The Teaching We Don’t Do Is More Important Than We Think

Recently I attended a wedding. It was a lovely event, everything lovingly and expertly planned, all went very smoothly and everyone had a very good time. There was a beautiful program, crediting everyone for his or her part in the event from the caterers to the grandparents of the bride and groom – even the names and composers of the pieces played by the string quartet. And then I took a closer look. On this program was listed a very famous piece by J.S. Bach but gave Handel as its composer. Who cares, you say? Well, my inner and outer violin teacher got the better of me and I felt the need to point this out to the wedding planner who had certainly been responsible for the printing and proofing of this program. Handel would no doubt have been delighted to get credit for this piece, but someone has to defend Bach. No?

So I waited until after the wedding reception was over, found the wedding planner and as nicely as I could, informed her that there was a slight mistake on the program which, of course, makes no difference to this wedding so we needn’t bother the bride and her mother with this. But since she can never know who will be at her next event (the conductor of the New York Phil?), she might want to make sure to get the credits for the music right.

Okay, big deal, you might say. But what astonished me was her answer. “Really? Well then who wrote it?” “J. S. Bach,” I replied. “Oh,” she said thoughtfully, “I think I may have heard of him.”

There you have it. An experienced wedding and event planner who had organized a big and very expensive wedding with everything going like clockwork, thinks she may have heard of J. S. Bach. I imagine there are lots of printed programs at weddings like this and lots of Bach played, too. So what is shocking is not that she got the attribution wrong (and I cannot believe the professional string quartet gave her the wrong composer) – anyone can make a mistake – but that she really hadn’t the slightest idea who Bach was.

Bach, possibly the greatest musical genius who has ever lived. (Okay, it’s my opinion, but no one can deny Bach’s importance in music, present or past.) Which brings me to my point: this experience brought home to me with a thud that the lack of music education has become worse than appalling. That there are people with university degrees, professional people, who do not know who Bach was. Her comment should be at the level of “I think I may have heard of World War II.”  Or, “I think I may have heard of Shakespeare.” Or, “I may have heard about DNA, the atomic bomb, penicillin, reading and writing, etc.”

But it isn’t. And who is to blame for this? In part, we music teachers are – past and present. It’s our attitude. Of course, not all of us, but enough of us to successfully undermine the opinion society once had* that music education is not just important, but essential. By music education, I mean the study of a musical instrument, not listening to music in schools and not singing in school choruses (although that’s certainly very important, too, as an adjunct). I mean the discipline and grind of daily (optimally) study even for just a few minutes of an instrument.

How are we sabotaging our own discipline? What attitude is it that is going to kill classical music eventually and is indeed killing it now? That taking music lessons is an optional, not a core subject. I see this constantly in threads all over the place. It’s insidious. The devil is in the details, as they say.

For example, a recent thread in a music teacher forum talked about an under 10 year old who wanted to give up the violin for sports (his parents didn’t want him to) and the teacher wanted suggestions on how to rekindle his interest in the violin. Nothing unusual here, but what disturbed me was that about half the teachers advised letting the child go, especially if he was “committed” to the sport and/or wasn’t “committed” to the violin. There are five things wrong here:

  1. The teacher was asking advice on how to rekindle interest, not on whether she should let the student go: do we advise school teachers who ask for help with unwilling students to let them to quit school?
  2. That there should be an either/or choice: do you allow kids to give up History in school because they are committed to Math?
  3. That teachers feel that carrying an unwilling student for years who doesn’t make the progress the teacher thinks he should and who eventually quits, means failure on both parts: do students who study science in school (and don’t get great grades) but decide to become lawyers when they grow up mean that the science teacher has failed? We all study math but few of us become mathematicians – do our math teachers consider themselves and their students as failures? My algebra teacher changed my life and yet look at what I do for a living.
  4. The idea that an 8 or 9 year old has to be committed to music, or indeed to anything, is absurd. It’s like saying he should be committed to school or be allowed to quit.
  5. That a child will hate music if you insist he continue: does anyone ever worry if a child will hate math, physical education or even religious training if he is compelled?

Or is it just easier for the instrumental teacher to give up? Is it easier to allow students to make their own decisions? Is it more work to teach a non-practicer or unwilling student than an enthusiastic and compliant one, especially if we have waiting lists? Of course it is. And there is the problem. If we don’t see music as a core subject, no one else will either. If we don’t fight for each and every little soul, we can’t expect society to help us. You see, society (and sometimes the parent) wants the easy way out, too. And it’s up to us to not let this happen.

And it is happening. Notice that we don’t lack professional musicians to fill our symphony orchestras, but we do lack the appreciative public and the funding for them. And where do we get the public and the eventual funding? From all the ex-music students, i.e., amateurs, who may have quit as teenagers (age 16 and above) to pursue other interests but who had had wonderful teachers who were convinced that even a little education is better than none and persisted with them, perhaps helping them over the hump with the temporary fixes that some teachers denigrate. These less than perfect students will be the people who know what music can do for you and will be the ones who support it, many of them because they have well-paying jobs that permit them to (and as we all know, most jobs in music don’t). Their music education was important to them even if it didn’t seem so to the teacher or even to them at the time. Many people who have no experience of it will never know the joys of Bach, not to mention what pieces he wrote.

So, every time a teacher gives up on a student, score one more for general ignorance. We complain that funding for music in the schools, and the arts in general, is being cut always more, but whoever is deciding on this funding will certainly not allot money to music if it hasn’t been important in their lives – if their violin teachers gave up on them because they wanted to quit to play sports (or video games like my grandsons who are truly “committed” to them but have to practice the violin anyway, thank heavens – and their mother).

I have said before that the teaching, good or bad, that we do goes on for generations. But so does the teaching we don’t do. Go find out how many politicians and school board members have had music lessons (or had teachers who gave up on them) and then find out how many of them are for or against the funding of any kind of music in the schools or of the local symphony orchestra. If our commitment to music as a core subject is not absolutely ironclad, then future generations of politicians and school board members cannot be expected to understand its importance. If we are not totally convinced of the importance of musical instrument education, how can we convince parents who are sitting on the fence, harassed by their children, work and other obligations, to be committed, too? Yes, the idea and desire for music lessons start at home, but it’s for us to carry the torch and keep it burning. Or go down trying.

The old attitude that was prevalent in my youth, and which still persists today even at a very subtle level in far too many teachers – that music is only for the talented or for the truly committed, even at tender ages – is what is contributing to the current lack of general interest, knowledge and appreciation of classical music. Even though there are lots of new scientific studies out there that tell us that music makes us and everything else better, we still tend to perpetuate the myths we were taught or were transmitted to us. This has got to stop.

The problem is that people can’t know the importance of what they don’t know or aren’t aware of – they can only intuit it sometimes. And if we keep going in the same direction, we are going to have to have a lot of abnormally intuitive politicians, educators and parents. It’s time we all shake off the shackles of old school thinking and start advocating for music on a very personal level.

And we do it one student at a time. You see, it isn’t the music students and their parents who should be committed. It’s us.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

*For centuries a gentleperson’s or aristocrat’s education was not considered complete without the study of a musical instrument.


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19 June 2019

2 thoughts on “The Teaching We Don’t Do Is More Important Than We Think

  1. Lyz

    This is an absolutely key post. Thank you for posting it.

    If we as a culture, as a civilization, are going to ditch music, we might as well ditch math, too. It is on the same level, only that fewer people can see this.

    We let our kids learn math to build their thinking skills.

    We must let them do music for the same reasons. It builds discipline; it builds goal-setting; it biologically reconfigures the brain into more effective patterns and realistically increases the IQ of the child learning. Even if there were no other benefits, these reasons are already plenty.

    But there are. Many further benefits. Music is possibly our best line of defense against the onslaught of gaming-related learning disorders. Gaming de-focuses a child’s brain in a very targeted way. Studying an instrument achieves the focus being regained and increased. If your child’s occupational therapist, whom you are paying because the little one can’t concentrate in class, gives you mental exercises to do with your child, you’ll do them, right? Else you are not a committed parent. It is astounding how often music is “prescribed” as a remedy by occupational therapists in South Africa. (I don’t know if this is a world-wide trend but it should be.)

    Now, if you were to start your child on music lessons first, as a preventative measure, you may never need occupational therapy.

    Anyway I’m not going to write a blog post in the comments here :). Excellent post, Eloise. We are cultural carriers, and we need to take our own mission seriously, or nobody will.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thanks for your powerful comment. Needless to say, I agree with you 100%!


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