Get ‘Em While They’re Young: New Music as a Gateway to Classical Music

For many young students there is an ingrained belief that classical music is not a part of mainstream culture. It isn’t “hip” or “new.” They find it boring. But do you know what isn’t “old and irrelevant”? New music—by definition, no less!

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Over the past several months I have found myself in a rather strange position. Although my own personal background covers little on the topic of elementary or secondary music education, I have been discussing how composition can play a more active role in our K-12 education system. These informal—and, on one occasion, formal—discussions have led me to being selected as the California Music Educators Association (CMEA) Central Division “Higher Education Representative.” It’s a role which I am happy to fill, even though I feel slightly like an imposter. Still, there are reasons why I have found myself more involved in the “mus-ed biz” as of late. One large reason is due to the fact that where I work, Fresno State, is historically a teacher’s college. The overwhelming majority of students in my program are studying music education. So, even though my own education is from a more conservatory-style background, my almost ten years of experience teaching at Fresno State has provided me with some experience in understanding the state of music education within California. Not a whole lot, mind you, but enough to get by.

As for the nature of these aforementioned conversations, they typically revolve around how (or, more precisely, if) composition is being incorporated into the K-12 system. In order to be better prepared for discussing this with my fellow educators, I took it upon myself to research what kinds of materials currently exist for teaching music composition to secondary and elementary music students. It did not take me long to realize that there is an enormous amount of material available, and that any teacher interested in implementing music composition at the K-12 level needs to only do a little bit of surface research to discover the monumental mass of material out there!

One thing did strike me as a bit odd, though. I noticed when looking through this material that many of the methods designed to teach music composition focus primarily on technique, and infrequently mention the music from which those techniques are derived. Please note: this is not meant to be a statement of criticism. Any article, lesson, or discussion that is meant to inspire young students to write music—any music—should be encouraged! However, it is worth pointing out that much of this instruction seems to be designed through the careful avoidance of new music, focusing instead on either teaching no style, or instead on the styles of music with which K-12 students are presumably more familiar. This unfortunately may be teaching music students that there is no classical music being composed today, and that a modern composer only writes popular music, songs, or film scores.
One challenge to overcome is that for many young students there is an ingrained belief that classical music is not a part of mainstream culture. It isn’t “hip” or “new.” It is not the music they are interested in, and certainly not the music that they actively hear on the radio, on television, or on the internet. As a result, many young students simply “zone out” when presented with classical music.

They find it boring.

This often leads music educators to turn to other music as a way to engage their students. They use anything other than classical music as a way to get their students interested in learning about the subject. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching non-classical music in the classroom. However, the exclusion of classical music is likely having a detrimental effect, essentially reinforcing the perception that classical music is old and irrelevant.

But do you know what isn’t “old and irrelevant”? New music—by definition, no less! Whereas traditional classical music is considered to be old, new music is—well—new. If traditional music is perceived to be “irrelevant,” new music is quite the opposite, often directly reflecting current trends in our society. If students are unable to relate to Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, maybe they can relate to Missy Mazzoli, Steve Reich, and Osvaldo Golijov.

Frankly, we underestimate students when we assume they will not be interested in new music.

I will admit that this is a very bold statement to make. However, I have anecdotal evidence to support this. My wife is an elementary music teacher in Fresno Unified, where she teaches music at four different school sites, all of which serve primarily low-income students. Part of her pedagogical approach includes beginning each class with an example of music. Sometimes she plays something classical and other times something from popular music, but it is always something that she believes is capable of engaging her students. Not that it always does. Many times in the past, when she would play examples of traditional classical music such as Mozart or Tchaikovsky, her students would be bored out of their minds. The old perception seemed to be reinforcing itself: classical music is a style of music her students wouldn’t relate to, as it was not a part of their upbringing or culture.

Then she played Steve Reich for them.

The response was, in a word, astonishing. The students began tapping along and became actively engaged in their listening. They asked questions—questions!—about the music (which, in of itself is a pretty remarkable feat). Whereas Mozart was boring, Reich was exciting! It was new—something they did not expect, especially in the context of “classical music.” They wanted to hear more! Several times after my wife played them Electric Counterpoint, they asked for it again, even over popular music examples that she had played.

While Steve Reich might be a composer that we would expect younger students to engage with, what was more surprising was the response she received when she played them Pierre Boulez. Admittedly, the students reacted with confusion at first. However, as the music played they wanted to hear more. They wanted to know where this “crazy noise” was going. Once again, the music engaged her students on a level that neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky ever did. They became active listeners. The music was unique and didn’t sound like “stereotypical classical music.” Like Reich, her students asked to hear “that weird Boulez music” again—many times over, in fact.

My wife’s experiences introducing new music to her students reminded me of another story that I had heard several years ago, when I was still a student at Indiana University. My composition teacher at the time, Claude Baker, once told me of his own experience when teaching music appreciation during his graduate days. In a recent conversation with Dr. Baker, he recalled the story for me:

When I was still a graduate student at Eastman, I taught low brass, theory, and music appreciation at a settlement school in a predominantly African-American community.  In the music appreciation class, I tried to take a traditional chronological approach to teaching the history of music. . .and it was an unmitigated disaster.  The students (mostly high schoolers) were either apathetic or downright hostile.  After a few weeks, I decided to try a “reverse chronological” path, starting with the concert and symphonic music of the time (“the time” being the early 1970s) and working backwards…and the change in attitude was dramatic.  The students immediately became more engaged, more enthusiastic, and more curious.  Attendance and class participation improved, particularly when I drew parallels between current art music and the popular music to which many of the students were listening.

The parallels between my wife’s experience and Dr. Baker’s are remarkable. Both indicate that we are possibly missing out on large opportunities to engage music students with new music, and thus classical music on the whole. This seems especially relevant for disadvantaged communities, where classical music is often viewed as foreign.

So, if new music has the potential to be a way to better engage K-12 students, why aren’t we seeing more of it in the classroom? Well, the obvious answer is that few music teachers know enough new music themselves to bring it into the class (or worse, have their own biases against new music). However, we cannot expect the music education community to change in this regard without composers such as myself becoming more involved with the K-12 system.

We composers need to be advocates for new music in the classroom, presenting music educators with a wide range of new music literature. We need to bring minimalism, indie-classical, spectralism, and the current avant-garde to K-12 students. Granted, they may not like all the music, but it will certainly get them thinking about it. If we are to keep classical music relevant in our schools, it needs to be placed into a modern context. Music education needs to embrace both composition and new music.