Teaching Kids How to Phish
- By Andrew Duch
- Published on July 04, 2011
Every Sunday, we’ll feature an article by a columnist on the Headstash staff who will give you a personal take on themes within our scene, including anything from jam bands to electronica acts and environmentalism to drug reform.
Teaching Kids How to Phish
There’s an old saying from Confucius: “Give a man a phish and he will play for a day. Teach a man to Phish and he will play for a lifetime.”
Or something like that.
The state of music education in public schools has remained stagnant for decades. We teach kids how to read music and regurgitate it on instruments instead of teaching them how to listen, conceptualize and create songs.
Now I’m not suggesting we sit kids down in front of a 15-minute “Reba” – what I am saying is maybe we can better engage students in music education by teaching many of the tenants of Phish’s music: communication, improvisation, and most importantly, having fun.
Imagine if all you ever did in English class was read books and take multiple-choice tests. It wouldn’t be nearly as beneficial as having class discussions or writing creative essays.
History used to be about memorizing people, places and dates. However, schools have shifted how they teach the subject, instead focusing on concepts, themes and drawing parallels to our own lives.
Somehow though, music education has been left in the dust – evolving only marginally over the years. Reevaluating music education in our public schools needs to start now.
The standard curriculum in public schools has long been having a “school band” and “chorus” group. Students often pick an instrument in middle school on a whim, learn a few classics and then put the instrument to rest permanently in their attic within a few years (or months).
Instead of having kids pick an instrument at random, we should adopt something along the lines of the “School of Rock” approach: create compartmentalized groups of four students to play guitar, drums, keys and bass.
The focus isn’t on mastery of an instrument or memorizing long sections of composed pieces – it’s on learning the fundamentals of communication through music.
Over the course of a semester, the students would have to learn a number of songs – each student playing a different instrument for every song. Many music programs outside of our public education system already embrace this style of teaching.
The benefits are numerous. You will get more kids into the music classroom and wanting to stay if they have the opportunity to help select the songs they play.
Additionally, providing a format where students can produce their own songs and improvise within those songs will allow creative expression far beyond what is currently offered. While improvisation is embraced in the jam scene and the jazz and blues genres, it has gained little traction within mainstream consciousness.
Earlier this year, scientist Charles Limb discussed how the brain operates when improvising music in a TED Talk video.
The lecture reviews recent MRI studies that show how a person utilizes a very different part of the brain when improvising versus playing back memorized music. Areas of the brain used for self-expression and language are heavily leveraged during these improvised sections. This entire component of music is absent in today’s curriculum.
Lastly, the collaborative nature is far more engaging and entertaining than being part of a large ensemble like a school band. Developing a report with a small group of individuals triggers an exciting group dynamic that allows students to bounce ideas off each other.
Arguments can be made that there are some prohibitive factors. Perhaps we don’t have music teachers skilled in this diverse set of musical instruments. However, the music community is a passionate one, and I know there would be ample volunteers to step up to the challenge.
Music education is also being scaled back nationwide in favor of core subjects. But while music budgets are being cut, it’s not more money music programs need – it’s innovation.
And when we take a look at our public schools’ music curriculums, I think what we’ll find is that all we need a little more Phish.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. I’ll probably be eating my words the day my child brings home a permission slip to attend a music class field trip to “Super Ball XVI."