Here’s a $17,000 question for you:

Will the year-in, year-out learning of music (instrument, singing, drumming, etc.) make you into… a better person?

OK, OK, it’s a loaded question. And a crowd-pleaser too, the kind of question an M.C. could bark to a packed auditorium just to hear a great big “YES” in return. We’re all “better people” for loving music, aren’t we?

Seem obvious? Well then, try making music a “core” curriculum item in schools, one that’ll stick when your government starts to prioritize military spending and “security” infrastructure over education.

And if you’re daring, make music central to your concept of education.

My hunch is that you’ll have to find better words than “music makes children into better people” to sell your idea, no matter how much we all agree on the universal virtues of music.

character training

So how do you do it? How do you convince people that music is of central importance to education?

I’ll argue that music will forever be relegated to “secondary curriculum” status in education (what is also happening to phys ed these days) until the concept of “character training” is revived in educational philosophy, and given mainstream respectability.

In other words, we have to change our concept of education.

Seems like a radical proposition? Or does “character training” sound a little too much like boot camp, or religious upbringing?

…et la musique

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how music and character training go hand in hand is to look at a real-world example.

Canada’s National Film Board has produced a fine little gem of a film on this very subject. It’s called …et la musique.

The film, released in French, follows three kids – Alexis, 6 years old, Rachel 9 years old and Anne-Catherine, 11 years old – in their public school learning adventures at école primaire du Sacré-Coeur in Sherbrooke, Québec. And you guessed it: the school’s curriculum focus is music education.

Having seen the film, I’ll try to encapsulate the experience and message it conveys.

First, filmmaker Michel Lam adopts the point of view of children in the school environment as they discover socializing, teachers, educational expectations, group discipline, and school-yard play with new friends. The film is set for the most part in the school’s classrooms, practice rooms, halls and playground.

Nothing especially novel here. But because the film eschews story development and favors “day-in-the-life”, scene to scene transitions, we’re slowly made aware of the real star of the film: the educational setting itself, and the special relationships that emerge between children and teachers.

Pierre Foglia, who reviewed the film for La Presse says it best:

“…On comprend tout de suite que ces enfants-là ne deviendront pas des virtuoses, ce n’est pas l’idée non plus. L’idée, magnifique, et même grandiose, est celle qui est au coeur de tout projet éducatif: apprendre à apprendre. On comprend tout de suite que ces enfants-là seront meilleurs en français, en sciences, en mathématiques, grâce à la musique certes, mais on comprend aussi que cela pourrait être grâce à l’équitation, au tricot, à la littérature… Je dis n’importe quoi exprès pour qu’on m’entende bien: apprendre à apprendre à travers une passion.”

In a nutshell, this film is about “learning to learn“, or becoming passionate about learning by developing a life-long pursuit. Foglia’s statement goes even further: he implies that the success or failure of any educational project should be judged on how well people “learn how to learn”.

All fine and well, but perhaps we’re putting the cart before the horse here: is Lam really making a case for quality education, or the ideals of pedagogy? Or is he simply concerned with making a loving portrait of kids learning music at school, as a tribute to his own experience as a child going to school at Sacré-Coeur?

I’ll let you be the judge of this. I for one, thought the picture of music education that emerged from the film was slightly idealized, almost isolated from other areas of character development. For better and for worse, the film focuses on the interaction between children and their teachers, with our attention shifting between directive vs. supportive approaches to music teaching. Does this setting truly create a “love of learning”? For a few, for many?

Of course, only Sacré-Coeur alumni can answer this question. As for Michel Lam, whatever “case” he might be making with …et la musique, he’s not in the least bit preachy about it, and more than a little bit poetic.

a modest proposal

Returning to our initial question: how do we “upgrade” our concept of education? If subject-based “core” curricula remain the norm in public education, how does one make the case for change?

If you’re having trouble with the idea, perhaps we should look at other institutions that are undergoing major brain-shifts.

For example, health care: we’re hearing more and more about a “whole-person approach” to treating illness and disease these days. Not just from alternative medicine practitioners, but from traditional “authorized” medical institutions, hospitals, universities, etc.‘s modest proposal? To do the same in education: reexamine our focus on knowledge and skill acquisition in light of this “whole person” paradigm.

If that sounds like New Age talk, it’s not. “Whole person approaches” in practice simply means using multiple models instead of a single authorized body of knowledge to solve problems. In health care the multiple-model approach is called “integrative medicine“.

And perhaps this is where music education – and music teachers in particular – will lead the way into a new revolution of “integrative learning” in education. Because you can’t teach music successfully without understanding your students’ music itch, and how to scratch it.

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