There is a lot of talk in education these days about building a sense of community within our music ensembles and programs. Is there a flip side to a strong sense of community?
As a teacher I often think back to my students who had a passionate love of music but not necessarily the music we were making or the approach we were taking. Did these musicians belong in our community and had we prepared a place for them? I felt them working hard to fit in but at the same time still at odds with the group. Ironically, often the principles and ideas the ensemble valued were exactly the principles the individual needed at the time but was unable to see.
Was the identity of the group too strong or too narrow in its focus to make room for contrasting viewpoints? Was the individual unwilling or uninterested in accommodating their immediate needs to the needs of others? How do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community?
The challenges of creating an effective and open musical learning environment mirror so many of the challenges facing society. It isn’t only about me—but at the same time it isn’t only about us. Both things are true, and yet they exist in tension with one another. It brings to mind Gandhi’s statement, “Everything we do is insignificant, but it is very important that we do it.”
Not to get too Hegelian at this point, but what is the synthesis to this tension?
I suspect the answer lies in appealing to higher principles. We need to ask ourselves questions such as, “Why is community important?” and “Why must the unique needs of the individual be not just tolerated, but embraced?”
Even more important than arriving at an answer is realizing that the tension needs to exist. If there is not tension between these points of view either there is not a strong communal identity or the passions of the individual are being squelched. As teachers we have the opportunity to acknowledge this tension with our students, and to encourage them to wrestle with the dichotomy. We can help them to recognize that this tension will exist in every ensemble, family, community, and nation. On the bandstand or out in the world, arriving at a resolution will lie in focusing on our highest values, those of compassion and caring.
Every musical ensemble or teaching/learning situation is an opportunity to better know ourselves, and to know another. Both as individuals and as a community, we must be willing to put ego aside, for we teach life—the subject just happens to be music.