A Challenge to Music Educators

October 1, 1987

Events occurring in educational systems throughout our nation over the past few years have stimulated a good deal of thought, self-examination, and some new ideas concerning music education. The following thoughts were generated by seventeen years of college teaching experience and are personal opinions formed out of a deep concern for the future of our art. They address two basic problems inherent in many college and university music programs which have had (as well they should) considerable impact on public music education. Those problems are curriculum requirements and standards. Both of the problems have a great deal to do with yet another problem facing the entire teaching profession—image and respect.

The term "music educator" presents some difficulties for many college and university professors for a number of reasons. First, we are not "educators" in that we cannot educate anyone. Education is acquired by a person desiring to learn. It is not given or forced upon anyone by a single person or a faculty. Second, the term "educator" is representative of an attitude prevalent in higher education today, an attitude implying that if a student is accepted for a certain curriculum and moves through the system of course requirements, he or she will then "graduate," receiving a piece of paper stating that he or she is an educated person. But is that the case? It is possible that this student has participated in an educational assembly line—moving from one course to another, being offered a particular body of information or skill, arriving finally at commencement, the gates through which one passes into the world. It is possible for an average-to-gifted student to complete the process without ever once being challenged to stretch or grow, mainly because we have been forced to become "educators" instead of teachers. Third, an educator resembles an assembly line worker, stuffing students' heads with prepackaged information accessible to all students in the class, information that has been determined by a committee to be necessary in order for students to be educated.



Music is an art that expresses human values, and values cannot be prepackaged and placed on a shelf for purchase. They cannot be contained in methodology courses or expressed in books to be learned through memorization. They cannot be evaluated through tests or compared statistically. The values inherent in our art must be experienced and assimilated in order to become part of a person's character and being, and they are not experienced or assimilated in a classroom during Lecture Number 5 of Week 7 of the Second Semester of the Sophomore Year. They must be practiced and practiced and experienced and re-experienced. Assimilation is not memorization, which can be accomplished without any personal commitment invested in the process. It is not accommodation, which can be a means of convenience, again without personal commitment. Assimilation is growth, evaluation, stretching, and learning through a process that first apprehends a new idea or value and that through continual experience reshapes personality on the deepest level, incorporating the idea or value as its own. It takes time and requires encouragement, pain of growth, and desire, but in the end it is what makes a person "educated."

Education is a process, but it is a process of becoming. It is not the mere acquisition of facts or the completion of degree requirements. It is a process of realizing, learning, and adopting values; of recognizing, filtering, judging, and assimilating information in order to become a whole person. It is a lifetime process of discovery experienced at different levels by everyone, but it is exactly the process that we, as teachers, should be most concerned with in our own field of specialization. Many can be "educators," presenting prepared material according to a pre-determined schedule for memorization and regurgitation. But not everyone can or should teach.

We must be teachers, not educators, in that we guide, explain, stimulate, and stretch our students in many ways. We are not merely conduits through which information passes, nor should we ever become mere conduits. Computers serve that purpose much more economically! We, as teachers, must operate on a much deeper level, challenging students to do much more than merely memorize information. They must learn to assimilate it, use it, and make some kind of judgment about it. It is through that process that one discovers something new about music and about himself or herself in relation to the world. We must serve this purpose for our students.

To teach music is to take a personal and deep interest in each individual student and to have an abiding love for the art of music. We are caretakers not just of our students' minds but of their being—and of our art. In order to inspire, guide, and stretch them, we must be inspired, creative, and committed, and to do so, we must love our art and our profession.



A second problem facing most schools today is that of standards. There must be standards and there must be minimal requirements, but sadly our minimum requirements have become the maximum level reached by many of our graduates. There is too often little or no challenge beyond what is attainable by every student accepted into the curriculum. This situation has created an educational system which resembles a grocery list:

  • enter through the automatic door
  • get check approval at the service counter
  • pick up every item on the list
  • proceed through the checkout point
  • receive a receipt and leave through the automatic door.

The "shopping" presents options to the student that can drastically affect the standards and/or quality of his or her training. Teacher evaluation lists published by student organizations, pass/fail courses, and transfer of credit from schools with lower standards are just three of numerous avenues available to students who wish to meet only minimum requirements for graduation. It is true that students should be and are free to choose courses, but the side effect of offering minimum-standard courses has been to overpopulate those courses. This in turn puts pressure on teachers who require more than the minimum to lower standards in order to entice more students into their classes and therefore meet Faculty Teaching Equivalent levels. The result, over the past fifteen to twenty years, has been very damaging to the level of standards in the educational process, and many students graduate having barely scratched the surface of their potential.

Why has so much higher education in the music field degenerated into such a system, especially in degree programs that lead toward teaching as a profession? One reason is that teaching degrees are not attracting the best students. Why? Disregarding economic reasons (which are serious), it is due in large part to our grocery-list curricula. Gifted students must purchase many courses that keep them from becoming good musicians—from reaching their potential as a performer, composer, or conductor—by using valuable time and energy that could be spent in the practice room or in elective music courses. Instead of being encouraged to develop musical gifts as fully as possible, students must fill up on noncreative courses in methods, statistics, and surface-level psychology, learning system, methodology, and rigid standards of mediocrity instead of being challenged to become the best musicians they are capable of becoming, to stretch their love for the art of music and their ability to share their gift with our world as a teacher and performer, composer, conductor, etc. No wonder the best students who recognize their own gifts and love the art turn their backs on teaching. Our curriculum requirements would force them into a partial negation of their gifts and of their own being.

Has the ages-old saying "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" become a truism in music education programs? Have we watered down our standards and curricula to the point where we cannot attract good musicians to the teaching profession? The music education degree has, for the past twenty to thirty years, been regarded as less respectable than the performing degree, the requirements for which are concentrated more upon individual growth in performing skills as well as basic musical knowledge in theory, history, and literature. In short, the performing degrees encourage students to become better musicians while music education degrees produce jacks of all trades and masters of none. Is it right or fair, then, to require our future music teachers to spend so much valuable time in courses that deny creativity and individuality—time that could be spent learning their craft? And is it right or fair to send out to the public school systems music "educators" who cannot perform?

We, as teachers, belong to one of the oldest and most respected professions in the civilized world. I can't help but feel that respect has been lost mainly through our attempt to standardize and make a college education available to everyone: we've ended up with mediocrity as the rule rather than the exception. Not everyone needs a college education but everyone has the opportunity to try. However, we cannot accommodate everyone of varying gifts without reaching the lowest common denominator as our level of standard. Everyone who loves music cannot be a musician unless he or she has been given certain talents and abilities, and those of us in higher education are there to teach and guide those with gifts for performing and learning. To lower our standards to a level attainable by persons with little or no gift for performance or learning for any reason whatsoever is dishonest, and it cheats those with capabilities that we are not challenging.



What is the answer to the dilemma? Perhaps a starting point would be to do in an open and forthright manner what some schools and students are leaning toward by granting both the Bachelor of Music (BM) and Bachelor of Music Education (BME) degrees at graduation. Why not combine the BM and BME programs into a single five- or six-year program called the Bachelor of Music in Performance and Teaching? The benefits of such a combination include a five- to six-year period of learning during which the student would be able to become completely enveloped in his or her craft, years that would allow assimilation and time to mature in his or her art. Those of us teaching on the undergraduate level so often bemoan the fact that when our students finally reach a good level of performance, they move on to graduate schools. This program would change that, and would better prepare the student for the competition of graduate school. It would also prepare those students not intending to go on to graduate studies in a much more thorough manner than what is possible now with a BME degree. They would be gaining much more before their formal training as a teacher ended, in turn having much more to give as a teacher.

Standards and requirements for the degree should be tightened. Growth does not occur without pain, and challenging students to strive to meet high standards is the only way to help them grow. If they fail, that is part of the growth process too, and it is our responsibility as teachers to help them cope with and overcome failure—without lowering standards. Lowering standards results in loss of respect, and earning a degree with low standards does nothing for self respect. And (speaking of self respect) we cannot lower standards or requirements in an attempt to populate classrooms with tuition-paying bodies—that is immoral and insulting.

An addition to the program (from what is presently required on most BM and BME programs) could be something resembling an apprenticeship. Each student would be assigned to a professor for a year, not to do slave labor, but to study that professor's teaching philosophies and methods of evaluation, discussion, and course organization. Most of us began our teaching careers using the methods by which we were taught and which we knew from good experience, not those we read about in books. Giving a student an opportunity to observe and discuss teaching with a respected teacher on a college or university level would be an invaluable stimulus to a future teacher, no matter what level of students he or she eventually plans to teach.



As a musician who loves teaching as an art, a profession, and a vocation, I would like to appeal to you of like mind and heart to voice your beliefs and your commitments strongly during this present crucial period of change in the ways in which we prepare teachers. Our curricula must challenge and stimulate students to become the best musicians that they are capable of becoming. We cannot and must not teach them how to get by on minimal effort, for no matter how many courses in teaching methodology they may take, they will become teachers patterned after their role models, not after what they read in books. The ultimate responsibility for success or failure is theirs, but we as individual teachers come in a close second, not the school they attended. Since that responsibility lies heavily on our shoulders, we must voice our opinions as to how and what we require of students while they are in our care.

1890 Last modified on October 23, 2018