An Approach to Lesson Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things We Can Learn About Teaching from Coach Belichick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Half Adjustments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacing and Energy are Not The Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros and Cons of Stick Notation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Better Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Became A Music Teacher and Why It Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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