What an inauspicious beginning to the New Year. Just when many school music programs were starting to rebuild… and then Omicron. [Sigh]
There are issues in the world more serious than school music programs, of course, but, as a music educator, scholar, and parent, I cannot help but wonder about the pandemic’s long-term impact on “opportunity loss.”
I am grateful that my immediate family has been spared tragedy or other serious harm. Still, as a parent I worry that my younger daughter has very likely missed her window for studying music. This may sound trivial in the big picture, but it really isn’t.
Research points to the importance of learning, especially the learning of embodied skills, in the formative period of one’s life. Missing out now will negatively affect her involvement with music for the rest of her post-pandemic life.
Admittedly, my wife and I maybe could (should) have done more for our younger daughter’s musical education prior to the pandemic. We attempted piano lessons, but they were a struggle. Our younger daughter enjoys music, but she loves sports. Like many other parents, we were counting on the “social learning” factor that happens in middle school music programs.
When music learning happens in school (especially in the younger grades), it’s just part of the daily routine. As a result, participation is normalized. I’m not dismissing the value of individual piano lessons (or any other kind of music lessons). I am just pointing out that there are many adolescent children — ones like our younger daughter — who are averse to the idea of “lessons” in an activity perceived to be outside of or in conflict with their primary identity.
Despite being music educators, my wife and I do not aspire for our younger daughter to have a career in music. We do want her to know the joy of learning and making music with other people, however. This is, in part, for the intrinsic value of music, in part because we want her to experience a broad range of activities, and in part because an abundance of research shows that people are unlikely to take up skill-based activities later in life if they haven’t developed those skills in their youth.
Even though she identifies as a “sports kid,” our younger daughter would have participated in school music — because, as parents, we are confident that, as a highly-social individual, she would enjoy it because she would be learning together with others. And who knows: she might have enjoyed it enough to keep playing or singing right through high school. But that ship has sailed. Just like countless thousands (millions?) of others, she has missed that critical adolescent development window.
My career in academia has been driven by the many questions and issues I experienced during my time as a school music educator. Parenting two girls with diametrically-opposed personalities and skillsets has intensified these concerns. Specifically, my research examines the potentiality of various purposes for school music, especially as these purposes potentiality intersect with the problems of daily living. I have framed my larger research agenda in terms of leisure, a topic I explore extensively in my latest book: Music, Leisure, Education. The idea of “music education as leisure education” may strike some music educators as strange or unusual — but it is actually a really old idea (dating back to the Ancient Greeks, in fact). The book was conceived and mostly written pre-pandemic, but many of its themes (e.g., How should one live? versus How one should live) are even more salient in light of COVID-19. What is an appropriate relationship to work when you work from home, for example? What should/can one do with time free from other obligations?
Sales of at-home musical instruments apparently soared during the early pandemic phase. YouTube and other internet resources make it possible for “autodidacticism” (self-education). This is great news for instrument manufacturers. But I worry about this on two levels.
First, it feeds a mentality that says that we don’t need public music education because anyone interested can just learn on their own. While this may be true to a limited extent, where does it leave those without the wherewithal to learn new things without assistance? And where does it leave the reluctant learner (like my daughter) who might fall in love with a potentially lifelong interest if only given the opportunity in a social setting?
Second, it feeds a mentality of individualism. I am not discounting the social aspects of internet-mediated music-making (or solitary playing or singing) — but the reduction of all things to “personal choice” ultimately erodes the fabric of society and, perhaps ironically, personal well-being as well. Not surprisingly, research shows we tend to be happier when we do things with other people. For the Ancient Greeks, leisure was a social, not individual practice.
When music is taught socially rather than individually, it opens the door to not just the pre-disposed and the self-motivated, but to all those who are reluctant or who, for whatever reason, have never experienced the joy of collective music-making. When music learning becomes inclusive of everyone, it shifts from being a private or semi-private “good” to being a truly public good.
Moreover, when music is taught as a life activity rather than a school activity, people are more inclined to incorporate it into their “leisure lifestyle.” This has long-term implications because leisure is a primary source of happiness for many (if not most) people. While work provides happiness for some, not all work is personally fulfilling (and not all people work).
My hope for post-pandemic music education is that we not only rebuild what has been lost over the past couple of years, but, to borrow a phrase from south of the border, that we “build back better” by not losing sight of what makes school music education special and important.
Dr. Roger Mantie
Associate Professor, Music and Culture
Department of Arts, Culture and Media, University of Toronto Scarborough
Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto, Scarborough