Teaching the Once A Week Music Class

2011 Symposium2

If there’s one thing I don’t like about teaching music, it is that I only see each class one time each week. This has at least two disadvantages; music can easily be regarded as less important because it meets less often than math, science, language arts, and social studies, and  students struggle to remember what they learned from week to week. Both disadvantages can be mitigated with careful and purposeful planning.

While it would be important for good teaching in any circumstances, planning lessons around concepts instead of activities is even more important in a setting where students are meeting with you once a week. Teaching around concepts focuses the learning around a core of knowledge that is a priority in  the field, which in this case is music. It also focuses learning and provides a purpose to what students are doing.; Teaching to concepts means I don’t just pick a concert program, teach the songs, and give a concert. It means I use the songs I pick for a concert to teach specific concepts, and it means I teach some songs only to teach a specific concept; songs that never are performed in public. I may use one song to teach legato singing and breath support over a four- or eight-measure phrase. I may use another song to teach singing dissonance. In each case, I will not simply be having students practice singing phrases or dissonance, but I will be teaching them the structure of music, how composers use musical phrases to be expressive, and how musical ideas are extended and developed using phrases as antecedent or consequent to build themes, sections, movements, and entire pieces.

Because I am teaching concepts, there are concrete things to review from anticipateone class to the next. It isn’t just a matter of remembering what students sang or played well and what still needs practice. It’s a matter of what an antecedent or consequent phrase is, which they are singing at any given time, and how knowing that informs their singing and interpretation. Through concepts, students have a context in which to go deeper in their study of both performance and repertoire, and I have a body of knowledge around which to build a sequence of lessons that contains important understandings that can be remembered, practiced, and applied to real-world musical situations. Instead of distracting me from concert preparation, teaching with concepts helps focus my teaching so that concert preparation has an impact on my students beyond the performance, and my class has importance beyond the teaching of skills. When I teach from concepts, I am delivering instruction that is worthy of being considered “core” and “academic.” My teaching is not just about what a student can do, but also what they know and have learned. It is not enough for them to be able to sing or play a piece, they must also understand from analysis and interpretation what they are singing and playing, and understand how to bring to bear various ways of singing and playing to specific musical works.

It is important to review and connect at the beginning of each class. Students need to be reminded of the concept and understanding they were learning last time, and how the present class will be a continuation and application of that learning. For example, I might start a class that is doing a music composition project by saying “last time we learned about tonal center.” We learned that the tonal center is the one pitch that a melody keeps coming back to, and that sounds as if it could be the last note.” I might then play a melody I had played last time, and have someone in the class identify the tonal center, or I might stop on various notes along the way and ask if that pitch is the tonal center. I would also write a melody on the board and go over how skips away from the tonal center are followed by step movement toward the tonal center, and show the students how a melody wraps around the Practice makes permanenttonal center. By now, the class has remembered what they learned and did last time, and is ready to do more with a tonal center. They are now ready to either continue writing a melody with a clearly defined tonal center, or to start a new one. Reviewing makes the continuity of the sequence of lessons apparent, and motivates students to re-engage in the learning because the purpose for what they are doing is clear. Working from concepts and reviewing each lesson are two ways to maximize learning for a class you only see once a week. It is also good teaching for any class, regardless of how often it meets.

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