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Teaching Music For Beauty’s Sake

Children naturally love beautiful things, but I sometimes accidentally kill this love even in music class. I believe that our students need to hear and learn all kinds of folk songs, even the ones that are not silly or dramatic. But in class, the temptation to apologize for these more serious pieces of music is strong. After all, these little kids (and big kids!) don’t have the store of listening know-how that my graduate colleagues and I do, and isn’t that where so much of the interest of music can be found?

But every time I preface our listening or singing with “Now, this one is SLOW” or “This has TEN verses” or “Ready for a HARD one?” the results are terrible. They unconvincingly murmur along with me or refuse to sit quietly during the piece. It’s so ridiculously difficult to act on my beliefs about music education when confronted with a room full of candidly skeptical children.

I’m getting better though, because I have seen time and again the absolute effectiveness that positive, joyfully honest language has on even my youngest students. As an example that I love to relate, one morning in Kindergarten music class here at TSCS, I planned on introducing “Auld Lang Syne,” a classic of the folk repertoire. I really struggled with how to introduce this song, with its confusing language and slow “boring” melody.

Beauty won out, thankfully. I simply took up my guitar and sang the tune in my most grown-up, real voice, and surprisingly to me, the students were entranced. I asked them “what does this remind you of?”, wanting a window into their thoughts. The answers I heard brought tears to my eyes! “It reminds me of soldiers putting their hands on their hearts.” “It reminds me of when my grandma died” “It makes me want to cry.” Wow! I can’t even begin to recount how many times this has happened to me, how many times the “boring slow” ones are the ones we all (even the most rowdy among us!) remember, love, and want to hear again.

What a wonderful thing to begin to understand! But here’s the problem: these very same sensitive souls keep experiencing debilitating skepticism from teachers, parents, and peers, and many eventually stop really listening as they grow older. They become less and less ready to wonder and catch their breath when they encounter something beautiful.

Things like chemistry and algebra and economics and history, to the student who has been unable to learn to really love the beautiful in music, are prevented from becoming diverse avenues for the discovery of Truth and Goodness and Beauty, and instead become something else that doesn’t require the moral fiber and character to be honest and pure and peaceful (and dare I say loving?).

My biggest mission as the music teacher at TSCS is to bravely remind all of my students of the things they have forgotten. One of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, once observed: “It has been said that education is what a man has learnt and forgotten. The musicianly musician is only half-educated: he has learnt, but he has not forgotten.” I think this is kind of exactly right, both speaking of musicians professional and musicians amateur. We cannot do without that native love for things that are Beautiful.

It’s not easy on our part as the mentors, however. I’m not simply talking about projecting an attitude on our students—I’m talking about the inner struggle music demands of any who encounter it! It takes quite a lot of humility and bravery to not give in to the ease and flow of not only our current culture but also our own comfort or pride!

How many times I experienced a form of this very same struggle in college and graduate school as I studied and performed piano works again and again. How many performances were hijacked by my own selfishness and insecurity when simply what was wanted was to play Beethoven, just as the score dictates! How many times in trying to do it my own way was the music stripped of life and depth!

Music has a way of requiring us to come face to face with our most selfish bits and turn the other way resolutely. If we as teachers and parents can’t ignore our misgivings and selfish tendencies and let the deep joy of encountering Beauty be painted on our faces, then there’s really no way we can expect our students to care either. Even the innocent sincerity of the Kindergarteners may be squashed with just a little inconsiderate selfish tromping.

And why not begin strengthening your virtue right now? As an exercise for your soul, click here to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Italian Concerto. 

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