Seeing Beyond Our 2020 Vision

Robert W. Smith • April 2021Commentary • April 6, 2021

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It seems like only yesterday when our world of music education changed in a heartbeat. One year ago, I had just finished attending the 2020 American Bandmasters Association Convention in Biloxi, MS, followed by a trip to Camden, South Carolina, for the premiere of a new piece. From there, I traveled to Indianapolis for the Music for All National Concert Festival. All was normal in our busy lives as we experienced the many joys of our profession. Little did I/we know that our activities would come crashing to a halt.

Much has been written on how we got to this point. Beginning with denial and disbelief followed by complete educational reincarnation, the last year has been the most challenging in our professional and personal lives. One year later, we know we have shared an experience that we hope will never occur again. However, the reality of reoccurrence is likely only a matter of “when,” not “if.”

I believe it prudent to take stock of where we are now and where we are going as our world recovers from the pandemic. Inspired by the 1999 Housewright Symposium and the Vision 2020 publication, I believe the following to be universally true:

  • Whenever and wherever humans have existed, so has music.
  • Music is part of the human condition.
  • Music and arts are vital to the development of the complete child.
  • Teaching and fostering creativity is critical to the future of the human race.
  • Music and arts classrooms are the most fertile settings to teach our future leaders to be creative in every aspect of their lives thus impacting the countless lives of those they impact.
  • Arts education is critical to our students ability to:
  • Establish and maintain cooperative relationships
  • Formulate and make responsible decisions
  • Manage strong emotions
  • Communicate clearly and confidently
  • Solve problems effectively and efficiently
  • Recognize human emotions in oneself and others
  • Have empathy for others

I believe most will agree that 2020 was a paradigm shift. By definition, a paradigm shift is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and practices of a given discipline. As we finish the current academic year and plan for the next, we must acknowledge that music education has been permanently changed. We have discovered and created new ways to interact with our students musically and emotionally. In some respects, these changes will endure and become part of our ongoing teaching. We also find ourselves re-evaluating our traditional approach and affirming what is relevant and effective in our curriculum and teaching practices.

We must ask ourselves, “What is our goal moving forward?” Are we here to teach band, orchestra, choir or other ensembles? Are we here to teach music, that universal language that connects to our daily lives on multiple levels? I personally believe we are here to teach music through the band, orchestra, choir or other musical setting.

As we move forward, what are teaching objectives and goals? How will we measure achievement in our students? How will those measurements guide our teaching and content? Will we measure our success in festival ratings, trophies and standardized tests? Should we measure our achievement through significant numbers of engaged students actively making music in our classrooms? I believe we must re-evaluate our programs to insure the validity and relevance of music education now and in the future. We must work for significant numbers of students in our classrooms that value their expression and communication through music. As those students value their experiences, so will their community.

One of my biggest fears has been what I refer to as a “lost generation” of students that did not begin music ensemble instruction over the past year. That impact will likely continue into a second academic year. The hard reality is our programs will see waves of impact over the next 10 years. Our middle school bands are already smaller due to the reduced number of beginners that did not begin in the fall of 2020. With another year of reduced beginner enrollment, that impact will be felt shortly in the high school programs. With two contiguous years of reduced enrollment, our high school bands will be half the size in four years. College band programs will see the same result shortly thereafter. Simply stated, I see our greatest challenge in the area of student enrollment and retention.

To recruit and retain engaged student musicians, I suggest we embrace and implement teaching philosophies and strategies that are student-focused. Once those students are in our classroom and engaged, we can then begin the process of building successful ensembles. Simply stated, the ensemble begins with the individual musician. As we begin to plan for the coming academic year, I suggest we consider the following:

Start with where our students are at THIS point in time.We must remember the 6th grader who started beginning band in the 2019-20 academic year and was impacted by the pandemic shutdown will be entering the 8th grade band this fall. Will they have the individual and ensemble skills to meet the same benchmarks as our previous 8th grade ensembles?

Start with what our students know. It is clear that our students had a myriad of experiences during the impacted semesters. Students enrolled in the same program will have difference skills depending upon the classroom setting (live/virtual, synchronous/asynchronous). Should we begin the rebuilding of our ensembles with lessons and activities to assess student readiness for large ensemble performance?

Start with what our students love. Is it now time for our profession to consider teaching and programming music that first connects with our students and communities? For them to value what we are doing in our classrooms, their musical expression and performance must connect to their daily lives. Depending upon the classroom and community setting, should we teach and program music of popular genres to make those connections? Can I teach rhythms with rock and hip-hop as well as traditional curricular content?

Start with the individual musician. In our large ensemble world, I find we may have become very impersonal with our students as we work in our large group settings. To rebuild my ensemble, should I personally connect with each student and their family through meaningful communication and engagement? What new activities and events will foster that individual connection and their subsequent vestment in my program and ensemble?

Create additional portals of entry into our ensembles. Should we consider starting a beginning band or strings class in both semesters and at levels above the traditional elementary/middle school grades?

As we move forward, I urge all to re-evaluate our curricular content and sequences to insure our success. I urge all to consider the following:

Solo and chamber music in our classrooms and on our concert stages – We must remember that superior ensembles are built from individual musicians. As a result, should we consider programming and sequencing our concerts from a different perspective? Should I program a concert featuring soloists and small ensembles of all types?

Adaptable/flexible compositions and arrangements – Much has been said and written about the use of flexible instrumentation literature during our COVID-impacted semesters. However, should we consider using these adaptable pieces as we return to the full ensemble setting? If we have the numbers in our band or orchestra, will those students all be at the same level in order to perform works written with complete instrumentation? Will the critical musical lines and harmonic/rhythmic content be achievable by my ensemble that may be challenged in terms of instrumentation and balance? I personally love the idea of using flexible instrumentation literature to engage the students in orchestration/arranging experiences. As a directed listening and creative exercise, perform the piece or excerpt with varying part assignments allowing the students to hear the resulting ensemble sonority and texture.

Reduced instrumentation literature – Over the past decade, our music publishing industry has embraced the idea of a reduced instrumentation at grade 3 and beyond. We traditionally agree that a reduced number of parts are necessary with beginning/developing ensembles. That has not been the case with Grade 3 literature and beyond. Fortunately, publishers have embraced the idea of a reduced instrumentation at Grade 3 (and sometimes Grade 4) with a limited number of parts in sections such as clarinets, trumpets and trombones. As I return to my live full band rehearsal, who will I have sitting in my ensemble? If I have six trumpets, will those students truly be able to cover the traditional three parts technically and artistically? Programming reduced instrumentation literature during our rebuilding process may be an effective strategy for student success.

Program and teach a variety of musical styles/genres – To connect our instruction in a meaningful way with our students, I urge us to program a variety of musical styles including both traditional and popular music. As we bring our students back into our classrooms, their personal connection with the music and the ensemble will be key to their continued enrollment, participation and future musical success. Their connection with an enthusiastic audience will be critical to their artistic success.

We are experiencing unprecedented challenges and changes in music education. However, unprecedented change allows unprecedented opportunity. Those opportunities are right before us if we examine closely enough. I tell my students that I want them to be able to see where others might not know to look. I want them to hear where others might not know to listen. I’m reminded that I must do the same as I navigate the churning waters of change for my program.

In the past year, we have been required to re-invent music education with absolutely no notice. Our profession has met that challenge by working harder than ever before in ways we could not have imagined. Simply stated, this is now a call to action to our teachers/conductors and our education systems. This literally may be the most important endeavor of our lifetime.

We must remember that teachers facilitate learning. Teachers take information and reorganize it in ways to make it relevant and meaningful to our students and their lives. That is now our greatest call and challenge. As has been stated multiple times, the “what” of our teaching is not the question. The “how” and “why” are our challenges as we reorganize our teaching for student success both now and in the future.

As teachers and conductors, we must connect through reaching our students and communities. Let’s reach OUT to our colleagues and professional organizations to continue what has become the most collaborative effort in our history. Let’s reach UP to our school administrations and government officials to keep them informed of student successes and their artistic relevance in our lives. Finally, we must reach FORWARD in time for our current and future students. Our programs must not just survive, they must thrive!

Reach out, up and forward each and every day. However, we must also remember our reach exceeds our grasp. We have to reach further in order to explore and grasp the limitless possibilities of our future. We can accomplish what may seem impossible if we reach far enough.

I believe in music and its role in our lives. In the words of Plato, “Music gives soul to our universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and beauty to our lives.” I believe in music and its ability to transform our students, transform our generations and transform our cultures in the most positive ways. I believe in music education and the educators who work tirelessly every day for our student’s artistic enlightenment. Our teachers/directors/conductors have the power to facilitate change and make significant differences in the lives of our students, communities and nation each and every day.

Please join me and join us to ensure our future is bright and our children have the promise of a better and musical tomorrow. In the words of John Maxwell and regularly quoted in our profession, “Students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!” They want to know our commitment to them and their musical future.

Thank you for all you do in the lives of your students and communities. I wish you well in 2021 and beyond!

Robert W. Smith – committed teacher/conductor/composer

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