Why Curriculum Models Matter

By Merlin B. Thompson

Curriculum model: the sequence of experiences planned by teachers so that students may achieve proficiency in a given area. Music teachers use specific curriculum models to exercise and build students’ musical skills and knowledge.

Working with music teachers over several decades, I’ve observed how their choice of curriculum model influences who, what, and how they teach. When teachers select a specific curriculum model over another, they determine how they’ll guide their students’ musical journey in a way that aligns with their background, teaching priorities, skills and knowledge, and target student group. Curriculum models provide teachers with the flexibility to meaningfully address and implement strategies that acknowledge the current emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and equity. The following curriculum models are prominent with music teachers:

  1. Teacher-led curriculum: This formal, pre-determined approach guides student musical development from beginner to advanced levels. Examples include sequential series like RCM exams, Suzuki Method, and method books from Faber & Faber, Alfred, etc.
  2. Student-led curriculum: This model puts students in charge of their own musical journey. Examples include adult amateurs who retake interest in their instrument, experienced teens with adequate music skills, and beginners with strong intrinsic musical interests.
  3. Student-sensitive curriculum: This method is sensitive to students with special learning needs. Teachers typically modify an established instructional series so that students may progress through more manageable steps.
  4. Shared curriculum: This strategic blending of teacher guidance and student interests means both teachers and students have meaningful input, particularly in selecting repertoire.

What stands out for me is how – throughout the expanse of my forty-year teaching career – each of the above curriculum models has played a distinct role in my teaching. During the first two decades of teaching, I consistently helped my students achieve musical success most often through a teacher-led curriculum and when appropriate a student-sensitive curriculum. Then in the latter half of my career, my teaching shifted in response to events with students, parents, and teachers. Instead of relying on a teacher-led curriculum, I gradually moved to a shared curriculum as my basic operation and that – in turn – led to a greater understanding of how each curriculum model fits into the picture of teaching.

Why did I start out with a teacher-led curriculum? Simple answer – familiarity. It’s what I experienced myself as a student in a master/apprentice approach. Without giving it much thought, I continued with the teacher-led curriculum model that has dominated music instruction for over two hundred years.

Why did I adopt a shared curriculum as my basic operation? Simple answer – authenticity. A shared curriculum ensures the authenticity of students’ musical journeys.  Based on a foundation of trust, flexibility, and inclusiveness, both my students and I make vital contributions. This approach allows me to not only pass on my own musical knowledge and expertise, but also – and perhaps more importantly – build on and exercise what students bring naturally of themselves to their own musical journey. When we need to change things up with a student-led curriculum, or a student-sensitive curriculum, or a teacher-led curriculum, we’ve established the practical framework for how we’ll respectfully continue to work together. 

As you might imagine, these days the trajectory of my teaching looks quite different as demonstrated in the following student examples:

Janice: shared curriculum throughout elementary, junior high, and high school. 

Arthur: shared curriculum through elementary and junior high school. Teacher-led curriculum in high school in preparation for RCM exams and university music auditions. 

Peter & Gloria: student-sensitive curriculum in combination with a shared curriculum throughout elementary, junior, and high school to accommodate Peter’s physical limitations and Gloria’s mental development challenges. 

James: shared curriculum throughout elementary school. Gradually shifted to a student-led curriculum in junior high. For his final solo concert in high school, James sang and accompanied himself on songs by Billy Joel, Sean Mendez, and Ruth B.

Stanton: shared curriculum for two years in elementary school. From thereon a student-led curriculum in response to his strong internal musical interests and home musical context.

Why do curriculum models matter? Because each curriculum model responds to students’ wants and needs in different ways. When the curriculum model synchronizes with what students hope to achieve, we may anticipate a welcome outcome. Teachers confirm their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. When the curriculum model is out of sync with student aspirations, the consequences may be undesirable for everyone. Teachers may unknowingly maintain the top-down hierarchical control of students that goes against diversity, inclusion, and equity. Therefore it’s my responsibility as teacher to figure out what students need from me and what context they’re coming from. It’s up to me to create an environment where we trust and value each other, where students may rely on me for what I have to offer and I learn so much about their musical voices.

Suzuki repertoire & shared curriculum

I am a huge fan of the Suzuki Piano repertoire. I value how the volumes move from one level to the next with many ear-pleasing selections that showcase standard piano repertoire. I also appreciate how the Suzuki repertoire has more going on than the pieces itself. What makes the Suzuki repertoire work is the infrastructure surrounding the repertoire. Infrastructure like listening to recordings at home, hearing other students perform the repertoire in concerts, and exploring the repertoire in a group environment sow the very important seeds of familiarity and active involvement in students. It’s a lot easier for teachers to activate students’ interest in repertoire when it functions as a social commodity than when it remains isolated in a book on the piano. 

At the same time, I always want to keep in mind that the Suzuki repertoire doesn’t tell the whole story of music in my students’ lives. There’s another key element in students’ musical makeup—the music that’s part of their personal lives, culture, and community. All students come to lessons with their own musical background. No parents sign up their child for music lessons without ever hearing a piece of music. No child continues music lessons without ever listening to music outside formal music lessons. People are interested in music lessons because they already have music in their lives and want to do something with it. They have a musical life that’s more than studying with a teacher, which brings us to examine what’s involved when teachers incorporate the vibrant dynamics of students’ musical lives through a shared curriculum.

I admire a colleague who uses a 50/50 shared curriculum with her students. She chooses 50% of the repertoire, and students choose the other 50%. Her rationale is that if students want to learn a piece, there’s nothing she can do to stop them. And why would she want to? Isn’t the whole purpose of music lessons for teachers to help students so they can make musical explorations without their teacher’s assistance? My colleague’s shared curriculum strategy is impressive because she taps into motivation driven by students’ ownership of their musical journey.

Using a shared curriculum with my own students, I enjoy a blend of teacher’s choice and student’s choice across my entire studio, starting right from the very beginning. Knowing that I don’t need to rely on the Suzuki repertoire as the sole guarantee for my students’ musical development, I confidently insert students’ own choice selections as substitutes throughout the Suzuki repertoire. In this regard, I follow the advice of my undergrad piano professor – that all musical selections provide fertile environment for developing students’ musical fluency. Thus for Volume One students, I substitute every fourth piece with a student’s choice. For Volume Two, I use a pattern of two or three teacher’s choice followed by one student’s choice. From there on, we make it up as we go along. At all levels, I keep specific Suzuki repertoire to provide commonality in group classes.

I enjoy watching my students take charge of their repertoire choices. In recent months, my beginner student, Ashley, came up with her own rhythmic variation “Dolphins swim a lot.” My Volume Two student, Patrick, chose “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran. Senior student Spencer decided he wanted to learn to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and accompany himself. In the weeks following my annual Students’ Choice Concert, it’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm on students’ faces inspired by their peers as they add to their own list of potential explorations. 

By inviting students’ choices into their musical journey, students become very familiar with their own set of learning skills. Beginners rely on their ability to play by ear. Elementary reading students find resources on the internet or at the music store. Junior to advanced students explore what’s necessary to make pop song arrangements playable and sound like the original recording. Senior students find out that not all repertoire suits their personality or fits their hands—similar to the way we imagine that Elton John and Lang Lang tailor their performances to synchronize with their personal passion, technical competency, and audience interest. It’s an absolute delight for me to witness the emergence of my students’ musical voices in ways that I could never anticipate.

What happens when students choose repertoire that’s well beyond their current level of mastery? For me, this question indicates the worries teachers may have regarding students’ choices. And there’s good reason for teachers to be hesitant as students may need to be protected from challenges that are potentially damaging to their long-term technical health. When students choose repertoire well beyond their learning mastery, I’m always open to seeing how far they can get. Even learning one line of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” may be adequate and inspirational. Sometimes they get further than I anticipated. With my help, they may utilize more productive processes outside their own experiences. On other occasions, there’s nothing wrong with moving on to another choice.

My discussions with Suzuki colleagues across North America during July/August 2021 revealed consistent enthusiasm for the shared curriculum teaching approach. Some of my colleagues have already incorporated a shared curriculum for many years, silently keeping it to themselves while enjoying their students’ keen uptake. Other colleagues are excited by the opportunity to incorporate students’ choices without giving up the integrity of the Suzuki repertoire. Still other colleagues expressed how a shared curriculum matches with their own intuitive impressions of what their teaching might accomplish. With a shared curriculum, students benefit from the pedagogic structure of the Suzuki repertoire while expressing and exercising their own authentic musical persona; teachers benefit by establishing the awareness and trust necessary to move into student-led, teacher-led, and student-sensitive undertakings.

Honouring our shared humanity

Suzuki teachers do everything we can to ensure students’ musical journeys are filled with celebration and achievement. At the same time, today’s Suzuki teachers face questions that previous generations of Suzuki teachers may not have needed to consider. Strategies that worked in the past may need rethinking or even set aside to make room for new ideas. With a commitment to Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy for music and humanity, we may figure out how to extend Dr. Suzuki’s legacy with this generation of students, parents, and teachers.

My goal in this brief article has been to expand Suzuki teachers’ awareness and understanding of various curriculum models. These curriculum models are highly relevant for today’s Suzuki teachers because they present the practicality and flexibility needed to respond to the comprehensive and diverse musical needs of today’s students. My enthusiasm for a shared curriculum is immense, given its potential as the trusting foundation for moving in diverse directions that support and nurture what students bring forward. Each of the curriculum models presented here has its own unique role to play in cultivating the vibrant musical aspects that spring from students’ own resonant musical interests, community, wish lists, and curiosity. I hope Suzuki teachers will conduct a thorough examination of their teaching in order to take advantage of what each distinct curriculum model has to offer. My impression is that when Suzuki teachers value our students for who they are and what they do, they make important gestures about diversity and inclusion.

At the time of writing this article (April 2022), Suzuki teachers find ourselves facing the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic along with social unrest, environmental concerns, and an assault on world security. In a world where it often feels like there’s so much going on that’s beyond our sphere of influence, Suzuki teachers may well ask ourselves what can any of us do to make a difference. I can’t help connecting the turbulence of 2022 with what Dr. Suzuki experienced in the aftermath of World War II and his confidence that music could save the world. With music as our tool for teaching, our universal constant and enduring companion, Dr. Suzuki’s heartfelt call is timely. For each of us to stand up for each other, to be an active contributor to each other’s wellbeing, to fuel understanding and reflection regarding something close to all our hearts: honouring our shared humanity.