Essential Things To Consider When Writing Music Curriculum

Version 2Many school districts engage administrators and faculty in doing curriculum work over the summer. It is a good time for this type of work, because teachers are not encumbered with planning and providing instruction for and to students, respectively, and many teachers benefit from writing curriculum from a position of being able to reflect on the school year just competed. For some, this work will be a matter of revising and refining a curriculum document that is already in use, while for others it will involve writing a new curriculum to replace one that is being retired, or to provide one where none previously existed.

No matter which situation you may find yourself in, there are some key questions that should be answered to form the foundation for successful curriculum writing. Some of these questions will remind you of college work, while others will be perhaps things you have not thought about in some time. While I will present these questions couched in the context of music education, they are equally valuable for dance, theater, and visual arts.

First, what is your vision of music education in your district? While we will get to a philosophy of music education later, the vision is something different. The vision defines who will receive music education, what will be accomplished in recipients of music education, what role will music education play in the lives of the recipients, what musical activities or behaviors will music education prepare recipients for, what abilities, intelligences, skills and understandings will be involved, and who will be included in delivering music education to the recipients? Typically, music educators believe that every individual needs and deserves a quality music education, that music plays a crucial role in the culture and daily lives of our students, and that music is included in the core subjects of public education because of its worth to individuals, society, and cultures. The Connecticut Department of Education has stated that, “the literature of music consists of an enormous range of repertoire from a variety of classical, folk, and popular traditions, some of it preserved in notation and much of it passed down through oral tradition. The purpose of music education is to prepare students for a lifetime of active, satisfying involvement with music in a variety of forms. Contemporary life is filled with musical encounters. Music education should empower students to create, refine and notate their own original music; read, interpret and perform music literature created by themselves and others, and respond with understanding to others’ musical works and performances. ”

A comprehensive vision of music education includes developing both oral and notated music literacy, and equips individuals to engage and interact with a variety of musical forms and traditions as not only listener/consumer, but also as creator and performer. While music reading is important to Western art music, it is less so or non-existent in other musics of the world. Reading and composing are higher level operations that can only be successfully learned once oral literacy has been mastered. What’s more, in order to fully engage with musics that are rooted in oral tradition, oral musical skills must often be developed well beyond what is needed for navigating Western music.

Performing music needs to be defined in more broad terms than just giving concerts. Performing music also includes enjoying singing informally with friends, singing “Happy Birthday” and our national anthem confidently, accurately, and with enjoyment, and happily humming or singing a favorite song to oneself at any time during the day; a sort of expansion of Anna’s “Whistle A Happy Tune” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King And I. Just as we don’t reserve speaking to acting in a play or giving a public speech, we should not reserve singing or playing a musical instrument to concertizing. Musical activity, when truly an integral part of daily lives, permeates much more of what people do, and that prominence in daily living should be reflected in a music curriculum.

With a clear vision of Music Education in hand, you are now ready to continue on to developing a philosophy of music education. The philosophy will delineate in specific ways the value of music education, and the hallmarks of a quality music education. In Connecticut, a quality music education,

  • provides essential ways to understand and express life experiences
  • develops deep understanding of past and present cultures and peoples
  • prepares students for active participation in creating the culture of the past and present
  • develops imagination
  • enables students to make informed aesthetic choices
  • helps develop the full range of students’ abilities
  • prepares students for enjoyable recreation and leisure time.
  • provides a creative, motivating vehicle for mastering technology, including multimedia.
  • develops self-discipline and focus
  • develops the capacity to refine work, aspiring to high quality standards
  • fosters creativity and independence
  • develops the ability to solve complex, often ambiguous problems.
  • creates positive, inclusive school atmosphere
  • develops collaborative skills
  • enhances self-esteem

Each of these bullet points can be categorized into one of the four artistic processes in the National Core Arts Standards. For example, understanding and expressing life experiences, and past and present cultures and peoples are applications of interpreting music for responding and performing. Fostering creativity can be done creating and/or interpreting original music or the music of others. Developing collaborative skills most often occurs in preparing a performance for presentation in an ensemble. For those points that are cross-curricular, teachers of other subjects can be included in delivering music education. For example, past and present cultures and peoples that are the subject of study in social studies can also be examined in their musical contexts in music. Classes that are used to collaborating in small group work in Language Arts, can apply those skills to collaborative projects in music class such as composing, rehearsing, and presenting. The curriculum writer will do well to go down this list of bullet points and categorize each point into one or more artistic process.

Once the categorization is completed, then the next step is to identify specific classroom activities that will engage students in the artistic process and accomplish developing the skill and/or knowledge identified in the bullet point. What will students be able to do or what will they know so that they can make informed aesthetic choices, expertise artistic creativity, or understand life experiences through music? What classroom activities will you plan to give students instruction and experience at doing these things and applying this knowledge?

The purpose of this article was not to answer all of these questions. Indeed, the answers will vary depending on school culture and context. The questions raised here need to be answered by each curriculum writing team with their own needs and students in mind. The important think is that they, and others like them, be asked, carefully considered, and answered in enough detail so that those answers can form the foundation for a curriculum that will guide teachers to delivering a quality and comprehensive music education to students for which the curriculum is written.


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