Note: The article below was published in the Spring 2011 edition of the Illinois Music Educator Journal. Dr. Joseph Manfredo, my adviser during my undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, asked me to contribute a piece that would fit within the issue’s larger theme of 21st century skills. Some of the ideas are ones you’ve heard from me before, but in a slightly different format. As always, comment, tweet, “like”, share, and enjoy!
Equalizing Secondary General Music: Our Primary Concern
“You can’t teach what you can’t sell.”
So goes a line from a song by Ted Leo and The Pharmacists called “Under the Hedge.”
Listening to the song on my iPod, on my way somewhere, with my mind racing in a thousand different directions, that line jumped out at me every time. The sentiment of the line felt right, but I didn’t know why. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this article that the lyric fully made sense to me as a music educator.
If we have any interest in remaining relevant in the 21st century, then we need to take the words of Ted Leo seriously. We must expand our traditional offerings to include well-conceived and relevant general music courses that will energize our students. To put it simply: If we can’t sell our profession to our local community, then we won’t be in a position to share our passion for music with them. You quite literally cannot teach what hasn’t been bought.
Expanding the brand of music education
Unfortunately, almost 80% of high school students aren’t buying what we’re selling, choosing not to participate in our traditional ensemble offerings. However, many children are actively engaged in music learning, often mediated through digital means. The fact is that 76% of children ages 8-18 own an mp3 player; and with sites like YouTube or services like iTunes, our youth can access an endless supply of music at any time. Not only do they seek out new music, but they also create their own. This generation has taken YouTube’s slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” seriously – creating original songs, mashups, remixes, and covers that they then post to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or their own personal blogs.
If we truly want to ensure that music education has a place in the future of our schools, we need to capitalize on our students’ enthusiasm for both the consumption and creation of music. We can do this by expanding our course offerings to complement their interests. Simply put, we should offer courses that would allow students to engage with music—traditional and popular genres—by giving them the opportunity to compose, remix, and analyze the music that truly captures their imagination.
In an excellent article for Leading Notes, Rick Dammers uses the concept of brand diversification to effectively make this point. He writes:
If [our profession was] Coca-Cola, we would need to look beyond trying to get everyone to drink cola. We would need to offer other types of drinks as well. This diversification strengthens the whole company without hurting the original brands.
The “original brands” in this example are our traditional ensembles (band, choir, and orchestra) and the “other types of drinks” represent classes that seek to mobilize the 79% of students who simply don’t wish to drink what we have been offering. An increase in secondary general music courses would be the perfect tool to bring “brand diversification” to music education.