More On Differentiation in Music Classes

2011Symposium_1_2The Core Arts standards include selecting music for performance and listening. Among the things to be considered are student abilities and student interests. Students should have an accurate assessment of their abilities so that they can choose music that is within their capacity to play or sing, and students should have the opportunity to study music they like and in which they have an interest. The same concern for student ability should be considered whenever a learning activity is given to a student. One of the challenges of teaching many students at one time, as is done in a typical school classroom, is that although all students are expected to complete a curriculum, not all students have the same ability to do so any any given time. What’s more, the ability a person has to do a task that is placed before them directly affects the confidence they have in achieving success, and the interest they have in pursuing completion. Very few students will make a concerted and extended effort to do something they are convinced they cannot do.

Many students want to play the piano, and begin study, whether individually or in group lessons, with a high level of enthusiasm. After a while, those that have realized some measure of success will continue with high levels of motivation, while others will begin to doubt that continuing is worth the effort. For these students, obstacles have become burdensome and discouraging. For some, music reading frustrates. Even when new notes are presented logically and only one at a time, some students fail to make the connections necessary to understand that pitch is a function of where the note head is placed on the staff, and rhythm is a function of stems, beams, and filled or unfilled note heads. For others, the connection between the printed notes and the corresponding keys on the instrument is only made with difficulty. These students typically can play by fingering numbers, but are at a loss as to what to do when they must read the notes without fingerings marked. Still others find using the correct fingerings awkward and inconvenient. Because the utility of being particular about fingering early on often does not become apparent until the music becomes substantially more advanced, students must press on in faith with exacting fingerings, even when they are fully able to play beginner level music with practically any combination of fingers.

All of these issues, and more, factor in to how well a student does, how they perceive themselves progressing, piano practiceand how they self-assess their ability to succeed. I’m convinced that most if not all students reach a balance point between motivation and self-assessment. A student is motivated by his or her desire to play the piano, but that motivation is lessened as the student continues to believe that they are not able to improve and that the proficiency level they are at is not high enough to give them a sense of being able to play the piano as they envisioned it when they started. In order to challenge a student without triggering a persistently negative self-assessment, reachable short-term goals must frequently be placed in front of the student. A goal should not be to complete a particular page in a book, but to master a particular skill or concept being taught on that page in a book. For example, instead of making the goal to finish page 34, make the goal to be able to smoothly play back and forth between C major and G7 chords in three-part voicing with the correct fingerings. The student can begin with a single arpeggio for each chord, continue by playing the block chords, and finally by playing a simple melody with the right hand while playing the chords in the left hand. .

Completing one, two or all three of these tasks counts as meeting the goal. Students who are struggling or need more confidence should be guided through the first task, and commended for completing it. Students who quickly finish the first task and are eager to continue go on two the second and then possibly third task. As teachers, we accept whichever represents substantial progress for that student, and are not concerned with whether or not they finished all three or finished the page. In time, when the confidence level of the student who could only complete one task grows, he or she will gladly complete more tasks, and instead of a discouraged drop-out, we have a now motivated achiever or even high achiever.

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