Having written lately about how things are meant to be when we follow the new music standards, I though it was time to write about how these standards look in my own classroom. I teach general music to 6 classes per day of children from three years old in the pre-kindergarten program to 13 years old who are in 8th grade. These classes also double as performing ensembles that perform in November, December, March, and April. About forty of my students participate in an after school drama program I co-teach with two colleagues where we prepare a performance of a musical comedy given in May.
As I sat at my desk today between classes, I noticed a full white board from the morning classes, and took inventory of all that was written. For 7th grade there were directions to generate and select musical ideas, write a plan for organizing those ideas into a musical work, make a musical work using the plan, evaluate the musical work, revise and refine it, and present. A list of ways to use ideas, including repetition, parallelism, variety, and tension/release was also there. For first grade there were the first 4 notes of the beginning of Brahms’ 4th symphony which the children continued with original ideas by solo singing what they thought the next pitch should be. In the middle were tonal patterns for reading audition, and down the right side was the objective for each class. While every student had not performed perfectly, it was gratifying to see all that they had attempted, and to reflect on how most had succeeded. Not written on the board were the pitches and rhythms that the 5th graders had sight sung, and the new song we had analyzed together and that I had helped them begin to learn how to sing.
After taking note of all of this, I erased the center of the board and put a list of five songs and pieces up, along with three questions: What in this song interests you? What do you know about this song? What do you think the composer was trying to express with this music? The students had to select one of the songs or pieces before they heard any of them, just based on my description. They then wrote answers to the three questions in response to their selection, and then shared their answers with the class. Students had the chance to question the presenter about the selection or their experience of it.
Over the course of the day, my students were working on many of the new standards. The fifth graders worked on the perform standard when they analyzed the music they were learning, rehearsed, evaluated and refined their performance, and practiced sight singing. The seventh graders worked on the create standards when they generated musical ideas, interpreted their own ideas, selected musical ideas from those they generated to include in a musical work, and wrote a plan of how they would use those ideas. Some of the students also wrote down their ideas in traditional notation, organized according to the plan they had made. The first graders worked on the create standard as they found pitches that would be a good continuance of a motif I provided. They then read their ideas notated on the board, and at their request, took home a photocopy of the finished melody, which they were very proud of. The sixth graders worked on the respond standard, working on the select portion by identifying their interest in, knowledge of, and interpretation of music to which they listened. If they were going to perform the music, they also would have determined if the selection was within or close to their ability.
Because assessment is so important in education today, and because I often hear music teachers say that music is subjective and cannot be measured, I would like to point out that everything my students did today was assessable. Sight reading and singing can be assessed on rubrics. Musical ideas can be assessed on a checklist—how many were generated, and did they express what the composer intended. The plans can also be assessed on a rubric for clarity and detail. Plans that were scored highest specified details such as what order ideas would be placed in, which ideas would be combined, and what instruments would play them. Plans that scored lowest were vague, or provided irrelevant information. The first graders were assessed on participation, and evaluation comments made after decisions were made. “Do you like that choice of notes?” First graders often can’t explain why some notes sound better than others, but they can recognize the differences and it was good for the young composers to do so. For example, at one point they made a tritone and disliked it, but then liked it when a child in the class remembered that do comes after ti and so formed a resolution. The questions the 6th grade students answered can be assessed on content.
I have all of the new music standards posted at the front of my classroom. I do this for me, so that I always have them there to remind me of where my focus needs to be. The students know they are there and are welcome to read them, but they are there mainly for me. With selecting, analyzing, interpreting, practicing, refining, and presenting for performing, creating, and responding as the skeleton of all my teaching, I am not apt to become careless and lapse into just singing songs. There’s always more to teaching music than that.