Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

Fun! Fun! Fun! Having fun learning Music

Discuss with Stephanie how we can make it fun to learn music

In this video, Stephanie talks about what it means to "have fun learning music." What does it mean for you?

Released on October 4, 2017

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, here we are again VSM and me, Stephanie. With the new academic year just started, at least in my part of the world, I wanted to make a video based on the discussions I've had as well as the observations I've made after 20 odd years of teaching and making music. Now the info presented here are based of course on my own personal experience, and therefore purely subjective, is intended to generate discussion, so please remember to drop me a line so that ideas and experiences can be shared.

So I want to start off with two situations. And the first is this. I was head of a large music department of full-time and peripatetic instrumental teachers. Now I'd noticed that one of the guitar students had been playing Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" for like forever. I nicely questioned the teacher about this to which he replied that both the student and the parents were delighted and had already signed up for the next academic year.

The second situation was a discussion I'd had with one of the moms of my daughter's school. I'd come to the conclusion that my child's after school gymnastic lessons were a bit of a waste of time, possibly money, given the pretty awful end of year show. Although either as a parenthesis, is it right to judge a child's development by a show? That's a discussion for another time, I think. Getting back to the original situation, the mother I was talking to replied that, "So long as my daughter was having fun, where was the problem?" Okay, not a musical situation I know, but the parallels are obvious.

And that got me thinking about the idea of fun as a principal learning objective in music education. I can't speak for other subjects of course. And also about the responsibilities teachers have. How should we teach? Do we give students what they want? Or indeed no? Is fun the ultimate goal in learning an instrument-oriented music? Should we be doing what students want in the interest of reaching them at their level?

Now in asking these questions I feel that the student-teacher relationship is immediately transformed into a client-teacher rapport. And maybe this is as it should be, teachers have to attract and retain students to pay the rent. It's a marketable product like everything else. Even in the classroom though where market forces are less at work, the relationship seems to have changed. Music is increasingly perceived as relaxation time where students can enjoy an unjudging environment where there is no wrong or right. Students also are typically engaged with youth music as the principal hook. But isn't education, including music education of course, about finding out about the world and expanding horizons, isn't it about identifying and describing what you like, what you don't like, recognizing what you can and can't do, together with a critical thinking that develops with this process? Isn't education about making connections between past, present and future? Between different subjects and indeed between...and with life itself?

Turning to some other point I mentioned previously, let's look at music as relaxation. In my experience, and that of my colleagues, music certainly is relaxation time. But only amongst the hours of practice, dedication, discipline, mistakes, disappointments and successes have been experienced along the way. Personally I feel students need to have contact with all these states, as anything less is neither music nor indeed education. As for music being a subject where there is neither right or wrong, listen to a beginner violinist play or indeed any beginner play, and then come back and tell me that there's no right or wrong in music.

As regard to youth culture and music education, it's a fantastic means of learning, but only alongside the many different modes out there. Actually I feel we are reaching an excess on modern popular culture and music education, so much so that teachers are increasingly confirming what students already know in the interest of student engagement, rather than getting students to explore unfamiliar territory, ethnic, experimental, music and history doesn't apparently make the grade. It's a kind of musical bigotry really and worryingly, it does sound death for any type of musical expression outside the marketplace. In our quest to engage with students aren't we now just confirming the norm, and in doing so startling curiosity? That's why schools of rock give me the heebie-jeebies, it's just so limited. By comparison, schools of music promise a much faster, richer and variegated world out there.

Turning now to the fun factor. Well, fun is a byproduct of seeing progress, making connections, playing and/or working with others, building relationships, experimenting, seeing the failures and the successes, and building upon the interest that comes from exploring the world of sound all around us.
Personally I feel that fun should never be an end in itself for learning.

Now I know I said I couldn't speak for other subjects out there, but I wanted to finish today's video with my thoughts on a debate that took place in one of the schools I worked in. In response to the idea that learning should be fun, a lot of the teachers from various subjects agreed feeling that this would better engage their students. I remember however the history department taking exception to this. "How can learning some of the gruesome facts about the past be fun?" They argued. "The Holocaust, slavery and the cotton industry, imperialism and the devastation reaped in the name of making a quick buck. Surely fun," they said, "is inappropriate." Well without wishing to get into semantics, I think our historians had a point. So what do you think? Certainly it's a discussion that is by no means new yet one that most of us have an opinion about, nor can I honestly be limited to music alone.

So get in touch and turn my monologue into dialogue. Bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Alan Cugini on October 24, 2017 @7:18 am PST
I stumbled across this video on a LinkedIn page, and I have to say I've echoed much of what you said to anyone who will listen. I get the need for engagement, student choice, and "fun," for lack of a better term. My biggest concern as a music teacher, though, is that we may be going too far down the rabbit hole, to the point where students are beginning to dictate the terms of their learning.

I do recognize the difference between private studio and classroom instruction. I've taught adult students who had very specific reasons in mind to take lessons, which gave me the choice of teaching what they wanted to learn, or simply not having them as students. However, in either situation, I believe that we as educators are obligated to give students what they need and not just what they want. After all, that's what we're getting paid to do.

I have always been uncomfortable calling myself an "expert" because there are many people out there who know a lot more than I do. Yet, the reality is that students come to us because, in reality, we are the experts. Otherwise, what do they need us for? I think it makes sense to meet students where they are, but only if we lead them down appropriate paths to success.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on October 25, 2017 @12:47 am PST
Hi Alan, perfectly put. As I've absolutely nothing to add to your very articulate email, my hope is that you may get involved in more discussions here at VSM - your contributions would be deeply appreciated. Cheers, Steph
Alan Cugini on October 26, 2017 @4:21 pm PST
Thanks for the kind words. Interestingly enough, having this very conversation salvaged a season for my concert band once. I look forward to perusing the site and I hope to speak with you again soon.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on October 27, 2017 @2:34 am PST
It's amazing was reasoning can do, don't you think? I love people getting in touch, even to disagree, so we'll definitely speak again! Bye, Steph
Alice on October 5, 2017 @12:43 pm PST
Quality music education is a balance of both affirming/fulfilling the student's existing musical interests and goals, while also expanding their horizons with careful introduction of unfamiliar music.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on October 6, 2017 @2:41 am PST
Hi Alice, thanks for taking the time to drop me a line. Whilst I largely agree with you, I'm not so sure about the 'goals' aspect. It is extraordinarily difficult for all of us (adults, teenagers and children alike) to analyse our situation (musical or otherwise!) objectively and consequently set goals. Also, goals and 'dreams' can be mistakenly interchanged. Again, to have the maturity for recognising these two elements, and to enact upon this, is, frankly, rare. Anyway, as I understand education (& as I was trained), it is the educator who sets goals, to use your word, in a 'careful' way. It's great that a student has his/her own personal objectives but music, as in all subjects, should be primarily governed, not 'balanced', by teacher objectives. Cheers. Steph
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