Teaching About Music The Way We Teach Music

2011Symposium_1_2For the most part, music rehearsals have three parts that extend over a period of weeks. The first part is learning how the music is supposed  to go, the second part is learning to perform the music correctly, correcting errors where they occur and trying to avoid errors during trials, and the third part is performing it correctly repeatedly so that the performance-ready version becomes natural and easily repeatable. The third of these three parts is accomplished with repetition; repeating the right version over and over so that it is committed to memory and so that it is the most likely outcome of trying to perform the piece. Repetition is one of the most powerful learning tools there is. Whatever is repeated is learned and remembered. We know this and we do this in our rehearsals every day. But what about the non-performance things we want our students to learn and remember? Do we take advantage of the power of repetition when teaching those things as well?

If I teach a class a concept by telling them what it is, and having them use the concept over the course of the lesson, by the time I see that class again, which is usually after a week has passed, most of those students won’t remember what the concept was or be able to give me a definition, but most or all of them will remember the song I taught them that contained the concept. This happened just this week. I introduced a third grade class to syncopation two weeks ago. Yesterday, the first time I had met that class in two weeks because of the holiday vacation, not one of them could tell me what syncopation was; yet, when I asked them to sing “Run From the Farmer,” nearly all of them remembered the song. When I asked them to raise their hand whenever they heard the syncopated rhythm, all of them did it correctly without hesitation, but they still couldn’t tell me what syncopation was. They remembered raising their hand at that rhythm, or perhaps at those lyrics, but could not describe what was happening metrically and rhythmically in the music. This should not be surprising, because they repeated the song and the hand raising several times two weeks ago, but they only heard the definition, and only twice at that. How could I have taught the definition differently so they remembered that too? I could have used repetition.

Unison recitation is an under-used strategy in classrooms. The teacher asks a question, and the class says the i-get-itanswer out loud in unison. Of course questions must have one answer for this strategy, but that makes it a great tool for learning definitions and vocabulary. I told them that a syncopated note both between the beats and strong. Is a note that is only between the beats syncopated? “No,” they answered in unison. Is a note syncopated if it is only strong? “No,” they again answered in unison. So what is syncopation? “A note that is both between the beats and strong.” Again. “A note that is both between the beats and strong.” What is syncopation? “A note that is both between the beats and strong.” .You get the idea. Students who have repeated something like this will remember it with much greater success than just hearing it or even reading it. Learning a vocabulary word or a definition is no time to contrive a way for students to use higher level thinking. That comes when they apply the concept to authentic experiences. When they sing a syncopated note, or improvise a rhythm with a syncopated note, then they are using higher level thinking. After memorizing the definition, to get them to apply the concept, I played a syncopated rhythm on a drum, and then had individual students improvise a different rhythm that was not syncopated. In order to know what something is, you also have to know what it isn’t. Most students needed two or three trials to come up with a non-syncopated rhythm, but all but one was able to do so. That was high level thinking that reinforced the concept being taught, that of syncopation.

Teachers should not hesitate to use repetition to teach new concepts and vocabulary. Before students can apply a concept, they must first learn that concept, and repetition is an effective way to learn new concepts and material. Teacher must be careful not to dismiss repetition as unnecessary in our rush to develop critical thinking skills. Repetition is a necessary first step in meaningful, relevant learning.

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