Small Ponds Still Ripple: Rethinking Music Education

Small pond at Myles Standish headquarters: worth the visit.
This weekend, I had the honor of attending a friend’s 50th birthday. She is from Ireland, and her husband is a dear musical friend and bandmate of ours. They asked us to bring our instruments, but they didn’t need to. Of course we would bring them. Because in our circle, no party is complete without a bit of music. I wish the same for everyone I know, and that’s why I teach music. But let’s backtrack and then I’ll get back to that.

The evening began with drinks, speeches, and introductions. A banquet of artfully cooked food was provided courtesy of our hostess, and light banter evolved into a bout of storytelling and laughter directed by the guest of honor as she recalled her days growing up in a family of five in rural Ireland. She told stories of escaping the nuns, the meeting of an errant ball and a saint statue, and other rural hazards. She was like a shanachie, a traditional Irish storyteller, entertaining with confidence, color, and wit across the 20-foot long, 8-foot-wide table. Every one of us was glued to her stories, just like the nose on the broken saint statue on her childhood stairway landing. (No one ever did admit to doing it. Thank God the uncle showed up with Super Glue before mom found out.)

This was not someone’s living room, and this was not a quintessential Irish pub.  It was a big dark function room, with rustic unfinished oak flooring stained a deep espresso. The tablecloths were cream, the walls grey. The lights were halogen cans, dimmed just enough to bathe us in each other’s presence. The bar and trim were painted black in the contemporary style. You might think the decor sounds a tad cold—but the camaraderie made it warm, and soon the music made it warmer.

After dinner, the tables were cleared and a fresh round of drinks ordered, and three chairs were pulled to the end of the table for us three musicians. There was no PA amplification; just three acoustic players at one end of a noisy cavern. Everything about the physical room might suggest it was not conducive to an evening of intimate music making. Yet, within two songs, the entire crowd of friends and relatives was singing along to every song we sang, full voice. These were not former choral students. These were secretaries, executives, the paint guy from Home Depot, school teachers, electricians, carpenters, lawyers. In other words, humans.

A few ladies got up to batter out their never-forgotten jigs from mandatory step classes in their childhood parish in Ireland. None of them apologized that they were rusty, or that they couldn’t jump and kick as high as they once did. No one needed to step out to warm up their vocal cords before they’d venture a note. No one apologized that they were singing a little out of tune, or that they modulated up a little in their a cappella, or got the words a little mixed up in the third verse. Everyone knew almost all of the songs.

Dare I say: that’s the way it should be.

Though we three musicians were playing the music, we were playing with and not for. The music was not about “artists” performing “art”; it was about musicians being with fellow human beings in shared, engaged musical experience. This was shared music-making. Shared. Music. Making.

In these moments, I am struck by how much is missing in our musical culture in the United States. How many a party I have attended with fellow professional musicians who lack the common musical vocabulary to sit and easily make music together in a natural and unflustered way, requiring no discussion or introduction, no long and apologetic conversations about what we know and don’t know, how we will play, and in what key, and how we can or cannot play music without the notation written in front of us. And how many times have I experienced a party jam session where the folk and rock musicians sit in one room playing while other “trained” musicians sit just a couple of yards away carrying on conversation without knowing how to engage in music actively if they are not the ones making it. This one is resting his voice; this one has been performing so much he doesn’t feel like playing; this one doesn’t know these songs on her clarinet and she can’t make music if it isn’t written in front of her. “I don’t improvise,” she says. Worse, she doesn’t recognize what may be true: she is afraid to. Fear of making a wrong note. She was taught to feel that way. It’s not her fault.

These are real and legitimate feelings, but also sad, and guess where we all learned them? Music school. In America, we either have studied music and are a musician, or we are not. There is very little recognition that a person can be a music maker or a musician if one is not virtuosic. We distinguish; we stratify. “Oh, I play around on guitar, but I’m not a real musician.” How many times have we heard that? As music students, budding musicians may feel they have failed musically if they have only reached “good” but not “virtuosic” at the end of their academic studies. They never made it to Carnegie Hall or to the big recording contract or to massive YouTube stardom, so in many cases, they step down. Maybe they teach, but they no longer perform. Their music professors have taught them, implicitly, that there is no place for the “just-ok” in music making because they want their students to strive for perfection and accept no less. Got it. But dude. In the process, we carve a division of artist and audience; we divide ourselves into “expert” and “consumer.” In so doing, we have deprived ourselves of the opportunity to enjoy engaged, shared music making.

If our goal is to use music to soften the hearts of the world and open more souls to the kindness and universality of artmaking, then we need to rethink what we are teaching and how we are teaching it. We are failing our young music students if we teach them that it’s all about the performance. If the only goal of regular rehearsal and lessons is the concert, what happens if the concert is not very good? Will they quit saxophone because they didn’t make Jr. District? They will take lessons for a few years, not reach “gold” on the achievement scale, and then decide that they’re not very good and quit. And then they may not make music again. “It just wasn’t for me,” they say.

We must teach our children that there is inherent value in music making, and we must consider every opportunity to make music as equally valuable. Sure, the big concert is a thrill. But I get as much thrill from sharing music to a crowd of 200 as I did in sharing it with 20 this past weekend.

We needn’t teach our children that the ultimate destination for music is the concert hall. We must allow ourselves and them to be big fish in small ponds, or perhaps even just regular sized fish in regular sized ponds. Musicians and teachers must learn to embrace the small pond so that their students will too. Because guess what? To the fish who live there, that pond is home. It is the only pond they know. Most of the world lives in small ponds, linked by trickling rivulets of humanity and universality.

We must teach our children to love their small ponds and to make those ponds musical—because small ponds have beautiful ripples, too.


Unknown said…
this is genius, susie. :] by the way there are trout in that pond in the picture. At least there were the last time that Capt Bob and i visited. :]
PgM3 said…
Many biologists believe life began in small ponds.
Soul Mama said…
We didn't see trout, but we did see a turtle in that pond, and I believe she had a trombone tucked under her shell. Pretty awesome spot, I must say! And PG, life begins and ends in small ponds; that's my recent observation...
Arra said…
I am blessed to live near White Pond, sister of Walden.

The pond today is mirror smooth
Reflecting trees as if they’re real.
No blue appears upon its flat,
The sky is shrouded all in grey.
It’s almost perfect glassy shine
Is spoiled at one bedeviled spot.
What roils the surface puzzles me.
What lies beneath is nature’s way
Of telling stories that may be.
Soul Mama said…
That's beautiful Arra! Thank you for sharing.