Teaching Music from the Student’s Perspective

2011Symposium_1_2In the midst of planning and teaching lessons that encompass a complete curriculum and provide training in comprehensive musicianship, music teachers, myself included, sometimes forget to approach our content from the student’s perspective. As teachers, we are aware of different proficiency levels and different learning styles, but we are not as aware of what our content looks like to children, or of the context in which they view that content. What music do they hear outside our music classrooms? Are their parents musically active in the home, and do our students frequently see their parents being musical? Do they frequently perform music for or with family members. Many of us ended up being music teachers in part because we went through childhood and adolescence in a musically active home environment, surrounded by resources and encouragement. For example, my grandfather gave me my own phonograph when I was seven years old, and my parents trusted me with their record collection. I spent hours listening to music, including the few classical records my parents owned. We sang together weekly, and I had a private clarinet teacher for many years. Yet even with all of these advantages, I can still remember dreading music class, when it was comprised of little more than sitting at my desk with a basal music book trying (unsuccessfully) to learn to sing with solfege. I loved to sing, but not with solfege. Why not sing with the lyrics?

My students ask me the same question as I teach them to sing with solfege. But unlike my teacher, I am happy to give them an answer. “The solfege gives you a way to remember and vocalize the pitches you see in written music. They are like learning the letters of the alphabet as a step on the way to learning to read language.” “But why do we have to learn how to read music?” “So you can know how songs go just by looking, like I do” I answer. Sometimes students answer their own question. They’ll ask me, “How do you know what to sing or play so quickly?” “I can read music” I reply. “And you will be able to do the same thing if you read to music too.”

The fact is, there are many musical things people can do without reading music, and many people teach themselves to play MusicEarinstruments without ever being able to read standard music notation. Lucy Green wrote in her book How Popular Musicians Learn Music that students will naturally learn music the way popular musicians do–from playing by ear. Green found that when teachers let students choose their own repertoire, and watch how students go about learning the music they choose, the teacher can then enter into the students’s ongoing way of learning and be a resource to help the student accomplish what s/he has started to work toward. That is how teachers can see content from the students’ perspective.

Of course, left entirely on their own, many students, perhaps even most, will not encounter a diversity of musical styles, which should be one of the goals in any quality music curriculum. So student choices may need to be constrained by requirements that assure musical and cultural diversity. For example, students may be required to select a minimum number of pieces from a list of musical styles to assure that some, including classical, and jazz, are included in every student’s musical experience in your class. But the principle of following the students’ lead in how music learning will be approached is still in force. When a student listener can correctly determine if a given musical work belongs to a given musical idiom, s/he has become familiar with that idiom. Once familiar with a musical idiom, and once the requisite skill sets are obtained, the student can then participate in a variety of musical activities including composing, improvising, performing, evaluating, analyzing, interpreting, and writing about representative works. Approaching works from this kind of comprehensive way will build deep understandings of each work and idiom. Styles the student is already familiar with such as rap or pop will be understood in a more comprehensive way, and styles that are relatively new to the student will be known more thoroughly than if mere exposure is the goal. Diversity addresses the concerns of music educators, and student initiated learning approaches address the needs and interests of students.

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