Positive Music Education

This is my first post since A Street Music closed, and I think it’s going to be a good one! Unfortunately, we decided that it was in our best interest to close our storefront in Quincy back on July 1st. I had a wonderful three years working with our teachers and students, as well as Aaron Belyea. Aaron is still repairing instruments around Boston and the South Shore, and you can reach him at his new email address if you need your instrument repaired!

I decided that not having an education department to write about shouldn’t stop me from exploring music education, something about which I’m very passionate. Music education has obviously had a huge impact on my life. For one, I decided to be a musician. But in a larger sense, I think it was the relationships I made through music, the feeling of performance, and the musical achievements I made in my youth that shaped a lot of who I am today. So it’s fitting that my first post is about Positive Education in music.

In a book called Flourish, Martin Seligman outlines his theory of well-being. Seligman is the director of the Positive Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and through a few decades of research has come to view “flourishing” as having the following elements: Positive emotion, Engagement (or flow), Meaning, Accomplishment, and Positive Relationships. I’ve experienced each of these in various ways through music. However, that isn’t true of everyone who’s engaged in music, and that’s why I want to write about embedding positive psychology in music education.

Flourish, by Martin E.P. Seligman

Looking back at my older posts on this site, I think that, consciously or not, I’ve advocated for positive music education in student performances, lessons, individual practice, and in playing in groups. I’ve heard so many stories, especially from people in my generation and older, of dreaded piano lessons with strict instructors. Many of those students didn’t continue to play. I heard a “Fresh Air” interview with composer John Zorn recently. Zorn recalled his experience in guitar lessons as a child, in which his guitar teacher would not let him play any songs at all until Zorn could play a chromatic scale from the bottom of the guitar to the top of the guitar and back in under 12 seconds. Zorn tried hard, but couldn’t get it to under 18 seconds. What did he do? He stopped studying with that teacher. In Zorn’s case, he was so very interested in music that the experience didn’t deter him, but so many people seem to have been jaded by those early musical experiences. I had very positive early teachers.

Practicing, learning in lessons or classes, or rehearsing shouldn’t be all smiles either. Learning can be fun and rewarding, but it’s not a teacher’s job, nor a student’s responsibility, to be consciously having fun or experiencing joy. A teacher’s job is to guide students, to the best of the teacher’s ability, in the students’ exploration of and development in the subject matter. Warren Senders, an incredible musician, teacher, and mentor of mine, expressed that thought much more artistically: “a teacher acts as a guide through the wilderness of learning.” This concept is important because it helps me remember that each student learns differently. A guide has to help each student learn music (be it performing an instrument, learning theory, composing, improvising, etc.) in each student’s particular starting place. There ARE some students who love the structure that very strict (and maybe even cold) teachers can provide. There are MANY students who won’t respond to that.

So all students learn differently, and teachers should personalize their approach to education (especially in one-on-one lessons). Now let me get back to one of the “elements of flourishing” I mentioned above: engagement. According to Csíkszentmihályi, the founder of Flow Theory, engagement requires (among other things) a loss of sense of self, timelessness, intense concentration, and intrinsic reward. It’s during flow that students’ learning takes place; in a particularly intense lesson, a deep practice session, at a rewarding concert-going experience, or during a great performance. The wilderness-guide aspect of teaching comes through in his or her ability to help facilitate Flow for students. How does a teacher do this?

One way is to set practical goals that aren’t too easy or too difficult. If I ask a horn player (I’ll go with a student of my own instrument in this example) who’s only been playing for one month to learn a difficult etude, the student will not be able to concentrate because he or she won’t understand the goal. If I ask that same student to play a scale in quarter notes and in half notes, the student will be able to understand the goal. To make the engagement intrinsically rewarding, the teacher has to understand the student’s motivation for playing and amend the process of achieving the goal. That brings me to one of my favorite new activities: “What-went-well.”

In Flourish, Seligman introduces the What-Went-Well Exercise…

We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough abut what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well. 

In the What-Went-Well exercise adapted for music students, the student describes three things, no matter how big or small, that went well during their practice, lesson, or rehearsal. In addition to describing each good thing, the student writes why it happened, or what caused it. This can help students and teachers get to know what motivates students. Additionally, it promotes habits of identifying and “savoring” good things in learning. I believe that this will lead to greater engagement. Students will feel more gratitude for their own determination and to mentors, and may be able to start identifying their strengths.

While I could keep writing about the other elements of well-being theory and music, I think I’ll stop with this quote from Flourish:

“…human beings are [perhaps more] often…drawn by the future than they are driven by the past, and so a science that measures and builds expectations, planning, and conscious choice will be more potent than a science of habits, drives, and circumstances.”

Positive Music Education can take students where they are, and build character in students, helping them choose to engage in education (not just music education), and to expect achievement.

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About Justin Stanley, Teaching-Artist
I'm a musician and educator based in Boston, MA.

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