Child Development and Music Education

Version 2Dr. James Comer of Yale University has found six pathways along which children develop. These pathways are described as physical, cognitive, language, social, ethical, and psychological. While music education clearly has ties to all six pathways, I would like to focus in on two of them: cognitive and psychological.

The Cognitive Pathway and Music

The cognitive pathway addresses critical and creative thinking, and applying learning to accomplishing goals. It encompasses the highest levels of cognitive activity on Bloom’s classic taxonomy, those of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing. Critical thinking is the  objective analysis of facts for the purpose of arriving at an unbiased and informed conclusion. Creative thinking generates an element of newness into an observed entity. Creative thinking may result in a new product or artistic work, an new insight or interpretation of a pre-existing object, or a new approach to or way of thinking about something.

Anyone who is preparing to perform a musical work engages in both critical and creative thinking. Critical thinking is involved in selecting, analyzing, rehearsing and refining, and determining when a performance is ready to present to an audience. When selecting music to perform, musicians consider there own knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context in which the work is to be performed. Each of these considerations requires critical thinking. The musician must evaluate his or her own knowledge, reflect and assess their own technical skill as compared to the technical skill that will be required to perform the work,  ascertained through analysis, and the appropriateness to the anticipated audience and physical surroundings that is anticipated at the performance. All of this must be synthesized into a final judgment as to the merits of performing the particular musical work.  Once a work is selected, further types of analyses need to made on the music including harmonic, thematic, structural, expressive intent, and so forth. Once the rehearsals begin, the musician is constantly evaluating what he or she has just done, and planning what improvements and corrections need to be implemented during the next attempt. This is a cyclical process that continues until the rehearsal process is completed. Though many times the end of the rehearsal process is marked by a deadline, ideally, it should be ended when the performer(s) have evaluated their work and determined that the performance is ready to present to an audience. Throughout the process, there is abundant critical thinking being brought to bear.

Preparing a musical performance is not all about critical thinking, though. There is also the interpretive aspect of preparation. I mentioned in passing analyzing a musical work for expressive intent. This is an area in which critical thinking is of limited value because there is an absence of facts on which analysis can be performed. A listener’s interpretation of music can be influenced by non-musical factors such as life experience

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

and associations, and prior knowledge about the composer. For example, Margulis, Levine, Simchy-Gross, and Kroger (2017) found that when listeners were given positive information about a composer they were more likely to hear their music as happy, whereas when they were given negative information about the composer, they were more likely to hear the music as sad. A person’s own emotional status, especially with younger children, can also be transferred to music they hear, independent of a composer’s intent. Consequently, analyzing expressive intent cannot be done with “cold hard facts,” but instead with clues the composer leaves in the form of expressive elements and terms. Elements such as dissonance, accelerando, and crescendo tend to build tension, whereas resolution of dissonance, ritardando, and decrescendo tend to release tension. Low pitch can sound gloomy or scary, while mid-range pitches can sound relaxed. Isolated high pitches or low pitches can sound comical, while a low minor sonority can sound fatal or tragic. These are culturally normed emotional references that composers use and to which listeners respond with their imaginations and creative thinking. Still, they are only clues, and it is the purpose of a performer’s interpretation to convey the desired intent. That interpretation is arrived at, and rehearsed prior to presentation with the use of creative thinking.

The Psychological Pathway and Music

The psychological pathway is about an individual’s self-image and self-esteem. It includes their concept of self worth and competence, and ability to appropriately manage emotions. Research into the relationship between self-image and musical experience has been inconclusive. Whereas success in musical activities does tend to raise self image of musical ability, it does not necessarily raise self image in general. Music has been shown to be an effective aid in altering or controlling emotions. People often use music to reinforce a pleasant emotion that are experiencing, or to change an undesirable emotion that want to change. One of the  strongest foundations for advocating for music education is that music provides a healthy outlet for emotional expression. Just as students can use their language pathway to resolve conflict with words instead of violence, they can use their psychological pathway to control negative emotions by engaging with music.

According to researchers, there are several ways we listen to music in order to better manage our emotions:

  • Entertainment – listening to music to maintain a positive mood or to evoke positive emotions.
  • Revival – listening to music to relax or get energized.
  • Diversion – listening to music to forget about something undesirable.
  • Discharge – listening to music to release an emotion, such as anger.
  • Strong Sensation – listening to music to stimulate our senses in new ways.
  • Mental work – listening to music to get inspired or get new ideas.
  • Solace – listening to music to experience comfort after an unfortunate event.

These are all examples of the different ways we may listen to music in order to regulate our emotions and channel them in positive ways. In research from Gothenburg University, listening to music was one of the most frequently reported main activities. Of the music-related experiences, up to 67% of individuals reported that listening to music had changed their emotions. Most of these emotions were reported to change in positive ways. These changes were most reliable when the music used was of the listener’s own choosing, compared to music that someone else (a music teacher, perhaps) chose for them. This last point highlights the importance not only of music in managing emotions, but in allowing students to select music not only to perform, but also to which to listen.

Music has a legitimate and important place in the physical development of children. Its emotionally charged and expressive nature, the manner in which it is performed and heard in communities, and the ways it engages the physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological dimensions of humanity are proof positive that music is key to healthy human development.

 

Margulis, E. H., Levine, W. H., Simchy-Gross, R., & Kroger, C. (January 01, 2017). Expressive intent, ambiguity, and aesthetic experiences of music and poetry. Plos One, 12, 7.)

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Why Do We Teach Music Reading?

Version 2To my surprise, I recently read a discussion thread by music educators on Facebook in which most of the participants found teaching music reading unnecessary. The argument for this position has been around for quite some time. Most of the world’s musicians, excellent musicians, do not read music, most of the world’s cultures do not use written music, and most people consume music as an aural commodity, not in written form. This last point is particularly interesting, because it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the arrival of recorded music, people experienced music in their homes by performing it with friends and family. They would gather around a home piano or organ and sing popular songs of the day, accompanied by a keyboardist who read from sheet music. All of the popular music hits were sold in sheet music form to meet the needs of thousands of home music makers. Music reading was also valued as a requirement for Christian worship. Hymnals were published with each hymn set in a four-part arrangement. Worshippers would read the music, singing their soprano, alto, tenor, or bass voice part. There were even singing schools set up in New England for the express purpose of teaching people to read music so they could accurately sing hymns in church.

In this context, teaching children and adults to be proficient music readers was an accepted and necessary enterprise. In early twentieth century America, there was yet another practical reason for knowing how to read music. Symphony Orchestras were coming of age in the United States, and with them the need for trained musicians who could play the written music of the great European composers. When large numbers of European immigrants arrived in America, they brought with them their musical heritage. Playing this music in a time when no aural recording existed, necessitated music reading skills. It was therefore natural that music reading would enter into the curriculum of public schools. Music reading at that time was a desired life skill.

Today, things are very different. Aural recordings of music have not only frequently replaced sheet music versions, they have also many times replaced going to live music performances. Whereas home music making was once the only option for enjoying music frequently, concert tickets being too expensive to purchase often, today high quality recordings, both audio and video, satisfy the musical desires of many people. What’s more, with classical music not being as popular as it once was, the need for a notational system for learning long and complex musical scores often no longer exists. Most popular songs can and frequently are learned by ear, and for those songs that require notation to learn, simpler notational systems such as tablature and iconic notation meet that need without having to learn the traditional music notation used by and invented for composers and performers of European art music.

So what purpose or need does traditional music notation meet for most students in the twenty-first century? What enjoyment of music does learning traditional music notation bring into a child’s life that cannot be gained by other means? Is the need for standard music notation a cultural one, present only in places where written traditions and not oral traditions are the norm? I believe that the need for standard music notation is greater in notational cultures. Speaking as an American, my aural skills are often in need of a written transcript to bring finer details to my attention. I simply do not notice asStravinsky many fine details of music by just listening as I do listening while reading a score of the work to which I am listening. Were my mind trained at listening for and remembering in greater detail, as the minds of those in oral tradition cultures are, I suspect I would have less need of score reading while listening. But as it is, I enjoy and appreciate music more with the standard notation in front of me than without. So one need standard music notation meets is that it brings out the subtle details of music to a listener such as myself.

A second purpose and need that standard notation meets is that it provides the means to convey the melody of a song. It is a frequent problem for me to easily have at my disposal the words and perhaps the chords to a song, but to not know what the tune is. Many times I find lyrics to a song I think I would like to teach or just sing myself, but there is no melody there, and no recording available to me. With a notated melody, and my ability to read music, I can quickly learn the melody with the words.

A related need is that standard music notation provides a means for songwriters and composers to preserve their ideas and convey them to others where no audio recording equipment is available. This point is made clear by the famous audio recordings Bartok, Kodaly and other musicologists made in the early twentieth century. Without these audio recordings, many if not all of these songs would have been lost to all but those within the culture from which they emanated. The subsequent transcriptions of those recordings have brought those songs to music teachers and their students probably by the millions. While the original recordings were primitive and largely unavailable to the public, the transcriptions were publishable and accessible. What an important contribution that use of standard music notation has been.

So what do we expect our students to do with standard notation? Most of them are neither composers in need of preserving a score, nor musicologists in need of a transcription. The answer is that they have busy lives and cannot afford to spend the time learning and repeating to remember all of the songs they would like to perform. The first step is to start with the simpler forms of notation such as tablature and iconic

We Will Rock You

Little Kids Rock

notation. Use these to teach the advantages and necessity of using music notation. My middle school students cannot remember from week to week what chords to play for the songs they enjoy performing on guitar, keyboard and drums, but they can get back to practicing and performing those songs immediately when they arrive at my class by going straight to the iconic notation. The key to teaching most things is to establish a need for learning first, then meet that need by teaching. Those students now understand the value of being able to come in and be up and playing right away, without having to listen and review and relearn each time. From there it is a small step to teach them that not all music can be accommodated in iconic notation, but the same benefits can be enjoyed using standard music notation. The point is made all the more clear when they create their own music and do not want to forget what they have composed. They are not allowed to use their cell phones in school, so the only method of recording their work is to write it down or memorize it. Acknowledging that they will not remember what they did a week from now, they have every reason to embrace standard music notation.

One final thought here is that the issue can easily be overplayed. Where standard music notation is not the best representation of a musical work, do not try to force it in. For example, trying to teach a student to improvise by having them learn from notation transcriptions of great jazz solos is just working against ourselves. Jazz improvisation should be learned aurally, and cannot be adequately represented in standard music notation. The notated versions are often awkward and difficult to read much less decode and perform. Similarly, there is no need to make a student read music in order to learn how to play a tonic-dominant-tonic chord progression. On the other hand, students should never be taught entire band or orchestral parts from wrote. That is the kind of music our standard music notation was designed for, and all of its advantages should be realized in those ensemble settings. When standard music notation is used appropriately and wisely, the benefits, needs and purposes are clear to all involved, making the answer to my initial question, yes, we should teach music reading.

Remaining Concept Based During Concert Season

Version 2There is a tendency among music educators to push concepts aside as concerts approach. This happens because of a perceived dichotomy between teaching concepts and preparing repertoire for performance. The later emphasizes building skills, while the former emphasizes building understanding and transferable knowledge. This dichotomy appears when skills and concepts are taught separately; that is, when skills are rote taught and concepts are taught for understanding. Most music teachers I know sense that giving up teaching for understanding is a compromise of good teaching practice, but they see no other way to be prepared for the concert in time. So the it comes down to this question: is it possible to teach skills without resorting exclusively to rote instruction? Secondly, is it possible to teach skills, even by rote, without abandoning teaching concepts and without lengthening the time it takes to prepare repertoire for performance?

Rote learning is having the learner duplicate what the teacher does until the learner can produce an accurate duplication of the model. As I have written elsewhere, rote learning is a valuable and necessary step in learning, and should never be entirely abandoned. But it has its place, and should not be over utilized. Let us look at some examples of how rote learning can be combined with conceptual learning in a way that actually saves, rather than extends, rehearsal time. We will use performing legato for our example.

Playing or singing legato is a skill, while legato is a concept. The concept is a noun, while the skill is the verb that represents the action performed on the noun. In other words, the concept legato becomes tangible when music is performed with the necessary skill to demonstrate or evidence the concept. Let us then suppose that we want to teach the folk song “Rocky Mountain” to a 2nd grade class. The second half of the song is sung legato. We begin with vocal warm-ups that have the children sing both staccato and legato patterns. Once the voices are warmed up, we introduce “Rocky Mountain.” We initially teach the song by rote, singing the first half staccato and the second half legato. The children imitate us in order to learn the song. We continue to sing the song to the children, and then have the children sing it to us, together, in small groups, and individually, until they have learned to sing the first half the song staccato and the second half of the song legato. So far, the teacher has taught by rote, but has taught the concepts of pitch, rhythm, staccato, and legato, without mentioning them. The students have experienced the concepts without formally acknowledging them.

It is at this point that teaching should favor concepts, whereas it often favors skills. Looking at our National Core Arts Standards, we find that 2nd graders will “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” To dynamics and tempo, we can certainly add articulation. Whereas a rote based approach would have the teacher deciding and telling the children how to sing, (sing louder, sing softer, sing smoother, sing bumpy, etc.), a concept based approach will guide the children into making those decisions with questions such as “how does singing the second half smoother change the way the music causes you to feel?” Collect responses, and save them for transferral to other situations. If the children find that legato performance relaxes them and staccato performance excites them, then when they are preparing another song in which the composer is intending to convey a relaxed or an excited response, the children will know what to do–they will be able to demonstrate understanding by transferring previous learning to a new situation.

We could also ask, “why is staccato better for singing about a rocky mountain than art-of-teachinglegato?” “How is staccato like a rocky mountain?” Questions like these teach children why they are performing a given song in a particular way. Telling them how to perform teaches children what to do, but that knowledge is song specific; it cannot be transferred to other songs. Even learning to read articulation marks does not completely transfer to other works. Composers have different expressive intents in different works, so that all staccatos or legatos are not equal from one to the other. One of the surest ways to recognize an ensemble that has been over taught by rote is when their staccato sounds identical regardless of the music being performed. Because of this, students who have only been taught by rote must be told anew how to perform each song, which takes more time than having them prepared by means of conceptual learning to know how to perform unfamiliar repertoire using transferred knowledge and understanding.  Students need to learn what the composer’s intent was in writing a musical work, how that composer has used musical elements to convey that intent, and how they, the performers, are to interpret the use of those musical elements to realize the composer’s intent. These things cannot be taught by rote, but they do develop musicianship which leads to more self-sufficient student musicians and more efficient rehearsals.

Children also need to be taught to be constantly listening to themselves as they rehearse, to evaluate what they have just done, and to do something to improve their performance. Again according to our standards, students are to “apply established criteria to judge the accuracy, expressiveness, and effectiveness of performances.” Rote learning will improve accuracy, but not expressiveness and only to a limited extent effectiveness. Students can ask themselves, and answer for themselves, “did I start on the right pitch?” Many times, how a child starts makes or breaks how they play everything that follows. A bad start causes them to stumble along, never quite catching up, or getting lost. “Did I keep a steady pulse, or did I get off by rushing or dragging the tempo?” Playing or singing faster or slower than others can also confuse a child until they have lost their place because what they are playing or singing doesn’t fit what others are performing. “Am I producing a characteristic sound?” Am I playing my instrument or singing the way I was taught, or in a way that causes me to sound good?” Students who can self-monitor what they are doing and can correct on the fly will save a tremendous amount of rehearsal time, and will be more actively involved in the rehearsal compared to students who play or sing in a more careless way and then wait for the teacher to tell them what they need to do differently. This is also addressed in the standards. MU:Pr5.1.2b is, “Rehearse, identify and apply strategies to address interpretive, performance, and technical challenges of music.” This is something directors are used to doing for their students, but it is really something we ought to be teaching and in fact empowering our students to do for themselves.

Teaching conceptually adds rigor, relevance, interest, and above all true understanding to students’ learning. If you find yourself teaching the same things over and over with each new musical work you do with your students, you are probably relying too much on rote teaching, and would find better results starting to teach more conceptually. Start using more conceptual teaching now, and it will pay dividends as concert time approaches, and at assessment time as well.

Can rhythms be fast?

Version 2Tempo is a deceptively tricky musical concept. On the face of it, it seems straight forward enough. Tempo is measured as the number of beats occurring in one minute given a steady rate, and that beat can be equal to any note duration, such as eighth, quarter, half, or whole note. There are tempo markings that broadly indicate that the tempo should be lively, very fast, moderately fast, moderate, slow, or very slow. There are the more precise metronome markings that indicate a precise number of beats per minute, and the note value that will be used as the unit of measurement. All of this makes tempo uncomplicated and clear to performers, because as the musician plays or sings, they are forming rhythms over a concrete pace of pulses that coincides with the instruction in the printed score or, as in the case of dance music, of the standard convention.

Tempo for the listener is more complicated. The listener does not necessarily know what the unit of pulse is, and so must match a pulse rate with the rhythm patterns they are perceiving. So while the performer may be playing a passage of 32nd notes at a slow 8th note tempo (a common situation in classical slow concerto or sonata movements), those 32nd notes are going by rapidly for the listener, who might organize the music into beats of 16th notes, making the tempo faster than for the performer, who is measuring those same 32nd notes in slowly moving 8th notes. In this case, it would be tempting to say that the tempo (measured in 8th notes) is slow, while the rhythm (as perceived by the listener) is fast. But the difference is not between tempo and rhythm, but instead between the unit used to measure (and perceive) rhythm. The same music can be said to be fast or slow depending on what note value is being used as the unit of the pulse.

A good example of this is the opening of the 4th movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major (Jupiter). The tempo marking is motto allegro, and the pulse is generally around 120 beats per minute. Yet the first four measures are whole notes, and so one note progresses to the next slowly, even as one perceives the pulse to be fast, in contrast to the accompanying eighth notes, which are flying four times faster than the fast pulse, almost to fast to track. Yet if we listen to the same music and track two measures as one beat, though many notes pass by, the tempo now seems extremely slow. It is all in what is perceived as the unit of pulse.

A second factor in the perception of tempo is meter. Meter is part of the rhythmic structure of music, and influences how listeners perceive the unit of pulse. In the Mozart example just cited, the tempo is only perceived as fast if the meter is perceived as alla breve. If the meter were perceived as two or four whole notes per measure, then the tempo is perceived as Andante at most. Meter defines how the listener groups note durations into patterns that can be divided and subdivided into equal parts. There are times when musicians will use a faster, subdivided tempo to improve accuracy, while they intend the audience to perceive a slower, unsubdivided tempo. The introduction to Dvorak’s symphony no. 9 (From the New World) comes to mind. Notice how the conductor conducts eighth notes an an Allegro tempo, while the music, when listen to without following the conductor, is perceived as being Adagio, as Dvorak intended.

I began by asking the question, “can rhythms be fast?” We are now in a position to answer that question by saying no, it cannot. The reason is that tempo is a measurement of degrees of fastness measured in beats per minute, whereas rhythms are a relationship between a beat and a duration which is shorter, equal to, or longer than one beat. Rhythms as they are perceived by a listener are not individual notes, but patterns of note durations perceived as patterns by their relationship to a beat, regardless of tempo. In other words, the rhythm pattern of one quarter note, two eighth notes, two eighth notes again, and  one more quarter note will be heard as such at any tempo as long as the quarter note is used as the unit of pulse. The notes can be made faster by increasing the tempo. The first sound is equal to a beat, the next four sounds are divisions of the beat into two equal parts, and the last sound is again equal to a beat. We cannot say the rhythm is faster or slower, because the fastness or slowness is entirely dependent on the tempo, the speed of the beats, not the durations, which set the interval of time from the end of one note to the beginning of the next.

While it is true that we arrive at the next note sooner if the last note was a sixteenth note than if it were a quarter note, the reason we arrive sooner is a shorter note duration, not a faster tempo. The tempo, which is the measurement of fastness, has not increased, the durations of notes, the measure of rhythm, has decreased. There is more activity within the beat divided into four equal parts than within the beat divided into two equal parts, but that is not an indicator of faster, of tempo, but of duration, of rhythm. Fast does not exist apart from a reference to pulse. Fast is a relative concept that is not dependent on duration, but on pulse. A flourish of 32nd notes is a group of very short durations, not very fast notes. Notes are not fast or slow apart from the pulse to which they are sounded, only the pulse itself can be considered fast or slow.

Three Ingredients for Good Classroom Management

Version 2For whatever reason, I have noticed over the years that art and music teachers seem to get more than their fair share of misbehavior in their classes. I suppose the children regard these classes as a time to let down and blow off steam after sitting immobile in a classroom writing, reading and generally keeping their youthful energy in check. Still, there are ways to achieve smoothly running classes for music teachers, regardless of the ages being taught. While my classes are by now means perfectly behaved all the time, I would like to share some of the things I’ve found work well to keep kids engaged and on-task. This is the result we want; for our students to be invested in what they are doing, so their attention doesn’t turn in other directions.

There are three things I try to do every day that I have found are most important in having a well managed classroom. These are, good relationships with my students, making my expectations for them clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, and using music that is relevant to the students to teach those enduring understandings. I will discuss each of these presently.

For years I have heard from other teachers, many of them at the time more experienced than I, that you begin strict, and don’t ever smile until December. It’s easier to let up from strictness, than to begin lenient and then become more strict. There may have been a time when this worked, but not anymore. That kind of sternness just puts kids off, leaves them with the impression that you don’t like them or that you’d prefer they were not in your class, and fuels resentment that easily turns into negative behavior. While there must always be a distinction between the student learner and the sage/experienced teacher, that distinction can easily be maintained when the teacher-student relationship is friendly and caring. Students just respond better to a teacher who has shown that he/she genuinely cares for them and is on their side. Greeting each child at the classroom door with a smile and by name will get any class off to a better start. Smiling, and noticeably showing that you are enjoying teaching them will keep things positive, fun and managed well. A principal I once worked for put it like this: you must be intellectually superior but socially equal. He did not mean a teacher should hang out with students as if he or she were a peer; he meant that the relationship between student and teacher has two dimensions–a scholarly one with which the teacher brings knowledge and experience to bear, and a social one with which the teacher demonstrates sincere commitment  and concern for each student. To demonstrate this, a music teacher might go to a basketball game in which his/her students are playing, or attend a fund raiser students are sponsoring.

The second item is stating my expectations clearly and often. Both are necessary. I used to state expectations at the beginning of each class, and then set about teaching and putting students to work. What I found was my expectations stated up front did not carry all students through to the end. For students who finished their work but with difficulty, I had given them no expectation of what to do next. For the student art-of-teachingwho had finished their work and excelled, I had given them no next step. For the student who had worked but not finished their work, I had given them no intermediate point from which they could resume next time. My expectations were simply that everyone would follow directions, and stay on-task working on their project, or practicing their vocal or instrumental part. At the end of class, when I drew closure, it was stated in terms of a completed class, regardless of where each child was when it was time to stop. “Today we learned…”

But now, my closure drawing is different. “For those of you that learned an entire instrumental part today, well done. Next time, combine with someone else who has finished a different part from you, and combine with them to start practicing in an ensemble. To those of you who started getting a part, but can’t play the whole thing yet, continue to work on it. We can simplify the part if you need to, and I will work with you next time. There were also a few of you who didn’t make an effort to accomplish much of anything. You need to get going. Not making a good effort is not acceptable. You chose the song you are working on, you need to prepare it for presentation.” Do you see the difference? There isn’t much wiggle room anymore. All are accounted for, and new expectations are set even before they leave for their next class.

The other day, I had a sixth grade class state one thing they were going to try to do well during music class that day. It was very insightful for me, because some students stated tangible things, like listen better, sing better, or sing more in tune, while other students said very general things, like get a better grade or do better. I told them that while there is nothing wrong with wanting to get a better grade, in order to succeed at that, they must know what they are going to do that is going to result in getting a better grade. This was the moment of truth for me. If they couldn’t tell me what would get them a good grade in my class, then the blame would be on me for not making expectations clear. I was relieved to hear them say, when pressed, that they were going to focus on the speaker, and sing more (focus on the speaker is something I stress; whether it is I or a student who is asking or answering a question, one person speaks at a time and all eyes and ears go to that person. The bottom line here is, when kids have something specific to accomplish they are much more engaged than when the expectation is not well understood.

The third item is starting with enduring understandings, not songs. What I mean by this is that music class can easily just be singing songs. While singing songs is fun, and many a fine concert can and has been prepared just by singing or playing repertoire in rehearsals, students also need to be engaged in learning activities that require them to use critical thinking skills, create musical works and interpret their own works and those of others, learn about music and how all the musical elements are used by creators to convey an expressive intent, and how music relates and connects to the other arts, the other disciplines, the student’s culture and his/her personal life. These are articulated in enduring understandings, not in the repertoire. The repertoire is used as material with which the student works in the process of acquiring deep understandings of music and the arts and of becoming musically and artistically literate. This kind of deep learning is the only kind that will produce students who are equipped to fully enjoy and benefit from music and the arts for their lifetime, regardless of the profession they work in. Students sense the shallowness of just singing or playing songs, and will often not continue musical study if that is all they have received in music classes. On the other hand, they are drawn in to deeper learning as they realize the many dimensions of thinking and doing that are utilized when enduring understandings are pursued.

Giving priority and attention to these three items, good relationships with students, making  expectations  clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, will improve the classroom management of any music teacher. Attending to these things won’t solve all your problems, but it will certainly solve many of them.

Learning Objectives and Essential Questions

Version 2If you are a pubic school music educator, then you are accustomed to writing and posting instructional objectives for your students. In my district, student learning objectives must be posted on the front board at all times so that anyone observing the class can easily see what you are expecting the students to know and be able to do, and so that the students always have their objective right in front of them. This is good policy. It helps students understand what is expected of them, what they are trying to accomplish, and what knowledge, skill, and understandings they will have attained upon completion of the lesson. That said, learning objectives can easily be of limited value if the students have difficulty connecting what they are doing with achieving the objective. Objectives don’t necessarily state how to get from where the student is to where they want to end up; objectives only state what the finished product will look like.

At times, I have tried to handle this shortcoming by writing several smaller objectives, with each objective moving the student closer to the final objective. While this helped, I found that it also locked students into one way of learning–my way–and that it left little opportunity to students to direct their own learning in ways that were most relevant and most helpful to them. Students who learned in a way that was reflected in my objectives did well, while those that needed to learn differently struggled. Now I firmly believe that students can learn pretty much anything if given good instruction and enough opportunity to practice. The importance of practice in learning is well documented in research. But my instructional with my students is limited, and teaching them how to learn my way isn’t a good use of that time. Teaching them to go with their strengths as they work toward a common objective is more efficient, and leaves the students more motivated both by the added choices inherent in such an approach, and by the more frequent occurrences of success that result.

So what is the approach that avoids the vagueness of one objective and the restrictiveness of many objectives? State your objective as an essential question. Find a question that, in the process of being answered, will direct students through learning activity from which they can learn what you want them to know and do what you want them to know. For example, suppose you want your students to interpret a musical work they have selected to prepare for presentation to an audience. A reasonable learning objective might be, “students will be able to prepare, support and demonstrate an appropriate interpretation.” Before students can begin to build an interpretation, they must know where to start, and how to go about interpreting. A better place to begin than this objective might be to ask a question such as, “how do musicians interpret musical works?”

As a professional musician, you are in a great position to share how you interpret music you perform. Many things are considered. You might listen to recordings of great musicians performing the work, or you might remember studying the work with a teacher. You certainly would include using the expressive markings you find in the printed score, and clarifying those markings with knowledge about the composer, the historical period in which it was composed, and perhaps the purpose for which the music was composed. I find it fun to interpret music that has been interpreted in a variety of ways previously. Lorin Maazel always seemed to find an inner part to bring out that others had left buried. The range of tempi and resulting articulations for the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony provide audiences with very different experiences, and the variances in tempo and style conductors choose for the March movement in Holst’s First Suite for Military Band in Eb is at times entertaining in itself. On what basis do great conductors arrive at such different interpretations? How do you, as a conductor or soloist decide on such issues? The process of forming anart-of-teaching interpretation is one of discerning the composer’s intent, deciding on our own intent in terms of what we want to bring to our audience, and melding the two into one coherent presentation. Students must learn how to guide themselves through this process, which is one of reflection and discovery, before they can begin making “supportable” interpretive decisions. The expressive markings are, while helpful, only a start.

I have used the example of interpreting to show the rich learning possibilities of using an essential question as the starting point. Certainly this is not limited to interpretation. The advantages and benefits of starting with an essential question are present for any learning objective. Rather than stating “students will be able to rehearse their parts for “March” from First Suite in Eb for Military Band, start with the essential question, “how do musicians prepare a performance for presentation?” or “When is a performance judged ready to present?” You are asking these questions with your objective in mind, but you want your students to work through the answering of these questions in order to “be able.” “When is a performance judged ready to present?” is a great question, because it requires that students determine what the elements of their performance are, and how they will know when each of those elements is performance ready. Right notes must be played, right rhythms must be played, notes must be in tune with others, must be together rhythmically with other, expressive changes must be done together so that, for example, one instrument does not protrude beyond others during the coarse of a crescendo, ornaments and articulations must be stylistically correctly and so forth. You and your students might compile a different list of elements, but the learning takes place not in being given the list but in creating the list. There is great value in every student musician asking, “what are all the things I am trying to do, to put together, so that this music is performed well?”

Essential questions direct the learner beyond expedient answers and polished playbacks of things learned by rote. They make the student’s thinking, reasoning, inquiring, and concluding the center of learning activity so that when the objective is ultimately met, it has deep understanding and relevance behind it. Whether the student is creating, performing, responding or connecting, essential questions transport music learning to the realm of high level thinking just as surely as honors or A.P. courses. In fact, for this very reason, using essential questions to drive music instruction allows music classes, including ensembles, to qualify as honors and to carry with it the higher weighting so important to high achieving students who covet high class rank in American high schools. Everyone benefits from using essential questions in music education.

What Are Ways Students Can Respond to Music?

Version 2With the National Core Arts Standards now in their third year, music educators have grown accustomed to thinking of music education in terms of four artistic processes: creating, performing, responding, and connecting. One could argue that responding and connecting are present in creating and performing, so that responding permeates everything a person does with music. Responding is also the process students who do not participate in performing ensembles are frequently guided to in classes known variously as music appreciation, general music, or music history. Because responding to music includes virtually every student in any given school, it is imperative that music educators understand this artistic process, and what students are or should be asked to do in a music class when they are responding to music.

There are four primary tasks a student can perform when responding to music. These are selecting, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating. The first of these, selecting, is critically important, though it is often overlooked. Students should be given as much latitude as possible in selecting music to which they will respond. When teachers determine to present students with a list from which to choose, the selections should include a spectrum of cultures, traditions, historical contexts, and genres. If there are Asian students in the class and only music from Western cultures are included, then those students are being culturally disadvantaged in that class. Restrictions that include time limits or language that violates school policy may be necessary and are acceptable, though I will have more to say on the language issue at a later time. It is in the selection task that students should be given the opportunity to explore, enjoy and expand their experiences of music of their own culture and from their personal experiences of music.

The next three tasks, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating, really need to be preceded by another–that of observing. Asking a student to analyze something they have not observed renders the analysis meaningless to the student because they do not really know what they are analyzing; they cannot relate their analysis, no matter how well done, to anything they experienced in the music. So once a musical work is selected for responding, students must just listen and make observations of what they hear. What culture is this music from? How do we know? What does the music cause us to want to do or cause us to feel? What effect does the music have on our bodies or emotions? What sudden changes or contrasts did we notice? What musical elements were used to create those contrasts? To cause us to want to move or dance, or to speed up or heart rate, or to relax us? Have we heard this music before? If so, where have we heard it? To what form does the music conform? What timbres do we hear, and what are the instruments or combinations of instruments that created those timbres? These are just some of the things our students can observe. All are potential objects of analysis.

Once the students have made observations, they are at least somewhat familiar with

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

the musical work, and are aware of what is going on in the music. For analysis to begin, students or the teacher select something from the students’ observations and make it the object of analysis. While observation answers the question “what do I hear?” analysis answers the question “how does it work?” or “how did the composer do that?” If students observed that the music sounded like it was from a particular culture or country, then have them analyze what in the music made it sound that way. It could have been the scale that was used, an instrument that was used, or even a text that was sung in a particular language. Students can find all instances of things in the music that indicate the culture or country of origin. Or perhaps the music was written for a particular purpose, and that purpose is suggested in what was observed. John Adams’ On The Transmigration of Souls was written to remember those who died in the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. It begins with the sounds of emergency vehicles and then proceeds into a solemn reading of names or the declaration of “unknown” for each victim. That the music was composed for the purpose of honoring a group of people who died is easily recognizable, but the use of musical elements is why it sounds as it does, and is a good basis for analysis. Though most of us did harmonic analysis in our undergraduate music education programs, I do not recommend having students do harmonic analysis unless they specifically observed chord progressions, or made observations of chords.

This brings us to interpretation. Here, we want the students to find meaning in the music they have heard. Some of that meaning will have been discovered during analysis if students have analyzed what in the music caused them to feel a particular emotion. Interpretation answers the question “what does it mean?” What was the composer or songwriter trying to express in the music? If the students have found through analysis that the music is largely soft, slow, legato, and composed for gentle sounding instruments like perhaps flute, guitar and harpsichord, then it may be the composer wanted to express tranquility, peacefulness, or resignation. We might ask, “how did the composer bring out the qualities of tranquility and peacefulness in his use of musical elements?” We might also ask, “How did the performers’ decisions on how soft and how slow to play the music help create peaceful, tranquil music?” “What did you hear in the performance that indicated to you that the performers were trying to make the music as peaceful and tranquil as possible?” We can also ask students to perform phrases from the music to demonstrate how they would make the music sound peaceful and tranquil.

Lastly, we come to evaluation. Evaluation answers the question “how well did the composer, songwriter and/or performer do in creating or presenting a musical work with clearly conveyed intent? The evaluation can be based on what was learned from analysis, did it work well, from interpretation, did it effectively convey intent or meaning, and from other established criterion. This other criterion could be based on how well the creator adhered to cultural norms, how effectively orchestration was used to create interest, clarity, and variety, or how one musical work compares to another. The objective is for students to objectively apply an established criteria, and not so much what that criteria is. The only caution is to not use criteria that privilege one type of music or one culture over another.

Responding to music is a rich and fruitful artistic process. It has the potential to engage students in learning and lead them into high level thinking and scholarship. It should not be viewed as a task given to those who are not in an ensemble, for to regard it this way is to overlook the deep musical understanding that awaits all students who engage in responding to music as it has been discussed here.

 

Musical Literacy and Inclusion

Version 2On September 15-16, 2017 I attended “Tanglewood Conversation” at Boston University. It was a meeting of music educators from within the Boston University music education community to discuss issues of importance to music education in 2017 and to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Tanglewood Symposium held in 1967. What follows are a few of my take aways from the sessions I attended. 

Though by now many or perhaps most arts educators are familiar with and are using the National Core Arts Standards, the conceptual foundations upon which they were written are perhaps less well known. This foundation is essential to understanding not only the intent of the standards, but indeed to clarifying or even formulating a philosophy of music education that represents the needs and contexts of all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic standing, or cultural background. Though much scholarly work has been done to advocate for promoting social justice, and ending the systematic privileging of one culture over another, these worthy goals have been and continue to be frequently unmet in the everyday common practices of arts educators.

The authors of the National Core Arts Standards made what I consider to be strides in the right direction by managing to come up with an explanation of literacy in the arts that is not dependent on any particular tradition or culture nor on reading and writing or even the existence of a system for writing and reading music. While some of this is due to the generality necessary for statements to apply to all of the fine and performing arts, the result can be construed as a basis for planning and teaching the arts in a way that does not exclude any racial or cultural constituency. Because this blog is devoted to music education, I shall limit myself to addressing this issue as it pertains to music, but educators in visual art, theater, and dance may also find application in what I have to say.

The overriding goal of the National Core Arts Standards is to make a path toward developing artistic literacy. Any type of literacy demands that at least two things be present: a text with which a person interacts, and the ability of that person to exercise certain cognitive and creative actions either in response to or creation or recreation of the text. With this focus on artistic literacy, we begin to see that music education must include the developing  through teaching and learning in the music classroom musically literate students. As we shall soon see, evidence of musical literacy is not and cannot be limited to ensemble rehearsals and performances, because both limit the musical cultures represented, and typically includes at most only a third of most school’s populations. To suggest that only students who can play a band or orchestral instrument or sing in a choir are musically literate is to deny the existence of excellent musicians around the world who have neither bands, orchestras or choirs to sing in but who never the less are masters of their art. On the contrary, we must view the entire population of our schools as being capable of and entitled to becoming musically literate. Music teachers at all levels must be the musical leaders of their entire school communities.

In presenting artistic literacy, the writers of the standards stated that, “artistic literacy requires that [students] engage in artistic creation processes directly through the use of appropriate materials (such as charcoal or paint or clay, musical instruments and scores, digital and mechanical apparatuses, light boards, and the actual human body) and in appropriate spaces (concert halls, stages, dance rehearsal spaces, arts studios and computer labs). For authentic practice to occur in arts classrooms, teachers and students must participate fully and jointly in activities where they can exercise the creative practices of imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect as unique beings committed to giving meaning to their experiences.”

Notice that the first quality of an artistically literate person is that they are capable of 3042301creating artistic works, and that the actions of imagining, investigating, constructing and reflecting in a highly personal and personalized way are involved in the act of creating. The writers went on to write that “throughout history the arts have provided essential means for individuals and communities to generate experiences, construct knowledge, and express their ideas, feelings, and beliefs.” This suggests that community and relationships between people who make up those communities are built and held together in part by experiences with the arts, knowledge shared through the arts, and ideas, feelings and beliefs that both give birth to artistic works and the ways in which people interact with those works once they have been created.

The authors go on to say that, “in addition to–indeed, as a result of–students’ creating and performing, careful study of their own and others’ art involves them in exploring and making sense of the broad human condition across time and cultures.” In other words, as people exercise their artistic literacy by engaging in creative activities to make and interact with artistic works, they are connecting with each other at a deep, somewhat spiritual level, as their creative work gives voice and life to aspects of our humanness not otherwise expressible or knowable.

We can begin to see that the expansive capacity and reach of the arts, when allowed to include all traditions and cultures represented in a given student population, puts all of these traditions and cultures on an equal standing. Music cannot build connections between people of diverse backgrounds if, for example, a musical genre students prefer is only used as a gateway to teach another musical genre the teacher prefers. This long-standing practice is privileging one musical culture (the teacher’s) over another (the student’s). Objectively examining, investigating, imagining, and constructing both musical cultures equally promotes replacing cultural animosity and obstructions with cultural understandings and relationships. The standards authors addressed this by writing, “The arts provide means for individuals to collaborate and connect with others in an inclusive environment as they create, prepare, and share artwork that bring communities together.”

Every type of music was and is created by a specific person or persons who are (is) a byproduct of a heritage which influenced the creator to create, express, share, and communicate a cultural truth and experience. To privilege one musical culture over another is to privilege the people of that culture over the people of another. To do so would be contrary to creating an “inclusive environment” and bringing “communities together.”

It should be apparent by now that when developing musical literacy is the goal of music education, there is no need to separate students into “performer” and “non-performer” categories. This binary construction is absent from much of the world’s music making environments. While some present at a place where music is being sung or played on instruments may be the focus of attention by others present, those others, as David Elliott argued in Music Matters, are also engaged in music making as they move, clap, sing, audiate, reflect on, and/or emotionally experience, to name but a few possibilities, the music they are hearing. All of these actions that those often described as non-performing listeners are doing are in fact creative actions that are evidence of musical literacy at work. The more we can blur or even eliminate the distinctions between performer and listeners or audience, the more we will acknowledge the importance of what the latter group is doing, and the more we will understand the need to direct instruction toward those activities as well as those of presenting in the traditional sense. There is much more to say on this subject, and I am sure I will return to it in the coming months.

Toccata Blocks: A Tool To Help Teach Rhythm

Version 2No matter what method you use to teach music, be it Kodaly, Orff, or any other, when it comes to music reading there are certain aspects of our music notational system that are counter-intuitive and confusing to students who are just beginning. One of those difficulties is often the irrelevance of how the notes are spaced on the page. Students naturally assume that notes that are closer together go faster, and notes that are spaced further apart go slower. They will even carry this into the same note value. For example, they will think that quarter notes spaced closely together go faster than quarter notes spaced further apart. The concept of how the note head, stem, and/or beam are drawn can become overlooked, leading the student to make frequent rhythmic errors.

It is always good pedagogy to start from where students are and work from there to where you want them to arrive. Rather than dismiss using spacial perception as wrong, why not take advantage of children’s intuitive ability to perceive spacing in teaching them to read note durations accurately? Catherine Schane-Lydon has invented Toccata Blocks that do just that.

toccata blocks

The basic set includes blocks with time signatures and notes on blocks that fit onto a provided easel. The easel is exactly the width of the blocks for a time signature and the correct number of beats of notes. A whole note block is the width of four quarter note blocks or four paired eighth note blocks. Single eighth note blocks are half the width of quarter note blocks and so forth. There are easels for simple and compound time signatures. Once an easel and time signature are chosen, the child builds a measure of rhythm by placing blocks on the easel. If the easel is less than filled, the child knows more notes are needed. If the easel is over filled, with a block hanging over the end, the child knows there are too many beats. This design makes building rhythms self-correcting because the child knows when he or she has done it right because the blocks will exactly fit across the easel.

I gave a set to students in middle school, and students in 2nd grade. An 8th grader said, “it [toccata blocks] helped me learn how the notes go together.” A 2nd grader remarked, “making rhythms is fun with these blocks. I got it wrong at first, but now it fits.”

I also used my set of Toccata Blocks to do a full class demonstration. I began a rhythm and then called on student to finish the measure. After each addition of a block, I asked the class if the measure was finished. “Do the blocks fit perfectly?” The children would look and respond, then give me suggestions on what block I should put in next. If the next block hung over the end, they were quick to reject that choice and make another of a shorter note duration. Almost every student I gave these blocks to to use immediately understood how they worked, and were able to correctly create a measure of rhythms.

Of course, I want students to write rhythms on conventional music paper, so it was important for me to make sure they took note of what notes they were using, and didn’t just fill up the easel randomly. So I had them tell me with each block they added how many beats that block added, how many beats they had, and how many more they needed. It was helpful to them to learn the note durations, and it delighted our school math coach!

Once they wrote original rhythms on paper, they could go back to the Toccata Blocks to check their work. They would exactly place what they had written on the easel, and see if it properly filled the easel or not. If not, they could not make corrections with the Toccata Blocks, they had to make corrections on their paper, and then return to the Toccata Blocks to again check their work.

With the length of the blocks proportional to the duration of the note, it is also possible to use the blocks as prompts for creative movement. The whole note block is long, and so a long, extended movement is called for. The quarter note blocks are short, so they call for smaller movements. Turning this into a movement game, children draw blocks like playing cards, then begin walking around the room. If a whole note is drawn, one giant step that takes four beats is taken. If a quarter note is drawn, then four smaller steps that traverse the same distance as the child who took the giant step is taken. Using them in this way helps students deepen their understanding of why the blocks are different lengths, and how the various note durations relate to each other.

Students worked well in small groups finding blocks to add to a group composed rhythm. I have learning centers set up in my classroom, and the Toccata Blocks make a good basis for such a center. With my older students, students who have composed a rhythm on the Toccata Blocks can then take it to students working on the keyboard to add pitches to the rhythm, making a short, one-measure melody. This rhythm then can become the basis for extending a melody.

The blocks are made of durable hard plastic. I anticipate that they will stand up well to classroom use. There is also a CD included with rhythms for students to build with the Toccata Blocks, taking dictation from the CD. The basic set includes quarter and eighth note durations in simple and compound time signatures. Supplemental sets add sixteenth notes to the basic set. Each block has a note on one side and the equivalent rest on the reverse side, so students can learn both notes and rests together. Toccata blocks are suitable for students in second grade and older, though one must be aware that many of the blocks could be a choking hazard for children prone to put such things in their mouth. I have had encouraging success with Toccata Blocks. They are certainly worth looking into. For more information, go to toccatablocks.com.

 

Keys to Successful Practice

Version 2In another post, I discussed why many students don’t like to practice. There is an irony at work. A player who is struggling needs to practice more than one who is flourishing, yet it is the one who is struggling who is likely to hate practicing and resist practicing because it is unpleasant to play a musical instrument and realize that you sound bad. If that is the whole of a student’s situation, he or she most certainly will not want to practice. But sounding bad is only half the reason. They won’t practice because they sound bad and they don’t know what to do about it. They have a desire or a goal to sound better, but they cannot realize that desire so they give up. Why do students find themselves in this position? Why are there so many students sitting at home who would practice if only they knew how to make themselves better by practicing?

Practice makes perfect is a fallacy. There is no reason to expect that repeating the same mistakes or deficient habits will result in something better. In fact, mere repetition of errors only makes continuance of those errors a certainty. Beyond this fact, correcting wrong notes is doubtless the easiest task among all those that fall under practice. It is much more difficult to correct faulty tone, embouchure, tongue position and movement for wind instruments, and the like. These are more difficult to correct because they are not simply a matter of one dimension being right or wrong, as a pitch is right or wrong. No, correcting a faulty articulation involves a complex blend of muscle uses, and requires a highly developed sense of aural awareness just to perceive when it is done correctly and when not. What is the difference in sound between a correctly tongued note on the clarinet and an incorrectly tongued note? Is the tonguing unsuccessful because the tongue is out of position, moving incorrectly, or because breath management is insufficient to support a proper articulation? When students are trying to master multidimensional skills such as articulating notes, merely sending them home with a staccato exercise and telling them to practice is insufficient. The student must be given a sequence of attainable, understandable goals on which they are capable of self-assessing.

When Kalmen Opperman taught me how to articulate properly, he did so with a series of exercises that began with something I could do on the train silently to myself, continued with a staccato warm-up, and then carried over to practicing sixteenth note passages with a variety of articulations. He used articulation not only to teach me articulation, but also to play sixteenth notes evenly. Eventually, the goal was even playing, but the means was to use varying articulations, which had the added effect of improving my articulation. So much was accomplished with these strictly drawn out instructions on what and how to practice, that I was easily motivated by the obvious relationship between doing what I was given to do, and the improvement that resulted. Most students will practice if two factors are in place. First, there is a goal that the student, for whatever reason, wants to achieve. Second, the student has a firm understanding of how to go about working toward this goal, and perceives growth toward the goal as he or she does so.

For many students, the goal is that of the teacher. This works if the student is generally practicemotivated and trusts the teacher to know what is needed, and what needs to be done to bring about desired results. In the case of a teacher who does not have a reputation that precedes him or her, or of the teacher who is beginning with a new student so that no such trust has been built up, the goal, if the student is going to be motivated to practice, must be set by the student, and the teacher must be the one who works out how the student-generated goal will be obtained. This arrangement will result in a student motivated to practice, and in the student increasingly trusting the teacher to know what is needed, as the teacher’s instruction and advice results in the student-generated goal being accomplished.

It should by now be evident that, contrary to what is frequently believed, a students successful practice depends as much or perhaps even more on the teacher than on the student. It takes a great deal of wisdom and planning on the teacher’s part to convey to the student a desired, attainable goal, an instructional sequence for the student to follow, and directions on how to use the instructional sequence that the student can follow independently when the teacher is not there to assist. When the teacher has provided all of this, then the student is equipped to practice, and can be held responsible for carrying out the planned course for practicing the teacher has laid out. The student’s responsibility is to execute the plan, the teacher’s responsibility is to develop the plan, the instructional sequence, and the directions to be followed.

Students who have not received this kind of thorough training before will immediately be highly motivated when they realize the rapid and marked improvement that is sure to follow. Those who have had this kind of training will rightly expect such growth to continue, and will expect to see, as I did, an obvious relationship between faithful execution of the plan, and self-motivating success. Rare is the student, even at the professional level, who can simply be given a stack of music, told to go home and practice, and figure it all out on his or her own. If you are a performer who practices, or a teacher of performers, you might consider organizing lessons,  and assignments around a lesson plan that includes warm-up, articulation, etude, orchestral repertoire, and solo literature. When a student is not performing much, emphasis is on the first three. When a student is performing frequently, emphasis is on the literature being performed, while attention to etudes, and articulation studies is maintained if reduced. For each segment of the lesson plan, a clear purpose should be made clear. What exactly is to be accomplished by using this warm-up, this articulation study, and this etude? Students must be absolutely clear on what they are to do, and what it should sound like when they have completed the assignment and are ready for their next lesson.