Games in General Music

Version 2My students love to play games in general music class. I’m guessing yours do to. Games are the epitome of making learning fun and motivating students to be engaged in the classroom activity. This is especially helpful at this time of year, when students (and teachers) are restless anticipating the beginning of the summer recess. But even now at this time of year, there should be a learning purpose behind the game–a learning objective that you are using the game to achieve.

For example, my 3rd grade classes love to play “Al Citron.” It is an object passing elimination game. Winning that game has become a coveted honor and prize in my class. One particular class is very difficult to manage, except when they are playing this game. Suddenly, they work together well, all sing well, and are all highly engaged. For them it is a game, and singing and passing the object on the beat, and not passing the object on the words “triqui, triqui, tron” are just rules of the game. But for me, it is an activity with which each student can demonstrate their ability to keep a steady beat, sing accurately, and anticipate a motive in order to alter movements at the proper time. Once a child is eliminated, I have them start to form an outer circle, clap the beat, still sing, and when there are enough children their, start a new game where there is no elimination. This keeps the eliminated children engaged and continuing to learn and practice skills and concepts, even when they are not competing for winning the game.

A popular game with kindergarteners is “Allee Galloo.” This is a short simple song that kindergarteners can easily sing. At that age, it’s important for them to sing echo and call and response songs to develop pitch and rhythm accuracy, but also to sing entire songs, even short ones like this, on their own. Playing a game to a simple song makes more repetitions possible, and adds the element of movement and creativity to an activity that would otherwise be just singing. As before, I can assess singing with others as the Frog In The Meadowchildren sing and play the game. I also always have the option of choosing a child to sing alone without movement to give the class a momentary change of focus. The creativity comes in having the children invent different movements to perform at the end, on “weee!” Have the children move different parts of their body at a specific beat location in a song is a Dalcroze based activity. It moves where the child experiences the beat to different parts of the body. People have different preferences as to where they most like to or are able to feel a musical beat, so creating a variety of ways to respond gives students with different preferences a chance to use their preferred motion.

My sixth graders love to play Simon (not Simon says). That’s the game where there are quadrants, each a different color. When a tone is played one of the quadrants lights up. There are four tones, one for each quadrant. Students must press the colors that light up in the order they played. Each time they get it right, the sequence gets longer. While it is possible (and usual) for students to play this game by sight, repeating the color sequence without really working on musical memory, after they have played it this way for a while, I remove the visual, and give them barred instruments with just the four tones installed. When the tones are played by the game, the students then have to play the notes they heard on the xylophone. This really gets into musical memory, not just visual memory. To add an element of creativity, a student leader improvises the tone patterns instead of having the game generate them, then the players must repeat the pattern the student improvised. In this case, the leader must remember what s/he just played so it can be played again and then added to with an additional tone. The game can also be used for decoding. Students hear the tones sequence from the game or from a barred instrument, and then must sing it back using solfege. I use the online version of Simon. My class is divided into two teams, one student at a time plays on the computer which is projected on the screen. Teammates can help, which keeps them all active and engaged.

My middle schoolers love to play musical chairs. Trouble is, I haven’t found an educational reason to play this game during class, at least not the way it is usually played. But with a few tweaks, I’ve made it into something that I can use to teach musical concepts. For example, if I’m teaching meter, I will play music on the piano. As long as the meter stays the same, the class continues to walk. As soon as the meter changes they must find a seat. The odd one out is eliminated and comes over to the piano and selects the next concept to be changed. Tempo, dynamics, articulation, timbre, mode are favorite ones to use. Every now and then I slip into traditional musical chairs and stop the music.

Good teaching always has a purpose, with objectives for students to achieve, with what children are to be able to do and know clearly stated to them to that they know why they are doing what they are doing. I want my students to be able to tell an observer who asks “what are you learning today?” “We are learning how different meters feel while playing musical chairs,” or “We are leaning to generate musical ideas and remember them so we can use them again and add on to them while we are playing ‘Simon’.” If the best my students can answer is, “we are learning to sing a song” or “we are having fun playing a game,” then I have failed in either stating my objective to the class, or in planning a class around an objective, not just an activity.

My Favorite Apps and Websites

Version 2Today I would like to share with you the apps and websites I use most frequently for planning, delivering, and assessing music instruction in my general music classes. Keeping my lesson plans organized and physically available where and when I needed them  was challenging for me for several years. When I was an itinerant, I either had to keep separate plan books for each school, or else remember to transport my plan book to each site. On those occasions when I was asked to demonstrate correlations between lessons and standards, it became cumbersome to add that information into the hand written plans. Resources such as scores and articles were relegated to folders that had to travel with the book, or paper clipped to the relevant page. Google docs helped, because it allowed me to easily have my plans available on any computer or on my phone, but uploading documents from the internet or my home computer was still not convenient.

All of this changed when I started using planbook.com. Here, I can write plans on the provided templates, enter my teaching schedule, attach files either by embedding them right into the text, or as a link at the bottom of the plan. I can easily move lessons to a new date, or copy them to another day or period. My links to YouTube videos for music examples are right in the plan, so with my plans open on my school computer, I can seamlessly start musical examples without opening new windows or having many different tabs open at once each, with the next audio file. My plans are easily saved as pdf documents and emailed to administrators, or shared with others.  I really didn’t see all the advantages to using this website for my lesson planning until I started using it. It costs $14.00 per year, so it is very affordable.

I am big on my students creating music in class. With rap music still being very popular among my students, I’ve found the best approach for them to creating music is to start with a groove and then compose out from there. To create the beat, I like to use drumbit.app. This is a fully functional online drum machine. The free version does not allow for saving work or for creating individual accounts, but the last groove created will still be there the next time you open the application. The paid version saves work as a wav file, and offers a greater variety of kits, more polyphonic voices, and more effects. For my purposes of creating drum patterns in real time that loop and form the basis for composing other rhythmic or melodic layers, the free version is just fine. My students enjoy using it, and have created some excellent music with it.

Much of my assessment is done with rubrics. Rubrics allow me to focus in on a few or several concepts and quantify musical performance, responses and creations. Converting rubric scores to percentage grades can be problematic. On a scale of 1-4, a 3 is not a bad score, but as a percent, it is only a 75, or letter grade C. A 2 is only 50 and a failing grade, yet when I give a score of 3 or 2, I consider the work better than a C or an F. Clearly there is a problem with a straight transferal of rubric scores to percentages. This is where Roobrix.com comes in. This is a free java application, web based so there is nothing to download. On the settings page, I specify the number of levels in my rubric, the number of assessment criteria, and the minimum passing grade. It then presents me with a grid having rows with the number of levels and columns with the number of criteria. I click on the score for each criteria and it instantly calculates the converted grade. If I specified 60 percent as the lowest passing grade, then a 1 on the rubric becomes 60,  the highest level becomes 100, and the levels in between are evenly spaced. For example, if I have 4 levels, 1=60, 2=74, 3=87, and 4=100. Now my converted scores make sense and are more of what I had in mind when I gave the score.

Whether or not you have had the Little Kids Rock training, their site is useful if you are teaching guitar, keyboard or drums. On it, you will find chord charts for many songs, though most not so recent, searchable by number of chords, difficulty, and title. Each chart has iconic notation that is easy for students to read, and indicates strumming patterns for guitar and comping patterns for keyboard, drum patterns, scale for improvising, and has a link to the lyrics and often a recording on Spotify. There is also a bank of lesson plans and instructional videos which are useful because they have close up videos of what the left and right hands are doing, a view I cannot replicate “live” in my classroom. There are also files from their summer conferences, and powerpoint from their training sessions which give an idea of how the trainers teach. To access these resources, go to littlekidsrock.org.

Of course everyone knows about YouTube. I use it literally everyday as my go to source for recorded music that use in my classes. Within YouTube, there are a few channels I find especially useful among these are The Bucket Book, which, as you might guess, is devoted to bucket drumming, PaMus which has piano accompaniments to classical solo repertoire for winds, and Active Music, a site that contains music games and activities for children ages 4-11. If you are a member of John Feierabend’s FAME (Feierabend Association for Music Education) then his cite, Feierabendmusic.org, is very helpful. There, you’ll find articles and videos that include interviews with Feierabend, demonstrations of “Move It!” activities, an overview of Feierabend authored resources, and information on FAME certification and conferences.

For folksong repertoire to use in a Kodaly-centered classroom, there are several cites I go to constantly for material. My major source for songs is Holy Names University’s  Kodaly collection, located at kodaly.hnu.edu. There is a wide variety of search possibilities, including school grade, scale, song type, tonal center, form type, meter and range.  I also find myself going to Beth’s Notes often for songs, especially games. I like the search capabilities. The results by grade level seem to be more precise than the Holy Names Cite, though the selection of songs is much smaller. The cite has a free side and a fee-based side. The latter gains access to more resources, including Orff arrangements. For Orff arrangements, you can’t beat the Orff Schulwerk books, but Tom’s Orff Arrangements is a n excellent supplement, and contains seasonal music for holiday concerts. Though the cite hasn’t been updated since 2014, the arrangements there are useful. These are my most frequently visited cites. I invite you to share yours in the comments section.

An Approach to Lesson Planning

Version 2Lesson plans are only as good as the learning they bring about. For that to happen, the lesson plan must be executed well by the teacher, and the students must complete the learning tasks that are part of the plan. This is a dynamic process, not a static one. In other words, teaching a lesson plan is not like delivering a piece of mail, where a mail carrier deposits an envelope in your mailbox, and the plan is completed. In order for the bill to be paid or the letter to be answered, the recipient must retrieve the mail from the mailbox, open it, and act upon it. There must also be sufficient interest in what is contained in the envelope, or else it will be categorized as “junk mail” and tossed out before any further action is taken. A letter from a loved one gets our attention. Bills get our attention. Wedding invitations get our attention. We act on these pieces of mail in a timely way either because we anticipate enjoying the action (attending the wedding) or because we understand the importance and urgency of the action (paying the bill on time).

Our students receive our lessons in the same we that we receive our mail. They glance at what they will be doing and learning, and then decide if it is of interest or of importance. If not, our lesson is categorized as “junk mail” and tossed aside in favor of inattentiveness and indifference to what we are wanting to teach and accomplish. Some of this disinterest can be avoided by planning lessons with students’ interests and preferences in mind. Other instances of disinterest can be avoided simply by doing a better job of communicating objectives, and including students in planning their learning.

While it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach the curriculum and use the National Core Arts Standards, these responsibilities can be met while including students in the planning process. You will need to teach your students how to plan learning so that it is substantive, but it is worth the time to do so. In its simplest form, a good lesson plan, which I like to refer to as a learning plan, answers three questions: What will you do? What will you learn by doing it? How will you demonstrate that you have learned what said you would learn? When the answers to these three questions are written out at the beginning of the lesson, students have a clear and irrefutable understanding of what they are to be about.

After students have had time to act upon those questions, as part of the assessment piece, they will answer these companion questions: Did you do what you said you would do? How well did you do it? This requires that an assessment tool be ready for use that measures how well the task was performed. Most often in music classes, this will be a rubric. Be sure the student is familiar with the assessment tool and how to use it beforewhisper_music beginning the lesson. Next, the student gives an answer to the question, “Did you learn what you said you would learn? Prove it! While the question can be answered yes or no, it is not complete until the learning claim has been supported with evidence. This leads to the third companion question: What learning did you demonstrate. Learning is not credited to the student until it has been demonstrated.

When students navigate the planning process from this perspective, they tend to raise the bar for their own work. This is, I think, especially true in the arts, where the focus is often on the product, the concert performance or art show, at the expense of focusing on the learning that (should) take place along the process of preparing a performance for presentation to an audience. For example, performing dynamic contrasts can be a matter of simply following a conductor’s instructions, or even following the markings in the printed music, or it can be a tool among others put into play in order to create an interpretation. Students consider questions like, what effect does a crescendo here have on the expressive quality of the phrase? What other uses of dynamic contrast could I use to express a similar intent? Which dynamic contrast works better to convey the composer’s or my own expressive intent? What is the expressive intent I am trying to convey, and what expressive devices can I use to most effectively express it?

When asking students to create their own plan, it is important to guide them to making specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART). When I first started doing this with my middle school students, they would write that they will learn a song, will learn a song, and will sing the song to demonstrate what they learned. I kick goals like that right back to them, and tell them to be more specific. After more careful thought, students often come up with excellent goals. Some that I have received include, “learn how the bass and guitar are used in the son, and then create a new bass and guitar part for the same lyrics and melody,” or “listen to the song and then describe how dynamics and rhythm complement the lyrics.” Honestly, these are better objectives than I probably would have come up with. They show creativity and an interest in learning an aspect of music that I may not have included in their instruction.

Once students have written down their plan, it is a simple matter to provide individualized instruction to students, because they have already designed their learning and the way in which their learning will be assessed. Of course, getting an entire class of students to be proficient in planning their own learning this way itself takes teaching, but the time spent is worth the investment; it doesn’t all have to be done at once. You can give students smaller planning tasks at first, and gradually add on others. For example, have them just design how their learning will be assessed. This makes them think about what they will need to accomplish, but leaves the actual learning objective to the teacher. Once the teacher tell the student what they will be doing and what they are expected to learn, then the student designs the assessment before beginning the learning task. I find that starting with the assessment piece avoids superficial results at first, which often occurred when I started with having the students just decide what they would do, or what they would learn. Assessment drives both of these, and designing assessment demands that what is to be learned be considered.

Restoring the Practice of Subdivision

Version 2Imagine you are going to build a deck for your home. We’ve all heard the adage, “measure twice, cut once.” So you take out your measuring tool, and measure out your lumber. But in my example, there’s a catch. Your measuring tool only has feet marked on it. You need a piece cut to 7 feet, 5 1/2 inches. The best you can do is eyeball it, and pretty much guess where that 5 1/2 inch spot is. You mark your board, then to be sure, you measure again. This time when you eyeball the 5 1/2 spot, it is in a slightly different place, so you measure a third time. Again, it is in in a different place, because the best you can do is guess; you have only feet marked on your tool. Meanwhile, you partner is doing the same thing, also with a measuring tool with only feet marked on it. He too gets differing results for the same reason. Eventually, you decide to take the midpoint between the extremes of your different measurements, and go ahead and make that cut. You and your partner continue cutting lumber until the needed number of pieces is done. You go to assemble your deck floor and are dismayed that none of it fits together properly, and that none of the boards are the same length.

This scenario is not unlike how students often perform rhythms in an ensemble. Each child has only a conductor’s beat “marked,” and each student guesses at how divisions of the beat should be played. If a student has learned rhythms solely with rhythm syllables without learning how those syllables relate to a pulse, then they can only guess at where to place those beat divisions as they perform. Every students will do it a little different, and the result when they all sing or play together is that the performance is rhythmically messy and inaccurate.

Every rhythm is a product of durations performed to a pulse. Gordon has called that pulse a macro beat, and others have called it an ictus. Conductors and students alike work very hard to communicate and follow, respectively, that ictus, given by the conductor’s time-beating motion. But “watching the stick” is simply not enough. Those following the conductor must be able to accurately perform what comes between those conductor beats. Noted band conductor Frank Battisti once said that a conductor’s responsibility is what happens on the beat, a players responsibility is what happens between the beat. How do we teach our students to handle that responsibility? The answer is that we must teach them to be keepers of two kinds of beats simultaneously: the macro beat and the micro beat, the latter of which is the first division of the macro beat. In common time, there are usually two micro beats (two eighth notes) for every macro beat (a quarter note). In so-called compound meters such as six-eight, there are usually three micro beats (three eighth notes) for every macro beat (a dotted quarter note). As students “watch the stick,” they must also be audiating even eighth notes (micro beats) in order to play what comes between the beats accurately.

It has been my observation that conductors do not bring this up until a difficult rhythm is encountered. Only then will they tell their students that they must “subdivide” in order to play accurately. While this is a sound remediation, the fact is that subdivision should be going on all the time. It is part of fully understanding and perceiving any piece of music. It helps groups of musicians play quarter notes together as surely as it helps them play intricate divisions of the beat. What’s more, it doesn’t require much teaching or practice to be able to subdivide. All a conductor needs to do when he or she hears the rhythmic stability start to falter is to begin conducting or tapping out the subdivision, and usually the accuracy will snap into much greater precision. The ability to subdivide, or to audiate micro beats is innate. It is drawn from how the various durations in music are naturally organized by our brains into patterns that are subdivided. Our job as music educators is to give our students as much experience with a variety of rhythms as possible.

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of associating rhythm syllables to a pulse. Rhythm syllables that are merely recited phonetically without regard to an ongoing pulse will not bring about effective rhythmic learning. Simply calling a pair of eighth notes ti-ti in the absence of an audiated ta will not transfer to music literacy. Similarly, trying to explain rhythm by telling students something to the effect that eighth notes or ti-ti’s go twice as fast as quarter notes or ta’s leaves the questions of how fast is twice as fast, and twice as fast as what, unanswered. With the syllables ti-ti, the first ti is the macro beat, and both together are the micro beat. One must hear the first ti in each pair as the ictus, and the second as what is going on between the beats, placed exactly even between the preceding ti and the following one. This is why I prefer syllables that differentiate between notes that are macro beats and those that are not. It helps the student maintain an understanding of what he or she is doing throughout. In Gordon’s system, for example, instead of ti-ti, there is du-de. Du is always the macro beat, and du-de is always the micro beat. Students know that no matter if there is an eighth note following the ictus or not, that ictus is always du and the eighth note that follows is always de; two different sounds for two different rhythmic functions.  (For a further explanation of rhythm syllable systems, see my articles on the subject elsewhere in this blog.)

With “what happens between the beats” firmly in the mind’s eye, students will quickly become more accurate in their rhythm performance. Subdivision should be a constant and ongoing operation for all musicians, not just an occasional remedial strategy. Subdividing while listening to music also enhances enjoyment and understanding, because the rhythmic structure of the music to which students are listening is revealed to them through the accurate realization of duration to beat relationships, and resulting patterns of strong and weak beats which constitute meter. Subdividing fosters greater musical success and enjoyment.

Things We Can Learn About Teaching from Coach Belichick

Version 2I’m pretty sure many of us use sports analogies with our students. Whether it’s a point to be made about teamwork, the importance of practice, or any of a number of other important subjects, sports seems to be an effective way to make this kind of thing relevant to students. I believe that the most effective professional coaches have something to teach we educators about success and teaching. Some would argue that Bill Bellichick is the most successful NFL football coach ever. There are arguments to be made against this claim, and it is not my intent to debate that here. I only wish to say that today I will discuss some matters regarding teaching that we can learn from this highly successful coach.

Teaching is in one sense all about preparation. We prepare our lessons, and after we have taught those lessons, we want our students to be better prepared to do something than they were before they attended that class. In this regard, teaching can be challenging, because many of the goals we want our students to achieve are long term. For music teachers, we begin rehearsing for a performance months before the concert date. We do this because we often don’t see our ensembles everyday, but 1-3 times a week. With less than daily practices, preparation is crucial because we want to use our practice time as efficiently and effectively as possible. Time is precious. This brings us to Bellichick point number one. It is a sign that hangs in the Patriots’ locker room. “Every battle is won before it is fought.” The result your students will realize is correlated to the quality of the preparation you, the teacher, have given them.

How do you know when your students are prepared? According to coach Bellichick,  “you’re prepared when everyone knows what to do. If it’s too complicated it won’t work, if it’s too obvious… it won’t work. It comes down to execution.” This is related to the psychological concept of flow (Csikszentmihaly, 1975).  A very simplified explanation of flow is that when the level of challenge and the level of ability are properly balanced, the task given to an individual will be challenging enough to hold interest and motivate effort, but not overly challenging so as to discourage, or insufficiently challenging so as to become boring. Getting everyone to the point where they know what to do includes making sure that what each person is doing is the right level of challenging, resulting in each person contributing at a level that is at the top of their challenge tolerance within their present ability level.

As important as preparation is, it is not the final word in how things will actually transpire during the lesson. We all know that making a great lesson plan is one thing, but many factors can disrupt what we planned to do, rendering the plan less successful than we anticipated. Eisenhower put it well when he said, “The battle plan is great until you actually get into the battle, then it doesn’t mean anything.” He might just as well have been talking about the lesson plan. The reality is we as teachers must make adjustments as a lesson is unfolding, changing tasks and strategies to account for unanticipated difficulty or ease that students are experiencing. Commentators love to talk about what second half adjustments a football coach will make, especially if his team is trailing at the half. Teachers must do the same thing, but on a much more condensed time scale. Most of us aren’t teaching a 2-3 hour class, the length of a football game. We’re making adjustment decisions over the course of a 45-90 time span. Make ongoing decisions in real time is a hallmark of successful coaches and successful teachers.

Though none can match his Super Bowl record, there are many other successful NFL coaches beside Bill Belichick, and many (maybe all) of them have coaching styles different from his. For example, some, like Andy Reid, are less demanding and more friendly in their approach. Others are highly charged emotionally on the sideline, jumping and yelling frequently. Coaches will do what they find successful in leading their teams to victories. Just as there are many styles of successful coaching, there are also many styles of successful teaching. Every teacher has to find what works best for them and stick to it. Take advice and learn from many, incorporating a little from each into what works well for you. When we learn something from another teacher, and then don’t find success with it for ourselves, we need to dismiss it, not because it was a bad idea, but because it was a good idea for someone else, but not us. But learn from successful people. Belichick explained, “don’t be afraid to use a good idea, even if nobody has used it before. If you believe it’s a good idea, don’t be afraid to use it.”

Discipline is another signpost of success. Organizations that tolerate or ignore sloppy habits tend to fall further and further away from success. Do not tolerate lax attention to rules. If someone doesn’t take a starting time seriously, have them leave. Don’t run a program where sloppiness and inattentiveness to rules and expectations is allowed. Belichick stated his philosophy of leadership as, “do your job, be attentive, pay attention to details, put the team first.” That statement is consistent with everyone knowing what to do, and then executing with precision and excellence. Gleaning other comments about coaching and applying them to teaching, we should interact positively with your students. Build in community building activities in addition to instructional time. Take outside distractions out of the equation of what you are working together to accomplish. We need to remind and in some cases convince our students that if you are teachable, you can learn and improve what you do. We should instill in them the “growth mindset.”

Finally, to paraphrase the coach once more, good students can’t overcome bad teaching, so it’s important to reflect on what we do at the end of every day, identify teaching mistakes, and correct them. This blog began as a personal written reflection that I began making at the end of most of may teaching days, and that I eventually decided to share. It is a record of my thoughts and observations of my own teaching and of the learning journeys of my students. Learning goals need to be seen as attainable, both for students and teachers. Make each short term goal the focus, and achieving those short term goals, one after the other will lead you to achieving the big long term goals. You can watch the whole interview on which this article was based below.

What Is Musical Dissonance?

Version 2When I was a high school student, I was sure I knew what dissonance in music was. If it sounded wrong, it was dissonant, and if it sounded right, it was consonant. An interval of a 2nd, or a try tone, or a seventh was dissonant, and all the others were consonant. Then in college, I learned that a perfect 4th is dissonant, though it still sounded fine to me. But that was the first hint that something was amiss with my definition. If an interval that sounded right to me was dissonant, then I needed a new understanding of the concept. In my discussion of expectations (see “Is All Music Intended to Be Expressive?”), I mentioned Meyer’s thoughts on continuance and repose. Music that demands continuance, or “leaves us hanging” creates tension, whereas music that comes to rest harmonically, as at a full cadence, expresses repose or relaxation.

Once of the expectations Western listeners have is that tension will resolve into relaxation. We are accustomed to patterns of tension and relaxation in our music. This is the basis for traditional voice leading and harmonic progressions. Ornaments such as suspensions, appagiaturas, trills, and so forth create tension because they sound incomplete, as one who stops in the middle of a sentence. We know from our experience with grammar that there has to be more to that sentence, and we know from our experience with music that there has to be more to that musical phrase, more music that will bring us to that cadence, that musical punctuation of a comma, semi-colon, or period. It is that expectation, even necessity of the music continuing on to a more suitable pausing or stopping place that makes the present moment sound dissonant.

In framing dissonance in this way, I am essentially equating dissonance with continuance. The unresolved suspension is not dissonant because it sounds “wrong,” it sounds dissonant because it leaves us demanding more. Dissonance is unfulfilled expectation. It is a form of anxiety similar to what we experience when we worriedly await the outcome of some life event. That anxious, stressed feeling is akin to how our body reacts to dissonance in music.

Zatorre and Blood (1999) at McGill University created original melodies containing dissonant and consonant patterns of notes, and played them for ten volunteers who were  scanned at the same time. Rejecting the null hypothesis, dissonance made areas of the limbic system linked to unpleasant emotions light up in the PET scans, whereas the consonant melodies stimulated limbic structures associated with pleasure. In other words, music elicits the same emotional response in the human brain as non-musical events with the same emotional makeup. So our experience of dissonance is larger than a response limited to musical stimuli. Our perception of musical dissonance is a parallel response to other life experiences.

In The Harvard Dictionary of Music we find that dissonance represents the “element of disturbance and tension.” While tension can, as we have seen, be framed within unsatisfied or delayed expectations, disturbance is a dangerously subjective idea. Listeners are disturbed by different sounds to different degrees. We must also consider that what was once considered dissonant to musicians and audiences alike are now accepted as less so or even consonant now. There is a phrase in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in which the choir sings the text “drank from the sacred vessels.” “Drank from the” is set to a minor 2nd, “sacred ves-” to a major 2nd, and “-sels” to a minor third. Though the 2nds are by some definitions dissonance, they are to my ear delectable and beautiful in the sense that the imminent resolution is so quickly realized and from the extreme “disturbance” of the minor 2nd. In this, we might consider that dissonance may be determined in part by its duration prior to its resolution. The longer the disturbance remains, the more likely it is to be perceived as dissonance. Dissononances that occupy short time spans may be less apt to be perceived as dissonant because they are more closely associated or attached to their resolutions. This is why a suspension can seem more consonant than an escape tone, wherein the resolution by skip obscures the tranquility of the resolution.

Some have attempted to define dissonance as any interval not included in the prevailing diatonic scale.  As long as diatonicism is the standard for measuring consonance or dissonance, this definition is at least serviceable. But it is rendered inappropriate for atonal works. Hindemith (1900) breached this issue by putting forth a ranking of melodic intervals from most consonant to most dissonant. This ranking was P5, P4, M6, M3, m3, m6, M2, m7, m2, M7, TT. Hindemith believed that consonance and dissonance could be perceived as a kind of floating standard, constantly defined by the current interval regardless of overall tonal center or lack there of. Still, there are vestiges of traditional harmony in his ranking, because the first 4 intervals are all diatonic and all part of the tonic, dominant, or subdominant chords. Hindemith believed that we shifted our perception of tonal center according to intervallic relationships when interval roots were non-diatonic.

This theory allowed for writing in the 12-tone style without abandoning tonality. Tones that are lowest, highest, and longest are given greatest importance in a melodic progression. These tones then are constructed to form step-wise motion, no matter their separation from one another by intervening tones. The interval of the fifth, being the most consonant, is also the strongest harmonically. It’s occurrence over changing roots can thus alter the perceived tonal center, whereas intervals gradually loose their ability to establish tonal centers according to their increased property of dissonance. To state it in terms of our overall discussion, the perfect 5th has the least power of continuance and the highest degree of repose, and so functions as a tonic in traditional harmony. As intervals become more dissonant, they gain greater power of continuance and lessening degrees of repose, and so add tension as well as distance from a perceived tonal center. Listen to this example from Hindemith, and see how much of our discussion you can take away.

 

Blood, A. J., Zatorre, R. J., Bermudez, P., & Evans, A. C. (January 01, 1999). Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 4, 382-7.

Hindemith, P. (1900). The craft of musical composition. Mainz: Schott.

The Other Expectations

Version 2Today I would like to discuss expectations, but not the usual sort. Often, when expectations in education are discussed, they are the kind teachers have of students. These may be behavior or performance expectations, and both are important. There is, though, another sort of expectation that is embedded in the how successfully people perceive and understand. These are the expectations a learner brings to that to which they are confronted. Absent expectations, materials presented to students such as whole or part of musical works, can only be understood in a limited way at best. When expectations are incorrect, the musical work is likely to be misunderstood or downright confusing.

Let me use a non-musical example to explain. Suppose a child is looking for a shaker in a box of non-pitched musical instruments, and suppose that child expects to find a shaker that is square. He or she goes through the contents of the box containing shakers, and though many are there, the child overlooks all of them, because none of them matches his or her expectation that a shaker is square. The child finally gives up, and claims that there are no shakers in the box. The child would have easily found many shakers had he or she known that they were round, or egg shaped. When presented with the information that all of the items in the box are shakers, the child will be surprised, and declare “that was unexpected.” And that is exactly the point. If a person’s expectations about what they are presented with are faulty, they will miss the meaning, or even the identity of what they are seeing or hearing.

This point was made by a Music History professor when I was an undergraduate in his class. He played an excerpt from a Mozart symphony ( forty years later, I don’t recall which one), and then asked us what we heard. The usually reliable Bruce responded that he heard violins playing this, and cellos playing that, and so forth. Bruce’s answer was right, but incomplete. I responded that I heard the melody played on the flute over all that Bruce had described. The activity in the strings was what Bruce expected. He was used to the melodic content being delivered by the strings, but did not expect to hear the melody in the flute. His expectation eliminated the possibility of the melody being anywhere else except in the strings, and caused him to overlook it. I have had similar experiences with my students, even adult students. I play them a melody I want them to keep track of in a sonata-allegro form, and then play the movement. What I didn’t tell them was what instrument or instruments would be playing the material I wanted them to hear. Frequently, not knowing where in the orchestra to expect the melody to appear, they listen in the wrong place and miss it entirely. I can always go back and tell them what instrument will be playing it, and (as long as they know what that instrument sounds like) they will easily hear the melody next time through. It is all about knowing what to expect.

The same is true for performers. For myself, when I am playing my clarinet, I can easily play, even sight read, most music put before me, because I expect even difficult passages to be in familiar patterns of scales and arpeggios. As long as those patterns are what I expect, I can play accurately. But the instant the pattern changes, or the scale or chord is one I did not expect, mistakes become numerous, and I am then in a passage I must stop and practice until I have learned those unexpected patterns. As we teach students, it is not enough to teach them the repertoire, or even the scales, which are out of context. We must teach them how these things are typically used in actual music. This can include learning progressions of arpeggios, sequential patterns like scales by thirds, or sequences of motifs. Many etudes typically take this approach, moving through a few themes that use sequence and progressions. They typically start relatively easy, then become difficult somewhere past the middle, and then end relatively easy again. This in itself is an expectation I have for etudes, and causes me to search out the middle of the etude to practice first, expecting that the beginning and end will come much easier. Having these expectations not only helps me play the etude more successfully, but also helps me plan my practice strategy.

Expectations are acquired through experience. As music educators, we provide our students with experience ample for constructing expectations on. I believe that one of the weaknesses of survey type courses, is that there is too great a variety of musical genres, styles and forms presented in an attempt to build familiarity with them all, while not providing sufficient concentration on any one genre, style or form to allow for the forming of expectations of them. No one can have accurate expectations of 18th century symphonic music after listening to single symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The creative span of just these three composers is so much greater than what can be drawn from a single work. It is not so unreasonable to think that Beethoven’s first two symphonies were written by Haydn, if all one knows of Beethoven is the fifth and third symphonies. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to think that the prelude to Haydn’s The Creation was written by Wagner, if all one knows of Haydn is that prelude. Given the opportunity to listen to a broader sampling of each composer’s work, the listener can acquire more accurate expectations that will guide him or her in perceiving and understanding so much more along any symphonic journey they may take.

Expectations also leaves the listener or performer the freedom to discover and explore musical works with those expectations and the accompanying intuition as guides, so that the performer preparing a musical work for performance or a listener taking in a concert or recording is not left to drift through, become bored and abandon future encounters with such music. Giving students expectations whets the appetite to go out and have those expectations met, and that involves seeking out the musical works about which they have expectations. Developing expectations equips the student to interact with musical works on his or her own terms, without being restricted by assigned listening tasks. Students who make predictions about what they will, concerning everything from instrumentation (what instruments are likely to have the melody often (violins, oboes, flutes, clarinets) and which ones are unlikely to have the melody often (violas)), and harmonic progressions (clear tonic and dominant harmony in Mozart, more adventurous and chromatic treatments in Richard Strauss and Wagner) to length of works and use of rhythm and dissonance. With the right expectations, a beautiful Wagnerian dissonance sounds like a bad mistake in Mozart, and sets that dissonance in the right context, that of impressive creativity on Mozart’s part to think of using dissonance like that (consider the “dissonant” quartet, no. 19 in C major, K. 465)  when others were not doing so. And so the more able we prepare our students to have accurate expectations concerning musical works, the more powerfully they will be able to assert their musical learning on creative musical activity.

What Do You Do?

Version 2When striking up a new acquaintance, sharing what we do for work is nearly always one of the first things we talk about. I have always responded by saying that I’m a music teacher, an answer no one who knows me would dispute. But lately I began to wonder just how accurate that really is. After all, I’m not teaching the music anything, I’m teaching children–teaching music to children. That makes me a children teacher.

While the distinction may seem nit-picky or like a bad pun, I believe it reveals something I have from time to time lost track of. If I am principally concerned with teaching music, then I am less likely to be concerned with those to whom I am teaching it. I am interested in covering material, and transferring knowledge or skills from me to my students. To be sure, this is an important part of teaching and learning, the imparting and receiving of knowledge and skills, but it is apt to be accomplished with limited success if more attention is given to the content than to the learner.

Even on my most successful days, when my students have done well playing or singing repertoire, or have demonstrated knowledge on an assessment, if I have not taught them something that they want to use in their daily lives, they will at best tolerate my class, and then quickly lay aside what I have taught them. The fact is that most children, and I include adolescents, enjoy music in some fashion, and have willingly made it part of their daily lives. For many, this involves listening to recorded music, and responding in some way to what they are listening to, be it moving, dancing, singing, drumming, or just taking emotional pleasure. Honestly, they can do these things without much or maybe any help from me. So I ask myself, what value can I add to their musical experience that will amplify their lifelong interactions with music?

One way is to teach them to play musical instruments on which they can play the music they enjoy. Band and orchestra are great for those who enjoy it, and there are plenty who do, but for the rest who make up a majority, as long as there are rarely if ever trumpets or clarinets, violins or timpani in the latest hip-hop or pop hits, there is little interest in learning “orchestral” instruments. There just isn’t a connection between playing these instruments and what the students want to do with their music, nor the incentive to invest the time needed to sound good playing music that is perhaps of marginal interest. But present the opportunity to play the guitar or keyboard, and suddenly there is immense interest in learning a musical instrument. These are the instruments they hear in the music they enjoy and encounter daily. This will add value to their moving, dancing, singing, and drumming. This will also draw students together in a new way, as one plays a guitar, another the drums, another a keyboard, and still another sings. It is discovering for them, and rediscovering for us the joy of making music with friends, as families and friends were apt to do in a time that preceded recorded music.

Part of succeeding at this rediscovery is showing students that they do not have to make exact reproductions of the recordings they know. Just consider all the remixes being done today. Their remix can be a simpler way of playing and singing, one that suits their present technical ability on an instrument or voice. Students can divide chords among themselves where chord changes come to quickly for one player. They can eliminate chords or slow down strums to give them more time to get their fingers to the nextthis-approach-to chord. They can move a complex strumming pattern onto a drum kit where the rhythms are easier to play. These accommodations don’t in the end spoil the musical experience. On the contrary they bring it within the reach of all students, and open up the world of playing in a band to those who have not achieved the skill to play the original versions. Unlike transcriptions for wind ensemble or orchestra, the modified versions of popular music still have enough of the original sound and feel to satisfy the students, and make it fun for them to play there favorite songs. It also brings to the fore what is perhaps the most attractive part of making music–that of doing it together with friends.

This approach to teaching music to kids is a natural by-product of putting relationship building first. It recalibrates how we think of ourselves as teachers and how we think of our students. Yes, we are the experts, the ones with the college education and conservatory musicianship, but the students are our equals in terms of who they are as people, and what they are about to do, feel, cherish and be. Rather than considering ourselves as lauded overseers of our students learning, it is more respectful of them and effective to see ourselves as collaborators who bring indispensable resources into the collaboration, but who are as eager to make music and learn from them as we want them to be those things toward us. So we demonstrate, teach, explain, but we also listen, encourage, and at times just step back, out of the way, and let them take what we have given them and let them run with it through what now can be a self-directed musical experience.

It is something like teaching your child to ride a bicycle. They are the ones seated on the bike and pedaling and steering, and maybe holding on for dear life, and you are the one holding the bike so they don’t fall, running along beside but not hopping on and taking over, and then when they are able to go, you let go and watch them ride ahead, unaware that they are doing it all their own now, until they look and see you’re not needed to hold them up. That is what good music teaching should be like. Train them as long as they need it, but then get out of the way and let them go it alone. At that point, you are the proud teacher, applauding their accomplishments, and enjoying their success right along with them. That moment of bringing them to the point of independence is something they never forget. It is born out of the relationship that grows from collaboration, which is the working together of equals, not from sitting at the “feet” of a presiding pundit, a relationship that demands superiority over students. Teachers must retain their academic and scholarly superiority, while allowing students to be equal in other ways so that the learning I’ve described will flourish. I am a children teacher. I teach children music.

Second Half Adjustments

Version 2Now that winter recess is over, and we’re all back to school after the holidays, it is good to keep in mind that the second half is very different from the first. I have found that if I simply continuing going about my business in the second half just as I did in the first half, no matter how successful that first half was, results will begin to decline. The second half of the school year is different in important ways from the first half, and these differences must be taken into account when planning and delivering instruction.

One of the major differences is that there are more interruptions, especially if your school district has vacation weeks in both February and April. There may also be other days off for Martin Luther King Day, Three Kings Day, Memorial Day, President’s Day, and so forth. Coming back from all of these days off, and keeping some continuity and retention going in between can be challenging. Another difference is that students and teachers both are likely to be coming to school with some degree of illness. This illness can linger and become ongoing through much of the winter months resulting in elevated fatigue, poor attention, and the decline in performance one would expect with these symptoms. There is also the effect of darker weather outdoors. Winter here in New England becomes downright dreary, and the months of February and March can seem insurmountably long as a result.

The first adjustment that all of this recommends is to be ready to slow the pace of covering material. I don’t mean to slow down your day to day teaching pace, but rather to plan for teaching to generally take more time, more class meetings, to successfully teach units and concepts compared to the first half of the year. Don’t be surprised if your students just take longer to accomplish what you ask of them, and make that extra time part of your plan.

Having just returned from a vacation, students returning to your classroom tend to have forgotten or lost the habit of following classroom routines and procedures. Now is a good time to review and practice classroom procedures and expectations, similar to how you did at the beginning of the school year. It’s easy to let these things go at this time of year, as we assume our students already know these things, but knowing and doing are two different things. If they have gotten out of the habit of following classroom procedures and expectations, then lapses and poor behavior are going to become increasingly problematic. It is best to step back and get back into the routines of these things while the feeling of getting a fresh start in the new year is still present.

Another adjustment I make for the second half is in the length of the units I teach.  Whereas in the first half I tend to teach my longer units, in the second half, because I know I’m going to be interrupted by days off relatively frequently, I teach my shorter units. If there is a longer unit I have not taught yet, I will break it up into shorter sub-units so that I can achieve closer before each day off occurs. I also tend to try harder to make connections between lesson more explicit. I want to be sure that my students understand how they will use prior learning and performance successes in new learning settings. This strategy means frequent reviews, clear transitions from the reviews to the current lesson, and statements of application in my daily lesson closures.

Although I always try to make my lessons as engaging and relevant as possible, in the second half I tend to rely more on students selecting musical works, and more on the artistic process of creating. Both of these usually increase the level of engagement of my students, which in turn helps with better retention of material. Speaking of retention, in lessons such as these, where students have freedom in generating musical ideas, my-students-understandorganizing them into musical works, and so forth, it is more important than ever to interrupt student work in time to draw connections between the activity the students have been engaged in, and the concepts, skills, and knowledge you want them to have attained from doing the activity. These connections are brought out naturally during direct instruction, but can easily be overlooked when the teacher is facilitating or monitoring small group work or independent practice. Students must not only learn from you how well they did the activity, but also why they did the activity, and how they will apply what they have learned by doing.

The content of my units in the second half tends to be more performance oriented, because my performance calendar for the second half has more concerts and shows. I use the creating lessons not only to teach music composition, but also to teach “how music works” which prepares students to analyze the music they will be performing, to understand how all of the elemental parts fit together, and how they can manipulate their performance of those elements to shape the expressive qualities they bring to their singing or playing. Because I teach general music, band and chorus, I can easily reinforce  concepts, skills and knowledge in each rehearsal or class setting, including general music class, band or chorus rehearsal, and rehearsals for our school musical. Students who are involved in the latter are especially open to improving their singing skills in a way that they are not earlier in the year when the need to sing well is not so immediate. I take advantage of this relevance to teach as much singing technique as possible in the second half.

There is another aspect to second half adjustments, and that is the progress I have made on my year-long student learning objects (SLO). The second half begins with mid-year assessment so that I can compare my mid-year data to my benchmark assessment from the beginning of the year. If I do not see progress in my data for those objectives, then I must revisit how I have been teaching to those objectives and make the necessary adjustments to assure that I have met them by year’s end. This is of great interest to me, because those SLOs are important to my Teacher Evaluation (TEVAL) results. Good results benefit both my students and me, so those assessments are a prominent part of my mid-year adjustments. Mid year is enough time to get an accurate indication of how both my students and I are doing on those objectives.

I enjoy the second half of the school year. With all of those performances coming into view, I become energized, even in the face of a gloomy New England winter. Making the adjustments I have discussed keep the second half going smoothly and successfully.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Has Something For Your Students

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

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

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