Just when you think you have got it all figured out, without fail, something will come along that will challenge and quite possibly change what you KNOW to be true. This past summer I entered my second summer as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. I was prepared for business as usual while I juggled my course load and my job as a camp counselor. I had registered for classes that interested me but were ultimately selected to help me fulfill the requirements of my degree program. The courses, “The General Music Program” and “Genre Studies in Musicology” seemed innocuous enough. Within a week of reading, discussion and interactions in class, I was aware that these classes would teach me much more than what their syllabi detailed.
Although I have been playing music for the better part of the last 2 decades and derived great joy from doing so, I have also felt a fair amount of anxiety and pressure. While I love playing Mozart Horn Concerti, I also hate it. I’m proud of the work I have done to execute runs, lip trills and other technical feats but they are the product of time spent alone in a practice room. I’ve played in bands, orchestras and quintets but I have never felt what I felt this summer, singing and playing ukulele with my friends. I had never played the ukulele and I was less than stellar in the beginning, but I LOVED it. There was something so nice about singing and playing the music I listen to every day. Teaching orchestra and playing in ensembles I developed this persona that listened to a lot of Pop, Rock, Country, Rap and Hip-Hop at home but only “serious” music at school. Occasionally I listen to some Holst or Hildegard Von Bingen for fun (who doesn’t?!), but the majority of what I listen to is not classical music and by extension of a certain frame of mind within the music community, not worthy or valuable. I was living a double life and it needed to stop.
The conclusions I came to this summer are simple:
1. Musical taste and value is subjective. The music I listen to has value.
2. Social or Participatory music making is alive and well in society but not in our schools. Band, Choir and Orchestra are not for everyone.
3. Students are engaged in music, even those not in our programs. Whether they are listening to their ipods, playing in a garage or experimenting with garage band, music is a part of many students lives who are not enrolled in traditional music courses.
4. Music education in our schools should seek to be relevant, engaging, and overall to foster life-long appreciation and participation. The chances a student will pick up their instrument and play the 2nd flute part from “The Stars and Stripes Forever” are far less likely than their chances of singing at church, playing guitar or piano with friends and family or going dancing on a Friday night.
When I returned to school this fall, I began an extra-curricular ukulele group, open to any student or staff member at my middle school. The club’s popularity exceeded my expectations and continued to fortify in my mind and heart how important it was to provide the opportunity for participatory and social music making. With the success of the club as encouragement I began to think about ways to reach more students. I eventually wrote a grant proposal that where every 6th grade student at my school (close to 300 students) would design, construct and learn to play ukulele, culminating with a community music and art festival where they would display their instruments and share music with their peers, teachers, families and neighbors.
The grant was approved by The Glenview Education Foundation and we are set to begin the project some time this April. This blog will document the process and my other endeavors in participatory music making/music education. And so it begins.