Nothing fills me with more rage (yes, I used the word "rage"—it is that important) than hearing some well meaning administrator say, “Well, as long as the kids are having fun, that is all that matters. What is that? Who says that for any other subject, or anything else in life? You go to your dentist, he removes three teeth without anesthetic and you say, “Well, it’s okay, he looked like he was having fun.” Kids in math class can’t really do long division by grade ten, but hey! They had a blast in class. The answer is: no one. No one says that. Ever.
And yet, if music class is fun things must be going all right. The problem is, this philosophy undermines the whole nature of why we teach music in the first place. We teach a complex, powerful, and demanding art. It should be fun, but it should also be good. And by the way, it is more fun if it is good. Excellent music played well is worth every minute, hour, and lifetime of preparation.
There is something dismissive in the way “just having fun” is portrayed as a goal in music. It implies that the fundamental curricular material is somehow less important than students enjoying themselves. I know that students need to find the learning enjoyable, but they also need to find it compelling, interesting, challenging, and fascinating. Music students need to have the opportunity to see music as a deep, relevant, and powerful art, worthy of their time and attention.
When we see fun as the primary goal, we allow for poor performance, inappropriate repertoire choices, inappropriate or no curriculum choices at all, and weak delivery models. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that music education can be delivered in any number of ways. I am not a “classical snob,” if such thing exists. However, I believe that any delivery model or curricular program should be structured to promote individual and group excellence.
I have played in groups that play both poorly and amazingly well. I can tell you that the better groups are more fun. It is much more fun to play if the repertoire is great and the music compelling. Students, in my opinion, desire to be challenged. They want to see a goal and reach for it. One of the most wonderful collateral benefits of music is encouraging a desire to excel. When I speak to my students during rough or gruelling rehearsals, I talk of the end goal—the beautiful performance, the sense of knowing that we, all together, have achieved something wonderful. There has to be a way for students to know that the pursuit of excellence is worth their time. We cheapen that philosophy with a demand that everything be fun.
Now, if students hate every second of your classes and program, soon you will not have classes or a program. There is a reason why it is called “playing” music. It should be enjoyable. I look forward to my rehearsals every day, and I leave, for the most part, with a smile on my face. So do the students, more often than not. We work hard and we expect a lot from ourselves, and at the same time we enjoy the process. We chip away at the music and we dream big.
However, I also stipulate early and often to students that music is not always fun. Sometimes it is work. Just plain work. I feel like it is okay to be honest. If I have planned my lesson or rehearsal well, there will be a time for lighter playing, or confident playing, or some activity that reinforces prior knowledge in an enjoyable way to balance the previous work.
But to only aim for fun, well then, we sell the students short. They rely on us as educators to know the direction we are going and to light the way confidently. They don’t need constant fun activities. Fun activities might make our work easier in the short term, but in the long term, what we will get is a group of students who don’t know how to excel and are unsure of why they should take our subject seriously.
I tell my students, “This is serious business. The world has been changed by music just like you are playing. Don’t take it lightly. You are swinging a big, important, complex, and valuable musical hammer.” I want that hammer to ring true and passionate and authentic. Fun? Sometimes. Authentic? Always.