The ancient Greeks recognized the importance of music as part of a complete education. In the Greek gymnasiums of ancient times, men sought physical fitness through training, but education in music was also essential. Greek philosophers argued that music was important because it refined the mind. Gymnastics (or physical training) and music together completed a man’s education.
In this “Back to School!” time of year, what are your routines? You may be back in school already or preparing for its arrival in the coming weeks. It is this time of year that—whether or not we are actively involved in a school as a student, teacher, parent, administrator, church worker, or volunteer—we tend to pay attention to a change in routines. Summer’s coming to a close and the rapidly approaching autumn signals a return to stricter schedules and more involved days.
I periodically see a meme floating around the internet jokingly mimicking those who praise musicians with phrases like “Wow, how did you get such great talent?” and “How do you play so beautifully?” The musician responds every time: “Practice.”
This meme expresses the truth of every great artist. Certainly, some possess a certain knack for particular arts and we hear about prodigies every once in a while, but the truth is that those who succeed in any area, whether music or otherwise, succeed because they put in the hard work of learning to do something well.
While reading a child’s version of the biography of Johann Sebastian Bach to my students recently, I was struck with how much Bach learned from the “masters.” When practicing and perfecting his art, Bach intentionally sought out music written by those who preceded him whose works were masterful and worthy. Bach’s method of learning music in this way provides a powerful example of the way in which we should learn and teach music.
Every Maundy Thursday evening during the stripping of the altar, the choir at my church sings a version of Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a poignant piece for that part of the service and a look at the way in which the Psalms continually point us to Christ. This repetition of the same psalm at the same service every year also ensures that the psalm becomes familiar to the congregation and offers members words of Scripture to pray in times of need.
I’m a rule follower.
I hate making decisions, and rules tell me exactly what I should do. They are easy to follow because I don’t need to think about anything. If it’s a rule, I follow it. All of this makes me a good sight-reader. To me, it’s comforting to know that all the notes and harmonies and rhythms are laid out there and simply need to be followed.
Music-making doesn’t have to be serious. It can also be hilarious.
If you teach music in any capacity, think about the times it has most brought a smile to your students’ faces. For me, it’s when ridiculous silly songs and silly voices are used. Take for example the song about the tree in the wood. You know the one: “The nest was on the branch and the branch was on the tree and the tree was in the hole and the hole was in the ground …” Even my most reticent third graders will break into a giant grin and start singing heartily when that song is in the lesson plans for the day. They think they are just having a good time. I know that they are learning to sing and to love music.
“Mrs. Greenway,” a first grader asked me yesterday, “do we ever listen to any Early Age composers?”
In our school, each music class concludes by listening to a piece of art music (generally known as “classical” music). We learn about one composer and one composition written by that composer every week. Each composer falls into one or two of the following categories: Early Age, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern Day.
There’s a meme I’ve seen more than once. It goes something like this:
Me: I just want to learn how to do my taxes.
School: Shut up and square dance.
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times: “Schools need to teach more practical skills.”
“How about we learn how to write a check and how to budget instead of learning to play recorders?”
“I don’t know how to open a bank account, but I do know how to do-si-do. That’s really helpful in the real world.”
I suspect that those who think this way have nothing against music and dancing in general. Instead, they probably think that students would be better served learning the basics of finance and practical skills instead of “impractical” subjects like music. After all, learning to square dance will not help you in the real world.