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Imitation, Memory, Love: What Classical Teachers Can Learn from Music Lessons

For classical educators striving to “integrate the disciplines,” music provides an invaluable instrument of integration. Music studies harmonize with every core discipline of the curriculum: the music of various periods vocalizes the movements of history, the formal structures of music correspond to the formal structures of poetry, the theory of music applies principles of mathematics, the physics of music makes audible the laws of science. Music even bridges education’s theoretical and technical divide, as it can be both contemplated with the mind and practiced with the hands. And in addition to all this, music study as part of the classical curriculum has the unequivocal affirmation of no less authority than Plato, whose Republic makes it first and foundational to all further studies.

Yet, while many classical educators excel in integrating musical content in their curriculum, few have considered imitating music pedagogy in their methods. But this strategy would prove a valuable resource, for traditional music lessons embody many principles of classical pedagogy—both those that we have inherited and those that are emerging through the classical renewal. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of music somehow eliciting a pedagogy that is consonant with the nature of learning; perhaps it has to do with the fact that music lessons have remained largely outside the domain of factory-model school systems. Whatever the cause, as classroom educators continue conforming their pedagogy to classical principles, they might find helpful models in music teachers.

Consider the principles and practices that form a typical weekly music lesson:

(1) Imitation as the chief mode of learning.

Nearly everything that occurs in a music lesson engages the student in some form of imitation. To teach technique, the teacher plays something on the instrument and asks the student to imitate the precise way she plays it; the student is expected to observe and model fine details of hand position, movement, forcefulness, etc. To train the ear, the teacher often asks a student to listen and then copy, or imitate (either on the instrument or in notation), what the student heard. Even the learning of specific pieces of music is imitative: students are expected to learn music written by other composers, and thus, as they learn the music, they are imitating (in notes, but also in tone, dynamics, expression) the masters of music. Imitation as practiced in music lessons is thus complex and holistic: it engages students’ senses of sight, hearing, and touch as they follow both their teacher, beyond the teacher, the great composers who have written music and musicians who have interpreted it.

Contrast this with the typical writing lesson. Too often, a teacher explains a few rules or principles of writing and then asks students to produce a written work that conforms to those rules or principles. The student is left to guess, as best he can, what principles look like in practice—no simple translation.

If a musical model were followed, the student might be asked to copy by hand a paragraph from a great writer, then to observe the teacher taking the structure of that paragraph and filling it with different words and meaning, and then be asked to take the same paragraph and supply his own new words and meaning.

This is, in fact, the classical model of teaching writing. Replace “paragraph” with “math formula” or “chemistry equation,” and perhaps you have the beginnings of a form for teaching math and science classically as well.

(2) Personal instruction.

Music lessons typically pair one teacher with one, or else a small group, of students. It is easy to see how this is a more personal form of instruction than typically happens in a classroom. But personal instruction here goes beyond the teacher-student ratio to the nature of the learning. When imitation is the chief mode of learning, instruction is intrinsically personal: the student is being asked to observe and copy both his teacher and a master, and this creates a relationship in which the particular personality of master, teacher, and student are all active and interactive—unlike the distant teacher who merely dispenses generalized rules.

(3) Love as the goal of learning.

Music teachers often become close friends and mentors of their students—far more frequently and markedly than happens in a classroom setting—and this flows naturally from the personal and imitative nature of music lessons. Foregrounding relationship in education makes room for love, the goal of classical education as articulated by voices as old as Plato and Augustine or as recent as James K.A. Smith. Humans love particular things; thus, personal instruction cultivates love among teachers and students, which often spills into love for what is taught. And—back to imitation—love for subjects is also cultivated in the act of imitating. Just as it is Christian wisdom to act like you love your enemy in order to come to love your enemy, so students who act like their teachers and masters by imitating them more easily come to understand and love them.

Picture this in a literature classroom. Students often dismiss older literature dense and irrelevant, too affected or complicated to be worth the trouble. But when they spend time attempting to imitate a Spenserian stanza, a Shakespearean sonnet, or a Joycean stream-of-consciousness, they begin to appreciate and become excited by all that is happening through the complexity that they formerly dismissed. Perhaps the fact that imitation happens more often in music than in literature lessons helps to explain why most serious music students love classical music, playing or listening to it for enjoyment, but many (in other respects) serious humanities students never acquire a love for old literature that draws them to read it outside of class.

(4) Mastery, not a test score, as the proof of learning.

Typically, a music student is assigned one or a few pieces at a time, and these form the material for both practice time and lesson time until they are mastered. A music teacher is under no pressure to say, “Well, you’re still playing this piece sloppily, but we have to get on to the next one.”

Classroom teachers, on the other hand, constantly feel pressure to “cover curriculum,” moving on from one book to the next, one assignment to the next, before students have grasped the first with sufficient depth. This has no place in a classical model that strives to inculcate wisdom and virtue rather than curriculum—but the habit is so entrenched that it is hard to break.

(5) Restful learning.

Quite simply, when mastery is the goal and teachers have sufficient time to wait until students acquire it, learning is restful.

(6) Memory as the culmination and proof of mastery.

Recitation is no longer part of most literature courses; even standardized tests include tables of math formulas rather than expecting students to remember them; but in music lessons, it is still taken for granted that students will commit their work to memory. Perhaps the physical nature of learning music is what protects it, what keeps it conformed to the nature of learning, in this respect: when your goal is to play an instrument beautifully, your fingers actually have to acquire muscle memory in order to reach that goal. You simply cannot play an instrument well without memorizing its techniques, and in most cases, you cannot play any piece of music well without memorizing it.

Classical pedagogy also insists that, in order to live beautifully, learning must be taken into the memory—for a person thinks and acts from memory, and thus is in a sense what she remembers. In fact, the classical cosmology of the Harmony of the Spheres would affirm that the student is striving to harmonize her life with the spheres, herself becoming beautiful music, and thus the analogy of having to memorize music to play it well applies to her need to cultivate memory throughout her learning.

(7) Cultivation of respect and love for tradition and old works.

By now, this point has already been established—but it deserves its own mention. In its imitative method, in the pieces assigned to students, and in the culture of learning music, the great composers and their works are respected, loved, and kept alive. Classical education strives to cultivate similar respect, love, and vitality for the authors and ideas of Western tradition.

(8) Emphasis on sharing both the labor and fruits of education in community.

Very little of classroom learning is communal, either in process or product. Most assignments are turned in to the teacher and returned to the student; diligent parents who go over their child’s work might see it, and the occasional classroom presentation or peer editing session displays it, but it is difficult for a student to think of most of his schoolwork as a kind of giving to others. Indeed, the senior thesis puts so much strain on students in part because it is one of the few assignments of their whole schooling that is not private.

But the music student is always aware that what she learns should be—and unavoidably will be—shared. People do not take music lessons in order to play violin in their closets. They take music lessons in order to share the music, whether at recitals or competitions or concerts, whether at church or at school or in the home, whether before audiences or among friends. Not only this, but the process of learning music itself is a communal thing, for the student’s practice time is her family’s daily soundtrack. In these ways, learning music inculcates communal virtues such as generosity (through its goal of sharing music) and kindness, gentleness, and compassion (through the hard work of adjusting the what, when, and how of practice session to the family’s needs . . . no piano practice before 6am please!).

Classical education, with its long tradition of fitting the student for the polis (and, in the Christian classical tradition, the church), could learn much from the way that music lessons are so completely situated within community.

These initial observations could be teased out in more depth and with more application. Yet perhaps they are enough to suggest that not only music, but also musical pedagogy, should be held close together with classical education. Classical schools often already integrate music into their curriculum and encourage students to take music lessons outside of class; perhaps they could begin to encourage teachers to bring musical methods back into class as well.

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