Working from an Objective to a Lesson Plan

Version 2Let’s say you want your children to pass an object in time to the beat around a circle while chanting a rhyme to that beat with the correct rhythms. There are several competencies enfolded into that one objective. You want your children to be able to pass an object around a circle, you want them to pass on a beat and receive on a beat, you want them to chant rhythms accurately, and you want them to keep a steady beat with their chanting, and you want them to keep a steady beat with their movements. The fact is, playing a “simple” object passing game is not so simple after all. Let’s break this activity down into a sequence of learning activities that will prepare those children to succeed at playing the game.

First, we need a rhyme.

round and round

Just a side note for this is that when I play games that exclude a player, I always give them something to do once they are tagged “out.” For this game, I would have them leave the circle and take up a rhythm instrument to play either the beat or the rhythm while the circle continued to chant and play the game. Now back to our lesson plan.

There are two rhythm patterns in this chant; three quarter notes followed by a quarter rest, and four quarter notes. The first thing to do is to get all the children keeping a steady beat. I don’t want them making sounds at this point, because I want them to be able to focus on hearing me chant to them and hearing themselves chant back to me. So I will have them do a silent time keeping movement. Tapping the back of their left hand with the fingertips of their right hand works well. With the children doing this beat in this way, I will have them listen to me chant one of the patterns on a neutral syllable, and then have them repeat back to me what they just heard me do. Bum, bum, bum, — . They repeat, bum, bum, bum — . I would do this pattern at least twice, with everyone chanting together. Then I would do the other pattern. Bum, bum, bum, bum. They repeat, bum, bum, bum, bum. Again I would do this at least twice with everyone chanting together, then doing sometimes one pattern, other times the other pattern. Finally, for this step, I would have individual children chant one or the other pattern, still repeating it after me. Remember, all the time, the children are tapping the back of their left hand with the fingertips of their right hand.

By using a neutral syllable, I have helped the children focus on the rhythm without beingSelf-Image distracted by the words. Now that they have learned the rhythm, I would now replace the neutral syllables with the words of the chant. I am not using rhythm syllables here because I don’t want the children to associate the rhythms with both syllables and lyrics in a new song all at once. Today, I need them to play the game with the words. Another time, I will introduce the rhythm syllables to replace the neutral syllables, and then go back to the words, which by then will be familiar, to play the game again.

So now the children are chanting the rhyme and tapping the beat. The next thing we need them to do is to pass an object on the beat; that is, to pass an object at the same time they are presently tapping. This can be a challenge, especially for PK and K students, so some readiness may be necessary. They already have their left hands held out in front of them for tapping with their right fingertips. Now they are going to right tap the left hand of the child to their right on one beat, and return their right hand to tap their own left hand on the next beat. I call this passing a beat. To practice this, the children temporarily leave off chanting the rhyme and instead chant “pass, own.” “Pass” refers to their neighbor’s hand, while “own” refers to their own left hand. This is the motion they will use to pass the object. When they can do “pass-own” well, have them start passing an actual object. They will continue to do “pass-own” throughout, but when the object comes to them, they will using the “pass-own” motion to actually pass the object.

Finally, have them continue to do the “pass-own” motion and to pass the object when it comes to them, but now they will chant the words of the rhyme instead of saying “pass-own.” Another teacher has had success assigning each student a number. The children count out loud from one through whatever number is assigned to the last child. The children are to pass the object to the friend whose number is being chanted when it is chanted. If this method is used, then the children only count on the “pass” motion and never on the “own” motion.

With younger children, you will need to repeat the readiness activity described above, though more briefly than at first, before playing the game outright. Eventually, the class will be able to sit in a circle and play the game straight away. At that point, it probably becomes a favorite activity, and so is best placed at the beginning or the end of the lesson. Because it was brand new in our hypothetical lesson, I would have placed it in the middle of the lesson, making it the most “meaty” segment of the class. Once the song is familiar, and the children can sing it without assistance, and play the game with no review, then it can be used outside the game for the literacy segment of the lesson plan, which is what I referred to as “meaty” above, the middle segment.

This middle segment is where I would start to use the rhythm syllables instead of neutral syllables. I would follow Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege procedure. The first step, teach by rote with a neutral syllable, as was done above. Next, teach the same material by rote with rhythm syllables. This might be during the same class, but often will be at a subsequent meeting. After that, have students decode; you sing the rhythm patterns in neutral syllables, and they sing the same patterns back to you in rhythm syllables. Again, decoding would not be done the same day they learn the syllables for the first time. I always wait until they have gained proficiency at one step before moving on to the next with a particular song or chant.

When the children can decode, it demonstrates that they have succeeded in associating the sounds of chanted rhythms with the names of each sound within the rhythms. Once they have decoded, then they can read what they have decoded. You chant, then they chant, while you point to the notated rhythms on the board. Now they are associating the melded sounds/names with the visual notation. After that, the students will be able to read the rhythms with rhythm syllables off the board without you having to chant it to them first. Do this with familiar songs and chants first, then with unfamiliar songs and chants to see if they can generalize what they have learned to new material. This is all done in the middle segment of your lesson plan, though not all in the same lesson.

The final third of the lesson returns to something lighter and something the children enjoy doing. I like to do my response to listening here. I use music they enjoy, and give them specific things to listen for and respond to. For example, I might ask them to tell me how the composer used timbre to create the image of water fountains (Respighi’s Fountains of Rome) or how what effect was created by changes in dynamics in Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Or, I might play two popular songs, and ask them to name one thing in each that interested them and give one reason why. Or, I might play something twice, once to gather ideas and the second to create movement for expression, or for form. So the overall form of my lesson are hands-on music-making, music literacy, responding/connecting.

More On Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Version 2In order to work effectively with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, we must understand two dimensions of learning: cognitive process, and knowledge. Cognitive process describes what thought task a learner is performing on a given text or focus. These include, in order of complexity from simple to complex,  remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Of these, understanding is the most broad and most easily misused.

Understanding answers the question, “what does it mean?” It can involve interpreting, explaining, predicting, or comparing. Understanding is essentially knowing what an author, composer, songwriter, or visual artist intended to convey through their work, and being sufficiently familiar with a creator’s genre to predict what might come next in a musical or literary work, or what a visual artist’s next work might look like based on trends and characteristics found in recent works. Students also demonstrate understanding through comparing when they select a work they prefer from two or more, and then are able to explain why they prefer that one work over the others. Understanding is essentially thinking about artistic work, and making connections with other idioms, cultures, and other artistic works. As such, understanding is an intellectual endeavor.

Applying puts what has been learned through intellectual exercise to practical use. If through interpreting a musical work a student has learned how a composer typically uses specific musical elements and to what expressive purpose, than the student can use that knowledge in using those musical elements in the same way when preparing a performance of that or another of the same composer’s work, or in determining the expressive intent of the same composer in another, perhaps unfamiliar work. Another example might be if, at the remembering level, a student has learned the definitions of several musical terms, that knowledge can be applied when those words are knowledgeably used in the course of writing about a composer’s musical work to which the student has just listened, or which the student is preparing for a performance. It is at the applying level that authentic assessments are found. These are assessment that require students to be evaluated on doing something that musicians actually do in the “real world,” rather than something that only students are asked to do and then do not do once they become working musicians or practicing amateur musicians.

These first three, remembering, understanding, and applying, make a convenient and for many teachers a comfortable learning sequence. Breaking out of these three domains anticipatecan be challenging for teachers and students alike, but it is at the next three domains that the most rigorous instruction and learning take place. Analyzing answers the question “how does it work?”  Many people go through life enjoying music, able to understand what they are hearing, and apply what they know to everything from singing “Happy Birthday” to their children, to reflecting with a friend or spouse on a concert they both just attended together. But to get to the “next level,” a person unpacks the sequences of musical events they heard and looks into learning “how did he do that?” We might learn that we became suddenly tense and uneasy because the chords started on a progression that brought them further and further away from the tonic, or because the pedal tone became more and more dissonant over the chords above. Whereas through remembering, students might identify what a composer did, (he used a crescendo), through analysis, students can explain how a composer used a crescendo, or for what purpose.

Evaluating is more complex. Evaluation is assigning worth or value to an artistic work, or to a performance of an artistic work. To do so requires that the student first have some criteria for judging the quality of artistic work that can be used objectively on any artistic work at least within a given genre if not universally. In other words, the student must be able to know concretely what bad art looks or sounds like, and what good art looks and sounds like, and then must be able to identify what in the artist’s execution of the elements of his or her art was done well and what was done poorly. Often, the most difficult part of evaluating is agreeing on what criteria are to be used.

Many music teachers I talk to are surprised to find creating at the highest, most complex location on the taxonomy. It is also the most advanced step in Feierabend’s twelve step learning sequence for Conversational Solfege. The original Bloom’s taxonomy had synthesis at this location. Creating requires one to pull together everything one knows and can do, and pour it into something new and original. A person simply cannot create an artistic work if they cannot understand, apply what is understood, and evaluate artistic works of others. Students need to acquire command of the elements of their art, of how artists used them to convey an expressive intent, and what particular uses of them create the very best result. Lacking this foundation, students will not have the materials they need to work with, nor will they know what to do with them, or even if they have succeeded once they have, in some way, perhaps randomly, put them together to form a work which lacks expression or quality.

Even an improvisor must have experiences with hearing, generating, selecting, and sequencing sounds and combinations of sounds before he or she can successfully improvise a melody that makes rhythmic and tonal sense. Improvising a melody on an Off instrument with all but the pentatonic scale tones removed is not an act of creating, because no understanding, applying, analyzing or evaluating is needed. The child merely needs to remember to strike any tone bar to a pulse and rhythm pattern. They may be improvising the rhythm, as if they were playing a drum, but they are not improvising a melody, though one incidentally results from their remembering domain activity.

These 6 cognitive tasks, remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, are performed on knowledge. This knowledge also has domains. There are four domains of knowledge: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive. Factual knowledge matches up nicely with remembering, conceptual and procedural knowledge goes well with understanding and applying, and metacognitive knowledge is useful with analyzing and evaluating, because understanding how one things, how one’s cognitive process is used helps a student select and use an analytical or evaluative strategy. It should not be surprising that higher level knowledge requires higher level thinking. If we want our students to engage in the higher domains of the cognitive taxonomy, then we can help them by giving them knowledge to work with that demands higher level thinking. For example, when assigning students to analyze a musical work, first have them plan out how they will go about doing their analysis. This requires them to have or develop criteria for determining when to use appropriate procedures. Of course, this also requires that you have taught them appropriate procedures from which they are now qualified to choose the best ones for the task at hand. Then, once they have determined what procedures they will use, they must apply that procedural knowledge, along with perhaps factual and conceptual knowledge,  to actually completing the assignment. Because this is a taxonomy of knowledge domains, students must be proficient with the lower levels of knowledge before being asked to work with a higher level of knowledge. For example, if students are struggling with  conceptual knowledge, teach at that level to raise their proficiency before asking them to use procedural knowledge.

Effective use of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy is an effective way to control the level of challenge and rigor teachers present to their students. The taxonomy should not be seen as a description of learning styles, because one cannot say that, for example, one student is very analytic and so should always be given analysis tasks. No, that student will fare no better on analysis if remembering and/or understanding is deficient. Whereas some students will struggle to reach the most complex domain, none can afford to skip a domain to get to a higher one.

Demystifying Pre-assessment

Version 2Pre-assessment can be a confusing, even upsetting thing for teachers and students. Most of the confusion and upsetting arises from a sense of unfairness; how can students be tested on something we know they don’t know? When approached in this manner, pre-assessment stirs up anxiety for teachers and students alike. Considering this, the first step to succeeding with pre-assessment is to understand what it is and what it is not.

To begin, pre-assessment results are never graded. It is critical that students understand that you are giving them the pre-assessment to find out what they know and what they don’t know about a particular topic or unit of study. The results will have no bearing on their grades, and there will be no penalty for failing the pre-assessment. Now if we just left it at that, we risk leaving the impression that the pre-assessment isn’t really all that important, and causing students not to take it seriously or even try to do well. To avoid this, it is also critical to tell them that how they do on the pre-assessment will determine what and how you teach them going forward. If they do poorly on the pre-assessment, I will be convinced that I must teach the topic thoroughly. If they did poorly because they simply didn’t take it seriously, they will be quite bored by the unnecessary instruction they will be receiving until the next assessment. Classes will be the most enjoyable and interesting if I collect accurate information on where they are with the topic, so my instruction can be appropriate to their learning needs.

Then next thing to consider about pre-assessments, is that we should not try to make these assessments “user friendly” to avoid creating test anxiety. The explanation I just discussed should alleviate most if not all test anxiety. If we populate our pre-assessment with items that we think the students already know in order to comfort students, then we are ensuring that the results will be skewed and of limited value. We will either conclude that students are more proficient than they really are, and so plan instruction that is too advanced, or, if we interpret their success on easy questions too broadly, we will be prone to avoid teaching things that they need as foundations or review in order to succeed later in the unit. For both of these reasons, the pre-assessment must be the same as the post-assessment. The whole idea is to compare how students do on two takings of the same test; one given before instruction, one given after. That is how we can determine if our instruction has been effective. If the results on both takings is statistically the same, then our instruction has not improved their proficiency; they know no more than before we taught them. If, on the other hand, they score statistically higher after instruction, then we know that they have increased their proficiency as a result of our instruction, which is what we are after. If the pre-assessment is different from the post-assessment, we have no way of knowing if the difference is due to instruction or the difference in the test. That is why the pre-assessment and post-assessment must be the same test.

Pre-assessments are also a great tool for setting student learning objectives (SLO). Not every student will turn in identical results on the pre-assessment. Items answered correctly or incorrectly will vary from student to student, as will overall scores. Each individual pre-assessment will identify in items answered incorrectly areas in which that student needs further instruction, and in items answered correctly areas in which the teacher-and-student4student is ready to move on, take on at a higher level of challenge, or mentor other students who still need more instruction. Then, when the teacher is stating how student growth will be measured, one approach can be to state it in terms of a percentage of post-assessment items that will be answered correctly that were answered incorrectly on the pre-assessment. Here again, the difficulty of assessment items is important to get right. If the pre-assessment is too easy, students will scores will be high before they have received any instruction, and the possibility of showing growth on the post-assessment will be small. Similarly, if the pre-assessment is too difficult, and instruction cannot overcome the difficulty, students will score poorly on both assessments, and again growth will be minimal. The pre-assessment/post-assessment must reflect on the one hand the expectation of rigorous instruction and on the other hand realistic learning objectives that will guide and motivate students to learn without discouraging them with excessive challenge or boring them with insufficient challenge.

At this point, many will want to see an example of a pre-assessment. Let us assume that we want to assess 5th grade students on sight singing. We have taught these students since they were in kindergarten, so we have previous assessments and experience to give us an idea of their proficiency that will enable us to create an appropriate assessment. The students have sung with fixed do solfege and Gordon rhythm syllables, and have read medium easy songs using both. With these students in mind, an assessment might have these items. First, students are presented with several pitches on a standard musical staff. Students are asked to write the correct fixed do solfege syllable under each note, and then to sing one of the items using fixed do solfege. The teacher selects which item each student sings, and the same item is never given to two consecutive students so that echoing cannot occur. The same sequence is then repeated with rhythms. Students are presented with several rhythms on a standard musical staff. They are asked to write the correct Gordon rhythm syllable under each note, and then to sing one of the items using Gordon rhythm syllables. The teacher selects which item each student sings, and the same item is never given to two consecutive students so that echoing cannot occur. Third, students are presented with four short melodies, perhaps four measures each. These melodies contain only the pitches and rhythms that were included in the previous items. The teacher selects one of the melodies for each student to sing, and the same melody is never sung by two consecutive students. The teacher scores on a rubric each student performance and each student written response. The completed rubric is attached to each student’s paper, and all scores are recorded on a spreadsheet.

Once such an assessment is given, instruction proceeds according to the results. Students may need more instruction on rhythm, pitch, or in combining the two in a melody. Instruction proceeds with the same rhythms and pitches used in the assessment. This is not to say that only sight singing is taught in music class, but that what is taught in music class will include sight singing material that uses the same rhythms and pitches. After an appropriate interval of time, the teacher gives the same assessment again, and then again enters the results on the spreadsheet that was started after the pre-assessment. Subsequent results from other administrations of the assessment are also entered on the spreadsheet. Other pre-assessments/post-assessments can and should also be given on other topics that are covered in music class, including performing on instruments, performing with voice, responses to listening including reflections, analyses and evaluations, and improvising/composing. In each case, the student is asked to do what they will be asked to do after instruction before that instruction is given, and then given the same assessment following the instruction.

Some of these assessment will be shorter and/or more informal, because we cannot give comprehensive assessments on everything we do for lack of time. Informal assessments can be as simple as having each student sing one tonal pattern from notation or after you have sung it and marking down a number representing the accuracy that one pattern was sung. Other assessments will appear more like routine classwork, such as filling out a listening guide while listening to a musical work, or filling out an evaluation scale on a popular song. The important thing is that students have the opportunity to perform the same task repeatedly over time so that results can be compared and evidence of growth can be seen and documented.


Why Arts Education is More Important Than Ever

Version 2Have you ever stopped to consider the difference between sending or receiving a handwritten letter and an e-mail or text? I hadn’t until the other day, when I joined a discussion on whether cursive should be taught in schools, or just allowed to be forgotten and fall into obsolescence. Some argued that the latter had already happened, and that there was no need to preserve cursive because anything ever written in it worth saving, like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, had long since been published online and in print. Others argued that cursive provided a level of personalization and even expression that keyed communication simply did not, and that the act of writing by hand fostered more thoughtful reasoning by allowing the writer to linger over words and phrases as they are formed on the paper, and discouraged them from being glossed over as they are hastily put down through a series of keystrokes.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. As people have stopped learning to write in cursive, they have also stopped being able to read cursive written by others. As I thought about all of this, I realized that often, when my students are doing hand-written work in class, they will add flourishes to certain letters, and draw decorative pictures on their papers, which adds a bit of self-expression and individualization to what they turn in. Occasionally, a student will even ask me, “did you like my picture?” I have learned to turn one-sided assignments over in case there is one of these artistic works on the back, lest I allow it to go unnoticed. I believe students want to put some recognizable expression of themselves in everything they do, and that because they are given fewer opportunities to do so than ever, they seize upon those that they are afforded. Apart from their name posted at the top of the page, a student’s work done on a keyboard and printed out is indistinguishable from all others. In most academic situations, the font is specified, so the appearance is standardized. While other characteristics such as overall writing proficiency can give clues as to the author, these are not vehicles for expression in the way a drawing is. Even poor spelling, which sadly identified me to my undergraduate English professors, can be an indication of the author, that too has been glossed over by spell check.

Bereft of these formerly ample opportunities for self-expression, (spelling errors excepted) I believe the arts have become more important to students than ever. Here, at least, is a discipline where students are, or should be, encouraged to express themselves, to seek out through interpretation the expressings of others, and to be understood on a level that is unparalleled in other disciplines. This offers both an immense opportunity choosing-beautiful-musicand challenge for music educators. For all of our philosophical heritage that espouses the arts as a healthy vehicle for expression, now that we are faced with National Core Arts Standards that overflow with references to “expressive intent,” many music educators, including myself, are left to struggle with just how another person’s expressive intent can be known for certain, and how to teach others to its discovery.

Several new facets of expression emerge from the standards. First, students take on the task of selecting music to perform, and do so based on their “interest in and knowledge of musical works.” While both interest and knowledge can be affected by teaching, both are also resident in students, and when brought to bear on selecting music, become agents in expressing through the selection of musical works. This scenario is quite different from a music teacher who alone selects music for students, and then “sells” his or her interest in the work by requiring them to learn it.

Second, students take on the task of analyzing music they will perform. This analysis is not the sort we did in our undergraduate music theory classes, doing harmonic and thematic analyses of Beethoven piano sonatas and Schoenberg tone rows. No, here students analyze composers’ “context and how they manipulate elements of music [to] provide insight into their intent.” What were the circumstances under which and the purpose for which this music was composed, and then knowing that, how does the music reflect the context and achieve the purpose? What did the composer intend to express when he or she wrote this music? Knowing these things from analysis then informs the performance. Students discover how to handle musical elements according to what the composer meant to express, and become agents of that expressing on behalf of the composer. They also connect with some of themselves, and further interpret the music according to the commonalities they find between themselves and the composer. Once students have performed the work, they analyze their own performance in a similar way, determining if their presentation of musical elements succeeded in conveying the expressive intents they discovered. The ultimate goal of performing music is conveying meaning, and this is first and foremost a matter of expression. 

The whole milieu out of which a composer’s conveyed meaning is born is ramped up when students shift form being performers to composers. When they create music, they are creating musical ideas and then selecting and organizing their own ideas into a musical work for the purpose of conveying their own chosen meaning. Because musical meaning is never literal as literary meaning is, expressive intent in music is at once more general and more personal. Musical meaning is experienced not so much in ideas expressed with words as it is in physical responses such as increased heart rate or sweaty palms, and psychological responses such as a sense of repose, beauty, being startled or delighted. Though we fear being scared, we delight in scary music. It is a safe way to enjoy our humanness manifest in emotions and psychology. Because of how music affects us, it surpasses even poetry in expressive potential. When we have successfully expressed ourselves through music, we are more deeply gratified, more affirmed and set right than we can be by expressing ourselves through any other medium. So while the rest of education continues to sterilize itself of self expression and the valuing thereof, music educators, taking our cue from our standards, must become more embracing and respecting than ever of the expressive intent of music creators and performers, and foremost among them our students.

In What Ways Can Learning Be Assessed Without Inhibiting Learning?

Version 2Today my post is not specifically about music or music education, but about a topic in education in general. The topic is grading; how we grade our students, different kinds of assessment, including assigning grades, and what effect these different kinds of assessment and grading have on student learning.

Most teachers are apt to teach like they were taught, and for many of us, we were taught by being graded on quizzes, tests, projects, and class participation. For the most part, grades were assigned at the end of a project, unit, or chapter, and after the test was taken or the project was turned in or presented to the class, we moved on to the next chapter or topic. Over the course of the year, we accumulated a string of grades from which a final grade was calculated and placed on a report card. From there it was either an outing to the ice cream store for a job well done, or we had a lot of explaining to do.

If any or all of this sounds familiar, it might be because you remember doing these things as a student, or it might be that you have your students do these things throughout the school year. When you or they are working on projects, taking tests, reading chapters, or listening to the teacher present material, what is your goal? If you’re like me, it was mostly to get a good grade. I’d focus on what the teacher wanted and try to do that as best I could, even if it didn’t make any sense or even if I had no other interest in what I was doing than the grade. The result of this is that I, and students all over like me, would and will still do just what they think the teacher wants, just what they have to do to get the grade they want. The problem with this is that there is no room for a student finding something they wonder about or are interested in and looking into it further. All they are likely to get for this is a lowered grade for going off topic. And because the student is doing only what they need to for the grade they want, whatever learning is taking place is generic and shallow; a kind of one size fits all.

The other problem with this is that the only thing being graded is the final result. There is no assessment of how the student is progressing, and even worse of what the student is learning, or wants to learn, along the way as he or she works on the project, studies for the test, reads the chapter, or even sits in class listening to the teacher. If it’s not on the test or in the rubric, then this other potentially valuable, interesting, relevant learning falls by the wayside.

Research in the last 10 years has shown that the most effective form of assessment is MIOSMdetailed feedback specific to individual work; more effective than even this kind of feedback combined with praise (Lipnevich & Smith, 2008). Some of the “tried and true” methods of grading students have in fact been shown to inhibit learning. For example, Canada and Hotchkiss (1989) found that “taking risks is not often rewarded in school. Students need encouragement and support, not low marks, while they try new or more demanding work.” Why would a student make the extra effort and take the initiative to delve deeper into study if their extra learning was going to result in a lower grade? They also observed that “learning is not a ‘one-shot’ deal. When the products of learning are complex and sophisticated, students need a lot of teaching, practice, and feedback before the product is evaluated.” I would even go further and say that part of the evaluation should be the growth observed as the result of that practice before doing the summative evaluation.

Now let’s say a teacher has done everything right; the teacher has given detailed feedback specific to individual work, has designed challenging, rigorous learning tasks and planned ample time for extra teaching, students to practice, and feedback to be given, understood, and applied to ongoing practice, and let’s say (as is highly likely) that students are now performing at a markedly elevated proficiency level. There is still one pitfall to be overcome. If the teacher, after all this great teaching and learning, applies the same grading standards and rubrics as before, the students, inspire of all they have done, will be unpleasantly surprised by low grades. Why? Because different methods, differently designed learning tasks, and different objects of assessment will result in different results. Students, while they have learned more, been encouraged and motivated to continue on, and have triumphed over more rigorous instruction than ever before, have probably not learned some of what was on those old assessments and tests, especially if they were heavily weighted for content knowledge above understanding. This may sound obvious, (but it must not be because the opposite happens more often than it should,) but you must be sure that you are assessing students at their proficiency of doing what you asked them to do.

You gave them feedback, so how well did they receive and apply that feedback? What growth resulted from utilizing the feedback? You asked more of them and gave them extra time to practice. What growth resulted from the added practice? To measure growth, you must pre- and post- test along the way, not just at the end. Whereas formerly you were set up to assess with vocabulary quizzes, essays, and other traditional forms of student work, when your students were doing extra practice, receiving and using feedback, and other more authentic tasks,  you weren’t concerned with them writing down definitions or even writing an essay. You were concerned with them doing something authentic and using the knowledge they would have otherwise put into that essay. But you’re no longer assessing the essay, you’re assessing what they did with the acquired learning. So you need to be sure the grade reflects the positive results you observed.  That doesn’t mean you don’t test for vocabulary or that you don’t have them write an essay. It does mean that those kinds of learning tasks are done early in the process, at the stage where they are still acquiring knowledge in preparation for doing something for which they will need that knowledge.

Acquiring knowledge is a step in the learning process that proceeds acquiring understanding. There is little point in acquiring knowledge without continuing on to gain understanding. And how do we know when a student has gained understanding? When they successfully put the knowledge to use doing something authentic to the discipline, in our case, music. And that “something” they do doesn’t have to be the same thing for every student. We can let students follow their interests by having them select the repertoire, musical ideas, projects, and so forth they will use to practice and learn within the four artistic processes of creating, performing, responding, and connecting.

Lipnevich, A. A., & Smith, J. K. (2008). Response to assessment feedback: the effects of grades, praise, and source of information. Ets Research Report Series, 2008, 1.)

Canady, R. L., & Hotchkiss, P. R. (1989). It’s a Good Score! Just a Bad Grade. Phi Delta Kappan, 71, 1, 68-71.

Using Portfolios to Improve Music Instruction

Version 2Portfolios in education are collections of student work and of documents related to those pieces of student work. They make possible the documentation of student activity and learning, the reflecting upon work even days or weeks after it is completed, and the charting of progress over time as work collected at various moments is compared in order to assess growth. Maintaining a portfolio allows more lasting and in-depth learning to take place, and makes more tangible the accomplishments of music students whose work, particularly in the performing area, can easily be lost to time after a performance is given.

In this post, I will discuss the elements of the music portfolio other than the initial student work, which includes items like notated composed music, audio or video recordings of performances, and written responses to performed music. When students are participating in a music class, it is important for them to know what they are learning, as opposed to what they are doing. The two are not the same. If a child is asked what they are learning and the child replies that he or she is learning to sing a song, or play an instrument, then the teacher has not effectively communicated the learning objective. A child is learning a song in order to gain ability or proficiency or understanding of a musical concept or skill, and if a skill, then is learning that skill in order to gain proficiency or understanding of a concept. Even if the child’s actions are recorded and placed in a portfolio, understanding is easily lost unless the child has the opportunity to draw it out of the activity.

In order to do this, reflection is a necessary part of the portfolio building process. The reflection should answer at least three questions: what did you do? how well did you do what you did? How could you improve? What did you learn from doing what you did? The responses to these questions might look something like this: What did you do? I improvised rhythms that were four beats and that sounded scary.” How well did you do what you did? I think I did well making my rhythms sound scary, but I’m not sure how many beats most of them were. I didn’t do so well making them all four beats.” How could you improve? “I could learn how to make one beat with different kinds of notes. I don’t really understand the difference between beats and notes.” What did you learn from doing what you did? “I learned that using rests makes music sound scary, and that other people don’t think my music sounds scary. I also learned that it is fun to make my own notes.”

These are actual reflections that some of my students made after doing a rhythm composition project. Think of the juncture each student was at after finishing the project. Without the reflection piece, they would have performed their composition for me, supported their creative choices in terms of conveying an expressive intent, and that would have been the end of it. But with the addition of the reflection, the students notmusic and the brain only realize what is still unclear to them (knowing how to write one beat of music with various note and rest values), but I have the opportunity to address their need, and encourage them to pursue their improvement and praise their reflection, instead of just leaving them with the knowledge that they did part of the assignment incorrectly. The reflection also brings to the front of their mind the concepts of expressive intent, note/rest values, and interpretation (by classmates), and gives them the opportunity to think about what they have done, and what they will take away from the project and apply to other situations. Because the reflections are evidence of learning and are also self-assessments, they are, along with the initial product (in this case a notated rhythm composition) student work and so legitimately belong in the portfolio.

Davidson, Crouch, & Norton identified 5 learning processes. These processes align beautifully with the 4 artistic processes of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS); they are naturally a part of how musicians work and correlate well with the Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions found in the NCAS. The 5 processes are, listening, performing, creating, questioning, and reflecting. Davidson, Crouch, & Norton explained that, “musicians become expert listeners; they constantly work at performance; they create with instruments or as composers and improvisers; they develop a questioning frame of mind in relation to their work; and they reflect constantly on the quality of their work, both through actions and words” Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, 2000). The extent to which musicians engage in questioning their work, of analyzing, generating ideas, organizing those ideas, rejecting or utilizing ideas, and shaping them into a creative composition or interpretation prepares students for not only producing musical work, but also of bringing high levels of scholarship through those kinds of inquiries to other disciplines, which in turn fosters the ability to make connections between music and the other arts, and between music and other disciplines, which is also featured in the NCAS.

Because there is always intent and interpretation in woven into the work of musicians, there is also reflection upon what has been done to determine the effectiveness of conveying the intent through creation and/or interpretation. Musicians are constantly reflecting on what they have just done in order to refine what they do next; such is the process of rehearsing and preparing a performance for presentation to an audience. When these reflections are made explicit through writing them down or verbalizing them in an interview, they are apt to result in more insight and more thoughtful and informed self-assessment and correction, than when they are allowed to be nothing more than passing thoughts made during momentary pauses in practicing or composing. The first two need no elaboration; performing and listening are part and parcel of what all musicians do. Listening includes all that is included in the NCAS for responding to music, and all that is done over the course of monitoring and knowing what a musical is doing and how well they are doing it. Teachers can collect students’ written accounts of questioning and reflecting, use those accounts to deepen learning, and include them in each child’s portfolio.

Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, (2000). Learning through music in elementary school, Journal for Learning Through Music, Summer 2000, 56-67.

Conversational Solfege and the National Core Arts Standards

Version 2Conversational solfege is a curriculum for teaching music literacy developed by Dr. John Feierabend. It is a literature based curriculum that is grounded in Music Learning Theory and the Kodaly philosophy for music education. It is not a method that one uses to the exclusion of all others, but rather an effective way of teaching tuneful singers to read, write, and create music.

Given that Conversational Solfege (CS) was developed during a time when music educators were using the original NAfME (MENC) content standards and before the introduction of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), it is natural to ask if CS is conformed to the NCAS. Here, I will discuss the performing and creating artistic processes included in the NCAS, and how well CS articulates the NCAS for each of those processes.

Music teachers should begin Conversational Solfege only when students are able to sing in tune by themselves. For most children, this occurs at at or close to 7 years of age, second grade in school; so we must begin by limiting our discussion to the NCAS for second grade and above. For performance, according to the NCAS, second graders when analyzing music will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts (such as tonality and meter) in music from a variety of cultures selected for performance.” They will also “read and perform rhythmic and melodic patterns using iconic or standard notation” when “analyzing selected music.” The term “demonstrate” is to “show musical understanding through observable behavior such as moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments.”  When interpreting, second graders will “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics  and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” Expressive intent is “the emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music>” Finally, after repeating repertoire during the coarse of instruction and rehearsal, the second student grade student will “perform music for a specific purpose with expression and technical accuracy.”

It is interesting that the only mention of reading music notation in the NCAS is for the purpose of analyzing. Nowhere in the standards is reading music included in ochetanconnection with actually performing or rehearsing music. This would seem to be a major omission in the standards, and would position Conversational Solfege to go beyond the standards in developing literacy as part of musicianship. At the same time, because CS is essentially an application of the Kodaly philosophy for music education, singing remains the primary means by which students learn to read and compose music. Being able to sing tunefully, beatfully, and artfully, which is the goal of Dr. Fierabend’s First Steps in Music, the preparatory curriculum for CS,  is necessary in order to be able to demonstrate understanding as it is defined in the NCAS. So in that sense, we could say that CS makes assessment of performing under the NCAS possible.

The other piece to music literacy in addition to reading is writing. For this, we must consider the NCAS for creating. Here we find many parts of CS, and of First Steps in Music. To begin, we find in the NCAS that second grade students shall “Improvise rhythmic and melodic patterns and musical ideas for a specific purpose.” In CS, “students begin developing improvisation skills which will enable them to later compose. Creating aurally “develops the ability to think and bring musical meaning to original musical thoughts.  Students create original rhythm or tonal patterns or melodies using rhythm or tonal syllables.” Take particular note of this next statement.  “Reading notation should not be introduced until students have achieved success at this.” This is often expressed in the phrase “sound before sight” yet it is so often violated in the common ways in which music is taught.

Later in the NCAS for creating, we find that a second grade student will “convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.” Here we come to the area of interpreting music; what Feierabend refers to as “artful” singing. Dr. Feierabend wrote that “one of the mysteries of notation is that the subtleties of expression cannot adequately be represented in notation.  It is the inherent expressiveness, however, that is the art part of music. What appears in notation is merely the skeleton of the music.  The interpreter of the notation must breath life into the skeleton.  This expressive sensitivity development must be assimilated from good musical models and from quality literature that embodies expressiveness.”  So just as reading and writing must be preceded with aural experiences with musical ideas, so to the ability to interpret music expressively must be preceded with models of good musical expression found in performances by great musicians. In responding to such performances, students learn what musical expression is, and what can be expressed with music. They then assimilate those experiences with hearing the models into musical expressiveness of their own. Once again, CS provides the means for teaching students how to accomplish what is called for in the NCAS.

This impacts responding as well. The NCAS includes a standard concerning interpretation. Second grade students will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts and how they support creators’/performers’ expressive intent.” We have seen that demonstrating understanding is done through moving, chanting, singing, or playing a musical instrument. This is in fact how we would present models of artful musical performance. By responding to expressive music with movement, or by imitating artfully performed musical phrases or ideas, students acquire the knowledge of music concepts, and how those concepts are manipulated by performers and composers, to create an interpretation that is expressive. Just as music can be read and heard through inner hearing, music can also be interpreted through inner hearing using notated music. Dr. Thomas Duffy, Director of Bands at Yale University, stated that, and I paraphrase, when sight reading, everything must be included, not just pitches and rhythms. All expressive markings must be included. The musically literate person can silently read a musical score with all the expressiveness that is notated and with the additional expressive nuances that are suggested by the musical context but which are not explicitly notated or able to be notated by the composer.

For the artistic process of connecting, we find in the NCAS that second grade students will “demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and the other arts, other disciplines, varied contexts, and daily life.” The literate students, trained in Conversational Solfege, is able to experience and understand music in written form as the conveyance in that form of ideas preserved in music for their benefit, in the same way that a poem, novel, play, short story, or piece of non-fiction is a written record of ideas preserved in language. Music literacy and therefore Conversational Solfege makes possible connecting music with language arts. Music literacy also builds connections to visual art, as concepts common to both are interpreted from examples of both. And of course, the very interpretation of music brings into play dance, storytelling, and drama; interpretations that often are only possible from written music, and that require musically literate interpreters. Taking all of this into account, it becomes clear that Conversational Solfege is both the development and at the very core of the National Core Arts Standards.

Setting Up Chairs and Desks in a Music Classroom

Version 2The arrangement of chairs, desks, and tables in any classroom is important in establishing the learning climate. Depending on how a class will be run, there are several options when it comes to setting up chairs and tables or desks. The days of rows of chairs all facing the front of the classroom, where a teacher stands and lectures the class is a thing of the past. Best educational practices tell us that lecturing students and running a teacher-centered learning environment is the least effective way to teach. The ideal setup will facilitate your desired student interactions, and will also allow you unimpeded access to every student at all times; you never want a table or cluster of desks between you and a student. You should be able to walk on up to any student at any time to offer assistance with work, or to prevent or stop unwanted behaviors.

Setting up a music classroom presents some additional challenges. Because students in a music class are likely to be engaged in any of a variety of learning activities, the seating arrangement must be at times flexible to accommodate open space activities like dancing and expressive movement, singing and instrument playing activities, which may include space for both instruments and music stands, and writing activities, such as responding to music or notating music. Sometimes you will want writing surfaces, other times, you will want the space occupied by tables or desks to be cleared away for dance or movement. Ideally, the music room is large enough to allow for separate spaces  for desks or tables and  movement/dance. If this is not possible, furniture that can quickly be moved by students can provide this flexibility. I have found that over the course of a year, I prefer chairs only. When I have something for students to write, I give them a clipboard with either plain, lined composition, or music staff paper attached. When collecting work, I collect the papers and have a student helper collect the clipboards. If I need more open space, the students can easily move their chairs to the periphery of the room, without having to move heavier desks or tables. Chairs only also makes setting up for my next class easy, again because I only have to move chairs in the configuration I will be using next.

That brings me to setting up the chairs themselves. Chairs in clusters (with or without tables or desks) encourages group work,  collaboration, and a student-centered environment, but also unwanted talking. Chairs in rows encourages focusing attention on one area of the room toward which all are facing, and discourages unwanted talking, but discourages student to student collaboration and a student-centered environment. Both arrangements can put furniture between the teacher and some students, making classroom management more difficult. Other configurations are possible, such as one or more semi-circles, but they are essentially variations on the cluster or the row.

I have tried many arrangements over the years, and have found that two ways of handling the cluster and the row work best for me. For the cluster, I take care in how I assign students to each cluster. I make sure that a high achieving student and  a low achieving student, are in each cluster, and then filled out with students whose
achievement level is close to the mean. This way, the high achiever can help the low achiever, and the others can work well together. As the achievement levels change, so do the groupings. Grouping students this way frequently ends up separating close friends, but this objection from students is worth enduring. Eventually, the quality of work usually improves using this system. The clusters are 4-6 students each. I also make sure that there is at least 2 boys and 2 girls in each cluster, so that neither a boy or girl is the only boy or girl in the group.

The other arrangement that works well is to set up rows with an aisle between everylayout-classroom two chairs. This gives me pairs of chairs down the row. It gives me easy access to every student all the time. I can stand anywhere in the room and always be right next to at least one student, usually two, one on each side of me. For group work, the students can easily turn their chairs so that one pair of students joins one or two other pairs of students to form a group. With this in mind, I make my seating chart to result in the same kind of groups as with the clusters.

Some of you, either by choice or necessity, teach with no chairs at all. I choose to teach my Prekindergarten and Kindergarten classes with no chairs. In this case, I seat the children in a circle on my carpeted floor. Students who socially have difficulty succeeding when sitting next to each other are moved to other locations in the circle; to a location where they are 3 or 4 children apart. This way, they are not next to each other and also cannot see each other. Students who will be off task if next to each other will also often be off task if they can make eye contact on opposite sides of a circle. The children have assigned spots for each class. After we have gotten up and about for a movement activity, they must return to sitting next to the same people they were sitting next to before, unless I move them. I have not taught a class of 5th grade or middle school students without chairs, but I have noticed they don’t mind getting into a seated circle on the floor to play a singing game, or to do performance group work such as clapping patterns or rhythm band type activities.

If the class at any level is returning to a circle on the floor after an activity for which they were elsewhere, I seat myself in a different location in the circle. I also teach some from in the circle, becoming an equal participant in the activity, and sometimes standing outside the circle either teaching or observing. From a classroom management perspective, it is always good to move frequently so that you gain close proximity to students in different parts of the room throughout the lesson. This also allows you to build relationships with your students when you are participating with them, and also reinforce your position as teacher when you are giving instruction.

What Are The Fundamentals of Teaching Elementary Music?

Version 2Whether you will be starting your music teaching career next fall, are assuming your first ever elementary music position after previously teaching at another level or an instrumental program, or are a seasoned elementary music teacher who benefits from reminders and self-challenges (that’s me, by the way), I thought it would be helpful to go over the nuts and bolts of what goes into teaching elementary music. There are  several approaches or philosophies that most of us are familiar with, including Kodaly, Gordon, Orff, and Dalcroze, and there several published curriculum or packages that many find beneficial. What I will discuss today overlays all of these. I see these as means to an end, and I will be discussing mostly the end, the goal of an elementary music program. While I have my preferences, it is more important that you meet the goals with your students than with which philosophy you use to do so.

Develop singing in head voice. This is essential not only to teach good singing habits, but singing in a head voice also facilitates singing in tune. Sliding sounds, especially descending from the upper range, and songs that accommodate making high pitched animal sounds like whimpering dog or cat meow are helpful. These can be used as a vocal warm-up at the beginning of each class, and can be made fun with a little imagination. I did sliding sounds for years just as a warm-up, and was amazed to see how excited my students got when I added a yo-yo or a pop-up puppet for them to follow movements of with their voices.  Some students will use a screeching or shouting voice, or just do the sliding sounds too loud, so you must monitor exactly how they are using their voice, and make sure they are using their voice in the same way that they do for a singing head voice.

Develop audiation skills. Gordon defines audiation as hearing and comprehending music “for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present.” This is done with echo songs and call and response songs, and also with tonal and rhythm patterns. With echo songs, the children repeat a phrase or song fragment that they have just heard. To do so, they must remember what was sung, and then recreate it from their memory. Call and response songs are more challenging, because the child must remember the response, retaining it in memory while the teacher sings the call, and then sing the response from memory. With tonal patterns, the teacher sings a two- or three-note arpeggio, pauses for a second, and then has the child repeat the same pattern. With rhythm patterns, the pause is not necessary, but they otherwise work the same way. Once a class has become familiar with an echo song, call and response song, tonal pattern or rhythm pattern, children should be asked to sing their part by themselves. Most learning and the best assessment comes from solo singing. I recommend John Feierabend’s “First Steps” series for song repertoire, especially The Book of Echo Songs and The Book of Call and Response.

Develop independent singing and whole song assimilation. Children also need to gain confidence singing on their own for longer than a measure or two, and they need to comprehend a whole song as having phrases, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whole songs also provide the opportunity for them to audiate tonality and meter more easily than from a short song fragment. For this, it is best to use short simple songs and ones that are in a comfortable key for young voices. Songs in the key of F or G and that utilize a range of a third to a fifth are good. The teacher should first sing the song for the children until they are familiar enough with it to sing it accurately. While they are listening to the teacher sing, they can be given movement to do which both develops a stronger sense of beat and also gives them something to do while they listen. This is sufficient for the first class in which the song is used. The next time, the teacher sings the song for the class again in the same way, and then can have the whole group sing without the teacher’s help. It is important not to sing with the students so that they must rely on their memory of the song and each other. If the group falters, the teacher can sing the song for them again and then have the class make another attempt. At a later session, the students then sing the song individually. There can be several songs at various stages of learning so that one song is sung with solos and then in the same class another song is sung by the whole class. The first priority is that students at least attempt to sing the whole song, not just a part of the song. Each song should be presented at at least four different sessions.

Develop listening skills and perception of the expressiveness of music. Elementary teachers know the value of reading to their class. Doing so develops vocabulary, a love for books and reading, critical thinking, and demonstrates expression and emotions as children follow a story through it’s parts. All of those benefits also come from singing stories to children. Song tales are a major part of American folk traditions. These songs have lots of words and verses, so they are sung to the children. As they listen, they develop listening skills and experience the expressiveness of music.

Develop awareness of the body moving in space and of expression and form of music interpreted with the body. Music activates the same location in our brain that controls movement. Even when we are sitting still in a concert hall at a concert, our brains are perceiving music as movement. When we physically move in ways that closely resemble the motion our brains perceive in the music, the music becomes powerfully expressive to us. Because we are looking for certain kinds of motions and not others, it is best to direct children how to move, at least at first, instead of letting them freely move while listening to music. It is also best to use classical music because it has a clearer line of motion and more variety of expression than popular genres. When doing movement activities with my classes, I like to use swinging and rotating arms, and also raised and lowered arms as the primary movements. I use non-locomotor motions so that the strength of expressiveness does not go unnoticed due to moving feet. If I see a child doing a motion of their own that matches the music well, I will tell the child publicly that I like the motion, and then I will begin using it. The children listen to the music while watching me and imitating my motions throughout the music. Later, once the children are familiar with the activity and the music being played, I let them create their own motions, but monitor them so that only well-matched movement is used.

Develop a strong sense of beat. When students are moving to interpret the music, they are not necessarily moving to the beat. They are instead making shapes and gestures that bring out the expressive meaning of the music. Moving to the beat of music is a separate activity. For this, I have the children do a beat motion that does not make any sound. I don’t want them to clap or do anything that produces an audible beat, because I want each child to arrive at what they perceive the beat to be. This also leaves open the possibility that students will find different beat levels; that is, one child might move to the micro-beat, while another might move to the macro-beat. I consider both correct and am, in fact, pleased that some of my students can perceive both levels of beat. I again use classical music for this. Elementary children enjoy classical music and the beat is just subtle enough to require careful listening to perceive. I keep the music to no more than 2-3 minutes. Another good activity for developing beat is to give one child a non-pitched instrument and have the child play a beat. I then sing a song or chant a rhyme to whatever beat the child plays. This gives the child control over the tempo, and allows him or her to explore different tempos. I do insist that they maintain what ever tempo that start with throughout their turn.

Develop musical imagination. As students are learning to sing in tune, to a steady beat, and expressively, they should also be learning to use their imaginations to create musical ideas. This can be done in several ways with young children. One activity is to have them make up tunes to sing to familiar rhymes, or to short statements about the color of their shoes, or the number of brothers or sisters they have. The idea is for them to have a pretext for inventing a short tune in a singing head voice. An easier activity for younger children is to simply sing an improvised motif and have individual children sing a different motif. Children are apt to just copy your motif at first, so I sometimes make mine complicated enough so they can’t remember it all, which forces them to think of something on their own, or of what they think they heard me do.

As I said earlier, these are the essential things that an elementary music teacher should be teaching his or her students. They are all usable in Kodaly and Orff programs. For example, improvisation and movement is greatly emphasized in Orff, so that aspect of what I have discussed will be a natural fit. Singing and music reading is highly emphasized in Kodaly programs, so likewise those activities will immediately be a good fit. As long as the fundamentals are covered, there is great flexibility in how they are delivered to students.

After The Concert

Version 2Recently, a sort of firestorm on Facebook was started by a music teacher sharply criticizing colleagues who stop teaching the curriculum after the final concert of the year. He stated that in doing so, these teachers are “degrading” their music programs. He went on to vent and in so doing offended some. The post was probably over stated and too severe, but the author did raise a worthwhile point. It so happened that the evening before, a man whose daughter is a curriculum supervisor asked me, “what do you teach after your concert is over?” His question was born of the same impression the teacher on Facebook was getting at; an understanding that music programs exist solely for the purpose of giving concerts.  I answered that I continue to teach music reading music writing, and singing, as I have been doing all year. For me, concert music is some of the material I use to teach the enduring understandings and answers to essential questions that are the backbone of my discipline, music. With this philosophy, preparing concert music is a means to an end of producing learning above and beyond the performance of a concert. Because I approach music teaching this way, my instruction is significantly different from a music teacher who sees learning concert music as the end, and other learning that may take place along the way as incidental.

This discussion is not about scheduling, nor is it about what a particular music teacher is allowed or not allowed to do or teach. It is about what values we hold concerning our discipline, and the importance and relevance we see in music for our students lives now and in their future.  Music education is much bigger than the concert. If all that mattered was the concert, we would teach everything by rote, (there is a place for rote learning, but it must not be the only method used) we would teach easy repertoire that we knew would always sound good with very little effort, and we would program from a narrow repertoire of music that is popular with students and their parents. Sadly, I know music teachers who do all of these things. While audiences and maybe even administrators often love the result, if this is what music education looks like, then by it we teach our students a counterfeit for musical excellence, one that is shallow comes cheap. We also teach them that it is not worth the investment of time and effort to learn more challenging music, nor is it worthwhile to experience a great deal of great music that is left out because it just takes to much time to master. We also teach our students that only a minimal amount of skill and knowledge should be brought to bear on making music; that developing advanced skill and attaining true music literacy is not worth pursuing. Every one of these positions should be untenable for a music teacher.

So what place should our concerts take in our music programs? Concerts are evidence of learning within the performance artistic process. They are the result of rehearsal, evaluation, and refinement over a period of time. But the learning onEinstein display at the performance which is presented to an audience goes beyond what is possible from shallow, rote only learning. When all teaching is rote, and when the sole purpose of instruction is to prepare a concert, music teachers are doing the equivalent to language arts and math teachers who teach to the test. Students are prepared to score well on a standardized test, but spend so much time preparing for that one test that greater depth of knowledge is never taught, and truly meaningful learning, learning that is relevant to life, is rarely obtained.

When music teaching has been approached correctly, there is an artistry evident, a confidence and interpretation that points toward an understanding of the music that extends beneath the surface to the composer’s culture, expressive intent, and musical vocabulary. There is a passion in the young performers that suggests that they are playing from their own hearts out of an understanding of how to manipulate musical elements to convey a specific, purposeful intent. The playing reveals that they have wrestled with the score, exercising their literacy, and are not just repeating what another has told them to do, but are interpreting out of understanding and love for the music, just as a good actor does not merely read lines, but brings them to life through skillful and expressive interpretation. Students can explain how they are using musical elements to convey an interpretation, how motifs, phrases, themes and sections relate to each other and the overall expressive content of the music. Students can evaluate their own performance and use developed musicianship to solve problems and refine performances. Students who have only been taught by rote can do none of these things, and so are always dependent on a teacher to tell them what to play and how to play it.

Here are some practical things music teachers can do to teach at deeper depths of knowledge.

  • Develop with students criteria with which they can evaluate their own playing or singing.
  • Teach students the music and teach students about the music, and music similar to what they are learning to play or sing, so they can generalize their learning beyond a few pieces to a repertoire waiting to be explored and experienced.
  • Allow students to select music to learn based on their evaluation of their own playing or singing, their knowledge of the music or the genre from which the music is drawn, and their interests.
  • Have students examine the composer’s use of musical elements and what expressive effect was produced or intended and from that examination, develop an interpretation. This can be done in an ensemble through questioning and trying student ideas. Insist that they support their answers with evidence from the text (the written music), just as they would support a claim from a text in language arts. Students will more quickly and successfully play or sing an interpretation that is theirs, so time will not be lost in the end compared to imposing a director’s interpretation that must be repeated more before it is remembered and done well.
  • Include students in evaluating performance during rehearsal, and use student section leaders to guide less experienced players. Keep this from becoming blaming people for mistakes by making questions specific and not focused on individuals. For example, “how could the trumpets use dynamics more effectively to support the melody in the flutes?” “What instrument did you hear sounding that wrong note? . . . trombones, check the notes you just played. Did you miss an accidental?” This last example incorporates evaluation of others and self-evaluation all in the same teaching moment.
  • Include students in deciding when a musical work is ready to present. Students who have developed their own interpretation and who have determined the expressive intent of the music and the performance will have informed input and a vested interest of when their performance is ready.

Teaching with this kind of depth gives purpose to a music program beyond the concert. It also gives value to music education for students who don’t give concerts, such as those in a general music class and who are not enrolled in an ensemble.