By now all music educators (should) have worked the National Core Arts Standards into their curriculum, instructional planning, and teaching. From the outset, we have all understood creating, performing, and responding to music, because these are things we have always had our students do. These actions were couched in new contexts, and given new objectives, but we all knew what it meant to compose, rehearse, give concerts, and provide responses to music to which we listened. But the last process, connecting, was more confusing. To be sure, we have navigated inter-disciplinary instruction for some time, but this was different. This wasn’t just looking for ways music teachers could slip in a little math here, a little language arts there, often to support music being in the course of study at all. No, this artistic process of connecting assumed music had its rightful place in the academic landscape, and touted that “understanding connections to varied contexts and daily life enhances musicians’ creating, performing and responding.” Read correctly, this enduring understanding (EU) indicates that bringing in other disciplines and personal experience will enrich the quality of music-making students do. How is this accomplished?
To answer this, we begin with the essential question, ” How do the other arts, other disciplines, contexts, and daily life inform creating, performing, and responding to music? In other words, music cannot be fully understood or enjoyed in a vacuum. It is created by creative people who are influenced by dance, visual art, mathematics, literature, science, and the kid in physical education who won’t stop teasing. These other disciplines are not our competitors, they are the stuff out of which the contexts of musical creation and performance is made, and must be viewed as such. What can students do and learn that will prepare them to make these connections, and to tap into them as they are musically educated?
Context is key. For what purpose was a musical work created? John Adams wrote On The Transmigration of Souls to honor those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Modest Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition to honor his friend Hartmann, who had just passed away, while Igor Stravinsky composed Elegy for J.F.K. in 1964 to commemorate the assignation of American President Kennedy. J. S. Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier to demonstrate the practicality and possibilities of a new system of tuning the keyboard. When and where was a musical work created, and what were the prevalent musical genres and influences of that time and place? Within a year spending time with George Gershwin in New York, famed composer Maurice Ravel, intrigued by Gershwin’s use of jazz in melody and rhythms, wrote the strikingly jazz and Gershwin influenced Piano Concerto in G. Ravel made a connection between French impressionism and American jazz, and the result was a work that delights because of the combining of those two contexts.
Is the musical work typical of the time and place in which it was created? It fascinates me to listen to the prelude (“Die Vorstellung des Chaos) to Haydn’s The Creation. Though written in 1797, it sounds more like a prelude to one of Wagner’s operas, than to an 18th century oratorio. What cultural and social norms and trends are reflected in the music? The dawning of the automobile age glorified in Gershwin’s An American In Paris, and of the technology revolution in Milton Babbit’s 1961 Composition for Synthesizer. Another context to connect with here is that Babbit first entered the University of Pennsylvania intending to study Mathematics, before switching his studies to music. What influences of the mathematical mind are manifested in his music?
What literary style and genre are used in any lyrics that are included? Are there mathematical phenomenon used to build the structure of the music, such as the Fibonacci number sequence, or the golden mean? How does the overall affect of the music reflect the pace of life and feel of the society in which the music was created? How are musical elements used to make such depictions? What kinds of movements are suggested in the rhythms, meter, and tempo of the music? Is the music based on visual art or a visual scene such as the ocean or a flying machine? If the music is tonal, how do occurrences of the tonic pitch adhere to the principle of regression toward the mean?
I honestly don’t know how many more questions I could ask that lead us toward connections between music and other disciplines, other arts, and social, cultural, scientific, mathematical and artistic contexts and purposes. No doubt you can think of others. Just the sheer number of these questions indicates the richness and broadness of the connections that are possible, and the depth pursuing answers brings to the music educational process. In responding to music, students create criteria by which music will be evaluated, using information from connections to make the criteria fit the context from which the music came.
With the foregoing as a background, we are now equipped to understand the objectives that we find in the National Core Arts Standards–objectives which I find are too vague to be useful until the material we have just discussed has been understood. For example, here is a connecting objective for 7th grade: “identify how cultural and historical context inform performance and results in different music.” Cultural context perhaps needs more defining than just a mention. Knowing that Haydn wrote The Creation for Royals explains how he could get away with such avant garde (for the time) music. He was writing for a small but well-educated audience on whom the creative opening discords portraying chaos would not be lost. That context resulted in far different music than would have been presented had the audience been the general public as would come to Beethoven’s concerts.
Here’s one for 5th grade: “Improvise rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic ideas, and explain connection to specific purpose and context (such as social, cultural, and historical).” In other words, improvise and then explain for what purpose you were improvising. In order to avoid the useless answer of “to get a good grade” or similar replies, you should give the students several contexts for which to write, have them select one, and then explain it as it relates to their improvisation. A 3rd grade objective is to “Explain how context (such as social and cultural) informs a performance.” Again, social and cultural context needs to be defined as the influences they inevitably are. Social contexts generally refer to “the immediate physical and social setting in which people live or in which something happens or develops.” It includes surroundings, circumstances and behaviors. Cultural context can refer to the influence and manifestations of the arts, which I believe is the intended definition in the standards, or an established code of conduct or expectation, as for example in the presumption that a child will be a conscientious student and get good grades. Doing so is part of the “culture” of that locale.
I am fairly certain that by now you have realized the depth to which connections takes music education. Connections bring relevance, meaning, and enjoyment to music studies that are missing or incomplete without them. The connections portion of the standards are easy to overlook, both because they are less familiar than the other three, and also because it appears last, making it easy to simply never get to. I urge you to delve into connections. Once you do, you will be rewarded.