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EdTech & Design, Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices

Quality Music Education: Never Say Never

Why We May Be Missing the Obvious Connection

This is a cross-post of a piece that I also published on my personal blog, Teaching Out Loud. As arts consultant for a large Ontario school district, I believe that quality arts instruction can go a long way to creating the engaging and relevant environments that we want for all of our students. This is the first in a series that explores what is happening in terms of promoting arts education in Canada and around the world.


When my wife and I sat down with our two boys last weekend to watch the Justin Bieber film, Never Say Never, I suspect that none of us reallly knew what to expect. For my wife and I, it was a movie about a teenage heartthrob and, well,  just how interesting could that be? For my five year old, it wasn’t the movie that he chose as we scrolled through the Netflix menu and for Liam, my three year old, there was no apparent sign of animals in the movie trailer. How good could the film be if there were no animals?


We’ve now seen the film twice and both times all of us have been totally engaged in the life and music of this young Canadian musician.


For me, my interest quickly moved beyond an appreciation for just how talented Justin Bieber is to an appreciation—no, a fascination—for just how pervasive and important the experience of music is for young people. To see hundreds of thousands of adolescents (and my own two children) singing and dancing in ecstatic unison to the rhythm and melodies of Justin’s music caused me to think of several things.


First, if I had taken my own music lessons a little more seriously, perhaps I could have been on that stage at Madison Square Garden!


Second, music has always been an important cultural marker in the development of virtually every civilization, in virtually every time. It is a universal language of communication.


Third, music is an important, if not essential, element in both the individual and social lives of young people today. It has the power to draw them in, hold their attention and allow them to connect with ideas, issues and other people.


Fourth, music has tremendous expressive potential. Beyond the goal of entertaining others, musician-artists use their work to explore the world around them, walk around problems in a creative way, present solutions and new possibilities.


Yet, despite the universal power and importance of music in the lives of human beings, we spend very little time and money ensuring that our students leave school with an understanding of music, let alone an ability to use the language with any level of proficiency. Instead, quality music education, particularly in the earlier years of one’s schooling, is often left to chance, local resources, or the passionate advocacy of individual teachers or parents. While curriculum documents can mandate fairly robust music programs, effective implementation is often left to chance.


Students tell us how important music is to them every day of their lives. They come to school each day listening to it, sometimes two students sharing the same set of earbuds. They turn on their devices at lunch time to share and talk about the latest songs they’ve downloaded. And as they leave the schoolhouse at the end of the day, the earbuds once again appear, ready to accompany them on their journey home.


We often fail to see that the very language that connects young people to each other can provide us, the adults, with a very powerful way of connecting to them. And that’s significant.


But beyond the potential for connection, we owe it to our children to ensure that quality music education is part of our transformational vision of the 21st century school. You know, on the one hand, we talk so much about the need for engagement, for integrated learning and project-based experiences grounded in what is real and relevant to students. We talk about a meaningful place for the technology and for opportunities to teach collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. And then we ignore some of the most obvious ways of getting to those things! 


Music education, if done right, can contribute to all of this, and in a way that would have the students cheering for an encore. I know that and I suspect that many of you know that as well. I’m not suggesting that our aim should be to create more Justin Biebers. At the same time, however, continuing to sideline something that is so obviously important to young and old alike just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.


There are some jurisdictions around the world that are beginning to understand this and operationalize this understanding in very concrete and exciting ways. But before highlighting some of the practices and programs  that are beginning to emerge, I would love to hear your stories about your own music education.


In your own schooling, what was your experience of music? Did you have a teacher that turned you on to the power of music in your own life? Did you participate in a choir or band at some point in your school story? Perhaps you were one of the many who were advised to just “mouth the words” at the annual spring concert. Perhaps you had a love of music, but never really learned to put that passion into practice. Or perhaps you were part of a music program that changed your life and gave you the wings to fly into a musical career.


Your stories are important and always lead to further discussion!

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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