Making secondary music lessons more engaging and relevant to students

Teaching secondary music is an experience I’ve found very rewarding because students at this age have the ability to engage, talk back, and have conversations that are affected by — and affect — how they’re shaping their own identities as young adults. Three strategies I’ve found very useful in engaging secondary students during music lessons are: 1) starting with something familiar, 2) emphasising enjoyment, and 3) maintaining the importance of intellectual rigour.

Starting with the familiar
In my experience, students at a secondary level have strong opinions about what they like and don’t like, especially when it comes to music and sports. I’ve found that harnessing these opinions makes music lessons much more relevant and interesting for them, simply because it begins the discussion in a space which matters to them. Elicit responses from students, get them to share what they think, and very importantly, remind them that all opinions and responses are equally relevant and valid. I’ve had students laugh at a certain kind of music or performance, and say it looks amusing or sounds funny, even if it may be an important part of a musical and cultural tradition. The point I try to make is that that’s okay. Students need to realise that their own interpretation matter, and they’re not just there to hear what someone else says about the music. This is the only way to get them to start investing in the material.

Emphasise enjoyment
Enjoying music itself is of utmost importance, of course. Music creates strong emotional responses, and can bring immeasurable joy, and this is something I’m constantly emphasising in the classroom. But there are other kinds of enjoyment too, and the one kind of joy I always bring out in music lessons is the joy of engaging with the material. The process of understanding, decoding, looking behind the sounds and voices, identifying patterns, making cultural and historical connections: this is a process in which there is immense joy, and my students’ eyes brighten when they manage to wrap their brains around a concept and see it in use. As teachers, we provide tools — an understanding of musical grammar and vocabulary — to help students understand concepts. And then we urge them to practise using these tools to figure something out, or challenge an idea, or to find out what makes a chord sound so pretty. This enjoyment goes beyond simply liking music, but presents music as a powerful cultural force that students can explore.

Maintain the important of intellectual rigour
This follows from my earlier point about getting students to go behind the music. At the secondary level, it’s safe to say that most students are in music lessons because of the curriculum and not because they want to make music their career. The common assumption, therefore, is that music is something which adds a bit of value or interest to life, but isn’t that important when it comes to anything serious. Some of my most rewarding experiences have been in demonstrating to students that music is not just about performance, but also about various underlying contextual, sociological, and technological factors that affect the production, creation, and interpretations of music. Yes, this does often involve introducing students to theoretical and critical concepts, but when these concepts are broken down and made relevant, my students have realised that they are incredibly useful tools with which they can understand not just music, but other aspects of their worlds. They leave lessons realising that music is more than performance, more than sound, and more than notes.

Of these three strategies, I have found that the last one is, on occasion, challenging to implement because of how many of us understand music. I write more about this issue in Teaching a Critical Approach to Music.