I recently had the pleasure of hosting ten high-school girls from Kenya. This was their first trip to the United States, and the girls have been part of an online music teaching program at The University of Georgia, where I teach. These girls were very excited to see the U.S. and to try many new experiences.
The visit was a grand success, and I'm sure that I learned as much as our visitors. Among other things, the visit served as a strong reminder of the importance of appreciation.
I enjoy cooking and I love to eat (more so than is healthy), so of course I was eager to prepare some beloved American foods for them. What I didn't expect, however, was their lukewarm reaction to some of our favorites. It wasn't my cooking (I don't think), it was a general unease with things that were unfamiliar. For example, most of them were not at all interested in anything with cheese. For the record, I consider cheese to be a stand-alone food group and essential to daily life.
Our guests, however, were not accustomed to using cheese in cooking. They looked askance at my dairy-based creations while politely declining to try them. They did however, have a fond appreciation for familiar foods, which they devoured with gusto (chicken, rice, and fries topped the list).
This reaction reminded me that appreciation is a process. When we are faced with new things, it can take time for them to feel familiar, time for us to feel comfortable, time for the new things to truly feel like "ours." And of course a larger lesson looms here—the things that I love are not necessarily loved universally by everyone else. We all have individual tastes and preferences.
In our profession we struggle with appreciation daily, on both small and grand scales. Locally, we try to help our students appreciate new repertoire and styles. In the larger picture, we wrestle with the world's level of appreciation— why are so many people enthralled by The Voice while so few attend performances of art music?
When we teach music, we are typically teaching repertoire that we love and appreciate. We use pieces and method books that we have known for years (probably decades), and we have grown to appreciate them. They are a very familiar part of our landscape and we know these works inside and out.
Our students, however, don't share the same level of intimacy. Stalwarts of the piano repertoire may be as unfamiliar to them as the latest Rae Sremmurd hit is to us. (As I write this, Rae Sremmurd's "Black Beatles" occupies the #1 spot on Billboard's Top 100 chart. And yes, I had to look it up.)
Can we teach appreciation? I believe we can, and a good teacher should broaden students' horizons. We can't, however, think that our students will learn to love something just because we tell them they should love it. We need to develop that level of familiarity, and that takes time, repetition, and patience.
The advertising industry understands the level of repetition necessary for something to take hold. Look up the phrase "Effective frequency" and you'll find a variety of ideas on how many times we need to hear a message before we pay attention. While some subscribe to a rule of seven, other theories say it takes as many twenty exposures to an ad before consumers will be motivated to buy a product. Have we given our students this many chances to get to know a piece of music before we ask them to make choices or before we complain about them not having any taste?
In our piano-teacher world, it is easy to forget that we have likely heard the repertoire we appreciate hundreds, if not thousands of times. Our students don't share that luxury, but we can help them develop it through assigned listening. Teenagers listen to music for hours every day, and it wouldn't hurt to suggest that they carve out a slice of that time to explore some music we want them to hear. Conversely, it probably wouldn't hurt us as teachers to expand our listening horizons as well.
There is great comfort in familiarity, whether it is the nurturing food that your grandmother used to make, the favorite movie to which you know every line, or the easy conversation you can have with a lifelong friend. If we can help our students develop that familiarity with more musical styles and approaches, we have done them a great service.
As we do this, let's not forget that there are other uses of "appreciate." In addition to valuing and admiring, the word is also used to indicate an increase in monetary value and an expression of gratitude. If we can all help our students apply these qualities to art music, we will most definitely appreciate the benefits.