Educators often face the challenge of introducing students to unfamiliar material such as a scholarly article in a journal or a musical practice from a cultural or social system far removed from their own. It is difficult to help students become invested in something that doesn’t make sense or means very little to them, so educators often fall into the habit of saying things like, “This is an important concept because it’s something you need to know; it’s significant in the field you’re studying; it’s something that’s fundamental to a big idea,” — basically, “this is important because it’s important.” But if we want to convince someone of something, we need to know how and why it’s important, not just that it is important. We need to examine how we can bring students through this process of understanding what we may consider ‘important’.
The Cathedral of St Patrick is one of the most recognisable and significant religious sites in New York City. It is also the setting for some of the best organ playing I have ever heard: in this video which showcases the virtuosity of Michael Hey, the Cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music and Organist. I was entirely blown away the first time I watched this; it represents everything I love about music.
Music is one of those aspects of human life about which most people have an opinion. Often, when interpretations and meanings clash and collide, it is the music maker’s viewpoint that many consider the most significant, whether it’s the intention of the composer, the interpretation of the performer, or the musical leadership of the conductor.
We know, however, that music is much more than a set of pre-determined meanings. Programme notes providing analysis and interpretation, a caption accompanying a video on a singer-songwriter’s Instagram account, a website detailing the philosophy and mission of an ensemble — all these are part of musical meaning-making, but far from all of it.
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.
Many of us grow up understanding music — and the arts in general — as something nice to have. Music provides entertainment, it brings joy, it adds emotional dimension to events from dinner parties and weddings to major international sporting events. And when we think of music as a profession, we often think of performance or composition. We do know, as well, that music occupies a significant place in cultural and religious practices. I find that it is of utmost importance to draw out the idea that music is not simply ‘something nice to have’, and neither is it a simply a ‘cultural’ practice that we may only encounter in a religious setting or at an occasion. Music shapes, and is shaped by, individual and social identity — and getting students to understand the mechanism behind these complex processes is the essence of a critical and intellectual approach to music, and one which I firmly believe cannot be ignored in the classroom.
As an ethnomusicologist who both lectures at the university level, and teaches primary and secondary students, I take great interest in seeing the different perspectives students bring to a topic. This is compounded with my own research interests, which lead me to read a great deal of material which often seems abstract and impenetrable. I often ask myself what value a complex article in a journal can have to a student studying music at an IB level, or to an undergraduate whose dissertation I’m supervising. Within academia, it is not difficult to feel like life happens in — to borrow a phrase often used in the media these days — an ivory tower.