A New Word for the English Language
Each year, Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary identifies “new” words to be added to their dictionary. This year, for example, “hashtag”, ‘selfie”, “fracking” and “crowdfunding”, among others, were added.
Such words are recognized as being “official” as a result of them becoming commonly used and recognized. Generally, they begin as a word coined to describe a new phenomenon. As that phenomenon becomes ingrained in our cultural consciousness and is more widely used and understood, it leads to the word becoming an “official” word as determined by Merriam-Webster.
I’d like to propose a new word for 2015: “Bandwork”
Granted, this term is not sweeping the cultural landscape like “hashtag” or “selfie. In fact, it’s nowhere to be seen or heard on the educational or cultural landscape. And sure enough, it can’t be found in the dictionary. Go ahead and look it up. It’s not there. This, despite the fact that millions of people intrinsically understand what it means and have benefitted from exposure to it.
Why is this important? And what does it have to do with education reform?
How often have football coaches proclaimed, “Nothing teaches teamwork and discipline and builds character like football”? The narrative continues: “A math teacher teaches math in the classroom; the coach teaches life skills on the field.” On a theoretical level, this notion is mostly true. Highly competitive sports, including football, can teach valuable lessons in teamwork, sacrifice, discipline, persistence, leadership and communication. But somewhere along the line, we have come to believe that sports is the only extracurricular activity through which such characteristics are taught.
That notion is simply not true.
Even in today’s business world, which has come to emphasize a more collaborative rather than a top down authoritarian command structure, the idea of working in teams is receiving increasing attention and emphasis. Put together a team to address that issue. Or, I’ll meet with my sales team regarding our new product. It’s all about teamwork.
Why not “bandwork”?
I have been on a five person basketball team, where everyone is working towards the same goal of winning a game. And I have been in a five person band working towards the common goal of achieving a certain “sound”. And there is absolutely no difference in the things you have to do and the lessons you learn in each situation.
Simply consider, for example, the similarities between playing pick-up basketball in your local gym and participating in an “open mic” night at your neighborhood bar.
Pick-up basketball and open mic nights are occurring all over the world every day and night of the week. I’ve participated in both types of these highly social and interactive activities hundreds of times all over the country. Their formats are fairly universal. In the case of pick-up basketball, there is a process for determining how teams are assembled. At some courts, teams are picked. At others, players shoot foul shots to determine the make-up of the teams. And at others, straws are drawn. The constant however, is that each game, every day is made up of a different mix of players
Similarly, open mics have their own set of procedures and processes. Ideally, they are run by a versatile musician with a welcoming and encouraging demeanor. Musicians sign up for a designated time slot, usually fifteen or twenty minutes, depending on the crowd. There are local ground rules relating to the sign-up process and the length of each set. Most places allow a musician to head up only one set, although everyone jockeys to be a “sideman” for other sets. Similar to pick-up basketball, the goal is to play as much as you want.
Regardless of how teams or bands are chosen or determined, what transpires afterwards is identical.
Each game or set has a different band leader (captain), each assembling a different ensemble (picking a team), every set (game) challenges you as a musician (player) to be observant, flexible and able to find your space or role in the group (team). The challenge is to assess what and how the various musicians (players) in the room play and piece together a supporting cast (teammates), resulting in a good, or at least interesting and entertaining sound (result) and a fun experience. If you are the musician (player) being picked up, your challenge is to “find your space” to effectively add something to the overall sound and vibe (result) of the group. Every set (game) has a different group of musicians (players), each with his or her own strengths, weaknesses, personality and ego. The challenge is getting everyone to work together. The skills to be successful in both are identical: effective communication, discipline, creativity, assessment skills and the ability to function within a team (band) setting.
In short, “band” and “team” are synonyms. It makes perfect sense that you might learn the same things participating in both. Maybe “teamwork” should be called “bandwork.” Or, rather than saying you learn “teamwork skills” when playing in a band, we should refer to learning bandwork skills. Or, when playing on a team, maybe we should refer to learning bandwork skills. Or, when your boss tells you to assemble a group to address a particular issue, you should respond that you will put a “band” together and get to work on it.
You get the point.
Being a musician requires a lot of time and effort, practicing scales and developing playing technique. It also requires the ability to function in a collaborative manner with others. It requires discipline to play within the framework of songs, the ability to compromise when working out both the songs and the sound and communication and feel while actually playing songs (winks, nods, gestures to make sure everyone makes the right chord changes at the appropriate times). Being part of a band requires persistence to go back and work on a song again and again to get it right, sacrifice in stepping aside to allow others to step forward for solos, personal responsibility to step forward to carry the tune with a solo when the situation calls for it and bandwork (teamwork), bandwork (teamwork) and bandwork (teamwork). The fact is, there is no difference between sports and music in this regard.
As Bob Dylan wrote, “You gotta play your harp til your lips bleed.” Musicians or artists may look nerdy, fonky, or punky -- or not, but that doesn’t mean they work any less hard at their instrument or are any less adept at collaborating with others in a band than a football player does on his strength or with his team. The same skills are required and the same lessons are learned.
One of the primary justifications for our continued sponsorship and investment in football within our educational system is that it is unique in its ability to foster in participants, the ability to function collaboratively and effectively within a group. And the music and arts community has remained silent regarding the notion that sports are unique in their ability to teach such skills. By remaining silent, the music community has ceded that narrative to the football “lobby”. Thus, it’s not surprising that when discussions regarding an activity’s potential to teach valuable communication and collaboration skills occur, all of the attention is focused on football’s potential to do so, while music’s potential to do the very same things is largely ignored.
In a time of increased expectations and standards for what constitutes an education worthy of the twenty-first century against a backdrop of declining funding and resources, each and every component within the educational system must be evaluated based upon return on educational dollar invested. This includes “extracurricular” activities. In short, we must be more strategic, efficient and effective with every dollar we invest. And when decisions regarding funding are being made, the music “lobby”, just like the football “lobby”, must aggressively state their cases regarding the educational value of “their” activity. The football community has, over the years, been very effective in this regard. The music community, not so much.
This about music and music education advocacy on a national scale. It is about how the music community articulates its educational value and how it advocates for that value to be recognized and considered when communities engage in dialogue regarding how educational priorities are determined and educational resources are spent. It is about providing musicians, music educators, music associations and music lovers with a starting point for a narrative that allows them to voice their opinions. It is about creating a national dialogue that focuses on the fact that bands are every bit as effective as ball in teaching the collaborative skills that are becoming increasingly important for success in today’s interrelated, interconnected world.
For too long, it has been the athletic community, particularly the football community, that has driven and shaped the dialogue regarding which activities are most effective in instilling in participants, the ability to collaborate and work together as a group. The fact is, football in particular, and sports in general, are no more effective at instilling such characteristics as is participation in music activities.
It’s time to tell the other side of the story. And that starts with terminology. Words and terms matter. And it is time that music advocates begin to recognize, and, for lack of a better term, “brand” music in a way that better describes its effectiveness as an educational tool. A good starting point would be to recognize, promote and actually begin using the term “bandwork”, which should be defined as “the cooperative effort by members of a band to achieve a common goal.”
In short, at a time when competition for educational funding is becoming more intense, it is imperative for music education advocates to be more focused and strategic in promoting music’s ability to teach the types of skills necessary to succeed in the more collaborative workplace and culture of the future.
One of the goals of this blog will be to not only highlight issues of concern in areas such as education reform, but also to offer potential solutions and strategies, both big and small, to address those issues. This commentary on bandwork is simply the beginning. In a future blog, I will offer additional thoughts and strategies designed to highlight and promote this, as well as other issues. In other words, this is the beginning of a conversation. Accordingly, if you have any ideas or thoughts, please send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to hearing from you.
In the meantime, when speaking about the valuable lessons that involvement in music can teach, let’s start with “bandwork”. Who knows, maybe if we use it enough it will someday be recognized by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as an “official” word.