By Jonathan Glawe
The experiences we bring to our students define their understanding of our class, and in turn their understanding of the breadth and potential of our art form. With the repertoire we choose as music educators, we expose our students to different styles, cultures, and techniques. A memorable performance may introduce our students to new ways of interacting with music, allowing them to find a more personal connection to the art form. The future of the Symphonic Orchestra is entirely dependent on engaged audiences. The end result of a diversified focus on music appreciation in orchestral music education is the development of future music enthusiasts who are capable of enjoying and sharing the positive messages and powerful emotions that are created through an orchestral performance.
As a high school orchestra director, I teach students who come from a wide variety of musical experiences and technical backgrounds. In my teaching situation at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I am fortunate to have a core representation of students who have been heavily exposed to classical music since early childhood. For these students, selling the idea of playing a classical musical selection is not a challenge, but the problem of course lies in the larger picture of the orchestra program. For every one student in the program that shows a strong appreciation for classical music there are two or three others who need a positive experience to get them excited about classical music for what it truly is: a beautiful and proven art-form that is to be celebrated for withstanding the test of time.
As a teacher, to promote appreciation you must first demonstrate how to do so with consistency. One of the first strategies I employed when I arrived at Pioneer was to implement an environment of appreciation for all students in the ensemble. The appropriate use of the sentiment “thank you” became a daily routine for anyone in the ensemble who ever did you a positive service. Also, students who tended to blend in with the crowd were acknowledged for noticeable improvements in elements of musicianship and organizational skills, both by their peers and myself. These simple changes led to the beginning of a trusting relationship, something that helped the students to become more positive contributing citizens to the culture of the ensemble.
As trust began to build, my next order of business was to take the curriculum currently in place and begin promoting it to the students differently. Pioneer was no longer going to perform independent concerts, but we were going to build an “orchestra season,” similar to what the Detroit Symphony Orchestra does. This meant we would put on a variety of concerts for our audience to attend. Our season would begin with a strings only chamber music performance in the fall. In December, full orchestra works by traditional classical composers would be featured. In February, the city-wide showcase concert would occur with a guest conductor. In March, the concerto concert would feature soloists from the senior class. Finally, in May, the program would put on a POPS concert, which would showcase the eclectic string skills developed over the course of the year.
The first few years of this implementation were not met without hesitation from students or musicians within the community. I found some of my top skill level players who enjoyed classical music were not keen on the idea of the POPS concert, and many of the rest of the orchestra students were not invested in the classical concerts. It is when these discussions come up that the director must continue to send a consistent message that through any style of music, you can learn appreciation and deeper understanding. You won’t win the understanding of all of your students, but if you are consistent, eventually your message of educating all of your students about the diversity of music will begin to pay off.
After 3 years of implementing the “orchestra season” approach, a few important things really began to happen. The number of students continuing to play from middle school started to increase. In addition, the diversity of the students within the ensemble started to grow. Students in the high school who had stopped playing years ago started knocking on my door wondering if they could return. Students started to make enjoyable transitions from one style of music to another, and before I knew it, we were talking about the difference of rhythm and groove found in a Beethoven Symphony and pop music. I remember having a nearly 20-minute conversation with one of my classes about how the bow strokes in a Brandenburg Concerto were different than that of what great jazz violinists do. You may be thinking that I led the conversation, but rather, some of the most reserved students were the ones leading the discussion!
One last element to discuss in regards to this topic is that of quality of instruction. It is impossible to educate yourself to be a master of each musical style that you present. However, students do appreciate watching their teachers grow, modeling how to learn. If you hit a roadblock in teaching classical music, or any style for that matter, it is okay to tell your orchestra that you need to research the issue further. Students like to see you humble about what you do and do not know. By investing time in maintaining the quality of classical music yourself, you are constantly confirming the students that you are teaching to the authentic nature of the musical selection and not from your opinion. This takes the responsibility off of you and reminds students that together, you have an obligation to a composer to perform any piece of music in front of you to the best of your ability.
Students learn best through modeling, and the best way to sell them on classical music is to treat classical music with the respect it deserves. It is important to remind your students that it is all around them, and that in the music they listen to today, famous classical melodies are often quoted. Play those quotes. Bring in artists who specialize in classical music. Show YouTube videos of young people performing outstanding works by classical composers. Contact your local colleges or universities and promote their concerts. Take advantage of communicative technology, and set up a Skype lecture or coaching with a classical composer. Have your students compose a 4-bar melody and help them harmonize it in a variety of ways. Perform those written melodies at a concert or a recital. Show old cartoons and talk about how classical music relates to the story or the character movement. Have classical music playing when they are unpacking or packing up in your classroom. Talk about the life of composers and their motivation for composing. Most importantly, listen to and perform classical music, and deepen YOUR appreciation for it. What you are curious about, show excitement for, and grow to appreciate, your students will tend to do as well. Be patient and consistent. It will eventually pay off!
© 2012 Jonathan Glawe
Jonathan Glawe (from Waterloo, Iowa) is currently the Director of Orchestras at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Kansas and a Masters Degree in Music Education from the University of Oregon.
Currently in his 5th year at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mr. Glawe has played an important role in the their return to the GRAMMY Signature School list as presented by the GRAMMY Foundation, in which the Pioneer Music Department was honored as one of the top 3 music programs in the nation in 2010, and has earned the honor of being the National GRAMMY Signature School in 2011.