I Teach Music, But Music Still Teaches Me
By profession, I am known colloquially as a music teacher. I teach flute, music theory, and all elements of musicianship to school-aged children throughout Fresno and Clovis, and I maintain a private flute studio of all ages and abilities at Gottschalk Music Center in Clovis. I just started coursework in my third semester of my graduate degree in Instrumental Conducting at Fresno State, and I have plans to teach publicly and privately after I graduate with my Master of Arts degree in December 2015.
According to politicians, policy-makers, and most general public perception, we music teachers instruct students. We provide information and instruction, students repeat and replicate, and we give them a passing grade. Students who receive high-quality music educations are well-versed on their instruments, have an excellent foundational knowledge of music theory concepts and music history, and have had exposure to study and performance of various musical styles and genres; they may even continue to pursue music independently as adults.
Any teacher of music will tell you there is something extra special about teaching music; each teaching moment is unique and offers something to both teacher and student every time. Music is universally understood to capture and communicate feelings for which there exist no adequate words within spoken language; it transcends the inherent language barriers of prose and poetry, and musical expression can even unite peoples who share no common spoken language. Music allows participants to be safely vulnerable; it offers a non-violent outlet for emotion and creative expression within the safe environment of a private moment or supportive collaboration with other musicians.
As both a student and teacher of music myself, here are a few first-hand observations I have made about what music teaches that I believe are relevant to the conservation and continued financial support of music programs within the American public educational system (—and, I don’t just mean giving them enough money to buy a few new pieces of music each year and heat the band room in the winter, I mean serious financial support to buy instruments that won’t melt in the summer, uniforms that don’t wear out every 4 years, traveling equipment that doesn’t break down each year, coaching and support staff to increase the caliber of individual musicianship regardless of the student’s ability to pay, music stands that don’t wobble, chairs that are comfortable, podiums, choir risers, practice fields with proper lighting and maintenance, performance facilities with decent seating and acoustics, and budgeting for competition and educational travel).
Music teaches communication. If you think about it, music is another language in itself, and it must be practiced to gain proficiency, just as learning a new spoken language. Each musician is learning the same language in order to communicate with other musicians; we have to learn the same vocabulary of words that indicate musical volume or speed or mood; we have to learn the same kinesiology of our instruments and how our bodies must adapt physically to produce an aesthetically pleasing sound; we must all learn to internalize the same basic concepts of rhythm and time so that we can perform collaboratively with others; we must learn visual cues, including a glyph-written language that translates to precise pitches on a complicated mechanical musical instrument, as well as how to interpret the visual movements of a leader or conductor in coordination with our individually internalized concepts of “rhythm” and “time” in exact coordination with every other musician (who are also internalizing) in the room. This process would sound like chaos if it were not organized by communication. Forgive my over-simplification, but the baseline communication of music teaches that “when this happens, that happens in response; when a cue is communicated, respond accordingly.” Because we are listening and communicating so actively in music, this active communication begins to carry over into other areas of life. Teaching music as a means of communication creates a society capable of connection, cohabitation, and cooperation, just as we see playing out within the microcosm of a rehearsal, live performance, or jam session.
Music teaches confidence through vulnerability and experimentation. Yes, there is the cliché about gaining confidence from mastering a new skill. That’s all well and good, but it falls short of capturing what is really happening. We all agree we must do a degree of learning before we have mastered something; the very will to learn first requires a step of vulnerability on the part of the student that creates a pact of trust between student and teacher. The student must first have confidence in the instructor’s ability, which allows them to be vulnerable and open to the instructor’s teachings. The instructor must then honor that student’s vulnerability by instructing to the best of their ability, which instills confidence in both student and teacher over time, as positive outcomes are observed by both. As the student learns new skills, they become open to experimentation with those skills—improvisation, composition, and jamming with friends, to name a few. Music teachers experiment with new methods of teaching musical concepts. I think it becomes obvious how these skills and learned creative thinking translate into life outside of music. You start seeing more young people with huge ideas and the perspective and confidence to create new realities with new rules. You see a willingness to experiment and recreate. You see teachers teaching in new ways. The act of making music changes the way you think about everything else in life; it literally changes the very fabric of society. World problems can be approached with fresh perspective created from disparate connections that, combined with a willingness to experiment, can create something new and better than has ever existed before.
I have observed music change so many young people in this way—myself included. This is why I teach music; this is why so many of us teach music; and, this is why music education needs support in public schools. It has the ability to change thought patterns and open minds and create possibility and connection where there was none before. It brings all kinds of people together, and it helps us communicate where words fail all together.
Music is still teaching me about the person I am becoming, and it is still opening my mind to new ideas and new people. I have been allowed to interact with other cultures and travel the world because of music—I visited England for my first time ever in 2007 on a music tour, and I will be visiting Australia and performing at the Sydney Opera House this summer because of music. Music has awakened me to relevant social issues to which I personally would like to contribute meaningful change: i.e., although women have been allowed to participate professionally as musicians across all fields since WWII, they are still vastly underrepresented within the highest professional ranks, especially conducting, due to persistent sexism that should no longer exist but is perpetuated by the highly sexualized rape culture we currently consume in mass media (N.B.: replace women with any other underprivileged population and highly sexualized rape culture with any other obvious social problem related to that underprivileged population, and you start to get the picture).
Music inspires me to become a better person, to be the change I wish to see in the world, and to inspire that awakening in any other student who is willing to learn music. You can’t help but become a better person in the process; it’s a byproduct of an education.
Christina Bellotta is a graduate student of instrumental conducting at Fresno State University, where she studies with Dr. Gary P. Gilroy. She is also a freelance flutist and music teacher, maintaining an active teaching and freelance performance schedule in Fresno and Clovis. She is an Indigo child, loves cooking, and has recently taken an interest in freshwater aquariums and koi ponds.