Child Development and Music Education

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

The Cognitive Pathway and Music

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

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

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

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

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

The Psychological Pathway and Music

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

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

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

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

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


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

Why Arts Education is More Important Than Ever

Version 2Have you ever stopped to consider the difference between sending or receiving a handwritten letter and an e-mail or text? I hadn’t until the other day, when I joined a discussion on whether cursive should be taught in schools, or just allowed to be forgotten and fall into obsolescence. Some argued that the latter had already happened, and that there was no need to preserve cursive because anything ever written in it worth saving, like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, had long since been published online and in print. Others argued that cursive provided a level of personalization and even expression that keyed communication simply did not, and that the act of writing by hand fostered more thoughtful reasoning by allowing the writer to linger over words and phrases as they are formed on the paper, and discouraged them from being glossed over as they are hastily put down through a series of keystrokes.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. As people have stopped learning to write in cursive, they have also stopped being able to read cursive written by others. As I thought about all of this, I realized that often, when my students are doing hand-written work in class, they will add flourishes to certain letters, and draw decorative pictures on their papers, which adds a bit of self-expression and individualization to what they turn in. Occasionally, a student will even ask me, “did you like my picture?” I have learned to turn one-sided assignments over in case there is one of these artistic works on the back, lest I allow it to go unnoticed. I believe students want to put some recognizable expression of themselves in everything they do, and that because they are given fewer opportunities to do so than ever, they seize upon those that they are afforded. Apart from their name posted at the top of the page, a student’s work done on a keyboard and printed out is indistinguishable from all others. In most academic situations, the font is specified, so the appearance is standardized. While other characteristics such as overall writing proficiency can give clues as to the author, these are not vehicles for expression in the way a drawing is. Even poor spelling, which sadly identified me to my undergraduate English professors, can be an indication of the author, that too has been glossed over by spell check.

Bereft of these formerly ample opportunities for self-expression, (spelling errors excepted) I believe the arts have become more important to students than ever. Here, at least, is a discipline where students are, or should be, encouraged to express themselves, to seek out through interpretation the expressings of others, and to be understood on a level that is unparalleled in other disciplines. This offers both an immense opportunity choosing-beautiful-musicand challenge for music educators. For all of our philosophical heritage that espouses the arts as a healthy vehicle for expression, now that we are faced with National Core Arts Standards that overflow with references to “expressive intent,” many music educators, including myself, are left to struggle with just how another person’s expressive intent can be known for certain, and how to teach others to its discovery.

Several new facets of expression emerge from the standards. First, students take on the task of selecting music to perform, and do so based on their “interest in and knowledge of musical works.” While both interest and knowledge can be affected by teaching, both are also resident in students, and when brought to bear on selecting music, become agents in expressing through the selection of musical works. This scenario is quite different from a music teacher who alone selects music for students, and then “sells” his or her interest in the work by requiring them to learn it.

Second, students take on the task of analyzing music they will perform. This analysis is not the sort we did in our undergraduate music theory classes, doing harmonic and thematic analyses of Beethoven piano sonatas and Schoenberg tone rows. No, here students analyze composers’ “context and how they manipulate elements of music [to] provide insight into their intent.” What were the circumstances under which and the purpose for which this music was composed, and then knowing that, how does the music reflect the context and achieve the purpose? What did the composer intend to express when he or she wrote this music? Knowing these things from analysis then informs the performance. Students discover how to handle musical elements according to what the composer meant to express, and become agents of that expressing on behalf of the composer. They also connect with some of themselves, and further interpret the music according to the commonalities they find between themselves and the composer. Once students have performed the work, they analyze their own performance in a similar way, determining if their presentation of musical elements succeeded in conveying the expressive intents they discovered. The ultimate goal of performing music is conveying meaning, and this is first and foremost a matter of expression. 

The whole milieu out of which a composer’s conveyed meaning is born is ramped up when students shift form being performers to composers. When they create music, they are creating musical ideas and then selecting and organizing their own ideas into a musical work for the purpose of conveying their own chosen meaning. Because musical meaning is never literal as literary meaning is, expressive intent in music is at once more general and more personal. Musical meaning is experienced not so much in ideas expressed with words as it is in physical responses such as increased heart rate or sweaty palms, and psychological responses such as a sense of repose, beauty, being startled or delighted. Though we fear being scared, we delight in scary music. It is a safe way to enjoy our humanness manifest in emotions and psychology. Because of how music affects us, it surpasses even poetry in expressive potential. When we have successfully expressed ourselves through music, we are more deeply gratified, more affirmed and set right than we can be by expressing ourselves through any other medium. So while the rest of education continues to sterilize itself of self expression and the valuing thereof, music educators, taking our cue from our standards, must become more embracing and respecting than ever of the expressive intent of music creators and performers, and foremost among them our students.

After The Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



What Is The Purpose of Concerts?

Version 2For most if not all school music programs, the performing of concerts is at the core of what music educators and their students have uppermost on their agendas. Music teachers spend a great deal of time planning and rehearsing concert programs, always with the performance in mind. While (hopefully) plenty of musical concepts are being taught along the way to the concert, those concepts could and are just as effectively taught in non-performance ensemble classes such as general music. So what additional purpose is there in preparing and giving concerts? What value is there in presenting musical work to an audience?

The best way to answer this question is to consult our National Core Arts Standards under the artistic process of performing. With every occurrence of the phrase “for presentation” or “for performing”  in those standards, there is a clue to answering our question, what value is there in presenting musical work to an audience?

The first value is found before the public performance; it is in the preparation of a performance for presentation. We first encounter this phrase in the fourth anchor standard. The authors wrote that students will, ” Select, analyze, and interpret artistic work for presentation.” While most music educators will immediately recognize interpreting as a normal part of the rehearsal agenda, and most will agree they teach at least some analysis of the music they are preparing, the full value of students selecting music to perform may be a bit more elusive. We know that when students are performing music they like or that is familiar to them, they approach rehearsals with more motivation and enthusiasm. But there is more to it than that. In order for students to select music to perform, they must be aware of their own skill level and musical maturity, and the difficulty level of the music they are considering. The process of selecting music requires that students match their own abilities to the demands of the musical work.

First students need to assess their own skills. Teachers can do this by giving students two or three short works of decidedly different difficulty levels. By attempting to perform each one, students can determine which ones are too easy, which ones are too difficult, and which one is just right. While we want our students to challenge themselves in the music they select, we do not want them to attempt something way over their head and become discouraged. Students can answer questions like, “what difficulties do I anticipate having in performing this music?” What specific measures or sections do I think will take the most practice to master?” “What practice strategies will I need to use in order to learn this music?” Do I have enough time before the performance to get this music ready for presenting?” “What new learning do I need before I will be able to rehearse and/or perform this music?” “How will I acquire the new learning I need?” Going through the selecting process guides students through valuable  reflections and analyses that  raise the overall level of their musicianship and music literacy.

Students’ analysis go beyond assessing the difficulty of a musical work. It also prepares students for making informed decisions regarding how to interpret the music. An analysis of the composer’s use of expressive elements such as dynamics and tempo changes, articulation, and timbre and the effect of the use of these elements on their response to listening to the music provides clues to the composer’s expressive intent, which is a foundation for musicians’ interpretations. The expressive qualities the student discovers in a musical work are allowed to freely interact with the student’s own experiences and interest, and the combination results in a personal interpretation that is both personally relevant and interpretively appropriate to the context of the musical work and its creation.

It is probably evident by now that selecting and analyzing encompasses much of what ensemble directors are accustomed to doing for their students; however, when students enter into the rehearsal process at the point where all of the selecting and analyzing has been done for them, they collectively become little more than the director’s musical instrument used to perform the director’s music using the director’s interpretation. While this is stated in an extreme way, it is to some degree true if students are not selecting and analyzing as part of the pre-rehearsal preparation.

There is another aspect of performance preparation that is perhaps usually regarded as part of what the director does, but is better left at least in part to the students; that is, the aspect of deciding when a performance is ready to present to an audience. To make this decision, students apply “criteria and feedback to evaluate the accuracy and MIOSMexpressiveness of ensemble and personal performances.” Personal performances can include how each student is playing their own part in an ensemble, when they practice the part on their own, or it can be how they play a solo part or work. As students progress in their work and advance toward meeting the criteria and incorporating feedback, they can judge when they have met the criteria and incorporated the feedback. At that point, the performance is ready to present. One of the difficulties in leaving this decision to the director, is that students who are struggling or who have simply not met the criteria yet are left either unsatisfied by the performance  because they know they did not contribute what others did, or thinking that an only partially prepared performance is enough to consider that performance ready to present. When the performance decision is generated from within the ensemble, it is more solid, and more satisfying.

All of this gets us to the concert, yet little of it would have taken place without the concert to prepare for. At the concert itself, there are at least two main things to be accomplished. I’m sure most of you can think of more, but the two that I would like to present are first, as stated in anchor standard 6,  students “convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.” This is possible because the students have worked through the process of developing an interpretation, and so that interpretation means something to them both individually, and corporately. The students have learned that by developing an interpretation collaboratively, they have something unified to present and express. This is also possible because through that process, they have learned through analysis what the composer’s intent was, which translates through an interpretation into meaning. It is only by hearing a performance that an audience can ascertain the meaning of the music. Even if students were to describe the music they played in their concert, or if every audience member (cherish the thought) read the scores or listened to another ensemble perform the same works, they would not fully understand the meaning that those students conveyed through that performance after doing that preparation.

The second main thing to be accomplished by giving a concert is to add something worthwhile into the lives of everyone involved. Student performances should always have benefit and value for the student musicians and the audience. From a holiday concert, to a ground breaking ceremony, from a community carol sing at Christmas time, to a half time marching band show, the performance must add value to the community, the culture, and the individual through the conveyance of meaning, the expression of feelings, and the entertainment of all. From an educational perspective, the performance is a summative assessment in that it represents the quality of work that has gone on in selecting, interpreting, rehearsing, evaluating and ultimately deciding to present. There is no suitable substitute for the live concert experience of  musician. Writing papers or lowering grades to compensate for missed concert appearances does not replace the educational and life value lost. We give concerts because performing music fulfills the urging and requirement of the musician’s natural creative spirit.


The Sixty Percent

2011 Symposium2

As we head into May, most of we music teachers are gearing up for a busy concert season comprised of concerts, plays, recitals, and so forth. We’ve been working hard with our students, probably for months, preparing these springtime presentations, and as the show dates approach, we become even more focused on our performing student artists. This attention is good. It creates excitement as we push to the goal of performing with excellence for our audience, and of reaffirming the value of the arts in our schools and in our communities. But let us not skip to hastily over the word “audience.”

When we speak of the value of the arts in our schools, too often it is only the value of the performers we are really talking about. We say things like “what a great experience for those choir members” or “my son can’t wait to get to school on band days, he so enjoys playing in the band.” While these things are great, we must keep in mind that the students actually performing in the band, choir, orchestra, or dance troupe comprise less than half of the student population. Of what value is all our hard work, and the outstanding accomplishments of those student musicians to the majority of students who are not performing? While the numbers are improved from a generation ago, the percentages of students who are performers in the performing arts are still on the low side. In 2012, 48% of 8th graders in the United states participated in performing arts; and by participated I mean performed. More on that in a moment. As of 2013, 36% of  of 10th graders participated in the performing arts, and 37% of 12th graders. That means that 52% of 8th graders, 64% of 10th graders, and 63% of twelfth graders did not participate.

Those non-participants are often categorized as “the audience.” We tell people who aren’t performers that we value them anyway because we performers need people who don’t perform to listen to those of us who do. To try to assure ourselves of future audiences, we create classes for them called “music appreciation” and “general music.” In some schools, students who don’t take a performing ensemble take general music instead, and students who do take a performing ensemble do so instead of taking general music. It’s as if performing musicians don’t need to become more educated music listeners, because everything they need to know about music they learn in band, choir, or orchestra. Such a view has the effect of creating to classes of people: a performing class and a consuming class. But here is the rub: attending concerts and listening to music is also participating in the performing arts.

There is no such thing as passive listening. Whether you know it or not, your brain is organizing and processing all of those musical sounds, making sense of it all so that you recite-1dctmovcan respond to it with emotions, descriptions, or by moving or singing along. People simply don’t listen to music without making some kind of intellectual, emotional, and motor response. The quality of those responses is the value of music in our schools to everyone of those non performing students, who really aren’t non-performing at all. The minute they sing, dance, move, or in any way join in on the musical experience, they have become performers too.

Then there’s the matter of interpretation. Certainly, musicians interpret the music they play, just as visual artists’ created images are interpretations of their vision. But when I go to an art museum, and I look at a painting and reflect on the mood, emotions, stories, and so forth, I too am interpreting the painting. Both the artist and the viewer of art are interpreters. The artist attempts to convey an interpretation, and expressive intent, and the viewer attempts to discover and understand the expressive intent in the form of his or her own life and context. It works the same way with music. The composer conveys an expressive intent through an interpretation of the work as it is created, the performer attempts to understand that intent and convey it through an interpretation to an audience, and the audience attempts to understand the mix of composer’s and performers’ intent by interpreting what is presented. Thus the composer, performer and listener are all interpreters and all participators in the musical experience. The value of music to everyone is found in this commonality of interpreting works of art.

Now think about how that influences our courses of study for the 60% who are not members of our music ensembles or dance corps. Lets begin with some of the enduring understandings from the national core arts standards. For example, one of the enduring understandings is that “through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” For performing students, this goes way beyond learning the notes and following a conductor. For the non-performer, this goes way beyond setting up music as aural wallpaper over which other things are laid.  This is where students connect the music they are performing and/or to which they are listening with their everyday lives, and their everyday experience of being an emoting and feeling human being. Students frequently learn elements and structures of music or dance, but for what purpose? Often, these are taught with the promise that knowing them will allow students to appreciate music, and have their lives enriched. That all sounds good on a poster, but what does that really mean? A composer chose those pitches, those rhythms, those dynamics, articulations, meters, phrases, and timbres not so that people would sit around a classroom identifying them, or in a rehearsal trying to dutifully perform them as written. A composer made all those choices because he or she decided that those were the best means by which an expressive intent could be conveyed. Students need to answer not only what is being expressed, but also how is it being expressed. What was the composer trying to express by making the music so fast, so loud, so calm, or by using just strings, or just brass, or just a woodwind quintet?  Although the 60% cannot relate to music as a performer does, those students can relate to the music through the expressiveness of the work itself and the performance. If music is a universal language, and if music is to be of value to the majority of the majority that does not play, sing or dance, then that value is to be found in the all-inclusiveness of  expressive intent, and all students, performers and non-performers alike, will find that value there together.

Music Education and Self-Directed Learning

2011 Symposium2

Many of us music educators have, over the years, spent a good deal of time advocating for music education. It can seem to us that at every turn, our programs are in danger of being scaled back or eliminated in the name of raising academic achievement–a strategy we know is ill-advised and contrary to an overwhelming body of research. In the midst of these ongoing battles, we can easily become overly defensive of our curriculum, and unintentionally overlook the very strengths of our discipline that make the strongest case for music in our schools. This defensiveness sometimes comes out in opposing allowing students to choose what they study. The argument against is typically that Math and Science teachers don’t give students this sort of choice, so why should music teachers? “We have a curriculum too, and by golly we’re going to stick to it!”

In making this argument, it is easy to overlook the truth that students don’t interact with and relate to Math and Science the way they do to Music. While it is true that students use math in everyday life, they don’t seek it out and connect with these subjects as they do with music. When we are teaching music, it is helpful to think of our lessons as projects. A teacher that assigns a project allows the student to choose what he or she will do, as long as the work will result in the student learning an identified concept. This is the key point: it is the concept, not the content, that matters. If you want to teach students to compose parts for a rhythm section in a popular song, they can use any song they choose (within guidelines of appropriate language) to delve into as a model. With my middle school students, I sometimes ask them “how would you like to learn today?” Some will choose to work alone, some will choose to work in groups. Some will want me to teach them directly, some will want to discover on their own through responding to music.

Yesterday, for their “do now” question, I even asked an eighth grade class, “what do you want to learn in music today?” I had a lesson all planned and ready to go, but only intended to use it if for students who didn’t respond to my question. All students did respond, and they came up with some excellent ideas; some of them pleasantly surprised me. For example, two boys chose to work together to find out what instruments were used in the Renaissance. I would never have thought to teach that, and there’s no way the entire class would have been interested in that, but these two boys were. They came up with some questions they would answer, and then used the internet to listen to examples of Renaissance music, identify the instruments they heard as best they could, and find out what instruments were commonly used at that time.

A group of four girls started out saying they wanted to “make a beat,” which translatedrecite-1nv08gg usually means they wanted to play the same hip-hop rhythm for half an hour. I asked them, how are you going to do that so that you learn something new? Now they were nudged out of their comfort zone, but they pressed on because after all, the whole thing was their idea. They decided to listen to a song and learn the rhythm part. “Great” I said, “what song do you want to use that will be a model for you making a new rhythm?” Now they needed a song that didn’t use the same old hip-hop beat. They chose a funky song they sort of liked, but they worked hard at learning the rhythm, and then had a good time performing it for me. In the process, they learned what back beats were, learned a rather advanced rhythm off of the bass line, and gained some new (for them) ideas to incorporate into their own composition.

When students direct their own learning, they will not learn everything you would have taught them if you were directing the learning, but they will learn thing you would not have taught them, and those things mean more to students, and make a more lasting impression, and have a greater effect on their lives. That makes the fruits of their self-directed learning incredibly important. The truth is, self-directed learning will result in students learning a diverse repertoire of music and body of knowledge. We can easily underestimate the diversity of interests our students have, and wrongly assume that if it were up to them, all we’d be doing all year is world drumming and hip-hop. I have been guilty of thinking this way, and honestly, when I first tried this sort of teaching, it looked like my assumption was playing out. The key is to manage the class so that students are not put in the position of declaring an interest in front of the whole class that is not shared by most. Those boys would never have announced to the whole class that they wanted to study Renaissance music. That would make them responsible for most of their classmates being bored with their choice. But given the opportunity to follow that interest with one or two others that share that interest, and knowing that the rest are being given the same opportunity, the risk is eliminated, and the opportunity becomes irresistible.

For all of this to work, it is not necessary to always give students the choice of what they learn. In fact, the first question I got when I asked them how they wanted to learn, was “what do you want us to learn?” It’s a great question, and students will be more willing to learn what you want them to learn if they get to choose how they learn it. There is great benefit in allowing students to choose how they learn, because it gives them the opportunity to work off of their strengths. Because of this, they will often experience enjoyment and success learning something they would neither have succeeded at or enjoyed had it been taught your way.

MIOSM: The Creative Mind and Being Inspired

2011 Symposium2

It is hard to argue with the statement that music inspires us, though in my last post I discussed some conditions that music must meet to be inspirational. Today, I would like to share with you some of the science behind being inspired. What state does our brain like to be in for it to think creative thoughts? In what sorts of environments do we function most creatively? To answer these questions, I’m going to show you part of an article Rebecca Adams (no relation) wrote for The Huffington Post. In it, she summarizes pertinent research on how music and other aural stimuli affect our creative readiness and attitudes.

Obviously, it’s tricky to measure how a song can lead to increased creativity, but it’s clear that music can inspire higher brain functioning — provided you like the particular piece of music playing, that is. As long as music can get you in a positive mood and increase your arousal levels, you just might reap immediate cognitive benefits. Levitin explained that the field of neuroscience has identified two primary modes of brain operation: Either you’re paying attention to something very closely and you’re deeply engaged in a task, or you’re in “mind-wandering mode,” which involves daydreaming and flitting from thought to thought. As Levitin put it, “It’s a flood of different thoughts that feel unconnected and loose.”

It’s in this mode where almost all of our creativity happens, and where we’re able to come up with innovative solutions to problems. “You’ve probably had the experience that you had some problem you were trying to solve, either a work problem or a very practical problem,” Levitin told HuffPost. “You think about it for a while and you really direct your energy to think about it, and you come up with nothing. Then later in the afternoon, you’ve gone to walk the dogs or you’re grocery shopping — you’re not even thinking about it — and boom: The answer pops into your mind.”

Mind-wandering mode, which was discovered by neurologist Marcus Raichle at MIOSMWashington University in 2001, is the default mode of the brain. In other words, it’s the state the brain enters into most easily — which is why focusing on a task can be so mentally exhausting, or “metabolically expensive,” as Levitin put it.

On the other hand, you can stay in mind-wandering mode for a long time and still feel recharged and inspired to come up with imaginative ideas. You get into this mode by relaxing, letting go of the problem or task at hand, and voila — creativity ensues. Or at least that’s the idea. So what does this have to do with music?

“Music is one of the most exquisitely effective ways of allowing you to enter the mind-wandering mode,” said Levitin, who devotes a chapter of his forthcoming book, The Organized Mind, to this precise topic.

In 2011, Finnish researchers found that when our brains process the timbre of a song, our default-mode network (associated with mind-wandering mode) is activated, inspiring creativity. Such mental rewards don’t only apply to those in the arts: Even computer programmers have been shown to benefit from the positive, relaxing mood that music can induce.

Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably already using music for mood regulation. The song you play when you wake up in the morning is likely quite different from the song you put on after a breakup. Taking the time to relax to your favorite music can not only complement your mood, but it can also unlock any mental barriers to your imagination.

“The ‘right’ music — meaning, the right music for you at a particular point in time, because it’s subjective and idiosyncratic — pushes you into this mind-wandering state,” said Levitin. “You relax and you let your thoughts flow from one to another, and that’s how you get into creativity.”

When it comes to background music, volume is key…

Most of us don’t simply listen to music to relax or prepare for a task. Rather, we listen to music while studying or working.

In 2012, Schellenberg conducted a study on background music and concluded that it seemed to have no effect on cognitive function, unless it was too loud or too fast and therefore distracting. Another 2012 study by different researchers found that exposure to a moderate level of ambient noise — say around 70 decibels — enhances abstract thinking and performance on creative tasks, compared to low (50 dB) and high (85 dB) levels of noise. (According to the American Tinnitus Association, 70 dB is about as loud as a washing machine, while 50 dB is comparable to rainfall and 85 dB is about the noise equivalent of “average traffic.”)

…and so is the tempo.

In 2013, the music-streaming service Spotify commissioned research on the benefits of studying with background music. Lead researcher Emma Gray, a clinical psychologist at the British CBT & Counseling Service, found that it was important to choose the “right” music — in this case upbeat music with 50-80 beats per minute. This can include classical pieces, like Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” and contemporary pop like Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” or Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” Once again, this is intended to boost arousal.

While we take these findings with a grain of salt, we’d also guess that if you listen to an upbeat song you like, it probably won’t hurt your creativity. And who knows? It might just work for you.

Both Schellenberg and Levitin agree that music will have different effects on your brain and behavior depend on how it makes you feel. Want to be alert and focused? Try an upbeat song that puts you in a good mood, whether it’s Mozart or Miley. Want to step away from a problem and relax in order to find a solution? Play anything you like — and don’t dismiss those sad songs you like to mope around to.

“When we hear sad music, it allows us to empathize with the composer and the musician and makes us feel connected to them,” said Levitin. This empathy, he said, can allow individuals to glean creative insights they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Adams, R. (2014). Here’s proof music can do more than just make you feel good, The Huffington Post, Huffpost Healthy Living.

MIOSM: How Does Music Inspire?

2011 Symposium2

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) leads a music education awareness campaign each year during the month of March. This year’s campaign is themed “Music Inspires.” The month long celebration of music in schools typically includes stepped-up performance schedules for school ensembles, special events, and classroom activities designed to increase awareness of the presence and benefits of music education. Calling attention to all of this is a good idea. When it comes to things that are constantly present, we tend to take them for granted. Calling awareness to music in our schools raises value in the public eye, which is always beneficial to any cause. But if this is as far as it goes, an efficient publicity blitz and some extra concerts, when the month has passed, music education fades back to where it was before, and music educators pack away the pins, pencils and posters until next year, like the Christmas decorations going back into the attic every New Year’s Day. No, we must take this opportunity to go deeper, and to bring to light the more meaningful and lasting attributes of a school and civic community that includes music education.

A good place to start is by pausing to reflect on the slogan, “Music Inspires.” When I think of influences on my life that have truly inspired me, I think of people, places, and overall experiences that made such a positive impression on me, that the memory hung around long enough to shape and change me for the better. There are a few teachers and a few musical performances that fall into that category, but there are many more teachers and musical performances that do not. So in what sense is it accurate to claim that music MIOSMinspires, when from my own experience, I can only claim that some music inspires and that music sometimes inspires. The claim is therefore conditional on what inspires an individual person, and on what music is being experienced. There are times when a whole audience is inspired by a single performance, evidenced by the audience giving a performance a standing ovation and recalling performers to the stage for additional bows. There are other times when we hear a performance alone on our phone or music player, and are excited enough by what we hear to be compelled run to a friend and tell them all about the music to which we have just listened. I did not hear the original broadcast, but when I later listened to Lady Gaga’s performance of the American National Anthem at Super Bowl 50, I was excited; truly moved and inspired, and had to play it for my wife right away. These moments that animate, brighten, enliven, and yes, inspire our lives are deeply personal and highly shareable. Whether shared within a large audience, or one on one or one on a few friends at a time, music does inspire us. But not all music at all times.

This is the critical point for music educators. If we are to bring the inspiration of music to our students, we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that whatever inspires us will inspire our students. We must move thoughtfully through the world’s musical repertoire, observing what already inspires our students, and introducing musical works and genres to them that are likely to awaken new highs in their musical experiences. I believe that certain kinds of music universally inspire people in similar ways, tapping into our emotional and physical makeup. The primal beating of sections of L’Sacre du Printemps set pencils1our bodies in motion and raise our heart rates, and the flowing of a Native American flute calm and sooth us, drawing us to a peaceful repose with the earth’s natural beauty. But these two examples go beyond eliciting a particular affect, they are also exemplary specimens of creative musical work; they rise above the glut of other highly percussive or highly soothing examples one could find. We discover in this that inspiration draws not only on substance, but on quality of plan and execution. Things that inspire us stand out from similar thing that do not.

We must also notice that music inspires us in a different way when we perform or actively participate than when we are merely the objects of another’s performance. While I am inspired by Harold Wright’s recorded performance of the slow movement from Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet in F minor, I am inspired in a much more active and personal way when I perform that music myself. While I am roused by a live performance of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, I am all the more roused by being in the band that is performing it. Furthermore, there is a way in which musical performances have a greater impact on me because of my own performance experience. I can physically relate to what a clarinetist is doing to produce the sound I am hearing, or to what a musician is feeling emotionally and physically as he is performing in a concert for which I am in the audience. It is something like what Jeff Gordon is bringing to the commentary of NASCAR races. He is showing me the race from a driver’s perspective in a way none of the other commentators have been able to do. The more involved, I might even say enveloped, in music making we are, the more the music is apt to inspire us.

For music education to be the catalyst music inspiring people, music educators must bring all of these aspects of inspiration into the classroom. They must choose repertoire thoughtfully, create an environment wherein students can share with each other music and musical experiences that have inspired them, use music that exemplifies excellence in planning and execution both in composition and performance, and must equip all students with a functioning level of competence in music performance, so the they can relate  music they hear to their own musical performance experiences. If we as music educators are accomplishing that, then we truly must let people know what we have and are accomplishing.

When Teaching Music Appreciation, Keep It Simple

2011 Symposium2

I’ve always had a love for classical music. I’m not sure why, but for as long as I can remember, and my family tells me it goes back further than that, I have pulled myself away from distractions and settled in to enjoy a symphony, concerto, or sonata. With this background, it is not surprising that I enjoyed a music appreciation class that I took in high school. The class gave me the technical low down on music I already enjoyed, and introduced me to music that added to my listening repertoire. I’m convinced that this all worked for me because the explanations of sonata form, fugues, and so on came after I was an experienced listener and after I had developed a love, or “appreciation” for the music.

I have observed that trying to come at it from the other direction is not nearly so successful. It is very difficult to develop a love for classical music in an inexperienced listener by explaining musical form, history, and theory . In fact, what better way to drive people away than to tell them they have to study all of these things before they can hope to enjoy the music? A great symphonic or chamber work is great because it has been and still can be enjoyed by anyone, even those who are unaware of what technical matters the composer was using to create the musical work.

While it will be fascinating to many to learn how these masterworks are put together, it is essential to realize that the nobility or ferocity or tenderness or anguish or unbridled joy that comes forth out of the music is what brings about enjoyment from music. I or anyone else no more needs to know the composer’s bag of tricks to enjoy his or her music than one needs to be well versed in literary form to enjoy a good play, novel, or poem. Great artistic works speak for themselves, and do not need to be analyzed to reveal that which brings us enjoyment. Analysis brings its own enjoyment to those who choose to pursue it, and as I have said, to those already familiar with a work, but it should never be made an obstacle or gate through which the novice listener must pass as theoretical expertise were required for entrance into the  concert hall. There is nothing wrong with analysis, or

New World Example

Opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor

studying music theory or history, but these things must be taught a the right time. Just as reading music cannot successfully precede aural/oral audiation, music theory cannot successfully precede gaining experience listening to music which will afterwards be analyzed.

So where should one begin. Most people naturally enjoy music they are familiar with. This makes introducing them to new music challenging, and to a new musical genre even more so. The more familiar ground we can rest on the better. Many of our students will  know more classical music than they realize. Between hearing classical themes in cartoons, movies, television commercials and video games, the overall sound of a symphony orchestra is likely to be familiar to most. Begin with something they are likely to have heard before, like the toccata from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or the introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Have a conversation with the students on what they like about these pieces, what emotions they experienced from the music, or just having them try to describe what they heard. We can insert music vocabulary as they respond, but we are not trying to be technical at this point. Once a few pieces have been enjoyed, suggest other pieces that are similar. If they liked Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop,” perhaps they will also like a gallop by Kabelevsky or Shostakovich. If they liked the Allegro form Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, then perhaps they will also enjoy the first movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony.

Many composers wrote variations before they wrote symphonies or sonatas. When you want to introduce form, follow their lead and start with variations. The great advantage in this is that you can select variations on a theme that is familiar to your students, making it fun to travel through the variations. Mozart’s variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” or Beethoven’s variations on “God Save The King” are good choices. When you are ready to teach sonata form, use a piece you have already had your students listen to and respond to in the ways I discuss above. As with the variations, with a familiar theme they will be better able to understand the developments, and by repeating works, you will also be building greater familiarity. Students seem to universally like the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and Mozart’s symphony no. 40 in g minor, or Dvorak’s “Overture Carnival” are good choices.

How Do Creativity and Structure Go Together?

2011 Symposium2

Developing creative and expressive thinking is, I believe, at the heart and soul of music education. These two things, creative thinking and expression, are included in the core arts standards, in most arts curricula, and in most defenses of supporting the arts in education. Yet being creative is often misunderstood, and misleading and even harmful teaching sometimes results when even music teachers don’t fully understand what being creative entails, and how one uses creativeness to be successful.

First and perhaps most importantly, teaching a child to be creative does not involve letting him or her do whatever they want, or placing them in a completely unrestricted environment, free to choose anything that randomly comes to mind. This is because even people would generally consider to be a highly creative idea must be of some benefit to those affected. Scissors with sensors on them so they can remotely move according to my jaw motions would be extremely creative, but highly unusable because they would take the cutting motions away from the object being cut, making it extremely difficult to be accurate. If a person invented such a pair of scissors, they would have done so without a specific need they were trying to fill, or a specific problem they were trying to solve. There is I’m sure a need for scissors that people with a disability in their hands could use by some other method than manipulating them manually, but my jaw controlled scissors aren’t a helpful solution to that problem or contribution to that need.  Creative thought must be directed toward a goal if it is to be accepted, beneficial or even just considered a good idea.

With that in mind, let us now consider music. The great musical innovators in Western art music were not all inventors of something totally new. J. S. Bach was an innovator whose influence reaches over the centuries to the present time. His creative thought, or perhaps restlessness, lead him to incorporate into his music rhythms and textures from abroad at time when composers were provincial and not aware of what was going on elsewhere. Bach was also creative in that he did what he was doing at such a high level, that his music has been the prototype for great composers that followed, including Mozart.

Stravinsky caused not only a riot in the concert hall with his premiere of The Rite of Spring,  but also introduced a level and use of dissonance not known before, and that would become highly influential, especially to film composers of the 20th century. Jimi Hendrix thought of a way to use feedback, and Louis Armstrong though of using his distinctive voice even though he was known for his trumpet playing. In each case, these creative musicians found new ways to use old forms or instruments to create a new sound, and even a new way of thinking about music.

It wasn’t just the ideas that made these musicians’ innovations influential. Nobody would Dance-and-Movementhave cared or taken any of them seriously if they had been just average or just competent musicians. But each of these musicians had his craft down solid. Each had complete command of his art. There are plenty of forgotten musical compositions that use dissonance, plenty of unknown guitarists who use distortion, and plenty of trumpet players that also sing in a jazz band. These things in and of themselves were not what made Stravinsky, Hendrix, and Armstrong great. They could deliver the goods better than most. And because they were so good at what they did, and so respected in their musical genre, people followed them, and recognized that here was something worth noticing.

So what does this mean for music educators? If we are going to train our students to think and make music creatively, first we must develop musicianship to high level. As we have seen, creative ideas aren’t worth much if they can’t be implemented. Teach musicianship first. At every step of the way, allow children to explore and improvise with the ability and skill they have attained so far. Playing one pitch songs comprised entirely of whole notes and whole rests may be efficient for teaching notes, but it is not creative. Let children play other rhythms on that one pitch. It’s not necessary for them to read in notation everything they play. Think of all the great music that has been written by musicians who could not read music and what our culture would be like if we had forbidden them from making music because they couldn’t read notes. This list includes all of the Beatles, Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Halen. Always let children go as far as they can go with what they have to work with. That said, there must always be a purpose to the creative activity; the activity can never be random. That purpose can be personal satisfaction as when a child is searching for or enjoying rhythms or sounds he or she has discovered, or it can be to write music in a particular form, for a particular occasion, or to express a particular intent. Remember, creativity needs direction.