True or False: There is usually only one right way to do something.
Try to answer that quickly and without much thought. Which are you? I’ll get to why in a second.
I just returned from my fourth trip to Colombia, South America, where my wife has a very large and loving family – what a beautiful, magical country! It was a nice break and it gave me a lot of time for reflection, meditation, and reading. It gave me the mental space to get curious again about things I had forgotten about. One of these things was how I’ve noticed the shifting attitudes on music education.
In the USA, I’ve been seeing more media coverage about the positive aspects of music education. But at the same time, I’ve been noticing a difference in mindset among music teachers, parents, and society in general.
The first mindset is like this:
- Music education is a nice way to give a rounded education and especially if you want to be a professional musician
- You should teach classics first… and then branch out from there
- There are strict technical exercises that produce the desired results
- There is usually only one right way to do things
- There are tried and true methods that have been handed down through the centuries
The second mindset is like this:
- Music education is a great way to teach life skills regardless of professional career choice
- Music lessons are like exercises for physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development
- All music styles/genres are valid
- Technique can be very personal
- There is no single right way to do anything
- Music is constantly changing and so is the art of teaching with new methods coming online everyday
And it is the two mindsets that can sometime cause friction. I’ve seen it in forums where teachers have criticized and bashed each other based on difference of mindset. In many ways, these two mindsets are the basic differences in society. The first is “change is uncommon – let’s stick with the good old days” and the second is “Change is the norm – let’s embrace change.”
What Factors Contribute to Each of These Mindsets?
When I was young, my parents were more of the first mindset. They saw music as a way to a “well-rounded education.” But when I started to get “obsessed” with music, they became concerned. Being immigrants from Thailand and Korea, they wanted a safe and secure career for me. I had been brainwashed with a mantra. If someone asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would just blurt out, “A doctor, lawyer, or an engineer.” It was automatic. My parents kept trying to instill in me that music was just a hobby. And yet, you can’t deny your true calling. My brother, sister, and I are all actively engaged in the arts! It’s kind of funny now, but it was pretty hard as a teenager.
In Colombia, I asked some of my wife’s relatives about music instruction and it was still a pretty rare thing. While Colombia is booming and getting international attention as a top destination for both travel and business, life can still be hard. Good jobs are in demand. I heard many stories of young graduates waiting years to get a job in their chosen profession or going back to school to switch professions. It seemed that getting a job came down to luck and knowing the right people. So in an environment like that, who has the time and money to put towards music education? This is the first mindset.
Contrast that mindset with the one prevalent in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, where there is almost a de facto understanding that private music instruction is just a standard part of growing up. There is no question you will be enrolled in music, dance, art, sports, or a combination of all of them! Most of my students are so fully booked that switching a time slot is a major hurdle. It’s like those puzzles where you can only slide one piece to move another!
Why Has Music Education Become an Afterthought?
I am more of the second mindset and would like you to consider shifting with me. As a parent, I believe that music education and arts instruction are an essential part of my child’s life. I began my whole teaching studio focused on children because of this. My wife also shares this thinking and has made it her life’s mission working at multiple non-profit organizations throughout her career. Currently she is Senior Director of Operations at ExpandED Schools whose mission is to expand the school day to include more extra-curricular activities that are just as important as math, science, and reading.
You may have heard of a movement known by the acronym STEM – which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. There has been a cry for more of this educational push in the United States as they say we are lagging behind in these skills in the workplace. This to me is like the first mindset.
STEAM is a counter-movement which adds an “A” for Arts. But I would still include the language arts of writing and reading which are inextricably linked to thinking. And of all the Arts, music alone has been proven to be the most beneficial for brain development. As the late Steve Jobs was quoted as saying on what makes Apple great, “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
What Makes Music Education So Important?
Besides all the things you’ve heard before like life skills of focus, discipline, persistence, grit, and study skills, I believe music is just part of our world. It is in our DNA! It is the voice of God that is vibrating through us to create everything we experience. By learning the laws of music, you align yourself with the universal principles of creation. It’s like the sea we swim in.
Music is pure emotion and we all have our own music. By connecting the internal music with the external mechanisms of creating, producing, and sharing music, we are surely becoming more harmonious, beautiful, and sensitive people. And isn’t that what we all want? World peace. Our peace. A beautiful heart.
So if you are more of the first mindset, here’s a challenge. Try on the second mindset as if you were trying on a new coat. Wear it for a few days, weeks, or months. Then, decide whether to keep it.
I leave you with a quote from Heraclitus: “The only thing that is constant is change.”
Let me know how your “coat” fits.