My apologies for failing to post anything here last week. April is a busy month in all university music programs, I’m sure, and ours is no exception. Given the volume of work and the lack of available time, to forego last week’s blog post was an easy and necessary decision. While I’m sure no one fretted about not reading my weekly ruminations last week, it seemed apropos to explain last week’s silence.
As my thirteenth year of teaching applied music at the university level nears its end, I continue to ponder the necessity and importance of applied lessons on a major instrument for music education students (i.e. those preparing for careers as school music teachers). The majority of students that have come through my studio over the years have been aspiring band directors—in fact, I can count on both hands the number of performance majors I have taught regularly over the course of my career thus far. In most respects, I am happy that this is the case, as I find it impossible to in good conscience release a large number of performance students into a job market that simply does not have a place for all of them. I even actively discourage undergraduates from majoring in performance, telling them that the music education degree, with its associated teaching license and higher likelihood of future gainful employment, is a much better option (unless, of course, they hate children). If they wish to pursue graduate training in performance they can still do that with the music education degree provided that they practice sufficiently (that path worked for me, at least).
While I am happy working primarily with future band directors, this is not without its frustrations, particularly as students advance in their studies toward teaching observations, score study, and teaching practica of various kinds. Advanced music education students sometimes begin to question the importance of applied lessons and individual practice. This questioning is rarely verbalized and perhaps not even conscious, but is evidenced by a reduced commitment to lesson preparation on the part of some students. For my part, I continue to emphasize the importance and even the practicality of major instrument study for music education students. While there are many arguments that can be brought to bear on this question, those that I use most can be grouped under one of the following headings.
1. Development of Comprehensive Musicianship
Perhaps the most important benefit of applied study for music education students is the development of comprehensive musicianship. I have over the years read arguments that music education curricula should be altered so that instead of spending three or four years perfecting skills on a single major instrument, each student instead spends a year or so of in-depth study of at least one instrument from each family, perhaps culminating in a recital of intermediate-level works on all of these instruments. While I understand the rationale behind this argument, I disagree with it, not because it threatens my livelihood (it wouldn’t; I would simply spend most of my time teaching intermediate-level lessons), but because it eliminates the primary forum in which students develop advanced expressive and interpretive skills. To be able to play “musically” on an instrument requires mastery of its technique, and changing “major” instruments every semester or every year would rob students of the opportunity to gain sufficient technical mastery to even begin exploring advanced interpretive ideas, ideas that can be effectively transferred to the student’s future work on the podium. The various “methods” classes that are part of every music education program should be sufficient to give students rudimentary playing skills on all instruments (suitable for demonstrating for beginning players, at least). When teaching advanced players, though, the ability to pick up one’s major instrument and beautifully demonstrate a phrase from any part of the score can be an effective part of one’s rehearsal technique. Major instrument study is what gives our students the opportunity to become the best musicians they can be, with an interpretive “toolbox” that will serve them whether they are playing or conducting (or, for that matter, writing, arranging, or doing any number of musical tasks).
As an aside, I do not think it is a coincidence that some of the best band directors I have known have had advanced degrees in performance….
2. Development of Rehearsal Technique in the Practice Room
Students should be encouraged to think of their preparation for each weekly lesson as a forum for developing and refining rehearsal technique. Ken Lewis, my band director at Delta State University and professor in my band conducting and band methods courses, told us that effective band directors follow a three-step process to correct problems with an ensemble: “Detect, Diagnose, Remedy.” First, hear the problem. Then, identify the problem and its likely cause or causes. Finally, based upon this diagnosis, prescribe a remedy. An ineffective director often will skip the middle step. He will hear the problem, and then without diagnosis immediately proceed to the “remedy,” which is, more often than not, to “do it again and hope it’s better.”
Similarly, those students whose work in the practice room consists solely of “playing it a few times and hoping for improvement” rarely get very far as players. Those who hear a problem and then take the time to figure out what the problem is and what is causing it before proceeding are much more productive in the practice room, and this skill set transfers directly to their work as band directors. Perhaps this is why I have known a number of successful band directors that were never more than “okay” players, but I have never met a successful band director that during his or her college years did not learn how to go into the practice room, fix problems, and emerge having made some real improvement.
3. “Side Gigs” Are a Good Thing
The first two items on this list are the most immediately applicable to the future music teacher’s preparation, but the following three are also reasonable, if less important and treated more briefly. First of all, everyone likes to make a little extra money, and the music teacher that is a proficient player can in some markets earn a sizeable side income performing in local churches, with regional orchestras, teaching private lessons, or in other venues.
4. Non-Hypocrisy Also Is a Good Thing
This one might seem like “low-hanging fruit,” but I think it has some validity. I personally find it impossible to tell my students to do something that I am not willing to do myself. I tell them to play through a comprehensive daily routine each day, and I do so, as well. I tell them to play through an extended sequence of scales and arpeggios in at least one key each day, and I do so, as well—in fact, mine is more than twice as long as the one most of them do.
Likewise, the music teacher that admonishes his students to practice regularly, and yet never did so himself, has a credibility problem. I’m not saying that every band director should be practicing two hours a day—in fact, I know better than most applied teachers that finding *any* time for regular practice is a challenge given the average band director’s schedule. However, being able to say, if only to oneself, that “when I was a student I practiced at least as much as I am telling my students to practice,” lends a little bit of “moral authority” to one’s admonitions.
5. You Never Know…
Finally, “you never know.” When I started my undergraduate studies I had every intention of spending my career as a school band director, and I was well into my junior year before I decided to “have a go” at graduate degrees in performance and possibly a career as an applied teacher at the tertiary level. Because I had already established effective individual practice techniques, I was able to simply increase the amount of time I was practicing and the breadth of literature covered and found myself able to successfully audition for graduate school, be awarded a teaching assistantship, and start along the path which led to my present position. Had I used my ambition to become a band director as an excuse for insufficient practice habits, that door would have been closed to me. Music education students that are even entertaining the possibility of a career path other than that of a public school teacher should especially strive to develop their playing skills. After all, “you never know….”
Applied study of one’s major instrument is an important and necessary part of the future music teacher’s preparation. I hope these thoughts will be helpful for applied teachers who sometimes struggle to convince students of the importance of individual practice, and for busy students who might find themselves wondering “why do I have to do this?” There is a purpose, and this will contribute to your success. Get to work!