Once again this week I am finding myself without very much time to write, with the International Trombone Festival coming up in a few days and a new recording project just a couple of weeks after that. So, I thought I would re-share another older post that has taken on new significance in the post-pandemic environment. With so many music educators (myself included, if I’m honest) facing greater or lesser amounts of burnout after the stresses of the past eighteen months or so, the question of why we bother to teach and make music takes on a renewed importance. I am convinced that any answer that does not at least include “because it’s pretty” will ultimately fall short. We make beautiful sounds and teach others to do the same because creating beauty is innately good. Other benefits may and do exist, but they are only ancillary, and can never bear the weight of being a primary motivation for what we do.
Although it is extremely “nerdy” of me to say so, one of my treasured possessions is this framed collection of medals earned during my time as a student in the Pearl Public Schools band program. The awarding of medals for achievement in school bands is an old tradition that harks back to the militaristic roots of the band movement, but has largely died out in recent years—even when I was a student over twenty years ago our school was one of the few that still awarded medals in significant numbers. Some of those medals were earned through tremendous effort and some quite a bit less, and I could no longer tell you what achievements all of them represent, but at the time it was nice to have effort and achievement recognized in a tangible way. My wife has no desire to have these displayed prominently in our home so they have hung in the stairwell outside my home office for several years. I’ve recently considered moving them to my office at the university, more as a nod to my affection for all things traditional than as an expression of pride in secondary school musical achievements. (Update: I ultimately decided to do that not long after writing this post.)
One aspect of school music represented by those medals is the importance of competition to these programs. Whether bands, orchestras, choirs, or other types of ensembles, performing for ratings and comments from judges and often being ranked compared to one’s peers is a key part of the group experience. This engenders a certain pride in successful programs in addition to serving as a metric by which school boards and administrators might determine funding, staffing, and other provisions for musical organizations. Solo and small ensemble festivals serve a similar role on a smaller scale, and seeking membership in all-state and similar organizations provides another layer of competition for ambitious students. This can lead not only to more exciting and more advanced musical experiences but can also affect college scholarship offers for these students.
For those who decide to enter music professionally, the competition mentality can often endure. Those pursuing advanced performance careers might spend years on the competition and audition circuits seeking to build reputations and ultimately secure employment. But even those seeking teaching and other non-performance musical careers still have to prepare for lessons, recitals, and juries. The need to compete and achieve under pressure is clearly bound up in the very fabric of musical training and career establishment.
During the recent Christmas holidays I spent quite a bit of time recording videos of Christmas tunes with my wife, using various combinations of low brass instruments, guitar, and vocals. These were not of particularly high quality in terms of the videography or sound mixing (honestly we just played in front of an iPad with no advanced equipment at all), but we had a good time making them and sharing with friends and family on social media. Through that process I began to more fully develop a thought that I had been brooding on for a while but never fully articulated: more than twenty years into my professional career as a musician and teacher, I had never really learned to enjoy making music just to make music. There had always been some other motivating factor at work, whether a competition, a rating, an audition, a grade, a job, or a paycheck—always something else other than simply creating beautiful sounds to share with others or simply to enjoy for myself. That has been to my impoverishment, and the change in attitude that has begun in me has affected my views of teaching, of promoting music education, and even of church music. Perhaps I’ll have time to write about all of this in the coming months.
For my students, I intend to be all the more earnest about impressing upon them the importance of making music for its own sake. Most of my students are aspiring music educators, and many struggle to see the importance of individual practice for their development as teachers. Certainly a certain amount of demonstrated performing competency is an obvious necessity, but I’m beginning to see that my students suffer from the same deficiency in their thinking that plagued me for so long. They are concerned with competitions and ratings and lesson plans, and with learning about budgets and parent organizations and fundraising. And these are all important things. But if we aren’t experiencing and sharing a love for music as music rather than for all of these ancillary things, are we not missing the boat? And ironically, in the midst of all of this frenetic activity are we not failing to communicate why music is so important for our schools, our churches, and our communities?
Why make music and teach others to do the same? Because it’s pretty, and because it brings joy to ourselves and others. There’s more to it than that, of course, but there cannot—must not—be less.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)