How do you balance expectations from administrators, parents, and others with the need to meet students where they are?
Four Music Educators Share Their Approaches
This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of Teaching Music.
K–5 Music Educator and Saxophonist, Park Spanish Immersion Elementary School, St. Louis Park, Minnesota
GRAMMY Music Educator Award Semifinalist
I prioritize student voice and choice to meet students where they are. In my classroom, students help shape the curriculum by choosing (or creating) repertoire, presenting as co-teachers, writing rubrics alongside me, and even grading themselves (encouraging metacognition).
“I prioritize student voice and choice to meet students where they are.”
Our approaches need to be student-centered, and sometimes adult expectations are not. Adult expectations can instead be centered on tradition and technical skills or derived from misunderstandings of the “why” of music education. Therefore, I believe that part of my job is educating adults about the difference between a student-centered approach versus the status quo.
Randy Wong, President, Hawaii Youth Symphony, Honolulu, Hawaii
One of the greatest benefits to learning and playing music is that you can do it over a lifetime. Musicians have a lifelong trajectory. That, combined with the ability for students to achieve their individual best, provides a limitless canon of opportunities to learn and perform.
As an administrator, I aspire for students to have access to high-quality, artistically (and intellectually) inspiring, collaborative opportunities that they will remember for years to come. For them to have the best experience doing this, it is necessary for administrators, faculty, and others to build and sustain a healthy organizational culture and safe, positive learning environment in which students can thrive.
“ . . . we also need to respect the fact that we are each a work in progress . . . ”
Expectations are a two-way street. It’s natural to aspire to have the best outcomes, but we also need to respect the fact that we are each a work in progress — never the final versions of ourselves — and are trying to do the best we can within the environment and conditions in which we live and work. Demonstrating and modeling such values to those around us takes practice and discipline, but it also builds character and balance.
Kathleen Melago, Professor of Music Education, Division Head for Music Education, Supervisor of Music Student Teachers, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania
To meet students where they are, I spend a lot of time in 1:1 advisement. As division head for music education, I advise almost all of our music education majors, and I take that charge seriously. Preparing to enter the field of music education can be challenging, and students all experience different external pressures while in college. Of course, our administration likes to see four-year graduation rates be high, but perhaps more than that, they want to see students achieve graduation. While it is absolutely possible to graduate from our program in four years – and most graduates do – I have paced out our program to show students how to approach being a music education major by lightening the fall/spring load with summer/winter classes to graduate in four years and how to pace out the curriculum over four to five years. This allows me to balance my administration’s goal while meeting students where they are, especially if they have other things on their plates — like needing to work a lot, caring for family members, or mental health challenges — which might make the traditional four-year program difficult to navigate.
“To meet students where they are, I spend a lot of time in 1:1 advisement.”
Duane Padilla, Concert Artist and Music Educator
Member, Mana Music Quartet
Past President, Hawaii Chapter and Past National Board Member, American String Teachers Association
Faculty Member, Punahou Music School and Chaminade University, Honolulu, Hawaii
Amidst the pressure to prepare students for concerts, competitions, adjudicated festivals, and auditions, it is tempting to simply crash a student through the traditional recipe of hours of practice and rehearsals required to achieve the technical mastery of difficult Western classical art music repertoire to earn high scores. While this focus can inspire so called “serious” students, it often does not meet the needs of those who are (1) too busy, (2) lack the dexterity, or (3) are unwilling to devote the time needed to follow such a “winning” recipe. Many teachers and parents might suggest to such “nonserious” students that they should perhaps stop wasting everyone’s time and pursue some other interest. I would counter that our job as music educators is to enable students to discover and express their own unique musical voice — and that voice might or might not speak at a traditional concert or competition.
“Our expression of music takes place in the context of our daily lives, and to say something meaningful as an artist, we need to consider what is going on outside of the practice room.”
In my private studio teaching, helping a student find their own unique musical voice starts by beginning each lesson with a simple question: “What’s new?” New students are often caught off guard when I ask that question. They are even more surprised when I take the time to listen to and consider their answer. Eventually, students get in the habit of preparing an answer since they know I’m always going to ask every lesson. This innocent question quickly grows into a weekly moment of personal reflection that helps illustrate my firm belief that our expression of music takes place in the context of our daily lives, and to say something meaningful as an artist, we need to consider what is going on outside of the practice room.
After asking “What’s new?” the second question I ask every lesson is, “So … what’s your plan?” When I ask this question to my younger elementary school students, they invariably give me this quizzical look that implies “What do you mean? I thought you were the teacher.” But I ask this question to instill in my students the idea that they are in charge of their own learning. I typically answer the quizzical look with, “I have a plan if you don’t have a plan” and explain the things we all learned in our teacher training— that lessons often begin with technical warmups and exercises, and we review old songs, and investigate new repertoire. But asking this question every lesson gives students permission to break from the “routines” that are easy to fall into as teachers. “What’s your plan?” gives students permission to choose to dedicate a little lesson time to that troublesome spot students have in their orchestra music. “What’s your plan?” gives students permission to inquire about that awesome song they heard on YouTube or to investigate what technical skills might be needed to play or sing that J-pop song, or swing tune, or Schubert Lieder, or Paganini concerto. “What’s your plan?” encourages students to take charge of their own musical education.
In the hustle and bustle of daily life, joyful learning can be a rare commodity. When students are allowed to take the lead on their musical explorations, they share their music with a level of joyful expression that, regardless of technical proficiency, rarely fails to surprise and melt the hearts of both parents and administrators. The “serious” students approach their competitions and formal concerts as opportunities to express themselves rather than chances to win by not making mistakes.
In parallel, the student who quit orchestra last year due to lack of interest might surprise everyone with a video project of a cover of Demi Lovato song where they played violin and also choregraphed all the dancing. At lunch, you might see a group of your students jamming out on that fiddle tune that you taught everyone. When students feel heard and understood, they are empowered to express themselves in their own special way. It also highlights to parents and administrators the things that make each student unique and special in a way. This is the real power of an arts education.
How do you balance expectations from others with the need to meet students where they are? Share ideas with fellow music educators on Amplify today.
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March 30, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)