Category Archives: School Music

Of Crossovers and Role Blending: How Professional Growth Has Shaped My Personal Life…and Vice Versa

Note: This post is an excerpt from an essay published in New Directions: A Journal of Scholarship, Creativity and Leadership in Music Education. The entire essay can be read here.

Maybe it started when I was teaching middle school. I had my persona of “Mr. Woody, Music Teacher” for students weekdays 9:00am to 3:30pm. But I considered myself just regular Bob evenings and weekends. During the week, my mind raced with concerns of curriculum and classroom management. As all teachers know, those thoughts could easily spill into my time away from school. I made a point to separate my work life from my personal life. I strived to “leave my briefcase at the door” literally and figuratively.

That’s when I remember first trying to compartmentalize my life, but in all likelihood, the practice began years before I was a working professional. Like everyone else, I grew up filling different roles with the different social groups I was a part of. As a teenager, I wasn’t exactly the same person around my parents and teachers as I was with my friends! Perhaps it’s because students tend to associate school with rules, I developed much different expectations for myself when in school versus when out of it. This included how I oriented to music as a teen. While at school, I did…well, “school music.” Primarily an instrumentalist, I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band. But outside of school, I listened to pop music, and lots of it.

Perhaps I’m dramatizing things a bit much here. I don’t presume that leading a musical double life is the kind of “breaking bad” that merits a television series. In fact, the “school music versus popular music” divide is pretty common among students and teachers alike. And there are other areas of life where we need to play multiple roles, some of which are difficult to juggle. Working mothers and fathers know this all too well. Now as a parent, I must admit that I’m not exactly the same person around my students and children as I am with my friends!

While multiple roles are a fact of modern life, I’ve come to believe that too much compartmentalization can be detrimental, at least for me as a music educator. In addition to doing this with my professional and personal lives, and with my alternate musical worlds, at times in my past I’ve also considered my role as teacher and researcher as independent responsibilities. In all of these instances, I’m now convinced that too much separation can be harmful to both sides of the divide.

I believe I’ve benefited over the last few years as I’ve allowed myself to blend roles and unify my worlds in certain ways. In this paper, I will reflect on how I’ve come to this realization, and share some of my favorite points in the process. By no means am I suggesting that I’ve got it all figured out. To be sure, this is just my outlook as I write this today. Not only do I expect it to change, I think I’d be pretty disappointed if it doesn’t. I hope, though, that some who read this will relate to what I share, and it will contribute to their own process.

Questioning the Value of Role Separation

The need to separate one’s personal life from their work life is well accepted these days. Can you imagine a media advice-giver like Dr. Oz saying we’d be happier and healthier if we just brought more of our work home with us? Not likely. The underlying assumption is that work means pressure, stress, and worry. Bring that home and it’ll strain marriages and relationships with one’s children. If you can’t unwind, relax and get a good night’s sleep, then your physical and mental health suffers and you can’t find fulfillment in your personal life. I’m literally feeling tension in my body just writing about it here.

As much as I joke with my friends about having a “cushy college professor job,” I would not say that my work life in music education has ever come easy to me. Many times over the years, I’ve scrambled to meet deadlines (missed a few, too) and had to deal with some difficult people along the way. I’m no stranger to stress from the job. Clearly there is nothing to be gained by bringing that home with me. But what if I didn’t characterize my job by its stressful times? I’ve wondered, is it possible to see my job differently? To not lose sight of the big picture? In my position, my primary task—that big picture—is to share music in ways that enrich the lives of others. I consider myself very fortunate in this way. Especially when I look for them, it’s not uncommon to experience moments of reward and joy in my job. Certainly it’d be alright to bring some of that home with me. Maybe I don’t need as much professional-personal separation as other people do. I am a music educator, after all, not a crime scene investigator.

Please read the rest of the essay here.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody




School Music vs. Real Music

ImageWhen all the activities of the 2014 Super Bowl had concluded, many people agreed that the music around the NFL finale was much more interesting than the game itself. It included a wonderful breadth of style. The multitalented Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful, operatic superstar Renée Fleming performed the National Anthem, and we were treated to a lively halftime pairing of Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Following Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance, I tuned back in to Twitter and saw some tweets about her singing the anthem. Most praised her rendition, but a number of music-oriented tweeters said things to the effect of: “For once we got to hear the anthem sung by a real singer.” Maybe this sentiment is just the letting off of steam by formally-trained musicians, frustrated by their preferred styles being left out of the big-time media spotlight too often. But I did note that instead of referring to the anthem’s operatic stylings as “my kind of music” or even “good music,” some people suggested that we finally got to hear some “real music.” Not surprisingly, I was disappointed that in complimenting Ms. Fleming’s performance, some felt the need to put down the previous offerings of other non-classical singers (consider checking out “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship”).

Clearly many in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society. This includes the students that school music teachers are charged to educate. Research has confirmed that in the minds of many young people, there can be a significant disconnect between their conceptions of school music and what they consider to be real music (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont et al., 2003). For music educators, this disconnect is more than just a nuisance, or a mark of immaturity that must be overcome. Learning of any kind is greatly influenced by students’ intrinsic motivation for the subject matter and their beliefs about its relevance to their lives.

Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions. Keep in mind, of course, that this broad perspective does not represent only the kids who have found a home in the school band, choir, or orchestra, but the comparative majority who elect not to take any music at the secondary level. In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

As alluded to above, this disconnect between school music and real music can cause many students to avoid music learning opportunities altogether once these class offerings become elective for them. And for the students who do continue in school music, many carry on musical “double lives” that prevent them from getting the most out of their childhood music experiences. I was a prime example of this myself as a kid. I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band, but outside of school, I was a heavy consumer of popular music (as a child of the 80s, I’m sure you can guess what fills my iTunes library yet today!). What’s more, like so many other music students, my musical divide was not just a matter of stylistic genre. My musicianship in school was limited to playing just one instrument, almost always from notation, and in preparation for a public performance. My out-of-school musicality was also quite limited, but in very different ways. It revolved around listening and singing to recordings, either alone or with friends, but never for an audience. I’m sure many others can relate with me on this, including a lot of our best young music students of today.

In no way am I suggesting that we’re doing it all wrong in formal music education, or that we should try to reproduce exactly in music classrooms the informal learning experiences that so naturally happen outside of school. I would, however, urge music educators not to dismiss students’ preferred styles of popular music as somehow less real or worthy of consideration. Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction. These things are not only part of natural musicality, they also can contribute to efficient learning (Cassidy & Paisley, 2013).

I believe that we in music education could benefit more from looking at how people learn music in the real world and incorporating aspects into our teaching activities. Constructivist theory in education tells us that people learn much through active involvement with their environments. Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it (Campbell et al, 2007). When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.


Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(2), 103-118.

Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236.

Cassidy, G. G., & Paisley, A. M. (2013). Music-games: A case study of their impact. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(1), 119-138.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 5(3), 263-274.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229-241.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: MTSOfan on Flickr Creative Commons

Providing Vernacular Music Experiences to Formally Trained Music Educators

The term vernacular music refers to the musical styles and music making practices that are most widely used among people. I tend to use the terms vernacular music and popular music interchangeably. For decades now, leaders within music education have promoted the use of popular music in schools only to see little substantive change occur. I think, however, that the curricular landscape might be starting to change. Hopefully more schools are broadening the music learning opportunities they offer to become more inclusive of multiple types of musicianship.

A critical ingredient for carrying on this kind of curricular reform is equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to use popular music in authentic and educationally meaningful ways. I’ve had the opportunity to do this with the music education majors at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. For these students, I offer a course called “Popular Musicianship” with my colleague Dale Bazan. Most of these teachers-to-be have developed their musicianship exclusively through the formal settings of large ensembles in schools and private one-on-one lessons. In this course, they form small “rock bands” and learn how to play the instruments authentic to them. Almost entirely outside of class meetings, they collaborate to cover popular songs and create original works. They also do some songwriting individually.

Here’s a short video from last fall’s class in which I explain it some more:

When talking about the educational benefits of using popular music, one that is usually mentioned first is the motivation boost it can offer. I’ve certainly seen this played out with my students. They have such personal, emotional, and social connections to popular music that they seem willing to invest a lot of their free time—what little music education majors have!—on improving their vernacular musicianship. And their intrinsic motivation is surely enhanced by their being able to choose the music they work on, even composing some of it individually and collaboratively.

Using popular music, however, is much more than a “hook” to get kids into school music programs, only then to focus on other musical things they may not like as much. I seriously doubt that a bait-and-switch approach even works in the long run. The real power of popular music comes from the fact that it’s the native musical style of young people. It only makes sense to use a familiar musical context to most effectively engage students in creative activities like composing and improvising. As numerous music pedagogues have pointed out, people ideally learn music in the same sequence as they learn their native language. Much listening necessarily precedes imitation and personal expression. Here’s where popular music can offer an educational opportunity that other less familiar styles cannot.

As I said above, most of the music education students come into the Popular Musicianship course having logged much time listening to popular music, but having very little experience performing it or being creative with it. They seem to get a lot out of exploring the social music making and personal expressivity. They gain more confidence in ear playing and improvisation, and grow the artistic interpersonal skills involved in making creative group decisions. Through songwriting and performance of original music, many discover a new outlet to express intense feelings and stories from their personal lives. When they have these musical experiences, they quickly understand the merits of providing them to others, including their future students. In this short video, some of our students explain these things in their own words:

In addition to the experiences with the Popular Musicianship class, I’ve been following the growing body of research that supports the value of vernacular music experiences in the education of young people. Here are a few articles I’ve written in which I review some of this research:

  • Woody, R. H. (in press). Vernacular musicianship: Moving beyond teenage popular music. In E. Costa-Giomi & S. J. Morrison (Eds.), Research perspectives on the national standards. National Association for Music Education. [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by ear: Foundation or frill? Music Educators Journal, 99(2), 82-88. [abstract] [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2011). Willing and able: Equipping music educators to teach with popular music. The Orff Echo, 43(4), 14-17.
  • Woody, R. H. (2007). Popular music in school: Remixing the issues. Music Educators Journal, 93(4), 32-37. [excerpt]

And here are some of my favorite research studies addressing aspects of vernacular musicianship:

  • Allsup, R. E. (2003). Mutual learning and democratic action in instrumental music education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 24-37. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S. (1995). Of garage bands and song-getting: The musical development of young rock musicians. Research Studies in Music Education, 4, 12-20. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236. [abstract]
  • Davis, S. G. (2005). “That Thing You Do!” Compositional processes of a rock band. International Journal of Education & the Arts(6)16. Retrieved from
  • Davis, S. G., Blair, D. V. (2011). Popular music in American teacher education: A glimpse into a secondary methods course. International Journal of Music Education, 29(2), 124-140. [abstract]
  • Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. [publisher]
  • Jaffurs, S. E. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200. [abstract]
  • McGillen, C., & McMillan, R. (2005). Engaging with adolescent musicians: Lessons in song writing, cooperation and the power of original music. Research Studies in Music Education, 25, 36-54. [abstract]
  • Woody, R. H., & Lehmann, A. C. (2010). Student musicians’ ear playing ability as a function of vernacular music experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(2), 101-115. [abstract] [excerpt]

Music as an Elixir for Your Brain

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

ImageAdmittedly I keep watch for such things, but recently I’ve seen quite a few internet headlines about the benefits of music to the brain. For example, I’ve read online that practicing a musical instrument boosts motor and sensory brain development, that “uplifting music” enhances brain capacity, and that children who are “not musically inclined” can gain stronger brains with early music lessons. These kinds of media reports are usually welcomed sights for musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates. We personally experience the power of music, and know how it informs the way we think about the world around us. Hearing about musical brain research is affirming to us.

There are, however, some implicit problems with claims that musical brains are better than other brains. For one, there are multiple types of musicians whose skills can differ greatly. For instance, most formally trained musicians focus on technique development and performance from notation, whereas never-had-a-lesson vernacular musicians often improvise and playing by ear. Surely the brains of these two kinds of musicians develop very differently. More generally, findings of brain research are not easily communicated because the research itself is complex and detail oriented. Each study has limitations that must be considered when interpreting its results. Each one addresses only a small aspect of brain function, and contributes just a bit more to a body of literature that’s useful in answering bigger questions.

Such limitations can be lost when media writers (and bloggers!) share research in ways that a general readership will find interesting. Consider a recent study which scanned the brains of formally trained musicians—professionals and university-level music students—who began their training before the age of 7 (Steele, Bailey, Zatorre, & Penhune, 2013). Compared to later-trained musicians and non-musicians, the early-trained musicians had greater white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum. This important finding can be difficult to apply practically to musicians and to parents of youngsters in music lessons. The first internet report I saw about this study did not really hit the mark with its opening line, “If you played the recorder in first grade, you should thank your parents and music teacher now.” Obviously the vast majority of children who played recorder in elementary school have not continued to become professionals or music majors, and thus not likely recipients of the brain benefits identified in the research.

A recent TEDTalk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett titled “Beware Neuro-Bunk” addresses inaccurate brain claims by media and advertisers. They capitalize by just mentioning the brain in an article title or using a picture of a brain on product packaging. “Do you want to sell it?” she asks, then “put a brain on it.” Inaccuracies can result from the fact that the same brain part can perform multiple functions. Borrowing one of Crockett’s examples, consider brain scans which suggest that music activates the anterior insula, a part of the brain linked to pleasure and love (e.g., Brown, Martinez, & Parsons, 2004). If music activates the insula, and the insula is associated with pleasure and love, then we have brain evidence that music produces happiness, right? Well, unfortunately the insula is also known to be involved in feelings of disgust and pain!

Good scientists are careful to address such points in their research reports. In their write-ups, however, they are also entitled to discuss plausible interpretations of their data. They may draw from past psychological literature to offer a theory. (Note, Brown et al., 2004, used interviews with their participants to further establish that music elicits positive feelings.) Researchers are usually judicious in discussing their findings, and clearly indicate when they’re being speculative. In a typical media report, quotes from researchers are the most restrained and carefully worded statements of the entire piece.

When people overlook important details, it can lead to some pretty fantastic claims about the benefits of music, such as the so-called “Mozart effect” of the 1990s. The original study found that college students did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to sitting in silence or hearing a relaxation tape (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). This very specific result somehow morphed into a “music makes kids smarter” movement that was embraced by many in the field of music education. In a grand display of irony, one governor aspired to raise the intelligence of his state through a rather misinformed initiative, proposing a law that a Classical music CD be issued to the parents of every newborn baby. As much as I support broadening the musical exposure of people, I’m not in favor of doing so under the guise of improving things like general intelligence, mathematical understanding, and standardized test scores. The wave of excitement for the Mozart effect eventually receded, as other researchers were unable to replicate the study. Perhaps also, people saw the folly of using music to improve math knowledge, instead of…well, simply offering better math instruction. The current brain-based music claims are not going unchallenged either. University of Toronto psychologist Glenn Schellenberger has been an outspoken critic of efforts to present music lessons as intelligence boosters. While emphasizing the value of music education, he asserts that to desire it for any transfer effects beyond music “is a complete waste of time.”

Perhaps a good starting point is applying some common sense to claims that music affects other abilities. In other words, if music does improve a certain cognitive function, is there reasonable explanation for it? For example, another recent study found that school-based instrumental music instruction improved the verbal memory skills of children (Rodin, Kreutz, & Bongard, 2012). Verbal memory has to do with how well people commit to memory words that they hear. The music instruction in the study included singing, rhythmic clapping, and pitch identification exercises—all activities that involve listening. In explaining their findings, the researchers point to similarities in the brain’s auditory processing of speech and musical sounds.

Musicians don’t enter the profession to raise their IQ or improve their visual-spatial reasoning. People get involved with music for the musical benefits. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think musicians and arts advocates are best served by promoting the artistic and expressive outcomes of music experience. A couple of the recent brain-based music articles have included this quote by McGill University musician-neuroscientist Dan Levitin: “There are benefits to having a society where more people are engaged with the arts, so even if music instruction doesn’t make you a better mathematician or a better athlete, even if it only gives you the enjoyment of music, I think that is a good end in and of itself.” I couldn’t have said it better.


Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., Parsons, L. M. (2004). Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport, 15, 2033-2037.

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Roden, I., Kreutz, G., & Bongard, S. (2012). Effects of a school-based instrumental music program on verbal and visual memory in primary school children: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology 3:572. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00572.

Steele, C. J., Bailey, J. A., Zatorre, R. J., & Penhune, V. B. (2013). Early musical training and white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: Evidence for a sensitive period. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(3), 1282-1290.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Source of image: Café psicologico on Flickr Creative Commons

Coming Soon: Grammy-Winning Music Teachers

TimberlakePortnowLast night during the televised 55th Annual Grammy Awards show, two big music celebrities joined Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow on stage to announce the creation of the Music Educator Award, the presentation of which will begin in 2014. Justin Timberlake—who gave a highly entertaining performance during the show—and Ryan Seacrest offered some very supportive comments for the efforts of music teachers. Timberlake expressed thanks to those who taught him, and called teachers “the unsung heroes of our creative community” (note: “unsung” was probably not an intended pun!). Seacrest noted that for every Grammy winner, “there are thousands of great music educators, working behind the scenes to provide the inspiration, the passion, and the skills our young musicians need.” You can read a transcript of the announcement here.

As they concluded their message, the website was displayed on the screen. I soon visited the site and found some useful information, including several online forms for nominating people for the award. I also noted at the bottom of the site a statement that this new Music Educator Award is supported by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), as well as the NAMM Foundation. While on the site, I clicked on and took a look at all the various nomination forms. The ones for school administrators, recording academy members, and the general public were all quite similar; they mainly ask for the contact info of the nominee and nominator. The music teacher self-nomination form, however, solicits much more information. I expect that teachers who are nominated by someone else will eventually be directed to this online location. The first page of the form requests contact info, as well as estimates of demographic data for the teacher’s school (e.g., enrollment figures, urban/suburban/rural classification, racial makeup). The second page gets very interesting. It presents a number of position statements about music teaching, to which the teacher indicates his or her agreement. Ones that particularly grabbed my attention include:

  • Large Ensemble performances are a major factor in determining the success of a music program.
  • A successful music program should be determined by the number of students who make music their career.
  • It is important to create musical opportunities that generate interest to a broader student population.
  • Competition events are essential for student motivation.

This page of the application also asks teachers to indicate how often their instruction provides opportunities for improvisation, audiation, and singing (in instrumental rehearsals), as well as attention to music theory, historical context, and the business of music.

The final page of the self-nomination form asks a series of yes-or-no questions about the teacher’s values and priorities in the classroom. For example:

  • Do you provide instruction in multiple genres despite the possibility or probability of overall performance quality suffering?
  • Do you place emphasis on helping students acquire life skills as well as musical skills?
  • Do you emphasize playing/singing by ear as central to becoming an excellent singer/player?
  • Do you emphasize the reading of music as central to becoming an excellent singer/player?

The last item on the entire form is a field into which the teacher can state, in 50 words or less, one compelling reason why he or she should be considered for the award.

The questions and items on the nomination form suggest that the Grammys will be considering some important things when choosing music educators to recognize with this award. I’m glad to see attention will be paid to some of the issues I care so much about, such as creativity/improvisation, playing by ear, student motivation, and broadening the musicianship of teachers and students. It remains to be seen exactly how the Grammys will use and evaluate the data they collect from teachers. It appears that they may be trying to identify music educators who successfully use innovative and more individualized approaches with their students. Of course, as much as I count myself as a progressive in the field of music education, I hope that teachers who also maintain excellence in traditional school music pursuits are not somehow excluded from consideration. The Grammy Music Educator Award FAQ says that initial applications will be electronically scored and ranked, then semi-finalists will submit supplementary materials which a screening committee will review. Then a “Blue Ribbon Committee” will select finalists and recommend a winner. I can find no indication of who will comprise the committee(s). Ultimately, I hope that “Grammy-winning teachers” are selected with much input of highly qualified music educators. Perhaps this is where NAfME’s involvement will come into play.

I encourage everyone to visit the website and nominate a music educator whom you know to be doing great things for students. There are plenty out there, and I plan to submit more than a few nominations myself. Of course it would be virtually impossible for the Grammys to identify the most deserving music teacher, even if one such person were to exist. But still I am looking forward to hearing about whoever is honored with the first Music Educator Award a year from now. Hopefully it will be someone whose story will inspire other teachers and students, and raise awareness of the great value of music education.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: – photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

From the Mouths of Music Majors: Loving and Learning

Every year in the Spring semester, I teach a class called “Music Learning and Development,” which is populated by sophomore music education majors (the course counts as their educational psychology training). One of the first topics of the class is motivation. Among other issues, we cover the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation, similar to this previous post. A couple weeks ago, as part of an application assignment, my students identified a musical activity of theirs that they do out of intrinsic motivation. I asked them to think carefully about why it’s so rewarding and describe their motives in a brief essay.

As you might expect, their responses were varied and insightful. I was not surprised by what I read, but I was impressed with how articulately and passionately they spoke of their musical loves. Their comments, some of which I share below with their permission (and names changed), fall in line with some general principles supported by recent research in music education, as well as much anecdotal evidence relayed to me by musicians and teachers over the years.

Musical tastes affect learning.

There’s no substitute for intrinsic motivation. No teacher-generated incentive (or threat) can match the attention and drive produced by intrinsic motivation. If students generally like what they are doing, it can yield a commitment that’ll sustain them through many challenges. And if they love many aspects of an activity, it can spark rapid and long term growth.

In my students’ comments about what intrinsically motivates them, I saw a trend toward performance opportunities that typically include more vernacular music. Mentioned by several students were show choir, marching band, pep band, musical theatre, and jazz groups. Others expressed their enjoyment of playing popular songs on guitar or piano. One student told of the fun he has playing in a polka band!

With many of the musical styles and activities represented above, I wonder if some of students’ attraction is due to the overt energy—even physicality—associated with them. Perhaps young people’s engagement and learning is boosted when the activity is…well, active! One student Katie said this about performing in show choir:

I really do not need to be in it for any reason other than the personal joy I get out of rehearsing and performing with this group. I love to dance, and I do not get to do so anywhere else. I also get to sing pop music, something that does not happen often in the School of Music.

Does this mean we should abandon classical music and the repertoire of traditional school concert ensembles? Of course not. These are the perfect vehicles for accomplishing some critical outcomes of music education. But given the facilitating power of intrinsic motivation to learning, I would like school curricula to continue to broaden and be more inclusive of multiple musical styles, including those that are familiar to and preferred by students. Some very important learning objectives—improving aural skills, building technical facility, and increasing musical creativity, among many others—can be effectively attained using styles of music that students love.

Music is a means of knowing others and oneself.

Research is establishing that two broad benefits of music participation are social development and identity formation. Many of my students pointed to their preferred music activities as means of making friends and stimulating personal growth. Of his favorite musical group, Jared said: “When practicing or performing, I get to be myself. I don’t have to put on a ‘societal mask’ because I’m truly in my element. I am in it purely for the love of the art.” Similarly, Aurora said playing her own singer-songwriter material on the piano is “a way to express what I feel on the inside into something more tangible and musical…and help me remember why I love music and why I am working hard at school.”

Another student Melinda described it this way:

It is important for me to have a group I participate in only out of the pure passion I have to express myself. I also make tons of friends, all whom I consider my family. There is no possible way I could be in this group out of extrinsic motivation because we don’t compete, so there are no rewards or grades or gain other than the feeling you get when you are doing what you love, with the people you love.

The social rewards of a music group don’t just happen outside of rehearsals and performance. It would seem that significant bonding can occur during the music making itself. In Hector’s comment below, you can see that improvisation not only serves a self-expressive purpose, it allows connection to others.

One very important musical activity for me is free improvisation with friends. It allows me to get away from any written music, and focus solely on the people around me. Free improvisation doesn’t mean going crazy on your instrument with no rules. If one person plays an idea, then you’re bound to the dynamics, tempo, and roughly the same style of rhythm and articulation. It’s similar to someone asking you to paint a rainbow, but they only give you white and black paint. You have certain limits, but you’re free to do whatever you need to do in order to reach what you feel is necessary, musically.

To optimally learn, students must feel empowered.

Hector’s comment above also illustrates how motivating it is to feel autonomy or a sense of control in music. Many of the groups cited by my students have an increased element of student leadership. Marching bands, for instance, often utilize students as rank leaders or section leaders. I suspect that young musicians are more willing to do hard work when they feel it is their work. Rene noted the adversities of outdoor rehearsals in Nebraska’s sweltering summer heat and bitter winter cold, but concluded, “I miss every second of it in the off season and I crave to go back and work on more drills.”

In order for students to feel empowered or invested in an activity, teachers need not relinquish their leadership role. But they may benefit from extending to students more decision-making opportunity. However it is accomplished, student musicians thrive when they feel their contributions are valued and significant. Kellen admitted that playing a melody instrument provides a “huge feeling of satisfaction and importance.” He went on to explain it greater detail:

It is kind of selfish reasoning, but I just feel important to the group as I play the melody so often, and with an instrument that can be heard by most the audience. I feel like the success of the performance has a great deal to do with me, and I enjoy that responsibility.

While these student don’t typically use the term “intrinsic motivation” when they speak of their music making, they definitely understand the concept. They have experienced it, and for most of them, it’s what led them to choose their major. I hope that these sophomores will continue to connect with their musical loves as they get deeper into the music education degree, and throughout their teaching careers that follow. They may face more and more musical expectations (i.e., extrinsic factors) going forward. Ideally they won’t allow those things to dominate their time such that they stop engaging in self-selected music activities. Here’s one final student quote, from Wilson, that says it well:

This group has provided me with an enjoyment that I think all music students should have. Playing in this group is not about making money or even advancing yourself musically, it’s about making music for the group.

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Image source: Photo taken by Liz Love of

The Unique Contribution of Music Education is…

Occasionally when school districts face budget shortfalls and are forced to re-examine the value of their offerings to students, the place of music (and the other arts) in the curriculum is threatened. No one debates the necessity of instruction in language literacy, math, or science, but some inevitably wonder if schools can afford to have music programs. Obviously this causes music teachers much consternation. Their responses in such situations range in effectiveness. In the worst accounts I’ve heard, music educators defending their jobs, rather than the essential role of the arts in a complete education. At spring concerts or PTA meetings, a teacher say something like, “The proposal out there would eliminate six music teaching positions. These are people with families who have provided years of fine service to the school district.”

As true as this may be, it doesn’t make a compelling case in a time of budgetary “belt-tightening” and educational prioritizing. Some people—school administrators, parents, and other stakeholders—see music education as a frill. An enjoyable and enriching experience for some students…but not something that schools MUST provide. Those of us who have experienced the transformative power of music don’t respond well to it being sold short in this way. We know music belongs in schools and believe that eliminating if from the curriculum amounts to educational malpractice. But what do we make of those who take the “music as frill” perspective? Are they ignorant or just misinformed? Most importantly, what can we—the musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates—do to protect the place of music in schools?

Unfortunately many in the field of music education have seemed to desperately grasp at straws to defend it. They may claim that “music makes you smarter,” or that it produces more conscientious and productive members of society (shortly after the heyday of bank robberies, some music advocates adopted the slogan “Teach them to blow horns, and they won’t blow safes“). Former students may credit music education for teaching them discipline and teamwork. Other testimonials share how school music provided a place to fit in socially and build relationships with peers. Of course all of these things can be true (well, except perhaps for the one about blowing safes), but I’m not sure that they really help the cause of music education. You don’t hear other educators justifying math and science classes for their contributions to students’ self-discipline and interpersonal skills. These classes are staples in the curriculum because most believe that the subject matter itself is important for everyone.

In contrast, it’s much more common for people in athletics to praise sports participation for its contributions to character building and social development. So if a school music program is comparable to an athletic program, is that a problem? I think so. First, it point out that these educational by-products (e.g., responsibility, teamwork) are not unique to music. But more troubling is how similarities with sports can threaten music’s place in the curriculum. Athletics—not to be confused with its distant cousin, physical education—are squarely part of extracurricular activities. It’s rare for a full-time position in a school to have the sole assignment for coaching sports. Yet, some music teachers choose to run their classes like coaches run their teams. Just to be clear, I love competitive sports and think young people gain much from participating in them. But I’m not in favor of having Volleyball Team or Wrestling Squad become classes that meet during the school day. There are important reasons why sports teams and other enriching clubs and activities happen outside the curriculum. When school music operates more similarly to these groups than to courses like math and English, then I fear they are in jeopardy of being relegated to extracurricular status. Someone thinking only from a budgetary standpoint might wonder: why employ a full-time teacher if student music groups can be covered by a part-timer, say, a musician from the community? Or perhaps there’s a teacher of an academic subject with enough musical background who’ll work with ensembles afterschool for an extra-duty stipend (this is the scenario of the TV show Glee, in which a Spanish teacher leads the swing choir-type glee club). Some school districts have already gone this direction and moved all performing ensembles to after school.

Music teachers would do well to embrace the expectations placed on “core” academic subjects. Music course offerings should be part of a well-organized curriculum, and each class should make known its musical learning objectives. Teachers should focus their efforts on guiding all students to individually attain those objectives, with publicly-shared group performances happening as an outgrowth of this learning. Student grades should reflect attainment of learning objectives, and not be based on things like attendance and attitude…can you imagine if math teachers graded on attendance and attitude!

I believe the most compelling reasons for music’s inclusion in a school curriculum are those centered around the nature of music. The main purpose of the arts is expression. In fact, the arts can be effectively defended because of their unique ability to provide people with a means of exercising creativity and self-expression. I would like to see music education advocacy much more focused on this. Of course, we in the profession must then be sure to teach in a way that truly gives students opportunities to be creative and express themselves. In many cases, this will require teachers to relinquish some of their decision making power and put it into the hands of students. It is difficult to convincingly promote music education for its creative and expressive benefits to students if their experiences are dominated by the rehearsal of other people’s music, under the strict direction of a teacher who prescribes exactly how it should be performed. Again, this latter approach sounds more like a sports team—a coach creates the game plan, and runs team practice to prepare for the next contest. In contrast, music education can give artistic decision making to students. They can engage in experiences to develop their creativity by composing original music. They can collaborate in small groups with peers in which they make decisions about how to prepare a piece of music for performance. They can learn to improvise so they can readily express themselves. And this approach doesn’t mean abandoning large ensembles, which provide such great musical experiences and learning opportunities that cannot be had otherwise. But it may mean forsaking the exclusive dedication of class time to teacher-led rehearsal.

I’m pleased to know many music teachers who teach like this everyday. And I hope that the profession will see more and more of them as we move into the future. Their educationally sound practices should further solidify music as a basic subject that every school will want to offer to all of its students.