Setting Up Chairs and Desks in a Music Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are The Fundamentals of Teaching Elementary Music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After The Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Aspects of the “Creating” Artistic Process

Version 2Creating music is often divided into two broad categories: composing and improvising. Frequently, music teachers distinguish the two by maintaining that one is composing when notes are written down, and one is improvising when notes are performed spontaneously. According to this way of thinking, when, for example, Charlie Parker played a solo, he was improvising, but once his solo was transcribed, what he played became a product of composition. This, of course, is not a tenable position because the transcription is no less of a means for preserving the improvisation than an audio recording. Why would the performance remain an improvisation in its audio recorded version, but be changed into a composition in its written form? So the presence or absence of notation is not a legitimate delineator.

The difference between improvisation and composition relates to the process of creation, not the media of preservation. A Charlie Parker solo was improvisation when it was first played, and all recordings, audio or transcribed, are records of an improvisation. The difference between improvisation and composing can be understood if compared to the difference between conversation and writing. When two people are conversing, neither has planned what they will say ahead of time. They may have gotten together to talk about a particular subject, but the words and phrases spoken, the specific points made and responses to them are created out of previously learned linguistic vocabulary, and out of the imagination and thoughtful consideration of the two conversationalists. This is exactly what musical improvisation is; it is the declaring of musical ideas “about” a known “topic” using previously known “vocabulary.” In music, the “topic” is a specific song that forms the head and then the basis for variations during the solo. The discourse is concentrated on the “topic” of a known chord progression from which the improvisors have agreed not to stray too far, though limits may be tested. An improvisor knows the song and the chord changes, but doesn’t know exactly what will be played, and each time that song and those changes are used, the music will be different in significant ways, just as two conversations on the the same topic will not be identical, word for word.

So improvising is a matter of being a good conversationalists using musical notes instead of words. A good improvisor can recall patterns of notes and fit them into the chords over which they are playing, and can select patterns that bear a resemblance to outstanding characteristics of the song played. The improvisor can do this spontaneously, and is not concerned with editing choices of patterns and revisiting what was played to revise and edit until a completed musical work is completed. The improvisor is a musical orator who depends and trusts his or her musical instincts, and abilities to present a cohesive and flowing melodic line that stays on point, which is to say within the chords and melody of the original tune.

Composing shares some but not all of the traits of improvising. Composers, like thinking musicimprovisors, select familiar patterns of tones, combining them sequentially into desired melodies. At first effort, the composer writes down a musical idea that occurs to him or her spontaneously, and proceeds to work of that idea and others to build a complete musical work. But unlike the improvisor, the composer does not (stories of Mozart’s uncanny composing abilities not withstanding), write out an entire musical work in one uninterrupted stream, beginning to end, and then let it stand as the finished work. No, the composer, like the author of a book, goes back and reviews what has been written, revises, edits, searches, and at times struggles to find just the right notes to accomplish what is desired. It is this reconsidering and changing of the initial result of creative activity that most significantly distinguishes composing from improvising.

Students learning to compose not only must become accomplished at generating, selecting, and organizing musical ideas, they must also become good at editing and revising those organized ideas until a musical work takes shape, develops, and is finally made ready to present. These competencies of editing and revising are important for music composition students to learn, but are unnecessary for an improvisor, at least as far as presenting to an audience. One can argue that a student learning to improvise would evaluate their own improvisations and revise them with better voice leading or pitch selection, but this is really using the tools of composition to teach improvising. When the student is again improvising, he or she will again leave editing and revising behind, much like a golfer abandons alignment rods when playing in a tournament.

There is at least one more kind of creating in addition to improvising and composing; there is also arranging. Though the source material for an arrangement is provided by someone else, the arranger still must make many of the same creative decisions that a composer makes. These include instrumentation, registration, and difficulty level of the music for those who will be playing the music. On some occasions, an arranger may also need to decide what in meter to write the arrangement when the original meter is obscure and likely to create unnecessary difficulty to the expected performers. For example, an arranger might decide to notate a piece in three-four meter instead of three-eight. The sound of the music when played will not be altered, but the notation will be easier for young musicians to read. An arranger really needs to, as much as possible, get “inside the head” of the composer, and arrange the parts in such as way that the composer’s original intent is retained despite changes in instrumentation, meter, and even key.

It is important to understand the aspects of the various kinds of creating so that teachers instruct their students appropriately for each. Students are not well served when instruction in improvisation is to merely play whatever pops into their head on the one hand, or to meticulously cycle through a limited number of well-rehearsed arpeggios and scales on the other. If this approach were taken to teach people how to speak, everyone would sound a lot more robotic and a lot less interesting than they in fact do. Neither approach addresses generating musical ideas that are born out of familiar patterns. It is much more important to listen to good improvisors than to try to impose music theory onto ones playing and call it improvisation. Likewise, students are not well served when instruction in composing is to merely write a series of pitches that conform to good voice leading. It is much more important to listen to well composed music and study those scores than to try to impose music theory onto ones music writing and call it composing. Music is a product of sound and motion, so creating music must be the bringing forth of tones, rhythms and meters that are first audiated and then made ready to share with others by either writing them down so that they can be recreated by other musicians, or so that they can be instantly performed.

Should We Be Teaching The Names of Lines and Spaces on the Musical Staff?

Version 2Chances are, if you are a musician, you were taught somewhere along the way, the names of the lines and spaces on the musical staff. Chances are also good that the teacher used some kind of mnemonic device, like “every good bird does fly” for the lines of the treble staff, and “face” for the spaces. The reasoning is that once a child knows the names of the lines and spaces, they will then know the names of the notes, and will be able to read music. Teaching the names of the lines and spaces would be all well and good if these benefits actually followed, but the truth is they rarely do.

Children are confused by the names of the lines and spaces. Were it not so, we music teachers would not have to go to such lengths, and repeat our cute little sayings so often. Then, once a child has finally mastered “every good back does flex” or whatever, they are at a loss as to what to do with that knowledge once they are singing or playing an instrument. They can’t recite the phrase before performing every note, so they still don’t have a usable way to read music in the practical sense. They also don’t know what an f on the top line is without reciting the whole thing, so the whole system is cumbersome, unmusical, and in the end of little practical value.

The essence of reading music is recognizing location on the staff, and associating a note with a specific sound that has pitch and duration. Teaching little ditties does nothing to teach that. Kodaly teachers will tell you that you should never say tonal syllables; you should only sing them. That is because the tonal syllable is a label for a sound, which is heard and not a symbol, which is seen. The written symbol is associated with the syllable and its sound after the syllable and sound is learned together. Fixed do syllables can be written, because they are labels for a symbol, but the sound is again attached to the syllable.

After syllable and sound are successfully associated, it is helpful to begin playing on instruments. For all you band teachers, notice what has preceded putting an instrument into the students’ hands. If they can’t sing in tune, and associate the note name with the sound they will struggle to read music in your band class. For my general music students, I give them glockenspiels. The names of the notes are already stamped on the bars, and I write the fixed do solfege syllables on the bars with a Sharpie as well. Using echo songs or call and response songs sung in fixed do solfege, I have the students first sing and then play their responses. Because they already can sing the song with solfege, playing it on the barred instruments is a natural next step that presents little if any difficulty. I usually have to explain the difference between high and low do, but beyond that it goes smoothly.

From singing and playing, we go to reading notation. They read only the notes they have sung and played, and they learn the notes by location. I put la on the staff on the board and tell that la is written between these two lines (showing them on a staff.) Do is written between these two lines (showing them on a staff.) The call and response song they have sung and played has a response using only do and la, so now they can do the (familiar) song again, this time reading their response off the notes written on the board. I continue to work other notes in the same way. I’ll use what Feierabend calls a “do-re-mi” song, teaching it to them with fixed do syllables (making it a fa-sol-la song). I’ll prepare them by doing tonal patterns using fixed do that use fa, sol and la, with the patterns written on the board. “Which pattern did I just sing?” “Sing that pattern again while you look at the notes.” Then when they sing the song, the patterns are familiar.

When they have done that song for two or three consecutive classes, I will begin Dance-and-Movementteaching decoding. I sing the same patterns as before, but this time I sing on a neutral syllable and the students repeat the pattern using fixed do syllables. This is critical to training the ear as well as the eye. This will come slower, so I may not use notation at all the first time or two I do this. When the students can decode, I will then put the patterns back on the board. I’ll sing a pattern on a neutral syllable and have them read the pattern with fixed do solfege. By this stage, they are reading music, truly reading music, not just naming notes. Also, notice that they are reading music without ever having to learn the names of the lines and spaces, and without the usual confusion that slows progress when they are required to learn the names of the lines and spaces.

You may have also noticed that I have not addressed duration. I find that teaching pitch and rhythm separately is more effective. I also find that for most of my students, reading rhythm comes easier than pitch, so it is a better sequence to add rhythm, which is easier to pitch, something at which they have already become proficient. Once again, my students have chanted rhythm patterns, learned rhythm syllables, and associated the syllables with the meter and durations they identify. Having written or read a tune notated in note heads only, they now listen for how many sounds they hear on each pulse. If they hear one sound on one pulse, they know it is a quarter note and if they hear two sounds on one pulse they know it is two eighth notes. I tell them that the rhythm syllable is the sound of the rhythm and the note type (quarter, eighth, etc.) is the name of the symbol, similar to the relationship between solfege and sound. We simply add stems to the note heads and then either connect two for pairs of eighth notes, or leave them alone for quarter notes. I stick with just these rhythms at first, in addition to quarter rests. I wait to teach notation of half and whole notes, because they involve changing the appearance of the note head. I want them to be as secure as possible with reading pitches before I do that, so I wait. If introduced too early, students become confused as to how, for example, a half note F and a quarter note F can be the same pitch even though they look different. One way of looking at this issue is to teach them that notes are made shorter by adding things (stems, flags) and are made longer by removing things (flags, stems, shading of note heads). The exception is the dot which is added after a note to make it 50% longer.

I have found that abandoning teaching the names of the lines and spaces of the musical staff has improved my students’ learning when it comes to reading and writing music. I know that to many of you, especially Kodaly specialists, using fixed do will seem like sacrilege. I believe that movable do is useful for training the ear to audiate tonalities, and I personally benefited greatly from becoming proficient at it as a result of Kodaly certification training. Even so, I have come to believe that eventually movable do becomes an impediment to music reading and more advanced singing and ear training. I have written on the use of fixed do elsewhere in this blog, and I hope you will read those posts on the subject if you are interested. In any case, the principles I have discussed here hold true regardless of which solfege system you use. Letter names can be used in place of fixed do syllables for those using movable do.

Assessment Is A Good Thing–Even For Music Teachers

Version 2There is a feeling among many music teachers, especially at this time of year when student progress must be documented, that assessment in music is a necessary evil, required by mandated teacher evaluation and/or school districts. While assessment is required by these authorities, it should not be handled merely as nuisance paperwork, because there is much value in music assessment done right. Before I go further, and lest you think I am enthralled with doing assessment, let me assure you I struggle with getting it done, and do not like the time it takes out of what I would otherwise be doing with my students.

That being said, since I began doing formal assessments, I have come to realize how much I was missing when my assessment strategy consisted of “informal” assessments. I would have students play or sing, and I would score them on a rubric of performance items such as tone, technique, and expression. There are two problems with this kind of assessment. First, it only assesses the product, not the knowledge or skill needed to produce the product. For example, a score for tone does not instruct me on what that student needs to be taught to improve tone, and it does not instruct the student on what to practice in order to improve tone. This type of assessment doesn’t break tone down into the set of skills needed to produce excellent tone on an instrument or voice. I need to know what the student needs to do in order to produce an excellent tone, and that information must come out of my assessment of tone.

The second problem with this kind of assessment is that it does not produce any student work that documents student growth. Rubric scores are not student work, anymore than the comments a Language Arts teacher writes on an essay are student work. It is the essay, not the comments that constitute the student work. In our case, it is the student’s performance that is the student work, not the rubric score. Obviously, a musical performance cannot be documented as a piece of written work, but it can be documented as an audio or video recording. Teachers who have a music room with a practice room or office attached can set up a recording device in that practice room or office. Students go into the room one at a time out of your music class and record themselves. They are assigned a number ahead of time which is recorded in your class roster. When the student goes in, they write down their number on a numbered list, so that you have a record of the order in which the students recorded themselves. Then, you can listen to the recorded performances and assess each one without knowing whose performance you are listening to, and then match up the numbers with names afterwards.

If you do not have a practice room or office, but just a single space, there are other ways to manage making recordings. One is to make the solo performances a concert for the class, with each student performing for the class while being recorded. A variation of this is to give students evaluation sheets which they must fill out on each performance. They are graded based on how close their evaluation comes to yours. For classes where students are not comfortable performing alone for their peers, the class can be given seat work to do quietly while you call one student at a time to a location in the room where you are recording them. You can still use the numbering system so that your evaluations will remain anonymous until after you have scored everyone.

To make these recorded assessments worth doing, they must target specific competencies. For example, for a second grade singing assessment, the rubric might include starting on the right pitch, maintaining the tonal center, keeping a steady beat, using a head voice throughout, and singing rhythms correctly. Notice that i-get-itgeneral criteria such as “sings with good tone” are avoided, because they do not provide useful data to improve instruction and learning. Whatever you are assessing, you must break it down into specific competencies that become clearly defined targets for the student to hit during the course of the performance. The more targets that are hit, the better the overall performance will be. You will still get a total score, but that score will be the sum of meaningful data that the student can use to learn and improve, and that you can use to inform future instruction.

There is no getting around the fact that this kind of assessment is time consuming. Because of this, I plan several classes to complete each assessment like this that I do. I typically do one-third of a class per class meeting. Meeting my classes once per week as I do, each assessment takes 3-4 weeks to complete, so if an assessment is due in June, I start it at the beginning of May. Because of the time involved, I do three of this type of assessment per year; one at the beginning of the year to set a benchmark, one a mid-year to check progress, and one at the end of the year to document student growth. This is in conformance with mandated teacher evaluation protocol.

I still do smaller assessments throughout the year. These are critical so that there are no surprises when the major assessments come around. I have students sing song fragments every class. I go around with a copy of my seating chart and jot down a rubric score for one or two competencies. Most often I am listening for accurate pitch or rhythm and use of head voice. The child sings four beats, I write down a number, then I move on to someone else. I go randomly around the room so that the children never know who will be called on next. This is not stressful for them. I make it low key and just a part of our normal routine, and they enjoy it. In fact, I think it helps develop a love of singing. They are eager to sing for me, to show me what they can do. I praise excellent performances, and say thank you for less successful ones. No negative criticism is given during this time. I usually don’t share scores with students either. I use the scores to determine what I ask particular students to do during that and future classes. If a student is struggling to sing in head voice, I may give him or her a relatively high-pitched vocal ostinato, or place him or her into a small group of singers who have really good head voices, so that the one student will begin imitating them. If I do this kind of assessment regularly, and get around to all of the elements that will be in the mid-year and final assessment, then I will have prepared my students for those major assessments well. And these little assessments take very little time, and are just part of what I do in my general music classes.

Problems in Responding to Music

Version 2There are essentially three things to which a person can respond in music; structure, form, and emotions. Structure are those things in music that we intuitively understand, such as beat, phrasing, and meter. Because of the natural way we perceive these structures, we are able to sort out the musical sounds and organize them in ways that make sense to us. Beat is particularly interesting. Because metrical structure is hierarchical, there are several beats that can be perceived at any moment while listening to music. One might perceive the quarter note beat, the eighth note beat, the half note beat or even the measure beat. When teachers teach young children beat, they are generally looking for a motor response as evidence that the child understands the beat, but difficulty or failure to show a beat with physical movement is not necessarily an accurate indication that the child cannot perceive the beat–the difficulty can be a disconnect between cognitive perception and motor response. On the other hand, a teacher should be observant of which beat a child is showing with movement. A teacher may be expecting the quarter note beat shown with a patch, but the child may show an eighth note beat, and be perfectly in time with it. Such a response cannot be considered wrong, because it is one of the several levels of hierarchical beat structure that is in fact present in the music to which the child is listening. Teachers don’t need to teach students how.

Form is the result of structure. Phrasing structure, more accurately called grouping structure, presents a hierarchy of nested phrases that, at the highest level forms whole sections or even movements of a musical work. Structure reveals that motives are nested in phrases, phrases are nested in themes, themes are nested in theme groups, theme groups are nested in sections, sections are nested in a movement. The results of all of this nesting is form. The “A” section or the first theme are elements of form, whereas the phrases and meter are elements of structure and the building blocks of form. Structure delineates the units which can be heard as same or different, whereas the organization of same and different elements constitutes the form.

Emotions are those feelings that are aroused within a person in response to hearing music. True emotional response to music is limited to the four basic emotions of fear, anger, sadness, and happiness.  Music arouses physical responses that mimic what we feel when we are truly angry, afraid, sad or happy. Music does not actually frighten us orMusic-Feelings-300x197 anger us; instead it stimulates us by setting off the same or similar physical responses as those triggered by the actual experience of being frightened or angry. Other feelings that we attribute to music are likely associations we make between circumstances or events and a specific musical work. We might, for example become sad when hearing music that was played at a loved one’s funeral, or we might become happy when hearing music that was played at our wedding. These responses to music have nothing to do with the music itself, but are about the circumstances. Whereas a musical work will arouse fear emotions in most people, because the initiation of the fearful experience is common to most, a. musical work to which the response is an association to an event will not arouse the same emotion in people who were not at that event or who did not experience that circumstance; therefore, whereas children will respond similarly or identically to the storm movement in Beethoven’s 6th symphony, they will respond dissimilarly to Pachelbel’s canon. The dissimilarity is because some children will have heard it played at a relative’s wedding, others in a movie, while others are hearing it for the first time, with no circumstantial experience to influence their response. These will respond to the calm demeanor of the music, and perhaps call that happiness.

Whether a child is responding to structure, form, or emotions, there remains a problem in assessing responses to music common to all. True responses to music are physical. That is, responses to music occur as activity in the nervous system that causes movement, heart rate changes, “goose bumps,” sweaty palms, and so forth. These physical responses are triggered primarily by structure and by non-structural elements such as dynamics, tempo, and timbre. These responses are far more complex than what children can typically describe in words, pictures, or even movement. While teaching music vocabulary is important, and gives students the tools needed to describe and write about music, vocabulary can also become an unfortunate restriction when it comes to understanding responses to music.

A child can respond that a musical work was “scary” with relative ease, but will likely resort to using learned vocabulary to explain why. For example, the child might say the music was scary because it was loud and fast, or because of the timpani or trombones. But this response can easily lead to unfortunate generalizations that loud fast music is always scary. There are other things going on here that are not easily described or even known. There may be an association with other music, that heard in scary movies for example, that also used the deep timbre of trombones and that was fast and loud. The beating of the timpani may have coincided with the child’s heartbeat and so made an especially strong emotional impact. These kinds of responses are likely occurring, but are left undetected by student and teacher alike because they cannot be made known through the child’s verbal response.

While it is natural to ask children something to the effect of “what emotions were expressed in this music?” it might be more to the point to ask the children to monitor their physical response while they listen. At the end of listening, the teacher might ask, “are your palms sweaty now?” “Did your heart start beating faster when the music got really loud?” Often, more can be learned from observing children’s body language while listening than from relying on their verbal accounts or answers to our questions or worksheets. It is important that we connect with these authentic responses, because this is the level at which students are truly experiencing the music. When we jus right to discussions about form, we can easily be superimposing relatively irrelevant things, and distracting everyone from what really matters to those who were just immersed body and soul into a great musical experience.



Fixed and Movable Do

Version 2As originally conceived, solfege was a movable do system. Whatever pitch was the tonic would be assigned the syllable “do” and the other syllables, re, mi, fa, so, la, and ti followed upward by step. In today’s usage, these movable do syllables are referred to as tonal syllables. They are called tonal syllables because they identify pitches by harmonic function, not by name or location on the staff. The tonic pitch is always “do” regardless of the key, and so also with the other pitches. Another way of putting is that the function (tonic, dominant, sub dominant, etc.) is always called by the same syllable, but the pitch assigned that function and thus that syllable will change according to the key. The advantage of this system is that it trains the ear to recognize harmonic function, and recognizing harmonic function in a melody line assists in singing in tune. The disadvantages are that one must ascertain or be told what the tonic is before one can begin singing with movable do syllables, and also that accidentals are extremely challenging. To the latter point, because movable do expresses function, when the function of a note changes, the syllable must also be changed. Thus, unlike with the fixed do system, when, for example, the super tonic is flatted, the syllable must be changed from re to ra, whereas in fixed do both super tonic and flatted super tonic are called re in the key of C.

Whereas, at least conceptually, movable do is a functional system, fixed do, or so it has been claimed, is not a functional system. This is because fixed do syllables do not indicate function, but instead indicate pitch name. Fixed do syllables are equivalent to letter note names, but are easier to sing; however, I take issue with those who claim that fixed do precludes functions. People naturally perceive the tonic function in tonal music, regardless of syllables being used, or in fact even in the absence of any syllables at all. My students have no trouble locating the tonic note of a tonal melody, because it is the only pitch that satisfies their ear as a final or resting tone. That being so, it is but a small matter to affix a name to the pitch to which one has intuitively assigned a function. Once the note, let us say fa which is an F, has been established as the tonic, one can easily perceive and understand fa to be the tonic, do to be the dominant, ti to be the sub dominant, and so forth. In addition, one can also be sure of exactly what pitches are being heard, making the bridge from listening to sight reading easier. If anyone should doubt this, let him sing a major scale starting on fa, and then realize that fa already unmistakably sounds like nothing else but the tonic function. Singing a major scale beginning on other syllables will produce the same result. What is more, whether sharp or not, the note is sung with the same syllable. A major scale beginning on re would be re mi fa so la ti do re. The singer must adjust by ear the fa and do to be sharped. This in itself is a worthwhile ear training exercise, which, by the way, Dalcroze was extremely fond of, that the practitioner of movable do never encounters. To him, every key is the same. But we know this is not how the composers heard the keys, or else they would not have described some as bright, others dark or any number of other ways. Having different syllables for the different scales helps one hear each key differently, as they were meant to be heard.

Teaching functional harmony is important. The teacher using fixed do must not overlook teaching harmony because it is essential for understanding tonal music, and for singing in tune. Because the syllables in the fixed do system indicate pitch and not function, C-Major-Scale(though as we have seen function is perceived when using fixed do), the use of fixed do necessitates a separate designation for functions. Renowned teachers such as Nadia Boulanger used syllables for pitch and numbers for function.   Using numbers for function and syllables for pitch emphasizes that pitch and function are two different concepts. A single musical tone has a definite pitch, but no function. A tone can only have function when it is perceived in the context of other tones. For example, fa could be tonic in f, dominant in b-flat, or mediant in d minor. The listener simply doesn’t know until other tones have placed that fa into a harmonic context. As long as the function of the note is unknown, it cannot be sung using movable do, but it can be sung using fixed do.

Using numbers to indicate function is consistent with the practice of numbering the scale degrees, with the tonic being ^1, the dominant being ^5, and so forth. It can be seen that ^1 in the fixed do system is the equivalent to do in the moveable do system. Because the syllables in the movable do system indicate function and not pitch, the use of movable do necessitates a separate designation for pitch. The musician using movable do does not know what the pitch name is unless letter names are also taught, just as the one using fixed do does not know what the function is unless numbers are also taught. So both systems have similar omissions if only syllables are taught. For this reason, it is necessary for the teacher of fixed do to teach syllables and numbers, and the teacher of movable do to teach syllables and letter names. Movable do syllables and numbers is redundant because both indicate function, and fixed do syllables and letter names are redundant because both indicate pitch.

Largely because each pitch is consistently given the same associated label, many who use fixed do often and consistently find that it develops in them a sense of absolute pitch. I have found this to be true for myself. During the school year when I am teaching with fixed do daily, I find myself starting songs with my voice on the correct pitch after reading the notation without much thought. I also find that I am less likely to drift flat over the course of a teaching session when I am mindful of the fixed do syllables. I believe this is how fixed do helps musicians sing more in tune. When relative pitch is relied on, as it must be with movable do, one has nothing to keep the pitch from drifting. But with fixed do, when the mind has secured pitches to a syllable, it retains the intonation of the pitch. Finally, it should be noted that the two systems do not go well together. Both have their attributes, and a teacher is can easily be justified choosing either, but should under no circumstance teach both to students concurrently. The cognitive advantages of associating notes with syllables is lost when the meaning of the syllables is contradictory from one system to the other.


What Does ‘Explain and Demonstrate’ Mean?

Version 2As teachers, we are all familiar with asking students to explain something. Explaining requires that students go beyond reciting a memorized answer, or randomly deciding on a response. Explaining involves giving reasons for why an answer was given, and the giving of evidence from a text. Demonstrating, on the other hand, is showing or doing something. It involves applying knowledge and skill to the doing of a task that makes a thing clear to someone else. One explains by using words, but demonstrates using actions. So what does it mean to explain and demonstrate something in music? How does one, for example, explain and demonstrate tempo? This phrase “explain and demonstrate” is found frequently in the National Core Arts Standards, so it is important that we understand what is expected.

Some of the things students are to demonstrate in music are musical ideas they have created and selected for inclusion in a composed musical work for a stated expressive intent. In the creating artistic process, third grade students are to “demonstrate selected musical ideas for a simple improvisation or composition to express intent.” Some other examples are not so immediately clear. In the performing artistic process, those same third graders are to “demonstrate and explain how the selection of music to perform is influenced by personal interest, knowledge, purpose , and context.” In this case, students would need to demonstrate some aspect of an interest they have that is related to the music. They might share an interest in folk music by performing a folk song about the same subject, or a similar song they learned somewhere outside of school. Students would need to demonstrate knowledge they have about the music. They might have knowledge about where a song was most famously performed. Perhaps they know that the song was performed at a presidential inauguration, or that it was sung by a singer well known for singing gospel, or protest folk songs. They could play a recording of that performance, or show pictures from the press coverage. All of this could also be used to demonstrate context as well. In all of these cases, what the student is doing goes well beyond explaining or reciting facts. They are creating a context and showing an audience different aspects of the song, establishing a deeper understanding than explaining alone could.

Our third grader might also ” demonstrate understanding of the structure in music selected for performance.” This is still under the performing artistic process. Here, the student is showing that he or she understands how the music they are about to perform is put together. Here, the student might perform just the main themes, art-of-teachingidentifying them as “A,” “B,” or “C” within a three-part or rondo form. They might use same and different pictures to show visually the form that is found in the music, or they might present the phrasing structure through movement while singing part of the selected music. Demonstration goes beyond words. It gives the words further and more in-depth meaning, and helps others to better understand what is being presented. Demonstration also tends to include different modes of perception. Notice that while explaining the structure of the music just involves listening, demonstrating can engage the audience in visual learning (the pictures or the dancing), or even kinesthetic learning if the audience is asked to participate in the movement with the presenter.

The standards also include demonstrating related to interpretation in performance. Second graders are asked to “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” There are two dimensions to this statement. The first is to demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities. Dynamics is an expressive quality. If the student were explaining, he or she would simply define dynamics, give an example, and perhaps identify music being performed as being loud, soft, containing a crescendo, and so forth. Demonstrating expressive qualities means that the child will actually do something that is forte, piano, or a crescendo. They might sing or play a portion of the music that includes dynamic contrasts, and they might show the audience how they produced those various dynamics. Part of what makes music exciting for the performer is the demands playing loud or soft makes on the body. The level of exertion, control, and command of tone is something that can be demonstrated to an audience when they can see the performer, but goes overlooked by an audience when it is only listening, as to an audio recording. With a live performance, the audience can see a wind players face turn red, see the sweat as they delve into a lively section, hear the intensity of the breaths being taken or the bows being driven upon the strings. A student who does all of this and thereby creates varying dynamics, and in an expressive way is going beyond explaining, and is demonstrating.

Not only does the student demonstrate what dynamics are found in the music, he or she also demonstrates why those dynamics are found in the music. What did the composer intend to express with those particular dynamics, or articulations, or tempo? What feelings does the student experience when they play the music where the crescendo occurs, or where it gets faster? Were those feelings intended by the composer and a result of what the composer wrote, or are those feelings unrelated to that specific music and instead related to how we feel performing, e.g. nervous, or excited, or scare? By showing the connection between the expressive elements found in the music and the feelings that the music brings out in them as they perform it, students demonstrate how creators use expressive elements to convey expressive intent. Again, an explanation would identify those feelings, and perhaps associate them to specific locations in the music, but demonstrating allows the audience to also experience those expressive qualities, and experience first hand the communication of the composers intent to them.

As you work with the National Core Arts Standards, take full advantage of those places where you find the word “demonstrate.” Use those standards as an opportunity to get your students more deeply engaged with musical works (texts) so that students who are listening can have a similar experience to the performer. Not only will this result in more rigorous instruction, it will also raise the value of live music in the lives of those students.

Sound Before Sight Is About More Than Teaching Songs

Version 2“Sound before sight” is a popular way of saying that music is most effectively taught first aurally, and then by associating what has been learned aurally with visual representations, such as standard music notation. Music Learning Theory and the numerous resources that follow it guide teachers in developing musical literacy according to these principles. Generally, Music Learning Theory is most often referenced for teaching repertoire to students, be it to singers or instrumentalists. But there is a larger principle to pull from this as well, and it is that teaching about music should not precede teaching the music itself. This is perhaps no more evident to music teachers than in reflecting on our own undergraduate music theory analysis classes. How many of us sat through expositions of an harmonic analysis of a Beethoven sonata that we had never heard, but for which we were expected to identify the chords, cadence types, and other compositional techniques. How much more interesting, relevant, and enjoyable it would have been if we had first had been given the opportunity to become familiar with the sonata movement, to enjoy it as it was meant to be enjoyed, as an expressive, exciting musical masterpiece, and only then been directed to go back and analyze this music which by that point we would have already grown to know and love.

While many of us are not teaching Beethoven sonatas, or even advanced music analysis in our general music or performances classes, we nevertheless do tend to teach as we were taught, and have, from time to time, taught the history or theory of a musical work before giving our students the opportunity to listen and gain familiarity. It is not uncommon for teachers to begin with a heavy dose of direct instruction, largely verbal, on the history of, or the form of, a musical genre or work, respectively. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we must first know about a musical genre or work before we can enjoy listening.  If we are teaching a unit on the blues, we start by finding books on the blues, and present information to our students. Any music that we play for them is intended to illustrate or demonstrate what is being described or explained verbally. We forget that the music was around before the history was written, or the music theory was developed. The history of the blues is in the music, not in the books written about that music. To truly understand the history of the blues, listen to the blues. Listen to early blues singers, and discuss the lyrics being sung, and the plight of those singing. Before the blues was a jazz form, it was an outlet for souls heavily burdened with more than their share of hardships. The history of the blues is in those lyrics, in those voices, in those expressions one can hear in recordings such as those published by the Smithsonian Institute, and by Folkways. Hearing the music creates the proper impetus for a substantial dialogue between students and teacher, and between students, about the historical and cultural contexts of this music.

As students listen to more and more examples, they will doubtless pick up on similaritiesFeed Your Brain Music to more recent music they are more familiar with; perhaps jazz blues, or rock blues, or the gospel music they worship with at Sunday church services. These connections advance the instruction in a way that is relevant to students, and is in fact student driven and student centered, which the best instruction is. In this scenario, the book material, which is the traditional starting point, biomes supporting material to add depth to the body of knowledge students are building primarily through first hand encounters with the music itself. The encounters, strengthened by book knowledge, also begin to qualify the students to write about and discuss the music in similar ways to the authors of the books. In this way, those students are practicing scholarship, an opportunity denied them when the authors of published books are allowed to be the primary focus of instruction.

This is not to say that books should be avoided or ignored. Books and the teacher’s own expertise are needed to increase the depth of knowledge, and to guard against misinformation being constructed by unknowing students (or teacher). The books can also serve as encouragement, as students find that their own conclusions and connections are supported by published writers. This way of learning, by listening first and then acting upon what has been heard second, is also in line with the way students naturally learn music. When students teach each other how to sing or play a song, you rarely if ever find them going to the library to read about the song, or even to gain possession of the musical score. They listen first, and learn and teach each other by ear.

Once learned, any further instruction to which they are introduced about the song is met with excitement and interest, because it is about something they have already learned on their own. I fear that teachers, like my undergraduate music theory analysis professor,  too often squelch desires to learn by front loading instruction with book learning, delaying the actual experiencing of music until all but the most devoted student has lost interest. The fact is, it is more fun to learn how to do something when we have already seen someone else do it, when we know what the result of our actions will be, and when that result is something that we are highly motivated to acquire because we are excited about being able to do the thing, which in this case is to sing, play, or analyze a musical work.

There is also the matter of retention to consider. Most of us will remember a tune longer than a fact about that tune. In fact, I frequently can remember a tune even if I cannot remember even its title. But, once I have that tune engrained in my memory, my brain can attach facts about it to the memory of the tune, making it much more likely I will remember the information about the tune, than if I just tried to memorize the information, but hadn’t committed the tune to memory. When I begin to sing a tune, I can then remember what someone has told me about it, whereas I cannot recall what someone has told me about the tune if I don’t first remember the tune. Remembering the tune is the sound. Information about the tune follows second. This is, most likely without exception, the best way to teach music.