Tales From a High School Band Dropout
I think it’s important for me to note, right off the bat, that I actually quit my high school’s music program. That’s right: my name is Justine Dolorfino, I’m currently pursuing a Masters in Education in Music & Music Education at Teachers College, and I dropped out of band when I was sixteen.
When I think back to my K-12 music education, I genuinely can’t remember ever learning anything that, at the time, I felt was actually relevant to my life or musical interests. This isn’t a slight on my music educators, by any means; now, in retrospect, I realize all of the great things they passed down to me. Certainly, I wouldn’t still be pursuing a degree in music education if I felt that a love and understanding of music wasn’t something I wanted to immerse myself in and passon to future generations. That said, though, somewhere between getting my alto saxophone in fourth grade and dropping out of band in the beginning of twelfth grade, something happened to make me lose interest in participating in music for the time being.
Do you remember when you first got involved in music at school? I do. I picked up an alto saxophone and, after much trial and error, was able to actually make noises that were somewhat reminiscent of music. The music we played in band was fun and familiar; all these years later, I can still remember the thrill of hearing the whole fifth grade band play through “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” for the first time. I joined jazz band in eighth grade and fell in love with playing the bass – which would become my primary instrument in college. By the time that I reached eleventh grade, I was playing in symphonic band, jazz band, orchestra, and pit orchestra. I was basically a music education overachiever.
So… what happened?
I’ve been thinking about this more and more lately as I approach the end of my graduate school career. What was it that made me walk away from music before mysenior year in high school? Are these pedagogical downfalls still present in today’s schools? What can current and future educators do to boost student enrollment and interest in music?
After an excessive amount of reflection, I think my high school music experience was hindered by two things.
A lack of emphasis on creativity.
When I dropped out of my high school’s music program, I didn’t originally intend it to be an all-or-nothing gesture. I still loved jazz band and wanted to participate in it. However, due to the program’s rules, I had to either be in symphonic band or orchestra in order to participate in jazz band. I didn’t want to be in either, so I ended up having to leave the only creative outlet I had.
My other musical endeavours focused on scales and ensemble repertoire. We had mandatory solo and ensemble competitions upon which our grades were based. While I’m sure this helped me improve my technical skills, my heart wasn’t in the playing and I wasn’t sure why I was voluntarily enrolled in a class that had requirements I didn’t want to do. After getting a taste for improvisation in jazz band, I found myself disillusioned with just playing other people’s music and wanted to further explore composition and improvisation. The coolest thing about music, I thought, was being able to create my own in addition to playing standard repertoire, so it was hard for me to understand why we weren’t doing this.
A lack of relevance.
My ensembles seemed irrelevant and uninteresting to me. The music I listened to felt as far away from the music I was playing at school as I am from being cast as the thirteenth member of Glee next season. Thus, when I was sixteen I had a really hard time playing music I didn’t like (again, this did not apply to jazz band) and learning things I didn’t want to learn.
The thing is that I love music; always have, always will. I walk in time to the music in my ears, I frequently have to stop myself from conducting out a pattern with my hands, and I let song lyrics speak for my heart perhaps more often than I actually speak for myself. I wanted to experience music in a way that made sense for me, and I expect that most of today’s students feel the same.
Of course, now that I’m twenty-three I’ve broadened my horizons and have learned to love more than just my musical first loves. But what happens to the kids who are pushed out of music in junior high or high school and then don’t actively pursue it in any other way?
Where should we go from here?
It’s important to keep in mind that these are just my own personal experiences. Certainly there are excellent teachers out there who are putting their own spin on teaching music to children through relating to their students and keeping their teaching fresh and innovative. But why can’t all teachers be like this? It truly seems to me as though the state of the profession today, despite all the pedagogical, philosophical,and technological innovations that came with the dawn of the 21st century, is bogged down in traditions that need invigoration in order to keep today’s students fully engaged.
Don’t you want all of your students to walk out of your class feeling like they learned something because they want to learn it and not because it was forced at them? Wouldn’t it be great if they left feeling like they would never hear music the same way again? And best of all, wouldn’t it be awesome if they wanted to keep on learning?
Imagine a music curriculum that incorporates creativity at all aspects of learning. Your students are given an opportunity to design their own warm-ups according to a list of teacher-provided guidelines (e.g., choosing from specific techniques, specific scales, etc.) and get a chance to hear them played by the rest of the ensemble. Melodic themes from the music chosen for a semester’s concert are presented to the class and are used as a springboard for collective improvisation in small groups. A general music classroom is home to monthly show-and-tells where students are invited to bring in their favorite songs (after running their selections past their teacher to assure appropriateness!) to share with the class. All musics are explored in the context of the society in which they were composed. Links between classical and popular music are always pointed out. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I’d like to teach. I just don’t know if we’ll all be able to do that if music education continues to remain stagnant, free from innovation.
Want more great music education content?
Keep in touch with Leading Notes by following us on social media or subscribing to our newsletter!