Have you ever attended a party where young children were playing in perfect harmony, then suddenly, an adult stepped into the ring and announced, “Okay, kids, now we’re going to play a game!”
And so begins the organization of fun.
The children are given instructions that need repeating, rules that can’t be broken; perhaps they’ve been divided into teams or asked to form a straight line and wait their turn—impatience set in. One team wins, the other loses, but everyone gets a prize. And you better hope they’re all the same because even though no one expected to receive novelty prizes at Jimmy’s party, Erin is now crying because she wanted the green bear, not the red turtle, and everyone knows Billy doesn’t make trades.
Can you imagine the outcome of a similar scenario where instead of interfering, the same adult says, “Hey, kids, it looks like you’re having fun! Can I play, too?”
With the best intentions, most music educators are dedicated to designing (or adopting) a curriculum that delivers results that can easily be measured. Students are placed on the rails of a token economy and taught that if they do something well and complete all their tasks, they’ll receive a prize, certificate, or advance to the next level. It’s a linear life, and although some thrive, many will derail. It’s a very low success rate in developing lifelong musicians because it doesn’t offer an equal exchange in valuing the interests of everyone involved.
And how interesting that we would teach a linear path to those participating in a creative sport. We should encourage curiosity, enthusiasm, and imagination through music by allowing interest to lead the learning process and celebrating when students take an active role in the direction of their lessons.
Students can decide what they get to play without necessarily determining what they get to learn. We still get to choose how to unpack and reveal the concepts within the songs they already know and love. It all stems from the emotional connection unique to the individual. Everyone can identify songs that remind them of favorite moments from childhood, family vacations, or any other special occasion. And just as our favorite songs can preserve those memories, they can also protect a learning experience so that it never escapes the student.
If you’ve ever completed a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, you know it doesn’t matter what order you assemble the pieces. Every connection reveals more of the big picture. But let me ask you this: Would you ever consider putting in that amount of time and effort if you didn’t like the image outside the box? Don’t you want to be excited about the goal from the outset? Aren’t you lucky you get to decide if you will stop building the puzzle and try a different one?
Maintaining too much control over the lesson experience isn’t teaching; it’s supervising. You might get away with it for a few years, but it won’t last forever—at least not for most students. As children grow older, they want to gain more control over their experiences. In short, they are becoming more like us. If we don’t loosen our grip, they’ll take the instrument, leave our instruction behind and figure it out themselves.
Ultimately, we want to develop long-term, meaningful relationships with our students—which some might call friendship. And the path of least resistance recognizes that the experience you provide is greater than the lesson you deliver.