Why Whole Music Learning? (Pt. 3)

Musical Thoughts

In Part 2 of this blog I discussed context vs content. Now I’ll get into some of the differences between my approach and traditional music education.

Whole Music Learning vs traditional music education
For many years my experiences as a performer and teacher led me to question how I was taught and, in turn, how I was teaching. Considered a successful performer by my peers, I knew I could play drums but I didn’t really understand the music I was playing on a deeper level. Yet I had a degree in music performance and had played dozens of styles from classical to rock. Where was the missing link?

Similarly, as a private teacher, my students would come to me wanting to learn drumming, but most showed little musical awareness. At first I addressed their needs by teaching stick technique, drum set beats and reading. Most of my students could achieve these skills, but only the talented ones played musically. Why did some drummers become musicians, while others were just drummers?

I intuitively felt that nearly anyone could be taught to play in a musical manner. It was much later, however, that I realized a priority shift was necessary for this to happen. In order for drummers to become musicians, they had to start thinking musically first and “drumistically” second. In other words, if you walked into your first lesson wanting to learn drumming, you’d become a drummer. But if you came to me wanting to be a musician, you’d end up being both.

It took me many years to fully understand this. In 1979, in order to organize my teaching materials, I began a drum book. Over the next 14 years it evolved into a reflection of the grooves and techniques I had used in my playing career. Then, in 1993, my studies with Dr. Gordon led me to question nearly everything. My year with him was so mind and ear opening that I could never teach in the same way again. I would never again think of music in the same way. I changed my entire approach to playing and teaching, making it necessary to start over with my book. I finally completed Whole Music Drumming in 2002. I continue to use it every day as the go-to source for written materials in my teaching, and it’s held up well for me. When I get around to revising it, I’ll change very little. I will, however, more more on movement and improvisation, which I’ve come to understand are central to music learning. More on these subjects in future blogs.

Through all this, my underlying realization is that traditional music education is deeply flawed. Traditional music education is more about content, less about context. It emphasizes reading and writing, and largely assumes students’ listening and speaking vocabularies have been somehow acquired previously. Even when students are given listening activities, these activities seem to emphasize appreciation over participation.

Whole Music Learning is about creating context first, then teaching content activities based on context. Listening activities are directly related to music participation.

Inclusion, not exclusion
Throughout traditional music education and popular culture, the message — especially for adults — is leave it to the professionals. Only the talented few are qualified to be “real” musicians. The line between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is more defined in music than in any other social or artistic activity.

It is within this environment that I labor for musical inclusion, in my work with babies and pre-schoolers, grade school students and for adults as well. Everyone can be included. Music is as accessible as language, as long as we present it in the same way. If we listen and speak music and movement throughout our society, the division will go away and people will be happier. And, if you take into account all the recent research on music and the brain, people will be smarter, too.

Rob Zollman

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