I believe that music education as we know it is changing profoundly. The change has already begun, and it is already causing bewilderment and frustration for a great many music teachers. But it is also creating tremendous new opportunities for thousands of music teachers and students who are enjoying their work more than ever. In this article I will try to explain what I think is happening, and give you some ideas about how to position yourself to enjoy these changes rather than become a victim of them.
You might wonder if I am talking about changes related to the Internet, computers or music software. But this change has nothing to do with technology. It has to do with the needs and desires of today's music student, which are almost entirely different from the needs that our music education system was designed to satisfy. To understand what I mean by this, we need to go all the way back to the European origins of our most basic ideas about what it means to "teach music."
For centuries the primary goal of classical music education was to produce orchestra performers capable of reading a piece of sheet music and correctly playing the composer's ideas. This is no small task. It requires both a formidable control over one's instrument and also a very high level of skill at reading complicated musical phrases on a written page. It also requires great sensitivity and expressive power, since without these the music would sound dull and lifeless.
This curious breed of musician unites several personality traits that are highly contradictory. He must have the precision control of a world-class athlete in order to execute the very fine motor skills involved in playing his instrument. But he must also have the extreme mental agility required to read and instantly decipher impossibly complex rhythms coded into symbols on a page. He must be sensitive enough to feel and express the beauty in every line that he plays, but he must be detached enough to play whatever music is handed to him without complaining.
This is the context in which our music education system evolved. The goal was to produce a kind of super-performing robot-person that could play any piece of music on demand and make it sound heavenly. The "customer" of this process was what we might generalize as the "wealthy audience" who wanted to be entertained. Music conservatories prepared young music students to entertain and delight wealthy audiences with their skills, so that they might earn a professional salary.
This "old paradigm" of music study is defined by a very clear set of attitudes. Musicians play for others. A musician's purpose is to delight audiences and impress other musicians. His success can be measured by the number of gigs he gets, the salary he earns and also the respect and fame he enjoys among other musicians. And every one of these attitudes is so thoroughly ingrained in our culture that we continue to teach music this way today even though it no longer makes any sense whatsoever.
The new paradigm: musician as person
Our entire world has changed. For the vast majority of young music students, earning a salary is the farthest thing from their minds. Today's music student is not a humble employee hoping to sell his services to wealthy audiences for money. People study music today because they want to fill a void in their lives. They are drawn to music by its beauty and by its promise of self-discovery through creative expression.
In other words, the "wealthy audience" is no longer the customer of our music education system. There is a new customer in town, and that customer is the student himself (and, wonderfully, more and more often it is the student herself.) Today's music students are thinking, feeling human beings who want to grow, to create and to experience life for themselves. To put it simply, we are moving away from the old paradigm of "musician as performer" toward a new paradigm of "musician as person."
In the old paradigm of musician as performer, the dominant theme was competition. People made a great deal of fuss over which children seemed to show "musical talent" and which ones didn't. If music didn't come especially easy to a child, then there was no point in making the investment in music lessons. And if a child did show potential, he would immediately begin a military-style course of study to develop this ability into something that society would value. Musical ability, in this paradigm, is essentially a commodity to be sold on the open market. If there were no audience, there would be no reason to study music at all.
And to be sure, there are still people today living in the old paradigm. They live in a world of perfectionism, competition and hostility. When they play music, they are incapable of noticing anything but their own technical defects. When they listen to the music of others, they are busy evaluating the technical performance instead of receiving the beauty. They are generally angry people. Angry that there are not enough gigs, not enough students, not enough love and respect for all their hard work.
But there is a new generation of young people who are discovering the thrill of playing music for themselves. They are discovering that there is a paradise to which music can transport them. They don't particularly care whether they play well or badly, because they have found something more interesting than their ego. They have found the bliss of being lost in a moment, meditating on a sound, a note, a musical phrase, a gesture of the hands. It is this experience that has captivated them, and what they want from music education is to deepen this experience. These are the students of the new paradigm.
It's easy to tell whether a person's thinking is rooted in the old paradigm or the new one. Take a look at some "old paradigm" questions. Have you heard any of these lately?
- Does my child have "musical talent?"
- Are my students playing at the appropriate level?
- Can I still learn music at my age?
- How can I get my students to practice more?
- Am I a good violinist?
Now look at these "new paradigm" questions, and notice how the person asking the question is coming from a completely different place:
- Would practicing music enrich my child's life?
- Are my students growing and becoming stronger people?
- Would I like to discover music at my age?
- How can I help my students to make the most of their lives?
- Am I allowing myself to enjoy the violin fully?
For the uninitiated, this new paradigm thinking seems to turn music into a self-indulgent hobby. If there is no spirit of competition or comparison with others, then how will we preserve values like discipline, hard work and the quest for excellence?
But that is a question that we will have to leave for another article, because I think there are many interesting things that we could say about it. For now, just let me assure you that this new paradigm has nothing to do with laziness or lack of seriousness on the part of the student. When young people discover the magic of music, they can easily practice so many hours that they run the risk of injury. What we need to understand and embrace is what motivates today's music student.
How you can thrive in the new paradigm
Right now, millions of young people are genuinely excited about learning music as an opportunity for enjoyment and personal growth. They see music as a way to "develop their creative side" and to connect with a part of themselves that they can only access through the arts. They expect their music teachers to empower them to write their own songs, to improvise freely and to express their musical imagination.
For many music teachers, this itself can be a cause for worry because many times we haven't the slightest idea how to help our students achieve these goals. For most of us, our own musical training was rooted in the old paradigm of reading sheet music, mastering our instrument and occasionally memorizing some abstract rules about music theory. So how are we supposed to help our students achieve a creative freedom that we ourselves have never tasted?
But don't worry. There's no reason to panic. Your students don't expect you to be perfect or to know everything. It's perfectly fine for both teacher and student to have a question about something, and to seek the answer together. Most students just want to feel that their teacher listens to them, respects them and sincerely wants to help them achieve their goals. You have many, many gifts that are tremendously valuable to your students. You just need to think about how to reframe your wisdom in terms that relate to the student's enrichment as a person, rather than trying to simply teach musical ability for its own sake, detached from any spiritual relevance.
And you can also take advantage of this moment to expand your own horizons, both as a music teacher and as a person. There are many excellent resources available today that make it easier than ever to deepen your own understanding of music. My own course in musical improvisation is open to absolutely everyone and you can find it at But there are plenty of other books, videos, online courses and private instructors out there that can help you to discover and enjoy the creative arts of composition and improvisation. These experiences can be fun, thrilling and deeply satisfying. And they will also help you as a teacher, because they will give you the resources to help your students to realize their own dreams.
I personally believe that we are witnessing all around us the birth of a new musical culture that is here to stay, perhaps for centuries. Musical ability for its own sake is losing its power to attract and motivate students. More and more, we will see music students interested primarily in their own liberation as human beings. In my opinion this is a beautiful evolution, and it is a very exciting time to be a music teacher.