Guest Post: Music Teaching, UIL, and the Problem with Skills

Editor’s note: Although I’ve been thinking of you during my time away from the blog, grad school + new baby make it terribly difficult to sit down and write. Lucky for me (and now you) the astounding Marshall Escamilla has agreed to share some thoughts on teaching music. Visit his twitter and say hello!

    In order to understand what goes in the world of music education–particularly at the secondary level–you have to understand the world of competitions. In Texas, we have something called UIL, which is an organization that mostly takes care of competitive sports, but that also happens to deal with competitive music. As someone who spent most of my life playing music, I found the idea of competitive music to be extremely strange when I first moved here and started teaching. But that’s neither here nor there.

If you watch the following video, you can get a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that happen at a music competition:

If you don’t care to spend 10 minutes watching this video, or don’t understand what’s going on in it, let me elaborate a little bit. This is a middle school band at a sight reading competition. They’ve been given a piece of sheet music that they’ve neither heard nor seen before, and for the first 7 minutes (or so) of the video, their director is instructing them on how to go about learning this piece of music. After that, they play a scale to warm up, and then have one shot to play through the piece. That set of tables off to the right of the screen is a group of judges, who are listening carefully to their performance and, ultimately, giving them a score on it. The sight reading contest is one part of the bigger picture of the UIL competition, as bands are also evaluated on individual pieces that they’ve prepared all semester–or, sometimes, all year.

In most typical programs, UIL competitions are really the centerpiece event. Directors are judged primarily by how their kids perform at contest–both by their peers and their employers. In other words, it’s a really, really big deal.

Now, I think it’s actually fun to watch a group of middle schoolers that are so thoroughly trained go through an activity that then comes together so beautifully into actual music. It’s also fun to watch an excellent teacher at work. She clearly enjoys what she does and is obviously terrific at it.

And that’s all great.

But then, you should also watch this:

Most of the tunes the Carter Family learned when they were young probably they learned in church. I’d be willing to bet that most of their learning came from singing together in a communal setting. Even those songs they learned from songbooks might have looked more like this than anything like traditional music notation. The bottom line is that as much of a storied career as the Carter Family enjoyed, they would not have succeeded at a UIL competition.

Of course, the Carter Family isn’t alone in this regard. In my years playing around Austin, I’ve met scores of professional musicians–including some very successful ones–who can’t sight read worth a damn. There’s no shortage of successful professional musicians who know next to nothing about music theory. In fact, I would say that at this point most people making their living in music don’t know anything about theory or sight reading.

So what gives? Why is it that this set of skills that are so highly valued in school music programs are so non-essential in the “real world” that most professionals in the field don’t even have a basic proficiency at them, let alone anything close to the mastery displayed by the 8th graders in that first video? There is no equivalent to this phenomenon in any other professional field. I suppose you can imagine a successful engineer who hasn’t fully mastered multivariate calculus (maybe?), but to find one who can’t add or subtract?

The only possible explanation is that there must be a set of skills that most professionals do have that are more important for predicting success in the field than their ability to read or understand music theory., I’d also be willing to bet that the skills that June Carter gained by singing with her family in church–namely, a thorough knowledge of repertoire, an ability to learn by ear, and an intuitive understanding of how music works–are probably much more important.

I don’t want to knock the very, very hard work of any of my colleagues in the field of music education, but when I see stuff like that I can’t help but wonder what’s missing from that picture. Have the kids in this ensemble ever once been asked to play music without a chart in front of them? Have they ever–once–improvised a melody or a solo?

The answer to both of those questions is almost certainly no. With the intense emphasis on preparing for contest, pretty much any other form of music learning outside of the “traditional” Western-art music approach has been crowded out. And to tell the truth, based on my experience at music education conferences, there’s precious little interest in pursuing those forms in any serious way.

And the thing is that those non-traditional forms of learning music are, actually, a whole lot more traditional than the model that depends on sight-reading. It’s really only in the last 150 years or so that any form of music making has existed that didn’t rely heavily on playing by ear and improvisation. Outside of the realm of Western Art music (e.g., folk music, jazz, rock and pop, “world” music), those two skills are of foremost importance.

The thing about non-Western Art music skills is that they are a hell of a lot harder to assess at a contest. Sight reading is great in that way. You can give an adjudicator a chart; they listen to the students play; they mark it up when they hear anything that differs from what’s written on the page.

Though music competitions may seem to a layperson like any other kind of school competition–you know, like football, or debate team–what they really are is a kind of standardized test. They function as a way to measure whether a music teacher is effective at his or her job, and when overemphasized they have a similar effect on learning that overemphasis on testing does. It causes educators to narrow their focus into a tiny realm of types of learning that are deemed acceptable; it causes educators to emphasize rigor and precision over joy and motivation; it crowds out student interests that won’t (can’t?) be assessed.

Marshall Escamilla started the music program at the Khabele School, where he’s been teaching music for the past 11 years. You can read his other random musings at mescamilla1980.wordpress.com