General Music Classes Have Value at All Education Levels

General music classes have become a thing of the past in many secondary schools where students are expected to choose among choir, band, and orchestra rather than opting for overall music learning. However, a strong case can be made for general music at all levels, says MENC member Chris Judah-Lauder, a teacher at Good Shepherd Episcopal School in Dallas.
General music is an opportunity for students to make music together “out of the box.” They can learn to improvise, create, and do some incredible things. Most of the time, they do not have that opportunity in choir, band, or orchestra. “What occurs there is that 90 percent of the teachers teach from the score,” Judah-Lauder says. On the other hand, she says, “Opportunities for self-expression, risk taking, and original compositions are welcomed and encouraged in my general music class.”

Hands-on instruction is the rule in Chris Judah-Lauder’s general music classroom.

Diane Persellin, MENC member and professor of music education at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, says of general music study: “Oftentimes in the secondary classes, this is going to be the last music class that they ever have in their lives. It’s very important that it is a meaningful experience and not just passive, watching musicals on a video. It can be active learning. It can make a big impact on students.”
In general music classes, students also can be actively engaged in listening analytically, reflecting, and developing leadership skills. The classroom should be kept lively, but structure is important as well. Usually Judah-Lauder starts the semester with basic skills, such as drumming. The kids ultimately advance to the point where they are writing a lot of the music and arrangements themselves.
A general music class such as Judah-Lauder’s also involves teaching dance, including folk dancing, line dancing, even hip-hop. “It’s hands on … kids are not sitting in a chair. In my music class, 80 percent of the time, the kids are on the floor. They work in a collaborative way. I don’t even have desks.”
While Judah-Lauder has been at Good Shepherd for 24 years, she admits that it took 10 or 12 years to convince the administration of the importance of general music. “One of the things I always tell the other teachers that I work with is to get the administration into your classroom to see what you are doing firsthand.” Even after all of these years she still invites administrators into her classroom.
Parents are another key component to a successful music program. Judah-Lauder also invites them in during classroom time. “I’ll work a new piece with the kids and parents, for example, conga drums. We talk through the process. What’s important about the music making at any age is the process. It’s how we get there.”
By Debbie Galante Blok

Photo: Courtesy of Chris Judah-Lauder

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Teaching Music magazine.