Discovery Orchestra: How Shall We Study Music?

September 26, 2016

Discovery Orchestra 2 cr. Jeanne Maass

I live and breathe classical music.

This came very naturally to me from my mother, Helen, who was a highly accomplished classical pianist. Before entering kindergarten, I had already learned that listening to classical music has the power to take us on a powerful emotional journey with just abstract sound — without the benefit of words that are the basis of dramas, plays and novels.

Over my career teaching the listening skills that help people connect with classical music, I have seen countless students, professional educators, classical novices and even seasoned concertgoers transformed into more confident, empathetic, and creative individuals by tapping deeply into the power of abstract music.

The secret is that it doesn’t take a complicated educational process or years of private lessons to learn. These deep listening skills can be taught to young children in our schools.

That’s what I shared with an audience of educators at Using Arts-Infused Instruction to Enhance NJ’s Learning Standards, a three-day conference presented by New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and Foundation for Educational Administration. Held at Princeton University in July, the event provided all of the artist-speakers with an opportunity to advocate for how their art form can be used to advance the core curriculum standards of New Jersey’s public schools.

I owe my approach to teaching music listening to Dr. Saul Feinberg, a teacher at Philadelphia’s Abraham Lincoln High School during my student days there in the 1960s.  While musical performance activities at Lincoln were excellent, it wasn’t the school’s two concert choirs, chamber choir, two a cappella vocal quartets, two concert bands, marching band, jazz band, two orchestras, and the annual musical that set Lincoln High apart — it was the way Saul Feinberg taught music listening.

Rather than focus on teaching musical performance — the curricular emphasis at the time, and even today in most schools  — Saul adapted the two-year ‘general music’ requirement of two 45-minute periods a week for eighth and ninth graders in all Pennsylvania public schools to teach aesthetic music listening skills.

How should we teach music?

Music instruction offered in schools would ideally mirror the three basic musical behaviors: creating (composing or improvising), performing and listening from an aesthetic viewpoint.

In a perfect world, all students in school would receive instruction in composing/improvising, performing and listening. Each year, from kindergarten through middle school, very specific standards could be set for each grade level.   For example, by the end of first grade, every child should be able to: improvise in song or playing an Orff xylophone a simple ostinato (creation); sing a simple melody transmitted in Kodaly hand signals (performance); recognize a simple ternary form (listening).

Such a curriculum would, over time, produce a musically literate society.

Wow! Now there’s a thought…a musically literate society. Individuals trained in this fashion would be capable of performing, reading and inventing music.   And, as listeners, they would also be able to emotionally connect with the greatest music human society has produced regardless of genre: classical, jazz, pop, folk or world and regardless of when that music was created ­from the earliest times to the present.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. And in the very real world of school, many music curriculums are entirely performance oriented or nearly so.

Music education in America means: little children with violins in hand; kids singing in choirs and playing in marching bands; and performing in the annual Broadway show. And all of that is very important, and not to be taken for granted where it exists — given the cuts to arts programs that we have experienced in recent decades.

But short of offering a comprehensive music education encompassing all three musical behaviors, might we at least consider adding the teaching of aesthetic music listening to all students, performers and non-performers alike?  This is what I proposed to my audience of Principals and Supervisors in Princeton. At The Discovery Orchestra, we have some follow-up planned. Stay tuned.

George Marriner Maull

George Marriner Maull is the artistic director of The Discovery Orchestra and has reached millions of viewers nationwide through his Emmy-nominated educational Discovery Concerts for American Public Television.  The Discovery Orchestra’s new eight-part series for American Public Television, Fall in Love with Music, began airing in late March 2016 and episodes have already received nearly 1,000 broadcasts on PBS affiliates.