This summer, I’m looking for funding to purchase music keyboards for my classroom. Many of my students want to learn how to play piano, but cannot afford or find transportation to a piano teacher. My kids love it when I give them time on the piano, but one piano for classes of twenty or more kids just isn’t enough. If you or someone you know would like to help hundreds of inner city kids receive music lessons on the piano, please donate to my Donors Choose project.
Today, my post is the third in a series on the core arts standards. In previous posts I discussed the artistic processes of creating and performing. Check the July archives if you missed those posts. Today, I will discuss the artistic process of responding. In one sense, responding to music is the most fundamental artistic process, because it is something everyone can and does do. While not everyone is a composer or a performer, virtually everyone listens to music and responds to what they hear. People may respond to music by moving, singing, dancing, drumming, feeling. and above all enjoying the music to which they are listening. In fact, at that point, a person is doing more than just listening, they are partaking in music making; what David Elliott referred to as “musiking.” There is a legitimate place in music classes for providing the environment for groups of students to experience music in this way, without any further intention or agenda on the teacher’s part. This kind of activity certainly qualifies as responding to music. It is not, however, what is described in the standards.
The difference between “musiking” and responding in the sense of the standards is an important one. Musiking is more closely aligned with teaching the student, while responding according to the standards is more aligned with teaching the content. When the alignment becomes too heavily placed on teaching content, students may become bored and disenfranchised. They sometimes lose the ability to connect what they are being taught with their own lives (part of the fourth artistic process of connecting). This is especially true of students who consider themselves non-performers. These students are apt to enjoy music on their phones, and sharing and talking about songs they like with their friends.
To many of these students, analyzing, evaluating, and understanding music is a misuse of their time, and draws them away from enjoying music as they choose to do so. Traditionally, some form of responding to music has been given over to non-performers in general music classes, while music performance took place in ensembles for the band, orchestra and chorus crowd. The problem with this approach is that, whether we realize it or not, the goal is to make music students instead of music lovers. The reality is as long as students are doing things with music that they don’t enjoy, they will never become music lovers if they aren’t already, and worse, many will become music class haters if the lesson stand in the way of enjoying music. Learning music and enjoying music are not necessarily synonymous.
With that said, I will now discuss the actual standard for responding to music. The authors of the core arts standards define responding as “understanding and evaluating how the arts (in our case music) convey meaning. If you read my previous post on performing, you will recall that the overriding purpose of performing music is to communicate meaning. Now, on the audience side of the equation, knowing what meaning has been communicated or conveyed is the central concern. Here is where connecting with the student is critical. We mustn’t limit a musical work to communicating musical things, or to teaching students what we think the music means. When a student says “that’s my song” they are inviting you into their musical world, telling you that the songwriter and performer have connected to something that they have experienced or can relate to, and because of that they like the song. It could be the beat, the lyrics, an instrument, or it could be that they generally like the work of a particular recording artist. Whatever it may be, it is important to validate the meaning the student has found in the music in addition to pointing out additional meaning we may want to teach them.
The anchor standards for responding are that students will perceive and analyze artistic work, interpret intent and meaning in artistic work, and apply criteria to evaluate artistic work. Students tend to be more interested in interpreting than analyzing, so I like to link the two together, teaching them how composers and performers use musical elements to give meaning to their work. This loops back around to performing, giving students greater understanding of how to express intent when they are performing, and it uses their interest in meaning to teach them other musical concepts.
When it comes to evaluating musical work, I once again try to strike the right balance. Using criteria based on the craft and structure of the music has its place, and is a time-honored way of teaching many musical elements, but it is not the only way. Just as legitimate, for example, is how well a musical work conveys meaning. Taking this approach opens a discussion on what meaning music should convey, and then how well a particular musical work conveys that sort of meaning. Other criteria are also possible, and they should be generated by the students. How engaging is the beat? How exciting is the tempo and instrumentation? How meaningful are lyrics? By the way, although I try to avoid focusing solely on lyrics, because words are not, strictly speaking, music, lyrics are an integral part of most of the music my students listen to, and must be included in any discussion, analysis or evaluation of music they spend most of their musical time with. So developing the criteria that is applied to evaluate a musical work is done collaboratively with the students, and not imposed on them. This is in keeping with our desire to balance teaching content with teaching students.