ve been on a candy diet for a while). Going all raw-food-vegan in one fell swoop might not be the best conversion strategy. But there’s nourishment in Air for Band, or a great march, or Whirlwind or A Childhood Hymn. Music doesn’t have to be complex to be beautiful or artful. Just good.

When we choose what music is going to appear on their stands, that they will be practicing at home, and will be investing all our time in, we are choosing our curriculum. So when parents ask why the students can’t choose the music, I reply that sometimes they can. And the more experienced they become at discerning great from less so, the more agency they can have in choosing the curriculum together. When students are able to make wise choices about this (again, not necessarily the same choice I would make), we know we’ve done our work as teachers.

So if you’re surviving on a mostly candy diet, add a vegetable to each rehearsal. Love it and nurture it through your leadership and conducting. And then at the next concert, introduce another vegetable. And if it’s the parents and the administrators that also prefer candy, have them come to a rehearsal of one of the vegetable pieces and help them experience the beauty of it. My colleague asked me to come up with something she could send the parents in response to the question. This is what I sent back at the time. You’re welcome to use and adapt as you see fit.

"This is an educational institution and the repertoire is carefully planned and selected with educational goals in mind. English teachers teach Shakespeare even though it may be hard for students to digest at first, knowing that students need to be exposed to great literature. They don't teach comics and Facebook posts to study just because this is what the students choose to read. The same is true in our music ensembles. The music the ensembles play is their curriculum. It forms the basis for the skills they learn in the ensemble and also serves to introduce them to great works of art they might not discover on their own. Exposing students to great music helps them develop musical taste and discernment for what is quality, just as students learn to distinguish Shakespeare from pop-fiction. Perhaps most importantly, the experience of playing a masterfully crafted work of art can be transformative in a student's life. It is completely different from the excitement of playing a pop or movie show tune. Both experiences are valid and important, and are catered for in our music selection, in consultation with our students.”

If you want to hear more about repertoire selection, planning meaningful concerts that educate students and parents, check out Season 1 of the Conducting Artistry Podcast.

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