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The 21st Century Music Curriculum- Why Guitar?

In her keynote speech at Vision 2020: The Housewright Symposium on the Future of Music Education held at Florida State University in 1999, composer Libby Larson shared the story of her daughter’s experience playing saxophone in middle school band. “By the end of her second year in band,” Larson lamented, “the music in her was so stifled by the pedagogy of the curriculum that she quit. I noticed that almost every other musically gifted child also quit.” She went on to explain that, “More and more, our students come to us as individuals, passionate about music and hungry to investigate their passion. More and more, these students bring customized repertoires along with them and often these repertoires include music which cannot be examined or taught easily using methodology derived from the study of classical repertoire.” She concluded with a series of questions, the last of which summed up the primary challenge she anticipated music educators would face in the first two decades of the 21st century: “How do we reconcile our central curriculum, which depends on the Western notated tradition, with the growing need and demand for high pedagogical curriculum and standards for non-notated music?”

Larson’s challenge proved prescient; who could have predicted the rapid pace of technological development – development that has altered and disrupted both the way today’s youth experience, create, and consume music, and the ways teachers approach their craft? Eighteen years on, Ms. Larson’s questions–and challenge–remain; how should music educators respond?

In a 2016 article, Clint Randles, Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of South Florida, pointed out “Much of the music that adolescents listen to is created digitally and produced through software, keyboards, touchpads, guitars and drum kits. However, music in the schools is based on conservatory models of musical transmission with roots in Western European art music.” He goes on to argue, “Music classes do not offer what most students want to learn.” Indeed, as Rob Pethel discussed in his 2016 doctoral dissertation, recent research suggests that enrollment in band, orchestra, and chorus is in decline, while enrollment in non-traditional music classes such as piano, guitar, and music technology is increasing. Pethel estimates that there are 5,000 to 6,000 schools in the US that offer some type of guitar instruction, but, in many cases, the instructors responsible for teaching those classes have little to no experience teaching or playing guitar. Often, their challenge lies in developing a cohesive course of study that acknowledges the guitar’s vast and varied repertoire and pedagogical traditions, many of which exemplify those alluded to by Larson. Here are a few things for non-guitarist music educators to consider when developing a guitar program:

Image 1: Robinson Guitar students warm up prior to a competition in San Francisco, CA.

I. What does it mean to be a “literate” guitarist? Reading traditional music notation is an essential skill for guitarists, but playing single-line melodies at sight has limited application for guitarist; they must also understand how to read chord diagrams, and understand how to infer appropriate accompaniment styles for a given piece. Additionally, a significant amount of guitar repertoire is non-notated; students must develop the aural skills necessary to learn riffs and progressions by ear, and be familiar with and able to decipher nontraditional music notation system such as guitar tablature.

II. The guitar is a wonderful vehicle for teaching improvisation. It is a common instrument in both blues and jazz, and improvisation is an organic element in both styles of music. There are many approaches to teaching improvisation on the guitar; one approach is to help students identify “target tones” that are part of the underlying chord structure, and then connect those tones using scale passages and arpeggios.

III. Classical guitar music is beautiful, but it is only one tradition among a rich variety of music traditions that include guitar. While it is tempting to dismiss contemporary pop music as unworthy of inclusion in “serious” academic music programs, it is a good bet that most high school students were thinking “Miley,” not “Mozart,” when they enrolled in guitar. There are many musical skills that can be addressed by teaching students to play contemporary pop songs. In the podcast Switched on Pop, Charlie Harding and Fordham University Musicology professor Nate Sloan regularly discuss the hidden complexity of current pop songs; their discussions are a great classroom resource!

IV. The students who walk into your classroom are taking a risk! As a veteran public school music teacher with 27 years of classroom guitar instruction, I am acutely aware that the students who opt to take my guitar class have had multiple opportunities to study an instrument in school before they come to me, and they chose not to; for whatever reason, they chose guitar. It is my responsibility to reward that risk with a positive educational experience- to meet the students where they are- to be patient- and to validate any prior musical experiences and knowledge they have.

Image 2: James W. Robinson Jr. HS Guitar Ensemble prior to their performance at the US Department of Education.

V. Finally, as music teachers, we have the power to ensure that music will be a part of our students’ lives for the rest of their lives; we also have the power to ensure that the students who come to us leave our programs believing that music is not for them. I am convinced that the traditional band/orchestra/chorus performance programs, which have provided students with opportunities to experience the rich heritage of Western European art music through performance, will continue to do so far into the future. I am equally convinced that carving out space in school music programs for a new population of students- students who are interested in engaging with new types of music in new ways- will enhance our programs, and provide relevant opportunities for a new population of young musicians eager to nurture and feed their passion for music.

Featured image: “Music in the sky” by tanakawho. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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