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 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 – most music students 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.
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.
©2019 Walter Bitner
To be concluded in Inspiration, Part 2
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony in Richmond, Virginia. His column Off The Podium is featured in Choral Director magazine, and he writes about music and education on his website Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.