In a previous post, I alluded to a conversation started by @jonpowles on whether the teaching of music theory was relevant in music education. I met with my former director of music yesterday, and a conversation I had with her motivated me to post further on this topic. Over the last year or so she has become heavily involved in the Kodaly teaching method (after a few years of being completely Orff – my lack of understanding of the factionism between the two is a post for another day). She was relating to me her experiences at the recent Kodaly Summer School (two week intensive PD accreditation), and expounding the virtues of the students she met there who had been taught intensively via the Kodaly method. She talked about the young students’ ability to sign orchestral themes in solfa at concerts, and the compulsory primary school instrumental programs. She talked about lesson plans structured in three-minute increments. She talked about monolithic choral programs. All things very familiar to me from my time teaching in the private school system in a heavily music-focused community. It brought to my mind again all the questions and self-doubt I had while I was teaching.
Let’s take the first example. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think solfa is evil. I have spent many an hour with my palm towards me myself, and rejoiced when finally I could arch it upwards and introduce la, because a year of so-mi only is enough to drive a decent person to drink (apparently hardcore Kodaly purists won’t introduce la until year two – unfathomable). But I ask myself time and again – why? What value is there to these (mandatory syllabus) students to be able to solfa through Beethoven 9? What relevance does it hold for those not moving onto elective study? What relevance does it hold for those who are moving onto elective study? Tertiary study? I got through an entire music degree without solfa-ing a single thing and I can still sing Twinkle Twinkle in any given mode with no trouble at all*. Does it help students understand melodic concepts? Or are they simply able to remember which physical movement goes with which interval without understanding why that interval was used in the first place? I have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers, but I really struggle with the idea that a primary student being able to solfa a given melody is a virtue to which we should aspire.
The other thing I struggle with is the idea of compulsory instrumental/choral programs. Particularly in private schools, music departments seem to aspire to have vast armies of student musicians. Directors are applauded for compulsory string programs in year 3, multiple-tier choral programs and so on. I still have to ask – why? What value do sheer numbers hold? I know there are many supporters around who talk about the benefits to students of learning an instrument/voice – better concentration, better grades etc (sounds like Ritalin…). However, I suspect it is less about the students actually benefitting intrinsically, and more about having several ensembles that one can call on to perform at the drop of a hat to promote the school. It’s a cynical view, I know, but if anyone can answer the question ‘What do students actually get out of it?’ I would love to hear from them. I ask myself what school would have been like for me if a mandatory intensive sport program had been in place – if I had been forced to join a team, undertake co-curricular training and play in matches. I would have hated it. Similarly – what if I had already been learning the violin for years yet was forced to sit in a class with 20 others learning busy-busy-stop-stop? I really think it’s time to stop and think. Music isn’t about taking over the world.
Apologies for the K-12 music focus and rambling posts of late. I think I’ve got one more in me then can begin to relate it to my current research.
*Fun thing to test me on when drinking. If you ask for Locrian though I will probably punch you.