Research: The Secret Life of Gabe

Gabe Poster

Click on the picture above for a peek at the poster I’m presenting at the National Conference of the National Association for Music Educators this month.  As a musician practicing in many genres and collaborating with other musicians from a variety of backgrounds, the prevailing concern among music education professionals that every student receive music instruction in school has struck me as a little curious since joining academia.  This case study, of a musician who received minimal musical instruction in school, was part of my attempt to dig a little deeper into the function of school music.  I found that, while it’s surely not necessary for becoming a satisfied, ever-growing music maker, there really can be benefits to formal instruction!

For a brief overview of the project, read on…


Music educators are concerned with providing all children with opportunities for developing musical skills which can facilitate lifelong musical participation (Jellison, 1999), yet the bulk of our research focuses on the development of exceptional performers (Pitts, 2009) and the effectiveness of classroom teaching strategies.   A comparison of the percentage of students who enroll in school music classes with the percentage of adults who make music suggests that many more people could be interested in and fulfilled through musical participation than enroll in elective ensembles, and there could even be more if course offerings were able to appeal to more students (Clements, 2009; Jaffurs, 2004).  To design these courses, it is important to examine not only what musical activities people participate in outside of school, how they learn in such situations and what motivates them to do so (Green, 2002), but to better understand what this wall between music educators and so many students consists of.  As Small (1998) points out, we must not assume that they are not musical!

This case study is an effort to contribute to research on those who live active musical lives without having participated in elective school music.  A musically active American man named Gabe was purposively sampled as an example of such a person.  A quick glance at his musical life story reveals that, when presented with potential music-learning experiences, there were moments in which he chose to take advantage of them and others in which he did not.  Within this study, I seek to uncover how environmental and individual factors interacted to influence Gabe’s motivation to learn and participate in music making activities at various points in his life.



Much research has been done on what motivates students to build musical expertise (e.g. Hallam, 2001; McPherson, 2009; McPherson & Davidson, 2006; Pitts, Davidson & McPherson, 2009; .  Factors considered include self-efficacy, musical self-concept, expectations, values and beliefs, parental influence, feedback from teachers and peers, and the expectations related to gender, social class, and age.  Intrinsic motivation has been shown to produce more effective results than extrinsic motivation; Lacaille, Koestner, and Gaudreau (2007) found that musicians “responded especially well to intrinsic goals that focused on the enjoyment of the musical experience” (p. 247).  Deci and Ryan (2000) link motivation to an activity’s potential to fulfill three innate psychological needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

Many of these factors, including interaction with parents and teachers and the development of belief and value systems, are dependent on the environment. For example, those raised to understand that musical ability is innate and immutable will be less likely to pursue challenging musical experiences (Evans, 2015).  Parents who assume that music is not useful or practical may be less likely to support students in musical engagement (McPherson & O’Neill, 2010).


Indeed, no man is an island!  Literature focusing on ecological systems examines the influences various levels of the environment may have on factors including all of those listed above.  Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) model describes these levels as

1.  Microsystem- the immediate setting of a person in terms of place, time, and role, e.g. family, school, social group

2.  Mesosystem- a system of microsystems, e.g. interaction among families at a church

3.  Exosystem- major institutions of the society, e.g. government agencies, mass media

4.  Macrosystem- cultural and societal prototypes which “set the pattern for

the structures and activities occurring at the concrete level” (p. 515).


Literature may also shed some light on Gabe’s adolescent relationship with music, adolescence being the period in which Gabe chose not to enroll in school music and eventually began teaching himself the guitar.  Research shows that typical adolescents spend many hours a week listening to music, and that the type of music they choose to associate with and listen to helps form their identity, represents it to peers, and helps them connect with others with similar values, attitudes and goals (Hallam & MacDonald, 2013; North, Hargreaves & O’Neill, 2000).  The peer group has become the primary social environment for 15 to 17 year olds (Sanders, 2013), and that along with an increased concern with public image (Campbell, Connell & Beegle, 2007), makes it less likely for them to associate themselves with music they don’t identify with (Green, 2006).


This study was approached using an interpretive case study design (Merriam, 1998, p. 38-39).  In an effort to gather rich descriptions of Gabe’s music making experiences and the environmental and individual influences enabling them, preliminary data collection included seven observations of Gabe making music, a gathering of documents and other artifacts from Gabe’s learning path, six interviews with Gabe and interviews with Gabe’s parents, his brother, and a teacher who taught at Gabe’s junior high school while he attended.  After sending transcripts to participants for their review, the data was examined using an embedded analysis approach,  focusing on themes related to Gabe’s motivation to learn to make music (Yin, 1989).  Upon reviewing numerous theories of human development, learning, and motivation (Creswell, 1998, p. 87), the researcher interviewed Gabe twice more.  Another return to the literature resulted in the adoption of Bronfenbrenner’s model of ecological systems as an appropriate framework for addressing the wider elements of the research question, and an adaptation of the basic psychological needs theory foundational to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) towards understanding Gabe as an individual.  This combined framework was then applied to four different points in Gabe’s musical life- the point at which he did not enroll in elective school music, the point at which he began learning to play the guitar,  the period of time in which he considered becoming a professional musician, and his current state.  The theoretical analysis of the data was then returned to Gabe for his input and approval.  Efforts to maximize the rigor of the design included member checking, an audit trail, and the triangulation of sources and theories.


See the poster for a quick snapshot of some of the results.

Conclusions and Implications

We can learn lessons from Gabe.  On an individual level, we see an example of the power of autonomy as it relates to intrinsic motivation, and see that for kids who don’t have an environmental structure of peers, teachers, and family who highly value music, intrinsic motivation doesn’t provide just the best chance for successful music learning, it may provide the only chance.   Findings from Gabe’s adolescence illuminate the reality that adolescents are concrete thinkers who value music as a way to represent who they are.  If the music we have to offer does not represent them, they may lose the opportunity to learn in a formal setting, which is something adult Gabe considers valuable.  In fact, school music may be our students’ only opportunity to learn from a trained music teacher in a structured environment.  Since kids are concrete thinkers out of a developmental necessity, the onus is on music educators in the schools to assist them in making connections one way or another, lest we find ourselves only educating kids who identify with the music we offer at that point in their lives.   What can we do to empower students’ intrinsic motivations to make music, whatever kind of music that might be?

From an environmental perspective, we may be particularly situated within students’ micro- or mesosystem to offer a mitigating influence to the harmful perspectives inherent in our society and communicated through mass media, friends, family, governing agencies, school systems.  First we might ask what do students in and out of music classes believe and assume about music and music making? Do they know that, not only can they make music, but they can make their music?  What can we do to interact with and perhaps even mitigate some of the cultural messages that interfere with students’ conceptions of themselves as music makers and potentially lifelong music makers?  What can we do to allow students to discover the ways in which music making can be “useful” in human lives , that the potential for music achievement does not rely on innate talent, that music making can be enjoyable through various levels of achievement, and that music is not only made by professionals in studios and concert halls?

For generations, forces seeking to influence societal paradigms have turned to the schools.  We are already there.





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