Mind The Gap: Traditional and Non-Traditional Music Ed

Give A Note hosts weekly conversations about and in support of music education in our Music Education Matters club on the Clubhouse (iOS) app. People around the world join us to share their experiences and perspectives with music and music education.

During one of these sessions, we met Jen Rafferty, a music educator and author of A Place in the Staff: Finding Your Way as a Music Teacher. Jen is passionate about creating a more inclusive music classroom for all students, so we asked her to write an article covering our most recent topic, Mind the Gap: Traditional vs. Non-traditional Music Education. You can read her contribution below.

We hope you can join us for future conversations in Music Education Matters on Clubhouse. Our next session is Wednesday, March 24th at 6:30 EDT, where we will Celebrate Women in Music. See you there!

Mind The Gap: Traditional and Non-Traditional Music Ed

by guest contributor Jen Rafferty

I met Jimmy when he was a junior who spent his lunch period in the stairwell next to my classroom playing his guitar. At that time I had been teaching middle school choir and general music for 3 months in a 7-12th grade Title 1 school. Apparently, the acoustics in that particular stairwell were the best in the building, so that’s where he liked to play. I soon learned that he dropped out of concert band in 8th grade because he didn’t enjoy his trombone anymore. Jimmy’s dad played guitar, so he wanted to follow suit and decided to pursue his music education outside of the school day. So here I was, talking with a very talented student who was not in our traditional music program because there wasn’t a place for him. This was not just a missed opportunity for our music department, but a travesty. Our traditional programs left Jimmy (and who knows who else) on the sidelines.
For the purpose of this article, I will define Traditional Music Education as a director/teacher-led class or ensemble including Band, Chorus, Orchestra, Music Theory, and Western Music History. Non-Traditional Music Education is everything else. The gap between the two is necessary to explore, because that’s the place where you will find students like Jimmy. For me, the conversation surrounding Traditional vs Non-traditional Music Education leads to asking some really important questions of self-reflection. It requires looking in the mirror at the current state of your offerings and enrollment, as well as being honest about your teaching philosophy, and the vision for your music program.

Important Question 1: Who gets to be in the music program?

As a classically trained musician, I understand the traditional models well; that was my own school experience, and that’s what I was taught in college. However, the reality of my music program was blatantly out of alignment with my philosophy about music education. In my vision, EVERYONE gets to be involved, yet as I looked toward the high school enrollment where music was no longer required, I saw only 15% participation. I couldn’t shake the idea that our department wasn’t serving 85% of the student population. This was simply not acceptable to me. As music educators, we must provide opportunities for high quality music education for all students. I kept asking the teachers in my department the same question: who gets to be in our program? If we really believe that music is essential to a child’s well-rounded education, then we better provide opportunities for every student. I felt a strong sense of urgency as I continued down the path of creating more access points for our programming. Who gets to be in your program?

Important Question 2: In what ways are students already interested in music?

Music is the soundtrack to our students’ lives, and music teachers need to embrace it! I had to admit to myself that the music that I was offering (although I thought was super interesting) was not interesting to many of the students who did not take my traditional classes. In an effort to find some answers, the music teachers created a survey that went out to every student in their homeroom asking about the types of music they liked, and if they’d be interested in taking a music class in guitar, electronic music, song writing, etc. We needed to discover the disconnection between home music and school music. I started to wonder what I would learn if I paid attention to their interests. It turned out, the kids were really excited about learning how to play guitar. (Full confession – at that point in my career, I had never actually played a guitar before!) It was a scary thought, but I was confident in my abilities as a music teacher, regardless of the instrument. This vision was too important to allow my insecurities get in the way. There were students out there who needed this program to exist for them to discover their musicianship, which for some would end up being life-changing. I needed to align my actions with my vision so I learned how to play the guitar right along with them.
This question is consistently revisited. In 2021 there is an increased interest in electronic music, recording and producing which is now a part of the curriculum and extra curricular activities. Start to get curious about how your students keep music in their life outside of school, because the answer will keep your programs relevant and accessible.

Important Question 3: How do I provide accessible opportunities that reach all students?

For my students, the accessible opportunities started in that 7th grade general music class where I incorporated a large unit of modern band (guitar, bass, drums, keyboard). Because of the students’ newfound connection to school music, the program evolved as we added an 8th grade modern band offering, and a sequenced high school modern band program including song writing, recording and producing with a large element of community connection.
Of course, not everyone can create a modern band program, or a digital music class. The truth is, Non-Traditional Music Education can happen in Traditional settings; It is not only about instrumentation or genre. Non-Traditional Music Education is also a method and pedagogical technique of student-centered and student-led experiences. It is a way for students to take charge of their own learning in an effort to make music accessible and relevant for them. This teacher-to-facilitator model is a wonderful tool to inspire students to actively connect with their musicianship. It attracts students to music programs because they recognize and appreciate autonomy. So, if you are in a program that currently cannot add courses or extra-curricular opportunities, consider using Non-Traditional teaching techniques in your classes.

So, Now What?

While we “mind the gap” perhaps we can start to consider that the gap doesn’t actually have to be there at all. Maybe music education can be just that – an open ended, overarching discovery of sound, where students can be active participants in creating their musical identity as a performer, producer, sound engineer, guitar player, violin player, soloist, singer, composer, consumer etc. The challenge seems to lie in teacher identity and comfort. However, in answering those three important questions, perhaps the paradigm will shift and we can continue to look for ways to create music that is accessible for every student.

Meet Jen

Presenter and author, Jen Rafferty began her career as a middle school music teacher in Central New York. Jen brings her energy, humor, and expertise to all professional development workshops. She is known for her practical ideas and passion in her presentations while inspiring teachers to stay connected to their “why.” Jen currently serves as the Co-chair of the New York State School Music Association’s (NYSSMA) Secondary Classroom Committee, member of the NYSSMA advocacy committee, and is the President of Cortland County Music Teachers Association. She earned a B.M. in music education and vocal performance, a M.M. in music education from Ithaca College and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in educational psychology.
Jen is frequently invited to work with teachers and music departments about best practices and creating a unified mission and vision to lead to more inclusive programming. Additionally, in 2020 she founded Sing Together, an international virtual singing community of singers of all ages and musical abilities. Her most recent publication, A Place in the Staff: Finding Your Way as a Music Teacher, is available on Amazon.

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