The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Has Something For Your Students

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

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

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

Pacing and Energy are Not The Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Flexibility Can Save The Day

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

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

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

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

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

Pros and Cons of Stick Notation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Practice?

Version 2I was in my senior year of my undergraduate studies, during my apprentice teaching semester. I shared an off-campus apartment with two other men, one a music major the other a psychology major. One day, after I had been practicing my clarinet, the music major said to me, “I don’t like listening to people practice.” Naturally I asked him why this was and he said that it was because when the people he knew practiced, they paid little attention to tone, and most of their attention to practicing notes. I asked him if that was true of me too, and he said that it was.

All these 39 years later, I have recently remembered those words and reflected on them. I have realized that the practice sessions I enjoy the most are the ones in which I am being most expressive; the ones in which I lose myself in the music and “play my heart out.” On the other hand, my least favorite practice sessions are those that are aptly described by my former room mate’s words; the ones in which I am merely practicing notes, drilling myself over and over until I play a passage with the correct notes. Of course, this kind of attention to right notes is necessary, but it is a temporary departure from what should be the main point of playing a musical instrument in the first place, which is to express something of the human heart and spirit.

Suzuki, the famed violin pedagogue, often spoke of the intimacy between heart, soul and music. To him, music was as essential to life and human compassion as the air we breathe. How unfortunate that some teachers have cherry picked playing by ear from the totality of Suzuki’s philosophy and method, forgetting or laying aside the development of beauty of tone and expressiveness in favor of playing dry renditions of Twinkle ad nauseam. Ever since the National Core Arts Standards were released with the pervasive presence of expressive intent throughout them, I have found it both energizing and challenging to frame every musical experience in the context of expressiveness. Yet that is exactly the point of art in general and music in particular–to express something personal from one musician to other musicians and beyond them to audiences. It has also caused me to call into question the premise that performances of classical music must be “authentic.” If a musician’s primary mission is to convey someone else’s expressive intent, then musicians are left with an enterprise that is marginally relevant to them at best. Whether the mandate is to reproduce a composer’s intent, or to follow strict instructions from a conductor, preparing performances to present to an audience without the creative freedom to convey personal meaning is rendering music study largely superficial, and limiting the true power and benefit of musical study.

If someone tells me about something about which they have strong feelings, those feelings are conveyed to me in body language, voice inflection, as well as the words themselves. Their feelings then interact with my own feelings born out of my own experience and interests, and are given an additional meaning that is personal and somewhat unique to me. If the person is telling me about a life event they have celebrated and are happy and excited about, anybody hearing them talk about it will get that the feelings being expressed are happiness and excitement, but my version of those emotions are different from others’ based on how I personally feel when I am happy or excited over a similar life event. The same is true with music. Whereas musicians may universally agree that Beethoven was expressing anger, or Haydn was expressing humor, individual musicians or non-musicians will relate to that anger or human in unique ways, influenced by life experiences only they have responded to in unique ways.  So it is here, in the mixing of life experiences and music that we as music educators much grant our students the freedom to interpret music they hear and perform in our rehearsals and classrooms in personal ways even when those ways are different from how we would dictate an interpretation to them were we to assume the role of traditional maestro.

In granting this freedom, we must prepare our students to create such interpretations by giving them ample experiences with music of the same idiom as that which they are preparing for performance or are listening to for responding to music activities. They must develop a “feel” for the music of Beethoven so that they can relate their own lives to what Beethoven invested into his music. The same is true of any composer of any idiom or time period. Interpretation is the melding of two contexts: that of the creator and that of the performer. The later must understand the former, but be left the latitude to understand the former in his or her own cultural and personal contexts. The more the students have a “feel” for a composer’s music, the more they will be able to understand it based on how they feel when they play, sing or hear it.

When this is applied to practicing or rehearsing, more attention is often given to details. For example, when students are focused on beauty of tone, they are concentrating on the expressiveness of perhaps only a single note, or a single phrase of music. This point is famously made in this moment from the movie Amadeus.

Salieri’s attention to that first sustained note is exactly the focus on expressive detail that is necessary for music to be understood as an expressive power. For Salieri, the miracle of this music is not in the specific pitches or even in the literal dynamics, but in the way in which these things are used for expressive effect. It should not be necessary for children to wait until they are in college or even high school to experience this level of musical sensitivity. The vibrant imaginations of children are perfect for exploring music in all of its expressiveness, much more for than for exploring the names of lines and spaces and the memorizing of vocabulary lists. These too must be included in our music instruction, but they should not become the primary focus.

The Better Way

Version 2Times have changed. It used to be that teachers taught everyone the same way, without considering that children don’t all learn the same way. Then we realized there are different types of learners, and we began meeting the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Howard Gardner taught us about multiple intelligences, and a greater attention to special needs children challenged us to find ways to maximize learning for these children. These were all necessary and much needed shifts in educators’ thinking. Still, teachers still considered themselves as the determiners of what would be taught, and how it would be taught. The teacher’s job was to teach, and the students’ jobs were to learn in the way the teacher instructed.

One of the glaring weaknesses of this perspective is that when students are not interested, do not find what the teacher is doing relevant, and disengage themselves from the intended educational process, school becomes a struggle for everyone. Teaching becomes burdensome, and learning becomes boring. However strongly educators may insist that there are certain things all students should know, like Shakespeare, the Pythagorean theorem, or the symphonies of Mozart, no one, teachers in grad school or students in grade school, will be a high achieving learner, or will retain and apply learning, if it was taught to a disinterested, unmotivated student. There has to be a better way, and there is a better way. Student feedback and choice are a powerful combination of tools that quickly ramp up the level of learning and of engagement and interest. In this post, I will describe and discuss both of these.

Student feedback can take many forms. The kind I will discuss here is in regard to students informing teachers on how they prefer to learn, and on the effectiveness of whatever learning strategies the teacher had the students use. Having students generate this kind of feedback is beneficial to both teachers and learners. In giving this feedback, learners develop an awareness of how most successfully learn, and in what ways they most enjoy interacting with the material they are learning, be it knowledge or skills. Once aware of their preferred learning strategy and activity, students can take advantage of the opportunity to learn their way, and to develop a love for learning and for the material that both would otherwise been passed up.

I currently have a second grade student in General Music who dislikes singing to the point where he steadfastly refuses to sing. He will drum, chant, move, dance, play instruments, but will not sing. I am a very Kodaly centered music teacher. Singing is at the very center of everything I do, so with this child, I have a choice. I can just as steadfastly as he, insist that he sing, making our teacher-student relationship frustrating and to some extent confrontational, or I can acknowledge that he can meet a great many of the objectives I have for him and his classmates by doing things other than sing. I can reflect and acknowledge that singing in general music is a means to an end, and not the end itself. I have children sing to teach them to love music, love making music, be creative with interpretation and improvisation, and learn to express themselves in a personal, musical, expressive way.

Of course, a child can learn all those things by playing instruments, and listening to the expressiveness and creativity of others. While some aspects of musical development may be less served by minimizing singing, the detriment will not, I must acknowledge, be as much for someone who hates to sing as for one who enjoys or even loves to sing, like me. I cannot teach someone else to love music as I do by requiring them to sing, if they do not love to sing as I do. Instead, I have the opportunity to observe a child grow in musicality in a different way than I did or would prefer to, and thereby learn something about the child I would not learn otherwise. Learn what about music he or she really values, and what that child really connects with in music.

When a child says “I hate music,” it is rarely literally the case. More likely, what is meant is, “I hate doing what you’re asking me to do, and I won’t do that because I don’t think I’m very good at it and I don’t want anyone to hear me doing it.” But that is too much to say every time a child is asked to sing, so he just says, “I hate music.” Receiving student feedback gives the teacher the opportunity to know his or her students better, which enables the teacher to make content more relevant and attuned with student interests. It also demonstrates to the student that the teacher cares enough to consider him or her as a unique and valued individual, rather than one of many generic students.

Often times, if a student is given the opportunity to practice something like singing, or playing a guitar, or what have you in a safer place than where an entire class of peers will hear, a child will very quickly begin to flourish. I recently had a class of 7th graders working on a guitar project in small groups. There was a girl who just sat there with a guitar on her lap looking unhappy. I brought her out of her group and said I wanted to show her something. I took her guitar and played what I had asked her to play, then I said, I can have you playing that in 5 minutes. Watch. Reluctantly at first, she began to follow my instruction, and in less than 5 minutes, she sounded great. With a smile on her face, she assured me she would continue to play for the rest of the class, and the next class too. Nobody likes doing something they don’t think they are good at in front of an audience. For her, individual instruction was the way to go. For others, group learning is best.

A group of confident learners enjoying what they are doing usually produces exciting results. When given the choice, some of those student groups will choose to sing. They will sing, four or five at a time in unison, in harmony, or to a beat boxer, and enjoy every second. Others will prefer to play rhythms on drums, while others want to get their band instruments and add a flute or saxophone part to their classmates drumming or singing. The best learning occurs from a position of strength and confidence. When students have choices, they will choose to stand on solid ground. From that position of confidence they will be willing to take the risks that are necessary to push learning forward. When forced into a “one size fits all” model of teaching, only those confident in doing that one thing will succeed. Feedback informs instruction, choice empowers students.

Games in the Elementary Music Classroom

Version 2My students love to play games. No matter what else I may have for them to do on a given day, as soon as I mention that we will be playing a game that day, they all smile and get excited. Music games are fun, yes, but there is also a learning goal to be met that must not be overlooked amid all the fun, or left not communicated to the students.  For example, in Pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, you might use the song “Charlie Over the Ocean.” The song is an echo song, and the game is played as a version of duck, duck, goose. One child walks around the outside of the circle while the song is sung, then taps the nearest child in the circle at the end of the song. The child who tapped chases the child who was tapped. If tagged, the he becomes the new chaser, if not, the chaser must chase again. With all the running and chasing, it is easy to let that excitement become the focus of the game. But there are opportunities for more learning.

Because the song is an echo song, the chaser is a solo singer as he or she walks around the circle. It is important for children to sing alone, not always in a group, to develop independent audiation and singing skills. This can also be an excellent opportunity for the teacher to assess singing while the children are at the same time doing something they enjoy and that doesn’t “feel” like an assessment. Thirdly, the chaser should also be walking around the circle to the beat of the song he or she is singing, so the child is performing a beat motion. Fourthly, traveling around the circle when being chased and returning to the same location in the circle requires that the student move his or her body in space to a determined location. This is a variety of movement exploration, training students to understand and interpret music through movement of the body. Feierabend has presented many similar activities that teach children to explore space with their bodies. If one wanted to calm the game down, it could be played so that the child tapped needed to reach a location in the circle in a given number of steps. If more or fewer steps were taken, the child would be “caught.” If the exact number of steps were taken to reach the destination, the child avoided being “caught.”

When the class is about to play a game such as “Charlie Over The Ocean,” the teacher who states upfront that the goals to be achieved while playing is accurate solo singing, exploring movement, and accurate keeping of the beat by walking, is focusing students on desired learning, even as they are having fun playing a game. Students are also more likely to manage their behavior and successfully learn concepts when they are goal directed. Students should know what they are learning at all times during a classroom activity.

“Charlie Over The Ocean” is a kind of game that doesn’t have winners and losers. Other games do. In these situations, the learning objective must be kept in mind, more so than winning the game. A good example of this is Feierabend’s “forbidden rhythm.” This game is very useful for teaching music literacy, both at the aural and reading stages. I use three different rhythms. The three rhythm patterns have been taught so that they are familiar to the children. The game is played as a variation of a familiar activity, that of echoing rhythm patterns. I chant a rhythm, and the class chants it back to me. The twist is one of the three rhythms is “forbidden.” If I chant the forbidden rhythm, the class must remain silent. If the class stays silent, they get a point. If anyone chants the rhythm out loud, I get a point, so the two teams are the class and me. The first team to get 3 points wins. In order to avoid one student being blamed for awarding me a point, I give the class the point if only one student chants the forbidden rhythm, but if two or more chant it, I get the point.

This can be done orally, or the rhythms can be written on the board, and the students play the game by reading the rhythms I’m chanting, avoiding the one that is marked “forbidden.” The students are focused on winning, but in order to do so they must remain proficient at audiating rhythm patterns and deciding which ones to chant out loud and which ones to just audiate but not chant. They also must practice reading music if the patterns have been written on the board. That is the learning objective they are working on while they are having fun trying to win the game. The game can also be played by having a student lead, chanting the rhythm patterns for the class to echo or keep silent on. In that case, the student leading becomes one team, and the class is still the other. This arrangement gives students a chance to practice leadership skills and solo chanting, furthering the learning possibilities from playing the game.

Games are a useful tool in teaching music (and other disciplines). They are motivating and provide a context that make learning meaningful.” Games help engage students in activities that have an educational purpose and which in another presentational mode would be less interesting and engaging. Games, because they are played by all students at once, also encourage socialization and teach the community aspects of music making. Whether students are moving in a circle, clapping, passing an object to the beat, or singing or chanting patterns, they are doing those things as a community and for a purpose beyond a teacher’s expectation. Every action that produces musical sound is done for, perhaps among other reasons, the purpose of making music. Combining music making with the fun of playing the game is developing enjoyment of music itself.

 

 

 

Why I Became A Music Teacher and Why It Matters

Version 2It is good to recall from time to time why we became music teachers. In my case, it was the desire to find something to do for a living that would include music making, and that would bring the immense enjoyment I had for making music to others; a kind of give back opportunity. I suppose many of you who are music educators entered the profession for similar reasons. Perhaps you also found that however sound those reasons were, they were not adequate to sustain a career. In time, it became apparent to me that I could not just dedicate myself to delighting all my students with what I enjoyed doing, because many of them had musical interests that were different from mine. If I were to insist on just making them do what gave me enjoyment, then I would be forcing them to do musical things they did not enjoy and were not interested in, which would have the undesired effect of alienating them from music education which is quite the opposite of what was intended.

Students almost always enter into a music education setting eager, motivated, and excited to learn something they feel strongly about wanting to do. Those expectations are most often met when students are making music together with friends, and when the music they are making is music they have selected, have an interest in, and is within their ability level to perform well. The music must sound reasonably close to how the students know it should sound in a reasonable amount of time. It simply isn’t enjoyable to invest time and effort into practicing music that is not of interest. My own love of music was fueled by the opportunities I was given to perform music I liked. For me, these included playing in the pit for musical comedies, and playing in the concert band, especially transcriptions of classical works such as the Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach transcribed for concert band, Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, and the first movement of Dvorak’s symphony from the New World. I mention these works because nearly fifty years later, I still remember the works and how much I enjoyed playing them. I also remember sitting in band rehearsals very bored, looking forward to it being over. I don’t remember any of the works being rehearsed at them, and would be hard pressed to say what I gained by sitting through rehearsals of them. The point here is that I learned music and learned to love music by playing works I enjoyed and was interested in. The only way to know what our students enjoy and are interested in is to know our students and be in conversation with them enough to find out.

Our music classes, including our ensemble rehearsals, should be an invitation to students to develop their musical abilities through pursuing their musical interests. This happens sometimes, as, for example, when a student comes to his or her private teacher with a solo they will be playing for an audition. The student has a desire and a need to learn that piece, and comes to the teacher to be the guiding force in successfully preparing the audition. The student is not committed to learning repertoire the teacher chooses which is not of particular interest to the student, but rather is seeking out instruction in repertoire they want to master, and which is, in all honesty, probably just as worthwhile and conducive to the teacher’s objectives, as what they otherwise would have placed before the student.

This is not to discount the expertise of the teacher. It is to say that the expertise of the teacher should be directed toward meaningful pursuits, ones that will not just produce reluctant yet proficient performers, but will, through true collaboration, result in multidimensional growth that positively affects the student musically, spiritually, psychologically, and cognitively. Music education must make a positive impact not just on musicianship and musical proficiency, but on the whole person.

Before I realized all of this, and I was embracing the mission of duplicating my personal musical preferences and loves in all of my students, I often met with disappointment. Why, I wondered, don’t all of my students share my exact love of music, including musical preferences? As obvious as the answer to that naive question is now, it went unanswered for longer than I’d like to admit. The musical model I had been brought up in, that of the traditional dictator/maestro on the podium, never allowed for me to question or reject the musical selections, decisions and interpretations of conductors. My musical tastes were varied enough so that I survived this kind of environment, but my students’ musical preferences and their tolerances of dictator maestros was often not as robust as mine had been. At this point in my career, I am sure that the day of the teacher-and-student4dictator/maestro is past, and that we all need to be more user friendly and much more responsive and concerned with the musical contexts and aspirations our students bring into our classrooms. Instead of being disappointed that my students do not share my musical interests, I have found joy in guiding students to interact with , practice and perform music that is within their musical interests.

To some it will seem that what I am proposing will compromise excellence, or the teacher’s prestige with students. I assure you, neither is the case. On the contrary, as students realize that you are first and foremost interested in them and not you, they will respond with more commitment to excellence, not less. And because you have positioned yourself as someone who matters to them, your prestige will rise, not take a hit. Your teaching style will change somewhat. You will find yourself asking more guiding questions as you steer students to think through problems you used to think through for them, and find solutions you used to find for them. You will need more patience and be willing to wait for results longer than is needed when you just jump in and show them the solutions. But education is not all about the answers, it is just as much (or I would argue more so) about the process of seeking and finding answers as it is about the answers themselves.

Hendricks (2018, p. 12) has posed some important questions that I would leave you with. Among these questions are, what are your primary priorities as a music teacher? What kind of questions do you use to instruct and motivate students? Do you use an effective balance of guiding, inspiring, connection, and goal-clarification questions? Are there any aspects of the teaching approach described here that you hesitate to try? If so, what are they? Why do you think you might feel the way you do? What would help you to feel more comfortable in trying out this approach? This approach is by no means “dumbing down” anything. It is acknowledging that the models for teaching that were developed for use in the early 20th century must give way to ones developed for today’s very different societal and cultural environment.

I would also like to mention my gratitude to Feedspot.com for including Mr A Music Place in the top 100 Music Education Blogs on the web. You can visit them at https://blog.feedspot.com/music_education_blogs/

Hendricks, K. S. (2018). Compassionate music teaching, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Time Is Precious, How We Use It Even More So

Version 2One of the challenges of being an Arts Educator is the relatively limited time we have with our students. Whereas Math or L.A. teachers see their students every day, music teachers often see a class once or twice a week. Teaching a year’s curriculum within these curtailed contact hours can be daunting. A common response to this “time crunch” is to “hit the ground running,” teach fast, and push through to cover as much content as possible. While this may seem like a good idea, it frequently works out less satisfactorily than one would have hoped. The overbearing presence of the teacher, and limited opportunities for practice and application result in teacher and students alike carrying more anxiety than successful teaching and learning from one class meeting to the next.

Add to this the many personal issues students bring into the classroom that delays them from being ready to learn, and music teachers can easily become even more stressed as they try to settle a class and get straight to teaching amid a classroom of students who are troubled, agitated, or any number of other things, and feel the need to talk about it before even attempting to apply themselves to your lesson. It is in these first few minutes of class where the tone for the whole class will be set. Badgering a class to calm down and stop talking rarely works if there are hot topics in progress. While it may delay getting to the planned lesson, a better use of those early class minutes is to provide students with the opportunity to decompress, focus on ethical, cooperative behavior, and practice demonstrating respect to you and their classmates.

I have come to enjoy starting some of my classes with a restorative justice circle. As the name implies, the idea is to get a class together and restore whatever is troubling or problematic in the students relationships at that moment. When I greet a class at the door, I tell them to please be seated on the floor in the front of the room before going tho their assigned seats. Once seated, I will present them with a question that can be answered in a word or two, and that will start them listening to and respecting each other.

The school in which I work is a Comer school, and our focus pathway this week is the ethical pathway. With this in mind, I asked them, “what is one thing you have done today for the good of someone else, or if you haven’t done anything good for someone else, what is one thing you would like to do for someone else before the end of school today?” We then go around and each child gives an answer. We have a “talking piece,” an object that is passed to whoever is answering, and only that person may speak. All others just listen, without responding or judging what others say. With smaller groups, or subgroups of a class, responses can be to draw a picture or construct a craft that is glued to poster board. Students then use their talk time to explain the artifact they have created. Just the act of listing to each child speak does wonders in getting a class ready to learn. Focusing on others helps them forget about what was disturbing or upsetting them when they came into the classroom.

Having done the circle, I will remind students of the respect they practiced during that time if they begin to do otherwise later in the class. All of this only takes 7-8 minutes, and it paves the way for much more effective teaching and learning in the remaining time of the class. In this case, showing respect was a theme, a thread, that ran through the entire class. Each time the class performed, or individuals performed, it was framed as an opportunity to demonstrate respect which would make another person feel good, and which would invite them to give return the respect.

Teaching appropriate behavior and habits using restorative justice transforms classroom management from punativeness to positivity. it makes correcting behavior part of the educational plan instead of an interruption of it. This is not to say that interruptions will be eliminated or that negative consequences for bad behavior will not longer be needed. It is to say that the need for those strategies will be reduced, and teaching will become more enjoyable for the teacher, and learning will become more enjoyable for students.

It is easy to assume that students know how to behave and are always choosing to do otherwise when they misbehave, but that is not so. Many students do not realize they are being disrespectful, because what they are doing is accepted or tolerated in other settings, including home, daycare, and even other classes. Students are often grateful for leaning a better way to manage their behaviors and emotions, and realize an improved quality of life within the school community as a result of the teacher practicing restorative justice circles.

If you are thinking you don’t have time to devote 8 minutes to a restorative circle at the beginning of each meeting of some or all of your classes, consider this: how much time does managing student behavior take away from time spent teaching your planned music lesson? I’m fairly certain if you actually timed it out, you would find you spend at least 8 minutes correcting or dispensing consequences during at least some classes. Occasionally , you might even spend more. If so, then why not use the same amount of time to teach them something positive with a restorative circle, a strategy that will probably pay dividends in time saved class after class.

To see how restorative circles work, here is a short video. The question being used is a good one for getting students used to the circle because it doesn’t ask them to divulge anything too personal. Notice how the students relax and look like they start to enjoy the circle after the first few students take their turn. Their sense of community and of enjoying the opportunity to share what they think is awakened during the first few seconds of the circle. In the last segment of the video, the artifact produced could then be the basis for another round of answers, as they share what is in their artifact with the circle.

Where We Are With Progressive Education

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I don’t usually republish articles by other authors, in fact I don’t believe I ever have on this blog. But this article is so “right on” and about such an important topic that I simply must share it with you here. I believe it will resonate with every public school teacher.

 

 

 

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FIRST PERSON

No, Teachers Shouldn’t Put Students in the Driver’s Seat

By Richard Ullman

September 5, 2018

In the push to identify and address the reasons for the underperformance of American students relative to their peers abroad and the persistence of test-score disparities across subgroups at home, no shortage of suspects has been summoned before the court of education policy public opinion.

Students, parents, and, of course, classroom teachers undergo levels of scrutiny, but other agents of blame have managed to evade detection. Chief among them: the purveyors of so-called “best practice” methodologies.

Education leaders who buy into these progressive pedagogical visions argue that…

Please click here to read the whole article.