Inspiration

By Walter Bitner

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In the contemporary climate of data-driven education, you don’t hear much about inspiration in the popular rhetoric about music education and its role and purpose in the lives of children. But in fact, the music teacher’s most important responsibility is to inspire his or her students.

Inspiration is difficult to assess and, if acknowledged at all, often gets relegated to the “socio-emotional learning” domain currently in vogue that assigns value to aspects of student learning that the behaviorists can only assess indirectly. For example, by comparing attendance or graduation rates among groups of students and ascribing the higher numbers that music students invariably accrue to the positive influence of what they experience in music class (in contrast to the attendance and graduation numbers of students who do not participate in music classes). From this perspective, music education is valuable as a motivation for students to keep showing up. Although statistics like this may be true (of course they are), they are not what inspiration is really about. Motivation is measured by results, but inspiration is more difficult to measure: inspiration is about connection.

Inspiration literally means “to breathe into” – the word comes to English originally from the Latin word inspirare through the French word inspirer. Inspiration is closely related to the word spirit– also originally from Latin (spiritus). Spiritus = breath, life force. To inspire your students literally means to breathe into them.

Yes, inspiration means breathing: it’s that vital.

The truth is that you can’t help breathing into your students when you’re in the same room with them – and vice-versa. Breathing is the continuous process of exchange with our environment that each of us must engage in to stay alive. When you share the same space with your students, you are sharing the same air – literally, breathing the same air together: breathing each other’s breath. This act of breathing together is a physical connection – breathing connects us to environment and to each other. Choral musicians understand this intimately – breathing together is fundamental to a choir’s ability to sing together – and this connection goes beyond breathing – research indicates that the hearts of choral singers beat synchronously as well. And if our breathing and the beating of our hearts move together, how can our minds not also be aligned?

Breathing together isn’t limited to something that only singers, or wind players do. When you share the same space with the same people, day after day, week after week, this breathing together takes on the aspect of a subtle and constant exchange between you and your students.

Inspiration and Guidance

Inspiration originally had a religious context: for the Romans who institutionalized Christianity, the Spiritus Sancti was literally the Holy Breath. The word spirit instead of breath in English retains an echo of this sanctity, and today we usually understand spirit to refer not to the tangible act of breathing, but rather to a more abstract notion that is related to soul, mind, or psyche.

In Middle English (the ancestor of our language that was spoken from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries) inspiration meant “divine guidance,” as in the kind of inspiration received by Jean d’Arc. The Maid of Orléans – a teenaged French peasant – led French armies to a string of victories over the English that enabled the uncrowned King Charles VII to receive his coronation at Reims in 1429. Jean’s incredible actions were precipitated and guided by visions of angels. She was captured by the English, convicted on trumped-up heresy charges, and burned at the stake in 1431.

Jean’s story is one of the most spectacular examples of inspiration as divine guidance ever, and it’s a reminder of the powerful effect inspiration can have, and the actions and events that can follow.

The Inspiring Music Teacher is the Inspired Music Teacher

Music teachers may not be angels, but our students look to us for guidance, nonetheless. If you don’t inspire your students, what is the bottom line for your work in the classroom? A measurable “profit” of skill and knowledge acquisition? Test scores? (e.g. a high percentage of students who win chairs in honor ensembles; ensembles that win competitions or receive high scores?)

Most students – especially those who choose to study music in school, which is the majority of music students in a culture where music is not a core curriculum requirement – are in your class to receive something from the experience besides a grade or assessable accomplishment. Most of us who pursue music do so for social, emotional – or dare I say it? – spiritual reasons.

Inspiration.

We all know this, but live in a culture that has turned away from acknowledging its importance in education, and so it is disappearing from our intentions and our preparations for what we bring to our students. Inspiration is rarely part of the discussion and training music teachers participate in when preparing to do their jobs, nor is it a component of how teachers are evaluated.

Yet… if you reflect on your own experience, it is likely that the teachers who made the greatest impact on your life are the ones who inspired you. These are the teachers you have the strongest memories of, and it is probably they – at least in part – who inspired you to become a music teacher.

Breathing Life into Your Work

The heart of the matter is that you can’t inspire your students if you aren’t inspired yourself. It is your responsibility, if you teach music, to find ways to remain inspired by what you do – to continue your own engagement in making music for its own sake. This can be a tall order in the face of all the demands made upon teachers today – but it’s crucial. It’s crucial for you to remain true to the ideals and inspiration that brought you into this work in the first place, if you are to give your students the experience they came to you for, and if you are to navigate the difficulties teachers face today – not to mention the difficulties of adult life we all face – and stick with teaching for the long haul.

Therefore, here are two important strategies for maintaining your own inspiration:

Make a commitment to continue to make music outside of your work in the classroom. This can take an almost infinite variety of forms. Here are a few suggestions: try one!

  • Participate in a community choir, band, or orchestra
  • Sing in your church choir; accompany, direct, or play in the praise band, handbell choir, etc.
  • Audition for roles in community musical theater productions (and play those roles!)
  • Continue to study your primary instrument, and schedule recitals, gigs, or other performance opportunities
  • Take lessons and learn a new instrument
  • “Moonlight” in a (rock, jazz, blues, funk, punk, country, hip hop, salsa, contradance, etc.) band – rehearse with your friends and play gigs

If you’re a musician, you can do it! Doing one of these to stay inspired should not be impossible – I have done nearly all of the above at one stage or another of my life.

Be careful of substituting professional association activities for this strategy – involvement in the competitive activities organized by your music education association may be of benefit to your career and to your students, but it is unlikely to provide the vital personal musical activity you need to maintain your own inspiration. You are human and your time is limited.

Attending concerts and performances is not a substitute for engaging in musical activity directly – as inspiring as these experiences can be. By all means engage in musical events as a member of the audience on a regular basis. But this is not a substitute for making music yourself.

As you grow older and accumulate responsibilities, and perhaps a spouse, children, a mortgage, or debt, you may find it difficult to maintain social commitments for pursuing personal musical activities. I know I have. This is natural. It’s not impossible, but it’s a challenge as you get older to keep the thread of this kind of musical activity going on a regular basis without the pressure of social commitments.

Choose repertoire for your students that inspires you. If you are a music teacher, the majority of your time making music will be spent making music with your students. It is vital that the music you bring to them – the music you rehearse and perform with them – is music that is meaningful to you.

I cannot stress this enough. If you rely on others to choose the music you bring your students for you – if you let textbooks, music education associations, publishers, administrators, parents, or the students themselves choose this material – you severely risk losing the inspiration that brought you to this profession in the first place. It is imperative that you choose music that is resilient and that you love. If you don’t love it, you are not going to be able to sell it to your students if it is music they don’t know and love already – and your job is to teach them what they don’t know. The long rehearsal process required for you to prepare your students to perform will extinguish any pleasure you have in performing uninspiring music before you reach the end of the process.

Don’t do it.

Choosing repertoire that will provide inspiration for both you and your students takes much more time than just consuming curriculum products that have been ready-made for the classroom. Yes, it takes more work! Don’t skimp on this vital preparation – it will make all the difference between being an inspiring teacher and being one who is merely effective.

The other important factor that makes this strategy so important is that it is likely that your job as a teacher will be very time-consuming. As you grow older and no longer have the seemingly bottomless reserves of energy that you had in your twenties and thirties, you may find it more difficult to maintain music-making commitments outside of your work with students. It is therefore crucial that the music you make with them inspires you as well as them – at times this may be the only music you get to make.

Music Is an Art

Despite the scientific methodologies that have been brought to bear on teaching and on teaching music, the practice of making music and the activity of imparting this practice to our students remain an art. Yes, many aspects of making music can be approached in a scientific manner, technology has been incorporated into how musicians make music since ancient times (a violin is one of the most sophisticated examples of technology ever developed), and science and technology can benefit our work in many ways.

But fundamentally, the work you do in class, the handing down what you received from your teachers to your students in turn, the passing on and sharing of this vital breath of inspiration – this cannot be measured nor found in the balance sheet approach to evaluation our society has foisted on us.

Find the best ways you can to continually deepen your own practice as a musician and remain inspired, so that you can continue to pass this on to those in your care.

Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as director of education & community engagement for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about music and education on his blog Off the Podium at walterbitner.com.

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