Guest Post: Music Teaching from a World Traveler’s Perspective

Today I’m happy to welcome Elizabeth from Organized Chaos as my guest blogger. Elizabeth is a mother of two, elementary music teacher, blogger, and teacher-author on TeachersPayTeachers. Her blog, Organized Chaos, is full of great ideas for the classroom and amazing organizational tips for busy moms on-the-go. I first met Elizabeth through Facebook, and I quickly became a loyal reader of her blog. Since then, I’ve become extremely interested in her experiences living and teaching outside of the United States. I’m so glad she agreed to share her experiences with us. Welcome Elizabeth!

Hi everyone! I am so excited to be guest posting on The Yellow Brick Road today- I have been a long-time fan and I am truly honored to be here!

I have grown up as a world traveler. I was born in the United States, spent the majority of my childhood in Japan, and the majority of my teaching career in South Korea. Here’s a more detailed picture of my life thus far:

So two things: 1) I have moved a lot and 2) I have lived in a pretty wide range of cultures. I share this to give some background on what has shaped my perspective. Today I would like to share some of the aspects of my perspective that I believe work to my advantage as a music teacher, and hopefully give you some insights and ideas for your own teaching practice.

Lesson #1: Music is NOT a universal language
OK, so I totally get the sentiment of this oft-quoted phrase, “music is a universal language”. And in many ways, I agree with the idea that music can communicate across language barriers. Because it can, and I have experienced it first-hand. When I started in Japanese public schools, I could only say my name and birthday in Japanese. Music was one class in which I could participate- and that experience is a big part of why I am a music teacher today.
BUT I think this quote is misleading, because the idea that music communicates universally it not accurate. Different musical genres and elements appeal to different people, particularly across cultural and linguistic boundaries. To give an extreme example, let’s consider Peking/Beijing Opera:
I’m guessing most of the Westerners who just watched that clip are not having the same reaction that someone from Beijing would have.
I think it is important for music teachers to take this into consideration, firstly to stop spreading this misconception and secondly to help us remember that different students will hear music differently depending on their background. Even within the same culture, students coming from an urban background and those from a suburban one will have very different reactions to a rap song (to give a fairly stereotypical example). Having conversations with students to bring this to their attention will help you and your students be more open-minded to new genres and sounds. It is also a good conversation to have when you introduce a new style and students react negatively- asking questions like, “Why is it that you have this reaction while this group of people enjoys it so much?” and “What is it about your background that makes you react this way?” can really open up new pathways for thinking and expand students’ musical palettes.
Lesson #2: Music IS an excellent entry point for learning about cultures
There are so many things we can learn about a culture by studying its music, especially when we can study it authentically (more on that caveat in a minute). A lot of things don’t even have to be made overt through deliberate conversation and presentation- they are felt through the experience of the music. If, for example, a student from another culture studied traditional palace music from Japan, they would grow to understand the importance of subtlety, harmony, and deference in Japanese culture. If they studied the music in the way that it is studied in Japan, the student would also learn the importance of respecting elders and authority, attention to detail, and upholding honor. These cultural aspects are difficult to experience and deeply understand as an outsider without going and living in Japan for an extended period of time. Music is one avenue for providing some degree of that experience within the classroom. Music, by its very nature, expresses emotion, communicates a message, and requires participants to work towards a goal in a specific manner- usually in cooperation with others.

Lesson #3: Context needs to be considered when presenting music
Context, such as teaching method, costumes, language, accompanying activities, and performance environment play a very important role in presenting music from another culture. Why waste the opportunity to give students insight into another perspective and culture when you present a song? I know, I know- we can’t all be experts in every culture. But guys! We have the internet! There is a wealth of information out there that we can access through a quick Google search. Any time I find a cool-looking song in a workshop, textbook, or other source, I always do a quick look around the internet to see if I can dig up some background information. I have found that even in respected texts there is often misinformation. I have seen songs attributed to an entirely different continent in some well-respected textbooks! If it’s in a published book, chances are you can find a video or audio sample of someone from the original culture performing it somewhere online. Even better, you can often find out where and when the song would typically be used. Is it a funeral song? A stone-passing game played by children? Teach it that way. Is this song always performed with a particular dance? Sung at the start of a particular festival? Do the song with the dance or some of the activities from the festival.
I would also strongly suggest that you teach the song in its original language. I am fluent in 2 languages and conversational in 2 others, and I have learned the power that language has in communication. Even when we translate the meaning of the words accurately, some of the original “feeling” is lost in translation, no matter how well we do it. The composer wrote it to the particular sounds and cadence of the original words, so any translation is always going to be a little awkward. That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach students what the words mean, or even use a translated version, but at the very least, I think it gives better insight into the song when the students can hear the song in the original language.

Lesson #4: Learning about different cultures expands our worldview
I know I am being a bit demanding here with all my suggestions, but it’s only because I think this aspect of music teaching is SO IMPORTANT! We as human beings have so much to learn from each other. One of the primary benefits of music is the transmission of beauty in all its forms, and there is so much beauty out there to explore! When we as teachers take the time to give our students a glimpse into another culture’s perspective, no matter how small, we give students (and ourselves) the opportunity to expand the boundaries of their thinking. Aren’t we ultimately in the business of nurturing better human beings? People who can understand and relate to a variety of perspectives are a tremendous asset to society- and we have an opportunity to nurture that virtue. How awesome! 🙂
Get started!
Here are some great online resources to get you started incorporating musical experiences from around the world. The best resource, though, is a person with first-hand experience! Talk to your PTA and community programs; you may be surprised by how many people are willing to help you share their culture with your students. I pick a person who can share personal experience over a book or video any day 🙂
YouTube (by far the best way to find recordings of original performances of songs)
World Music Network (lots of great information and audio samples)
The World Factbook (good free resource for basic country information)
Wikipedia (of course you have to fact-check, but if you’re having trouble finding out information about a song, you can usually find something here, including links to original sources)
If you want a good lesson to get you started with an overview of music from several different countries, I have this lesson set in my TeachersPayTeachers store. I am going to be adding more in-depth units focused on specific regions in the future, so check back in my store for those or click the green star in my store to follow and get updates on the new products as they’re added.
Thanks for having me here today! I would love to hear your ideas on songs and activities from around the world that have worked in your classroom. Leave a comment!

One Response

  1. These are great points to be taken into consideration. How lucky to have some traveling experience. As I lived overseas myself for six years, I understand how difficult it really is to experience culture solely through music. Hopefully we can give our students a taste of culture and inspire them to learn more about their world.