The kids are alright. Reflections on music education and culture.

GRANTSOS
The author in his music teaching days, around 1997.

By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

Have you seen this video of the George Mason University marching band rehearsing Rage Against the Machine’s song Killing In The Name? I know the vid has been floating about for a while but I just saw it for the first time. If you haven’t seen it, watch it – it’s great.

Can you believe that song is 23 years old?  I used to teach my guitar students how to play this song when I was a music teacher, many years ago.

As a former music teacher and school music ensemble director I say “hats off” to the music director in the video for choosing such a great tune for the ensemble to play. You can see how much the band members are enjoying playing their instruments and getting into it. Many of those young musos will derive a lifetime of delight from playing an instrument because of the kick they got out of playing in that ensemble.

Now, I only ever taught Killing In The Name to the guitar heads that rolled up for lessons each week at my own private music school, the Strung Out Studios.  If I were to teach it at one of the high schools where I worked or to one of my school music ensembles back in those days I would probably have been fired. This is because the song’s original lyrics, if I remember them correctly, go something like this:

fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me

fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me

fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me

fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me

Motherfuckaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Even though the arrangement in the video is an instrumental version, you can be sure that everyone in that room has “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” ringing in their heads; hardly the lesson that Adelaide’s well-to-do private schools wanted me to instil in the minds of their impressionable young ones back in the day.

But that was years ago. Music teachers like the one in the vid shouldn’t need to worry about impending unemployment because firstly, they’re probably too popular and secondly, the musician’s parents probably love that song as it’s from ‘their era’. This is just as well, because regardless of what qualms people might have about teaching certain songs to young people, the important thing is that they enjoy and benefit from their music lessons.

I thought I was going to be fired once for what I was teaching a student during his guitar lessons.  This kid was the school trouble maker; he was twelve years old, a bully, doing poorly in his subjects and smoking weed. It was awful teaching him guitar because he wasn’t interested in practicing or learning anything. He didn’t like coming to music lessons because he wasn’t interested in what I wanted to teach. Then one day he came to his guitar lesson and he started mocking me, actually imitating what I was saying while bashing out sounds on the guitar. He made me really angry at first, and then I realised he was actually making music, singing and playing guitar at the same time.

I realised he enjoyed improvising with his guitar and words using his voice, so we stopped learning regular music and I started encouraging him to write songs, which he did, and did very well.

Mostly his songs were about the things he did for fun with his brother Bobby or how much he hated school. One day our lesson was interrupted by an alarm that turned out to be a fire drill. When we returned to our lesson, off the top of his head he improvised a ripping ditty called “I wish the fire drill was real”. As he improvised, I quickly wrote out the words that were coming out of his mouth and before long he had written a very witty punk rock tune and a song-writing duo had been formed.

He started enjoying guitar lessons and I liked teaching him. He was developing a portfolio of compositions, a fairly respectable body of work. He couldn’t be bothered learning chords or scales so made up his own; to me this was a sign of some real creativity.

A school concert was coming along and he told me he wanted to perform a song. We chose one suitable for a family audience at a school music concert.

I didn’t attend the concert, but I heard all about it the next day when the school principal called me on the phone.

“One of your students sung a song at the school concert last night and it brought the school considerable embarrassment” said the principal.

“Yes” I gulped.

“I have the lyrics here that the student sang, and they appear to be written in your hand”

“OK” I said

“Run, run, run… run around the house, chasing Bobby, to catch him”, quoted the principal, “Run, run, run…  run around the house, chasing Bobby to kill him”

I’d told the kid not to sing that one!

Nonetheless, the principal had in his possession the kid’s songbook that contained lyrics, many in my hand, about the school burning down, about killing his brother and smoking!

“These lyrics aren’t acceptable for a Christian school” said the principal.

“Sorry, it won’t happen again” I said

“Too right it won’t. You won’t be teaching that boy again!”

I thought I was sacked, but actually it was the kid who was banned from coming to lessons. History won’t record how the school tore apart the next Lennon and McCartney.  In hindsight I would have preferred it had the school sacked me and let the kid keep learning.

It was a real shame. Music was the only thing he was good at and he had a real talent for it. It was probably the only thing in his life that gave him any confidence.

There’s dust on my guitar these days, but working at the interception of business and culture as I do means I’m never too far away from my first love of music.  I learned something from teaching that kid that has helped me since; the importance of paying attention to the individual and valuing their desires and needs. Even though they’re coming to you, they don’t have to fit in with your ‘culture’; you can try to understand theirs and relate to them on their terms, going with the flow so to speak.

I moved overseas not long after the school concert so I don’t know what happened to the kid, but I really hope he’s fronting a rockin’ band somewhere bashing out I Wish The Fire Drill Was Real or Kill Bobby.

When it comes to music lessons, if they’re enjoying it, let them roll with it.

The kids are alright.

If you liked this post please click here to check out other posts about music from wherewordsfailblog.com

photo credit: Violin Class circa 1920s via photopin (license)

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