Why I Teach Music

Why I Teach Music

by Thomas Shaw, Middle School Music Teacher

I got hooked on music early, and not exactly by choice. At least not at first. But surprisingly, it was a different art form that had the biggest impact on me in high school, and I returned to music with a new appreciation for all art as a language for the spirit.

It all started when I was a fetus in my mother’s womb. I’m totally serious, actually. My father was the music director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and my mother would attend his concerts while she was pregnant with me. She said she could feel me kicking to the beat. Apparently, this revealed extraordinary promise because my parents put a cello in my hands at the age of 4. If you’ve never tried to play a cello, I’m not sure I can adequately describe how ambitious this plan was. My parents quickly came to their senses and switched me to piano, a much more forgiving instrument for a preschooler still unable to tie his shoes.

When I was 11 years old, I stumbled upon the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. Peterson was so spontaneous and fluid, like he was speaking a different language. I had been instructed in a very traditional method of piano pedagogy for years, always following the notes on the page. The idea of improvisation was a paradigm shift for me. I started listening to more jazz, which led me to rock and other contemporary genres. Music may have started as a household expectation, but now I was developing my own personal connection to it. I saw how performing could be a great way to express myself, and that wasn’t limited to music. After middle school, I would turn to another branch of the performing arts for strength during a very difficult time. 

My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school. She was the lynchpin of our family, and my father, brother, and I were all processing the grief in different ways. None of us knew how to talk to each other about it. I turned to theater as a way to manage the torrent of emotions I was experiencing at the time. Music was still there on the backburner, but theater gave me more direct access to the catharsis I needed. The performances were also a kind of gift for my mother. In the abbreviated window of time I had left with her, I could show her different sides of myself through the characters I played, even if I didn’t yet have the tools to do so directly. Performing was a language we both understood and appreciated.

Music is a dialect of that same language. It’s both primal and spiritual — deep in our bones yet, somehow, also elevated on a higher plane. Our day-to-day speech seems shallow and adversarial by comparison, preoccupied with petty definitions and minor discrepancies. But music transcends. It’s a form of prayer that opens a door to the ineffable. And when you collaborate with other musicians, it becomes a form of communion. These qualities are true of other art forms, too, and that’s why I think classes like music and theater and art are so important. They give young people outlets to express themselves emotionally and spiritually. 

The performing arts have given me a lot. They put food on the table, nurtured confidence, fostered friendships, and guided me through grief. And now, they give me purpose. I teach music because I want to share that communion with whomever I can, whether it’s a rock band or a choir or a drumline. It really is an active ritual of worship that I think is essential for our spiritual lives. Part of it is just making a lot of noise and having fun. But students also get a sense that they are in this thing together. In middle school, during a time of extreme change and uncertainty, they can feel like they belong to something. And whether they like it or not, they are using their voices to sing. My hope is that they’ll sing in some form or another for the rest of their lives.