© Peter Muir 2005
No part of this article may be repoduced without the consent of the author.

In this paper I explore that the notion, based on my own teaching practice, that regular attendance on Community Outreach Music Programs (COMPs) by music students can be of great benefit to the learning of their musical instruments. I will begin with a general description of a typical COMP.

The Musical Outreach Program at Green Briar Retirement Community

The Institute for Music and Health has been running a COMP since January 2000 at Green Briar Retirement Community in Millbrook, NY. Residents are mostly fairly high functioning seniors, although most have medical problems, many displaying early symptoms of Alzheimer’s or senile dementia. A typical outreach session lasts about seventy minutes. The IMH generally brings at five volunteers to an outreach, and often more than ten. The number of residents attending the outreach usually averages around twenty.

The basic approach is as follows. We largely sing older style Tin Pan Songs which are familiar to residents. Helpers encourage residents to join in with the singing and dancing/moving with them wherever appropriate. This is not a formal performance in any usual sense. On the contrary, the more informal and relaxed the atmosphere, the more active residents tend to become; and the more active the residents, the longer-lasting the benefits of the music. The effect of the music-making is enhanced by the volunteers engaging as directly and as interactively with the residents as possible, holding hands, making eye contact, etc. The outreaches are largely musically unaccompanied, though instruments are used in certain situations discussed below.

It is not the purpose of this article to discuss the benefits of such sessions on residents, which, if done correctly, and with the right intention, are profound. I am instead interested in the effect on the volunteers, specifically on how such outreaches can benefit the playing of those learning instruments (even though the outreach center round singing, not playing).

At the time of writing, we have only been taking our students on a limited basis to Green Briar, and though the first results are highly encouraging and we plan to extend the program, the present discussion is basically a position paper more theoretical/philosophical in approach than based on experimental results. I will begin by discussing, and placing in its historical context, the current state of mainstream instrumental pedagogy as it exists in America, and, as far as I am aware, most of the Western world, before going on to explore how musical outreaches can help counteract a certain imbalance inherent in traditional musical pedagogy.

Traditional Music Instrument Pedagogy

Although it has roots that are much older, instrumental music teaching as we know it today is really a product of the nineteenth century. The revolutionary aesthetic of Romanticism brought with it major changes in the dissemination of art music in Europe and North America. The new approach was most typically reflected in the rise of the public concert which came into its own in the Romantic era. The symbol of this was the touring instrumental virtuoso, such as Paganini on the violin and Liszt on the piano, who were, along with successful operatic artists, the musical superstars of the day. Romanticism glorified these instrumental performers in a way that they never had been before. In doing so, the performers became wealthy and famous, reaching through their incessant touring, fine promotion, and ear-catching pyrotechnics, a much wider public than had ever been available to audiences of earlier times.

As instrumental virtuosity acquired a new prominence, pedagogy rose to the fore. Fuelled by new technology that dramatically lowered the cost, and thus accessibility, of sheet music, and a growing, musically literate middle-class thirsty for cultural improvement, pedagogy became for the first time big business in the nineteenth century. Hundreds of composers created pedagogical material for almost every type of instrument that ranged from the mechanics of Czerny’s exercises, to the mastery of Chopin’s etudes. Emphasis was placed on the technical: the higher qualities of a performance—expression, interpretation and so forth—could really only be effectively added after the work had been mechanically mastered. What is known as the “Once More with Feeling” school.

Once in place, this philosophy dominated the pedagogical landscape. It is strikingly represented by Figure 1, an illustration from an article by Aubertine Woodward Moore entitled, appropriately enough, “From Mechanical Foundation to Artistic Triumph,” which appeared in the American mainstream music education journal The Etude in 1918. The “Mechanical Foundation” of the title is represented by heavy-duty industrial machinery at the bottom of the hill, while “Artistic Triumph” is depicted at the top by a castle. Note that higher playing qualities (“phrasing,” “expression,” “interpretation”) occur near the top of the hill, while the drudge aspects of practice (“industry,” “daily exercises,” “scales”) are placed near the bottom. One other point. As you follow the zig-zag pathway up the hill, you will see it becomes increasingly less populated. This is a surprisingly honest, if perhaps unconscious, statement of a design flaw in the entire system: most students give up their instruments. In a philosophy that views learning an instrument as—here, literally—an uphill struggle, only a few get to the summit. And when getting to the summit is seen as the only worthwhile goal of the venture—the term “Artistic Triumph” clearly sells it as a winner-takes-all affair—not getting to the summit is viewed (by both student and teacher) as a failure. In this curiously Darwinian view of education only the fittest survive. The rest fall by the wayside.

It would be naïve to suggest that nothing has changed in music pedagogy since this article appeared. Mainstream pedagogical methods are now somewhat less technically oriented and fearsomely hegemonic than was once the case. What has, I believe, spurred this changed more than anything else is the weakening hold of classical music in Western societies and the corresponding rise of American vernacular music (jazz, blues, rock, etc.) in the twentieth century, whose spectacular popularity through its dissemination in mass-culture has displaced classical music as the principle musical lingua franca of Western, and, more recently, of global society. Consequently, when the average child at the beginning of the twenty-first century decides to take up an instrument he is more likely to want to learn Beatles than Beethoven.

While the music profession has accommodated, it has only done so only grudgingly. Read through old editions of any mainstream pedagogical journal such as The Etude, you will see how conservative it is, how protective of “good” (i. e. classical) music against the perceived threat of popular styles. The overall impression is that the democratization of repertoire and broadening of playing styles in music teaching is a thoroughly “bottom-up” revolution, only reluctantly accepted by the old guard. This has various class implications which I do not want to pursue here, except to say, that this conservatism in music teaching is one reflected by society as a whole: all vernacular styles have, almost by definition, started off as working class music, and have usually gained general acceptance only after tremendous resistance from above.

The reluctance of music pedagogy to accept new styles is symptomatic of a deeper problem. For while the focus of music teaching has shifted healthily away from “the few who may become the professional musicians of tomorrow” to “the many who want to participate in music,” the philosophy of music teaching has not fundamentally changed: it has simply softened its hard edges to accommodate the masses. A student learning an instrument still expects his teacher to focus on the technical, just as he would have done a century ago. The emphasis is still on practicing scales, playing in tune, using the correct fingering. Of course, there are individual exceptions, but this is still the general culture.

Let me make a distinction between Music—capital M—and the music—small m. By using the upper case, I refer to the higher qualities that make music important and vital: creativity, expression and interpretation, the qualities that are last to be applied in traditional pedagogy. By the small m, I refer to the lower, technical, qualities. A child who takes up an instrument does so as a means of higher expression, in other words, Music. Instead the focus is on the technical, the music. It is not surprising that so many children give up their instruments.

We can summarize all this by saying the starting point in music pedagogy is “getting it right”: in tune, right fingers, right notes. This inevitably has the effect of making the student continually focus on, and worry about, this aspect, i. e., the music and not the Music. It creates a climate of fear, where the student is encouraged to constantly judge himself for his mistakes, and to assume that others—initially his teacher, later an audience—are doing the same.

The result of this is an unhealthy inwardness on the part of the musician. He is focusing on himself in his performance, worrying about how he is being judged: “How am I doing?” “What do they think of me?”. This self-consciousness is the start of all stage-fright and is completely counterproductive—everyone performs worse when nervous. Therefore we are left with a paradox: overemphasis on technique ultimately undermines technique. The teaching of musical instruments should be done in a way to lessen self-consciousness; instead it exacerbates it, thereby undercutting what it is trying to achieve.

The Benefits of Community Music Outreach Programs for Music Students

If the central problem of music instrument teaching is the self-consciousness it engenders, its solution is the adoption of other-consciousness, to encourage the student to put his attention on the other rather than on his self. The Latin for “self” is ego; for “other” it is alter. We replace egotism with altruism.

Thus the student is encouraged to direct his music to someone when he plays. In its simplest form, this process is purely mental, i. e., just imagining the person who is being played to. But the experience is much more powerful if the person is in the room with the player. This is where musical outreach in places like seniors’ homes is so valuable, for it gives a physical reality to the process of directing out with the music.

However, there is more involved than this. The outreach situation is particularly helpful for encouraging this attitude on the part of the visiting musician, far more so than say giving a solo at a concert, which, of course, is much more likely to aggravate a student’s performance fears rather than alleviate them. There are several reasons why an outreach is the optimum situation for encouraging musical altruism.

In the first place, seniors in a home are far less critical than a concert audience tends to be. So many seniors in establishments such as Green Briar are lonely and depressed. Visitors and music-making are therefore nearly always welcome. Furthermore, experience shows that as the physical/mental condition of the residents deteriorates they become needier of music, and thus are ever less critical of what they hear.

Second, the outreach is communal in nature. This takes pressure off the individual student and thus helps alleviate performance anxiety, as working in groups is easier than performing solo. Perhaps even more important than this, in an outreach the audience is taking part as well as the performers, singing along and dancing/moving. This creates a climate of comforting informality for the student. After all, if the seniors, who in most instances have had no musical training, are not self-conscious about their involvement with the music, why should the student be? In fact, an outreach is not really a performance situation in the usual sense with a clear demarcation between performers and audience. Most times boundaries are blurred. At Green Briar we have even had situations where the audience/performer relationship is reversed, when a resident will enthusiastically lead us in a song he knows better than we do!

The third difference between and outreach and a concert is that the student is encouraged to relate to his “audience” as individuals. In a concert, the audience is anonymous to the performer. He will not know most of the listeners. Even if he does, it is extremely hard to relate to all of them at one time. There are too many, and in any case the gulf between the audience and the performer in a standard concert set-up scarcely helps. Often in a theater, because of bright stage lighting, it is impossible for the performer even to see his audience, much less to relate to them. In an outreach situation like the one at Green Briar there are no such difficulties, and where visits are on a regular basis, the residents become well-known to the volunteers, and vice versa. This, along with the smaller numbers, and informality of the setting, make it easy for students to relate to residents. To maximize this, we recommend close and direct contact wherever possible: move as close to the resident during the music-making as he/she will allow; take their hands; look into their eyes (this last is particularly important).

Lastly, outreaches are geared around singing, not around the student’s instrument. This is important for two reasons. First, we have found that residents tend to stop singing when instruments are used. Instead, they start to view the situation as a performance, and a formal distance is created between performers and audience, which works against creating a climate of altruism. Second, singing requires less effort on the part of the student than playing. Like the residents, the student can “just sing.” When playing his instrument on the other hand, he is less spontaneous as he is constantly worrying about whether he has the right note, if it is in tune, etc.

These four factors—the residents’ comparatively uncritical approach, the communal aspect, relating to the “audience” as individuals, and basing the outreach around singing—create a unique environment where the student is encouraged to use his music altruistically.

Translating Outreach Philosophy into Instrumental Playing

Attending regular musical outreaches is, however, only a first stage, for the ultimate goal is to translate the altruistic experience of outreach into the student’s instrumental playing. This happens to an extent by osmosis. As the student becomes more altruistically inclined with the outreaches, the beneficial effects will become generalized to all his music-making. Ultimately the aim is to see all performance, indeed all music-making, as an outreach.

This process can be catalyzed by gradually introducing instrumental playing at the outreach. I give an example from my recent experience. A sixteen year-old trumpet student is extremely gifted, but shy and self-conscious about his music-making on his instrument. He started to come regularly to musical outreaches, including Green Briar, with his father, who is himself highly musical and encouraging of his son adopting an altruistic approach with his music-making. At first the son was reluctant to do anything other than sing. As his musical identity strengthened through the outreaches, however, he gradually became more confident, although he was still unwilling to play. There was even an in-between stage when he would bring his trumpet to the outreach but not play it! Eventually he did start to play, much to the delight of the residents. Recently, he has started also playing solos in concerts. When he plays, he does so with remarkable confidence, with absolutely no trace of stage-fright. As a result his playing is extremely creative and expressive. In other words, the outreach process has encouraged him to make Music rather than music, and from this point of view, he is exceptional.

When the altruistic attitude developed through musical outreach is integrated into the student’s playing, what are the effects? There are several.
1. Reducing self-criticism in the student naturally makes the whole music-learning process far more enjoyable and satisfying.
2. Outreaches show the student that his music-making can have a positive effect on an audience. This gives his playing a whole extra meaning that does not normally result from regular pedagogy.
3. Students who attend outreaches on a regular basis tend to develop excellent aural skills because of the emphasis on singing. This can be reinforced by getting to them to play the songs they sing at the outreach on their instruments without using written music.
4. The altruistic attitude improves technique. That is the opposite side of the paradox discussed earlier that prioritizing technique in music-teaching ultimately undermines technique by encouraging a self-critical mindset. By contrast, when the student stops thinking self-critically, he is able to give of his best in every sense, including the technical.
5. In the most general sense, the general adoption of an altruistic attitude is a most desirable goal in the education and the social development of the young.


The process explored in this paper—attending regular musical outreaches and applying the experience to the playing of the student’s instrument—is well described in the following testimonial from a fifteen-year-old clarinet student at Ravensong Studio who attended a series of music outreaches at Green Briar:

When I got [to the outreach] for the first time, I realized how scared I was. We entered a small, sunny room with a fish tank, a rack of magazines, and a view of a dining room that was much too yellow. There was a circle of old ladies and a few old men in chairs. . . I sang softly in a corner, feeling like I had been thrown without warning into cold water. Harsh as it seemed at the time, it worked. I slowly lost my shyness as I realized that these people were not here to judge us. Once I forgot to worry about being right, I became a thousand times more expressive. I thought if I could apply this new-found freedom to my not-so-shabby clarinet playing, how much better I would be. So I slowly began to change. I took more risks and tried to concentrate on the meaning of the song, the emotions it was intended to portray, rather than just notes on the page. I had begun to grasp the purpose of music. It was suddenly a lot easier and a lot more fun. . .I have improved as a musician and have become a more sensitive person.

This statement raises an important issue which is that outreaches can at first be an intimidating experience for many students. For one thing, those who learn instruments are often not happy to sing. There are various reasons for this, but, basically if a student is self-conscious about his playing, he is likely to be about his singing also. All the more reason to go on the outreach! The experience of many students is like that of the student in the testimonial: shyness, even fear, at first, but gradually gaining confidence as the climate of the outreach becomes more familiar. Another reason for students being intimidated on outreach is that the deteriorated condition of some of the residents in a home can be frightening at first, although, as the students begin to relate intimately with residents, this situation improves. We do find students who refuse to go on outreach for these reasons, but most are ultimately amenable. This is particularly true of younger children who are in every sense less self-conscious than those in their teens.


1. February 1918, p. 93.

2. Joyce Cameron, “The Role of Self-Esteem in Learning,” in Proceedings of the National Conference of Piano Pedagogy 1990-91 (Los Angeles: National Conference of Piano Pedagogy, 1991), 88.

3. Some recent work, for example, has stressed the generally therapeutic nature of altruism; See Richard L. Curwin, “The Healing Power of Altruism,” Education Leadership, November 1993, 36-39; also John Diamond, M. D., The Veneration of Life: Through the Disease to the Soul (Bloomingdale, IL: Enhancement Books, 2000),4; The latter author has also extensively discussed the use of altruism in music.; See Life Enhancement through Music (Bloomingdale, IL: Enhancement Books, in press), passim.

4. Undated testimonial of Margeret McGovern in possession of author.

Author's Bio: 

Peter Muir, co-founder and co-director of the IMH, has been involved in music pedagogy for twenty years. He is former Director of Jazz and Head of Keyboards at Westminster School, London (one of the most prestigious private schools in Britian) and has taught as an adjunct instructor for City University of New York as well as extensively in private practice. He has worked internationally in the field of community music, running and participating hundreds of programs in Europe, America and Australia. Dr. Muir is an internationally recognized pianist, composer, scholar, and conductor. As a pianist he specializes in ragtime, blues and early jazz, which he performs in a totally original and compelling style, playing at festivals and concerts in the US, Britain, Europe, Australia, and Hong Kong. As a composer, he has written and arranged works for the concert platform, ballet, stage and film. His work has been performed and broadcast in Britain, Europe, America, the Far East and Australia. As a scholar, Dr. Muir has a Ph.D. in musicology and is an acknowledged authority on ragtime, blues and early jazz. His book on the emergence of blues before 1920, called Long Lost Blues, was published by the University of Illinois Press in fall 2009. He has musically directed in theater (including Women Beware Women, Royal Court Theater, London; Fables in Slang, off-Broadway, New York) and conducted numerous instrumental and choral groups in Britain and America. Dr. Muir has trained intensively with Dr. John Diamond M.D. since 1990. His core belief–that the true purpose of music is to be therapeutic–is at the basis of all his musical activities.