For The Music Teachers

Written by Max Alper

It is somewhat expected of each young and aspiring generation of artists and creative thinkers to reject the standardized norm in aesthetics of their time, the history of modern-day music being one such example of this circle of rejection and rebirth. We create new styles and musical means in critique of the archaic musical leanings of our parents and teachers. Ultimately as we age, our critical stylings become the established norm, and the cycle continues into our children’s generation. We must accept as young experimentalists that we too will eventually become the oldies, as will our styles of music.

And yet, many of our fellow music teachers often seem to feel immune to this cyclical nature of music history, specifically once we enter the repertoire of the 20th century in the Conservatory setting. After a decade of teaching in both the private and institutional settings, I’m starting to pick up on some personality traits and common experiences amongst my fellow educators. 

From my own observations, much of our own inability to teach both 20th and 21st century music repertoire to young people (newsflash: they’re not the same thing) stems from our lack of critical music pedagogy. Many of our teachers presented their pedagogical approach to us as the pedagogical approach. And many of us have taken their word as sacred, set in stone, and not something to be critiqued in the classroom.

If I had to guess, I’d say the majority of us teachers are in this profession due to our own experiences as music students. Are you conscious of who directly impacted your musical learning positively? How about negatively? We are always the sum of our experiences, good or bad, and yet we are conscious critical beings with the ability to learn throughout adulthood. We are the ones who ultimately decide what gets put on the syllabus this semester. Why would we continue the cycle that inevitably puts music education under the category of ‘museum studies’? We aren’t archaeologists, we aren’t even traditionalists by default, we are teaching artists who work with young people every day. We don’t need to become reactionaries in a changing world that can be scary sometimes.

I’ve had my fair share of both brilliant and absolute shit reactionary music teachers at crucial moments in my life. Maybe I didn’t realize it when I first started teaching, but these are the people who set the standards for me of what to do and what not to fucking do under any circumstances. 

You may laugh, but I will always toot the horn of local piano teachers in small towns. When you find yourself a good one, you hold onto them, I don’t care how old you are. My mom managed to snag me a good one in elementary school in the 90s: Carol. She was a special type of music teacher. She knew the best way to match the chaotic spontaneous energy of an eight year old student was through the musical equivalent of such spontaneity: improvisation. 

Carol would teach me scales in a traditional manner, grand staff in front of me and proper fingering accounted for. But in order to assess, she introduced me to the blues, something that remains embedded in my ears and fingers to this day. The blues at its theoretical core is a raw musical scaffolding consistent of one, four, and five chords, with the occasional dominant seventh embellishment. What better way to see if I had been practicing my scales and fingering charts than by asking me to improvise over an I-IV-V or i-iv-V blues progression? 

Suddenly it wasn’t just about memorizing what was put in front of me as the finished product, but approaching these fundamental chops at the keys as one would a toolbox. We could use these tools to make something that I, the young rapscallion, would otherwise have to be dragged kicking and screaming to practice on my own. Or, we could allow the student to determine what structure to build with these foundational tools provided to them and under the supervision of their teacher. 

As someone who remains a routine improviser to this day, I can attest that it was Carol who first instilled in me this fascination with spontaneous creative music, both as a performer and as a teacher. Thank you, Carol.

Through something as simple as a three-chord blues, I learned early on that my musical gut feeling is valid, and that I shouldn’t feel afraid to simply let ‘er rip even if there was nothing written on the sheet music in front of me. It wasn’t about Carol’s musical ideas, it was about mine. Putting the student in the driver’s seat and telling them to hit the open road with the teacher as co-pilot is incredibly empowering for aspiring artists. It shows a level of trust between both instructor and student, that a teacher is open to something presented by the student that even they might not have been able to come up with themselves.

From ages 8 to 15, I had the privilege of attending one of those artsy-fartsy creative arts day camps for the children of Boston suburbanites. The camp was structured like an arts prep school; campers could choose their class schedule based on their artistic interests, whether it be painting, music, animation, etc. This is where I cut my teeth as an elementary-aged performer, getting over my stagefright bright and early at the age of 8 by singing lead vocals for Nirvana covers in rock band class. 

It was the music department head, Aaron, who took a special interest in me early on. He not only pushed me to expand my knowledge and expertise in new instruments, such as drums and bass, but allowed me to come to classes with music that I wanted to play. Mind you this was 1999 when I first started doing this, School of Rock hadn’t come out yet. The idea that a music teacher could act as band director for a bunch of 8 and 10-year-olds who wanted to play Ramones and Outkast songs still seems revolutionary to me. 

It’s not that Aaron was still a young punk himself really, but he recognized that giving us  the freedom as kids to play the music we wanted would allow him to teach us fundamentals and his own primary skill sets as both a Jazz and classically-trained musician. We were learning the rules so we could break them. We were learning subliminal music theory through punk rock praxis. It stuck. 

It’s humbling as a teacher to admit the taste of your student may just well be out of your league age-wise. We’ve all had our own “Hank Hill Moment”, and that’s okay. It opens doors for you to actively learn from your students as they learn from you, forever students on a two-way street. 

For every positive experience we might have encountered in our music education, we surely have had to overcome the negative in the classroom almost just as often. High school is a fuck for everyone, there’s no sugar-coating it. If we ignore the obvious social and hormonal crises most will experience over these four years, we’re left with just as much of an existential panic for many teens as they look down the lens of their potential academic and vocational futures. 

Never in an American kid’s life is their future so potentially laid out for them than when it comes time to consider going to college or heading straight for the workforce. For me, if it wasn’t music school, it was nothing, no college for Young Maxy. I knew by junior year I wanted to apply to forward-thinking composition programs at a few select conservatories, so I decided to take AP Music Theory to better my admissions prospects down the line, or so I thought. 

My theory teacher, Benjamin, was a choir boy through and through. I had taken chorus with him prior and didn’t not like him I suppose. He knew I had some singing chops even if I was leaning on my more confident peers in the tenor section for guidance, but at least he was aware of my existence before I entered his AP theory class. Being a great ensemble director does not equate to a natural leader in the music classroom, however, especially for something as touchy as music theory. For a guy whose job was to inspire us to learn contemporary choral repertoire that was actually fun to sing, he seemed to have a difficult time bringing that same motivational energy to the theory classroom. Though who knows if it’s even possible to get high schoolers excited about theory in the first place? Who has time for these books, old man? I just wanna shred!

For Benjamin, theory class was about just that, the music theory, and very little music praxis. As in, what the music looked like on paper first, and what it sounded like second. But providing young people with a theoretical palette of musical gestures and zero context in which to apply them to their musical performances, or original compositions in my case, is a great way to get said young people to not only hate music theory, but to lose confidence in their musical abilities altogether. You want me to build the house of my dreams and yet you’re having a lot of trouble showing me the basic functionalities of a hammer and saw. What am I supposed to do with this?

When I would ask Benjamin “how could I apply x technique to more contemporary music approaches?”, he would respond “Oh contemporary music, you mean like Billy Joel?” 

When I would come to him asking “How can improvisation play a part in my compositional practice?” Benjamin would reply “Well improvisation and composition are two totally separate things, composition can only be done on paper.” 

What the fuck was this guy even doing here man? Dude was in his mid-thirties in the late 2000s showing how archaic he is to a group of teenage millennials. What could his excuse possibly be for teaching in a high school and having not a clue what his students were listening to on their second-generation iPods? 

The time came for me to apply to college for composition programs and I was quite literally failing music theory class. It felt like such a strange juxtaposition: I was being encouraged by composition department chairs I had reached out to apply to their programs based on the recording portfolios I had sent them. Meanwhile, none of what Benjamin was teaching me in AP Music Theory made any sense. Could it possibly have been that Benjamin was slightly out of his league trying to get his students interested in music theory considering how little he knew about contemporary music? No, that couldn’t possibly be it, right?

One day in early 2009, Benjamin spoke to me after class. “Judging by how you’re doing in my class so far, I don’t think it’s a good idea to apply to music programs right off the bat. It’s only going to get harder than what I’m teaching here, it might be worth considering other academic pursuits.” 

This broke my heart. It has to be bullshit Ben, go sing me a song, Mr. Piano Man! Thank god I didn’t listen to him either, I had enough out-of-class musical support to know his perspective was perhaps one of many when it came to how to run a music fundamentals classroom. I think I’m gonna need a second opinion, Doc.

Eventually, I got into basically all the composition programs I applied to, including the school he himself got rejected from at my age. When I low-key (high-key) rubbed it in his face, he genuinely looked shocked that I got accepted, and that affirmed everything for me. He genuinely lost touch with what higher music education institutions were looking for when it came to undergraduate composition majors. A fish out of water and not even forty years old at the time. I appreciate the experiences I had with Benjamin though, he certainly showed me how not to work with young aspiring artists who have their entire lives ahead of them. So thanks, I guess.

Looking back now, I realize the problem that teachers like Benjamin have is their inability to reflect upon contemporary applications of music fundamentals in their curriculum. Every theorist should know how to apply their writings and lectures to literal music. Every change in popular music trends amongst young people is an opportunity for a teacher to update their teaching materials by just being aware of what’s popping. You can discuss meter and rhythmic syncopation through hip-hop beatmaking. You can apply Baroque and Romantic harmonies and form to pop music. A piano roll in a DAW is just another form of notating the same 12 notes you would use on a grand staff, and it’s a great way to introduce notation for a student on their way to learning the Grand Staff.

Our job is to teach young people music, one would think it is also our responsibility to connect with them on some bare minimum commonality of discography? If a teacher’s gut reaction when hearing what the kids are listening to is to claim invalidity, they’re exposing themselves as the fish out of water they are. So aim to stay hydrated, keep swimming. 

Having a foundation in Western music theory and fundamentals while still acknowledging and utilizing the developments in popular music outside the conservatory in the 21st century should not be mutually exclusive. It’s not about whether you, the teacher, even enjoy the musical tastes of your students on a personal level. 

*Hank Hill Voice* Do I look like I know what a dang drill music artist is?

It’s your responsibility to find a way to apply your skills to new musical contexts. Make the music your students love make sense to them on a fundamental level. We’ve been using the same twelve tones for over 700 years, there’s very clear and direct bridges we can use to connect the old ideas with the new. Open your students' minds to foreign or more intimidating concepts through familiar ones that are already on their radar.

It’s important to also recognize the sociopolitical context of the music classroom. Western hegemony flows through every aspect of our education, and music is no exception. If you have a gut feeling of discomfort and unfamiliarity with contemporary music that’s popular with your students, that’s your problem, not theirs. We are taught Western Classical music as standard canon, all theories taught stem from the same twelve tones presented on the same grand staff manuscript. 

It seems that only through the invention of audio technology in the 20th century onwards that we’ve been taught to distinguish between the “fine” from the “popular” art forms. What can be listened to exclusively in the concert hall vs. what can be listened to casually at home? The democratization of recorded music by the mid-20th century presented the existential threat that music theorists and educators alike continue to find themselves in to this day. If anybody can make a hit record on a self-taught instrument and sell it independently, of what use is the Conservatory? 

The answer lies in the individual teacher’s ability to bridge the gaps between what is considered essential music fundamentals knowledge and contemporary popular and experimental musical practices. This technology-forward pedagogical mindset requires being someone who actively wants to engage with new sounds and apply them to their curricula. It requires showing a genuine interest in the tastes of your students outside the classroom, knowing fully well that learning is a two-way street. You need to learn from your students as much as you need to teach them. 

This is how the Conservatory survives. We redefine the timeline of what we seek to conserve, and we update our curriculum annually if not more. Standardization of Western musical ideas does not negate the need to constantly reflect, critique, and improve, and update upon our practice. This is how you keep our line of work relevant. You don’t need to be Theodor Adorno to recognize that we should approach standardized methods of teaching Western music through a contemporary lens of criticism.

If you think once you receive your terminal degree that you’ve reached your maximum learning capacity, that you couldn’t possibly need to acquire more knowledge in your career to keep your work engaging for those you serve, quit. There are better lines of work for stagnancy than the arts. 

Max Alper aka La Meme Young is a composer, educator, writer, and cultural worker. He is the cofounder of Klang Magazine and performs music under the moniker Peretsky. He currently teaches music technology and sound studies at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College and at New York Film Academy.