Enduring Experiences in Instrumental Music


Think about a musician you admire. What is it that you admire about that artist? What are the qualities of musicianship that you admire? Make a mental list… Great musicians perform with a high level of rhythmic and tonal precision, technical facility, and with artistic expression, as well as critically listen, describe, choose, create, and interpret music.

Now for the big question: Are all the characteristics you listed for what a good musician can do aligned with the content of your music curriculum?

Do your rehearsals provide experiences that include the “good musician recipe” so that students leave your program with the skills, concepts and musical mindfulness that prepares them for the next level in their schooling? Or better yet, does your k-12 curriculum develop long-lasting musicianship that prepares students to be active music makers and consumers when they graduate high school?

Real-life Musicianship

One of my professors told a story about how he discovered the importance of developing musicianship back when he was a high school band director in Virginia. I think it serves as a great example.

His school rehearsals would entail much of the norm; learning repertoire with his ensembles, commenting on how to play it better, having the students rehearse parts again and again, then perform a concert. After school, however, he would become a “real” musician. What do “real” musicians do? As a jazz pianist, he would listen to music, learn melodies, harmonies, styles and artistic phrasing, practice technical sections, rehearse with a group, make musical comments to improve the performance, then perform.

He described how as a gigging jazz pianist he was expected to know many songs and standards by ear, as well as read, arrange, and perform those songs in several keys. Without the skills and intimate knowledge of those jazz standards he developed through musical preparation my professor would not be a gigging jazz pianist, but rather a jazz pianist who works in fast-food service.

Over time, my professor began to think about how he taught his high school players and compared it to his own experience as a working musician. When he learned music, he would listen, practice, compare, analyze harmony, fix wrong notes (or as they say in jazz circles, “bad resolutions”), correct inaccurate rhythms, work on ensemble playing, compare how others have performed the compositions, discover new interpretations, improvise, compose, arrange, etc.

He discovered that many of these authentic musical activities were missing from the high school student experience in his band program. He made all the musical decisions and molded the ensembles and their musical opinions for them. Music making was one-sided and teacher-directed as he did all the talking and all the thinking. His ensembles could perform their pieces very well when he directed. But how could they ever make music without him if he was guiding and leading their entire music making experience?

Bringing Real-life Musicianship into the Classroom

As a result of this reflection on comparing a high school musical experience versus a working musician experience, my professor began to make some changes in his ensemble program. More critical listening experiences began to creep into band rehearsals. Students would compare professional recordings, as well as their own rehearsal recordings,  sharing comments through discussion and debate.

He began to encourage students to make performance decisions on interpretation as well as repertoire selection. To develop better intonation and technical facility, students were assigned to learn melodies by ear and perform them in different keys as an addition to scale practice. He was preparing these students for post-graduation musical experiences by giving them authentic “real musician” experiences while in school.

Final Thoughts

When students graduate from school, they will not have an English teacher to write their emails, a math teacher to help balance their checkbook, or a Spanish teacher to help them read a menu at the local Mexican restaurant. Similarly, graduates will not have a music director to help them make music after they graduate. No one will cue them to come in on 4, no one to tell them to play louder, no one to conduct a phrase and cue a breath. Graduates must be able to do all of the above independently.

If we want our students to be independent musicians, we need to provide experiences that encourage young musicians to perform, interpret, make decisions, express opinions during rehearsals, so that they can do the same outside of rehearsals. Give students a chance to be “real” musicians. These experiences will help blossom independent musicians who can create, perform, and critically listen to music long after graduation – a goal for every music educator.

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