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Philosophy of Undergraduate Music Education

Scott Courtney, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
This paper will illustrate the need for a defined philosophy toward education and
leadership for undergraduate music students. It is commonly agreed that a clear vision is
needed for effective education, but the diversity of students and music programs make
one clear approach difficult for faculty. This paper will discuss that our world is in
continuous change and that higher education must assume the role of leadership in
preparing students for change. Concerns regarding realism, idealism, and naturalism will
be presented and will defend my mostly pragmatic approach toward education.
The student of 2011 is remarkably different from students of previous generations.
ome students may still fit the image of a traditional student, living in a dorm and
e!periencing life firsts such as freedom from adult supervision. "ther students may be
older, returning to college after a career, time spent with family, or military service. #
third group of students may fall in the middle, including those that have transferred
colleges or changed their ma$ors. %ach of these groups will posses different levels of
maturity and approach to academic work.
The undergraduate music e!perience includes a variety of learning styles and
curricular content. omething as simple as olfege hand signs utili&es 'ardner(s concepts
of spatial, kinesthetic, linguistic, musical, and interpersonal intelligences. # applied
music lesson can progress through all levels of )loom(s learning ta!onomy, allowing
students to evaluate and analy&e their performance, while also adhering to knowledge
based learning such as rhythms and musical competence. The result is a curriculum that is
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always in change, with no two courses, lessons, or musical selections being the same. The
college e!perience can become a confusing and overpowering endeavor for students, and
the faculty must assume the burden of leadership and guidance. It is our $ob to mentor,
develop, and prepare our students. *e must employ a philosophy that can address these
diverse needs.
# clear and articulated philosophy will drive our curriculum, syllabi, and daily
teaching. The writings of )ennett +eimer and ,avid %lliot have stimulated e!cellent
conversations on the importance of philosophy in music education, but have
simultaneously shown how diverse scholars may be in their approach to music
instruction. ,isagreement may be the prere-uisite of philosophical debate, but throughout
history, scholars have agreed on one thought. intelligent thought is the product of a belief,
creed, or philosophy. *ithout a clear philosophical premise, we must anticipate that our
curriculum, teaching, and student e!perience will resemble a wandering, mish/mash of
*hen deciding a clear philosophical premise, I mostly identify with the pragmatic
school. I believe that the world is in continuous change and that we must prepare students
that can adapt to change. This is not the philosophy I shared as a younger teacher. #s a
conservatory student, e!perts that defined and dispensed knowledge surrounded me. The
teachers prepared students to teach as they had been taught, providing specific musical
details on how particular music should be performed. 0nfortunately, these lessons were
only applicable to the precise situation. 1olst(s Jupiter sounds -uite different when
played by a beginning 2
grade band versus a conservatory wind ensemble. 3o two
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performances of music are ever identical and we must prepare our students to find the
beauty and $oy in each uni-ue situation.
The realist philosophy is dependent on e!perts that possess all the correct
information. 4odern technology has empowered individuals to create, absorb, and share
their creative output. The division between e!perts and amateurs has become
indiscernible at times, as the amateur video becomes a viral web sensation or a local band
achieves fame through social networking. oon I will have 5h.,. in front of my name,
thus -ualifying me as an e!pert on some level, but does that give me the right to proclaim
that another approach to music making is inferior6 *e must accept that the e!perts of
today may -uickly become obsolete tomorrow.
+apid changes in society also show that perception of the 7ideal8 can change. In
2009, our local ideal ensemble of the 1onolulu ymphony declared bankruptcy and
ceased to e!ist. The precise fallout has yet to be determined but the immediate
repercussions deserve mention. 5arents began to consider the role of string education in
schools, with some parents replacing orchestra in their child(s schedule with a non/
musical academic option. They felt it pointless to study an instrument without a future in
performance on our island. The 1onolulu ymphony cited a decline in tickets sales as a
contributor of bankruptcy. :or various reasons, they failed to attract and maintain both
patrons and donors. The musician(s union accused the symphony of failure to adapt to a
changing world. #fter 100 years of service, the 1onolulu ymphony assumed they were a
prominent and ideal ensemble in our community.
Idealism does possess many merits, but assumption is not one of them. Idealism is
a noble thought, with a goal of producing organi&ed, professional models for younger
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students to imitate. This includes older students leading by e!ample in the practice room
or through coursework. Idealistic students are often focused, driven, and organi&ed. The
same can be said for faculty, such as my conservatory teacher <oichi 0dagawa. <oichi
was a small =apanese man from Te!as who always wore a bolo tie, thus allowing all to
know he was a Te!an. <oichi was a definite idealist and would regularly yell, 75low hit
rock, plow keep going.8 I en$oyed his tutelage and my work ethic still reflects his 7plow8
approach. The problem is that sometimes the plow does stop, where progress seems
impossible. Idealism does not prepare students for adversity and change outside the
narrow confines of our mentorship. The 1onolulu ymphony did not reali&e they had
become stagnant, they did not prepare for change.
#nother philosophical concern is the role of discovery and natural e!pression
during the college e!perience. 5opular culture has en$oyed lampooning the
7e!perimentation8 stage of college, such as )ill Clinton(s 7smoke but not inhale8
e!perience as an undergraduate. 0niversities must guide our students in responsible acts
of discovery. This view may also be construed as protecting or shielding students from
perceived danger. 4y undergraduate e!perience was in a small Christian college with a
strict code of conduct regarding alcohol, se!, or drug use. >arger schools still have
numerous safeguards in place such as campus security and ongoing school sponsored
social activities. It would be na?ve to believe that institutions can fully protect students.
instead, we must accent that student development is the key to success. It is paramount to
help develop students that can respond appropriately to change, be it social or academic.
,evelopment activities in the classroom may include the chance to conduct an
ensemble or sei&e leadership roles. tudents are able to have choice in course selection,
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such as selecting $a&& band over orchestra, or choosing an elective in music history or
literature. tudent led chamber ensembles, study groups, or the leading of sectional music
rehearsals are all e!amples of self/discovery through natural e!ploration. I believe it is
essential to provide students these opportunities to discover and respond, while also
providing support and guidance in the process.
In summary, no fi!ed approach to higher education is truly possible. *e e!ist in a
world of change, for both student and faculty. "ne lesson may not work for all students,
nor may that same lesson work when repeated a year later with a different group of
students. 1ands/on, multi/media activities might be a consideration over traditional
lectures, thus re-uiring an overhaul of course design. "ur philosophy becomes a relevant
document for everyone, with both student and faculty committing to remain current with
The 1awaiian word imua means to move forward, to never resolve to the status
-uo. I adopt a pragmatic approach to education, believing that a river is always changing
and therefore we cannot step into the same river twice. This philosophy is -uite
consuming and laborious, but it is also time well spent as we move forward and embrace
the changes of our world. "ur philosophy cannot become a dusty document on the shelf.
it must be active as a driving force in our daily decisions.
:aculty must continue the search for truth, but we must also reali&e the
shortcomings in appointing e!perts. I have spent considerable time with different #sian
band directors and this e!perience has forced me to -uestion my approach to rehearsal,
pedagogy, and interpretation of music. #s a pragmatist, I have been able to focus on the
merits and process of their approach, rather than dwelling on what I perceive as fi!ed
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truths. This approach has allowed me to become the role model and instructor that I
wished to become.
Thank you,