Two Questions Every Student Asks and What To Do About Them

2011Symposium_1_2I find that there are two critical questions that most students ask themselves at the beginning of my music classes. One is, “can I do this?” and the other, “is this going to be worth my time and effort to succeed at?” Many students would rather not try than for it to be seen that they are unable to do something. The level of challenge up front can make or break a lesson. I tend to want to hold students accountable for what I have taught them. If I have taught them all they need to know for a given activity, then I want to give them the work, and make them figure it out. To a point, this is a sound strategy that develops students’ capacity to think critically and problem solve, both highly valued skills in today’s educational environment. But at some point, it makes no difference whether or not I have taught the students something I now expect them to know. If they don’t remember, don’t understand, or can’t apply the teaching, then requiring them to find their way can easily lead to embarrassment or discouragement, both of which will shut down many kids.

At the same time, a wholesale review is likely unnecessary for everyone, and will cause those who are ready to tackle the assignment to become bored and impatient waiting for the others to be caught up. Some review is always good, as long as it is fast paced and reinforces learning for the higher achievers, and helps lower achievers grasp what they missed the first time. After that, some differentiation is needed. The lesson I taught to my 7th grade class today is a good case in point.

The students are learning to play keyboard using phone or tablet apps of a piano keyboard. Students had previously performance anxietylearned a rote song, read melodies notated in the treble clef, and learned how to find c and f on the keyboard. I had not taught them how to read bass clef, although some students in the class take piano lessons and consequently already knew how. On the white board at the front of the room I had written the bass part to “Lean On Me,” notated in the bass clef. I also wrote note names under some of the notes to guide their study. I projected a picture of a piano keyboard with the letter note names marked and reviewed how to find c and f, and how the other notes can all be figured from c or f. I then left the slide on my computer monitor and invited the students to walk over to my desk and refer to the picture whenever they needed to. I played the bass part on the acoustic piano a few times to set the rhythm in their memory. All of the students were familiar with this well-known bass part, so my playing was sufficient review to strengthen that familiarity. I then set them about practicing the bass part on their keyboard apps, and to play it for me when they were ready. Some students did very well fairly quickly, while others struggled to find the notes on the keyboard in spite of the resource of the chart I had provided. One of the students who had quickly succeeded or I gave the ones who were struggling one-on-one attention. The struggling students appreciated the help and the privacy of one on one that avoided making their difficulty public. Even students who sometimes refuse to do much became engaged and motivated, largely from the appeal of learning piano, and largely from the real opportunity to succeed that the structuring of the activity afforded.

At some point in the lesson, all of the students were able to answer the first question in the affirmative; yes, I can do this. Upon deciding the task was doable, the second question was much easier to also answer in the affirmative. Realizing that success was in their grasp, they also decided that it was worth their time and effort to work through the assignment to achieve the goal set before them of playing this bass part on the keyboard. Next week, I am now in a position of building on what was accomplished today, reviewing and giving the students some time to practice more, and then making what they have learned to play part of an ensemble experience as they play the bass line and I play the melody. This will also provide me with the opportunity to play my clarinet for them. I like doing this periodically because it reminds my students that I am not only their general music teacher, but also a professional clarinetist. Beyond playing the melody for “Stand by Me” I will also play a short recital encore to demonstrate what years of practice and training lead to. It is important for students to see their teachers as professionals in their field, and no more so than in the arts.


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