Today I spoke with a young guitar student after her lesson. She's been doing very well in her lessons, and I felt it was time she found a group to play with. It's one thing to learn your lesson material, but it's a whole new ball game when you start learning to play with others. I asked if there was a group at school or church that she could play in. She said something about her school that was disappointing. There was one period in school that was for music. The band kids would go to band. The orchestra kids would go to orchestra. The "other" kids went to a music appreciation class. If her music appreciation class was anything like those I attended as a youngster, it probably didn't go a long way toward developing an appreciation of music. Ironically, every one of the "non-musical" students in that class played an instrument…usually piano, but there were some guitarists, drummers, and bass players. While the band and orchestra students went to play in their groups, the other musicians who didn't play school sanctioned instruments languished in a music appreciation class when they could have been playing in a band of their own.
How relevant is formal music education? (And I'm writing mainly about instrumental music here.) I'm too lazy to look up statistics, but I'm guessing music education in middle school and high school is not that different from it was when I was a student. While there are a few schools that offer an outlet for, say, young guitar players, I'm betting that the vast majority of them focus almost entirely on classical music and marching band.
There's nothing wrong with a formal music education. Although I'm mainly a jazz guitarist now, I came up as a classical trombonist. I'm very much a product of a classic, classical music education, and I have a degree in music education from the University of Illinois. I don't play trombone anymore, but as a result of my education, I'm a strong sight-reader (rare in a guitarist), I can sing most anything on sight, I can arrange my own music (and write it down), I can read a score, I can lead an efficient rehearsal, and I can conduct a band, choir, or orchestra.
All that being said, I feel there's something missing. I stumbled into jazz guitar on my own just a few years ago. I had taken a few stabs at learning guitar earlier in life, but it never took. Perhaps if there had been a guitar class at my school, I would have started getting into guitar in my teens instead of my late 30s.
Like other institutions, the world of music education changes slowly in the public schools. Schools should continue to promote classical music through band and orchestra programs. Classical music is wonderful and worth pursuing, but it's just one style of many. I hope that in the future, we'll see more programs that promote the performance of jazz, blues, rock, reggae, folk, bluegrass, country, Celtic, Indian, African, and the list goes on. While it's important to study the music of the past, I hope more schools will stay relevant by teaching the music of today. In other words, I wish there was a program that gave my young guitar player an opportunity to play at school.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.