Monday, February 18, 2013

Music Education

Although I am not (strictly speaking) an ethnomusicologist or scholar of music, I think about music education often as it is so closely tied to other types of education in performance practice. My dissertation (the official title is Transmission and Performance: Memory, Heritage, and Authenticity in Korean Mask Dance Dramas) foregrounds my interest in how performing traditions are learned (really, it's not just the title that starts with transmission, the bulk of the dissertation is about pedagogical transmission of performing arts knowledge.)

Last weekend at the conference one of the papers dealt with the use of marimbas for educating youngsters in American classrooms (and her research was specific to Washington State, although apparently Portland has a thriving marimba scene). Lopez School also uses marimbas, although happily without some of the problems the young UW graduate student Jocelyn Moon mentioned in her talk. Other conference papers also touched on the issue of music education, particularly in light of the education at the UW (because the conference was celebrating the history of the program). Group ensembles and private lessons were discussed.

Right now I'm reviewing [edit: I finished and sent off the review!] a book on music education, Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools, written by David G. Hebert. Because Hebert's writing is well organized and in most chapters almost entirely a distillation of his ethnographic research, the reading has gone pretty fast. In fact Hebert has done an admirable job setting down in meticulous detail how the students are learning-- in large part they learn from their peers. When I consider the performances of middle school wind bands in Japan (Hebert's research site was a middle school-- see the video below or search some out on YouTube), and then add my knowledge gained from Hebert's book that

  • most instruments are new to the students when they join the band
  • they do not take the instruments home (and couldn't play them at home anyway as they're mostly from middle/lower income families who live in thin-walled apartments) 
  • their music teacher has no expert knowledge of their instruments or training in how to lead a band before she was hired for her first job
  • as I mentioned above, essentially middle school 3rd year students teach the 1st year students...

Well, it's sort of mind-blowing how well they play. The largest annual competition in Japan has 700,000 participants a year. 700,000 people who can play this well-- many middle schoolers!


It made me think a lot about my own experience in band and with music education as a junior high school student. Our music teacher went crazy. Starting perhaps in sixth grade, maybe fifth grade. But the school district couldn't fire her, there was tenure involved. Yet she was completely incapable of teaching us. Lopez is (was) a small school and she'd had me since third grade (how often did we have music class? did we really not start until third grade?). But by seventh grade she couldn't remember my name. Or what she was doing. When we entered junior high we could leave band, and most students did since the teacher was obviously losing it, but I stayed because I loved music. I was not very good. And I was bored. I played french horn because the instrument was so cool, but in most pieces of music the french horn really plays a bunch of long whole notes. Or maybe half notes. It is not a melody instrument (most of the time and my lack of skill did not warrant a solo or new music selection). So I clung to my cool instrument but daydreamed through practice, or improvised the melody along with Diana (clarinet?), who was three years older and had had more training before our teacher lost it. And because our teacher was losing any grip on reality, she didn't understand that most of us needed a lot more help. We had no leader, and she'd often be gone, or be mentally gone during practice. 

One of the most embarrassing moments of my entire life (and I have a lot to choose from) was a concert (perhaps for Christmas?) at the Legion Hall. I believe the concert was trying to prove to the school that she was still the music teacher and still training students who could make the school proud by showing their talent in the community. I don't even think we knew what we were supposed to play. My memory of the affair has around 8 people on stage looking at each other nervously, then she barks at us to play a piece. As I remember we didn't all have the right music. And half of us didn't know our parts. That was the end of the band. Around the time I left high school they finally hired a new music teacher. 

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