Is a college degree in music worth it? The case for flexibility in music education. – Zelena Hull

Is a college degree in music worth it? The case for flexibility in music education.


Creating and playing music is an important part of life for many people. Often music is taught in universities and the instructors usually teach the way they were taught. This has created an academic culture around music and has slowly sapped the life out of university education. Music education is valuable but reaches its true potential when it is more flexible.
We have done the opposite of democratizing music education and as a result, many outside observers feel uncomfortable participating. Instead of music being something entertaining and fun we have limited off to a smaller group of people competing for an ever-shrinking pool of resources. This is a major cause of the stagnation in music education. “I worry that today’s university music major is more preoccupied with adaptation than adventure. Rather than understanding the pursuit of excellence as self-forming, I worry that the motivation to do something well arises out of a competition for scarce resources.” (Allsup 2014, 72) No one ever seems to be good or correct enough. “This divide is often nurtured in our music classrooms, especially in higher education, causing practitioners to feel the undue the pressure of perfection and spectators to feel unwilling or unworthy to make their own music.” (Pierce 2015, 2) Instead of our music appreciation courses being about creating and experiencing music they are just about the history of it.
The way professors teach is how they were taught. Stagnation of teaching has caused compliance among professors. This has caused an academic culture around music that is used to gatekeep. Pierre Hadot said it best “One of the characteristics of the university is that it is made up of professors who train professors, or professionals training professionals.” (Hadot 1981, 270) Many musicians are pressed to follow a rigid model set before them. Instead of classes being experience and discussion-based, students often read out of a textbook. Instead of following their dreams students are encouraged to follow the crowd. This has caused music not to be considered an important endeavor. It is rendered useless or merely a hobby. What good is music if it is only practiced by a few? Music is an important part of culture; it needs to be treated as such.
This stagnation in music education hurts all musicians, but it does negatively impact some more than others. Students with learning disabilities are disadvantaged the most. “Students struggle to memorize isolated facts, remember details, and pay attention and they might have trouble processing written or verbal information…poor spelling and handwriting, and difficulties with expressive language.” (Abramo 2015, 63) These students have a unique take on processing information because they see the world differently and make connections that their peers don’t. Not only should we accommodate them on a base level, but we should also engage with them. “Twice-exceptional students often have strong task commitment for projects and ideas that are meaningful to them.” (Abramo 2015, 63) We should understand where their interests lie and help them learn more. We need to understand our students for this to change, “Caring relationships in classrooms that include empathy can increase students’ desire to learn.” (Laird 2015, 57) This will ensure their success and help them gain skills for the future.
One way to fix our current predicament is to encourage change and challenge the status quo. Professors should be ever striving to create and experiment. The joy of creation should be something that inspires students to create without limits. Instead of a class being taught through a textbook students should actively apply ideas and experiment with them. Students should be encouraged to ponder the meaning of music and its purpose. The goal should be making their own work not just performing the works of others. There shouldn’t be such rigid paths in degrees. Students that take music classes for beginners such as music appreciation should not be taught the history of music but the purpose of it. The course could experiment with different sounds and instruments. It could explore basic music theory, tone color, diverse music of other cultures, and other interests. Students should discuss the meaning of each work they look at and ponder its purpose. What can they create? What elements make them inspired? “Our schools and universities need teachers and researchers who are comfortable with incompleteness, artists who possess the courage to work among and across competing boundaries, and skilled practitioners who refuse the theory and practice divide.” (Allsup 2014, 75) The same methods that we need to use to help students with disabilities are the same we need to use to shake up the music university industry.
Music education is valuable but reaches its true potential when it is more flexible. There doesn’t need to be a divide between different specialties within music. Helping those who need it most will help those who need it the least. Music is an important element of culture we need to take action to get people more involved in it. Creating and enjoying music should not be limited to the few, it is a fundamental part of humanity.
Abramo, Joseph Michael. “Gifted Students with Disabilities: ‘Twice Exceptionality’ in the Music Classroom.” Music Educators Journal 101, no. 4 (2015): 62–69.
Allsup, Randall Everett. “A Place for Music Education in the Humanities.” Music Educators Journal 100, no. 4 (2014): 71–75.
Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life (Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing,1995)
Laird, Lynda. “Empathy in the Classroom: Can Music Bring Us More in Tune with One Another?” Music Educators Journal 101, no. 4 (2015): 56–61.
Pierce, Deborah L. “Redefining Music Appreciation: Exploring the Power of Music.” College Music Symposium 55 (2015).