"I do not teach music. I teach children."
Music education, particularly at the elementary school level, seeks to help students develop their musicality as well as their social emotional wellbeing and discipline. Although I want students to grow musically, my primary goals as an educator are to ensure students are prepared to succeed in every aspect of their lives, whether or not they pursue music in the long-term. This means teaching skills such as self-control, perserverence, active listening, and collaboration, among others. Below, I outline these four primary skills in how they relate to music and how music education seeks to promote their development.
In all aspects of the music performance and participation, self-control is imperative. Students must be able to control their impulses with instruments, their voices, and their bodies, especially in an ensemble setting where every individual works with others toward a common goal or sound. In music class, we learn to use our "music bodies:" the postures and techniques that will be most conducive to our learning and performance. Students learn to sit tall, to demonstrate focus with their whole body, and to handle instruments with care and intention. Sound production with bodies, voices, and instruments can be impulsive or intentional, but the best ensembles are those that combine the two (consider, for example, jazz). As such, students' musical skills develop in direct relationship to their ability to maintain self-control.
Musicians, like anyone in any profession, rarely get it right on the first try. The notes they play may sound off, the music they right may not reflect what they hoped to create, and a song you eventually love may have, at first listen, sounded strange and inaccessible. Music takes work to perform, create, and enjoy to its highest degrees. Students learn about the relationship between hard work and good results through exercises in rehearsal and repetition, and individual or small group projects challenge students to work hard to align what they envision with what they produce.
One of the skills students - and indeed, all people - must master is the ability to actively listen. We often assume listening is a natural skill, but the natural skill tends to focus on passive rather than active listening. That is, listening in which you are engaged with what you hear as you are hearing it, and preparing to respond to it mentally, verbally, and physically. We use active listening skills whenever a teacher is giving a lesson or reading a book out loud, when a parent is warning against something, and, as adults, when a coworker or superior is describing a task we must complete. In music, active listening means listening to music not as a soundtrack in the background but as a carefully-composed collection of sounds with a message, a story, a theme, or an intent. Through activities such as meditative listening of instrumental music and listening turns for new songs, students develop the skills that help them keep their brains and bodies engaged even without speaking or moving.
In a world which increasingly values creative problem solving as part of a team, the abiity to collaborate is invaluable. Students need to develop the ability to work with others toward a common goal, and to make decisions, solve problems, and develop ideas with one another. In music class, students have numerous opportunities to work together in composition projects, rehearsals, and other musical endeavors. The idea is that in addition to learning valuable musical skills such as listening, practice techniques, and self-evaluation, students are also learning how to work with one another toward a goal whose definition may morph throughout the learning and collaborating process. What's more, because everyone's affective relationship to music is different, students have to work within and around each others' musical tastes and ideas while still respecting one another - a challenging task to be sure!
As an elementary school music teacher, I understand that the majority of my students will not grow up to be professional musicians. That is not the point of music education; rather, it is one more way to educate our children and nurture their growth as global citizens, to imbue them with the skills they will need throughout life no matter what interests and talents they pursue. At the end of their elementary music education, I am less interested in whether or not my students can correctly identify rhythms and notes, and more interested in whether or not they are strong, capable, respectful individuals with a passion for learning and the skill set to bring more harmony into their world.