Restoring the Practice of Subdivision

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros and Cons of Stick Notation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games in the Elementary Music Classroom

Version 2My students love to play games. No matter what else I may have for them to do on a given day, as soon as I mention that we will be playing a game that day, they all smile and get excited. Music games are fun, yes, but there is also a learning goal to be met that must not be overlooked amid all the fun, or left not communicated to the students.  For example, in Pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, you might use the song “Charlie Over the Ocean.” The song is an echo song, and the game is played as a version of duck, duck, goose. One child walks around the outside of the circle while the song is sung, then taps the nearest child in the circle at the end of the song. The child who tapped chases the child who was tapped. If tagged, the he becomes the new chaser, if not, the chaser must chase again. With all the running and chasing, it is easy to let that excitement become the focus of the game. But there are opportunities for more learning.

Because the song is an echo song, the chaser is a solo singer as he or she walks around the circle. It is important for children to sing alone, not always in a group, to develop independent audiation and singing skills. This can also be an excellent opportunity for the teacher to assess singing while the children are at the same time doing something they enjoy and that doesn’t “feel” like an assessment. Thirdly, the chaser should also be walking around the circle to the beat of the song he or she is singing, so the child is performing a beat motion. Fourthly, traveling around the circle when being chased and returning to the same location in the circle requires that the student move his or her body in space to a determined location. This is a variety of movement exploration, training students to understand and interpret music through movement of the body. Feierabend has presented many similar activities that teach children to explore space with their bodies. If one wanted to calm the game down, it could be played so that the child tapped needed to reach a location in the circle in a given number of steps. If more or fewer steps were taken, the child would be “caught.” If the exact number of steps were taken to reach the destination, the child avoided being “caught.”

When the class is about to play a game such as “Charlie Over The Ocean,” the teacher who states upfront that the goals to be achieved while playing is accurate solo singing, exploring movement, and accurate keeping of the beat by walking, is focusing students on desired learning, even as they are having fun playing a game. Students are also more likely to manage their behavior and successfully learn concepts when they are goal directed. Students should know what they are learning at all times during a classroom activity.

“Charlie Over The Ocean” is a kind of game that doesn’t have winners and losers. Other games do. In these situations, the learning objective must be kept in mind, more so than winning the game. A good example of this is Feierabend’s “forbidden rhythm.” This game is very useful for teaching music literacy, both at the aural and reading stages. I use three different rhythms. The three rhythm patterns have been taught so that they are familiar to the children. The game is played as a variation of a familiar activity, that of echoing rhythm patterns. I chant a rhythm, and the class chants it back to me. The twist is one of the three rhythms is “forbidden.” If I chant the forbidden rhythm, the class must remain silent. If the class stays silent, they get a point. If anyone chants the rhythm out loud, I get a point, so the two teams are the class and me. The first team to get 3 points wins. In order to avoid one student being blamed for awarding me a point, I give the class the point if only one student chants the forbidden rhythm, but if two or more chant it, I get the point.

This can be done orally, or the rhythms can be written on the board, and the students play the game by reading the rhythms I’m chanting, avoiding the one that is marked “forbidden.” The students are focused on winning, but in order to do so they must remain proficient at audiating rhythm patterns and deciding which ones to chant out loud and which ones to just audiate but not chant. They also must practice reading music if the patterns have been written on the board. That is the learning objective they are working on while they are having fun trying to win the game. The game can also be played by having a student lead, chanting the rhythm patterns for the class to echo or keep silent on. In that case, the student leading becomes one team, and the class is still the other. This arrangement gives students a chance to practice leadership skills and solo chanting, furthering the learning possibilities from playing the game.

Games are a useful tool in teaching music (and other disciplines). They are motivating and provide a context that make learning meaningful.” Games help engage students in activities that have an educational purpose and which in another presentational mode would be less interesting and engaging. Games, because they are played by all students at once, also encourage socialization and teach the community aspects of music making. Whether students are moving in a circle, clapping, passing an object to the beat, or singing or chanting patterns, they are doing those things as a community and for a purpose beyond a teacher’s expectation. Every action that produces musical sound is done for, perhaps among other reasons, the purpose of making music. Combining music making with the fun of playing the game is developing enjoyment of music itself.

 

 

 

Setting Up Your Classroom with Lessons in Mind

Version 2As I write this post, it is three days before the first day of school for students in the new school year. Part of a teacher’s ritual during those final days leading up to classes starting is to set up the classroom. New bulletin board backgrounds and borders, posters, word wall, rules, and other subject-related text all find their way onto the walls, boards and cupboards of my classroom. At first blush, all of this is primarily for decorative purpose. I want to make my room as attractive and comfortable as possible, taking advantage of just the right amount of stimulation on my walls to encourage or help my students be attentive and engaged learners. Of course there is more to engaging students than putting posters on the wall, but the appearance of the room is important.

Appearance is important, but there is more to it than that. Those articles that I staple or tape to walls and doors also will be used during instruction. They will be referred to and made the center of attention during class. For example, at the beginning of the year, I like to discuss the value of music with my upper elementary and middle school students. By that age, some of them have come to the conclusion that because music isn’t part of state tests, it really doesn’t merit much of their time or effort. So why, I like to ask, do musicians make music? Why write it or play it or sing it for audiences and recordings if it doesn’t have any real value? I’ll then use my posters to start the discussion. Take this one, for instance. “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” What does it mean to give a soul to the universe? What is an imagination in flight? What sort of life does music give to everything? Clearly these are metaphors, but what do they mean? Soul, mind, imagination and everything sounds pretty important, and this writer claims that music elevates all of them.

John Coltrane said, “When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups…I want to speak to their souls.” Questions to use off of this poster are, what are the possibilities of music to do good for others? How can music be used to help humanity free itself from its hangups? What are humanity’s hangups, and which ones can be ended with music? I find that left to their own devices, students often experience music in a relatively superficial way. They enjoy it, like the beat and the groove, and maybe identify with the lyrics, but they don’t often see the value in it to affect lives and improve the quality of life. They use it to modify their emotions, or to dance to, but they overlook the more universal good that can come from music when its harmonious collaborations of sounds move human emotion and thereby ennoble people’s ambitions and vision of the future.

For example, consider the performance of the famous “Ode To Joy” section of Beethoven’s ninth symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra made up of players from several orchestras hailing from cities from both sides of the once divided country, now united in music-making in a performance that celebrates freedom itself. The performance of the same work conducted by Seiji Ozawa to open the 1998 Nagano Olympics again showcases the way in which music unites the souls of people regardless of differences. In the folk genre, singers effectively used music to unite people rallying for an end to racial discrimination in 1960s America. For example, Peter, Paul and Mary famously sang “Blowin’ In The Wind” at Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. These singers believed they could change the world, as is evident by their comments in the following video, and people can be seen joining hands and singing along, united indeed in song.

Other anthems of the time, such as “We Shall Overcome” became synonymous with the civil rights movement, and music around which people rallied to bring their message to ever more people. Pete Seeger championed the rights of many at countless rallies with just his guitar or banjo and his iconic voice. As teachers, we might ask our students, why did these songs communicate civil rights and social justice messages so clearly and effectively? We can extend the discussion beyond the songs themselves by asking, to what extent do the artists’ interpretation of these songs add to the meaning conveyed? Finally, we might even ask, why are songs remembered even when spoken content delivered at the same event is often all but forgotten?

The fact is music not only delivers us the poignant message of lyrics, but at the same time, through melody, harmony and memorable grooves and beats, stirs our emotions, our hearts, our desires. Music of this kind, in fact any art of this kind, inspires us to be better than we are, more noble and generous than we are otherwise wont to be. Certainly words of the great poets and orators stir us as well, but somehow music goes deeper, with a stronger influence on our humanity. This can easily be demonstrated by taking, for example, “I Have A Dream” and setting it to effective music. Though a great speech to begin with, it is all the more powerful when the full emotional force of music is Brough to bear upon it.

I also have posters of “American Musical Heroes” lining one of the walls in my music room. Included are Charles Ives, John Coltrane, George Gershwin, Marian Anderson, Aaron Copland, and Dave Brubeck. Each of these noted American musicians contributed to a different genre of American music-making, but the work of each of them remains a national treasure. Each is an example of utilizing imagination to forge a creative, unique and lasting influence on music. Charles Ives’ polytonalism, Coltrane’s innovative improvisation, Gershwin’s meshing of classical, popular, and jazz idioms, Marian Anderson’s stellar operatic singing, Copland’s “American Sound” depicting the open, spacious American west, and Dave Brubeck stretching metrical and harmonic boundaries within jazz to new extents. Having their pictures always before the students is a constant reminder of what can be done with creative, imaginative and ambitious activity. These are themes I will keep coming back to all year long, and their ever presence on the walls of my classroom help keep them on my students minds.

My Approach To Composing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thing About Learning

Version 2I am by nature a very thoughtful person. People who know me well frequently accuse me of overthinking many things, and I have to admit that they are right–I do overthink often. As someone almost constantly in conscious thought about something, there are many thought that come and go, forgotten as quickly as they arrived, but others get my attention. Why are some noticed and others not? Because the ones that get noticed connect to something else I have been doing or thinking, and so are of particular interest to me at the time. The thoughts that remain are those that pertain to what I am at that moment most interested in, what I am presently doing or wanting to do.

There is an important lesson in all of this to teaching and learning, and it is this: in order for learning to succeed, it must be helpful in acquiring something the learner wants. We educators often concern ourselves with goals and objectives, both for our students and ourselves; and well we should. But goals and objectives that are only imposed on a learner, and around which a learner cannot contextualize with relevance are likely to meet with resistance, and be at best of limited use in bringing about the learning we desire. That is why connecting objectives for creating, performing and responding to music is so important, and why it should be done early in any teaching sequence, before the students become mired in trying to achieve objectives that have little or no meaning to them personally. Let’s look at how connecting works in a standards based music classroom.

First, we begin with an enduring understanding. “Musicians connect their personal interests, experiences, ideas, and knowledge to creating, performing, and responding.” When we present concepts, ideas, knowledge, and repertoire to our students, one of the first things they ask themselves if it all seems quite new and unfamiliar to them is, “what does this have to do with what I’m interested in?” “What in my experience with music does this sound like? What associations to familiar things does this music or idea or concept bring to mind? What is something I am familiar with that compares to this?” If the students comes up empty on each or even most of these questions, he or she is unlikely to have any desire to proceed with your lesson or instructional unit. You are about to abandon them to an intellectual deserted island, and that’s not a place where anyone (probably you included) want to be. So before “teaching to the objective” can begin, context needs to be established. Familiar signposts need to be pointed out, and the teacher must give a method of exploring something new in the context of something familiar.

Doing so will motivate learners and deepen understandings. Remember, understanding is not obtaining the ability to recall knowledge or repeat a task, it is the ability to apply previous learning to new situations. Application is only possible when connections are clear. A second enduring understanding states this clearly. “Understanding connections to varied contexts and daily life enhances musicians’ creating, performing, and responding.” Notice what we are trying to help our students connect; we want them to connect varied contexts, the variable, with daily life, the constant. Each new context must connect back to the same personal life of each individual student. Not all students will make the same connections, and not all connections will be equally strong for all students. In fact, one student’s strongest connection, may only be a hint at how to form a different connection to another student, but in an environment of shared learning, students’ connection to varied contexts become woven together, as one connection bolsters up or clarifies another.

I recently played the main theme from the film Indiana Jones to which 2nd grade students tapped a steady beat.  When the music stopped, one child pointed out that the music sounded like Star Wars. He had never seen Indiana Jones, but he recognized something in that music that sounded like music in a movie he had seen, namely Star Wars.  This was, of course, a brilliant connection, because both film scores were written by the same composer, John Williams. With the confidence of having made that connection, that child was now eager to find out what made the two themes sound similar, and a mini-lesson on melodic structure, specifically of dotted rhythms and large melodic intervals, was possible. Imagine the different result if I had begun by teaching

Aaron-Copland

Aaron Copland

melodic structure using the unfamiliar movie theme. The context would have been all wrong, and the results would have been disappointing. By the way, John Williams’ film scores (familiar from daily life) are an excellent connector to music by Aaron Copland (a varied context) whose use of perfect fifths has been called “The American Sound” in so far as American symphonic music is concerned.

The connections students make will inform the choices they make when they create, perform, and respond to music. Students who grow up listening to jazz will demonstrate this knowledge, interest, and experience in the rhythms, melodies and harmonies that show up in their musical creations, and in the “flavor” of their interpretation of musical works composed by others. It will also influence to what their ear is drawn when they are listening to music. That jazz-oriented students will likely hear the arpeggiated trombones at the end of Dvorak’s Symphony “from the New World” as a boogie-woogie riff, whereas someone not familiar with jazz will just hear the same passage as part of the exciting buildup at the end of that symphony (which is probably all it was intended to be).

I began this article talking about goals and objectives, and then have been discussing contexts and connections ever since. I would like to conclude by returning to goals and objectives, but now within a better context in which to understand them. There are at least two kinds of goals we should use with our students; these are academic goals and character goals. The specifics of each kind will need to wait for another post, but for our purposes here, I will use an academic goal for an example. There is something compelling about the Rondo known as “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. Middle school students seem to almost universally be drawn to it and many of them will work very hard to be able to at least play the first theme on the piano. It seems it has become a sort of rite of passage to learn this theme, and so it is passed on from student to student as they teach it to each other, or come to me to teach to them in small groups. Clearly, this bit of Beethoven is part of their daily lives and as such can be connected with various contexts which may include dedications (Fur Elise means for Elise, indicating that the piece was dedicated to someone named Elise, though exactly who is unclear). Fur Elise could then be part of a unit that included other works, perhaps in varied genres, that were also known to be dedicated to individuals. Such a unit would establish one of the purposes for which music is sometimes written. The student may begin with a straight forward performance objective. “I want to be able to play the first theme from ‘Fur Elise’ by Beethoven.”  Doing so may involve reading music, especially if the music teacher is teaching the student to play the theme. If so, another objective might be, “I want to improve my music reading so that I can play the first 32 measures of ‘Moonlight’ sonata by Beethoven in time for my sister’s birthday in November.” Notice now the objective has a something in which the student will demonstrate growth (improve my music reading,” something the student will be able to do as a result of instruction and which will demonstrate the desired growth (play the first 32 measures of “Moonlight Sonata” and a time in which the objective will be completed (“in time for my sister’s birthday in November”). This instruction will be packed with relevance and connections for this student, and so is an excellent example of writing an objective around connections.

Artful Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Vision for Music Appreciation

Version 2In my post, “Essential Questions that Matter to Students,” I placed a great deal of importance on building value and relevance for students through the use of essential questions. Today, I would like to extend that conversation into the area of music appreciation. Music appreciation has been, by and large, a concept whereby those with little or no musical training are taught through a mix of music history, theory, and aural examples, the signposts of musical works composed by Western European composers from the Middle Ages up to the present time. These courses tend to privilege so called “classical” music, promoting the idea that the “classics” are, like Shakespeare, Milton and others, something every well-educated person should understand and come to enjoy if they don’t already.

In the twenty-first century, this conceptualization with its narrow focus on Western European art music, has become archaic and in need of a new vision. Just today, I cam across a writer who articulated as well as I have encountered such a vision and I would like to share his thought with you here.

In his essay, “Why Music: Music Appreciation for the 21st Century,” Frank Fitzpatrick proposed some essential questions of his own that quite aptly can drive our re-envisioning of music appreciation. Fitzpatrick asked, “how we can better use music to improve the quality of our lives and wellbeing, to enhance performance in other academics or careers, to improve our relationships, or to help us stay balanced during life’s more challenging times?” To render his point more useful, I have broken this question down into several more focused ones. How do people use music to improve the quality of their lives? How does the study of music enhance performance in other areas of our lives, including other academic subjects and careers? How does music help improve our relationships with others? How does music help us cope with life’s challenges?

I have found that many of my students are already aware of using music for mood modification, and to enhance their relationship with their friends by listening, dancing, singing and talking about their mutually favorite songs. They are less apt to be aware of benefits of music in other academic classes or as an aid in coping with life’s challenges. Fitzpatrick directs our attention to research that supports the multidisciplinary benefits of music. “Science has already shown, and continues to demonstrate, how music can improve human development in countless ways. It is a megavitamin for the brain, the ultimate mood enhancer for emotional balance, a golden key for unlocking creativity, the secret code behind health and longevity, and the connective fiber between human beings of all races, nationalities and generations” Mindlin et al (2012).  Anthems such as “We Shall Overcome” or works such as John Adams “On The Transmigration of Souls” are examples of the latter. Probing these questions builds both value of music in their lives, and raises awareness of roles and contributions that music could play in their lives if it isn’t already. Fitzpatrick wrote, “shouldn’t the first level of understanding a subject matter, especially such a powerful form of intelligence, be an insight into why it has value? If we knew the ‘why’ of music, and recognized the value and potential benefits already available to us, wouldn’t it naturally increase our desire to learn more?”

This whole idea of the value of music to each of us cannot be enacted from only one cultural perspective and context. To presume that gaining an understanding of one musical idiom suffices to elevate music to relevance and worth in anyone’s life is an illusion. The fact is, music inhabits every culture on earth, and the essence of humanity and humanness is embedded in all those musical cultures, articulated in different ways according to the life and times of the people who are products and purveyors of those cultures.

To appreciate music cannot be limited to understanding sonata form, tonality, or even 12-tone systems. No, to appreciate music must mean to gain entry into the musical existence of people everywhere; not to become so immersed in all musics of the world that we are as one from all cultures, for that is impossible, but to acquire sufficient familiarity with many if not all musics of the world to an extent whereby we can appreciate each within their own cultural context; to understand why the music sounds the way it does, what purpose the music serves to those for whom it is intended, and how, within its own vocabulary of common practices, it communicates the ideas and emotions of the people of that culture. Relevancy depends on usefulness. No music can be relevant unless it shares cultural attributes with the person to whom it might be relevant. The more we know about world cultures, the more we can understand the relevance of their music to them, which in turn allows us to appreciate, that is to understand the value of, their music.

Why is drumming so prevalent in Western African countries? Why are some non-Western rhythmic structures so much more complex than those of Western art music? What musical element(s) are favored in American popular music? In Western classical music? In West African folk music? The different answers to these questions helps illuminate the purposes and differences between these idioms, and sheds light on the cultures from which they come. Its is likely that for some or even many students, the dance music of Latin America will be more relevant than the symphonies of Beethoven. It is also more likely that the classical music of George Gershwin will be more relevant to many students than the classical music of Bach or Mozart simply because the musical world of Gershwin, with its blues and jazz influences, is closer to the students’ own musical worlds than those of seventeenth or eighteenth century European composers. Amid a desire to “teach the classics” we must not forget to educate our students in the musics being created, enjoyed, and culturally embraced right now, in our own lifetime. As with other disciplines, the past can shed light on the present and inform the future, and so there is value in studying them all, but the importance of  appreciating music of our own lifetime cannot be overstated.

Fitzgerald finishes his essay by stating this eloquently, and I will leave you with his words. “We are desperately in need of a new kind of music appreciation program — one that offers everyone the “why” of music, impresses upon us its deeper values, and helps people better understand how we can most effectively harness its tremendous benefits and better integrate those into our daily lives.” I believe that ought to be the goal of music appreciation.

Mindlin, G., DuRousseau, D., & Cardillo, J. (2012). Your playlist can change your life: Ten proven ways your favorite music can revolutionize your health, memory, organization, alertness, and more. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, Inc.