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.


What Is Musical Texture?

Version 2As I was writing my lesson plans for this week, I decided I wanted to teach a lesson on musical texture. I had mentioned texture in passing, but decided I needed to go further with it than that. As I prepared my lesson, I was surprised to find a limited amount of information on the subject. I found definitions and some examples, but not much more than that. Over the years I’ve learned that nothing is worth teaching unless it is going to be used by the students I teach it to. Simply teaching definitions and having students identify the major musical textures from listening examples just isn’t enough. Identifying is a low level cognitive task, and why should the opening bars of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik being an example of monophony matter to any of my students? What is the value of a understanding musical texture to my students?

In answering these questions, I hope to not only shed some light on teaching musical texture, but also on how to approach teaching any topic in a way that is relevant and engaging for students; something that can be challenging. As with most concepts, the best way to teach texture is to have students experience music that is representative of the various musical textures and make them aware of the interactions of the various parts and voices. Have students sing a simple canon and point out that at any given moment, students are singing different melodies (or different parts of the same melody) at the same time. The pitches are different, the rhythms are different, even the words are different at any given beat or measure.

Or perhaps you have taught your class a partner song. Some students sing one song while others sing a different song at the same time. Music that is written this way is polyphony. Poly (from the Greek polu),  meaning many, and phony (from the Greek phone), meaning sounds. I like to dwell briefly on the first part of the word, poly, because students are already familiar with polygon from math, so polyphony is a new use of the familiar prefix poly.

When it comes to listening, this is both a great opportunity to use classical music in a lesson, and an opportunity to connect a concept most often associated with classical music with popular music students are more likely to be familiar with and have a preference for. For example, both Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, third movement, and Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” can be used for polyphony. The use of Lady Gaga should not be dismissed too quickly, unless your objective is to teach classical music. My purpose here is to teach musical texture, so using any musical genre that helps me teach the concept is preferable to teaching a specific musical genre that impedes my teaching of the concept. The music that is best to use the the music with which the students most relate.

Students also learn about texture when they analyze music as part of preparing to

New World Example

Opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor

present it. Who has the lead voice, who has the background voice, who has the counter-melody? What is the role of the voices that do not have the melody? Are any of these voices a melody? Are they sustained chords? Do they have the same rhythm as the melody? Answering these questions helps students understand the role that their part plays as part of the overall performance. Knowing what the musical texture of the piece is gives students clues as to the what these roles will be, and gives more meaning to what they are doing as they perform their part.

There is also the issue of texture as it pertains to purely non-pitched percussion. West African traditional drumming, with its layers of contrasting rhythms is decidedly polyphonic, while a standard rock beat, because the back beats are privileged compared to the ride cymbal or hi-hat, is quasi homophonic in the sense that homophonic music is characterized by a privileged melody line while other voices are background. Complementary rhythms as found, for example, in World Music Drumming is polyphonic, while a rhythm ostinato used to accompany a song is Homophonic. Letting students categorize the texture as homophonic or polyphonic and providing evidence for their decision after learning about textures in tonal music is a good way to extend the lesson and have students engage in higher level thinking.

My strategy throughout this discourse is to take a concept and present it as a part of something that the students are already invested in. I give them the chance to consider something they are already doing in the light of something new and something that will further their understanding and enjoyment of something to which they already like to listen. Once I have established the concept as integral to music they like, then I can introduce them to other music and continue teaching the concept as something that both musical genres have in common. This helps open their minds to new genres, making them more receptive to music that they realize has something in common with the music they already prefer. It also sets up the opportunity for students to explore and critically think about the concept in new contexts and to consider familiar music in light of new learning. The more we can get our students “inside the music” the more they are likely to enjoy whatever music we include in our music classroom activities.

What Is Creativity and How Do Music Educators Develop It?

Version 2When asked to advocate for music education, one of the frequently given pieces of evidence is that music education develops creativity or creative thinking. While this sounds reasonable, at times it can be difficult to find much creative activity in the things that students are asked to do in both general music and music performance classes. In order to know what classroom activities really teach students to be creative, we first need to define what creativity and creative thought is. Merriam-Webster defines creativity as the ability to create, and creating as bringing into existence, or to produce through imaginative skill. In essence, a creative person engaged in musical activity causes new artistic work to be made and work that is set apart from other work in the same genre or style by original, fresh, new elements not known to or utilized by others who have also caused new artistic work to be made.

At the root of creating a musical work then, is the imagining of musical ideas that can be the materials with which music is constituted, and which can be shaped, transformed, and otherwise formed and expanded so that they come together with artistic integrity, forming a work which effectively realizes the creator’s intent. So at the very least, music education which claims to be developing creativity needs to be training students in imagining musical ideas, and in selecting from many generated ideas those that are most preferred, and then organizing them into an original form that is to some degree both unique and personal that sole creator of music.

For those of us who are products of music conservatories wherein our musical prowess was demonstrated almost exclusively through playing or singing scales, arpeggios, etudes and classical solo repertoire all written by others, this territory into which I have just ventured of creating rather than recreating music may well feel intimidating. Nevertheless, I fully believe that we can make no legitimate claim to developing creativity or creative thinkers in music if we are not engaging our students in musical thinking and creating. So let me know offer some suggestions on how we might proceed in doing this. It will, to be sure take some of us out of our comfort zones, but that is fair, because having not asked our students to do this sort of thing much or at all before, we will be asking them to go out of their comfort zone, so why not us too.

When it comes to generating musical ideas, I first run to jazz. Here I find ample opportunities for myself and my students to generate improvised musical ideas without feeling inhibited by judgment. It starts out simply, using Gordon tonal and rhythm pattern as a basis. First, students echo tonal and rhythm patterns so that they establish familiarity with them. These become the basis for the “riffs” they will improvise at a later stage in the process. For now, it is simply a matter of “repeat after me.” All of the patterns are the same number of beats, and I keep them all in common time. This is important because improvisors need to be comfortable with generating ideas of uniform length so that they fit into harmonic rhythms or “trading” formats. I start this activity with my 4-year-old Pre-kindergarten students, and continue it on through upper elementary.

After students have gained proficiency singing and chanting patterns by rote, the rules of the activity can be changed. Now, I sing those same patterns again, but students must sing a pattern that is different from the one I sang. The students can sing any of the other patterns they have learned (selecting) or can make up one of their own (generating). Students can repeat a pattern they heard another student sing or chant, as long as it is different from the one I sang or chanted.

For the 4-year-olds, that is as far as I go, but with the older students, I next introduce them to “trading fours” as jazz musicians do. This involves improvising a four-measure melody in common time, and then waiting for a partner to improvise a different four-measure melody that is a logical continuance of the first one. Students can do this art-of-teachingactivity with singing voices, or with pitched (for melody) or non-pitched (for rhythm only) musical instruments. By this stage, the older students are really enjoying this, because they are creating something their own, and they are playing their own creation on instruments, which is something they naturally enjoy. It is great hearing my music room full of student’s original musical ideas flying back and forth. Students are “thinking in music” much like a world language student thinks in the language he or she is learning. Most importantly, students are actively engaged in being creative.

Co posing or improvising original work is not the only creative musical activity. Arranging the musical work of others also brings into play a good deal of creativity. It is worthwhile asking questions like, “If Beyonce had written this music instead of Ravel, what do you think it would have sounded like?” or, “this music was written for a piano solo, but all we know how to play are xylophones. How could we re-arrange the left and right hand parts so that we could play it on xylophones?” This develops a different kind of creativity; not the kind that brings something into existence that wasn’t there before, but the kind that takes something that already exists, and introducing new approaches, perspectives and ideas into it. This is the kind of creative thinking that employers value, and, knowing that musicians do these things, why they will seek out musicians to fill non-musical positions.

When students are engaged in creative activities, they are doing something that requires them to imagine. They must form some kind of image in their minds of something that does not yet exist, but which they have within their ability to bring into existence.  Rote learning fills the memory with the raw materials that will be utilized in the act of creating, but it is not in itself a creative task; therefore, copying a director’s interpretation, or improvising only pentatonic melodies is of limited creative value because a requirement to bring into existence or to imagine a new form is not needed to copy. I have found truly creative classroom activities to be artistically rewarding, even while they are also challenging. The lifelong enjoyment of music is so much more than pure consumerism. It needs to engage the imagination in creative activity, and this is what we must train our music students up to do.

Social Media and the Worldwide Community of Music Lovers

Version 2Today I made what for many of you may be a bold decision, to say the least. I severed my ties with three popular social media providers. If you are a follower on one of those social media providers, I urge you to follow me here. You will receive an e-mail notification each time I post something new.

I suppose because of this brash move on my part, my mind was mulling over various things about social media. My thoughts went to the similarity between social media and music. At it’s core, social media provides a means by which people connect. Old friends are reunited and new friends are made through commonalities such as interests, alma maters, or mutual friendships. People go to social media to share with one another whatever things they enjoy, or for which they have strong feelings. Though they don’t have to go any  further than their computer or mobile device, they still have to go somewhere, at least in cyber terms, to be in the place where the sharing of passions and interests take place. What’s more, as we log onto various web cites and apps on those devices, we often do so through our social media accounts, using the meeting place to gain entry into other destinations where we can also share our responses and experiences.

Now consider how and where people experience live music. When I enter into a concert venue, I am immediately with hundreds of other people who share my desire to attend that concert; to hear the program being offered that evening, and to enjoy that genre of music performed live. With few exceptions, besides the people I came to the concert with, I will have limited acquaintance with everyone I see there, though if I am a season subscriber I will likely recognize the faces of the people seated near me, though I may not have personally met them or know them by name. These are like social media “friends,” only instead of sending a friend request, I would introduce myself in person.

There is also the realization that thousands of people in many cities throughout the world enjoy the same kind of music I do, and those who are at this concert with me do. Orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, Israel, Philadelphia, Sydney, Moscow, and on and on the list goes, play from the same repertoire, and perhaps are right now playing the same musical works that I and my fellow concert goers are enjoying right now. Some would argue that this homogeneous programming is problematic; that more diversity should be evident. While I agree that there is too much good or even great music that gets played all too rarely, it is nevertheless true that the music that is played is enjoyed by an audience that spans the globe, much like those who frequent social media cites, or even read music education blogs, for that matter. Think of the social network that would result if every concert going music lover joined a single social network, and conversed with one another there. Such a gathering would exceed one of only music educators, because there are thousands of music lovers who are not music teachers. And I have thus far only referred to those who attend live concerts. I haven’t even mentioned the vastly larger audience that consists of those who listen to recorded music, even to just classical music alone.

There is, of course, one important difference between a community of music lovers and a community such as those often found on social media. Whereas music lovers may argue over performances or preferences, with only a few notable exceptions, people listening to a classical music concert do not berate or pick fights with each other. They are delighted by the muse to which they eagerly give their attention, and quite the opposite of being made contentious, are soothed into a contentment of being together enjoying music, no matter what emotions that music might bring up. The very essence of experiencing music is that it is done in community. Our current practice of listening to recorded music on solitary devices is quite unprecedented in history. Even recorded music prior to the Walkman, was listened to by families and friends gathered together around a non-portable device. From the performer’s perspective, rarely is music performed by only one person, as say a stand-up comedian performs. Instead, music is most often performed by groups of musicians–orchestras, or bands, or trios, quartets or quintets. This makes the making of music as much a social and relationship-based activity as it is a musical one.

This, besides the expressive nature of music, is perhaps the most important thing to impress on students. Music should never be just a commodity to be consumed. Music is something people make. Performers and listeners alike interpret musical works and in so doing are acting for the betterment of themselves and the others with whom they experience the music. Encourage students to perform music yes, but also to listen to it together and discuss its relevance and significance to them. This is especially effective if they, the students, select the music they listen to. The music class can be the forum, the conduit, in which such interactions with music and those who listen to it take place. We can think of students connecting to other students through performing and responding to music as a kind of friend request; and invitation to listen or perform together and in so doing making a beginning at sharing a part of life in which the music is a common thread for both or all involved. Let me conclude by inviting you to enjoy a joyful little piano work with me written by Mayumi Kato and played by Anna Sutyagina. It falls into that category of wonderful music that is too rarely played.


Eclectic Application of Major Music Education Methods

Version 2Elsewhere in this blog I have written about the strengths and weaknesses of Kodaly, Orff, and Gordon approaches to music education. Those articles assumed that it is beneficial to grab strengths from each approach, mixing and matching them into a teaching method that is better than strictly adhering to any one of them. In this post, I will discuss in more practical terms how those methods, and the practices of Dalcroze also, can be combined in a complementary fashion.

Regardless of the method used, music education involves teaching students to sing, play instruments, move and dance to music, create music, perceive, understand and respond to music, and connect music to the other arts, other disciplines, and to their daily lives. These are included in the national standards under the artistic processes of create, perform, respond, and connect. As we examine the major methods, it is helpful to determine how each approach goes about teaching each of these. Of them, connecting is arguably the least often addressed. Connecting sometimes gets lost in preparing performances for presentation or teaching concepts through listening activities. A careful look reveals that both Kodaly and Orff valued the connecting piece.

Kodaly insisted on using folk song literature from the children’s own culture as the basis for developing musicianship. This immediately brought cultural and structural familiarity with the music, and fostered connections with the everyday musical experiences of children who heard and sang this literature often. Beginning tonal training with the descending minor third is well known among Kodaly teachers, yet it was not so much that there was something intrinsically preferable about that interval, but that it was one that the children were most often exposed to and most often were



heard singing intuitively. Those who have debated over the supremacy of the descending minor third have pointed out that it is not so prevalent in musical cultures that are not primarily pentatonic based. American folk literature, for example, has many more instances of ascending major thirds than descending minor thirds, and for that matter has many more instances of the sub dominant which is completely absent form pentatonic songs. That is why successful American application of the Kodaly approach such as Feierabend’s First Steps in Music and Conversational Solfege early on use “do re mi” songs which of course feature that ascending major third.

Orff’s approach to rhythm makes fundamental connections to language. Orff took the natural rhythm of words, and transposed them into musical patterns to teach with the words. Learning poems, rhythms and chants that feature targeted rhythm patterns and meters is a natural way for children to progress musically. Those targeted patterns and meters can then later be read and notated using standard music notation. Movement,



dance and speech are all melded together as the way children experience music, develop creativity, and become artistically literate. As with intervals, it is best to use rhymes, chants and poems that are products of the child’s own culture, so that the patterns are familiar. Translations of texts from other countries and cultures can at times be awkward, creating rhythmic dissonance that makes learning more difficult. Again, grounding music education in culturally familiar contexts is the key.

The Dalcroze approach has not gained the popularity in the United States that those of Orff and Kodaly have. This may be due to the emphasis on the dance and movement aspects of the approach in a setting where singing and playing of instruments is more highly valued, or it may be that when it comes to singing, Dalcroze championed the “fixed do” type of solfege which has largely been ignored in the United States especially by Kodaly specialists who maintain a strong preference, for the “moveable do” system. Even so, Dalcroze’s emphasis on movement and dance can easily be found in Orff’s method because Orff also regarded movement as crucial to music learning and understanding. Orff practitioners use of body percussion and the playing of barred instruments with movements that transfer over from body percussion are rooted in Dalcroze principles. Dalcroze Eurythmics were built on the belief that movement gave meaning and depth to ear training and improvisation experiences. Those movements are put in motion in the form of playing percussion instruments in the Orff method.

The eclectic practitioner will seek out the cultural and musical context in which he or she teachers, and choose those portions of each method that are the best matches. My own teaching has developed over the years into a blend of elements from all of the methods I have discussed so far. After Kodaly, I regard the singing voice as the primary instrument through which music education takes place. After Dalcroze, I regard the body as the primary means through which rhythm and meter is understood, and freely have my students use movement, and prefer the fixed do system of solfege. As I have discussed elsewhere, I have found my students develop better pitch with fixed do, and it is helpful in transferring notation to instruments, substituting solfege syllables for note names. After Orff, I enjoy creating opportunities for children to improvise and explore their own creativity, especially through vocal improvisation from age 4 and upwards, and of experiencing movement to music through the movements used to play barred instruments. Movement, singing and playing instruments are all useful in teaching each of the musical elements, which I regard as rhythm, beat, meter, pitch, phrasing and timbre. The use of movement in particular also is useful in teaching musical expression, as the body naturally becomes expressive when moving to and interpreting music.

I have found much success using Feirabend’s First Steps in Music to combine elements of Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze. While primarily a Kodaly application, Feirabend’s work also integrates improvisation (arioso) and movement into the lessons of First Steps. Learning from the sample lesson plans, I have learned to seamlessly include singing, movement and exploration in every lesson. Also, using First Steps in Music as an entry, Conversational Solfege continues this work, but with a greater emphasis on the Kodaly



elements, presented in a way that is consistent with Music Learning Theory (MLT). Music Learning Theory was developed by Edwin Gordon out of his research into how people learn music. He found that music is learned in a way similar to that used to learn language. While there is much more to MLT than what I will present here, the elements presented in Conversational Solfege reflect the sequence of teaching patterns by rote on a neutral syllable, teaching the same patterns by rote with rhythm syllables (not words as in Orff, or Curwin syllables as in Kodaly), associating patterns learned with syllables to notation, reading familiar patterns from notation, reading unfamiliar patterns from notation, writing familiar patterns, and writing unfamiliar patterns both in ear training activities and in creating music. Like Orff and Dalcroze, Gordon also found that rhythm and meter cannot be learned intellectually, but only though movement.

The most effective way to be an eclectic practitioner is to learn and practice the methods of each approach, adding in new ones as the teacher is able until they are comfortable and natural, and then to draw on any and all techniques and methods regardless of from which method they come, as the need, context, or purpose arises. Doing so equips the music educator to be maximally effective.

What Do We Want Children To Be Able To Do In Order To Sing Well?

Version 2Good teaching is largely about stating clear objectives, and then instructing students in how to achieve those objectives. When it comes to singing, often times music educators frame the task in terms of singing on pitch, using a head voice, and maintaining a steady beat. Clearly these items are important to good singing, but as objectives, they do not get at the heart of the matter, which is what do singers do to stay on pitch, stay on beat, and maintain a head voice? If we attempt to get at pitch by matching pitches to a reference source such as a piano or our own voices, we are not teaching accurate singing, we are teaching pitch matching, which requires a reference tone and avoids producing accurate pitches independently. Likewise, if we attempt to get at steady beat by following a conductor, drum, or other reference, we are again teaching beat matching , which requires a reference beat, and avoiding teaching accurate singing. To truly teach students to sing accurately, we must develop what Kodaly specialists call “inner hearing” and what Gordon called “audiation.” Both concepts, though not identical, include hearing aspects of music in the imagination that cannot physically be heard.

The process of developing audiation/inner hearing (which from here on I will simply refer to as audiation) begins with rote learning, progresses through verbally associating tones and rhythms to verbal labels, and associating the connected tones or rhythms with notation. This means that steady beat can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students, and patterns of tones can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students. When students are echoing in groups, they must reproduce what you have performed without using you as a reference, but they still use each other as a reference. Because of this, it is important for students to also echo you individually once they have learned patterns from rote.

If we take a closer look at this learning process, we must examine how students will know if they have echoed the teacher’s models accurately. This comes down to the abilities to make tonal sense of what has just been heard, and to make same/different discriminations. In the first instance, the child must be able to perceive harmonic functions of tones, especially tonic and dominant, must be able to cognitively organize groups of tones into familiar patterns such as chords, familiar motifs or phrases, and so forth, and must be able to make same/different discriminations between what the child has heard the teacher do, and what the child has done in an attempt to echo. The child must ask him or herself, “is what I just did the same as what the teacher did or was it different? If it was different, how and where was it different? What was my error? How can I make it the same next time?” When I am teaching phrases or patterns to the group at the rote learning stage, I will repeat the phrase or pattern several times if noticeable inaccuracies occur. The student know that I have determined that their echo is different from my source and so they listen critically and try to correct their error. Even in a group, they are usually able to detect the difference and improve their accuracy without my telling them what the error was. This ability to self-correct is evidence that learning is taking place. If I were to tell them every error and “fix” them by rote repetition, that depth of learning would not occur.

The same is true of steady beat. “Was the tempo the same throughout, or did you get faster or slower?” Changing tempo can often be corrected simply by having the students tap the pulse on their knees as they sing. It must be said that simply having students tap a steady beat in the absence of music from which the beat can be extrapolated is of extremely limited value. Rhythm is a complex concept. It is a blending of tempo, duration, and meter. Steady beat is extremely difficult to maintain when meter is not


The metrical hierarchy demonstrated

being considered. Patterns of durations, which is what comprises rhythms, are only made meaningful when they are grouped into patterns of strong and weak beats from which we perceive meter. Meter gives us frames of reference that make apparent levels of rhythmic structure and clarify what the beat unit of each level is. Music progresses along beats that can be measures or single note durations. Without these sign posts resulting from the combination of levels, a listener or performer can become lost in an ongoing sequence of indistinguishable beats. It’s as if every person we met had an identical appearance, like twins. We would quickly loose the ability to tell one person from another. So it is with beats. One beat is set apart from others by where it falls within the metrical pattern.

What, then are the implications for teaching singing? Pitch matching must be replaced by pitch echoing within a tonal context, and playing with a provided beat must be replaced by playing with one’s own audiated beat and that beat within a metrical structure. For pitches, it is helpful to establish a tonality before asking the student to sing. This can involve singing or playing for the student a I-V-I progression, either sung in arpeggiated form, or played as chords on a keyboard. After the tonality is established in this way, the student will have a tonal context in which to place the tones he or she sings. For example, if the child is to sing the folksong “Rocky Mountain,” then he or she will begin knowing that the first note is the tonic note, and that the first phrase is entirely comprised of the tonic triad. This fits easily into the I-V-I preparation, and facilitates singing all of the tones in tune, avoiding matching pitches with an external reference, and making it unnecessary to attempt to sing intervallic ally from one tone to the next. Being able to keep the tonality firmly in mind while singing guides the singer in staying on pitch, and also makes more apparent deviations, because they are not gradual distortions of intervals, but dissonances to the tonal environment active in the singer’s mind. Strategies such as interrupting singing to have the student jump to the tonic note, or to identify occurrences of the tonic note while singing help.

For steady beat, the procedure is much the same. First, establish a meter by chanting a rhythm pattern that includes ictus value notes, and next-level beat divisions; that is, that contains, for example, quarter notes and pairs of eighth notes. This rhythm would establish the meter as duple, because the ictus is divided into two sounds. After establishing this, the student will then continue to divide each beat into two parts. Maintaining that meter will facilitate maintaining the steady beat. So when it comes down to it, teaching students to sing accurately is more a matter of teaching inner hearing/audiation, than it is about teaching imitation or matching. It is about building musicianship to the point where the student organizes musical sounds into patterns and structures that demand and facilitate accurate performance to maintain.


Lesson Planning and Marzano’s Nine Strategies

Version 2Context is everything. There’s a saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Too often in education, we take a little morsel of knowledge, perhaps acquired at a conference or hastily gleaned from an article or book, and then force it into  a position of exclusivity and prominence that assures success will not prevail. I have observed that such is the case in a growing number of schools where teachers are being required to include some or even all of Marzano’s “nine effective instructional strategies” in their lesson plans. Such a requirement demonstrates a misunderstanding of the utility and intent of the strategies. Experienced educators know that no single strategy works successfully with every child or class, and that it is highly improbable that a complete set of 9 strategies would ever be appropriate for any single lesson plan. Marzano himself has said as much in response to that very requirement (Marzano, 2009). Specifically, Marzano wrote that, “The entire constellation of strategies is necessary for a complete view of effective teaching. Unfortunately, in some schools and districts, this message was lost. This happens quite frequently with the strategies listed in Classroom Instruction That Works.” The book he refers to contains the 9 strategies (Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. (2001). The publication of these strategies does not change the fact that effective teachers select strategies according to goals, objectives, and student needs, and that successful teaching demands a flexible and customized approach to selecting those strategies, not a hard and fast requirement that certain strategies be used regardless of student needs. On the other hand, it is certainly true that some strategy or two from the nine will be effective in some music lessons, and should be considered and implemented in music lesson plans. With this flexible approach in mind, I will now discuss how the nine strategies might be applied to music lessons.

Because these strategies are to be used on an as needed basis, they are not presented here in any hierarchical or ranked order. That said, the first is “identifying similarities and differences.” Distinguishing same-different is a fundamental concept. Music teachers teach aural discrimination when they present two tonal or rhythm patterns and ask the students to determine if they are the same or different. Students then can be asked to echo the pattern they have just heard, or to improvise a pattern that is different from the one they have just heard. All of these activities involve identifying similarities and differences. The study of musical form also is well served by this strategy; indeed, perceiving musical form is essentially identifying the use of repetition and variety over time in a musical work. Recognizing that a work is a rondo, for example, requires the listener to know when new material is heard, and when previously material is heard. The alteration of same and different sections of music create the abaca from of an 18th century rondo. In the performance area, singing or playing an instrument in tune also exercises same-different perception. In order to produce a tone that is in tune, one must hear that one’s tone is different from another, and then adjust until they are the same. In order to practice efficiently, students who recognize that a passage is the same as one they have already learned do not spend additional time practicing that passage again, as if it was new. Instead, they can direct their attention to another section containing passages that are different from any others encountered up to that point.

A second strategy is “reinforcing effort and providing recognition.” I have found that this is extremely important with lower achieving students who have become discouraged and see title point in continuing to put forth effort. Demonstrating to these students that their progress is tied to their effort can be a great encouragement, and spur them on to extending their attempts. Students must see that effort effects achievement. Frequent formative assessments of short-range goals can be used to show students exactly what their effort has gained for them. It never ceases to be a joy for me to successfully lead a student through a difficult task that they were unable to complete on their own, and then to point out that if they could make that much progress in five minutes, think of what they could accomplish is they continued working at it for another week, or even for the rest of that class period. Success breeds success, and effort directed wisely and efficiently under the guidance of an effective teacher, leads to success. If a student has been well trained in effective practice techniques, a practice record such as those used by many band teachers, can be successfully used to show students the connection between effort and achievement. When values for minutes practiced increase or at sustained high levels and correlate with improved or sustained high levels of achievement, the practice record is a useful tool in making that effort-achievement connection apparent and clear to the student.

A third strategy is “setting objectives and providing feedback.” Edwin Cole famously said “If you aim for nothing you have already hit it.” Too many students spend too much time doing things their teachers have required them to do without knowing why they are doing it or what they are trying to ultimately accomplish. People are naturally purpose driven. We don’t like to wander about not knowing where we’re going. That might be okay for a Sunday drive in the summertime, but it is definitely not alright for a way of living or of learning. We need to direct our actions to a purpose that is desirable and meaningful. Students who are simply good at playing school can get great grades on


Robert Marzano

report cards, but graduate with very little understanding. Music students who are told to play softer, not to rush, or not to play notes so short are capable of meticulously executing the director’s wishes without ever learning why they were asked to do these things within the context of creating an interpretation of a musical work. Compliance is not the same as understanding. Having a goal allows students to learn from the process of practicing, problem solving, and performance, because they know what they are trying to achieve from practicing, which problems need to be solved in order to move the process forward, and how to move through the process in order to arrive at a performance that is ready to present to an audience.

The last of the 9 strategies that I will discuss here is “questions, cues, and advance organizers.” Teachers sometimes make it too easy for students. Gone are the days when teachers dispensed knowledge, treating students like sponges or containers into which that knowledge simply needed to be poured. That kind of teaching produced students who were full of knowledge with little or no idea of what to do with it. Students need to solve problems, discover or construct knowledge, and apply what they learn to authentic situations in order to gain understanding. Questions, cues and organizers are used to help students access prior learning, and to use that learning to make sense of and put to use new learning. Teachers need to hold students responsible for using prior learning to accomplish the task at hand, and to plan lessons that use instructional methods that draw that prior learning out without delivering it “on a silver platter.” To students who have performed recital literature before, the teacher might say, “I notice you are having some trouble learning this part of your piece. You had a similar difficulty when you were learning the beginning of the Mozart flute concerto. How did you overcome the trouble you were having then? What practice methods did you use to learn that piece so well?” This line of questioning is getting at a sort of metacognitive awareness, but it could easily be along the lines of other types of learning. “This solo is by Quantz, who was a contemporary of J.S. Bach. What did you learn about playing ornaments from studying Bach that you could use in this piece also?”

I have only discussed three of the nine effective strategies. Notice that in each case, I have linked a specific strategy to a specific situation. This is how these strategies are intended to be used. Knowing these strategies and utilizing them at situationally advantageous times is a powerful tool among a host of others that teachers have at their disposal.

Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. (2001). Classroom management that works: Research-based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria: ASCD.

Marzano, R. (2009). Setting the record straight on “high-yield” strategies, Phi Delta Kappa91(9), 30-37.

When Performance Requests and Developmental Appropriateness Collide

Version 2A music teacher recently asked for suggestions on how to teach The Star Spangled Banner to her kindergarten and first grade classes. She didn’t say why she wanted to do this. Perhaps she was asked to have her youngest children sing it for a program, or perhaps she just felt it could never be too soon to teach their country’s national anthem. To be honest, I had never considered teaching The Star Spangled Banner to children so young; it encompasses a range of an octave plus a perfect fifth, and is a challenge for adults to sing well, let alone 5 or 6 year old children. It even has a secondary dominant that introduces #^4 to the melody in the very first phrase. It’s enough to make any Kodaly teacher cringe! If dissuading this teacher from pursuing her plan of teaching the song to those children was not an option, I would support other ways of handling the song that avoided having to attempt its formidable challenges. For example, the children could chant the words in rhythm. They could be told the story with vocabulary they can understand, and then set to expressing the story through movement while listening to the music. Or, it could simply be used as a song tale, sung by the teacher for the class to listen to. The seeds of learning the song would be planted for a future year when their voices and audiation skills were suitably developed to negotiate the range and pitch set.

While it is true that the Star Spangled Banner is unquestionably on the list of songs every American school student should know, it is not necessary to teach such a difficult song to such young children. They can study the singing of it when they are in upper elementary or middle school grades. The question of how to teach a song must always be considered along with the related question of when to teach a song. In fact, this principle equally applies to any number of other concepts. Surely, if you follow the Kodaly pitch sequence, you would not teach the tritone to a first grader, but would not hesitate to do so with a high school junior or senior (especially if they were cast as Tony in West Side Story).

Because one of the purposes of music is to celebrate occasions and holidays, and because most schools, especially elementary schools, have music classes for children, when the need arises for singing for an event or occasion, music teachers are from time to time asked to prepare children for singing engagements which may not be developmentally appropriate or which may come at an inopportune time within the year’s curriculum sequence. When this occurs, whenever possible it is a good idea to create a context in which the request can be fulfilled in a developmentally appropriate way, or in altering the request to something more educationally sound. For example, getting back to the Star Spangled Banner, if I were required to have a first grade perform it, I might have them chant the words in rhythm while I played the music instrumentally in the background. I might also display children’s crayon drawings of a fort under rocket siege as part of my presentation. If pressed, I would explain the impossibility of children that young singing The Star Spangled Banner successfully, or of getting anything positive out of attempting to learn to do so. We surely wouldn’t ask a child that age to recite Shakespeare or Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; it is just as unreasonable to ask a child to sing The Star Spangled Banner. The argument must be made.

The point now must be made that there is nothing wrong with using music with children that is too difficult for them to sing, as long as they are not asked to sing it. Many songs should be presented to children to hear, respond to, and audiate that they will not sing perhaps for another year or two. It is good pedagogy to familiarize children with songs of varying tonalities and meters, and containing many rhythm and tonal patterns so that these become familiar, even before teaching them as material to be sung. Words to a song chanted in rhythm, as noted above, is an excellent readiness activity to precede singing-kidssinging the song to a class. The children can then recognize the rhythm patterns as they listen to the entire song sung by their teacher. Rhythm patterns learned this way can also be clapped or played on drums, and even used as ostinato accompaniments for repeated performances by the teacher. All of this is building musicianship with advanced repertoire without asking the children to do something, like sing intervals of an octave or greater, before they are ready to do so.  In fact, children should regularly be introduced to new concepts this way before they are asked to perform them.

A related principle is that tonal and rhythm patterns that children have become familiar with through musical experiences outside of school can be used to good advantage in the music class. My older students never tire of sharing with me their favorite rap beats that they have learned simply by listening to rap songs by their favorite artists. This is a great foundation from which improvised drum circle performance can be built. Students naturally organize themselves into leader-follower relationships, and teach each other patterns to expand what started as a solo drummer. Contrast this to a music teacher who tries to teach rap drum beats by passing out notated rhythms and requiring that students learn the patterns from notation. Teaching rhythm notation from rap beats is likely too big a jump in music reading proficiency. Students will always be, and should always be more advanced in their aural learning than in their notational learning.

These students also enjoy singing songs they have learned through listening. This joy of music making can be a starting point from which other songs can be introduced. For example, teaching the guitar chords or keyboard chords to another song by their favorite singer sets up the ability for a friend or two to collaborate with the singer and make a joyful solo into a fun group music-making experience.

Keeping instruction developmentally appropriate, relevant, and within the context of well planned and sequenced instruction is of paramount importance. While administrators or civic leaders may be well versed in what poems and proclamations students can read publicly, it is likely they are not knowledgeable in what children of a given age can be expected to do musically. We must be true to our wisdom, realistic in our expectations, and consistent with our curriculum as we navigate requests for our students to perform. Getting students out into our communities to sing and play music is a great way to promote our music programs and to enrich the experiences we provide within our schools, but we must manage these opportunities with wisdom.

Child Development and Music Education

Version 2Dr. James Comer of Yale University has found six pathways along which children develop. These pathways are described as physical, cognitive, language, social, ethical, and psychological. While music education clearly has ties to all six pathways, I would like to focus in on two of them: cognitive and psychological.

The Cognitive Pathway and Music

The cognitive pathway addresses critical and creative thinking, and applying learning to accomplishing goals. It encompasses the highest levels of cognitive activity on Bloom’s classic taxonomy, those of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing. Critical thinking is the  objective analysis of facts for the purpose of arriving at an unbiased and informed conclusion. Creative thinking generates an element of newness into an observed entity. Creative thinking may result in a new product or artistic work, an new insight or interpretation of a pre-existing object, or a new approach to or way of thinking about something.

Anyone who is preparing to perform a musical work engages in both critical and creative thinking. Critical thinking is involved in selecting, analyzing, rehearsing and refining, and determining when a performance is ready to present to an audience. When selecting music to perform, musicians consider there own knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context in which the work is to be performed. Each of these considerations requires critical thinking. The musician must evaluate his or her own knowledge, reflect and assess their own technical skill as compared to the technical skill that will be required to perform the work,  ascertained through analysis, and the appropriateness to the anticipated audience and physical surroundings that is anticipated at the performance. All of this must be synthesized into a final judgment as to the merits of performing the particular musical work.  Once a work is selected, further types of analyses need to made on the music including harmonic, thematic, structural, expressive intent, and so forth. Once the rehearsals begin, the musician is constantly evaluating what he or she has just done, and planning what improvements and corrections need to be implemented during the next attempt. This is a cyclical process that continues until the rehearsal process is completed. Though many times the end of the rehearsal process is marked by a deadline, ideally, it should be ended when the performer(s) have evaluated their work and determined that the performance is ready to present to an audience. Throughout the process, there is abundant critical thinking being brought to bear.

Preparing a musical performance is not all about critical thinking, though. There is also the interpretive aspect of preparation. I mentioned in passing analyzing a musical work for expressive intent. This is an area in which critical thinking is of limited value because there is an absence of facts on which analysis can be performed. A listener’s interpretation of music can be influenced by non-musical factors such as life experience

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

and associations, and prior knowledge about the composer. For example, Margulis, Levine, Simchy-Gross, and Kroger (2017) found that when listeners were given positive information about a composer they were more likely to hear their music as happy, whereas when they were given negative information about the composer, they were more likely to hear the music as sad. A person’s own emotional status, especially with younger children, can also be transferred to music they hear, independent of a composer’s intent. Consequently, analyzing expressive intent cannot be done with “cold hard facts,” but instead with clues the composer leaves in the form of expressive elements and terms. Elements such as dissonance, accelerando, and crescendo tend to build tension, whereas resolution of dissonance, ritardando, and decrescendo tend to release tension. Low pitch can sound gloomy or scary, while mid-range pitches can sound relaxed. Isolated high pitches or low pitches can sound comical, while a low minor sonority can sound fatal or tragic. These are culturally normed emotional references that composers use and to which listeners respond with their imaginations and creative thinking. Still, they are only clues, and it is the purpose of a performer’s interpretation to convey the desired intent. That interpretation is arrived at, and rehearsed prior to presentation with the use of creative thinking.

The Psychological Pathway and Music

The psychological pathway is about an individual’s self-image and self-esteem. It includes their concept of self worth and competence, and ability to appropriately manage emotions. Research into the relationship between self-image and musical experience has been inconclusive. Whereas success in musical activities does tend to raise self image of musical ability, it does not necessarily raise self image in general. Music has been shown to be an effective aid in altering or controlling emotions. People often use music to reinforce a pleasant emotion that are experiencing, or to change an undesirable emotion that want to change. One of the  strongest foundations for advocating for music education is that music provides a healthy outlet for emotional expression. Just as students can use their language pathway to resolve conflict with words instead of violence, they can use their psychological pathway to control negative emotions by engaging with music.

According to researchers, there are several ways we listen to music in order to better manage our emotions:

  • Entertainment – listening to music to maintain a positive mood or to evoke positive emotions.
  • Revival – listening to music to relax or get energized.
  • Diversion – listening to music to forget about something undesirable.
  • Discharge – listening to music to release an emotion, such as anger.
  • Strong Sensation – listening to music to stimulate our senses in new ways.
  • Mental work – listening to music to get inspired or get new ideas.
  • Solace – listening to music to experience comfort after an unfortunate event.

These are all examples of the different ways we may listen to music in order to regulate our emotions and channel them in positive ways. In research from Gothenburg University, listening to music was one of the most frequently reported main activities. Of the music-related experiences, up to 67% of individuals reported that listening to music had changed their emotions. Most of these emotions were reported to change in positive ways. These changes were most reliable when the music used was of the listener’s own choosing, compared to music that someone else (a music teacher, perhaps) chose for them. This last point highlights the importance not only of music in managing emotions, but in allowing students to select music not only to perform, but also to which to listen.

Music has a legitimate and important place in the physical development of children. Its emotionally charged and expressive nature, the manner in which it is performed and heard in communities, and the ways it engages the physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological dimensions of humanity are proof positive that music is key to healthy human development.


Margulis, E. H., Levine, W. H., Simchy-Gross, R., & Kroger, C. (January 01, 2017). Expressive intent, ambiguity, and aesthetic experiences of music and poetry. Plos One, 12, 7.)

Why Do We Teach Music Reading?

Version 2To my surprise, I recently read a discussion thread by music educators on Facebook in which most of the participants found teaching music reading unnecessary. The argument for this position has been around for quite some time. Most of the world’s musicians, excellent musicians, do not read music, most of the world’s cultures do not use written music, and most people consume music as an aural commodity, not in written form. This last point is particularly interesting, because it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the arrival of recorded music, people experienced music in their homes by performing it with friends and family. They would gather around a home piano or organ and sing popular songs of the day, accompanied by a keyboardist who read from sheet music. All of the popular music hits were sold in sheet music form to meet the needs of thousands of home music makers. Music reading was also valued as a requirement for Christian worship. Hymnals were published with each hymn set in a four-part arrangement. Worshippers would read the music, singing their soprano, alto, tenor, or bass voice part. There were even singing schools set up in New England for the express purpose of teaching people to read music so they could accurately sing hymns in church.

In this context, teaching children and adults to be proficient music readers was an accepted and necessary enterprise. In early twentieth century America, there was yet another practical reason for knowing how to read music. Symphony Orchestras were coming of age in the United States, and with them the need for trained musicians who could play the written music of the great European composers. When large numbers of European immigrants arrived in America, they brought with them their musical heritage. Playing this music in a time when no aural recording existed, necessitated music reading skills. It was therefore natural that music reading would enter into the curriculum of public schools. Music reading at that time was a desired life skill.

Today, things are very different. Aural recordings of music have not only frequently replaced sheet music versions, they have also many times replaced going to live music performances. Whereas home music making was once the only option for enjoying music frequently, concert tickets being too expensive to purchase often, today high quality recordings, both audio and video, satisfy the musical desires of many people. What’s more, with classical music not being as popular as it once was, the need for a notational system for learning long and complex musical scores often no longer exists. Most popular songs can and frequently are learned by ear, and for those songs that require notation to learn, simpler notational systems such as tablature and iconic notation meet that need without having to learn the traditional music notation used by and invented for composers and performers of European art music.

So what purpose or need does traditional music notation meet for most students in the twenty-first century? What enjoyment of music does learning traditional music notation bring into a child’s life that cannot be gained by other means? Is the need for standard music notation a cultural one, present only in places where written traditions and not oral traditions are the norm? I believe that the need for standard music notation is greater in notational cultures. Speaking as an American, my aural skills are often in need of a written transcript to bring finer details to my attention. I simply do not notice asStravinsky many fine details of music by just listening as I do listening while reading a score of the work to which I am listening. Were my mind trained at listening for and remembering in greater detail, as the minds of those in oral tradition cultures are, I suspect I would have less need of score reading while listening. But as it is, I enjoy and appreciate music more with the standard notation in front of me than without. So one need standard music notation meets is that it brings out the subtle details of music to a listener such as myself.

A second purpose and need that standard notation meets is that it provides the means to convey the melody of a song. It is a frequent problem for me to easily have at my disposal the words and perhaps the chords to a song, but to not know what the tune is. Many times I find lyrics to a song I think I would like to teach or just sing myself, but there is no melody there, and no recording available to me. With a notated melody, and my ability to read music, I can quickly learn the melody with the words.

A related need is that standard music notation provides a means for songwriters and composers to preserve their ideas and convey them to others where no audio recording equipment is available. This point is made clear by the famous audio recordings Bartok, Kodaly and other musicologists made in the early twentieth century. Without these audio recordings, many if not all of these songs would have been lost to all but those within the culture from which they emanated. The subsequent transcriptions of those recordings have brought those songs to music teachers and their students probably by the millions. While the original recordings were primitive and largely unavailable to the public, the transcriptions were publishable and accessible. What an important contribution that use of standard music notation has been.

So what do we expect our students to do with standard notation? Most of them are neither composers in need of preserving a score, nor musicologists in need of a transcription. The answer is that they have busy lives and cannot afford to spend the time learning and repeating to remember all of the songs they would like to perform. The first step is to start with the simpler forms of notation such as tablature and iconic

We Will Rock You

Little Kids Rock

notation. Use these to teach the advantages and necessity of using music notation. My middle school students cannot remember from week to week what chords to play for the songs they enjoy performing on guitar, keyboard and drums, but they can get back to practicing and performing those songs immediately when they arrive at my class by going straight to the iconic notation. The key to teaching most things is to establish a need for learning first, then meet that need by teaching. Those students now understand the value of being able to come in and be up and playing right away, without having to listen and review and relearn each time. From there it is a small step to teach them that not all music can be accommodated in iconic notation, but the same benefits can be enjoyed using standard music notation. The point is made all the more clear when they create their own music and do not want to forget what they have composed. They are not allowed to use their cell phones in school, so the only method of recording their work is to write it down or memorize it. Acknowledging that they will not remember what they did a week from now, they have every reason to embrace standard music notation.

One final thought here is that the issue can easily be overplayed. Where standard music notation is not the best representation of a musical work, do not try to force it in. For example, trying to teach a student to improvise by having them learn from notation transcriptions of great jazz solos is just working against ourselves. Jazz improvisation should be learned aurally, and cannot be adequately represented in standard music notation. The notated versions are often awkward and difficult to read much less decode and perform. Similarly, there is no need to make a student read music in order to learn how to play a tonic-dominant-tonic chord progression. On the other hand, students should never be taught entire band or orchestral parts from wrote. That is the kind of music our standard music notation was designed for, and all of its advantages should be realized in those ensemble settings. When standard music notation is used appropriately and wisely, the benefits, needs and purposes are clear to all involved, making the answer to my initial question, yes, we should teach music reading.