Understanding the ethnomusicological approach to teaching: a simple start for PYP educators

The Social Power of Music was the 2019 theme of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that took place in Washington, DC over the weekend. This is exciting from an ethnomusicologist’s perspective, because what we do is examine the relationship between music and humans. Reading some of the stories and conversations coming out of the festival — many of them about deeply personal narratives as much as they are about the stories of cultures or nations — demonstrates how relevant the ethnomusicological approach is to the way educators teach music to younger students. PYP and Early Years music teachers are certain to benefit from this approach, but the body of literature to get through can be daunting.

That’s why I’ve started with this: a few simple tips for music teachers, inspired by stories and insights from some of the performers at the festival this year.

1. Encourage students to see music as a participative act, rather than something that’s always observed from a distance as part of the audience. 

“What works for me is to approach it like a teacher: I’m much more comfortable sitting on the floor with the kids in the circle and a guitar in my hand, and we’re all singing together. I had to learn how to do it as performer on stage with that separation of performer and audience rather than all together doing something. So I try to bring that into my performances, the feeling of togetherness and unity.” – Elizabeth Mitchell

2. Allow students the flexibility to participate in music in a way that makes sense to them. 

“I’m always trying to find ways to excite people. Some people might like to sing along, some people might like to dance, some people like to express in other ways, and finding those pathways to interact through the creative process is our goal.” – Dan and Claudia Zanes

3. There are multiple ways to experience music, as this hearing-impaired musician tells us. Everyone connects to music differently. Share these stories with students, and encourage them to find their own connections — and help others to do the same.

“I grew up enjoying music, but I couldn’t understand the words. My sister would write down the lyrics of a song for me, and I would follow along as she sang and mouthed the words. As I followed along, I would begin to understand the story. This was also right around when MTV was starting, so that visual experience of music really made an impact on me.” – Warren “Wawa” Snipe

4. Remind students that music is as personal as it is powerful in the big scheme of things. There is as much meaning to be found in singing for a friend, as there is in performing in a concert hall for an audience of hundreds.

“I sing for the next person. I sing for a friend.” – Maria Arnal