Today, one of my eighth grade classes was composing percussion ensemble pieces. They had begun their works last week, and were continuing composing today. As I circulated through the class, looking at student work and pointing out notational issues that needed to be corrected, I was reminded of how many students make the same errors, even though the material has been taught several times, and was taught often in earlier grades. Perhaps some of these errors are familiar to you from your students: eighth notes with the heads not filled in, an incorrect number of beats in each measure, and beats not lined up vertically in the score. Each student heard my correction, and eventually corrected the notation on their scores, but I sensed that they really didn’t grasp why beats had to be lined up, and why there needed to be a certain number of beats in each measure. I found that lack of application was leaving my students’ learning incomplete.
The activity was planned so that while the students worked on their compositions, even if I hadn’t looked at their notation yet, they could get up with two friends (the pieces were for three instruments) and try out their composition at a “try out corner” where a full compliment of instruments was set up. Students who had not corrected their notation and who went to the try out corner had to deal with their incorrect notation in performance. These students, unlike the ones who only corrected their notation from their seats, quickly understood the repercussions of not having the same number of beats in all staves of a single measure. They couldn’t continue in their performance, because the part with not enough beats always got ahead of the others. They realized why all of those measures had to have the same number of beats: so that all the parts would fit together and come out right on each beat that followed. The application of “how to” was needed to complete the learning sequence. Those that hadn’t played were just following directions, but they weren’t able to understand why following those instructions was necessary.
Students can learn about, or learn how to do many things in music, but until they actually do the thing, learning can be too abstract to be truly understood. If, as David Elliott claims, music is something people do, then it must be in the doing of it that students come to truly understand music. While it is possible to compose percussion parts mostly from mathematical processes—placing the right number of beats in each measure—there are other considerations that may not become apparent until musical processes are applied. Doubled rhythms create strength and bring out a part, complementary rhythms create a transparent texture that allows multiple parts to be heard, and a mixture of metrical and phenomenal accents creates metric tension that cannot be seen on the page.
That the learning is in the doing is probably evident to most when it comes to playing an instrument. Few if any would attempt to learn to play an instrument just by reading or learning from a teacher how to play. Most if not all would recognize that they must actually play the instrument to learn to play it. Music listening is also learned by doing. Some aspects of music are intuitively understood from listening once a musical idiom has become familiar. Hearing patterns of tension and relaxation in music and detecting meter are probably accomplished intuitively with culturally familiar music. For other aspects of music, such as motivic development and theme and variations, students learn about and learn how to first, and then practice listening to gain proficiency in hearing these devices. No one learns how to trace a theme through a set of variations just by learning about the form. The person must actually listen to variations to understand them.
Notice that for each of these ways of making music, multiple competencies must be employed to gain understanding. The composer must also perform, the performer and the listener must also analyze and interpret. When students or teachers try to isolate these things, learning is bound to be incomplete and confused. The applied teacher must not just teach performance, but analysis and interpretation too. The music appreciation teacher must not just teach listening, but analysis, interpretation, music history and music theory too. The composition teacher must not just teach compositions, but interpretation, analysis, performance, and theory too. In each case, the teacher must not just teach about or how to, but also provide the student with opportunities to do. In music, the learning is in the doing.