By Thomas J. West

By the time a student who is actively involved in a music program graduates high school, what skills should they have? How are music education programs designed for these self-motivated, team player individuals? What should their “exit interview” sound like?

For me as a music educator, the answers to these questions have changed several times over the years. Honestly, my goal when I started teaching was to build the highest quality concert and marching band performance program I could, focusing on bringing the ensemble members a broad and deep exposure to great musical literature in search of that ever elusive “summit” moment when an ensemble plays something so excellent, so moving, that everyone witnessing it is affected by it.

While these are admirable sentiments, and certainly do leave long-lasting impressions on the students who have those kind of experiences, I realized that those “summit” moments really weren’t for the students—they were for me. “How great of a music teacher am I that I can open their eyes to such an aesthetic experience?” I got into music teaching because I wanted to keep having those “summit” experiences, and being a teacher allowed me to share those experiences with young people so that they too could have their lives shaped by music performance.

Do I still want them to have those summit moments? Of course, but it’s no longer the solitary focus of my performing ensemble programs. The pursuit of performance excellence has been redefined and altered in proportion to make room for the pursuit of musical creativity. The “buzz” of a great performance is only one way to experience what music has to offer the individual.

Giving Students the Tools to Be Life-Long Musicians

My goals as a music educator are much broader and long-term than just giving them a great high school experience. By the time seniors leave my program, they will:

  1. Be able to play their primary instrument proficiently. This includes playing all twelve major scales and arpeggios, natural minor scales and arpeggios, and be able to sight-read music of a grade 3 level. They will understand the music theory behind all of those goals and will be able to handle transpositions for their instrument (if applicable). For vocalists, it means having full control of their instrument in all ranges, singing with pure vowel sounds, proper support and phrasing, and singing a wide variety of styles.
  2. Be able to improvise melodies over simple chord changes on their primary instrument. This is not limited to jazz music. This includes the music theory behind common tonic, sub-dominant, dominant, tonic chord progressions, and the construction of melody lines.
  3. Be able to write a quartet in four-part harmony for their primary instrument. This obviously includes skills obtained from all of the above skills, plus the music theory necessary to write effective voice leading. Along the way, the study of musical form is incorporated into performing repertoire, sight-reading, and improvisation, leading to the student making their own creative decisions about writing an original work with a logical form.
  4. Be able to record, edit, mix, and master their own music. This is a new goal for me, and one that has not become a reality yet. My vision is to give every one of my students the ability to write their own music, record it, give it a basic editing and mixing job, and be able to upload it to SoundCloud or YouTube. By the time my current middle school students reach twelfth grade, this goal will be a reality.

A Culture of Creativity

One of the greatest things about America as a culture is that we allow innovation and individualized thinking to exist. It’s okay in our culture to speak your mind, chart your own course, and create your own destiny. American culture and government makes it possible for creative ideas to grow and the originators of those ideas to be monetarily compensated. I could easily diverge at this point on how copyright law no longer benefits the artist directly, but that is another article. For the purposes of this writing, it is the pioneering spirit of America combined with today’s modern communication tools that make it more possible than ever for artists of all kinds to find an audience.

It is no longer enough, in my opinion, for high school graduates to simply play an instrument or sing in a large ensemble. With as much personal growth as they receive from being a member of a band, chorus, or orchestra, the average American high school ensemble member does one of three things after high school: perform in similar groups in college, then quit, find community groups to continue their hobby, or become a professional musician in some fashion. Of these three, the vast majority quit performing music after high school or after college. Why? Work and family, of course.

I believe that more graduating seniors would continue music making into adulthood if they were better equipped to make their own music. If all they can do upon graduation is play their part in a concert band piece, or sing an alto part with the help of a section leader feeding them their pitches, their chances of continuing to make music are slim. Imagine how much more art, music, dance, and theatre would be out there if high school graduates were better equipped with the skills to exercise their own creativity.

If music improvisation and composition is nurtured in primary and early secondary grades, students are less likely to develop inhibitions to creativity, becoming more expressive and communicative. More original intellectual property can do nothing but good for the individual, our economy, and our culture.

The future of our internet-powered society is in more individuals trading their talents and ideas, collaborating to produce amazing results such as Wikipedia, Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, and many more. Our music education programs in public schools, I believe, need to continue the strong traditions of our performing ensembles, but need to make room in their school year for the parts of the study of music that make student more capable of being individually creative.

TomWestThomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. He has eighteen years of experience as a concert band director, marching band director, jazz improvisation instructor, choral director, orchestra director, private instructor, and marching drill writer. Learn more about Thomas at