Music for Music’s Sake

Music for Music's Sake video image

This television commercial aired a few years back touting the 21st century progressiveness of a communications company. In the background Gene Wilder is singing “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The announcer explains that when we were five years old, anything was possible. Visually, child-like crayon images illustrate the wonderment of a child’s mind and there’s an implied message that as we get older, we lose this ability to be expressive and see the world with amazement.

The commercial really made me think about the young students that join band. From the first day of instruction, they desperately want to experience the wonderment of music-making. They begin their musical journey with the same creativity and giddiness of a five-year-old. The question is whether or not somewhere along their musical journey, they lose the passion and energy that they brought to the table from the start. What we hope happens over time is that they will have an appreciation for music, continue playing their instruments, and will resonate with music for the rest of their lives. What happens in between should be a world of self-discovery through the act of making music.

In this day of budget cuts, where most arts agencies find themselves on the proverbial chopping block, it is really important that we be able to communicate to parents, administrators, business leaders and school board members why the study of music is so important. Many times when we think of advocacy, we begin to quote how the study of music increases SAT scores and improves problem solving, reading comprehension, motor proficiency, spatial awareness, and listening skills. Sometimes, we quote research studies about cognition, where scientists have proven that the study of music actually causes one to use more of the brain. All of these studies are valuable and we should freely use them to defend our cause. However, they don’t necessarily explain why music making is so important.

Is Music an Activity?

The most dangerous label that I see associated with the study of music is that it’s an “activity.” This is especially true in the public school climate where administrators see the arts in the same manner as extra-curricular activities or driver’s ed. We must be able to defend why we are part of the core curriculum and why we are necessary. Furthermore, we need to be able to clearly articulate the study of music for music’s sake.

What is it that music does for the soul that other pursuits can’t do? How does communicating through the language of music change a person? When you hear Irish Tune from County Derry, the second movement of the Persichetti Symphony for Band, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, or Eric Whitacre’s Water Night, why does the music itself stop you in your tracks and cause you to experience emotions and feelings that go to the very core of the soul. How does music intuitively cause you to move, dance, and interpret?

The first time I heard a live performance by the Chicago Symphony, they performed Mahler’s First Symphony. That experienced transformed me as a person, changed the way I heard music, and made me passionately pursue a career in music. Do we go out of our way to share with our students the experiences that changed us musically?

For Rehearsal

In a practical, real-world application, do the following at your ensemble’s next rehearsal:

  • Play to and away from arrival points and seek to discover what the music is intuitively asking you to express
  • Reduce the vertical “impulses” and create long lines for phrase shape; no audience has ever heard a barline
  • Discover suspensions, note weighting, and the concept of tension/release
  • Ask your students to expressively improvise slow, melodic, eight-measure songs
  • Sing or play slow, melodic phrases to your students for them to play back using “call and response”
  • Sit down at the piano and improvise for your students

I recently had a person tell me that the reason we don’t use the music for music’s sake argument in advocacy is because it’s not definable. Well…. I disagree. We better start figuring out ways to define it or we may be out the door with the “activities.”

Music is intrinsic and in every individual; it is connected to the human spirit and the imaginative mind. The study of music actively engages students in the creative process. Each rehearsal, students have the chance to explore and investigate new ways of artistically stating who they are and what they feel. Music can only be explained by music, but it is definable and it makes life richer and fuller for those that experience it and listen to it.

As you tenaciously pursue the perfection of the components of playing, never forget that it’s a means to an end … making music with your students so that the process is artistic and they are deemed artists.

George Szell once stated:

“When you start going into every phrase and search for the maximum content that can be conveyed without distortion or gratuitous underlining, you are probing further into the heart of the music and touching the composer himself.”

scott_rush 300Scott Rush is the Director of Fine and Performing Arts for Dorchester School District Two in South Carolina. Prior to that appointment, he was Director of Bands at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina for 15 years. He is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he received a Master of Music degree in French Horn Performance. Under his direction, the Wando Symphonic Band performed at the 2007 Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, Illinois. In 2008, the Wando Band program received the prestigious Sudler Flag of Honor by the John Philip Sousa Foundation.

Mr. Rush is active as a clinician and adjudicator and has presented workshops for various universities, school districts, and conferences throughout the United States and Canada. He is the author or co-author of six highly touted books published by GIA Publications. They are: “Habits of a Successful Band Director,” “The Evolution of a Successful Band Director,” “Habits of a Successful Musician,” “Habits of a Successful Middle School Band Director,” “Habits of a Successful String Musician,” and “Quality of Life Habits of a Successful Band Director.” He has been the recipient of the National Band Association’s Citation of Excellence on five occasions and is a former board member of the NBA. In 2010, Mr. Rush was elected into the prestigious American Bandmasters Association and in 2015 was elected into the South Carolina Band Directors Association Hall of Fame.

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