Editor’s Desk by Ben Pierce
I am a full time tuba and euphonium professor and most of my students major in music education. I frequently encounter young players who object, either passively or quite vocally, to the expectation of rigorous practice and performance habits for music ed. majors. This invokes a debate that is not a new or unique; I remember having the same disagreement with my undergraduate colleagues and it has been the topic of many a conversation amongst professionals at gatherings both informal and official. I have a few thoughts to support my opinion that yes, Mr./Ms. Music Education Major, you absolutely ought to play at the highest level possible.
Indulge me in a few clichés and aphorisms. Nothing worth doing is easy. You get out what you put in. “Nothing will be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome,” said English writer Samuel Johnson. “I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs,” said American journalist Henry Louis Mencken. Just do it. (Nike)
A person teaching music must be a musician. As a music degree progresses, students typically have limited opportunities to develop their musical skills in teaching roles. They get some hands-on experience in music ed. courses and ultimately the internship, but the bulk of musical experience available to them is playing. Performance on one’s primary instrument is perhaps the most thorough and effective path to true musicianship, especially when rounded by a program complete with theory, pedagogy, and history.
I have known several students who loved to play many instruments; they claimed to play six or eight different instruments before even coming to college and were keen to learn how to play more. But they ran into some difficulty getting motivated to perform at a high level on their primary instrument, the tuba or euphonium. To be sure, public school music educators and some college teachers can expect to be put in a variety of teaching situations where adaptability and an eclectic musical background are vital. However, the problem is that the jack of all trades, master of none is, well, a master of none. A student who does not strive to excel at their own instrument deprives themself of the potential for excellence. Unbeknownst to them, they also deprive their future students. Allow me to draw a parallel to a completely different vocation that also involves helping people.
Medical students are put through four rigorous years of training, beginning with anatomy courses in which they dissect every part of the human body. A medical student studies biology and chemistry at levels far more advanced than what they might ultimately “use” as, say, a family practitioner. The doctor might spend his days writing routine prescriptions for antibiotics, swabbing throats for strep, and sending people to specialists. Indeed, the doctor might have forgotten much of what was learned in medical school. But such a foundation was built in medical school that the doctor has learned to reason and make decisions based upon their body of knowledge, even if some detail has faded. When we go to the doctor we expect advice and treatment based upon knowledge, experience, and the sharpness that comes from someone who has striven to excel at their practice. Simply put, the harder the doctor worked at their education, the better the treatment we can expect from them.
Even to separate the roles of performer and teacher is problematic. I have heard it said that all performers teach. Even a player who has no interest in sitting down for a formal lesson with a student demonstrates their skill and imparts their musical opinions to the listeners; the audience learns from them by listening and watching. Therefore that player becomes a teacher of a sort. In fact most professional performers do teach lessons, whether freelance or at an institution. The fact that students are drawn to great performers as teachers indicates an innate respect for those who can, because such people have learned to walk the walk, so to speak.
Some would argue that an elementary or secondary school music teacher’s job is entrenched in administrative and bureaucratic red tape, discipline, and logistics and leaves minimal time for actually teaching music anyway. This is all the more reason that a music teacher should prepare as an outstanding musician – so that they can use the minimal time to the best advantage of the students. A great musician can leave a large impact on students in just a few minutes time, but only if they have the knowledge and skill.
Many music teachers conduct more than they play. The best ensemble directors in the world, at whatever level, may or may not have been exceptional players. What they do have in common is that they continued to improve their musical craft after their focus had transitioned from playing to conducting. There are no better ways to prepare for a career in conducting than to practice, to play chamber music, and to play in large ensembles. Playing solos doesn’t hurt either. Preparation for solo performance is perhaps the most demanding of any kind of practice and can have a positive impact on all sorts of music making. But I digress.
Taking lessons and studying an instrument is not about being a soloist. A student said to me recently, “I don’t enjoy solo playing. I love band. Everything we do in here [meaning my studio] is solo.” While most music education degrees require a solo recital performance to gauge the achievement of a certain level of skill, thinking of such as “becoming a soloist” means missing the point. What students learn in private lessons-turning a phrase, ear training, using air, playing with style and nuance, technical facility, repertoire-are exactly those skills that a good music teacher needs.
I would offer in closing that it is easier to achieve when the tasks ahead are not viewed as monolithic. We know those students who have spent more time talking about practicing scales than actually doing it. They have built up such mental barriers against this small, simple task that it becomes impossible. Any big undertaking can and must be taken one step at a time whether it is building a wall, digging a ditch, running a marathon, writing a book, or excelling at a musical instrument. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely.”