Depth of Learning in Music Classes

Version 2One of the challenges school music teachers face is the wide range of grades many of us teach. It is not uncommon for public school music teachers in the United States to teach every student in a school that serves children from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. Many music teachers teach 500-700 students throughout the course of a single week. That amounts to many instructional units being taught at once, many levels of assessments being given, studied and used to improve or continue instruction, and many times barely a moment to catch one’s breath as the teacher moves from teaching 3 year olds for one class, and eleven, twelve, or thirteen year olds the next. The adjustments are many, the opportunities for preparing between classes are few to none. How does a music teacher in such a situation as this maintain substantial depth of learning, and avoid falling back into superficial or cognitively low level teaching?

Superficial learning in a music class most often results from the teacher focusing on the activity instead of the objective. When the teacher is working for nothing more than getting students prepared to present a concert, the skills of tone production, executive technique and hopefully interpretation are being developed, but there is little if any attention given to music concepts. Concepts, as opposed to skills, are embedded in essential questions and enduring understandings. They are the knowledge upon which music is universally grounded, and without which one cannot hope to come to a meaningful, lasting, relevant understanding of music upon which life-long enjoyment of music depends. When a teacher is teaching a musical work because it will be presented in a concert, that teacher is only developing skills, and is teaching at a low cognitive level. By contrast, when a teacher is teaching a musical work because it is an example of a particular use of a specific musical element in a given genre, style, and/or historical time period, then that teacher is asking students to analyze, interpret, and connect, and then transfer knowledge to how they apply their executive technique, tone production and interpretation. Seeking after exemplification and use of the concept in the musical work being studied, yes studied as in under investigation, sets the expectation that students will ask and answer questions through more than a utilitarian view of the piece.

Though all of this may sound complicated and time consuming, it is neither. it is instead a shift in perspective for the teacher. The teacher shifts from seeing teaching as concert preparation in the same way a math teacher might see teaching as state testing preparation, to seeing teaching as a straight line on which the concept is ever present, and through which the musical works and activities run. It is a shifting of focus from the activity and/or musical work to the concept. Instead of selecting repertoire to suit a Feed Your Brain Musicconcert program, musical works are selected to suit the teaching of stated concepts which form the substance of teaching objectives. The repertoire is then a resource used in the teaching of the concept, and the eventual presentation of the performance is a by-product of the teaching, not the primary reason for rehearsals. Though this shift will certainly alter many behaviors and decisions the teacher makes as to what he or she does in the classroom with students, it does not take any more time to implement than the concert based  method. On the contrary, once students catch on to the higher purpose of instruction begin given, they become more interested, invested, and motivated in what they are being asked to do, and the teacher also has the pleasure of seeing students more engaged.

The extra time needed for this type of teaching is not found during the actual classes taught, it comes in the planning of instruction. It will initially take more time to identify the artistic process (creating, performing, responding, connecting), an anchor standard (cross discipline) and  performance standard (discipline specific), Enduring understanding, and essential question for each lesson, but doing so absolutely hones the teacher in to a very clear purpose that focusing teaching and is easy to communicate to students to that they understand what is expected, and what they are supposed to know and be able to do as a result of instruction. Doing all of this, I write a week’s worth of lesson plans for grades kindergarten through 8th grade in two hours.  I have found that it is time well spent, as evidenced by greater understanding and proficiency by my students, better classroom management that results for more focused and invested students, and more joy of teaching to me. For me, the time spent planning is an investment in the success of my students and in my own enjoyment of teaching them that is well worth it. Here is a lesson plan for first grade that includes all of the components I have discussed. All of the content prior to the instruction section is taken from the National Core Arts Standards “Standards at a Glance” table. This kind of planning does not fit into a standard lesson plan book, so I use where I can customize the format to fit my needs.

Artistic Process: Creating
Enduring Understanding: Musicians’ creative choices are influenced by their expertise, context, and expressive intent.

Essential Question(s): How do musicians make creative decisions?

Anchor Standard2: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.

MU:Cr2.1.1a With limited guidance, demonstrate and discuss personal reasons for selecting musical ideas that represent expressive intent.


  1. Play “Clouds.” Tell the class that the name of the song is “Clouds.” Ask students to listen carefully so that they can describe what they heard when the song is over.
  2. After playing the song, ask the children how the composer used dynamics, rhythm, timbre and pitch. What effect did the use of these elements have on them as listeners? Ask them to compare the sound of the music to the look of clouds in the sky. How was the music like clouds?
  3. Give a row of children barred instruments. Play a pattern on a barred instrument. Tell the children one at a time to repeat the pattern you played if it reminds them of clouds, or to play a different pattern if the pattern you play does not remind them of clouds. Do two patterns for each child. After completing a row, go back and ask each child, “if you chose to play my pattern, why did it remind you of clouds?” or “If you chose to make up your own pattern, why did your pattern remind you of clouds?
  4. Review the song, “Migration” by Nancy Steward. Once the class has sung it together, have one row of children at a time create an accompaniment using the minor pentatonic scale, and rhythms of half, quarter or eighth. Ask children to explain their choice of notes and rhythms as a good fit for the song, “Migration.”
  5. Finish with tonal patterns for individuals.

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