Music teachers often work on musical works with their students for one of two general reasons. They learn to perform a work for a concert, or to teach a skill or concept. Of course, good music teachers teach skills and concepts while teacing concert pieces, but the purpose for selecting the work is different. With a “teaching piece,” the students and teacher can probe, study, and work with a piece without regard to a performance deadline. Such pieces can be studied in greater detail and from more perspectives than pieces for which a performance must be brought to concert readiness. In non-performance classes, there tends to be more emphasis on “teaching pieces” because general music classes generally don’t perform in public. In my own situtation, some of my general music classes do perform, where chorus is not offered for their greade level. Performance pieces are learned in general music class and then presented at a public concert. But for most of the year, these classes do not perform in public. Regadless of which purpose a work is chosen for a class to work on, certain areas of study should be included in the work done with the piece.
Any preparation and study of a musical work should include attention to contrasts, beat, melodic contour, tonality, meter, structure, rhythm, pitch and form. Depending on the age of the students involved, attention will be given to anywhere between one or a few to all of these concepts. The list given here is in order of difficulty, from easiest to most difficult, or from pre-k level to 8th grade. Beginning in 1st grade, children can begin demonstrating their knowledge of these concepts through performing from musical notation. In 3rd grade, children can also describe how their personal experience affects their performance of music. In 4th grade, they can explain this, and in 6th grade they can identify how the contexts affect their performances. The progression from describing to explaining to identifying represents a gradual increase in specificity, honing in more and more on specific elements of personal and social contexts that influence and shape an individual performance, and account for differences among performers in interpretation. These descriptions, explanations, and identification are the result of analyzing the music being studied.
Interpretation is also an essential part of musical experience, both for performers and listeners. At the earliest levels, this begins with exploring the expressive qualities of music such as dynamics, voice quality and tempo, and gradually over the years gaining an understanding and ability to describe how the expressive qualities are used by creators and performers of music. This leads students to an understanding of what the composer intended to express when he or she created the music, and how performers express a creators intent, as well as their own emotions through performing the music.By 6th grade, students should be able to interpret through performance from notated music, having learned how experessive musical qualities are represented in notated music, and how to perform those expressive qualities.
Notice that when students reach the age when most music teachers start teaching orchestral instruments, around the 4th or 5th grade, students are still developing their abilities to understand and use most musical elements, and to interpret them from notation. This suggests that early instrumental music should be more conceptually based than it often is in a rush to learn fingerings, produce five pitches, and play Oats and Peas by December. Also notice that by the time students are 11 years old, or in 6th grade, they are capable of interpreting music, and do not need to have interpretations wholly prescribed to them by the band, orchestra or choir director. Middle school studnets who have been effectively educated in music up to that point are prepared to perform music in a personally intentional and expressive manner. That is why we sing. That is why we play. To make music that is personally expressive and interpretively faithful to composers’ intent. Studnets must be prepared for and given the opportunity to make music in this way.