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.

Pacing and Energy are Not The Same

Version 2Engaging students in classroom activities and keeping their interest throughout the lesson are both necessities and difficult. While many elements contribute to motivating students to stay on task and be productive in class, two important ones are pacing and energy. Pacing is the rate or speed at which you teach. Pacing that is too fast can leave students confused, lacking time to process, reflect, question and problem solve. it can also result in behavior problems as students who are left behind find other things to do and as the teacher ignores behavior issues in order to maintain the fast pace. This happens when the teacher “pushes through” the lesson in order to cover a set amount of material. On the other end of the spectrum, pacing that is too slow leads to boredom. Students given too much time to process and problem solve become disengaged as they wait for something else to do.

Besides the actual speed at which the teacher is giving instruction, other behaviors influence the perception of pace. For example, when a teacher remains in a fixed location for an extended period of time, student attention ebbs because the students are not given the opportunity to vary their focus and aspects of visual perception. Our minds like change and tend to tune out things that stay the same. The use of the voice while speaking to a class also influences the perception of pace. A voice delivery that lacks modulation and variety will have the same effect as staying in one physical location too long. Again, a shortage of variety makes holding students’ attention challenging. When a teacher varies the pitch, pace, and volume of his or her speaking voice, the students have an easier time maintaining attention on what is being said.

In the same way, using eye contact that continually scans the entire class is important. If too much time goes by without the teacher visually acknowledging a student, that student will begin to feel disenfranchised, and come to believe that paying attention to what the teacher is doing is not necessary because the teacher is not paying attention to them. Making eye contact and adding a smile (or other facial expression of approval or if appropriate disapproval) further engages the students, showing him or her that you are not only paying attention to them, but that you have a personalized message to give them–a message which might be given with a smile to say you’re glad that child is in your class, or you are pleased with them, or might be a subtle redirection for a student who has started to wander with their mind. Following a redirection with a smile when the redirection is successful is very effective and encouraging.

When these techniques are combined, students are less apt to perceive time as moving slowly, or feel as though they need to find something better to do than listen to you or do the learning task you have given them. Through it all, it is important to maintain a calm demeanor that communicates not only that you like your students and that you are comfortably and agreeably in control. The class moves smoothly when everyone is composed; however, it is possible in an effort to maintain calm to become to laid back. When this happens your voice becomes almost always very quiet (which does not provide enough variety), and your movement becomes too restricted (making you more boring to look at). At that point, what should have been gained by calmness has been lost in favor of an uninspiring, droll presentation that will motivate students to search for something more interesting. When this happens, your teaching is suffering from a lack of energy. It does not matter how fast you teach, or how well you do all the other things I have discussed above.

If you lack energy, then you will appear to be disinterested and bored, and if that is your students perception, then they will reasonable conclude, “if he isn’t interested in whatBut-whenever-you-can he’s doing, why should I be interested?” Good question. I’d say most of us are in this profession because we love music and love sharing that love with our students. We share some amazing performances, rehearsals, trips, and so forth with them, and we all, students and teacher alike, are excited about what we are doing together when we are at our best. Surely nobody will be on the top of their game every single day, and some days we or they are just too tired or perhaps even ill, to exude much energy. When that happens, plan lightly, and admit to your students up front that you are not at your best today. They will get it. They have days like that too. It makes you more approachable, and gains their respect just for your transparent honesty. But whenever you can, you’ll do better to keep the energy and pace at the most effective level for your students.

Another key element about maintaining proper energy and pace is that students enjoy your class when it is fast enough and interesting enough to hold their interest and keep them challenged just the right amount. This helps classroom management in two ways. First, as I’ve mentioned, it keeps students on-task doing what you want them to do and learning what you want them to learn. Second, because they enjoy that kind of class, they will become protective of it, and object to peers who slow it down. When I get my pace and energy right, the students begin keeping their peers in line, quieting the talkers and so forth. Hearing it from their peers allows me to make any pause in teaching much more brief, and reduces the number of times I have to stop because there is that undercurrent of it not being alright with them to slow things down. Of course, when the task and learning objectives are of interest to the students, this works all the better. Then, the students not only want to keep moving, they want to keep doing what they’re doing at that level of pace and energy. Naturally, there are times when you will need to stop for more serious infractions, but even then, you are correcting the offender based on the premise that he or she is interfering with others’ learning. Students’ sense of fairness will quickly see the undesirability of being seen as doing something so unfair.

The right pace can be maintained with not enough energy, the right energy can be maintained with not enough pace (lots of motion, not enough substance, for example), or they can be both right or both wrong. As you adjust them for your classes, you will find the right levels of both for each class. They will vary from class to class, so you need to become skilled at varying both according to the group you are teaching. Doing so will improve instruction and enjoyment in your classroom.

Pros and Cons of Stick Notation

Version 2Stick notation is a method for teaching music reading that involves presenting written notes with the note heads removed. The method is most often associated with the Kodaly method, but is used by non-Kodaly teachers as well. In this article I will consider reasons for using stick notation, and also some drawbacks.

Stick notation is most properly considered a pre-literacy strategy. Although I learned about stick notation in my pre-service undergraduate studies, I was from the start dubious of using it. Because note stems and beams without their heads did not look like the music I wanted my students to be able to read, I saw stick notation as an unnecessary extra step. Later, after becoming versed in Learning Music Theory, I recognized that associating French rhythm syllables (or the familiar adaptation of them) with notation was putting the learning sequence for developing music reading skills out of order. Indeed, stick notation was made necessary by neglecting or slighting rote and verbal association instruction; that is, by not developing in students the ability to hear rhythms and meters internally and to decode those rhythms into rhythm syllables, stick notation was necessary. My suspicions grew as I noticed that students who had learned rhythm with stick notation from a Kodaly teacher were largely unable to transfer learning of reading rhythms to their band lessons, and had to be taught the association between the rhythms seen in their band music and the “ta ti-ti” chants they had done in general m music. Something was wrong with how they were being taught rhythm.

The problem was notated symbols were being given names but were not being associated with the sounds they represented. Children saw a vertical line and remembered to call it “ta,” but they did not have the ability to recognize a sound as a “ta” when they heard it, and so they could not produce the rhythm “ta” beyond giving it a name. The “ta” they had learned was not given a context of a meter and a pulse. To successfully use “ta,” or any rhythm syllable for that matter, students must have an understanding of meter. Because those students had not been properly trained aurally to hear meter, or as Gordon would say, to audiate meter, the rhythm syllables had no musical meaning to them. Absent that aural training, teachers faced with this problem are then compelled to explain meter from a music theory stand point, further exacerbating the problem rather than solving it by going back and teaching meter as part of the aural context of rhythm patterns.

Part of the stick notation strategy is providing a way of reading music without using a music staff. Writing rhythms without a staff is a good way of associating previously learned rhythms with the notation of them. I often write rhythms this way on my white board or on flashcards. When I do this, though, I include the notepads, even though they have no functionality without a staff. I include them because I want the children to become used to seeing the whole note, stem, beam and head. By doing this, I am accomplishing the simplification of not using a staff, while preparing a smoother transition to notes on a staff. Now here’s the interesting part. I have tried using stick notation on the board, and when I did, my students protested. They asked me what it was, and when I told them, they said that is not what notes are supposed to look like. I The-problem-was-notatedhad to add the heads for them to be satisfied and willing to go on with the lesson. Even more important, I wrote those rhythms on the board only after I had taught the same rhythms by rote on a neutral syllable first, then the next lesson with rhythm syllables. The rhythms they were reading on the board were familiar rhythms. They were not chanting or hearing them for the first time, but they were reading them for the first time.  Once they are proficient at that, I can then write unfamiliar rhythms for them to read which they can now audiate before they chant them, which means they are then chanting them with understanding, not just from rote.

The most effective use for stick notation I have found is as a remediation strategy for older students. These are students who for whatever reason have reached middle school and still do not understand how to read music. They know the note names, now the note values, but do not understand the distinction and difference between the duration component of musical notation, namely beams, dots after notes, and filled in or empty note heads, and the pitch component, namely placement on the staff. These students typically think that two quarter notes on two different pitches are identical, or they do not know why one note has a filled in notepad, though they know it is called a quarter note, and another has a notepad that is not filled in, though they know it is called a half note. I haven’t run across this in several years, but it used to be a frequent problem, owing no doubt to my not following the pedagogic advice I have given above. Still, stick notation was the answer. By selecting a melody and notating it three times, these students quickly understood how musical notation works. I used Finale to notate a melody in stick notation. Then on the same page I notated the same melody with just notepads (no stems or beams). Thirdly I notated the same melody again in full musical notation. By following the sequence, students could see that the durations were in stems or in filled in or not filled in notepads, and pitch was in where the notepads were placed vertically on the staff. Then they could see those two components combined in the final, full traditional notation.

Teachers who want to notate pitch with stick notation write solfege syllables under the stems. While this accomplishes the goal of giving students a way of singing a melody from notation without knowing how to read notes on a musical staff, it again sets the student up for needing to transfer solfege syllables they are reading to notepads they are reading, without preparing them to audiate the notepads on a staff prior to reading them. As a readiness strategy, using a two line staff is preferable to no staff with solfege. At least with the two line staff, students are learning the concepts of specific pitches notated in specific places on or between lines. A simple so mi melody read from a two-line staff is more beneficial that reading the same melody from stick notation with written solfege syllables.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is to teach “sound before sight.” Notation is a visual representation of specific sounds. Children learn to read language by learning the sounds of letters, and then developing the ability to string those letter sounds together into words, and then to read those letter strings as words. The process for teaching music reading is essentially the same. If stick notation is used, it should be, as any notation should, used only for reading what has already been learned aurally.

Why Practice?

Version 2I was in my senior year of my undergraduate studies, during my apprentice teaching semester. I shared an off-campus apartment with two other men, one a music major the other a psychology major. One day, after I had been practicing my clarinet, the music major said to me, “I don’t like listening to people practice.” Naturally I asked him why this was and he said that it was because when the people he knew practiced, they paid little attention to tone, and most of their attention to practicing notes. I asked him if that was true of me too, and he said that it was.

All these 39 years later, I have recently remembered those words and reflected on them. I have realized that the practice sessions I enjoy the most are the ones in which I am being most expressive; the ones in which I lose myself in the music and “play my heart out.” On the other hand, my least favorite practice sessions are those that are aptly described by my former room mate’s words; the ones in which I am merely practicing notes, drilling myself over and over until I play a passage with the correct notes. Of course, this kind of attention to right notes is necessary, but it is a temporary departure from what should be the main point of playing a musical instrument in the first place, which is to express something of the human heart and spirit.

Suzuki, the famed violin pedagogue, often spoke of the intimacy between heart, soul and music. To him, music was as essential to life and human compassion as the air we breathe. How unfortunate that some teachers have cherry picked playing by ear from the totality of Suzuki’s philosophy and method, forgetting or laying aside the development of beauty of tone and expressiveness in favor of playing dry renditions of Twinkle ad nauseam. Ever since the National Core Arts Standards were released with the pervasive presence of expressive intent throughout them, I have found it both energizing and challenging to frame every musical experience in the context of expressiveness. Yet that is exactly the point of art in general and music in particular–to express something personal from one musician to other musicians and beyond them to audiences. It has also caused me to call into question the premise that performances of classical music must be “authentic.” If a musician’s primary mission is to convey someone else’s expressive intent, then musicians are left with an enterprise that is marginally relevant to them at best. Whether the mandate is to reproduce a composer’s intent, or to follow strict instructions from a conductor, preparing performances to present to an audience without the creative freedom to convey personal meaning is rendering music study largely superficial, and limiting the true power and benefit of musical study.

If someone tells me about something about which they have strong feelings, those feelings are conveyed to me in body language, voice inflection, as well as the words themselves. Their feelings then interact with my own feelings born out of my own experience and interests, and are given an additional meaning that is personal and somewhat unique to me. If the person is telling me about a life event they have celebrated and are happy and excited about, anybody hearing them talk about it will get that the feelings being expressed are happiness and excitement, but my version of those emotions are different from others’ based on how I personally feel when I am happy or excited over a similar life event. The same is true with music. Whereas musicians may universally agree that Beethoven was expressing anger, or Haydn was expressing humor, individual musicians or non-musicians will relate to that anger or human in unique ways, influenced by life experiences only they have responded to in unique ways.  So it is here, in the mixing of life experiences and music that we as music educators much grant our students the freedom to interpret music they hear and perform in our rehearsals and classrooms in personal ways even when those ways are different from how we would dictate an interpretation to them were we to assume the role of traditional maestro.

In granting this freedom, we must prepare our students to create such interpretations by giving them ample experiences with music of the same idiom as that which they are preparing for performance or are listening to for responding to music activities. They must develop a “feel” for the music of Beethoven so that they can relate their own lives to what Beethoven invested into his music. The same is true of any composer of any idiom or time period. Interpretation is the melding of two contexts: that of the creator and that of the performer. The later must understand the former, but be left the latitude to understand the former in his or her own cultural and personal contexts. The more the students have a “feel” for a composer’s music, the more they will be able to understand it based on how they feel when they play, sing or hear it.

When this is applied to practicing or rehearsing, more attention is often given to details. For example, when students are focused on beauty of tone, they are concentrating on the expressiveness of perhaps only a single note, or a single phrase of music. This point is famously made in this moment from the movie Amadeus.

Salieri’s attention to that first sustained note is exactly the focus on expressive detail that is necessary for music to be understood as an expressive power. For Salieri, the miracle of this music is not in the specific pitches or even in the literal dynamics, but in the way in which these things are used for expressive effect. It should not be necessary for children to wait until they are in college or even high school to experience this level of musical sensitivity. The vibrant imaginations of children are perfect for exploring music in all of its expressiveness, much more for than for exploring the names of lines and spaces and the memorizing of vocabulary lists. These too must be included in our music instruction, but they should not become the primary focus.

The Better Way

Version 2Times have changed. It used to be that teachers taught everyone the same way, without considering that children don’t all learn the same way. Then we realized there are different types of learners, and we began meeting the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Howard Gardner taught us about multiple intelligences, and a greater attention to special needs children challenged us to find ways to maximize learning for these children. These were all necessary and much needed shifts in educators’ thinking. Still, teachers still considered themselves as the determiners of what would be taught, and how it would be taught. The teacher’s job was to teach, and the students’ jobs were to learn in the way the teacher instructed.

One of the glaring weaknesses of this perspective is that when students are not interested, do not find what the teacher is doing relevant, and disengage themselves from the intended educational process, school becomes a struggle for everyone. Teaching becomes burdensome, and learning becomes boring. However strongly educators may insist that there are certain things all students should know, like Shakespeare, the Pythagorean theorem, or the symphonies of Mozart, no one, teachers in grad school or students in grade school, will be a high achieving learner, or will retain and apply learning, if it was taught to a disinterested, unmotivated student. There has to be a better way, and there is a better way. Student feedback and choice are a powerful combination of tools that quickly ramp up the level of learning and of engagement and interest. In this post, I will describe and discuss both of these.

Student feedback can take many forms. The kind I will discuss here is in regard to students informing teachers on how they prefer to learn, and on the effectiveness of whatever learning strategies the teacher had the students use. Having students generate this kind of feedback is beneficial to both teachers and learners. In giving this feedback, learners develop an awareness of how most successfully learn, and in what ways they most enjoy interacting with the material they are learning, be it knowledge or skills. Once aware of their preferred learning strategy and activity, students can take advantage of the opportunity to learn their way, and to develop a love for learning and for the material that both would otherwise been passed up.

I currently have a second grade student in General Music who dislikes singing to the point where he steadfastly refuses to sing. He will drum, chant, move, dance, play instruments, but will not sing. I am a very Kodaly centered music teacher. Singing is at the very center of everything I do, so with this child, I have a choice. I can just as steadfastly as he, insist that he sing, making our teacher-student relationship frustrating and to some extent confrontational, or I can acknowledge that he can meet a great many of the objectives I have for him and his classmates by doing things other than sing. I can reflect and acknowledge that singing in general music is a means to an end, and not the end itself. I have children sing to teach them to love music, love making music, be creative with interpretation and improvisation, and learn to express themselves in a personal, musical, expressive way.

Of course, a child can learn all those things by playing instruments, and listening to the expressiveness and creativity of others. While some aspects of musical development may be less served by minimizing singing, the detriment will not, I must acknowledge, be as much for someone who hates to sing as for one who enjoys or even loves to sing, like me. I cannot teach someone else to love music as I do by requiring them to sing, if they do not love to sing as I do. Instead, I have the opportunity to observe a child grow in musicality in a different way than I did or would prefer to, and thereby learn something about the child I would not learn otherwise. Learn what about music he or she really values, and what that child really connects with in music.

When a child says “I hate music,” it is rarely literally the case. More likely, what is meant is, “I hate doing what you’re asking me to do, and I won’t do that because I don’t think I’m very good at it and I don’t want anyone to hear me doing it.” But that is too much to say every time a child is asked to sing, so he just says, “I hate music.” Receiving student feedback gives the teacher the opportunity to know his or her students better, which enables the teacher to make content more relevant and attuned with student interests. It also demonstrates to the student that the teacher cares enough to consider him or her as a unique and valued individual, rather than one of many generic students.

Often times, if a student is given the opportunity to practice something like singing, or playing a guitar, or what have you in a safer place than where an entire class of peers will hear, a child will very quickly begin to flourish. I recently had a class of 7th graders working on a guitar project in small groups. There was a girl who just sat there with a guitar on her lap looking unhappy. I brought her out of her group and said I wanted to show her something. I took her guitar and played what I had asked her to play, then I said, I can have you playing that in 5 minutes. Watch. Reluctantly at first, she began to follow my instruction, and in less than 5 minutes, she sounded great. With a smile on her face, she assured me she would continue to play for the rest of the class, and the next class too. Nobody likes doing something they don’t think they are good at in front of an audience. For her, individual instruction was the way to go. For others, group learning is best.

A group of confident learners enjoying what they are doing usually produces exciting results. When given the choice, some of those student groups will choose to sing. They will sing, four or five at a time in unison, in harmony, or to a beat boxer, and enjoy every second. Others will prefer to play rhythms on drums, while others want to get their band instruments and add a flute or saxophone part to their classmates drumming or singing. The best learning occurs from a position of strength and confidence. When students have choices, they will choose to stand on solid ground. From that position of confidence they will be willing to take the risks that are necessary to push learning forward. When forced into a “one size fits all” model of teaching, only those confident in doing that one thing will succeed. Feedback informs instruction, choice empowers students.

Why I Became A Music Teacher and Why It Matters

Version 2It is good to recall from time to time why we became music teachers. In my case, it was the desire to find something to do for a living that would include music making, and that would bring the immense enjoyment I had for making music to others; a kind of give back opportunity. I suppose many of you who are music educators entered the profession for similar reasons. Perhaps you also found that however sound those reasons were, they were not adequate to sustain a career. In time, it became apparent to me that I could not just dedicate myself to delighting all my students with what I enjoyed doing, because many of them had musical interests that were different from mine. If I were to insist on just making them do what gave me enjoyment, then I would be forcing them to do musical things they did not enjoy and were not interested in, which would have the undesired effect of alienating them from music education which is quite the opposite of what was intended.

Students almost always enter into a music education setting eager, motivated, and excited to learn something they feel strongly about wanting to do. Those expectations are most often met when students are making music together with friends, and when the music they are making is music they have selected, have an interest in, and is within their ability level to perform well. The music must sound reasonably close to how the students know it should sound in a reasonable amount of time. It simply isn’t enjoyable to invest time and effort into practicing music that is not of interest. My own love of music was fueled by the opportunities I was given to perform music I liked. For me, these included playing in the pit for musical comedies, and playing in the concert band, especially transcriptions of classical works such as the Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach transcribed for concert band, Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, and the first movement of Dvorak’s symphony from the New World. I mention these works because nearly fifty years later, I still remember the works and how much I enjoyed playing them. I also remember sitting in band rehearsals very bored, looking forward to it being over. I don’t remember any of the works being rehearsed at them, and would be hard pressed to say what I gained by sitting through rehearsals of them. The point here is that I learned music and learned to love music by playing works I enjoyed and was interested in. The only way to know what our students enjoy and are interested in is to know our students and be in conversation with them enough to find out.

Our music classes, including our ensemble rehearsals, should be an invitation to students to develop their musical abilities through pursuing their musical interests. This happens sometimes, as, for example, when a student comes to his or her private teacher with a solo they will be playing for an audition. The student has a desire and a need to learn that piece, and comes to the teacher to be the guiding force in successfully preparing the audition. The student is not committed to learning repertoire the teacher chooses which is not of particular interest to the student, but rather is seeking out instruction in repertoire they want to master, and which is, in all honesty, probably just as worthwhile and conducive to the teacher’s objectives, as what they otherwise would have placed before the student.

This is not to discount the expertise of the teacher. It is to say that the expertise of the teacher should be directed toward meaningful pursuits, ones that will not just produce reluctant yet proficient performers, but will, through true collaboration, result in multidimensional growth that positively affects the student musically, spiritually, psychologically, and cognitively. Music education must make a positive impact not just on musicianship and musical proficiency, but on the whole person.

Before I realized all of this, and I was embracing the mission of duplicating my personal musical preferences and loves in all of my students, I often met with disappointment. Why, I wondered, don’t all of my students share my exact love of music, including musical preferences? As obvious as the answer to that naive question is now, it went unanswered for longer than I’d like to admit. The musical model I had been brought up in, that of the traditional dictator/maestro on the podium, never allowed for me to question or reject the musical selections, decisions and interpretations of conductors. My musical tastes were varied enough so that I survived this kind of environment, but my students’ musical preferences and their tolerances of dictator maestros was often not as robust as mine had been. At this point in my career, I am sure that the day of the teacher-and-student4dictator/maestro is past, and that we all need to be more user friendly and much more responsive and concerned with the musical contexts and aspirations our students bring into our classrooms. Instead of being disappointed that my students do not share my musical interests, I have found joy in guiding students to interact with , practice and perform music that is within their musical interests.

To some it will seem that what I am proposing will compromise excellence, or the teacher’s prestige with students. I assure you, neither is the case. On the contrary, as students realize that you are first and foremost interested in them and not you, they will respond with more commitment to excellence, not less. And because you have positioned yourself as someone who matters to them, your prestige will rise, not take a hit. Your teaching style will change somewhat. You will find yourself asking more guiding questions as you steer students to think through problems you used to think through for them, and find solutions you used to find for them. You will need more patience and be willing to wait for results longer than is needed when you just jump in and show them the solutions. But education is not all about the answers, it is just as much (or I would argue more so) about the process of seeking and finding answers as it is about the answers themselves.

Hendricks (2018, p. 12) has posed some important questions that I would leave you with. Among these questions are, what are your primary priorities as a music teacher? What kind of questions do you use to instruct and motivate students? Do you use an effective balance of guiding, inspiring, connection, and goal-clarification questions? Are there any aspects of the teaching approach described here that you hesitate to try? If so, what are they? Why do you think you might feel the way you do? What would help you to feel more comfortable in trying out this approach? This approach is by no means “dumbing down” anything. It is acknowledging that the models for teaching that were developed for use in the early 20th century must give way to ones developed for today’s very different societal and cultural environment.

I would also like to mention my gratitude to Feedspot.com for including Mr A Music Place in the top 100 Music Education Blogs on the web. You can visit them at https://blog.feedspot.com/music_education_blogs/

Hendricks, K. S. (2018). Compassionate music teaching, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Starting a New School Year in Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Approach To Composing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artful Learning

Version 2In this, the centennial anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, all sorts of things that this American musical icon did are being brought out into the public consciousness. Of course, most know of Bernstein’s work as a conductor, composer and teacher, what with his numerous recordings, lectures, young peoples concerts and musical compositions. Of all that he accomplished, he once said that he was most proud of those young peoples concerts. He was so devoted to teaching, that he developed what he hoped would become a school reform method called Artful Learning. This is a method I have just begun to look at, but it intrigues me enough to want to share with you, and to begin using at least its principles to benefit my students.

Bernstein often referred to “universality” in reference to music. He believed that the expressiveness and enjoyment of music was universal, but he also understood that teaching was necessary in order to enable people to fully enjoy and fully appreciate the music he so loved to conduct, talk about, and perform on the piano. Out of this belief system came Artful Learning. In a nutshell, the method is to begin with a concept; not a musical concept but a universal one (there’s that word again). For example, let’s take the concept of enculturation–the familiarizing of a population of people with cultural norms–theirs or another. Let’s propose an essential question regarding our concept of enculturation. How does enculturation make life more meaningful? That question will guide our entire instructional unit.

Now that we have a concept and an essential question, we need a masterwork that is relevant to them both and that will serve as the basis for student inquiry. Let’s select “The One And Only Cereal” from A Quiet Place by Leonard Bernstein. The masterwork doesn’t have to be a Bernstein work, nor does it have to be a musical work, but in our example we will use music. The students, with the essential question in mind, listen to the masterwork, and then respond to it. In this masterwork, there are at least three cultures represented–jazz with its prominently African American roots, Western European 19th century art music, with its prominently Anglo and European roots,  and serial music, with its prominently academic roots. Most listeners will not only hear the different cultures represented, but will be confused by some while easily taking in others. This is because listeners will have been enculturated in one or two but not in the others. The students can experience the differences in listening to music that makes sense compared to music that does not make sense due to either being enculturated into that musical culture or not. The students experience the masterwork in a multi sensory way, through not only listening to the music, but moving (or trying to move) to the music,  through drawing, interacting physically with objects, like tossing a scarf gracefully or wringing a towel aggressively, through making facial expressions to any number of other visual, auditory, or kinesthetic responses they or the teacher might propose. All of this is the first phase in the Artful Learning Sequence, and that stage is called Experience.

Throughout the experience stage, the students will collect observations and questions from their experience of the masterwork. These observations and questions will be the basis for the next phase, which is inquire. The essential question focuses the students inquiry. Students research the essential question in light of their experience of the masterwork,  and engage in hands-on learning tasks to test, probe, demonstrate and explain the concept, which you will recall presently is enculturation. Students research the concept not only from a musical standpoint, but also using the interdisciplinary content to investigate the subject matter even more deeply. This is key to the method. It is designed to be interdisciplinary. One of Bernstein’s favorite mantras was that  “the best way to know a thing is in the context of another discipline.” What was it like to arrive in aBernstein_Harvard new country with no experience with that country’s culture, practices, language, or just general way of doing things? Students can then connect being a new immigrant in unfamiliar surroundings with being a new music listener experiencing unfamiliar musical surroundings. It takes time to learn your way around. What are some things a person new to our country would want to know right away to feel more comfortable and at home? What are some things you’d like to know to make you feel more comfortable with serial music, or jazz, or classical music? What musical idiom are you most familiar with and how would you help someone who had never heard your music before come to understand it and enjoy it? You see how the inquiry builds momentum as it goes along?

The third phase is create. Students use their learning and creative ideas to create an original work that manifests their understanding of the concept, which in our example is enculturation. This could be a play, ballet, song, poem, or whatever students and teacher can come up with. Students consider several possible mediums for their project to determine  how best to represent the academic content from their unit of study in an original artistic work. They first construct a rough draft of the work,  then continue to evaluate and revise their it until they determine that it is ready for presentation.

Once the original artistic work is ready for presentation, students are ready for the fourth and final phase, reflect. Students consider the process they have worked through metacognitively, asking themselves how they learned, and cognitively, asking themselves what they learned. They document these reflections with detailed narratives. Students discover connections consider practical applications of their new knowledge. All of this strengthens students as more self-directed as learners.

Much of what I have described here is not new to many music educators. We routinely teach about repertoire, creating cultural and purpose contexts for the musical works we teach, and we often bring ideas and concepts from other disciplines into our music lessons. Social studies (historical context), science (the science of sound), math (ratios of sound durations and beat groups) and Language Arts (dramatic form) all have been integrated into our music teaching for quite some time. What makes this method different is that it places artistic works front and center. It showcases not only the artistic excellence with which they were born, but of the universality of harmony, emotions, collaboration (of sounds in music and of performers in presenting it). It also makes the arts desirable and accessible to teacher other than of the arts; in fact, Artful Learning is intended to be a school-wide practice wherein teachers of all subjects use the arts to teach their discipline in this arts-centered interdisciplinary approach. I will be using this method initially to teach a unit on Latin American Music this coming school year. I will be writing periodically on my progress.