Why Teach Instruments in General Music?

Version 2From the outset, I want to assure all of you who are Orff teachers that I am not going to oppose children playing instruments in general music. My students play recorders, barred instruments, and non-pitched instruments, and I understand the value in teaching all of them, In fact, that is what I want to discuss today. For quite some time, music teachers have accepted the playing of instruments in general music class as a normal part of instruction. Rhythm Band, Orff, and World Drumming, to name a few, have and continue to be popular with music teachers and students alike in elementary and junior high school general music classes. The 1994 music standards developed by MENC (now NAfME) included “performing on instruments alone and with others a varied repertoire of music.” Another one of those standards, “improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments,” was also frequently taught with the use of musical instruments. In this context, instruments were a needed resource for learning varied repertoire, and improvisation.

This approach to instruments, that they are a resource to be used in learning concepts and enduring understandings is even more evident in the 2014 National Core Arts Standards. In these standards, playing instruments (or singing for that matter) is not even mentioned. That in no way implies that singing and playing instruments is no longer important. It does mean that playing instruments and even singing is a means to and end, and not the end itself. What is that end? There are several. Those mentioned in the 2014 standards are selecting, explaining, describing, demonstrating, generating musical ideas, and performing, all done with whatever means the students and teacher decide upon, playing and singing among them. In other words, we don’t teach a child to play a recorder, or xylophone, or what have you so that they can play an instrument, though they will be able to do so as a natural consequence of using musical instruments in class. Instead, we teach a child to play a musical instrument because that is the best way for him or her to learn to improvise, convey expressive intent, generate musical ideas, and so forth. The stipulation of learning varied repertoire is still valuable, so children also learn to play musical instruments in order to fully experience a repertoire of instrumental music. The goal is to be able to do and to know how to do these things. The goal is not to be able to play an instrument, it is to use playing an instrument as a means to learning music.

This approach to teaching instruments has the tremendous advantage of being more engaging and relevant to students. Consider the difference between telling a student or a class that they are going to learn how to play treble clef fourth line d on the recorder because that is the next note in their lesson book, compared to telling them that they are going to learn that note because it is an important note in “I Got A Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas, and that they are going to play part of the melody of that song and be able to improvise on it. The second reason for learning the note d is one that the students can immediately connect with. It gives the learning of the note an immediate purpose, and it will enable them to do something they anticipate enjoying. The purpose is to use the recorder and the note d, along with the other notes they have learned, to perform a specific task, that of playing a selected melody and improvising over it. The same lesson could be taught using a flute, a violin, boom whackers, a xylophone, or whatever instrument is chosen. It doesn’t matter what instrument is used because the point of the lessonrecite-uo6n4t is not to teach a specific instrument, it is to teach improvisation.

The choice of an instrument is made based on what is appropriate and appealing to the students. Orff instruments have been so successful because they are accessible to most children. That was what Orff wanted when he developed them. Besides having removable bars and a sonorous tone, they have the advantage of being played with movements that are transferable from body percussion to playing instruments. This can make the teaching of Orff instruments a means for teaching beat movements and movements for form. The same can be said for hand drums, shakers, cow bells, Claves, and any highly portable percussion instrument. Recorders are less useful for teaching movement, but more useful for teaching phrasing, because phrasing is more easily understood in terms of breathing than in terms of striking with a mallet. Tempo and rhythm, on the other hand, is more easily understood in terms of movement, so instruments that can be easily played while moving freely are better for teaching tempo or rhythm. The point is that what you are going to teach and who you are going to teach it to determine what instrument can be most advantageously used.

Instruments should not be used as the primary means to teach tonality and pitch. This is because accurate pitch is produced on virtually all classroom instruments with no effort on the part of the student. Like piano, students do not need to tune the xylophone pitches they play, so no ability to perform with accurate intonation is being developed by playing a xylophone. The same is true for all barred instruments and for boom whackers. Pitch development in the general music classroom requires singing. In the later elementary grades and beyond, instruments such as strings or trombone are useful in further developing pitch, because to play these instruments, constant adjustment is needed. Through singing and audiation skills developed through singing, children of any age will be able to predict what music they are about to play will sound like, and then perform the task of playing the notes that fit that prediction, which results in better playing and better musicianship.

Teaching musical instruments must be objectives driven. In designing instruction this way, it is important that the teacher never mistake task, what the student is doing a part of the process, with objective, what the student will know or be able to do once instruction is completed. Directing a student’s attention to the objective first, and then putting an instrument in his or her hands as a tool to use in working toward and achieving the objective is the proper way to teach musical instruments. This doesn’t mean that the child is left to fend for him or herself in learning how to finger an instrument or produce a characteristic tone; that must be taught and practiced. But the purpose for such instruction is to ready the student for acquiring enduring understandings and achieving concept driven objectives.

 

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