Using Symbolic Interactionism in the music classroom

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’. 

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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.

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Teaching a critical approach to music

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.

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The ‘relevance’ question, and how to address it 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.

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