The future of music starts with the musical greats of the past. Music educators are often passionate about music history. They’re fascinated by the progression of music over time because they recognize that the progression of music is the progression of both society and the self. They’re also forever curious about the ways that music intertwines with culture to both reflect and influence the times. However, finding ways to integrate music history into music education can be challenging.
Students aren’t always receptive to “book work” once they’ve signed up to learn how to play instruments, read music and write music. However, being a great musician in practice comes down to understanding the roots of your craft. This is where having some helpful tips up your sleeve for creating an immersive learning experience that blends active learning with historical lessons becomes helpful! Take a look at five tips for implementing music history into your piano lessons.
Why History Belongs in a Piano Lesson
“The skillful melding of music and history in the classroom enables students to immerse themselves and imagine themselves within the periods under discussion,” according to the American Historical Association. This is nothing new to piano teachers. Great piano teachers intuitively teach the history buried in every note. Yes, learning the history of any subject you’re trying to gain expertise in is important for students in all disciplines. It’s especially important for budding piano players for some very specific reasons. Here’s a look at how music history enhances the experience for piano students:
- It Creates Holistic Musicians: Music is culture. Piano players need to grasp that they are stepping into a very important role. They aren’t just playing notes! Every piano player is telling the stories that came before them. Exposure to the histories of various songs and genres helps students to appreciate the evolution of the medium. What’s more, students struggling with one genre may find a spark when studying different eras of music.
- It Provides Opportunities for Imitation: The past provides inspiration! History lessons give students “access” to musicians that will inspire them.
- It Humanizes Great Musicians From the Past: It’s common for piano students to put great musicians from the past on pedestals. They may feel like they can never reach the levels of their idols because their idols weren’t real people with flaws. History lessons that include biographies of great musicians from the past help to show budding piano players that the people we call great today faced defeat and discouragement in their day.
- It Provides Context for the Music Being Played: It’s easy to feel disconnected when playing pieces that are hundreds of years old! Giving students context through historical study of music helps them to attach meaning to the music they are playing. This creates the opportunity for students to relate pieces to the things they are experiencing in modern life. It can also help them to discover “why” certain pieces are so celebrated.
- It Reveals How Music Was Intended to Be Played: History lessons can help students connect with the purpose of music. Understanding the reason for music can help students to understand how it is intended to be played.
- It Helps to Build an Understanding of How Patterns and Trends Are Created: Music history teaches students about the circumstances and movements that inspired different songs. It can also help them to understand the factors behind why certain songs were able to rise in relevance and popularity.
- It Helps to Develop Critical and Cognitive Thinking: Bringing history into music lessons helps to create critical thinkers.
It’s obvious why integrating history into music education is important. However, piano teachers often wonder how to smoothly integrate this kind of learning into their lessons without feeling like they are taking time away from traditional lessons. Take a look at easy tips for bringing history and practical instruction into harmony.
1. Make Music History a Topic Every Week
You don’t necessarily have to take up large amounts of classroom time to integrate music history into the classroom. Consider short homework assignments that ask students to do independent research. The method is actually very simple. First, assign students the task of looking up one fact from music history related to a specific period or person once a week. Next, have each student present their fact to the class in just a few sentences. This can actually be a great way to warm up before jumping into a lesson. The bonus is that this trick helps kids to become comfortable with public speaking. Being comfortable in front of a crowd is so important for successful musicianship!
2. Make a Class Playlist
Consider making a classroom playlist using a tool like YouTube or Spotify. All of the songs will be carefully curated by the instructor to cover music from all timelines and genres. The instructor will encourage students to listen to the stream while they are driving, working out, getting ready for school in the morning, and more. Don’t forget that classical music is a perfect study companion! In addition to reducing anxiety, music may put students in a heightened emotional state that makes them more receptive to information. A classroom playlist is also a great way for students to feel bonded through shared musical experiences.
3. Celebrate a Different Composer Every Month
Have a composer of the month in your music classroom every month. Each month will be a small celebration of the accomplishments, culture, and persona of the composer chosen. Here are some fun ways to bring this concept to life:
- Choose a composer for each month. When possible, choose months based on a composer’s birthday.
- Create a fact board for the composer that is displayed in your classroom.
- Display maps, flags and pictures of landmarks from the home country of the composer.
- Bring in foods and desserts associated with the composer’s country or culture.
- Introduce one piece to learn by the composer.
This can also be a great opportunity for allowing students to earn extra credit. Students who are interested can write papers, create visual projects or take quizzes that don’t count against their class grades. The classroom will feel connected to the composers they’ve studied by the end of the year without feeling like they were stuck with heavy “research” assignments.
4. Plan an Intensive Experience Outside the Classroom
Some teachers have to face the reality that factors like classroom structure and time restraints don’t leave any room for history education. That doesn’t mean they should give up on their hope of integrating history into music learning. Consider planning an intensive experience beyond normal classroom hours. This could be something like a “summer camp” experience that’s focused solely on music history. It might even be possible to plan music field trips to museums and historical spots associated with famous composers, musicians, or musical movements.
5. Watch a Movie
Yes, this can feel like “cheating” for a music teacher. However, a movie about a famous musician or composer from history can make the lesson feel real for students. Many students who are studying music for the first time may be stuck in the mindset that studying music is “boring.” Being able to see the scenery, setting, inspirations, and dramas of a famous composer’s life can help students to find excitement in the subject matter. Music instructors can also consider having movie recommendation lists that they share with their students. This list will provide recommendations for celebrated movies that tie into music history. Of course, teachers must always make sure that they are making age-appropriate movie recommendations based on the standards and guidelines for sharing content established by the institutions they work for.
Help Your Piano Students Appreciate the Music They’re Studying With History Lessons
Not every piano teacher has the time and resources to create full-scale history lessons for their students. It’s not necessary to create a university-level history course when you’re trying to inspire an appreciation for music’s place in the context of history and culture. Using any of the tips above to plant the seeds for curiosity about music history can have results that reverberate in the lives of budding musicians for decades.