The privatization of music education has turned it into a commodity, and with students becoming increasingly addicted to instant stimulation and gratification, a pretty bad one
When I first started teaching piano lessons I decided to ask my 7-13 year old students to practice 15 minutes 3 times a week. At the time I worried that my demands were so low that I sounded ridiculous to parents. Since then, each week I whip out, polish, and refine my “why didn't you practice” speech for the 50+% of my students who either couldn’t do all 3 practice sessions or didn’t do any practice period.
For a while I chalked my students' failures up to kids being kids. Having ditched situationism after undergrad, I studiously avoided the “kids these days” ethos, keeping in mind that it has traditionally been the argument of (situationists notwithstanding) reactionary puritanists. However, my ambivalence towards “kids these days” was called into question after reading Mark Fisher's 2009 book, Capitalist Realism. Apart from being a moving critique of the sterile aesthetics and hopeless McJobs brought about by neoliberalism's triumph, the book is also a criticism of “kids these days”. Drawing on his experience as a college educator, Fisher argues that students are increasingly depressed, in large part because they are unable to imagine attaining fulfillment “beyond the pleasure principle”.1
Describing his students as “twitchy”, in a permanent state of “agitated interpassivity”, with “an inability to concentrate or focus”, Fisher complains that his students are not merely “lazy”, but rather lacking the willpower necessary to extricate themselves from the, “communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; [refusing] to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.” To illustrate his point, Fisher describes an interaction he has with a particularly over-stimulated student:
I challenged one student about why he always wore headphones in class. He replied that it didn't matter, because he wasn't actually playing any music. In another lesson, he was playing music at very low volume through the headphones, without wearing them. When I asked him to switch it off, he replied that even he couldn't hear it. Why wear the headphones without playing music or play music without wearing the headphones? Because the presence of the phones on the ears or the knowledge that the music is playing (even if he couldn't hear it) was a reassurance that the matrix was still there, within reach.2
The story of Fisher's over-stimulated student is eerie, and it made me think of the students who I teach that cannot get through their lessons (let alone practice sessions) without playing with their phones or fitbits. Fisher's persuasive writing encouraged me to dig deeper into the “kids these days” ethos, and what I found was a large body of evidence suggesting that in fact “kids these days” are facing challenges and are suffering in ways that are unprecedented.
As I mentioned, 15 minutes is how long I ask my students to practice for. It is also the block of time examined by researchers who observed the homework habits of middle school, high school, and college students in a 2013 study. The researchers found that in any given 15 minute period, students were spending just 65% of the time on work, and the rest on various forms of distraction, usually technological. “We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” said the director of the study, Larry Rosen. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices... It was kind of scary, actually.”
Further evidence of a generational crisis of focus comes from the advertising arm of Microsoft Canada. In the study—intended for distribution to advertising executives—researchers determined that the average attention span of Canadians in the year 2000 was 12 seconds long. By 2013, it had shrunk to just 8 seconds. As Fatima Bhutto wrote in The Guardian, “Goldfish, by comparison, can go nine seconds.”
In the foreword to the study, Consumer Insights Lead Alyson Gausby explained that far from being a cause for concern, declining attention spans are actually a positive sign for advertisers. “Today, multi-screening is a given, so it’s reassuring to know that multiple screens don’t reduce the (potential) impact of advertising. Since consumers turn to their secondary screens to fill in those inbetween moments when they might otherwise drop off completely, they’re more engaged overall and already primed for immersive experiences.” Gausby concluded by writing, “While these results certainly held some surprises for us, they are all good surprises.”
With kids “primed” by advertisers for the next, to use Alyson Gausby's words, digital “hit of dopamine”, their attention spans and their motivation for effort and self-discipline are in free fall. The result, as Fisher argued, is a major mental health crisis. 1 in every 5 children has developed a mental health disorder,3 and the Center for Collegiate Mental Health reports year over year increases in depression, anxiety, and academic distress.
The dramatic shift in student attitudes demands new approaches to music education. Practicing, for kids and even for professional musicians, is boring.4
As such, it doesn't stand a chance against social media and video games. If self-regulation is no longer working, educators ideally can fall back on parental pressure to provide the necessary motivation for practice. Research has shown that parental supervision of practice is one of the most important determining factors of a child's success on an instrument.5
However, hopelessly misguided parental attitudes towards music education often preclude parental pressure.
The issues of declining practice and misguided parents were discussed in American Music Teacher's 2010 article of the year, “Should Music Lessons be Fun?”. The article, written by music teacher Lesley McAllister, begins by noting that recent technological advances have made students increasingly reluctant to practice. McAllister explains that music is, “a serious art, requiring discipline and hard work,” and that if students are not going to self-regulate their practice, parents need to step in to make sure their kids learn how to approach something which requires real effort. The problem is, parents seem to be under the delusion that music education is somehow different from other forms of education. Parents routinely demand that their child's music lessons must be “fun”. McAllister responds to this notion by writing, “Most parents want to see their child happy, and that is really at the heart of their desire for their child to enjoy studying music. Of course, they want their child to enjoy school too; and yet, they almost never go to the math teacher at school and say that math lessons should be 'fun'.”6
The idea that the study of music requires no real effort seems to be driven in large part by the rise of private music instruction companies. As public schools cut music education services, families turn to private companies to fill the gap. The issue is that these companies do not care about education so much as retaining students. This means that they each compete to play off of parents' misconceptions about music being “fun”. Visiting the websites of DC area music instruction companies makes this obvious. On the “about us” page of B&B Music are the words “Fun is our Focus” in large bold font. Under that heading comes the sales the pitch, “Private music lessons with B&B are fun and engaging...our music students are excited about taking lessons because we make it easy and fun for them to learn.” The opening sentence of the description on the front page of Winterhalter Music Lessons reads, “Our students have fun learning to play an instrument in their home with one of our talented and enthusiastic instructors.” The website of the School of International Music claims that their teaching philosophy, “fosters a positive atmosphere for learning, progress, and fun.” The top bulletpoint on the “about us” page of the Bach2Rock website reads, “Learning to play music should be fun. It's called 'play' for a reason.”
In reality, teachers often work with more than one company at the same time (at one time I was working with 6 music teaching companies) and so the idea that one company would offer lessons that are more “fun” than the others seems a little silly. However, more to the point, cheerful statements like this belie the often gritty reality of music teaching. Particularly young students sometimes throw temper tantrums when it comes time for their lesson, and in general students frequently make for reluctant participants in what is often one of their first encounters with boredom and hard work. Because of the misconceptions peddled by the music teaching companies, parents now have unrealistic expectations for “fun” in their music lessons. They have little to no inclination to supervise their child's practice routine, and feel that their student's lack of progress must be the fault of the teacher.
To be fair, music can be fun, but there's no question that the real benefit of studying music is not fun, but rather the internal satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that comes from hours of hard work spent honing your skills in order to make art. I guess that doesn't sound as catchy in a marketing pitch.
If parents aren't going to supervise their kid's practice, and if kids have less and less motivation to take music education seriously, there is only so much music educators can do. With the rise of privatization, music education has become a commodity like any other, and when judged in terms of its ability to provide instant gratification, a rather poor one.
- 1Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? UK: Zero Books, 2009. 21.
- 2Fisher, 23
- 3Annahita Ball et al, “School mental health content in state in-service K-12 teaching standards in the United States,” Teaching and Teacher Education 60, (2016): 312-320.
- 4Woody, Robert, “The Motivations of Exceptional Musicians,” Music Educators Journal 90, no. 3, (2004): 17-22.
- 5Miksza, Peter, “A Review of Research on Practicing: Summary and Synthesis of the Extant Research with Implications for a New Theoretical Orientation,” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 190, (2011): 51-92.
- 6McAllister, Lesley, “Should Music Lessons be Fun?” American Music Teacher 59, no. 4 (2011): 16-19.