We’re Teaching Music to Kids All Wrong

Each fall, as school starts up again, music educators witness a familiar ritual: Eager first-time students squeak on a clarinet, suppress giggles at the noises coming from the tubas and zealously hit a bass drum a little too hard. It’s a moment characterized by excitement, enthusiasm and the anticipation of new beginnings — which is why it’s so disheartening to know that many of those kids will eventually quit their instruments.

The fact that many children don’t stick with music is bad news not only for the state of self-expression and joy but also for education. Studies show that students who play an instrument do better in science, English and math and are more likely to want to attend college. They also may have less anxiety and be more conscientious — they are the kids you want your kids to be friends with. I have never met an adult who is expressly thankful to have quit music as a child, but I’ve met many who have regrets. So why haven’t we, as parents and educators, been better able to encourage our own kids to continue?

In my 15 years as a musical educator, talking to countless teachers, I’ve learned one thing: There is no magical fix. Making music education more successful doesn’t need to involve expensive digital accessories or fancy educational platforms (and I say that as someone who developed an online educational platform). There’s no technological or financial program that will convert children into lifelong music lovers.

Instead, we need to start by rethinking how we teach music from the ground up, both at home and in the classroom. The onus is on parents and educators to raise the next generation of lifelong musicians — not just for music’s sake, but to build richer, more vibrant inner personal lives for our children and a more beautiful and expressive world.

When you mention the question of music in schools, two issues will typically come up: the pandemic and shrinking funding. Both of these are important, but they’re also missing the fundamental problem. Pandemic disruptions and the temporary halt of in-person teaching certainly exacerbated problems around musical education, but they didn’t create them. According to a study conducted over seven years in Texas, beginning in 2013, public school students in grades six to 12 had a band attrition rate of 80 percent, with the greatest declines happening between the first and second year of instruction. In a separate prepandemic study, California public schools saw a 50 percent decrease in student enrollment in music classes over five years. Research shows that students in low-income and ethnically diverse school districts are more likely to lack access to music education.

Funding is also part of the equation, but it’s not the whole story. Last year, California passed Proposition 28, which will bring about $1 billion in additional arts funding annually, with 80 percent of those funds typically going toward hiring teachers. But funding only makes music programs possible; it doesn’t adequately make kids eager to stick with them. People are quick to cite the anecdotal exceptions — the incredible teachers working with shoestring budgets who propel their bands to the highest levels in national competitions or the affluent kids who, like Ivy League heat-seeking missiles, will do anything to make that after-school cello lesson they secretly hate — but these “successes” only illustrate how the current approach is failing the majority of children.

Rather than fixating on funding, let’s look at taking a whole new approach. Educators lament that, as with other courses, band can frequently fall prey to “teaching to the test” — in this case, teaching to the holiday concert. A class that by definition is meant to be a creative endeavor winds up emphasizing rigid reading and rote memorization, in service of a single performance. We need to abandon that approach and bring play back into the classroom by instructing students how to hear a melody on the radio and learn to play it back by ear, and encouraging students to write their own simple songs using a few chords. (The dirty secret of pop music, as Ed Sheeran has explained, is that most chart-topping songs can be played by using only four chords: G, C, D and E minor.) So start with just one chord, a funky beat and let it rip — and, voilà, you’re making music.

It’s often been repeated that “music is a language,” yet we’re reluctant to teach it that way. When we learn a language, we don’t simply memorize phrases or spend all day reading — we practice the language together, sharing, speaking, stumbling but ultimately finding ways to connect. This should happen in music class, too. Music should be a common pursuit: Ask any dad rock weekend band or church ensemble how it experiences music, and the performers are likely to tell you it’s not a chore but a way of building community.

Most important, we need to let kids be terrible. In fact, we should encourage it. They’ll be plenty terrible on their own — at first. But too often kids associate music in school with a difficult undertaking they can’t hope to master, which leads them to give up. Music does not have to be, and in fact, shouldn’t be, about the pursuit of perfection. And the great musicians have plenty of lessons to teach students about the usefulness of failure.

Miles Davis couldn’t hit the high notes his hero Dizzy Gillespie did, so what did he do? He found a new mellow, cool way to speak the language of jazz. Billie Holiday’s range was just over one octave — very limited for a professional singer — but that didn’t stop her from creating the definitive versions of so many American classics. Tell students these stories and watch them get excited to fail. We should let them do that, over and over again. That’s the only way they’ll learn what sounds awful but also what goes well together, what they like and what kind of music they want to make.

We also teach language through immersion, so let’s focus on creating an immersive experience in the language of music. Kids learn best when they’re part of communities filled with people of all skill levels for them to play along with, listen to music with, mess up with and just be silly with. Parents, this means you. Don’t let instrument instruction simply be something you nag your kids to endure. Music was never meant to be a lonely vigil. Play together. Make noise together. Find joy together. Take out an instrument and learn a song that you and your child both love.

I learned music playing in a family band with my four siblings, and we all still play music today. By encouraging our kids — and ourselves — to learn to play functional songs like holiday tunes or “Happy Birthday,” we create reasons to pull out instruments and play together many times a year. In a world where far too many kids (and adults) feel isolated and alienated, raising a generation of students with the tools to express themselves musically, and relate to others through that shared language, has obvious dividends.

Sammy Miller is an educator, a Grammy-nominated drummer and the founder of a music education company.

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