What Classical Music Can Teach About Quality Instruction

I enjoy music. Most people do, of course.  Depending on our mood or purpose for listening, we enjoy different music styles at different times. When I run, I usually like up-beat fast paced music that will energize or inspire me. I look for songs with motivational lyrics or songs with a great beat. (Or songs from the Rocky movies.)  Other times, other music will suffice.  Sometimes a little Sinatra goes a long way as I complete some of my daily routines.

Over the past few years, I have found that listening to classical music also provides me with a certain peace and tranquility. I have found that the more I listen to classical music, the more I enjoy it.

For much of my life, I tried to enjoy classical music, but a few things got in the way.

The first was a sense that classical music is just too overwhelming. There is too much of it and it seems to encompass everything.  I didn’t know the difference between Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. (On many levels, I still don’t.)  Besides the big names, there seemed to be thousands of other composers and artists who I never heard of. Figuring all of that out just seemed impossible. Whenever I would try to listen to classical radio, I was always awed by the announcer who seemed to say something like, “That was the Hummingbird Dance Suite in D-Minor by Luciano Flaboricchio, recorded by the Prague Philharmonic and conducted by Flaustvious Cordova with flute played by Nikkoli Ramdumson III.” In short, I could barely understand what the announcer said and had no way to even contemplate figuring it out. (Classic rock radio is much easier to understand, “That was The Beatles with Day Tripper.”)

The second stumbling block was the fact that I thought I had to actually understand classical music. I thought each song had a purpose and a message and that I had to figure it out. That is how classical music was taught to me when I was a child.  I remember lessons in elementary school music class with the teacher saying things like, “Now listen closely, you will hear the horses arriving on the battlefield…as they arrive the archers take their aim and maim the lead character, Odysseus. The song then transforms into a melancholy arrangement of sounds until doves arrive and carry the protagonist to the heavens.” I will admit here that I thought I was stupid and I thought I was the only person who only heard instruments and noise. There may have been some nice sounds, but none of them sounded anything like horses, arrows, or birds. The piece would end and I’d still be waiting for the cavalry to arrive. I also didn’t even know the sounds various instruments made, so I’d be lost when the teacher would say, “Now listen for the French horn as it brings with it such supreme majesty…

My efforts to understand things that were beyond my comprehension (“Notice the chord progression as the piece shifts into the minor key”) blocked me from enjoying great music. If I had to understand it, I couldn’t enjoy it.

Again, it’s much easier to just listen to, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…” That I can understand.

If I could get through all of that, and, most often, I couldn’t, the various classical eras just threw me.

What is the difference between a song from the Baroque period and a song from Renaissance period?  Some Romantic songs seemed the opposite of what you’d expect for a quiet dinner with someone special.  And, if it’s all classical music, how can there be a Classical music period?  Is there any other area where an era defines the genre?

Who decided to make this all so difficult?

And then there is the length of the songs.  Rhapsody in Blue runs for over seventeen minutes.  Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 runs for at least thirty minutes.  Of course, these are just two examples.  Contrast that to Hey Jude by The Beatles which pushed all boundaries by running over seven minutes.  And that was a long song.  Billy Joel sings (in The Entertainer), “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05.”

Still, I always had a fascination with classical music. I wanted to like it. Over the years I have tried different methods to try to understand classical music – subscribing to classical music magazines, reading biographies of composers, listening to many “TOP 100 Classics OF ALL TIME” albums and CDs…and yes, even trying to play some easy classical pieces on the piano. (I can fake my way through parts of Beethoven’s Fur Elise and the beginning of The Moonlight Sonata, but, trust me, you wouldn’t want to listen.)

One day, I don’t know when it was, I said to myself, “I’m not going to try to remember all these composers and artists and genres.”

Instead, I said, “I’m not going to try to understand it; I’m just going to try to enjoy it.”

Now I mostly just listen. And I have found that I really enjoy the music.

I share all of this for a few simple reasons:

First, I think my experiences with classical music touch upon something that we, as educators, fail to think about often. When children don’t learn certain things, it may not be for a lack of trying or even interest.  It might be because the presentation confuses them or makes the material non-accessible to them. EVERY early interaction I had with classical music made it inaccessible to me. I couldn’t enjoy it because I always thought I had to find a secret meaning or understand complex music theories.

(Just for the record (no pun intended), I see this in many disciplines.  This happens in sports all the time. I see it a lot, coaches saying things like, “Don’t just swing the bat, line-up you knuckles, keep your back shoulder even, stride with the front foot, recognize the pitch, turn your waist, wait, think about what you want to do with the bat when it hits the ball…

I don’t think any of that helps a kid learn to play baseball.

Sometimes the best instruction is just “Try to hit the ball kid.”)

When children don’t learn, there are times when the thing standing in their way of learning is…us.

Second, we should always encourage all our students (and ourselves) to continually grow and try new things. Invite them to look for new skills and new ideas they enjoy. Too often we let people say, “I don’t like _____.” I think children (and all of us) are too young to write things off. We need to continually encourage our students to gain skills and appreciation for academic (and other) pursuits.

Third, we need to make sure that as educators we always bring a sense of fun, discovery, and enjoyment to our lesson development. While we need to know that it is sometimes ourselves that erect barriers to learning, we also must always remember that it is our enthusiasm for learning that rubs off on the students. Students love school when their teachers love school.

I always am inspired when I see teachers who allow children to discover.  I imagine that I would have enjoyed classical music more as a child if the teacher played small parts of songs and just asked us what we heard – and then valued our responses.  If we didn’t hear a humming bird, but instead envisioned a motorcycle, to ask why.  The teacher could have learned from us!  That would have been empowering!

Fourth, we must always watch the length of our lessons.  When we talk too much, we are like that inaccessible symphony.  What kid can pay attention through all of that?  Less teacher talk – more student engagement – that’s a key.  To have students learn, we have to let them learn.  They learn by doing, not necessarily just by listening.

Finally, when we are excited about something, and we share that excitement, others become just as enthused. We have to share that excitement with the students.  More, we have to share that enthusiasm with our colleagues – and even the administrators.  We can learn and grow, continually, from one another. Kids learn from watching us learn.

In short, it is up to us, always, to make the material we teach accessible, interesting, and meaningful for students.  We need to let kids engage with material on their level in their own way.

When we do that, we are truly teaching!

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