Things We Can Learn About Teaching from Coach Belichick

Version 2I’m pretty sure many of us use sports analogies with our students. Whether it’s a point to be made about teamwork, the importance of practice, or any of a number of other important subjects, sports seems to be an effective way to make this kind of thing relevant to students. I believe that the most effective professional coaches have something to teach we educators about success and teaching. Some would argue that Bill Bellichick is the most successful NFL football coach ever. There are arguments to be made against this claim, and it is not my intent to debate that here. I only wish to say that today I will discuss some matters regarding teaching that we can learn from this highly successful coach.

Teaching is in one sense all about preparation. We prepare our lessons, and after we have taught those lessons, we want our students to be better prepared to do something than they were before they attended that class. In this regard, teaching can be challenging, because many of the goals we want our students to achieve are long term. For music teachers, we begin rehearsing for a performance months before the concert date. We do this because we often don’t see our ensembles everyday, but 1-3 times a week. With less than daily practices, preparation is crucial because we want to use our practice time as efficiently and effectively as possible. Time is precious. This brings us to Bellichick point number one. It is a sign that hangs in the Patriots’ locker room. “Every battle is won before it is fought.” The result your students will realize is correlated to the quality of the preparation you, the teacher, have given them.

How do you know when your students are prepared? According to coach Bellichick,  “you’re prepared when everyone knows what to do. If it’s too complicated it won’t work, if it’s too obvious… it won’t work. It comes down to execution.” This is related to the psychological concept of flow (Csikszentmihaly, 1975).  A very simplified explanation of flow is that when the level of challenge and the level of ability are properly balanced, the task given to an individual will be challenging enough to hold interest and motivate effort, but not overly challenging so as to discourage, or insufficiently challenging so as to become boring. Getting everyone to the point where they know what to do includes making sure that what each person is doing is the right level of challenging, resulting in each person contributing at a level that is at the top of their challenge tolerance within their present ability level.

As important as preparation is, it is not the final word in how things will actually transpire during the lesson. We all know that making a great lesson plan is one thing, but many factors can disrupt what we planned to do, rendering the plan less successful than we anticipated. Eisenhower put it well when he said, “The battle plan is great until you actually get into the battle, then it doesn’t mean anything.” He might just as well have been talking about the lesson plan. The reality is we as teachers must make adjustments as a lesson is unfolding, changing tasks and strategies to account for unanticipated difficulty or ease that students are experiencing. Commentators love to talk about what second half adjustments a football coach will make, especially if his team is trailing at the half. Teachers must do the same thing, but on a much more condensed time scale. Most of us aren’t teaching a 2-3 hour class, the length of a football game. We’re making adjustment decisions over the course of a 45-90 time span. Make ongoing decisions in real time is a hallmark of successful coaches and successful teachers.

Though none can match his Super Bowl record, there are many other successful NFL coaches beside Bill Belichick, and many (maybe all) of them have coaching styles different from his. For example, some, like Andy Reid, are less demanding and more friendly in their approach. Others are highly charged emotionally on the sideline, jumping and yelling frequently. Coaches will do what they find successful in leading their teams to victories. Just as there are many styles of successful coaching, there are also many styles of successful teaching. Every teacher has to find what works best for them and stick to it. Take advice and learn from many, incorporating a little from each into what works well for you. When we learn something from another teacher, and then don’t find success with it for ourselves, we need to dismiss it, not because it was a bad idea, but because it was a good idea for someone else, but not us. But learn from successful people. Belichick explained, “don’t be afraid to use a good idea, even if nobody has used it before. If you believe it’s a good idea, don’t be afraid to use it.”

Discipline is another signpost of success. Organizations that tolerate or ignore sloppy habits tend to fall further and further away from success. Do not tolerate lax attention to rules. If someone doesn’t take a starting time seriously, have them leave. Don’t run a program where sloppiness and inattentiveness to rules and expectations is allowed. Belichick stated his philosophy of leadership as, “do your job, be attentive, pay attention to details, put the team first.” That statement is consistent with everyone knowing what to do, and then executing with precision and excellence. Gleaning other comments about coaching and applying them to teaching, we should interact positively with your students. Build in community building activities in addition to instructional time. Take outside distractions out of the equation of what you are working together to accomplish. We need to remind and in some cases convince our students that if you are teachable, you can learn and improve what you do. We should instill in them the “growth mindset.”

Finally, to paraphrase the coach once more, good students can’t overcome bad teaching, so it’s important to reflect on what we do at the end of every day, identify teaching mistakes, and correct them. This blog began as a personal written reflection that I began making at the end of most of may teaching days, and that I eventually decided to share. It is a record of my thoughts and observations of my own teaching and of the learning journeys of my students. Learning goals need to be seen as attainable, both for students and teachers. Make each short term goal the focus, and achieving those short term goals, one after the other will lead you to achieving the big long term goals. You can watch the whole interview on which this article was based below.

What Is Musical Dissonance?

Version 2When I was a high school student, I was sure I knew what dissonance in music was. If it sounded wrong, it was dissonant, and if it sounded right, it was consonant. An interval of a 2nd, or a try tone, or a seventh was dissonant, and all the others were consonant. Then in college, I learned that a perfect 4th is dissonant, though it still sounded fine to me. But that was the first hint that something was amiss with my definition. If an interval that sounded right to me was dissonant, then I needed a new understanding of the concept. In my discussion of expectations (see “Is All Music Intended to Be Expressive?”), I mentioned Meyer’s thoughts on continuance and repose. Music that demands continuance, or “leaves us hanging” creates tension, whereas music that comes to rest harmonically, as at a full cadence, expresses repose or relaxation.

Once of the expectations Western listeners have is that tension will resolve into relaxation. We are accustomed to patterns of tension and relaxation in our music. This is the basis for traditional voice leading and harmonic progressions. Ornaments such as suspensions, appagiaturas, trills, and so forth create tension because they sound incomplete, as one who stops in the middle of a sentence. We know from our experience with grammar that there has to be more to that sentence, and we know from our experience with music that there has to be more to that musical phrase, more music that will bring us to that cadence, that musical punctuation of a comma, semi-colon, or period. It is that expectation, even necessity of the music continuing on to a more suitable pausing or stopping place that makes the present moment sound dissonant.

In framing dissonance in this way, I am essentially equating dissonance with continuance. The unresolved suspension is not dissonant because it sounds “wrong,” it sounds dissonant because it leaves us demanding more. Dissonance is unfulfilled expectation. It is a form of anxiety similar to what we experience when we worriedly await the outcome of some life event. That anxious, stressed feeling is akin to how our body reacts to dissonance in music.

Zatorre and Blood (1999) at McGill University created original melodies containing dissonant and consonant patterns of notes, and played them for ten volunteers who were  scanned at the same time. Rejecting the null hypothesis, dissonance made areas of the limbic system linked to unpleasant emotions light up in the PET scans, whereas the consonant melodies stimulated limbic structures associated with pleasure. In other words, music elicits the same emotional response in the human brain as non-musical events with the same emotional makeup. So our experience of dissonance is larger than a response limited to musical stimuli. Our perception of musical dissonance is a parallel response to other life experiences.

In The Harvard Dictionary of Music we find that dissonance represents the “element of disturbance and tension.” While tension can, as we have seen, be framed within unsatisfied or delayed expectations, disturbance is a dangerously subjective idea. Listeners are disturbed by different sounds to different degrees. We must also consider that what was once considered dissonant to musicians and audiences alike are now accepted as less so or even consonant now. There is a phrase in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in which the choir sings the text “drank from the sacred vessels.” “Drank from the” is set to a minor 2nd, “sacred ves-” to a major 2nd, and “-sels” to a minor third. Though the 2nds are by some definitions dissonance, they are to my ear delectable and beautiful in the sense that the imminent resolution is so quickly realized and from the extreme “disturbance” of the minor 2nd. In this, we might consider that dissonance may be determined in part by its duration prior to its resolution. The longer the disturbance remains, the more likely it is to be perceived as dissonance. Dissononances that occupy short time spans may be less apt to be perceived as dissonant because they are more closely associated or attached to their resolutions. This is why a suspension can seem more consonant than an escape tone, wherein the resolution by skip obscures the tranquility of the resolution.

Some have attempted to define dissonance as any interval not included in the prevailing diatonic scale.  As long as diatonicism is the standard for measuring consonance or dissonance, this definition is at least serviceable. But it is rendered inappropriate for atonal works. Hindemith (1900) breached this issue by putting forth a ranking of melodic intervals from most consonant to most dissonant. This ranking was P5, P4, M6, M3, m3, m6, M2, m7, m2, M7, TT. Hindemith believed that consonance and dissonance could be perceived as a kind of floating standard, constantly defined by the current interval regardless of overall tonal center or lack there of. Still, there are vestiges of traditional harmony in his ranking, because the first 4 intervals are all diatonic and all part of the tonic, dominant, or subdominant chords. Hindemith believed that we shifted our perception of tonal center according to intervallic relationships when interval roots were non-diatonic.

This theory allowed for writing in the 12-tone style without abandoning tonality. Tones that are lowest, highest, and longest are given greatest importance in a melodic progression. These tones then are constructed to form step-wise motion, no matter their separation from one another by intervening tones. The interval of the fifth, being the most consonant, is also the strongest harmonically. It’s occurrence over changing roots can thus alter the perceived tonal center, whereas intervals gradually loose their ability to establish tonal centers according to their increased property of dissonance. To state it in terms of our overall discussion, the perfect 5th has the least power of continuance and the highest degree of repose, and so functions as a tonic in traditional harmony. As intervals become more dissonant, they gain greater power of continuance and lessening degrees of repose, and so add tension as well as distance from a perceived tonal center. Listen to this example from Hindemith, and see how much of our discussion you can take away.

 

Blood, A. J., Zatorre, R. J., Bermudez, P., & Evans, A. C. (January 01, 1999). Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 4, 382-7.

Hindemith, P. (1900). The craft of musical composition. Mainz: Schott.

Is All Music Intended To Be Expressive?

Version 2I am asked from time to time if all music is created with expressive intent. The National Arts Standards seem to imply so, because they set students to interpreting and determining expressive intent with no restrictions or qualifiers concerning to what music this applies. Elsewhere I have discussed the problems of knowing what a composer’s creative intent is; that without directly asking the composer, we can only surmise what his or her creative intent might have been, using a consensus of listeners and experts to lead the way. But it may be immaterial whether or not the composer intended to express something, because music itself is perceived as expressive, regardless of what a composer had in mind.

There are properties in music that stimulate cognitive activity that releases emotions. Much of this emotional response is dependent on making predictions and then enjoying the stimulation that results from the fulfillment of those predictions being delayed or confounded. Mohana (2016) explained that

Music, though it appears to be similar to features of language, is more rooted in the primitive brain structures that are involved in motivation, reward and emotion. Whether it is the first familiar notes of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” or the beats preceding AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” the brain synchronizes neural oscillators with the pulse of the music (through cerebellum activation), and starts to predict when the next strong beat will occur. The response to ‘groove’ is mainly unconscious; it is processed first through the cerebellum and amygdala rather than the frontal lobes.

Music involves subtle violations of timing and, because we know through experience that music is not threatening, these violations are ultimately identified by the frontal lobes as a source of pleasure. The expectation builds anticipation, which, when met, results in the reward reaction.

Meyer (1956) in his seminal work Emotion and Meaning in Music  argued that music was a dynamic process, constantly presenting the listener with patterns of sounds that demanded continuation, or that came to rest. According to Krumhansl (2002),

Meyer proposed that expectations play the central psychological role in musical emotions. Some points in the music engender strong expectations for continuation, creating a sense of tension and instability. Other points in the music fulfill expectations, and units are perceived as closed off and completed. Musical meaning and emotion depend on how the actual events in the music play against this background of expectations.

So the answer to our question, is all music intended to be expressive, may well be found in the degree to which a composer consciously or intentionally manipulates repetition and variety so that expectations, which are learned from experience and enculturation, are satisfied, delayed or left unmet. A musical work that is one beautiful, sonorous melody after another may sound beautiful, romantic or lush to many listeners, but if expectations are constantly met without exception or variation, then it is more likely than not that the composer was not so much intending to express emotions as present beautiful music. Indeed, beauty in and of itself is not an emotion, but a trait that is perceived but not felt or experienced as an emotion is. This harkens back to the concept of aesthetic response where the listener perceives beauty in an artistic work, but that perception is purely objective. Any emotion perceived in music where all expectations are always fulfilled without delay can only express the one emotion of repose. Without delayed or unfulfilled expectation, there can be no tension and no expression of emotions that are disturbing, scary, exciting or other such emotions. On the other hand, music that is nothing but seemingly random sounds cannot be expressive of emotions that are restful and calming because there are no satisfied expectations. While such musical works could be intended to express only a single emotion, it is just as likely that the composer was intent on writing in a particular style, such as 12-tone or minimalism, and accepted the inherent emotional limitations of those styles, exchanging some expressive potential for compositional technique.

This principle can be seen in the general intent of composers in the Classic period (c. 1750-1820) compared to the Romantic period (c. 1820-1900). In the Classic style, which largely harkened back to classic Greek styles, balance and carefully proportioned phrases, themes, theme groups, sections and movements were given priority. It is not that composers such as Mozart tried to avoid being expressive with their music, it is just that wearing their emotions on their sleeves was not the purpose of writing music in the 18th century. The music itself is mostly predictable, true to the classic forms. When unusual musical events occur within a work, they are the exception. Compare this to the music of the Romantics in the 19th century. One can find innovation and new musical frontiers almost everywhere on the musical landscape. Composers such as Liszt, Pagannini, Richard Strauss and of course Wagner excited audiences with musical innovations, shows of brilliant virtuosity not seen before, and a shifting, difficult to predict harmonic language that made long time-spans of building tension possible for the first time. The level of tensions and angst were great in these works, as was the sense of relief and satisfaction when all came to rest peacefully or triumphantly on that perhaps lately hard to find or altogether missing tonic chord. The difference in expressive intent between the Mozarts and the Wagners of music history cannot be overlooked, and it is all a matter of in Mozart’s case the absence of unfulfilled or delayed expectations, and in Wagner’s case, the abundance of them.

Is all music intended to be expressive? Though his quips were sometimes hard to distinguish from his truths, Stravinsky once said that, “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.”

We can conclude at the very least that not all music is meant to be to the same degree expressive. While it seems evident that much of the great musicians would not agree with Stravinsky’s evaluation, his remarks indicate that perhaps at least that one great musical genius had no expressive intent whatsoever. If this is so, we must conclude that not all music is intended to be expressive. Though I wonder how many, like myself, find much of Stravinsky’s music highly expressive, his remarks not withstanding. If manipulating listener expectations is a composer writing expressiveness into the music, than surely there are some delayed and frustrated expectations one runs across while listening to Stravinsky’s music. It does seem safe to say that the more experienced and enculturated one is with a given musical idiom, the more able one is to form expectations as to what will happen in that music. It follows that with a heightened ability to form expectations, comes an increased power in the music to manipulate those expectations. Perhaps the degree to which a musical work is expressive depends as much on the listener’s ability to make predictions about it as on what the composer actually wrote or even intended.

Meyer, L. B. (1956). Emotion and meaning in music. Chicago, Ill. [u.a.: Univ. of Chicago Press.

 

The Other Expectations

Version 2Today I would like to discuss expectations, but not the usual sort. Often, when expectations in education are discussed, they are the kind teachers have of students. These may be behavior or performance expectations, and both are important. There is, though, another sort of expectation that is embedded in the how successfully people perceive and understand. These are the expectations a learner brings to that to which they are confronted. Absent expectations, materials presented to students such as whole or part of musical works, can only be understood in a limited way at best. When expectations are incorrect, the musical work is likely to be misunderstood or downright confusing.

Let me use a non-musical example to explain. Suppose a child is looking for a shaker in a box of non-pitched musical instruments, and suppose that child expects to find a shaker that is square. He or she goes through the contents of the box containing shakers, and though many are there, the child overlooks all of them, because none of them matches his or her expectation that a shaker is square. The child finally gives up, and claims that there are no shakers in the box. The child would have easily found many shakers had he or she known that they were round, or egg shaped. When presented with the information that all of the items in the box are shakers, the child will be surprised, and declare “that was unexpected.” And that is exactly the point. If a person’s expectations about what they are presented with are faulty, they will miss the meaning, or even the identity of what they are seeing or hearing.

This point was made by a Music History professor when I was an undergraduate in his class. He played an excerpt from a Mozart symphony ( forty years later, I don’t recall which one), and then asked us what we heard. The usually reliable Bruce responded that he heard violins playing this, and cellos playing that, and so forth. Bruce’s answer was right, but incomplete. I responded that I heard the melody played on the flute over all that Bruce had described. The activity in the strings was what Bruce expected. He was used to the melodic content being delivered by the strings, but did not expect to hear the melody in the flute. His expectation eliminated the possibility of the melody being anywhere else except in the strings, and caused him to overlook it. I have had similar experiences with my students, even adult students. I play them a melody I want them to keep track of in a sonata-allegro form, and then play the movement. What I didn’t tell them was what instrument or instruments would be playing the material I wanted them to hear. Frequently, not knowing where in the orchestra to expect the melody to appear, they listen in the wrong place and miss it entirely. I can always go back and tell them what instrument will be playing it, and (as long as they know what that instrument sounds like) they will easily hear the melody next time through. It is all about knowing what to expect.

The same is true for performers. For myself, when I am playing my clarinet, I can easily play, even sight read, most music put before me, because I expect even difficult passages to be in familiar patterns of scales and arpeggios. As long as those patterns are what I expect, I can play accurately. But the instant the pattern changes, or the scale or chord is one I did not expect, mistakes become numerous, and I am then in a passage I must stop and practice until I have learned those unexpected patterns. As we teach students, it is not enough to teach them the repertoire, or even the scales, which are out of context. We must teach them how these things are typically used in actual music. This can include learning progressions of arpeggios, sequential patterns like scales by thirds, or sequences of motifs. Many etudes typically take this approach, moving through a few themes that use sequence and progressions. They typically start relatively easy, then become difficult somewhere past the middle, and then end relatively easy again. This in itself is an expectation I have for etudes, and causes me to search out the middle of the etude to practice first, expecting that the beginning and end will come much easier. Having these expectations not only helps me play the etude more successfully, but also helps me plan my practice strategy.

Expectations are acquired through experience. As music educators, we provide our students with experience ample for constructing expectations on. I believe that one of the weaknesses of survey type courses, is that there is too great a variety of musical genres, styles and forms presented in an attempt to build familiarity with them all, while not providing sufficient concentration on any one genre, style or form to allow for the forming of expectations of them. No one can have accurate expectations of 18th century symphonic music after listening to single symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The creative span of just these three composers is so much greater than what can be drawn from a single work. It is not so unreasonable to think that Beethoven’s first two symphonies were written by Haydn, if all one knows of Beethoven is the fifth and third symphonies. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to think that the prelude to Haydn’s The Creation was written by Wagner, if all one knows of Haydn is that prelude. Given the opportunity to listen to a broader sampling of each composer’s work, the listener can acquire more accurate expectations that will guide him or her in perceiving and understanding so much more along any symphonic journey they may take.

Expectations also leaves the listener or performer the freedom to discover and explore musical works with those expectations and the accompanying intuition as guides, so that the performer preparing a musical work for performance or a listener taking in a concert or recording is not left to drift through, become bored and abandon future encounters with such music. Giving students expectations whets the appetite to go out and have those expectations met, and that involves seeking out the musical works about which they have expectations. Developing expectations equips the student to interact with musical works on his or her own terms, without being restricted by assigned listening tasks. Students who make predictions about what they will, concerning everything from instrumentation (what instruments are likely to have the melody often (violins, oboes, flutes, clarinets) and which ones are unlikely to have the melody often (violas)), and harmonic progressions (clear tonic and dominant harmony in Mozart, more adventurous and chromatic treatments in Richard Strauss and Wagner) to length of works and use of rhythm and dissonance. With the right expectations, a beautiful Wagnerian dissonance sounds like a bad mistake in Mozart, and sets that dissonance in the right context, that of impressive creativity on Mozart’s part to think of using dissonance like that (consider the “dissonant” quartet, no. 19 in C major, K. 465)  when others were not doing so. And so the more able we prepare our students to have accurate expectations concerning musical works, the more powerfully they will be able to assert their musical learning on creative musical activity.

What Do You Do?

Version 2When striking up a new acquaintance, sharing what we do for work is nearly always one of the first things we talk about. I have always responded by saying that I’m a music teacher, an answer no one who knows me would dispute. But lately I began to wonder just how accurate that really is. After all, I’m not teaching the music anything, I’m teaching children–teaching music to children. That makes me a children teacher.

While the distinction may seem nit-picky or like a bad pun, I believe it reveals something I have from time to time lost track of. If I am principally concerned with teaching music, then I am less likely to be concerned with those to whom I am teaching it. I am interested in covering material, and transferring knowledge or skills from me to my students. To be sure, this is an important part of teaching and learning, the imparting and receiving of knowledge and skills, but it is apt to be accomplished with limited success if more attention is given to the content than to the learner.

Even on my most successful days, when my students have done well playing or singing repertoire, or have demonstrated knowledge on an assessment, if I have not taught them something that they want to use in their daily lives, they will at best tolerate my class, and then quickly lay aside what I have taught them. The fact is that most children, and I include adolescents, enjoy music in some fashion, and have willingly made it part of their daily lives. For many, this involves listening to recorded music, and responding in some way to what they are listening to, be it moving, dancing, singing, drumming, or just taking emotional pleasure. Honestly, they can do these things without much or maybe any help from me. So I ask myself, what value can I add to their musical experience that will amplify their lifelong interactions with music?

One way is to teach them to play musical instruments on which they can play the music they enjoy. Band and orchestra are great for those who enjoy it, and there are plenty who do, but for the rest who make up a majority, as long as there are rarely if ever trumpets or clarinets, violins or timpani in the latest hip-hop or pop hits, there is little interest in learning “orchestral” instruments. There just isn’t a connection between playing these instruments and what the students want to do with their music, nor the incentive to invest the time needed to sound good playing music that is perhaps of marginal interest. But present the opportunity to play the guitar or keyboard, and suddenly there is immense interest in learning a musical instrument. These are the instruments they hear in the music they enjoy and encounter daily. This will add value to their moving, dancing, singing, and drumming. This will also draw students together in a new way, as one plays a guitar, another the drums, another a keyboard, and still another sings. It is discovering for them, and rediscovering for us the joy of making music with friends, as families and friends were apt to do in a time that preceded recorded music.

Part of succeeding at this rediscovery is showing students that they do not have to make exact reproductions of the recordings they know. Just consider all the remixes being done today. Their remix can be a simpler way of playing and singing, one that suits their present technical ability on an instrument or voice. Students can divide chords among themselves where chord changes come to quickly for one player. They can eliminate chords or slow down strums to give them more time to get their fingers to the nextthis-approach-to chord. They can move a complex strumming pattern onto a drum kit where the rhythms are easier to play. These accommodations don’t in the end spoil the musical experience. On the contrary they bring it within the reach of all students, and open up the world of playing in a band to those who have not achieved the skill to play the original versions. Unlike transcriptions for wind ensemble or orchestra, the modified versions of popular music still have enough of the original sound and feel to satisfy the students, and make it fun for them to play there favorite songs. It also brings to the fore what is perhaps the most attractive part of making music–that of doing it together with friends.

This approach to teaching music to kids is a natural by-product of putting relationship building first. It recalibrates how we think of ourselves as teachers and how we think of our students. Yes, we are the experts, the ones with the college education and conservatory musicianship, but the students are our equals in terms of who they are as people, and what they are about to do, feel, cherish and be. Rather than considering ourselves as lauded overseers of our students learning, it is more respectful of them and effective to see ourselves as collaborators who bring indispensable resources into the collaboration, but who are as eager to make music and learn from them as we want them to be those things toward us. So we demonstrate, teach, explain, but we also listen, encourage, and at times just step back, out of the way, and let them take what we have given them and let them run with it through what now can be a self-directed musical experience.

It is something like teaching your child to ride a bicycle. They are the ones seated on the bike and pedaling and steering, and maybe holding on for dear life, and you are the one holding the bike so they don’t fall, running along beside but not hopping on and taking over, and then when they are able to go, you let go and watch them ride ahead, unaware that they are doing it all their own now, until they look and see you’re not needed to hold them up. That is what good music teaching should be like. Train them as long as they need it, but then get out of the way and let them go it alone. At that point, you are the proud teacher, applauding their accomplishments, and enjoying their success right along with them. That moment of bringing them to the point of independence is something they never forget. It is born out of the relationship that grows from collaboration, which is the working together of equals, not from sitting at the “feet” of a presiding pundit, a relationship that demands superiority over students. Teachers must retain their academic and scholarly superiority, while allowing students to be equal in other ways so that the learning I’ve described will flourish. I am a children teacher. I teach children music.

Second Half Adjustments

Version 2Now that winter recess is over, and we’re all back to school after the holidays, it is good to keep in mind that the second half is very different from the first. I have found that if I simply continuing going about my business in the second half just as I did in the first half, no matter how successful that first half was, results will begin to decline. The second half of the school year is different in important ways from the first half, and these differences must be taken into account when planning and delivering instruction.

One of the major differences is that there are more interruptions, especially if your school district has vacation weeks in both February and April. There may also be other days off for Martin Luther King Day, Three Kings Day, Memorial Day, President’s Day, and so forth. Coming back from all of these days off, and keeping some continuity and retention going in between can be challenging. Another difference is that students and teachers both are likely to be coming to school with some degree of illness. This illness can linger and become ongoing through much of the winter months resulting in elevated fatigue, poor attention, and the decline in performance one would expect with these symptoms. There is also the effect of darker weather outdoors. Winter here in New England becomes downright dreary, and the months of February and March can seem insurmountably long as a result.

The first adjustment that all of this recommends is to be ready to slow the pace of covering material. I don’t mean to slow down your day to day teaching pace, but rather to plan for teaching to generally take more time, more class meetings, to successfully teach units and concepts compared to the first half of the year. Don’t be surprised if your students just take longer to accomplish what you ask of them, and make that extra time part of your plan.

Having just returned from a vacation, students returning to your classroom tend to have forgotten or lost the habit of following classroom routines and procedures. Now is a good time to review and practice classroom procedures and expectations, similar to how you did at the beginning of the school year. It’s easy to let these things go at this time of year, as we assume our students already know these things, but knowing and doing are two different things. If they have gotten out of the habit of following classroom procedures and expectations, then lapses and poor behavior are going to become increasingly problematic. It is best to step back and get back into the routines of these things while the feeling of getting a fresh start in the new year is still present.

Another adjustment I make for the second half is in the length of the units I teach.  Whereas in the first half I tend to teach my longer units, in the second half, because I know I’m going to be interrupted by days off relatively frequently, I teach my shorter units. If there is a longer unit I have not taught yet, I will break it up into shorter sub-units so that I can achieve closer before each day off occurs. I also tend to try harder to make connections between lesson more explicit. I want to be sure that my students understand how they will use prior learning and performance successes in new learning settings. This strategy means frequent reviews, clear transitions from the reviews to the current lesson, and statements of application in my daily lesson closures.

Although I always try to make my lessons as engaging and relevant as possible, in the second half I tend to rely more on students selecting musical works, and more on the artistic process of creating. Both of these usually increase the level of engagement of my students, which in turn helps with better retention of material. Speaking of retention, in lessons such as these, where students have freedom in generating musical ideas, my-students-understandorganizing them into musical works, and so forth, it is more important than ever to interrupt student work in time to draw connections between the activity the students have been engaged in, and the concepts, skills, and knowledge you want them to have attained from doing the activity. These connections are brought out naturally during direct instruction, but can easily be overlooked when the teacher is facilitating or monitoring small group work or independent practice. Students must not only learn from you how well they did the activity, but also why they did the activity, and how they will apply what they have learned by doing.

The content of my units in the second half tends to be more performance oriented, because my performance calendar for the second half has more concerts and shows. I use the creating lessons not only to teach music composition, but also to teach “how music works” which prepares students to analyze the music they will be performing, to understand how all of the elemental parts fit together, and how they can manipulate their performance of those elements to shape the expressive qualities they bring to their singing or playing. Because I teach general music, band and chorus, I can easily reinforce  concepts, skills and knowledge in each rehearsal or class setting, including general music class, band or chorus rehearsal, and rehearsals for our school musical. Students who are involved in the latter are especially open to improving their singing skills in a way that they are not earlier in the year when the need to sing well is not so immediate. I take advantage of this relevance to teach as much singing technique as possible in the second half.

There is another aspect to second half adjustments, and that is the progress I have made on my year-long student learning objects (SLO). The second half begins with mid-year assessment so that I can compare my mid-year data to my benchmark assessment from the beginning of the year. If I do not see progress in my data for those objectives, then I must revisit how I have been teaching to those objectives and make the necessary adjustments to assure that I have met them by year’s end. This is of great interest to me, because those SLOs are important to my Teacher Evaluation (TEVAL) results. Good results benefit both my students and me, so those assessments are a prominent part of my mid-year adjustments. Mid year is enough time to get an accurate indication of how both my students and I are doing on those objectives.

I enjoy the second half of the school year. With all of those performances coming into view, I become energized, even in the face of a gloomy New England winter. Making the adjustments I have discussed keep the second half going smoothly and successfully.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Has Something For Your Students

Version 2As musicians and music educators, we know that it takes much commitment, work, and many hours to prepare a performance for presentation to an audience. But sometimes it’s difficult, even for young music students, to appreciate or even realize just how much goes into preparing a concert. It can be enlightening to have the opportunity to hear professional symphony musicians share what they do to prepare for a concert. To be able to ask them questions in a live conversation is even better.

As educators, we also know that music is the manifestation of natural laws of science; that music is a creative way of manipulating and taking advantage of the science of sound, including all acoustical principles. Music teachers have a great opportunity to collaborate with their science teacher colleagues in bringing the acoustical world of sound to their students through demonstration and hands-on learning opportunities to play, experiment, and discover the many ways in which sound can be manipulated and organized.

Next week, students everywhere will have a wonderful opportunity to interact with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. On December 13th at 10 AM ET, GPB Education will take students on a live virtual field trip of the Atlanta Symphony aso-logo-500x153Orchestra, highlighting the science of sound, various ASO musicians, and the preparation it takes to put on a live musical performance. Students can interact with the show by submitted questions to experts and participating in live polls. The show will be live streamed on gpb.org/symphony and on GPB Education’s Facebook page. More information and to register for the event, go to gpb.org/symphony. Music teachers might consider using this live forum during school with music students to bring the world of live music into the classroom, and to create an authentic learning experience. I urge you to join the Atlanta Symphony in this presentation.

Pacing and Energy are Not The Same

Version 2Engaging students in classroom activities and keeping their interest throughout the lesson are both necessities and difficult. While many elements contribute to motivating students to stay on task and be productive in class, two important ones are pacing and energy. Pacing is the rate or speed at which you teach. Pacing that is too fast can leave students confused, lacking time to process, reflect, question and problem solve. it can also result in behavior problems as students who are left behind find other things to do and as the teacher ignores behavior issues in order to maintain the fast pace. This happens when the teacher “pushes through” the lesson in order to cover a set amount of material. On the other end of the spectrum, pacing that is too slow leads to boredom. Students given too much time to process and problem solve become disengaged as they wait for something else to do.

Besides the actual speed at which the teacher is giving instruction, other behaviors influence the perception of pace. For example, when a teacher remains in a fixed location for an extended period of time, student attention ebbs because the students are not given the opportunity to vary their focus and aspects of visual perception. Our minds like change and tend to tune out things that stay the same. The use of the voice while speaking to a class also influences the perception of pace. A voice delivery that lacks modulation and variety will have the same effect as staying in one physical location too long. Again, a shortage of variety makes holding students’ attention challenging. When a teacher varies the pitch, pace, and volume of his or her speaking voice, the students have an easier time maintaining attention on what is being said.

In the same way, using eye contact that continually scans the entire class is important. If too much time goes by without the teacher visually acknowledging a student, that student will begin to feel disenfranchised, and come to believe that paying attention to what the teacher is doing is not necessary because the teacher is not paying attention to them. Making eye contact and adding a smile (or other facial expression of approval or if appropriate disapproval) further engages the students, showing him or her that you are not only paying attention to them, but that you have a personalized message to give them–a message which might be given with a smile to say you’re glad that child is in your class, or you are pleased with them, or might be a subtle redirection for a student who has started to wander with their mind. Following a redirection with a smile when the redirection is successful is very effective and encouraging.

When these techniques are combined, students are less apt to perceive time as moving slowly, or feel as though they need to find something better to do than listen to you or do the learning task you have given them. Through it all, it is important to maintain a calm demeanor that communicates not only that you like your students and that you are comfortably and agreeably in control. The class moves smoothly when everyone is composed; however, it is possible in an effort to maintain calm to become to laid back. When this happens your voice becomes almost always very quiet (which does not provide enough variety), and your movement becomes too restricted (making you more boring to look at). At that point, what should have been gained by calmness has been lost in favor of an uninspiring, droll presentation that will motivate students to search for something more interesting. When this happens, your teaching is suffering from a lack of energy. It does not matter how fast you teach, or how well you do all the other things I have discussed above.

If you lack energy, then you will appear to be disinterested and bored, and if that is your students perception, then they will reasonable conclude, “if he isn’t interested in whatBut-whenever-you-can he’s doing, why should I be interested?” Good question. I’d say most of us are in this profession because we love music and love sharing that love with our students. We share some amazing performances, rehearsals, trips, and so forth with them, and we all, students and teacher alike, are excited about what we are doing together when we are at our best. Surely nobody will be on the top of their game every single day, and some days we or they are just too tired or perhaps even ill, to exude much energy. When that happens, plan lightly, and admit to your students up front that you are not at your best today. They will get it. They have days like that too. It makes you more approachable, and gains their respect just for your transparent honesty. But whenever you can, you’ll do better to keep the energy and pace at the most effective level for your students.

Another key element about maintaining proper energy and pace is that students enjoy your class when it is fast enough and interesting enough to hold their interest and keep them challenged just the right amount. This helps classroom management in two ways. First, as I’ve mentioned, it keeps students on-task doing what you want them to do and learning what you want them to learn. Second, because they enjoy that kind of class, they will become protective of it, and object to peers who slow it down. When I get my pace and energy right, the students begin keeping their peers in line, quieting the talkers and so forth. Hearing it from their peers allows me to make any pause in teaching much more brief, and reduces the number of times I have to stop because there is that undercurrent of it not being alright with them to slow things down. Of course, when the task and learning objectives are of interest to the students, this works all the better. Then, the students not only want to keep moving, they want to keep doing what they’re doing at that level of pace and energy. Naturally, there are times when you will need to stop for more serious infractions, but even then, you are correcting the offender based on the premise that he or she is interfering with others’ learning. Students’ sense of fairness will quickly see the undesirability of being seen as doing something so unfair.

The right pace can be maintained with not enough energy, the right energy can be maintained with not enough pace (lots of motion, not enough substance, for example), or they can be both right or both wrong. As you adjust them for your classes, you will find the right levels of both for each class. They will vary from class to class, so you need to become skilled at varying both according to the group you are teaching. Doing so will improve instruction and enjoyment in your classroom.

Creative Flexibility Can Save The Day

Version 2As we enter another holiday season, I’m sure many of you who teach have already noticed the children getting a bit excited. Often, managing classroom behavior becomes more difficult as holiday anticipation and excitement builds. For this reason, it is good at this time of year to consider strategies that will help us stay on track without creating more tension between students and teacher than is necessary. When I anticipate children arriving in my classroom less prepared to settle in and learn than usual, I shift the way I plan my lessons. My plans become less specific in terms of classroom activities. The objectives are stated clearly up front, and then I brainstorm two or three activities I might use to meet the objective. I give more thought to using fun activities, and activities that involve getting up and moving around. Circle games and dances, movement for interpretation and form, and drumming are three such activities that almost always work well. I also like to have a written work version of my plan, so that if the class comes in too restless, or if the class would be over stimulated or even loose control were I to bring them into a game or dance, I will give them a set of questions or a writing prompt to get at the concept or skill I planned to teach.

For example, today for a 2nd grade class, I wanted the children to move and sound like one of four animals I would imitate on the piano. This would allow them to move around the room before settling in, and would warm up their singing voices. I soon realized that having them do that version of the activity was not going to be successful today, so I opted for the written version. I still played the same bits of music on the piano, but instead of moving and making sounds, they wrote down which animal I was representing, and then explain their answer by describing the musical sounds they heard that they associated with that animal. The concept of musical association with animals was successfully taught, and by the time they finished writing they were settled enough to warm their singing voices up from their seats, and then proceed to the singing activities for the day.

Some days, the opposite situation presents itself. The students come in and are just too restless to sit and begin an activity from their seats. In those cases, it is best to select an activity that will get them up and moving around the room. I find that dividing the class into small groups and locating each group in a different area of the room works for me. They can get out of their seats, move to a more private location but still in my view, and begin collaborative work without direct instruction from me. In this case, they are given a task or a problem to solve which they are already prepared to complete without my help. It is a little like an extended “do now.” For example, I might just have everyone in a group teach the rest of the group one thing about something we learned last class. With my 7th grade, I have been doing a unit on the history of early rock and roll. If I wereNot-only-do-students using this strategy with one of those classes, I might have everyone in a group teach the rest of their group one thing about Chuck Berry. They could teach part of a Chuck Berry song,  or share thoughts, opinions, or observations about Chuck Berry. I monitor the groups as they work to see what’s being done and talked about. Not only do students teach each other effectively, it serves as an informal formative assessment as I observe what students have learned about something I have recently taught. The students then have the option of sharing with the whole class something they did in their group.

There are other times when direct instruction serves to focus a class, and to gather them in from the conversations and inattentiveness that can take hold at the beginning of the class if the students don’t have something meaningful to do right away. Today, my 7th graders were chatty when they came in. My objective was for students to learn the guitar strumming patterns from two songs I would play for them, and then to perform those two songs on guitar while singing the choruses. I was going to start by playing some music and have them listen for and pick up the strumming patterns and practice the rhythm of them on their laps while they continued to listen. But the talking was going to be difficult to stop, and without doing so, they would be unable to listen closely enough to complete the strumming pattern task. So instead I “called an audible” and taught the whole class how to play power chords on the electric guitar using the strumming pattern from one of the songs. The sound of me playing the electric guitar got their attention, and then when I played “Whole Lotta Loving” by Led Zeppelin and played E and D power chords along with the recording, the students were soon interested to learn how they could do that too. They picked up the strumming from me instead of the recording, but the objective was met. I hadn’t planned on playing guitar so early in the lesson, but my playing the guitar got their attention in a way that just playing the recording would not have.

The key to this is knowing what you want your students to know or be able to do as a result of your teaching, and then to be creative and open to finding multiple ways for your students to achieve their goals. While I don’t advocate “winging it,” experienced teachers can call an activity or strategy to mind that will lead to the same destination as the planned ones. Such creative teaching makes for more successful days when the students are more challenging, and provides freshness and even fun to teaching, as the creative mind is set loose to find a better way to reach students that day.

Pros and Cons of Stick Notation

Version 2Stick notation is a method for teaching music reading that involves presenting written notes with the note heads removed. The method is most often associated with the Kodaly method, but is used by non-Kodaly teachers as well. In this article I will consider reasons for using stick notation, and also some drawbacks.

Stick notation is most properly considered a pre-literacy strategy. Although I learned about stick notation in my pre-service undergraduate studies, I was from the start dubious of using it. Because note stems and beams without their heads did not look like the music I wanted my students to be able to read, I saw stick notation as an unnecessary extra step. Later, after becoming versed in Learning Music Theory, I recognized that associating French rhythm syllables (or the familiar adaptation of them) with notation was putting the learning sequence for developing music reading skills out of order. Indeed, stick notation was made necessary by neglecting or slighting rote and verbal association instruction; that is, by not developing in students the ability to hear rhythms and meters internally and to decode those rhythms into rhythm syllables, stick notation was necessary. My suspicions grew as I noticed that students who had learned rhythm with stick notation from a Kodaly teacher were largely unable to transfer learning of reading rhythms to their band lessons, and had to be taught the association between the rhythms seen in their band music and the “ta ti-ti” chants they had done in general m music. Something was wrong with how they were being taught rhythm.

The problem was notated symbols were being given names but were not being associated with the sounds they represented. Children saw a vertical line and remembered to call it “ta,” but they did not have the ability to recognize a sound as a “ta” when they heard it, and so they could not produce the rhythm “ta” beyond giving it a name. The “ta” they had learned was not given a context of a meter and a pulse. To successfully use “ta,” or any rhythm syllable for that matter, students must have an understanding of meter. Because those students had not been properly trained aurally to hear meter, or as Gordon would say, to audiate meter, the rhythm syllables had no musical meaning to them. Absent that aural training, teachers faced with this problem are then compelled to explain meter from a music theory stand point, further exacerbating the problem rather than solving it by going back and teaching meter as part of the aural context of rhythm patterns.

Part of the stick notation strategy is providing a way of reading music without using a music staff. Writing rhythms without a staff is a good way of associating previously learned rhythms with the notation of them. I often write rhythms this way on my white board or on flashcards. When I do this, though, I include the notepads, even though they have no functionality without a staff. I include them because I want the children to become used to seeing the whole note, stem, beam and head. By doing this, I am accomplishing the simplification of not using a staff, while preparing a smoother transition to notes on a staff. Now here’s the interesting part. I have tried using stick notation on the board, and when I did, my students protested. They asked me what it was, and when I told them, they said that is not what notes are supposed to look like. I The-problem-was-notatedhad to add the heads for them to be satisfied and willing to go on with the lesson. Even more important, I wrote those rhythms on the board only after I had taught the same rhythms by rote on a neutral syllable first, then the next lesson with rhythm syllables. The rhythms they were reading on the board were familiar rhythms. They were not chanting or hearing them for the first time, but they were reading them for the first time.  Once they are proficient at that, I can then write unfamiliar rhythms for them to read which they can now audiate before they chant them, which means they are then chanting them with understanding, not just from rote.

The most effective use for stick notation I have found is as a remediation strategy for older students. These are students who for whatever reason have reached middle school and still do not understand how to read music. They know the note names, now the note values, but do not understand the distinction and difference between the duration component of musical notation, namely beams, dots after notes, and filled in or empty note heads, and the pitch component, namely placement on the staff. These students typically think that two quarter notes on two different pitches are identical, or they do not know why one note has a filled in notepad, though they know it is called a quarter note, and another has a notepad that is not filled in, though they know it is called a half note. I haven’t run across this in several years, but it used to be a frequent problem, owing no doubt to my not following the pedagogic advice I have given above. Still, stick notation was the answer. By selecting a melody and notating it three times, these students quickly understood how musical notation works. I used Finale to notate a melody in stick notation. Then on the same page I notated the same melody with just notepads (no stems or beams). Thirdly I notated the same melody again in full musical notation. By following the sequence, students could see that the durations were in stems or in filled in or not filled in notepads, and pitch was in where the notepads were placed vertically on the staff. Then they could see those two components combined in the final, full traditional notation.

Teachers who want to notate pitch with stick notation write solfege syllables under the stems. While this accomplishes the goal of giving students a way of singing a melody from notation without knowing how to read notes on a musical staff, it again sets the student up for needing to transfer solfege syllables they are reading to notepads they are reading, without preparing them to audiate the notepads on a staff prior to reading them. As a readiness strategy, using a two line staff is preferable to no staff with solfege. At least with the two line staff, students are learning the concepts of specific pitches notated in specific places on or between lines. A simple so mi melody read from a two-line staff is more beneficial that reading the same melody from stick notation with written solfege syllables.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is to teach “sound before sight.” Notation is a visual representation of specific sounds. Children learn to read language by learning the sounds of letters, and then developing the ability to string those letter sounds together into words, and then to read those letter strings as words. The process for teaching music reading is essentially the same. If stick notation is used, it should be, as any notation should, used only for reading what has already been learned aurally.