Re-evaluating School Music Programs by Scott Watson

Barbara Freedmanbook, buy, Music Technology Basics, Rant!, student music, teaching1 Comment

A frequent discussion thread in music education involves re-evaluating traditional school ensemble music programs – bands, orchestras, choirs – and the role of music education in reaching and teaching what Rick Dammers and David Williams refer to as “non-traditional” music students.

At their website, Music Creativity Through Technology, Dammers and Williams make the case for the kinds of programs that have been emerging over the last 15 or so years (mostly in high schools) that give students without formal musical training hands-on musical experiences facilitated by technology.

Nick Jawarski’s popular post, “What we get wrong: An illustrated guide to our music advocacy mistakes,” continues this discussion with a wry, yet serious narrative using a series of amusing stick figure drawings. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the trip!

Most recently, I came across Michael Albertson’s post, “Reconsidering the Traditional Band Program,” (Aug. 9, 2012) at his blog, Urban Education: Music and Beyond.

These, and similar voices in music education, assert that school ensembles only reach 20% of the students population, and that the kind of formal, concert art music taught in the conventional school music ensembles aren’t relevant to the other 80% of the students, who otherwise love music.

I don’t argue with either of these premises, or the idea that music educators should be always looking critically at the best way to use music to make a positive difference in their schools/communities and the lives of students.  In fact, I should point out that rarely in these discussions is the idea of eliminating school ensemble music posited (most of those participating in the discussion are products of these same school programs!).  But I would like to add two important points to the dialogue on this topic.

First, when our students were born, nothing was musically relevant or irrelevant to them. I first learned this many years ago when I noticed my own kids’ uninhibited love of all music. My son was just as likely to be found listening to a Wee Sing sing-a-long cassette tap as he was enjoying classical musicals such as Oklahoma or The Sound of Music on video.  I remember a time when I asked my daughter what her favorite “song” was and she replied “the Tomasi Trumpet Concerto” – I had been playing the Wynton Marsalis recording a lot recently and she liked to dance when it was on!  It wasn’t until middle school that my kids added pop music in earnest to their routine listening, and yet both continued with their varied, eclectic tastes (which they still do to this day at ages 20 and 22).  While it may seem obvious, general music education ostensibly reaches 100% of students up to a certain age/grade in most U.S. schools.

Second, I’ve always felt the best way to learn something is to do it…applied learning.  If you want to learn about music, you need to DO music – whether that’s singing, playing, composing, arranging, moving to it, etc.  And that is a major theme of my book, Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity (2011, Oxford University Press), which emphasizes project-based creative music learning, facilitated – of course – by today’s music technology.

For kids who do concert art music in their school’s band or chorus program, composers like Robert W. Smith or Eric Whitacre are rock stars of the highest order! The most serious students even study, listen to, and perform along with great YouTube videos of ensemble and solo repertoire. This great music becomes part of their sonic experience and is incredibly relevant to them.   I teach in a school district in which about half of all 4th and 5th graders in our eight elementary buildings play a band or a string instrument.  We’re teaching and reaching a large population in a significant way, via applied music…doing music.

I’m convinced that classroom and elective music should, similarly, emphasize applied, active, hands-on, music learning.  I know many teachers who do this and their students love them, and MUSIC, for it.  At any age, and regardless of musical background, there are great and compelling ways to engage students in recreating (performing) and creating (composing, improvising, arranging) music of all kinds.  When students are engaged in synthesizing musical concepts into higher-level creative activities and projects, they are more intrinsically motivated and the learning that takes place “sticks.”  I’m very excited about technology’s role in music learning because of its ability to “unlock” authentic musical creativity and its increasing accessibility (free or inexpensive, and simple to use).  I use Apple’s entry-level DAW (digital audio workstation), GarageBand, a lot in the Music Production class I teach at Parkland High School (Allentown, PA).  I love this program because it is easy/intuitive to learn to use and therefore allows me to spend most of my time working with students to understand experientially musical concepts such as timbre, texture, form, and much more.  The “flipped classroom” –  another trend in education in which teachers free up valuable class time for “coaching” students by delivering content outside of school (home, library, etc.) via the Internet (wikis, blogs, YouTube, other Web 2.0 tools, etc.) – facilitates project-driven curriculum nicely as well.  For a listing of Web 2.0 tools, especially those that foster musical creativity, click here.

Rather than a wholesale change in music education from ensemble-based to classroom/elective-based, I see the need for all music offerings to be compelling, vital, relevant, and with a significant emphasis on applied (hands-on, doing) learning that includes creating as well as recreating (imagine a language arts teacher who never had his/her students write!).  Furthermore, each school must consider its teaching resources (especially faculty) and students in determining the best way to engage participants musically.  In over 25 years of teaching and observing, I’ve seen over and over again that more than any other factor, the teacher makes the biggest difference in the success or failure of any kind of music program.  A strong, charismatic teacher can lead a kid from almost any background or demographic to find almost any kind of music relevant and compelling.  Usually, these kinds of teachers are great at gauging what needs to be done – both tweaks and major shifts – to the programs and offerings at their schools.  I smiled when I read in Michael Albertson’s blog how he’s creatively used pop and rhythmic elements in band as part of his efforts to establish the program at his urban school.

If a high school involves 15-25% of its students in traditional ensembles (band, chorus, orchestra) then it has something truly special that should be cherished, but so does a high school in which 15-25% of its “non-traditional” students take elective music (i.e. Music Production, Music Technology, History of Popular Music, etc.) or participate in some alternative ensembles (i.e. drum circles, mariachi band).

That’s why I think this discussion, giving consideration to how music educators can best reach all students, is very important. When teachers and administrators reflect on both the groups we want to reach and the mode with which we should teach them, we confirm the vital role music can and does play in our schools.


Dr. Scott Watson is a veteran teacher, composer, and music technology specialist. His book Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity is published by Oxford University Press. Learn more at