Sugar has become a socially acceptable addictive substance that can be used as anything from a bribe to hug. But is it doing more harm than good? Children in particular have a special relationship with the sweet stuff. In fact, from an early age, sugar is used as a parenting commodity...
"Eat your vegetables then you can have dessert."
"Drink this medicine and I'll give you a lolly."
"Do your chores and then we'll get ice-cream!"
"Don't cry sweetheart, here have a cookie."
Many parents even opt to feed their children sugary foods because at least they're eating right ?
...And by large quantities I don't mean kilograms per day, I mean more than 25g per day. 25g is about a tablespoon and let's face it, there's more than that in your average muesli bar.
So this gets me thinking about band repertoire., particularly in school programs. How many times do you say "oh my kids LOVE that piece". I get it. We all want happy kids, but just like sugar, are we doing more harm than good by ONLY selecting my-kids-will-love-this-[sugar-coated]-repertoire ?
Take a moment to think about the music you have programmed for your ensemble recently... are you selecting works because they seem familiar? In the "right" key? Won't push too many boundaries or offer anything too out of the ordinary? Do the works you choose have gold medals on them, or are they labelled as "popular choice"? Just like selecting a bottle of wine, you can't always trust that the wine inside is going to be good because it has gold frilly bits on the label.
In the same way that we are learning about the need for nutrient rich food, we should also consider nutrient rich repertoire. Instead of saying "this is a great piece, my kids will like this", try questioning the repertoire for educational integrity:
Does this piece have a specific educational focus?
Can I link this work to music from other genres?
Are there any composing options for individuals and/or the ensemble available?
How can I create self-discovery moments with this work?
Can I make this piece student-relevant by linking it to their other subjects?
I urge you to listen past the 'performance' moment, to get past the initial sugar hit and read the label more carefully. If repertoire really and truly is your curriculum, then your selections need to be as nutrient dense as possible if your students are going to value what they play. Just as a balanced diet produces a well-grown, healthy, happy human, balanced exposure to repertoire by a wide range of composers that offer a diverse range of learning and performing experiences will produce a well-grown, health, happy musician.
So are you addicted to sugar-coated repertoire?
Just as sugar is addictive, so is familiar, safe repertoire. If you are only selecting repertoire that you know how to teach really well then you are giving your students a one-dimensional impression of music. There is nothing wrong with having some of your selections fit into this category, but it is important to balance the diet with repertoire that does more than provide a shiny performance moment.
Remember, a child that only eats sugar can develop dental problems, become aggressive or even depressed, and let's not even mention what it's doing to their gut. A child that only plays sugar-coated repertoire will eventually switch off, their participation may become automated due to same sounding pieces that are always in the same key with the same structure and melodic phrases. Perhaps they will stop practising or worse... stop playing altogether.
When you next make your repertoire selections, look past the name, past the label and listen past the "my trumpets can manage that range". Look deeper, beyond your addiction, for nutrient-dense educational experiences that allow the student to immerse themselves in the learning process. You may have to change your approach a little, or even get off the podium now and then. But if that means a child links their band playing world to other parts of their life and thus develops a lifelong attachment to music... then isn't it worth it?