Music teachers: Have you ever been asked by a principal to “just pick up” a music appreciation class for your middle or high school to balance out the schedule? Many if not most music secondary music teachers have, especially in smaller high schools. And although it seems like a burden at first, music appreciation classes, also known as secondary general music, when taught correctly, can be essential for both a music teacher’s expanding secondary program as well as a lens for understanding historical content in humanities classes as well.
The key to understanding and planning a secondary general music class is thinking of the class as just that…a general music class. The first place to look for model general music classes is your elementary music teachers. A good elementary teacher would never consider having children learn about music from Ireland by listening to it and reading about it alone. Children would be singing, dancing, and playing Irish music. Again, while not done at the same level, high school students enjoy singing, dancing and playing as much as any elementary student-when done at their level.
Which brings us to the second key element: in a secondary general music class, make sure that you are teaching at the appropriate grade level state standards in music. This is tricky to differentiate, especially if you have experienced music students in the same class as students who haven’t been in music since 4th grade. Look for pieces that you can divide up by difficulty. In a Renaissance study, I gave my advanced music students a complicated counter melody, while my beginners accompanied with a drone or a basic “lute” (guitar) part. Because I had students performing quality music, and at their appropriate grade level, it was an easy sell to have the kids performing classical music-even for kids who had never heard it before.
Lastly, you must collaborate with content area teachers. Integration is an over used word in education, but in many cases, music can be the key to unlocking really deep understanding in specific science and humanities content. When I collaborated with humanities teachers studying the Vietnam War, students performed a rock opera in the style of the the Who, the Doors, Bob Dylan, and CSNY, using lyrics they wrote about the the radical movements in the 1960’s and early 70’s United States culture. The passion, drive, and deep understanding of the historical content in their humanities class could not be imitated without the music study.
Music is essential in our society, and it is time that music is made essential in a student’s education, regardless of whether they will be a lifelong performing musician. With a quality secondary general music class, secondary students, performers or not, will be our next benefactors the musical arts.