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.

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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.

Starting a New School Year in Band

Version 2If you’re a band director, then you know those first couple of rehearsals in the fall can sound, well, not pretty, especially if you have not had band camp or some sort of summer band program. Students have often not practiced much over the summer, and for those who take private lessons, they have been sporadic or suspended over the summer recess.   Although playing is bound to be a bit rusty no matter how we start off, there are some things the band director can do to help get the ensemble up a running a little more enjoyably.

Teachers typically spend the first week of school reviewing, practicing and establishing procedures and routines. For many teachers, procedures include passing out and collecting paper, how to move about the room, entering and exiting the room, and so forth. These procedures are important for band directors too, but also must include basic playing techniques; re-establishing holding positions, posture, breath management, embouchures, warm-up procedures, and attending to you when you’re on the podium. Before serious rehearsal of repertoire can begin, these things must be firmly in place. Everything will sound better, even wrong notes, when these procedural and technical things are being done well.

This is also the time to spend a lot of time on chorales and etudes. Work on articulation, scales, and intonation, but with fun materials, not boring exercises.  Improvisation, canons, and student conductors are just a few examples of how this early sessions can be enjoyable and fruitful.

Before passing out new repertoire for first performances, pass out something from last year that the students enjoyed playing. They already have learned the piece, so they will sound good on it quickly, giving them the opportunity to “get back into it” without having to try to learn unfamiliar repertoire at the same time. You can also use this piece to reteach familiar concepts or unfamiliar concepts. Using a familiar work to teach a new concept is good pedagogy because it limits the newness to the concept. A familiar piece can also be used to teach interpretation, with students generating ideas for exploring different tempos, dynamics, articulations, and so forth. This gives old repertoire a freshening up, and further develops and readies the students’ musicianship, readying it to transfer to new repertoire.

At the start of each rehearsal schedule, and especially at the beginning of the year, I like to play professional recordings of one or two of the pieces I plan to teach them. I will play one piece that is challenging, and set that as the bar for them for their next concert, and one piece that is easier but sure to be a favorite. The latter generates excitement, and the former sets a challenge before the band. I have found that the combination of the two provides good motivation that starts the rehearsals off on a positive, exciting note.

Chances are, your band students are probably already a pretty closely knit group, especially if you have traveled to festivals together. None the less, you can never do too much relationship building, and the beginning of the year is a great time for this too. My students ask me from time to time if they can try playing another instrument. They don’t want to drop their instrument and switch to another permanently, they’re just curious about what it’s like to play something else. I use this as a relationship builder at the Ensemblebeginning of the year, and also as a needed break from intensive rehearsal during the year, when needed. Students ask a bandmate to teach them how to play hot cross buns on their instrument. I take sanitation precautions, supplying sanitation wash or extra mouthpieces and reeds. They really enjoy this activity, and it is an excellent relationship building activity. It also gives students a valuable awareness of what their friends have to do to play their instruments, which improves ensemble. For example, when a saxophone player tries to play a flute loudly, they quickly learn how easy it is for a flute in the mid-range to be overpowered by a saxophone in any register. Sometimes awareness is everything.

The beginning of the year also provides a great opportunity to involve the students in selecting repertoire to perform. The fourth anchor standard in The National Core Arts Standards includes [selecting] “varied musical works to present based on interest, knowledge, technical skill and context.”  The highest proficiency for this standard is for students to “Develop and apply criteria to select varied programs to study and perform based on an understanding of theoretical and structural characteristics and expressive challenges in the music, the technical skill of the individual or ensemble, and the purpose and context of the performance.”

There are many possibilities for learning embedded in this standard that are well suited to the beginning of the year. Students can take self-inventories of their musical interests, knowledge of music for their ensemble, their own technical skill and that of the ensemble in general, and of what music is most appropriate for the various venues at which they will performing during the course of the academic year. The music you of which you play recordings for them can also be used for instruction to this standard. The structure, form, genre, expressive and technical difficulty of each listening selection can be discussed, and the discussion can be a basis for students selecting repertoire. Students can consider in what ways selections within a concert program can vary, and also in what ways music can be not only technically challenging, but also expressively so.

The self inventory of technical skill used to help select repertoire can also be used to set personal and ensemble goals for the year. Once students have identified personal growth needs, they can make a goal for themselves to improve in that area. Students who have similar goals can later be grouped together in sectional rehearsals to work on those goals, and the goals can also be helpful to the teacher in developing individual performance objectives for their teacher evaluation.

Everything I have discussed here is an investment in the year. None of it involves rehearsing concert or field show music, but all of it will enable students to perform at a higher level sooner, and work at a higher proficiency level and more efficiently. These activities are time well spent and will usually result in better performances and more engaged motivated students for the whole academic year. And what teacher doesn’t want that.

 

Use Student Talking in Class to Your Advantage

Version 2I’m not sure when I realized it, but I am certain that this is true: I will never entirely stop my middle school students from talking in class. It is like telling an ice cube to stop melting while it is in an empty glass on a picnic table on a warm summer day. Instead of trying the impossible–stopping all the talking–I use it to my advantage. Here’s an example. I used this activity in my first class of the year with my 7th graders. I had three questions on the board I knew they would like to talk about: What is your favorite song, who is your favorite musical artist or band, and what is your favorite musical thing to do? I gave them all a half sheet of composition paper and told them to write their answers but not to tell anyone what their answers were (Yes, they did manage to keep their answers to themselves). Once they had their answers, they next had to get up out of their seats, walk around, and find out what other students answered, and try to find matches with their own answers. If a match was found, they were to write the matching student’s name next to their answer.

I’ll explain what happened next in a moment, but first, let me mention the rationale behind what has transpired so far. After initially sitting (relatively) quietly while writing their answers, the students were given something to do that required them to talk to lots of people in the room. This is especially good for the beginning of the year because it serves as a “mixer” and gets students out of sitting next to the same couple of friends. Because the talking is part of the learning, everybody gets what they want. They get to talk and I get learning to take place. Students are learning about each other and some are receiving affirmation by finding that others have the same interests as they. The other helpful thing about this activity is that the students have a reason to get up and move around. Building movement into a class helps keep them from getting fidgety and inattentive. Later, when I was ready for them to sit down, they were ready to settle in.

Once this part of the lesson is complete, I had the students re-seat themselves so that they would be sitting next to other students with whom they found a match. Again, this gets students working with different collaborators than when they always work just with those seated around them, and it also is helpful to get students with similar musical interests together, so that they will be more invested in turning those interests into created music.

This brings me to the next segment of the lesson, which ultimately is about developing creative thinking skills. In their new groups, each group receives a card with three words or phrases written that can describe music. For example, one card might have “staccato, piano, allegro” written on it. The students’ task is to create a short (10 seconds) musical example that is accurately described by everything written on their card. The group that received the example card above would create music that was staccato, soft, and fast. They can use voice, body percussion, or tapping on their chair. Because students are grouped by musical interest, they tend to arrive at grooves, styles, rather quickly. The longest discussions are usually about sound sources–to sing or not to sing. Some of the cards have “low pitched” or “high pitched” on them, so if the group decides to use body percussion and/or tapping on their chair, they must explore those sources to find a way of making  relatively high, low or high and low sounds. The creative thinking comes in through finding sound sources and performance methods that will produce sounds that match what is on their card.

There are other, secondary reasons for doing this activity as well. The cards are loaded small group instructionwith musical vocabulary. In order to carry out the task, the students need to know what those words mean. If they don’t know, an opportunity and necessity for learning them is present. Students will immediately ask what “polyphonic” or “staccato” means. You can handle these questions in one of two ways. You can outright tell them, with a demonstration, or you can have them search for a classmate that knows the answer, and only come to you if they can’t find one. In this instance, I outright defined the words, because I also wanted to cover procedures, it being the beginning of the school year. But often I will require them to ask at least one peer first, and if the peer doesn’t know, they both must come to me for the answer. This holds the first student accountable for asking a peer first, and it assures that I have taught the definition to two students, rather than only one. Then, if (when) another student comes looking for the same definition, I can refer him or her to the two other students I know have the answer.

Another secondary reason for doing this activity is to work on cooperation and collaboration. These can always be improved, and getting students to be cooperative and collaborative with each other early in the year is well worth the investment of time. Students who work well together and productively together will make a much more successful and pleasant class for you to teach all year, and will raise the level of learning that occurs.

The final piece to this lesson is to have students listen to a song, and to listen in it for the elements they created with, the ones that were on their cards. In our example from above, those students will listen for staccato notes, piano dynamic, and allegro tempo. Of course, not every word on every card will be heard in a single musical work, so the students can also contrast the music to which they are listening with the music they created. This reinforces the vocabulary learning, and applies the learning to a new situation, which, for all you Learning by Design folks, is the definition of understanding.

You won’t always be able to build student talking into lessons as I have done here, but as long as there are a fair amount of “talking allowed” lessons, students will be okay with those times that you need them to be silent. Just tell them, “last time I had a lesson that allowed you talk with each other, but not so today. Today, I need you to listen quietly, and participate by responding to my cues and questions.” As long as students know this in advance, and know that there will be another music lesson soon in which talking will be needed, they will be fine with the times when it isn’t.

Setting Up Your Classroom with Lessons in Mind

Version 2As I write this post, it is three days before the first day of school for students in the new school year. Part of a teacher’s ritual during those final days leading up to classes starting is to set up the classroom. New bulletin board backgrounds and borders, posters, word wall, rules, and other subject-related text all find their way onto the walls, boards and cupboards of my classroom. At first blush, all of this is primarily for decorative purpose. I want to make my room as attractive and comfortable as possible, taking advantage of just the right amount of stimulation on my walls to encourage or help my students be attentive and engaged learners. Of course there is more to engaging students than putting posters on the wall, but the appearance of the room is important.

Appearance is important, but there is more to it than that. Those articles that I staple or tape to walls and doors also will be used during instruction. They will be referred to and made the center of attention during class. For example, at the beginning of the year, I like to discuss the value of music with my upper elementary and middle school students. By that age, some of them have come to the conclusion that because music isn’t part of state tests, it really doesn’t merit much of their time or effort. So why, I like to ask, do musicians make music? Why write it or play it or sing it for audiences and recordings if it doesn’t have any real value? I’ll then use my posters to start the discussion. Take this one, for instance. “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” What does it mean to give a soul to the universe? What is an imagination in flight? What sort of life does music give to everything? Clearly these are metaphors, but what do they mean? Soul, mind, imagination and everything sounds pretty important, and this writer claims that music elevates all of them.

John Coltrane said, “When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups…I want to speak to their souls.” Questions to use off of this poster are, what are the possibilities of music to do good for others? How can music be used to help humanity free itself from its hangups? What are humanity’s hangups, and which ones can be ended with music? I find that left to their own devices, students often experience music in a relatively superficial way. They enjoy it, like the beat and the groove, and maybe identify with the lyrics, but they don’t often see the value in it to affect lives and improve the quality of life. They use it to modify their emotions, or to dance to, but they overlook the more universal good that can come from music when its harmonious collaborations of sounds move human emotion and thereby ennoble people’s ambitions and vision of the future.

For example, consider the performance of the famous “Ode To Joy” section of Beethoven’s ninth symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra made up of players from several orchestras hailing from cities from both sides of the once divided country, now united in music-making in a performance that celebrates freedom itself. The performance of the same work conducted by Seiji Ozawa to open the 1998 Nagano Olympics again showcases the way in which music unites the souls of people regardless of differences. In the folk genre, singers effectively used music to unite people rallying for an end to racial discrimination in 1960s America. For example, Peter, Paul and Mary famously sang “Blowin’ In The Wind” at Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. These singers believed they could change the world, as is evident by their comments in the following video, and people can be seen joining hands and singing along, united indeed in song.

Other anthems of the time, such as “We Shall Overcome” became synonymous with the civil rights movement, and music around which people rallied to bring their message to ever more people. Pete Seeger championed the rights of many at countless rallies with just his guitar or banjo and his iconic voice. As teachers, we might ask our students, why did these songs communicate civil rights and social justice messages so clearly and effectively? We can extend the discussion beyond the songs themselves by asking, to what extent do the artists’ interpretation of these songs add to the meaning conveyed? Finally, we might even ask, why are songs remembered even when spoken content delivered at the same event is often all but forgotten?

The fact is music not only delivers us the poignant message of lyrics, but at the same time, through melody, harmony and memorable grooves and beats, stirs our emotions, our hearts, our desires. Music of this kind, in fact any art of this kind, inspires us to be better than we are, more noble and generous than we are otherwise wont to be. Certainly words of the great poets and orators stir us as well, but somehow music goes deeper, with a stronger influence on our humanity. This can easily be demonstrated by taking, for example, “I Have A Dream” and setting it to effective music. Though a great speech to begin with, it is all the more powerful when the full emotional force of music is Brough to bear upon it.

I also have posters of “American Musical Heroes” lining one of the walls in my music room. Included are Charles Ives, John Coltrane, George Gershwin, Marian Anderson, Aaron Copland, and Dave Brubeck. Each of these noted American musicians contributed to a different genre of American music-making, but the work of each of them remains a national treasure. Each is an example of utilizing imagination to forge a creative, unique and lasting influence on music. Charles Ives’ polytonalism, Coltrane’s innovative improvisation, Gershwin’s meshing of classical, popular, and jazz idioms, Marian Anderson’s stellar operatic singing, Copland’s “American Sound” depicting the open, spacious American west, and Dave Brubeck stretching metrical and harmonic boundaries within jazz to new extents. Having their pictures always before the students is a constant reminder of what can be done with creative, imaginative and ambitious activity. These are themes I will keep coming back to all year long, and their ever presence on the walls of my classroom help keep them on my students minds.

My Approach To Composing

Version 2One of the things I enjoy about summer break is the opportunity to do musical things I don’t have time for during the school year. Since my high school days I have enjoyed composing. I was encouraged in this by a high school band director who allowed me to try out my band composition on the high school band. It was a fun experience for me and my classmates, and one from which I learned a great deal not only about composing for winds (just because a note is technically in range doesn’t mean it will sound good) and about preparing parts (prefer flats over sharps for winds, and be meticulously clear and neat). I continued to compose during college, and had two clarinet quartets and a piece for wind ensemble played by ensembles there. After that, other works were performed by other school and community ensembles.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am still at it, and enjoying it more than ever this summer. I have never taken a music composition class or studied composition with a composer, as I suspect most of you have not. So I hope my perspective as a music educator and unschooled composer will be of help and encouragement to those of you who would like to try composing, or would like to teach composing but don’t quite know how to go about it.

A good knowledge of harmony, melody and counterpoint is essential. This is not to say that one should compose from music theory. Remember, music theory is a description of past practice, not a prescription for current practice. Nevertheless, one must know how to combine tones to form harmonies, how to use harmonies, consonance, dissonance, rhythm, contour and instrumentation to craft an effective musical work. You don’t need to have an advanced degree in music theory, but you do need to have a working knowledge of it so that you can properly handle the musical elements you’ll be working with.

Given all of that, composing for me is like playing with blocks. With a block set, a child has objects that can be stacked or laid out to form bridges, castles, towers, or whatever one desires. As long as the blocks are stacked in such a way that what is being built is structurally sound, it will stand and not be pulled down by gravity. Likewise, a composer has musical objects, tones that have pitch (blocks that are laid out melodically or stacked harmonically) and rhythm (the space between the blocks that are laid out). The composer lays out and stacks notes in various ways using certain patterns and structures (such as the structure of a castle or the pattern of one less block in each level to form a pyramid), until he or she arrives at a product that pleases and that can be deemed completed. In this context, composing is playing with notes the way a child plays with blocks; arranging them in various combinations until something satisfying is made.

I tend to start with laying out pitches melodically first. I have for a long as I can Feed Your Brain Musicremember loved to hum melodies to myself, just idly making tunes up. I used to do this on the school bus instead of talking to whoever was sitting next to me. I admire how Richard Rodgers would craft a melody out of just a few notes, frequently returning to one before venturing away once more, so I often start with just two or three pitches, playing with them in different rhythmic patterns. I have learned that I must keep this penchant for rhythmic play in check or else I am apt to ramble on in my music, too rarely stopping for phrase closures or cadences.

I also enjoy counterpoint, so after finding a melody through play, I will more intentionally (less playfully) write a second melody that maintains good voice leading and forms consonant intervals with the first melody, or dissonances that resolve properly. This is where music theory becomes important. I keep in mind to avoid parallel or direct perfect fifths and octaves, and use dissonance for interest but make sure to resolve dissonances as appagiaturas or suspensions. I work in eight measure phrases to keep myself from, as I said before, running on in unending counterpoint. Short stretches of such music is okay, but too much of it suffocates music, making it too busy to be enjoyable. Music must breathe with clear phrasing, so I make sure mine does so.

I also want to make sure I don’t just keep stringing one new idea onto another. It may be  easier to think of many ideas than to settle with one or two and develop them, but the best composers develop a little material into an excellent musical architecture. For this, I listen to my melody and select from it one motif that catches my attention. It may be the one that has a catchy rhythm, or one that begins or ends the phrase or theme. It must be something that the listener will have noticed so that when I develop it, the motif will be recognizable. Once I’ve selected that motif, it is time to be creative and inventive. If the motif is rhythmically catchy, then I will play with that rhythm further, displacing it on different beats, or lengthening or shortening it to create new syncopations. Or perhaps I will develop it with elongation or diminution, possibly also writing a new melody to go with it.

Melodic sequences are also a favorite device for development, and using sequences is a convenient way to touch on, explore, or modulate to other keys or tonalities. I also like to pass motifs and melodies around to different instruments, creating a variety of timbres and registers with the same material. As long as the motif being developed remains recognizable, the music will have unity. All of the devices used to develop it provides variety, and the balance between the two creates a work that remains interesting throughout without becoming to demanding or even confusing for the listener. I am not a proponent of writing music that a listener cannot make sense of, or that requires a music degree and score study to understand. As a composer, I want to write music that is intended to be enjoyed through listening only, not that requires study to become accessible.

All of what I have discussed here can be heard in my most recent compositions. If you would like to purchase Woodwind Quintet No. 1 in Bb Major or Clarinet Choir No. 1 in Eb Major, both composed this summer, please request your pdf file of score and parts by e-mailing me at mramusicplace@gmail.com