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.

Responding To Music: Subjective or Objective?

Version 2The National Core Arts Standards include three anchor standards for responding that lay out the ways a person can respond to music. When our students respond to music in our classrooms or on their own in other settings, they are probably doing so in one of the ways described in these anchor standards. They are probably perceiving and analyzing, interpreting intent and meaning, and/or evaluating the music to which they are listening. Analyzing and evaluating are the more objective ways of responding. Analysis can be done for specific elements. These can include phrase structure, use of a given musical element, harmony, melodic motifs, and so forth. Evaluating a musical work involves using an established set of criteria. While evaluation is often at least partially subjective, holding to the criteria keeps the subjectivity to a minimum and makes the task largely objective. But what about interpreting a musical work? That sounds like a largely subjective thing. Can’t music mean different things to different people? How can we know for sure what a composer’s expressive intent was? Aren’t we just guessing based on clues left by his or her use of musical elements?

It is worth noting that the anchor standard includes two things that interpretation is to reveal: intent and meaning. While the two are related, they must not be the same or they wouldn’t both be included in the standard. What is intent and what is meaning of a musical work. First, music itself has no intrinsic intent or meaning, because it has no intelligence of its own. Music is an created thing. The creator has intent and attempts to communicate meaning, so it is the intent  of the creator of the musical work, and the meaning he or she has placed in the musical work that we are trying to learn from interpreting.

Regarding meaning, we must be careful to ask the right question. Many writers have researched musical meaning by asking people, “what does music mean to you?” The problem with that question is that it invites subjective answers, and typically elicits a gamut of answers that are often vague, philosophical, or deeply personal. While it is valuable for individual to hold philosophical and personal views on the meaning of music in their lives, we are looking for something more universal. If music has any meaning at all, it must be the same across individuals of a given culture at least, if not across multi cultures, in the same way that a red octagon means stop to a motorist, no matter in what language the word “stop” is written within it. The meaning of musicMIOSM will follow philosophical and personal meanings, but it will generalize them into something we can all agree on, something we can teach to our students and that they will be able to apply to their own music experiences. The meaning of musical works will interact with any personal philosophies and views a person may have, and never fail to bring an experience of music to an understanding of that music to which they are listening. Such a meaning of music will be objective, and at the same time modifiable by personal philosophies and views.

So then, what does music mean? What shall we teach our students regarding the communicative powers of musical works? Let me start with a statement from songwriter Sarah McLachlan. She wrote that music is “a universal emotional language that allows us to feel. It brings us closer to ourselves and others in that it creates an avenue for empathy and understanding. It can often communicate something that cannot be put into words, a resonance of the spirit and a recognition that another feels what you feel and understands.” There is a problem right away in that she starts with “music is” rather than “music means,” but I shall work around that, for there is much of value in what she has to say here. First, music communicates what we as humans feel, and it communicates it in a universal way. The universality is sometimes limited by cultural context. Rhythm tends to be more universal in this respect than melody. Rhythm activates our body movements, and the part of our brain that governs motor activity. Things like fast movement, increased heart rate, even sweaty palms are all stimulated by rhythmic structures that are likely universal. Melodies, with the variety of scales, intervals, and even instrument timbres is less universal. The feelings that a melody will stimulate will vary from none to extreme depending on the musical experience and culture of the listener.

Music brings us closer to ourselves in that it pulls up emotions that might otherwise remain hidden to our awareness, or repressed by choice. I have many times experienced a surge of emotion, sometimes to the brink of tears, from a musical phrase that gushes beauty and emotion. Such emotional moments may remind me of other, non-musical experiences about which I felt similarly, and the music might even be fused to such an experience, adding emotional strength to both the music and the memory. If the composer has written music to express how he or she is feeling, and then we are talking about intent, then by listening to that music I may be able to feel what the composer is feeling, and empathize with his or her emotional condition. Music certainly can be this “avenue for empathy and understanding,” but it cannot be reliably so because no listener can be sure that what feelings are elicited in the music are in fact what the composer was feeling at the time he or she wrote that musical work. It is well known that Beethoven wrote his cheerful sixth and seventh symphony while in the midst of deep depression and sadness over his deafness and overall quality of life. So to think we are empathizing with Beethoven as we listen to this cheerful music is just not so. We need to know, through a composer’s writings perhaps, that he or she was feeling the way the music cam out in order to know that the music is indeed that “avenue or empathy and understanding.”

That music can communicate things that can not easily be put into words, or that cannot be put into words at all, should be beyond dispute. Music certainly rises even above the expressive potential of poetry, which in turn rises above the potential of prose, for being a vehicle for this kind of expression. Whereas prose resonates with our intellect, music, as McLachlan points out, resonates with the spirit. Music brings to the surface a deep experience that can share with our consciousness the navigating of our innermost selves through realities we cannot otherwise approach. It is like the “aw” factor we seem to universally experience when we see a newborn infant. Even just a photograph of the newborn child melts the sternest of hearts like water, and this feeling is quite out of our control. Music is like that.

When we search for what a musical work means, we must first look inward, to discover what of our inner being it has touched, moved, and communicated with. Then, we need to be aware of what others have found similarly looking inward responding to the same musical work. This is where the community of students in a music class is so valuable. To create a climate where students first become practiced at being aware of what the music has communicated to them, and then being willing to share that experience with others. In so doing, students can find a sort of classroom universality whereby they discover not just a personal meaning, but a common, shared meaning that comes close to or hits the mark of what the music truly means. This shared meaning, by virtue of the data extending beyond individuals and through a community of learners (listeners), takes on a good measure of objectivity. The more agreement there is, the more objective that meaning becomes.

Singing and Rapping: Two Vocal Traditions

Version 2Every now and again, when I say to a student, “please stop talking and instead sing,” I get a reply of “but talking and singing are the same thing.” I used to be amazed that anyone would not pick up on the differences between spoken word and sung lyrics. But then I stopped to reflect on it. These students have grown up in a hip-hop culture, where for years, sung melody had completely disappeared from rap songs. A generation of kids who primarily or exclusively listened to rap music over a period of years might very well conclude that singing was nothing more than speaking in rhythms.

Thankfully, a newer genre has evolved, that of pop-rap. As the name suggests, it is a melding of the lyrical, melodic aspects of pop used often as hooks or refrains, and the melody-less art of rapping. Salt-n-Peppa is a good example. Here, students can hear side by side singing and rapping. The difference is clear, and is an important device in creating interest and contrast in the song.

Combining spoken word and music in art forms is nothing new. In this regard, Pop-Rap and opera have a commonality. It is normal fare in opera for the great arias to be preceded by recitative, a device that is somewhere in between speaking and singing. Like rap, recitative has a limited pitch set and an active rhythmic movement.

An even more literal example of talking and singing side by side in an art form is in musical theater. There are the actors saying their lines, and then suddenly they are singing, and then they are back to their spoken lines (or perhaps off to a dance first).  But in the smash hit “Hamilton,” we once again find rap and melody brought side by side.

So once students hear these examples, or any number of others you might come up with, we must get down to making observations and drawing conclusions based on the text, which in this case are the audio tracks. We might couch our inquiry in an enduring understanding and essential question. The enduring understanding might be something like this: Musicians use their voices in specific and distinct ways to produce singing sounds. The essential question would then be, “How do musicians use their voices to produce musical tones?” We could then contrast this with a parallel set of EU and EQ. “People use their voices in specific and distinct ways to produce speech.” “How do people use their voices to produce speech? Students start out by comparing the sounds of voices singing with voices speaking. They can use the scientific method by speaking and singing themselves, and making note of the physical differences in what they do to produce each kind of sound. This will actually lead to the realization that there really are three types of voice being used: one for speaking, one for rapping/acting/public speaking, and one for ordinary conversation.

Connections should be made during this line of instruction to previous learning, especially if these are upper elementary or middle school students. A great deal of instruction (hopefully) was spent during the elementary years, and is (hopefully again) still going on to make the student aware of and to develop a head voice, or what is often referred to to younger children as the singing voice. It is a hallmark of John Feierabend’s pedagogy to make a clear distinction between the singing voice and the speaking voice, and to repeatedly demonstrate that difference (I speak like this, I sing like this) and to have students learn what their singing voice is and how to use it by doing pitch exploration exercises such as echo songs and sliding sounds on the one hand, and chanted rhymes on the other. All of this should culminate with an understanding that rap does not utilize the head voice as singing does, nor does it utilize the variety and range of pitches as pop music does, even when sung by musicians in a belted chest voice. But it isn’t always so. The best pop singers get around to showing their head voice, especially when they are in their prime. Mariah Carey is a good example. No one (I hope) could mistake this singing for speaking.

If there is one conclusion I would like to draw for you from all of this is that we must provide our students with experiences hearing popular art forms in which musicians demonstrate the kind of singing we are trying to teach them. It is an uphill battle to convince students it is cool to sing with a head voice and then never expose them to anyone but classical musicians using one. It is akin to letting instrumental students know that most of the great jazz wind players studied classical music, got their technique from classical training, and applied themselves to learning to play jazz. The combination of the two enabled them to become the great musicians that they became. The same is true with singing. The head voice is the foundation for all singing. It is the technique one can learn to be tuneful and artful, and do so without damaging the vocal apparatus. Speaking and singing do both utilize the voice, but the way which the voice is used, the way it is activated and made to sound, project, and produce its color and timbre is markedly different. There is a science behind how the voice works, and science proves there is a difference between singing and speaking, and honestly, even between rapping and speaking. So it is really true: you can’t talk and sing at the same time. So please, stop talking and sing instead.

Making Lessons Interesting and Important

Version 2Any classroom will run more smoothly and be a place of effective learning when the lessons taught are both interesting and important to students. Lessons that are interesting to students are about things that students can use, want to use, and to which they can make connections with their personal lives, their other classes, their families, and/or their culture. While music often has a higher interest level for many students than other subjects, not all music is of equal interest. At times, one student or another will spontaneously break out into song. While this could be a good thing, when it comes at my mid-sentence to the class, it interrupts what I am doing. When asked to stop, the student typically will respond, “but it’s music, and this is music class.” This little vignette illustrates interest. The student is interested in the music he or she is singing, not necessarily the music that I am teaching at that moment. On the other hand, if I plan a response to listening, or creating, and base it on rap music, (I teach in an urban school district, and rap is by far the genre of choice among my students) their interest is high, and they are much more engaged and productive.

Music that interests students is also likely the most familiar to them. Many of my students can play the intricate hip-hop rhythms, sometimes better than I can, and they never tire of playing along with their favorite artist recordings or in some cases writing their own lyrics or free-styling. I am using rap as an example. Genres of interest will vary with different students, different school districts, and different cultures. The point is that this music of interest is something the students have largely taught themselves to be fluent in, and they are ready to make music together with their classmates in music class. This opens up many possibilities for authentic musical experiences in my classroom. With students already proficient and familiar with music making in a genre, I am free to have them create and perform in various forms, with various expressive intents, and with a variety of instruments including technology. Their interests form the basis for teaching and learning musical concepts, using the skills they already have. Of course, I can also improve their technique, showing them, for example, how to hold drumsticks, how to take their beatboxing or body percussion onto a drum kit, and how to add instrumental backgrounds such as synth pads, to their created musical works.

From their current musical interests, I also have the opportunity to develop new interests, not by forcing other kinds of music on them like convincing them to like it was some kind of crusade, but by making connections between what already interests them and other styles of music. For example, here are two tracks that combine elements of jazz and hip-hop, giving me the opportunity to teach both, or to bridge from hip-hop to jazz, always retaining just enough hip-hop to keep my students’ attention.


That’s music that interests students. Now what about music that is important to students? Interest and importance are certainly related, but they are not the same. Things that are interesting are connected to one’s personal life, and the lives of others directly involved in a person’s life. Interesting things include what self, friends, family, and those with which we come in frequent or daily contact. Important things go beyond our immediate sphere of influence (and of being influenced). Important things affect people on a larger or even universal scale. Patriotic songs, or recordings to raise money for the needy such as the “We Are The World” projects are examples of important things. These songs are only important to students if the universal context, purpose, or intent is also important to students. For example, Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame once wrote as one, “With Your Face To The Wind” to honor a young woman fighting cancer. To me, this was an important song because of its purpose, and I found the passionate live recording of the trio’s performance moving. I shared the recording with some students who were apt to be outspoken on many issues, and was surprised to find they attached very little importance to this young woman’s struggle or the encouragement the musicians were trying to offer. Her battle was not their cause, so they didn’t see the song as important.

I think music teachers run into this problem often when teaching classical music. We consider the so called masterworks of the great composers important from a historical and cultural perspective. These are great works of music and should be known by all Westerners just as surely as should Shakespeare or any other author one would care to name. But these creators of artistic works aren’t important to many students. They have grown up in an environment where everything including artistic works are much more disposable than a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Classic rock is old enough for them, and then only if the message of those old songs connects with their contemporary experience. The answer to the unimportance of classical music to young people is not to water it down, package it with sexy marketing of artists, or jam it into a rock or hip-hop beat (remember Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven?”). If classical music is going to be important to anyone, it will have to connect with the very spirit and reality of existence that young people have today. My students almost invariably like Beethoven music because they marvel at how anyone could write something like that and not be able to hear. Beethoven’s symphony becomes not so much about “great music” as it is about a person with a physical handicap overcoming his disability to accomplish something great. That’s important to kids. I know there will be some who will disparage that last point, arguing that I am basing the importance or even meaning of music on something extramusical. But no one would care one wit that Beethoven was deaf if he had written mediocre or bad music. It is the greatness of the music itself that makes his achievement as a deaf composer remarkable and interesting. So it is about the music, and also about the composer.

Music as we teach it is not an object that comes through earbuds to individual people. It is an art form that is created by a person for other people, with an expressive intent, a purpose, and within a context. Every musical work, be it a symphony or a rap song is intended to reach a community of people, to bring among other things a message or expression or affirmation. The more we can help students connect with those messages, expressions and affirmations within their own contexts, the more important, and interesting, music will be for them.


Student Engagement in the Music Classroom

Version 2Music is one of those areas where people seem to think natural ability has as much to do with success as anything. Whereas we assume that with differentiated instruction all children can learn to read, learn to reason and compute mathematically, and learn to use the scientific method to find and discover knowledge and understanding, people often take a different view of the arts. This perspective is often held by our students as well. Many students believe that they cannot sing, compose, or play an instrument well because they lack the talent. They believe that no matter what amount of effort they put into it, the results will not be worth the investment of time, and so they do just enough to get by with a grade that is acceptable to them, and perhaps to their parents.

The critical point in this is that when a student has decided that in spite of his or her best effort, he or she will not attain the level of proficiency expected, that student has no reason to continue trying, and will exhibit behaviors of a disengaged learner; refusal to do the work, excessive talking, and other behaviors teachers would call disruptive or misbehaviors. Music teachers, usually without realizing it, reinforce and confirm the students conclusion that effort doesn’t matter when they assign grades on what the student achieves, accomplishes, or produces, regardless of what effort has been made. It can seem to the student unfair that he or she did the best they could and still received a poor grade. Whatever effort was needed to produce a better result, if it was beyond the student’s ability, then what ever effort they did put into it was for naught.

This raises the issue of whether or not grading should be based on effort at all; if grades should be solely on the end product. Conventional wisdom tells us that the younger the child, the more effort should be counted. This is so that children can learn that there is a correlation between effort and achievement, and that success rarely comes to someone who doesn’t try. In it’s most simplistic form, it is like the lottery slogan, “you can’t win if you don’t play.” You can’t succeed if you don’t try. This is a valuable lesson, and we teachers should never stop helping students make the cause and effect connection between effort and achievement. To those who believe that grades should only be based on achievement, I would say at some point, maybe graduate studies, that is true. But we are teaching students who have not fully learned how to learn, how to be a learner, a scholar, and even a success. We must do everything we can to complete that training as we also teach them our subject matter. If we have students in our classes or ensembles who are not succeeding, are discouraged and disengaged learners, then we cannot simply lower the boom of a bad grade and expect things to change. Students don’t choose low achievement, they experience it because something in the learning process is broken and needs fixing.

Counting effort as at least part of the music grade is an effective way to encourage a i-get-itdisengaged student to re-start with the hope of a different experience; one of success. Students like this need to hear feedback like, “I know the result of your work today wasn’t what you were hoping for, but I really liked the effort you put into it. You worked really well today and I’m confident that as you continue to work that way, you will see the kind of results you want. Keep up the good effort.” For a student like this, knowing that even though their achievement grade wasn’t great, they still walked away from that lesson with a solid effort grade. Those two grades, effort and achievement, can be scaled however the teacher wishes, but I would suggest a sliding scale, where for the struggling student effort is perhaps 60% and achievement 40%. As the student reaches set benchmarks in the achievement grade, the proportions can change until they are reversed: 40% for effort, 60% for achievement. I believe it is important to keep effort in the equation as a constant reminder that effort does count. Even when a student is getting straight A’s for achievement, he or she must remember that effort counts, that it is needed for continuing that excellence, or building greater achievement. Students who have that truth in front of them at all times, that effort counts, will be more engaged and better behaved in class.

Effort connects to one of four essential questions that every student asks him or herself (Marzano & Pickering, 2011). The question is, “can I do this?” The other questions are, “how do I feel? Am I interested? Is this important? The question of “can I do this” is tied to what a student bases his or her self-identity on. Dweck (2009) explained that students who believe success is based on talent or natural ability tend to stick to what they know they can do, and avoid trying new things or taking risks. This is because they fear failure, because if they fail people will see them as a counterfeit, as one who really wasn’t all that talented after all. In contrast, students who believe success is based on effort do not fear failure, but know how to use failure as a tool for learning and self-improvement. They have not tied their self-identity to talent, but if to anything then to the perseverance manifested in one who continues to try as a strategy and pathway to eventual success. This is why it is important to continually encourage students to maintain the effort, and to guide through taking away from failures all that can be learned from them, so that they assist in advancing toward the goal.

A student who is engaged in learning is able to answer the question “can I do this” in the affirmative. A belief in the value of effort is key to giving this answer. There is one more question that relates to being an engaged learner, and that is, “is this important.” This question is often referred to as relevance. Briefly, establishing relevance is contingent on the student being able to connect what he or she is learning to prior knowledge, experiences, interests, and context. These are addressed in the National Core Arts Standards wherever connecting is mentioned. Teachers can help students find material relevant by bridging to prior learning, giving students choices of how (written, oral, performance, etc.) and what (selecting artistic works to perform or to which to respond, and by planning authentic learning experiences, which are activities that reflect what musicians do in the real world, that is, outside your classroom.  Teachers who understand their students’ interests and ambitions can direct instruction toward what is most important to the students. The result will be that the students will see what they are learning as relevant, and their level of engagement will be correspondingly higher. Helping students gain the position of being able to answer the two questions, “can I do this,” and “is this important” affirmatively will cause them to be highly engaged in learning in the music classroom.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Heflebower, T. (2011). The highly engaged classroom. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset. New York: Random House


Using Student Feedback to Improve Instruction

Version 2In order to provide the best possible instruction for our students, we must be informed about what they are experiencing as they go through the learning activities we have planned for them. We must know what difficulties individual students are having, what progress each student is making, and what connections the student is making between what we are having him or her do and learn with their own life and perspective. If we were to do this in great detail, we would easily be overwhelmed, because the typical public school music teacher sees 500-700 students every week. But their are things we can do that are easily managed and are effective in gathering student feedback which informs  us of these important experiences.

First, when we give our students written work, we can include some questions at the end of their work. Did you enjoy this activity? Was this activity worthwhile for you? Why or why not? What difficulty or difficulties did you experience while doing this activity? What were you able to do easily? Is there something else I could have asked you to do that would have been more helpful to you in meeting today’s objective? When students give honest and detailed answers to these questions, I am greatly helped in meeting their needs that day or during the following lessons. I can look for trends and alter my lesson planning accordingly, and I can find a type of activity that was effective for most or all of the class and make sure I use that type of activity again.

For example, none of my classes like sitting for the first 5-10 minutes of class while I lecture them on a musician or musical work, or what have you. But they love it when I write facts about, for example, a musician on index cards, hide the cards around the room and let them have a scavenger hunt to find them. They have to share with each other what different cards say (collaboration) and from the information they gather figure out who the musician is. Then the rest of the class is on that musician and his or her artistic work. I was spurred on to do this after I received feedback from a high achieving student that I should “make learning more fun.” This part of student feedback really comes down to putting ourselves in their place; of realizing what it is like for our students to be in our class, and then making sure that it is as stimulating, motivating, relevant, and fun as possible, because the truth is, students learn more when they are enjoying what they are doing.

A second kind of student feedback is giving students choices of what they will do to learn what you want them to learn and do what you want them to be able to do. In a general music class, students musical interests vary widely. Some students like to respond to music; they like to write about it. Writing about a text is something they are used to doing in other classes. Middle school students have spent years becoming capable writers in their Language Arts classes. When they come to music, many of them are taken out of theirMIOSM comfort zone when asked to perform music, but they are happy to listen to music and write about it, citing evidence from the text, that is from the music they hear, to support their arguments. In terms of the National Core Arts Standards, these students learn better when they are describing than when they are demonstrating. When either will do for assessing their proficiency, students can be given a choice of writing, verbally explaining (with their explanation assessed on a rubric) or demonstrating with a performance.

In this regard, I like to view the four artistic processes in a way similar to how educators view the multiple intelligences; that is, students often have a dominant artistic process. Some prefer to perform, others prefer to respond, as I discussed above. Some want to create artistic works, while others enjoy finding connections between artistic works and their lives, their community, or their culture. While no artistic process should be left out of any child’s music education, students can and should be allowed to be artistic within the process they most enjoy where the concept being taught can be learned within more than one process. For example, students can learn about timbre by responding to music to which they listen, by composing or arranging for solo and combinations of instruments, or by interpreting a musical work as a performer. If the objective is to understand and be able to demonstrate timbre, then a student can meet this objective through creating, performing or responding. Letting the student choose which artistic process to use is a form of student feedback, it increases the quality of their work, and it informs the teacher what kinds of learning activities will be most effective with individual students.

Below is a handout I developed for use with my 7th and 8th grade classes that is designed to walk the students through selecting an artistic process and guiding them through an activity using that process. I continue to revise it, but I present here in its current form as resource you may find useful. Feel free to tweak it or revise it to meet your students needs. If you’d like, please share your revisions through an e-mail attachment to the address on my contact page.

Select one of the following artistic processes and circle it. This is what you will be doing today.

Creating            Performing          Responding           Connecting

Choose one of the following, depending on which artistic process you chose.


a. generate musical ideas that express happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. You will document your ideas by writing them down using either standard music notation, or a kind of notation that you make up. Each ideas must be at least 10 seconds long, and you must generate and document at least three ideas.

b. organize your three ideas into a rondo form, that is, A B A C A, where the first idea is A, the second idea is B and the third idea is C.

c. revise your ideas if you think that is necessary in order to better express your chosen emotion (expressive intent).

d. practice performing your rondo, or teach someone else to perform it for you, using your written down documentation.

e. present your rondo to an audience of at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song you would like to sing, based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. determine what emotion the songwriter was trying to express, and then determine how you can sing the song in a way that best expresses that same emotion. Consider how best to use elements of music such as tempo (how fast/slow), timbre (the kind of sound you produce with your voice), and dynamics (how loud/soft).

c. determine what an excellent performance of this song would sound like, and then practice singing it, trying to come close to that excellent performance you imagined.

d. perform the song for at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song to which to respond based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. explain in writing how the songwriter applied the elements of music and expressive qualities to convey an emotion.

c. create criteria for evaluating songs, and then use that criteria to evaluate in writing this song.

d. present your findings to at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. Explain in writing connections between the song and a topic or text you have studied in another class, or between the song and observations you can make about the culture in which you live. Share your connections with at least 3 other people in class.

Teaching Musical Phrases

Version 2From a perceptual perspective, phrase may be the most important musical element that a music educator teaches. While pitch and rhythm are perhaps the most foundational, and while there can be no phrases without pitch and rhythm, people perceive and understand music aurally in groups of sounds, not from individual notes. Even in instances where a single note is sustained, it is the expectation set up by the delay of another note that gives that single note its meaning and expressiveness. Leonard Bernstein, in his Young People’s Concert titled “What Does Music Mean?” said, “all music is a combination of sounds… put together according to a plan. [The composer’s ] plan is to put the sounds together with rhythms and different instruments or voices or whatever in such a way that what finally comes out is exciting, or fun, or touching, or interesting, or all of those together.” Music is a combination of sounds, not a series of individual, unrelated sounds. To illustrate this, compare the opening measure of Liszt’s B minor piano sonata to the opening measure of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Liszt’s sonata begins with a single note–the tonic B, followed by silence. It’s a haunting beginning, because we expect a motif or at least one or two notes to immediately follow and give us a start at a melody. But no, all we get is one note, silence, and then the same one note again followed by more silence. While it would be difficult to argue that these two Bs are not music, because they do, after all, begin a piano sonata which is unquestionably music, left with only a single note, we, the listener, are at a loss as to what to do with those two isolated tones. They as yet have no musical meaning, because they have no musical context; no other notes with which we can perceive relationships.

The opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, on the other hand, is packed with musical meaning and is probably the most recognizable symphonic motif ever composed. Here we are given 4 notes. This is not enough to make a phrase, but it is enough to elicit a response from us. We can remember those four notes, and recognize them if we hear them again, and most importantly, we can recognize them in the many transformations of that motif that Beethoven will present to us throughout his symphony. On the other hand, we don’t take notice every time Liszt uses a “b” in his sonata. We do, however, recognize the opening use of the b’s when they return, because by then there is a rhythm and a pulse attached to them, making them a motif of 2 notes instead of an occurrence of 1 note twice.

Comparison to language can be helpful. A single letter, like a single note, rarely has any meaning. Even the letter “a” by itself, though a word, has no meaning, because we don’t know what the object is. It could be a day, or a note, or a symphony, or a stomach ache. If all we have is “a” there really isn’t any understanding of what is being talked or written about. But once that letter “a” is combined with other letters, either as part of a word or followed by a subject, then and only then does the letter “a” have linguistic meaning. But even if we get to the word “ready” which contains an a, or the phrase “a stomach ache,” we still don’t have all the understanding we need, but we do have a phrase. A phrase is a part of a sentence, and it gives us some of the entire thought, but needs another phrase go along with it to complete the thought. After Beethoven gave us those first four notes, he gave us the same motif transposed down the interval of a second. Though this still isn’t a phrase, it does give us more information, though it remains delightfully ambiguous.  It’s more of a teaser. We don’t know yet if we are in C minor or Eb major, but we have come to a pause and wait for more. Over the next four measures,  get a phrase and with it the certainty that we are in C minor.


I teach my students that there is a progression from motif, to phrase, to theme. A phrase must have more than a single musical idea, and must be a uniform length throughout the work or movement, excepting for the occasional elision. At first blush, it appears that Beethoven is writing 2-measure phrases, with each dotted quarter note being the end of a phrase. But after the first 2 measures, the next phrase continues on for 4 measures before there is such a pause, making the length of that phrase unmistakably 4 measures. The symmetry with which classical composers wrote, even an innovative ones like Beethoven,  demands that a one phrase be balanced by a second phrase of the same length. This balanced phrase structure is part of a hierarchy, with phrases nested into themes, nested into theme groups, nested into sections, nested into an entire movement. So an essential characteristic of musical phrases is that within a single work, they are consistently the same length.

This is equally true of popular music, though on a smaller scale. You can walk your students through most any song, beginning with the first note, going forward until a motif is identified, often through rhythmic parallelism, and then expanding outward to a phrase which is easily found at the first comma in the lyrics, and then continuing forward for the same number of measures to the end of subsequent phrases, which will coincide with either a comma, semi colon,  or a period in the lyrics. Stringing several phrases that all end with unresolved dissonance or just avoid the tonic chord has become a popular technique that builds tension, often leading up to a climactic release at the chorus. Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm is a good example of this. I like to use the lyrics to reinforce my point, but to initially present the song by just playing the melody on the piano to show them the purely musical phrase structure. Once they realize that, the lyrics support the musical analysis.  I also use the text to point out the difference between the end of a phrase, which typically ends on the subdominant or dominant chord, and the end of a “sentence” of music, which typically ends on the tonic chord. This affords the opportunity to bring tonality and cadences into the teaching of phrases. The phrase boundary a listener perceives is marked by cadences, as well as a rhythmic organization that supplies either a pause (rest) or a relatively long duration which momentarily suspends the rhythmic motion.

There is also the expressive aspect of phrases. Music is expressive and interesting in large part because it has patterns of tension and relaxation. One phrase will build tension, while another will bring real ease and relaxation. These patterns  are made both within phrases and among phrases. For example, the well-known “Morning Mood” melody found in Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg builds tension within the first phrase, but builds greater tension from the beginning of the first phrase to the end of the second phrase. When these inter-phrase and intra-phrase buildups and releases of tension are tracked by the listener, the music becomes expressive in the way composers intended. The structure of musical phrases makes possible the perception of musical expression, and so the expressive properties of musical phrases must be taught along with the structural ones.  Listen to the music I have discussed here and notice both the structures and expressions of each phrase.

Why Teach Instruments in General Music?

Version 2From the outset, I want to assure all of you who are Orff teachers that I am not going to oppose children playing instruments in general music. My students play recorders, barred instruments, and non-pitched instruments, and I understand the value in teaching all of them, In fact, that is what I want to discuss today. For quite some time, music teachers have accepted the playing of instruments in general music class as a normal part of instruction. Rhythm Band, Orff, and World Drumming, to name a few, have and continue to be popular with music teachers and students alike in elementary and junior high school general music classes. The 1994 music standards developed by MENC (now NAfME) included “performing on instruments alone and with others a varied repertoire of music.” Another one of those standards, “improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments,” was also frequently taught with the use of musical instruments. In this context, instruments were a needed resource for learning varied repertoire, and improvisation.

This approach to instruments, that they are a resource to be used in learning concepts and enduring understandings is even more evident in the 2014 National Core Arts Standards. In these standards, playing instruments (or singing for that matter) is not even mentioned. That in no way implies that singing and playing instruments is no longer important. It does mean that playing instruments and even singing is a means to and end, and not the end itself. What is that end? There are several. Those mentioned in the 2014 standards are selecting, explaining, describing, demonstrating, generating musical ideas, and performing, all done with whatever means the students and teacher decide upon, playing and singing among them. In other words, we don’t teach a child to play a recorder, or xylophone, or what have you so that they can play an instrument, though they will be able to do so as a natural consequence of using musical instruments in class. Instead, we teach a child to play a musical instrument because that is the best way for him or her to learn to improvise, convey expressive intent, generate musical ideas, and so forth. The stipulation of learning varied repertoire is still valuable, so children also learn to play musical instruments in order to fully experience a repertoire of instrumental music. The goal is to be able to do and to know how to do these things. The goal is not to be able to play an instrument, it is to use playing an instrument as a means to learning music.

This approach to teaching instruments has the tremendous advantage of being more engaging and relevant to students. Consider the difference between telling a student or a class that they are going to learn how to play treble clef fourth line d on the recorder because that is the next note in their lesson book, compared to telling them that they are going to learn that note because it is an important note in “I Got A Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas, and that they are going to play part of the melody of that song and be able to improvise on it. The second reason for learning the note d is one that the students can immediately connect with. It gives the learning of the note an immediate purpose, and it will enable them to do something they anticipate enjoying. The purpose is to use the recorder and the note d, along with the other notes they have learned, to perform a specific task, that of playing a selected melody and improvising over it. The same lesson could be taught using a flute, a violin, boom whackers, a xylophone, or whatever instrument is chosen. It doesn’t matter what instrument is used because the point of the lessonrecite-uo6n4t is not to teach a specific instrument, it is to teach improvisation.

The choice of an instrument is made based on what is appropriate and appealing to the students. Orff instruments have been so successful because they are accessible to most children. That was what Orff wanted when he developed them. Besides having removable bars and a sonorous tone, they have the advantage of being played with movements that are transferable from body percussion to playing instruments. This can make the teaching of Orff instruments a means for teaching beat movements and movements for form. The same can be said for hand drums, shakers, cow bells, Claves, and any highly portable percussion instrument. Recorders are less useful for teaching movement, but more useful for teaching phrasing, because phrasing is more easily understood in terms of breathing than in terms of striking with a mallet. Tempo and rhythm, on the other hand, is more easily understood in terms of movement, so instruments that can be easily played while moving freely are better for teaching tempo or rhythm. The point is that what you are going to teach and who you are going to teach it to determine what instrument can be most advantageously used.

Instruments should not be used as the primary means to teach tonality and pitch. This is because accurate pitch is produced on virtually all classroom instruments with no effort on the part of the student. Like piano, students do not need to tune the xylophone pitches they play, so no ability to perform with accurate intonation is being developed by playing a xylophone. The same is true for all barred instruments and for boom whackers. Pitch development in the general music classroom requires singing. In the later elementary grades and beyond, instruments such as strings or trombone are useful in further developing pitch, because to play these instruments, constant adjustment is needed. Through singing and audiation skills developed through singing, children of any age will be able to predict what music they are about to play will sound like, and then perform the task of playing the notes that fit that prediction, which results in better playing and better musicianship.

Teaching musical instruments must be objectives driven. In designing instruction this way, it is important that the teacher never mistake task, what the student is doing a part of the process, with objective, what the student will know or be able to do once instruction is completed. Directing a student’s attention to the objective first, and then putting an instrument in his or her hands as a tool to use in working toward and achieving the objective is the proper way to teach musical instruments. This doesn’t mean that the child is left to fend for him or herself in learning how to finger an instrument or produce a characteristic tone; that must be taught and practiced. But the purpose for such instruction is to ready the student for acquiring enduring understandings and achieving concept driven objectives.


Perceiving Expression in Music

Version 2The authors of the National Core Arts Standards placed a high premium on expressive intent. It is included in Creating; plan and make, and present, Performing; interpret, Responding; interpret, and in the overriding artistic process on connecting. As I have written elsewhere, expressive intent is problematic in that the listener rarely knows for sure what a composer or performer intended to express. Determining expressive intent becomes largely a generalization based on how people generally perceive and respond to given musical conventions.  The truth is, researchers over the years haven’t even agreed on how or in some cases even if music expresses anything. This is interesting, because it is useless to be concerned with what a musician intended to express if music cannot be used to express anything.

I am going to assume that music can express some things, namely emotions. Juslin discussed three methods of “coding” that people use to perceive emotions in music. These are iconic, intrinsic, and associative. Iconic coding is the most universal of the three. It is based on universal uses of the human voice to express the basic human emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. The idea I extrapolate is that music reproduces in a stylized way the inflections and patterns of the human voice when these emotions are being expressed. According to this perspective. happy music is bouncy and jocular resembling giggling or laughing, sad music is weepy and sigh-like, angry music is loud, focused and forceful, and fear is dark, uncertain and cautiously quiet. Because all humans cry sadness, laugh happiness, burst out anger, and withdraw in fear, music that cries out, laughs out loud, rages or withdraws into tense quietness is understood by all people, regardless of context, as expressing those emotions. As long as the emotion is common to all people, and the vocal expression of that emotion is common to all people, then emotional expression will be iconically coded by human listeners.

Intrinsic coding has universal aspects to it, but is at least in part culturally specific. From this perspective, structural elements are used to express emotions. For example, harmonic movement away from the tonic creates tension, and movement toward the tonic creates relaxation. Emotions are perceived through the lens of the extent to which tension is present in the music at a given moment and over a given time span. Anger and fear are expressed when tension i s present to a greater extent,  happiness is express ed when tension is minimally present, and sadness is expressed when a moderate amount of tension is present. Because these parameters are generalized, mixing in some iconic coding with intrinsic coding helps clarify with more precision what emotion is perceived. Indeed, it is rare that any of the three types of coding is used to the absolute exclusion of the others. Listeners can and do mix coding systems to arrive at a perception of expressed emotion in music to which they listen.

The most culture specific coding method of the three is associative coding. Simply put, this is the tethering of an emotional experience to a musical device. Here music is perceived as happy or sad or angry or fearful because the listener connects what is heard with an experience that aroused the same emotion. Although the music initiates the perception of an expressed emotion, that perception is dependent on an extra-musical association to hit home.

These are ways a listener perceives emotional expression in a musical work, but is what

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

the listener perceives what the composer intended to express?  To whom did the composer expect to convey his or her expressive intent? These are important questions. With intrinsic coding, the structural norms with which a composer creates music may not be the same with which a listener is familiar. With associative coding, the emotional experience to which a listener connects a heard musical device is likely unknown to the composer of the music to which the listener is making that connection. When we are considering a composer’s expressive intent, what matters are the icons, structures, and associations he or she uses to create the music, and the degree to which those are shared with the listener. Composers of one culture to whose music people of another culture are listening will share fewer associations and common practice structures than when the composer and audience are of the same culture, or when the listeners have been well versed in the composer’s culture. Therein lies the importance of music education to developing listeners who can apprehend a composer’s expressive intent.

Any listener will be able to apprehend an expressive intent perceivable through iconic coding, because the means of expression is, as we have seen, known to all as part of the common human condition. The more culture-specific musical devices a composer uses, the more education is needed to familiarize listeners with the structures and associations the composer is relying on to  convey the expressive intent. For intrinsic coding, the issue isn’t so much that students know what sonata form or rondo or theme and variations is, though that is useful knowledge, but rather that they understand how composers use musical structure within these forms to convey musical meaning. Structures of tonal music are meter, phrasing, and patterns of harmonic tension and relaxation. Of the three, meter is the most universal, and is not limited to Western tonal music, but all three are crucial to tonal music. A familiarity with all three is necessary to gather in expressive intent using intrinsic coding. Structures are built up into forms, but forms are not as important to expressive intent as structures. Forms can be compared to a filing cabinet where files are placed so that they can be found and accessed as needed. Structures can be compared to the files themselves, which contain the needed information. A single body of information may be contained among several folders just as a sonata movement is comprised of theme groups, themes, phrases and motives, each comparable to nested folders. When one understands the contents of each folder, of each phrase, theme, theme group, etc., and the  relationships between them, then a person understands the intended meaning of all the files, of all the music combined.

In the case of associative coding, listeners need to learn associations that were well known to the original audience of a musical work but that might be lost on today’s listeners. For example, Mussorgsky’s “Bydlo” is meant to depict the slow lumbering progress of an ox-drawn cart. The sight of such a cart would have been well known by Mussorgsky’s audience, but most children in the United States have never seen one, so the expressive intent they perceive through associative coding would be connected to an entirely different image, and perhaps a different emotion as a result. One must also be cautious not to mistake titles for a composer’s expressive intent. For example, Mendelssohn’s famous “Spinning Song” was given that title by the publisher and was unknown by Mendelssohn when he composed the piece. All of this comes down to context. The context in which a composer creates and an audience listens must be brought into harmony if expressive intent is to be successfully conveyed.