Part Four: Social Movements

From “Times have Changed”

By Merlin B. Thompson

How can music teachers teach with today’s context in mind? How does teaching today’s music students differ from previous generations? What has changed? 

This essay is the fourth in a series devoted to the theme: Times have Changed. My goal – this time around – is to go beyond the typical boundaries of music instruction to examine the impact of social dynamics over the past two hundred years. By exploring the change brought about by evolving social dynamics, my hope is to shed light on what’s necessary for music teaching in today’s context.

Social Movements – During the past two centuries of human history, a remarkable trajectory of social dynamics has had an undeniable impact on how we live, how we treat each other, and what we do to care for the world. Consider the following examples: the struggle against racial inequalities, women’s rights movements, LGBTQ concerns, needs of the disabled population, Black Lives Matter, the Truth and Reconciliation calls for action, issues facing BIPOC. Two hundred years of social movements have transformed the tone of our interactions, the priorities we maintain, even the language we use. No other period in recorded history has experienced so many significant social awakenings and invitations.

What do the above social movements have in common? They all challenge historical norms by calling out the injustices and inequalities resulting from one group having control or power over another group – like whites controlling non-whites, men controlling women, and (relevant to music teaching) teachers controlling students, and adults controlling children. In contrast to entrenched dynamics of control and power, these social movements promote understanding, acceptance, and care as foundation for building respectful and inclusive relationships. With focus on autonomy, identity, self-realization, and quality-of-life for every human being, we all share responsibility for understanding, acceptance, and caring for ourselves, for each other, and for the world around us. Hope provides impetus, not power and privilege. Times have Changed.

Master/Apprentice Teaching – Music teachers may trace much of our current teaching approach to pedagogical principles associated with master/apprentice teaching. In the context of Western music instruction, the one-on-one structure of master/apprentice teaching has been a mainstay of instrumental and voice teaching for centuries because it’s a very effective way for teachers to pass on what they know. Musically skilled and accomplished teachers take control of their students’ musical journeys. Teachers determine the curriculum, monitor students’ progress, keep students on track, and work diligently to minimize errors and detours in students’ learning. Teachers do everything they can to ensure students’ successful outcomes. 

At a first glance, that all might seem desirable. However, there’s a problem in that master/apprentice teaching perpetuates teachers having power/control over their students. While some of today’s music teachers may have modified the power/control dynamics with kindness, other music teachers continue to uphold its strict application as the assured route to musical success. That’s not to say there’s no value in teachers passing on their expertise or guiding students’ development – because of course there is. What we must acknowledge is that pedagogic relationships based on power/control do not synchronize with today’s social context. 

Times have Changed – In view of two centuries of social developments, the interweaving of understanding, acceptance, and care means that today’s teachers’ interactions with students look different to previous generations. At the same time, power/control dynamics may continue to have lingering effects on teachers. For example, teachers may use their understanding of students to sharpen their control. Teachers may forego acceptance because they’re accustomed to fixing students and reconfiguring students’ environment. They may think being nice to students is the equivalent of caring. Teachers struggle to relinquish pedagogic relationships of power/control.

To understand students well, teachers need to learn about students’ personal and musical interests, attitudes, beliefs, insecurities, frustrations, strengths, language, and the tools they use to study and grow. Teachers learn about students through the accumulation of spontaneous impressions, lengthy interactions, and ongoing conversations. Understanding who students are and how they evolve serves as the precursor to acceptance and caring. Without understanding students, music teaching may miss the mark.

Acceptance is all about teachers recognizing that students are complete persons with their own personal/musical outlook and influential environment no matter how limited or abundant. Acceptant music teachers support students’ musical journey in two vital ways. Similar to previous generations they continue to pass on the musical skills/knowledge students cannot find on their own. What’s important today is that teachers also welcome students’ own musical interests as the fertile environment for students to grow, fail, rest, and flourish. This means students’ musical journeys consist of teacher-directed and student-initiated explorations that may head in directions teachers cannot anticipate. Without meaningful connections to students’ own musical interests, students may feel like their exploration actually belongs to someone else. 

Caring for students may seem like a no-brainer because most teachers naturally develop caring relationships with their students. What seems significant is that caring spans an entire spectrum from advocating on students’ behalf to including challenges for students. On the advocacy side, teachers care for students by helping them to be successful and protecting them from excessive demands. Teachers guard students’ vulnerability and integrity. On the challenging side, caring teachers know when to push students out of their comfort zone and how to keep students from being held back by their own self-imposed limitations without compromising students’ emotional health and wellbeing. 

Now that I’ve got you thinking about how Times have Changed related to our current social context, here are a few questions for your attention:

  1. How do you feel about the past two centuries of social developments? Comfortable? Uncomfortable?
  2. What elements of the master/apprentice approach are part of your teaching approach? What elements may need rethinking?
  3. Understanding – How do you learn about your students? Long term? Short term?
  4. Acceptance – How do you feel about making space for exploring students’ own musical interests? What about moving in directions you haven’t anticipated?
  5. Caring – How do you maintain a balance between advocacy and challenging students’ musical journey?
  6. What makes you nervous about moving away from the power/control dynamics of the master/apprentice approach?
  7. What makes you excited about understanding-acceptance-care as a framework for guiding students’ musical journeys?