Music is a fundamental part of any academic curriculum and is integral for multiple reasons to a student’s achievement. However, there has always been a major focus on performing music: the act of singing or playing an instrument, often in a traditional choral/band/orchestral model. For many ensembles, what’s “under the hood” falls to the wayside in order to prepare students as performers for concerts and competitions. What about a music class that’s not performance based?
When I went through school, general music class was sitting in rows and singing along with a record out of a textbook. In fourth grade, you had the option of signing up for band or chorus and following a traditional ensemble track. In middle school/high school, it was not too much different: If you didn’t belong to a performing group, you took one of the general music electives (which weren’t too far off from sitting in rows and reading from a textbook). I found that while I participated in my school ensembles, I spent my time at home playing guitar, writing songs, and recording them on a 4-track cassette deck. In my brief, yet immersive teaching career I find many students who are similar to the way I was and I ask myself: Why are we not addressing those musicians as well as the traditional ones?
Fast forward to now, where many of these traditional music programs are declining in enrollment due to other options for students, lack of funding leading to a lack of resources, or to make way in the schedule for new STEM courses. As educators, there is something we can do to keep music alive in school, even if it’s not the traditional route that many of us originally followed. Rather than fighting the current culture, we use STEM concepts to teach students how to play, write, record, and engineer music.
At my first teaching position, I taught a Sound Science class. The major purpose of this class was to offer more scheduling options for students who needed a non-regents science course (typically, not the most academically gifted). My first crop was a mix of the non-regents students, engineering students, band/chorus students, and combinations. My superintendent originally held an aesthetic philosophy where a quality music program is a performing group that does the most difficult music at the highest degree of accuracy and precision. After a year of Sound Science, she approached me and commended my efforts: She said I had opened her eyes to a whole world of music that she’d never known, and was amazed at how well I used science and music to compliment each other.
Concepts such as signal flow, elements of sound, playback devices, the harmonic spectrum, music composition, audio synthesis, and music teleology/psychoacoustics are all touched in this general music curriculum. Students use keyboards, computers, non-standard notation, and genuine audio equipment to apply concepts they learn. Students use the equipment to sample, analyze, and describe audio as well as use it for the sake of creating the music itself (with an emphasis on the “nuts and bolts” of what’s going on under the hood).
While some might first think of the high costs of required equipment, I have taught this material using bottom-of-the-barrel in terms of resources. For that first Sound Science course, we used free software called MuTools on computers that were 10 years outdated. In my current district, I have to book one of several chromecarts shared throughout my building and use free, cloud-based software.
After teaching these concepts in the middle school setting for 2 years (to both musicians and non-musicians), it shocks me to see the types of achievements these students are capable of. Traditional musical techniques such as keyboard harmony and proper voice leading, division of beats, intonation, texture and timbre are all addressed and delved into. Likewise, students learn the math and science behind these concepts. To touch back on an analogy I used earlier, students aren’t just “driving the car”, they’re “learning what’s underneath the hood”. In this sense, students who are already musicians (are great at “driving the car”) now have an understand and capability of tuning their machines for their style and their purpose. For students who are not already musicians, this is a chance for them to learn how the machine works so they can be more efficient at it during the day-to-day. For the students who have a sour taste in their mouth for music due to negative experiences, this is validation that you don’t need to be a great driver to be involved with automobiles (…sometimes, the driver will need YOU more than you need them).
Above all, I’m finding students in my classes who do not normally practice their instruments are going home and using the software and activities from class in their spare time. During study halls, students are sometimes caught making beats instead of doing their math homework. Some of the best musicians in the performing ensembles are asking their lesson teachers the why and how questions I introduce during general music, helping them to excel in their overall instrumental progress. Overall, students are responding very positively and enthusiastically to the non-traditional aspects of the music curriculum.
I am in no way advocating for ditching performing groups in public school, but I think we need gears in music education to match the shift in our culture. Rather than subscribing to the traditional music education methods, we can meet students somewhere in the middle by expanding what is taught in the music classroom. We can use this to supplement what is going on in other classrooms (both music and non-music). And most important for me personally, we can use this to reach the student who failed at music (or sometimes think to themselves that “Music failed me”).
Brandon Malowski is a 5th-8th grade chorus/general music teacher at the South Colonie School District in Albany, NY. He has been in two districts prior and is on his 6th total year of teaching. He graduated from SUNY Fredonia with a B.M. in Music Education, concentration in voice and electronic music. He received a M.S. in Instructional Technology from University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is an active performer, composer, engineer, and educator in the Capital Region, spending most of Oktoberfest season with Tony’s Polka Band in the Lake George Area.