Although it seems we have had high stakes testing, district assessments, UbD, PBIS, NCAS, and any number of other strings of letters forever, most of the parents of our students remember music class as just a place where they went to sing songs, play instruments, and be entertained. The idea that there are standards, assessments, written assignments, and a core of learning to be had is new to them. Whereas in years past, students may have received As in music just for showing up and having good behavior, in today’s educational climate, that is no longer acceptable practice. Student learning must be assessed in music, and instruction must be conceptual, not just skill based.
So what specifically has changed in music programs since our students’ parents were in school? What different between then and now? Then, music teachers selected music for their ensembles to play, showed, taught, demonstrated how it was to be interpreted and played, and rehearsed through repetition until the ensemble reproduced the teacher’s interpretation. This was a teacher centered classroom where the students were expected to closely follow the teacher’s directions and instructions in order to prepare a performance that was in many ways unknown to the students until they were ready to present the concert. Now, students participate in selecting the music they will learn, taking into account their interest, abilities, understandings, and the context for which the performance is intended. This might be accomplished by the teacher presenting their own criteria, or developing criteria with students for selecting concert music, and then presenting the ensemble with a list of possible selections, and then having students choose a concert program, providing supporting evidence using the criteria to support their decisions.
Then, the teacher might tell the students about the form or structure of the music they were learning. For example, if a band or orchestra were playing a fugue, the director would tell the students that they were going to learn a fugue, and then point out the subject, counter-subject, counterpoint, episode, stretto, and so forth. The teacher might ask questions like, “who is playing the subject at letter B?” It would be the teacher’s analysis, while the students job was to identify or label the various parts. This left the higher level thinking, the analysis, to the teacher, while the lower level thinking, labeling and identifying, were given to the students. Now, students learn the musical elements and forms, and then they do the analysis. In so doing they demonstrate understanding of the musical elements and structure.
Then, directors told and showed students how the music went. Crescendo here, retard there, play more staccato here, play more legato there. Now, students discern the composer’s expressive intent, and then explore ways to manipulate musical elements to effectively convey that expressive intent through interpreting the music. Dynamics, tempo, timbre, articulation/style, and phrasing are all at the students disposal; a palette of interpretive devices to use, blend, mix and match until the most effective way to perform a musical work is found. The director might ask, “what is the composer’s expressive intent from letter F to letter H?” “It is to provide release from the tension filled section that preceded.” Okay, then how should the way we play this calm section differ from how we just played the section with all that tension?” “Well, it should get more quiet.” “Good, what else?” “It can get slower.” “Maybe not slower. Do you see that the composer has written “L’stesso tempo” at letter F?” “Yes, I see that, but what does that mean?” “It means at the same tempo.” “Oh, so not slower.” “No, but what about those staccato notes? Should they be like the stressful once at letter D?” “No, they should be a little less short, and maybe less accented too.” “Good, I think that’s a good way to interpret those staccato notes.” The director can be marking a grade book as each student responds, making an informal assessment of his or her students’ interpreting.
Whereas ensemble students are likely to select music for presenting, general music students are just as likely to select music to which to respond as to present. For listening, students are asked to explain the connections between a musical work and specific interests or experiences for a specific purpose. The purpose can be student or teacher generated. For example, students may be given an assignment to determine the composer’s intent for three contrasting musical works. The purpose in this case is to find three musical works that are dissimilar but that still all interest the student. Or the students may have earned free listening time and individual students have different purposes for listening during this time. One may want to use music to alter their mood, one might want to listen to a favorite song they especially enjoy, and one may want to listen to a work they are practicing on an instrument for a recital. In each case, it is of great value to have the student select the music, and to have and use defensible and explainable reasons for his or her selection. Once the student selects the musical work, he or she can then interact with it in any number of ways, from simple enjoyment, to evaluating, analyzing, or preparing a performance. The teacher can use the music the student has selected to teach any number of musical concepts and skills, with a much higher student engagement level than is likely with teacher selected music.
I also want parents to know that while these aren’t the primary goals of music class, participating in music class assigned tasks teachers students to collaborate, problem solve, reach consensus, work collaboratively in groups, respect and listen to each other, think critically and creatively, and communicate effectively in a non-linguistic way. All of these life skills are taught as students interpret, select with an audience and purpose in mind, and manage their voice or instrument part in an ensemble. Group interpretation requires consensus, rehearsing, evaluating and refining a performance requires problem solving, and practicing good musicianship requires respecting all members of the ensemble in keeping balance, blend, and interpretation at appropriate levels so that all parts are audible and able to together create the desired intent. When parents know all these things, they take music as a school class more seriously, and that attitude transfers to their children, who then also take an improved attitude toward music; one that rivals that taken toward language arts, math and science.