21st Century Skills and Music Education

Version 2The phrase “21st century skills” has been in use for almost twenty years, yet educators still can find it difficult to find clarity in just how these skills differ from what they and their students were doing in the 20th century. Certainly technology, high level thinking, and authentic performance tasks were nothing new to educators at the dawn of the current century. So what exactly are 21st century skills, and how should implementing them have changed the way we approach teaching music? Which 21st century skills, when developed and utilized, most strengthen music educators task and music students’ success?

Of the thirteen 21st century skills, four of them are especially relatable to music education. These four skills are communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. These four skills, more than any others, have whether consciously or unconsciously formed the backbone of both the 1994 national standards, and more recently the 2014 national core arts standards. Results reported in Arts Education Standards and 21st Century Skills (2011, College Board for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards) indicate that communication aligns with all of the 1994 standards except reading music for grades K-12, creativity aligns with performing and creating standards, while collaboration, aligns with performing standards. Because of the emphasis given to expressive intent, interpretation, and generating musical ideas, one would expect the alignment to be greater between the 2014 standards for creating and performing and the skills of collaboration and creativity. In this article, I will discuss communication through music.

The 21st century skill of communication in the context of music education is the conveyance of ideas, emotions, and feelings through artistic activity and work. While the possibility of conveying specific ideas through music is problematic given the abstract nature of music compared to language, conveying emotions and feelings with music is the very heart and soul of music, and all the more so when the National Core Arts Standards of 2014 are considered. In fact, one of the anchor standards for creating artistic work is to “convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.” I should note that an anchor standard is a general statement of purpose that applies to all thesinger arts; hence the use of the phrase “artistic work” rather than “musical work.” But here I am considering only music. One of the core reasons for performing music is to convey meaning, and the 21st century skill of communication informs us that the meaning that is to be conveyed through music is emotions and feelings. So one of the main tasks a student musician has is to determine what emotions and what feelings was the composer intending to convey when he or she wrote the work, by what means did the composer make the work expressive of those feelings and emotions, and how should the music be interpreted so that those feelings and emotions are communicated to an audience. An approach to music performance grounded in the 21st century skill of communication will pursue answers to those questions to inform the preparation of the musical work for presentation.

If communication figures so prominently in music performance, how much more so must it figure in musical composition. Creating music is communicating through music in its purest form. Whether a musician is composing a symphonic work, a pop song, or improvising a jazz solo, he or she is by the very act of creating music expressing something. Creators of music express things intentionally, as we have discussed, and also unintentionally when a hearer of the music finds meaning that the composer was unaware of when creating the work. Musicians generate musical ideas as writers generate ideas in words. A writer puts down words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so forth, not at random, but in an attempt to express an idea that has come to mind before the act of writing it down has commenced. Likewise, a musician who is expressing something thought music, has an expressive intent in mind which precedes writing the notes down, or improvising them into the ear of a listener.

Composers and songwriters (but not improvisers) will generate many more ideas than they will eventually retain in the final work; therefore the act of selecting from all the generated ideas is also informed by the expressive intent. “Of all the musical ideas written down, which ones best convey what I want to express?” The more clearly the creator of music acts on a specific intent, the more decisive an eventual performer can be in determining that intent and fashioning an appropriate interpretation. That interpretation leads to the performance, which is the last part of the musical communication process: Create, interpret, perform, respond, the last of which is done by the hearer.

I will now look at the activity of the hearer in the communication process. The hearer is the object of the communication, and the communication may occur amidst other hearers in an audience at a live performance, among other hearers at a recorded performance, or by a single hearer listening alone. In each case, the musical performance makes an impression on the hearer, both with meaning as we have discussed, and with other factors such as the quality of the performance, the setting and context in which the music was heard, and the people with whom the music was heard. The hearer will take away from the performance the feelings and emotions expressed, the overall impression of the music, the venue, the audience and anything else that was part of the experience, and then the hearer will likely discuss the music that was heard with others, both those who also heard the same performance, and with those who did not. Those discussions will clarify for the hearer the meaning, and will influence others to either seek out the musical work if they have not heard it, or if they have perhaps to hear it again, or to avoid the musical work if what was said about it was unappealing. The collective responses to a musical performance that are communicated to fellow or potential hearers adds to the meaning that the musical work is expected to convey by those who have been part of the discussion. In this way, meaning may be created as a result of responding to music. Communication, more than any other skill, is pervasive in the artistic processes of creating, performing and responding.

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