What is your “Why?”

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green pine trees near rock mountain
Back in the horse and buggy days when I was a classroom teacher, I would write things on the board like, “Today we will complete our reading of Act I in ‘Romeo and Juliet.” Sounds pretty basic, right? We have all had many classes where assignments like that were up on the board every day. They seemed to tell us what we were supposed to do, but not why we were doing it or how it would benefit us.
Thankfully, I think it was in my second or third year of teaching that I was shown a better way. I was shown by some very knowledgeable colleagues that these kinds of notices on the board did not help students learn in a meaningful way. They did not spark curiosity, engagement, or critical thinking. They did not connect the content to the students’ lives, interests, or goals. They did not challenge the students to go beyond the surface level of the text and explore its deeper meanings and implications.
Where was the “Why?”
When I was starting out, some students would ask me “What are we doing today?” And I would tell them things like what I wrote on the board in the first paragraph. But I soon realized that this was not enough. I needed to explain to them why we were doing what we were doing, and how it would help them develop their skills, knowledge, and understanding. I needed to show them the purpose and relevance of the learning activities, and how they aligned with the learning objectives and outcomes.
It’s kind of like when we had to memorize the little bit about, “In 14 Hundred and Ninety-Two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Nice rhyme which helps you remember a little historic factoid.
But in the big scheme of things does it really matter that it was 1492? I mean, if it was 1491 or 1493 it would not make that big of a difference. See?
But what was his “why?” WHY did Columbus set sail in a westerly direction when just about everybody told him it was suicide? Now we are getting into much more interesting stories about social forces, economics, courage in the face of discouragement, and LESSONS THAT CAN ACTUALLY HELP US.
So rethinking my instructions from the first paragraph, I would rather write something like, “In order to understand some of the main themes driving Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, we will complete our reading of Act I. We will analyze how the characters’ actions and words reveal their motivations, conflicts, and relationships. We will also discuss how these themes relate to our own experiences and values.”
Which is to say that now that I have time to focus more on my music, I am continually asking myself “Why this?” and “Why that?” I am discovering super ideas that give me much more motivation with scales, patterns, chords, repertoire and everything else. For example, instead of practicing scales mechanically, I ask myself why they are important for improving my technique, musicality, and improvisation skills. Instead of just playing patterns randomly, I ask myself why they are useful for creating melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Instead of just learning chords by rote, I ask myself why they are essential for understanding chord progressions, song structures, and genres. Instead of just memorizing repertoire pieces, I ask myself why they are meaningful for expressing my emotions, ideas, and personality.
By asking myself these questions, I find more joy and satisfaction in my music practice. I see the connections between different aspects of music and how they enrich my musical experience. I am able to challenge myself to go WAY beyond my comfort zone and explore new possibilities. And most importantly, I am able to share my music in a more authentic and engaging way.
Stay tuned. There’s more to come on this one…
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