Time Is Precious, How We Use It Even More So

Version 2One of the challenges of being an Arts Educator is the relatively limited time we have with our students. Whereas Math or L.A. teachers see their students every day, music teachers often see a class once or twice a week. Teaching a year’s curriculum within these curtailed contact hours can be daunting. A common response to this “time crunch” is to “hit the ground running,” teach fast, and push through to cover as much content as possible. While this may seem like a good idea, it frequently works out less satisfactorily than one would have hoped. The overbearing presence of the teacher, and limited opportunities for practice and application result in teacher and students alike carrying more anxiety than successful teaching and learning from one class meeting to the next.

Add to this the many personal issues students bring into the classroom that delays them from being ready to learn, and music teachers can easily become even more stressed as they try to settle a class and get straight to teaching amid a classroom of students who are troubled, agitated, or any number of other things, and feel the need to talk about it before even attempting to apply themselves to your lesson. It is in these first few minutes of class where the tone for the whole class will be set. Badgering a class to calm down and stop talking rarely works if there are hot topics in progress. While it may delay getting to the planned lesson, a better use of those early class minutes is to provide students with the opportunity to decompress, focus on ethical, cooperative behavior, and practice demonstrating respect to you and their classmates.

I have come to enjoy starting some of my classes with a restorative justice circle. As the name implies, the idea is to get a class together and restore whatever is troubling or problematic in the students relationships at that moment. When I greet a class at the door, I tell them to please be seated on the floor in the front of the room before going tho their assigned seats. Once seated, I will present them with a question that can be answered in a word or two, and that will start them listening to and respecting each other.

The school in which I work is a Comer school, and our focus pathway this week is the ethical pathway. With this in mind, I asked them, “what is one thing you have done today for the good of someone else, or if you haven’t done anything good for someone else, what is one thing you would like to do for someone else before the end of school today?” We then go around and each child gives an answer. We have a “talking piece,” an object that is passed to whoever is answering, and only that person may speak. All others just listen, without responding or judging what others say. With smaller groups, or subgroups of a class, responses can be to draw a picture or construct a craft that is glued to poster board. Students then use their talk time to explain the artifact they have created. Just the act of listing to each child speak does wonders in getting a class ready to learn. Focusing on others helps them forget about what was disturbing or upsetting them when they came into the classroom.

Having done the circle, I will remind students of the respect they practiced during that time if they begin to do otherwise later in the class. All of this only takes 7-8 minutes, and it paves the way for much more effective teaching and learning in the remaining time of the class. In this case, showing respect was a theme, a thread, that ran through the entire class. Each time the class performed, or individuals performed, it was framed as an opportunity to demonstrate respect which would make another person feel good, and which would invite them to give return the respect.

Teaching appropriate behavior and habits using restorative justice transforms classroom management from punativeness to positivity. it makes correcting behavior part of the educational plan instead of an interruption of it. This is not to say that interruptions will be eliminated or that negative consequences for bad behavior will not longer be needed. It is to say that the need for those strategies will be reduced, and teaching will become more enjoyable for the teacher, and learning will become more enjoyable for students.

It is easy to assume that students know how to behave and are always choosing to do otherwise when they misbehave, but that is not so. Many students do not realize they are being disrespectful, because what they are doing is accepted or tolerated in other settings, including home, daycare, and even other classes. Students are often grateful for leaning a better way to manage their behaviors and emotions, and realize an improved quality of life within the school community as a result of the teacher practicing restorative justice circles.

If you are thinking you don’t have time to devote 8 minutes to a restorative circle at the beginning of each meeting of some or all of your classes, consider this: how much time does managing student behavior take away from time spent teaching your planned music lesson? I’m fairly certain if you actually timed it out, you would find you spend at least 8 minutes correcting or dispensing consequences during at least some classes. Occasionally , you might even spend more. If so, then why not use the same amount of time to teach them something positive with a restorative circle, a strategy that will probably pay dividends in time saved class after class.

To see how restorative circles work, here is a short video. The question being used is a good one for getting students used to the circle because it doesn’t ask them to divulge anything too personal. Notice how the students relax and look like they start to enjoy the circle after the first few students take their turn. Their sense of community and of enjoying the opportunity to share what they think is awakened during the first few seconds of the circle. In the last segment of the video, the artifact produced could then be the basis for another round of answers, as they share what is in their artifact with the circle.

Passing Along Your Musical Roots

2011 Symposium2

Psychologists will tell you that you are a blend of “nature and nurture–” that you are what you are partly because of inherited traits, and partly because of what your interactions with your environment have been. Today, I am interested in the musical aspect of the environment in which we all matured from early childhood to the present. Our musical personality has been shaped by thousands of interactions with music, and continues to be shaped by them. For music teachers, this means that what we bring to our teachers is unique compared to that which other teachers bring, even when teaching the same material and using the same method.

The arts coordinator in the school district in which I work once remarked that students at my school love to sing. While most children love to sing, her comment was intended to point out that my students have a love for singing that exceeds that which she observes at other schools. I was pleased to hear the comment, and have since reflected upon it. The first thing I realized was that love to sing. My parents have told me that from a very early age I enjoyed singing. In those early years, I don’t believe either of them frequently sang, so I suppose I was born with a love for singing and for music. My grandfather on my mother’s side loved to sing, and I often heard is fine tenor voice when those grandparents visited our home, especially on Christmas during the family carol sing in the living room. Later on, my father, at least in part because of my evident love of music, took guitar lessons and after a while instituted Sunday afternoon sing-a-longs with the family. My memory of these times of singing are very dear, even to this day.

Even though my mother’s weekly audience with the radio for the boy singingMetropolitan Opera’s radio broadcast often drove me out of the house to avoid that “horrible” music, even here I eventually grew to love opera, revealing in the expert use of the human voice displayed by those singers. There are a few concerts that stay in one’s memory, concerts that are life changing. One of those for me was a recital given by Pavarotti in the early 1980’s. He was at the height of his career then, and I still marvel at what I heard him do with his voice that evening. His recording of La Boheme from about that time with the Met is still my favorite opera recording.

Though my major instrument in music school was clarinet, I was still required to sing in Chorale for two semesters. What started out as an unwelcome requirement turned out to be something I thoroughly enjoyed. During that time I sang Honegger’s King David, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Brahms’ A German Requiem,  and other smaller pieces for chorus. I had never sung in a choir before college, so this was the revealing of a new way to enjoy voice. Later, I played several roles in community theater productions, revealing in getting roles that suited my developing tenor voice.

Through all of these experiences, is it any wonder that I still have a great love for singing, and is it any wonder that this love should rub off on my students, just as my father’s and grandfather’s music making rubbed off on me. The music that inhabits my mind lifts my spirits and often finds escape in the form of a hummed or softly sung tune, even when I am in public. There is nothing quite so precious as a teacher who goes beyond the material, the curriculum, to share a love of that material with his or her students. My love for music in general and singing in particular is, I think, arguably the best part of my teaching. And the best part is, offering it takes no special training or practice; it is simply letting my students see who I really am–a music lover steeped in the enjoyment of living with and making music.

The Importance of Echo Songs in the Early Grades

2011 Symposium2

Children develop the ability to sing accurately by repeating short patterns or song fragments. As they do so, they are building a vocabulary of music patterns that they will be able to remember, sing, and eventually read, write and use to improvise. While children can learn patterns by singing them with others in a class, they cannot learn to accurately sing from audiation unless they are given the opportunity to sing alone. When a child sings alone, the possibility of imitating other voices, or depending on others for pitch or rhythm, is eliminated. Using song fragments is good practice, because they are easy to remember, and can be recognized from one song to another. Eventually, as the child develops musically, the length of what he or she can remember increases, and the child acquires the ability to recognize that a melody is built from several familiar patterns placed on after the other.

Patterns that are notes in a single chord are easiest and most natural to beginMusicEar with. One of the easiest echo songs to use early on is “No More Pie.” The entire song consists of a descending minor triad. As usual, it is best to teach the song without words first, so that the children focus on the notes instead of the lyrics. Begin on a neutral syllable, such as “bum” and sing the descending minor triad with all equal durations. Pause for about two seconds, then give a non-verbal signal for the class to repeat back to you what you have just sung. The two second pause causes the children to audiate the pattern before they sing it, instead of just imitating it without thought. When the class has learned the pattern, then have individual children sing it, each time about two seconds after you have sung it. The child who can accurately do this is audiating well. For all children, you will have a valuable assessment of where they are in developing audiation skills.

The descending minor triad melodic pattern you just taught does not have to be applied right away, but it could be. In either case, when you teach “No More Pie,” the children will already be familiar with the melodic pattern when they hear it in the song. The rhythm will be new, so it is best to start with three equal durations as before, and then begin using the rhythm from the song, which is half note, eighth note, and dotted quarter note. You sing one pattern, which is one line of lyrics, and then the class or an individual student sings the exact same thing. Here are the lyrics:

Oh, my… No more pie… Pie’s too sweet… I want a piece of meat… Meat’s too red… I want a piece of bread… Bread’s too brown… I think I’ll go to town… Town’s too far… I think I’ll take a car… Car won’t go… I fell and stubbed my toe… Toe gives me pain… I think I’ll take a train… Train had a wreck… I fell and hurt my neck… Oh, my. No more pie.

notationsYou should continue to teach patterns, first on a neutral syllable and later on solfege, regardless of whether they will be used in the lesson for that day or not. It is helpful to point out a pattern you have taught when it is in a song you are using, but the children’s skill with audiating and accurately singing will be evident as they practice and learn new patterns. While chord patterns are easiest to begin with, scalar patterns can also be added in. For the latter, begin with pentatonic patterns and then add diatonic ones. Although Kodaly pedagogy avoids the sub dominant, this is more due to it appearing in Hungarian folk music relatively rarely than it is from any inherent difficulty in singing it. The sub dominant is common in American folk music, and should be familiar to most American children by the time they are six years old. The song “My Aunt Came Back” is a good example of an echo song that uses scalar patterns and includes the sub dominant. “Bill Grogan’s Goat” uses a mix of scalar and chordal patterns, and “Tongo” uses mostly chordal patterns. All of these echo songs have patterns 2-4 beats that are easily remembered. Teach these songs without the words first, and you will be giving your students great training in accurate singing and audiation.

My Lifelong Love of Music: I Wonder Where It Started

2011 Symposium2

Amid the frequent pronouncements of doom over classical music, and the unenthusiastic attitude of many of my general music students toward it, I sometimes ask myself what drew me to classical music. I never became a great musician, yet my love for music has always been great. That’s important because when a child is raised in a music rich environment, he can become a life-long music lover, even if he never plays at Boston’s Symphony Hall, or New York’s Carnegie all or….(you fill in your prestigious concert hall). Here’s how I became the music lover and the musician/teacher I am today.

My parents told me that I enjoyed music from a very early age, but many children do. My earliest memories are discovering the two classical recordings had in their record collection, and delighting in playing them on their phonograph. At some point, I also discovered Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts on television. The whole family waited for them to end before we could have dinner on those precious afternoons when they were broadcast. I soon began imagining that I was the conductor of a symphony orchestra.

At that time, the Hartford (CT) Symphony Orchestra periodically broadcast a concert

Arthur Winograd Conducting the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

Arthur Winograd Conducting the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

on television. The broadcast had a theme song, it was “Getting To Know You” from the musical “The King and I.” I soon began starting my classical music listening sessions by playing “Getting To Know You,” and then switching over to one of the classical records. I would stand in front of the phonograph conducting the music, dreaming of becoming the next Leonard Bernstein or Arthur Winograd (former cellist of the Julliard Quartet, and then conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.)

As I grew into my teens, I got to go to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, to see that great orchestra play. My mother took me, and we had memorable days together enjoying the music and the cool Massachusetts Berkshire air that is so refreshing and welcome compared to the hotter more humid air we so often left behind in Connecticut. When I got my driver’s license, I subscribed to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and drove myself to Symphony Hall in Springfield to hear orchestra concerts. It never occurred to me to object to going alone. I just couldn’t wait until the next concert.
By this time, my clarinet playing (I had started when I was ten years old) had progressed so that I was active in regional festivals, musical theater pits, and the school concert and jazz bands. The more I played, the more exciting life got. I began conducting while still in high school, and was able to conduct a composition I wrote for band. A classmate in music theory class got me interested in composing, and though I never formally studied music composition, I have dappled in it ever since, having several works performed over the years.

I entered college as a music education major so that I would be assured of making a living in music. There were frequent delights in a music conservatory–chamber music ensembles, wind ensembles, an opera orchestra, solo playing with piano–these were more varied and more fun than ever. Four years at a music conservatory were filled with music, though a few performances still stand out in my memory. Playing clarinet and bass clarinet for Pierrot Lunaire, playing on WGBH radio’s “Morning Pro Musica” with Robert J. Lurtsema and singing in a performance of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” were among the standouts.

And then there was a concert I attended given by the Hartford Symphony. Philip

Philipe Entremont

Philipe Entremont

Entremont played the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. I was fascinated. How could a piano concerto start with just the piano? How could the work begin without the orchestra playing the exposition? Yet there it was, only the pianist playing those four repeated chords, and then another four, and then the end of the first phrase. How curious that so much expression could be found in repeated chords, yet it was expressive. By the time the orchestra came in I was both annoyed and relieved. Annoyed that the spell had been broken, and relieved that Beethoven hadn’t left the orchestra out of the first movement! With all the classical music I had heard, I still had the thrill and excitement of being in wonder. That was it. The old music always sounded fresh and was capable of inspiring my inner being.

Harold Wright

Harold Wright

At some point, it was no longer works that were new to me that brought out that wonder, but new interpretations of familiar ones. Lorin Maazel conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth symphony with the bell tones of the brass brought to the fore. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto played as I never knew a clarinet could be played, sublime, by Harold Wright. Leonard Bernstein Conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and a few years later, Brahms first symphony. I met Mr. Bernstein after that concert, and it is to this day among the most precious two minutes of my life.

The delights, both remembered and ongoing, are seemingly endless. They started somewhere in my childhood, and snowballed into a life-long delight. How it all started, I am still not sure, but I do know this: I have always surrounded myself and been surrounded by music. I found pleasure and fulfillment in it that others did not. For the past 30 years it has been my privilege to teach young people music, and for some, to move other life-long love affairs with music along. Whether it is the turning of a phrase in the ear, or a lovely body in motion to the music, or the images of a video helping my imagination take flight along with the music, it is a joy that for me has never been matched. Musicians, fill the lives of others with your music, your art. It is an ennobling and necessary part of human life.

By the way, the two recordings were Gaite Parisienne by Offenbach, performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.

Musical Intelligence, Three Systems, and the Creative Processes


Among the nine intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in his Multiple Intelligences Theory, is musical intelligence. An intelligence is a way of knowing, and different people have different ways of knowing and learning. Someone who has a prevalent musical intelligence is able to use rhythms and patterns to assist learning. Such a person will learn well using rhythm or music, and may study better with music playing in the background. This individual will enjoy listening to and creating music, and will become emotionally invested in and moved by music. Because of an affinity with rhythm, this person will tend to enjoy poetry.

In his book The Arts and Human Development, Gardner proposed three systems by which a person develops musically. These three systems initially appear in sequence, and then, as the child approaches pre-kindergarten age, they increasingly interact. The three systems are making, perceiving, and feeling. Making deals primarily with physical responses to music, and can be seen in newborn children, as they kick and wiggle in response to a musical stimulus. As musical ability grows, making actions include movement that conforms to a beat or that is an intentional layout-classroomexpressive gesture. Perceiving involves discriminant listening, having thoughts and ideas about the music, and placing the music into the context of the child’s external world. Feeling is at work when the child responds affectively to the music.

The creative processes described in the core arts standards complement Gardner’s three systems well. The making system describes the activity of a student improvising movement to music, or using the body to understand or express his or her own or the composer’s expressive intent. Making also includes conducting, and performance gestures including phrasing and finger work on an instrument. We can see that Gardner’s “making” crosses over from improvisatory creating to performance. Perceiving is very closely akin to the creative process of responding. It is through this system (Gardner) or artistic process (core arts standards) that a student analyzes, evaluates, and learns the composer’s expressive intent. These are actions that rely heavily on the cognitive domain (Bloom) or cognitive pathway (Comer), a trait Gardner attributes to the perceiving system.

Feeling also aligns with the artistic process of responding, and also with that of connecting. Connecting includes finding relevancy not only to the external world, but also to the student’s own personal world, including inner feelings, experiences, interests, abilities, context, and preferences. The feeling system, like the connecting process, requires a level of self-awareness and other-awareness that makes connection to self and others possible. As the child experiences emotional responses to situations and other people, he or she is able to connect with those emotions when they are evoked by music and at that moment recognizable as also having been evoked by someone or something else. Early on, these responses are broad, including “happy,” “sad,” “scary,” or “funny.” Later, with more life experience, they become deeper and more varied, and may include shades of happy, sad, scary or funny, including melancholy, blue, whimsical, suspenseful, rhapsodic, or jovial.

One final thought on musical intelligence. As proposed by Gardner, and as explained by Gordon, musical intelligence is not so much something that is taught as it is something that is possessed, as one possesses fingers, hair, or interests. No one’s fingers, hair or interest remain the same from birth to death. They all grow and change over one’s lifetime, and can be affected by what experiences we have. Fingers may become strong or weak, may remain healthy or arthritic. Interests certainly grow and change throughout life. So it is with intelligence. Music educators enrich intelligence, but they don’t make it from scratch, and they don’t cause it to be the same in everyone. Through training, a person’s musical intelligence can grow, especially during the early years, but in truth a person applies their native musical intelligences to their learning, and the results are affected in part by the nature of that musical intelligence.

Can Encouraging Creativity Include Correcting Errors?

2011Symposium_1_2Today, as I attended the fifth biennial Symposium on Music in Schools at Yale University, I became occupied with a question that came to mind as I listened to Sebastian Ruth talk about helping students find their voice through music education. His talk and the discussion that followed included points on developing relationships with students as co-learners with their teachers, downplaying the traditional authoritative nature of the teacher. This is done by leaving the child to make more decisions about his or her own learning, and giving the student the freedom to operate within his or her own cultural perspective and personal experience with music. Creativity plays a critical role in all of this, and certainly in arts courses, including music, it is reasonable to expect that students will have more opportunity and encouragement to be creative and act on creative ideas than they perhaps will have in other disciplines.

The discussion began to get bumpy, at least for me, when it turned to the relationship between teaching the craft of music making and the personal relationship with a musical experience, summarized in the term aesthetics. Doesn’t a student need the wares of music performance, the musical vocabulary of training and experience on a musical instrument to act upon creative ideas successfully? In other words, is it not necessary for a person to be proficient on an instrument before they can be creative with it? On the road to gaining proficiency, the student cannot be left to creativity alone, but must learn to discriminate between what is right and what is an error as he or she plays a composed piece of music, or even as he or she improvises over chord changes. The ability to detect and correct errors is in itself a skill necessary for developing proficiency.

So craft must precede aesthetic performance experience. Once that is achieved, is it then possible that a creative idea, onceSelf-Image expressed with performance on a musical instrument, can be errant? Is there such a thing as a wrong creative idea, and even if there is, should music teachers tell students that a creative idea they have played is wrong, or just encourage them to continue being creative by accepting equally every idea that comes along? At what point, if ever, does the music student need to learn that some ideas are better than others, some ideas should be forgotten while others should be remembered and referred to often? Is it a legitimate part of developing creativity to also be developing the intellectual and emotional capacity to evaluate creative ideas, and to be selective in which ones to retain and develop into larger musical works?

In the context of the symposium, the answers to these questions will depend on how they affect the development of the student’s voice, which is to say his or her personal identification with a specific musical experience. In my own teaching experience, if a child is asked to improvise and yet does nothing more than repeat exactly what they have just heard from me or another child, then that is not the same as when a child, hearing one musical idea, responds with a related but different musical idea. The latter is a better response because it shows original musical thinking, which is beyond the ability to recall and reproduce exactly what one has heard. Pushing the student to go beyond mere repetition is indeed a step toward developing independence, which is how one finds their own voice.

A moment ago I used the word “related” to qualify the musical response. That is another indicator of quality in this case. An improvised response that is different but entirely unrelated to the preceding phrase is inferior to the response that is related. Unrelated is dangerously close to random, though it may also be highly creative and original.  The need for making these discriminations does not inhibit or discourage a child from finding their voice, but makes it possible for them to do so. The trick is to make risk-taking safe while at the same time teaching children that they will not be right, or achieve their best result overtime they take a risk. If this were so, then there would not be any risk, because success would be assured. The very fact that there is a risk being taken means the possibility of failure is present. But the consequence of failure, if that is a fair word to use to describe it, must be minimally negative and viewed as much as possible as informative and helpful in reassembling resources into another effort informed by what was learned the last time. The process of repeated risk taking, enabled by a safe learning environment, results in high-level learning and introspective analysis, and improved responses. Yes, creative ideas can be right, wrong, and every degree in between. Artists are creative because they see things and think things that others cannot see and think on their own. It is the virtue of the artist to bring these things to light, and to challenge people to see the world in fresh, challenging and yes creative ways. That takes a great deal of experience, honing of skills and creativity, but it is well worth the effort.

The Other Singing Voice

2011Symposium_1_2Music teachers of young, primary grade children know it is important to teach children to find and use their singing voice for singing. Left on their own, most children will try to sing with the same voice they use for speaking, which is very limited in range, and usually too low to sing accurately or with a clear tone. With children 2-3 years of age, they are still exploring what sounds they can make with their voices and how they can control them. Modeling the difference between singing and speaking and then letting the children play spontaneously with sung sounds is a good strategy. Gradually, the selection and accuracy of pitches will improve, and a tonal center will be perceivable. In these initial stages, and with voices this young, the upper range of the child’s voice is where we want them singing, to separate and differentiate from the speaking voice.

By first or second grade, though, children who are accustomed to singing will need to learn and use the lower part of their singing voice, the part that overlaps with their speaking voice. Now the question isn’t how to use a different part of the voice, but in how to use the same part of the voice differently. Even when the ranges of singing and speaking voices overlap, the way the voice is used for singing must be different than how it is used for speaking. Respiration, breath management, resonance, and vowel use, to name a few, are concepts that must be handled differently for singing than for speaking. Because children spend more time talking than singing, these concepts are less developed and less natural for singing than they are for speaking. Most children receive formal music instruction once or twice a week in public schools, so encouraging them to practice good singing habits on their own is helpful.

To develop the lower adjustment singing voice, imitating animal sounds is helpful. In working on this with my second graders, I began by working from the familiar upper adjustment.  I asked them to name animals that made high sounds. They quickly identified cat, owl, and bird (there is no need to distract them with the fact of an owl being a bird). I suggested that because there are so very many birds, we pick one, and use the singing-kidscuckoo. I modeled each sound so that they would produce it exactly how I wanted it, and then had them imitate me. Once they could make all the sounds musically, with a good singing voice, we sang “Old MacDonald” using those animals with the practiced sounds. I pitched the song in C major so that they would be singing in the middle to upper parts of their range. Then we named animals that made low sounds. We used tiger (grrr) with a phonated “rrr” at a low pitch, a cow, and a big dog with a low bark. We then sang “Old MacDonald” again, this time in B-flat major, an octave lower than before. Going back and forth between singing and making animal sounds, they began to transfer the lower adjustment of the animal sounds to their singing.

After this, I had them sing a song that went from high to low adjustments. I used “As I Came Over Yonders Hill.” I pointed out the upper and lower adjustment parts of the song, and told them to listen to the quality of my voice as I sang in one adjustment and then the other. I then had the class sing the song, and told them to listen for how their own voices changed from upper to lower adjustment. They were happy and a little excited to hear the two adjustments in their own voices. They now were aware that they have these two parts of their singing voice, and that a singing voice is not always a high voice. Eventually, I will work on blending the two, but initially it is good for them to hear the difference and be able to sing correctly in both. This lower adjustment is the other singing voice.

Why Do We Make Music?

2011Symposium_1_2One of the pitfalls of doing anything over a long period of time, is that we can wake up one day and realize we’ve forgotten why we do what we do. We’ve been doing it for so long, it has become a habit, a lifestyle, a part of who we are. Chances are those of us who have been teaching music for 2o or 30 years haven’t thought about why we started when it was who we wanted to be, and what we wanted to be. If you’re like me, you have loved music for as long as you can remember, and have heard from family that you loved it even before that. You probably were in band, orchestra, and/or chorus throughout school, had a music teacher or two that took a special interest in you and maybe encouraged you or mentored you, and off you went to college to become a music teacher. At that point, if anyone asked you why you wanted to teach music, you probably said it was because you loved music and wanted to bring that same love of music to others. While that was and probably still is true, the question I’m interested in today is why have you always loved music the way you do? What did you find in music that others missed and found in something else

While there is not a single right answer to this question, I’m going to hazard a guess that for most of you, it lies in the fact that you found an outlet for self expression, and an identity for your soul that you could find no where else. By that I mean when you listen to music you enter into another universe, one where your spirit, mind and body feel invigorated, refreshed, and beautifully calm and at home all at once. Your love of music is drawn out of where music takes you when you’re right in the middle of it, and at some point in your life you realized that being in the middle of music required that you become not just a listener, but a performer as well. You found, as Elliott has observed, that performers perceive music differently from non-performers. There is an aspect of music that performing reveals to us; the physical effort, movements, sounds and thoughts that a performer makes in order to play or sing music can be sensed when just listening; they carry over from performing to listening.

There is also a personal expression aspect to this principle. For many years I was a worship leader in my church, and during that time I wrote several worship songs that I used in worship. There was always a deeper dimension to my worship and leading when it was my song. I then heard a presenter at a worship conference mention this, putting it this way: when you worship with someone else’s song, you are trying to enter into someone else’s worship, but when you are worshiping with your music, you are there, in your own worship, inviting others in. It’s just more personal when it’s your music. The same comparison is true of performers listening to music compared to non-performers. It’s just more personal to the performer.

So when we teach our students to sing and play instruments, we are giving them the experiences to make allFeed Your Brain Music the music they interact with more personal and meaningful, whether they are performing or not. Similarly, when we teach our students to create music, be it improvise or compose, we are equipping them with the tools to express themselves and find themselves through music in a way that neither performing or listening can fully match. That is why a comprehensive music education is so important. Someone fully devoted to music feels compelled to enter into all aspects of it. After learning to play the clarinet and playing in bands into high school, I wanted more from music, so I started composing. My most interested students are the same way. One part of music participation just isn’t enough. They must sing, play, compose, listen, arrange, transcribe. Whatever they can find to do with music they dive in. That is what someone with a passion does; immerses oneself in the thing he or she has a passion for, in this case music. This is why we make music. It satisfies our passion, and makes our presence in the world and within ourselves.

Describing Music and Teaching Music

2011Symposium_1_2If you are a music reader, want you to pretend you know nothing about music notation. If you don’t read music, you’re all set. Now take what I’m about to write absolutely literally. “A quarter note gets one beat, and a half note gets two beats.” Just from that description, do you know that the duration of a half note is twice as long as the duration of a quarter note, or did it sound like you should play two quarter notes, which are two beats, every time you see a half note? The latter is what many novice music students take the statement “a half note gets two beats” to mean. If one beat is a quarter note, it’s logical to think that a note that gets two beats gets two quarter notes. This misunderstanding is possible because note values are often defined as mathematical quantities and not durations. Children are used to seeing pictures of apples and pencils and ice cream cones on their math worksheets. Two pencils in one picture equal two apples in another. So it is reasonable to transfer mathematical logic to music when it is presented mathematically. A quarter note equals one beat. A half note equals two beats. Sing a half note. The child does two quarter notes because he or she was asked to sing two beats. It makes all the sense in the world.

Durations are measured with numbers, but they are measurements of  how long something we hear lasts over time, or how long an object takes to move from one point to another, or how long we waited at the doctor’s office in the waiting room. We can’t see time, we can only experience it and represent it abstractly with numbers. A duration is not how many of something there is, like apples in a basket, but of how long it takes for something to occur, from onset to offset, from start to finish, from beginning to end. You can have two quarter notes and two half notes. There are two of each, but knowing that is not helpful in knowing how to perform either, and although there are two of each, and they are all notes, they are not the same notes; they have different durations. The half note has a duration of two beats and the quarter note has a duration of one beat. Both are single notes, but they last for different amounts of time, measured (usually) in beats.

In music, we generally have a reference note that is equal to the duration we consider the beat. This duration isnote_hierarchy called the ictus. Where the quarter note is the unit of measure, a half note is an elongation of the beat. This is a helpful term, because it describes something longer than something else, not bigger or in greater quantity. Elongation means to make longer, so a half note is longer than a quarter note, not multiple reproductions of it. A whole note is also an elongation of the beat, but also an elongation of a half note. How much longer? Two beats longer. Beats is the unit of measuring the duration of a note.

If there are notes (durations) that are longer than the beat, there are also notes (durations) that are shorter than the beat. If the unit of one beat equals a quarter note, then an eighth note is a division of the beat. Once again, we want to avoid language like, “a quarter note gets two eighth notes.” This can lead to children playing two notes when they see a quarter note, just as they did with the half note. Describe eighth notes as durations. Eighth notes last only half as long as quarter notes, so two of them can be sung or played in the same time as one quarter note. Children can tap quarter notes with their heels while chanting eighth notes, and experience the durational relationship between them. As students get older and more advanced, the same approach should be taken with other note durations that are both smaller and larger than those discussed here. The important thing to remember is that notes have duration measured in beats; they do not have beats. Through hearing patterns of durations, which we call rhythms, we are able to detect a beat, but that beat is made manifest by the pattern of durations. Keeping the concepts of duration and beat separate will clear up many rhythm problems commonly encountered in our teaching.

The Truth About Meter in Music

2011Symposium_1_2I don’t think many of my students think about meter when they are listening to music. They are aware of a melody, of the tempo, of the beat and rhythms, but they are not so aware of the meter, at least not consciously. I’ve noticed that meter is not so much something that must be taught as something that students must be made aware of. Music exists rhythmically in several levels all at once. A child listening or singing a song and asked to show the beat with his or her hands may move to a quarter note, eighth note, or even sixteenth note beat without any prompting. I am often fascinated to watch my four-year-old students when I ask them to show me the beat with a patsch. Most will show me the quarter note beat, but some will intuitively patsch eighth notes. This is especially true if the song begins with eighth notes as, for example, the French folk song “Pierrot” does. If the child taps the rhythm, tapping quarter notes when they occur and eighth notes when they occur, then that is a different thing; but when the child maintains the eighth note patsch through the quarter notes, he or she is audiating the eighth note beat; what Gordon calls the micro beat.

Micro beats are divisions of the beat. Going in the other direction, their are elongations of the beat. Both of these terms assumes a single “beat” to which shorter and longer durations are compared in determining whether they are divisions or elongations; however, another way of looking at this is that there are several levels to the music. There is an eighth note level, a quarter note level, and half note, whole note (in common time), one-measure, two-measure, phrase long levels, and so forth. This view was stated in A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Lerdahl and Jackendoff. In establishing the one-measure level, the listener intuitively perceives a recurring pattern of strong and weak beats, and assigns a metrical structure to the music based on the perceived pattern. Because much of our Western music is in duple meter, Westerners tend to have a bias toward duple meter, and will favor duple meter in the seconds it takes to establish a pattern. If duple doesn’t “fit” the listener will try another way of organizing the beats, continuing until the right match is found. When I am teaching the concept of meter to my students, I try to bring this intuitive process to the surface; instead of telling them what the meter is of the music they are singing or listening to, I have them try both duple and triplemeter signatures patterns either with conducting or chanting, and let them discover which pattern fits and which one does not. The wrong meter is usually obvious to nearly everyone, because the perception of metrical structure is, as I said, intuitive and therefore subconscious for a listener familiar with the musical genre to which he or she is listening.

Familiarity then, becomes the most important strategy for teaching meter. In other words, as students listen to more and more music of a particular idiom, they will intuitively become more and more successful in detecting the meter of music from that idiom. They can be helped with singing, chanting, playing, and movement activities, but the basic ability to perceive metrical structure is already there. This is important to keep in mind, because meter in this context is natural and self-evident through the music. Meter should never be an unnatural concept that is taught with a theoretical definition and a forced demonstration of unmusically exaggerated strong beat, distorted to make an obvious demonstration of the definition. Strong beats are not just the product of performed accents. Although nearly all music has meter, very little of it has explicitly accented notes on the first beat of each measure. Remember, the music is what is heard, not what is written. Strong beats are more the product of relative duration, parallelism, articulation, and rhythm patterns, than just accents.