Staying Focused as a Music Teacher

2011 Symposium2

If there is one thing that I don’t like about being a music teacher, it is this: I only see my students once a week for forty-five minutes. The problem with this is that over the course of an entire school year, I see my classes a maximum of forty times. That’s as many times as a classroom teacher sees his or her students in a month and a half. Between so few class meetings, and a full week between classes, retention is not great, and breadth and mastery of content is hard to come by. On the positive side, I do see the same students year after year, so I am able to strengthen and build on concepts and skills easily from year to year. But I must maintain my focus, and make sure that no aspect of building musicianship is absent from lessons, because if it is, by the time I get to it again, weeks may have passed.

To effectively work with this schedule, I take an approach to lesson planning similar to one that a musician might take to practicing. A musician will have a routine of playing scales and arpeggios, staccato studies, etudes, solo repertoire, and perhaps orchestral repertoire each time he or she practices. In a similar way, I include what I consider to be foundational concepts in nearly every lesson. These concepts include tonal or rhythm patterns from Gordon’s Music Learning Theory, music reading using fixed do solfege, practice using good vocal technique, improvisation, and practicing repertoire. I begin with the Music Learning Theory. I try to customize the patterns and technique I will use with a given class based on formative assessment results. For example, on a recent singing assessment, I found that about half of the 2nd graders did not start on the correct pitch singing unaccompanied and following a sung vocal prompt to begin. Because the song in the assessment began on the tonic pitch, I first sang a tonal pattern to the class, then had the class sing me the tonic pitch, regardless of whether it was in the pattern or not. After I determined the class was successful at doing this, I then had individual students do the task. I will continue repeating this approach for several weeks, then informally have students sing the beginning of the assessment song following the vocal prompt and see if improvement has Pic_2
been made.

After tonal or rhythm patterns, I will continue with song repertoire. I’ll begin with a familiar song, and focus in on vocal production. I find I must constantly remind my students to demonstrate good vocal production when they sing. They love to sing, but left on their own can be careless with their technique. I use the song to teach singing, so the songs I select match what I am trying to teach them. If I am working on upper adjustment, I either use a song that is generally in their upper range, or I will transpose a song so that it brings them into their upper range. So many adults have told so many kids that to sing well is to sing loud, that I often must remind them to sing well, but not loud. A properly produced vocal sound with correct voicing, well placed vowels good breath management, will project just fine, even at soft dynamic levels. Children then have the flexibility to use the whole range of dynamics for what dynamics should be for–expression. I may rehearse one, two, or three songs. Usually when rehearsing more than one song, they will be contrasting so that I can work on different concepts with each song.

After song rehearsal, I do some music reading from my staff-lined white board. I like to put a phrase or two from a song on the staff. First, the children sing the letter names of the notes. This is just to reinforce knowledge of the note names. Then they sing the music using fixed do. I find that they sing much more in tune with the solfege than with the letter names, but they also need to know letter names to play Orff barred instruments. For these reading phrases, I keep the rhythm simple so it does not become a distraction. My main interest when doing this activity is in pitches so everything is in whole, half and quarter notes. If I am focusing on rhythm that day, the patterns at the beginning of the class are rhythm patterns, and the notation on the board will be rhythms all written on the same space of the staff. Eventually, when proficiency is up, I will use more difficult rhythms and faster tempos. Generally, by third grade we are reading music that also includes dotted rhythms, and sixteenth note rhythms, though not at breakneck speed.

To end the class, I will do some kind of movement activity. These include moving to music I improvise on the piano, or play from a recording. These are focused activities. For example, I may ask students to do prescribed movements to indicate meter changes, the rhythm, or the general expressive flow of the music. With the youngest children, it may be Dance-and-Movementto keep the beat with a variety of repetitive movements. I like to change the movement used because different children best feel the beat with different parts of their body. By changing the movement during the music, I include more preferred movements than if I just stick to one. Also, changing movements provides variety and is more fun.

There are other activities besides those I have just mentioned that I use in classes, but the overall template of my lessons is pretty much what I have described. When I want children to respond to music, I will play them a musical work and have them respond either by writing about it, moving to it expressively, indicating the form by using silent signals for same or different, and so forth. These types of listening activities can be done in the movement section at the end, or at the beginning using a recording of a work they are about to rehearse. In the latter case, responding to the music first helps the students understand more about the music and the composer’s expressive intent. Because the students work with reading, singing, moving, creating, and responding every week, they become both proficient and comfortable with all of the creative processes in music.

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