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.

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.

What Does Music Mean?

Version 2One of the more perplexing questions of the ages concerning music is the question, what does music mean? Philosophers from Aristotle to Bernstein have tried to answer this question, but none have done so in a way that once and for all settles the matter. Bernstein devoted much of his lecturing life to tackling the question, and most often insisted that music had no semantic, or literal meaning, but instead had metaphorical meaning. You can say music makes you feel this way or that way, or that music means one thing or another to you because it is like something else that means that to you, but music can never communicate a precise bit of information or thought such as “today is Tuesday,” or “the sky looks blue today.”

Music educators have by and large been content with maintaining that music expresses feelings and emotions, and have left the debate as to whether or not it communicates anything else, or if it is or is not a language, to scholars and philosophers. All of that changed, though, when the National Core Arts Standards were released in 2014. Those standards changed the conversation, because something the authors called “expressive intent” is embedded throughout the standards.  The standards force us to come down on the side that music does have meaning, and that it is every listener’s task to comprehend what it is. One of the “artistic” processes is responding, which is defined as “understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.” To support that definition, Anchor Standard number 8 is to “interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.” 

If we are to require students to understand and evaluate how the arts convey meaning, then we are assuming that the arts do convey meaning. Such an assumption makes it possible for a listener to construct an interpretation of a musical work that reveals a meaning that the composer intended to communicate to listeners through that musical work. But how can we know for sure from listening to a musical work that we got it right? How can we know for sure what meaning the composer intended to convey? The writers of the standards skirt that crucial question by stating that composers leave clues by their use of musical elements. The authors of the standards state that, “through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” That’s a start, but clues can only lead to guesses, not evidence-based conclusions; and if music can only convey metaphoric meaning as Bernstein insisted, it would seem that we are left with know way of knowing beyond a doubt. What’s more, do composers really consciously implant their music with “clues” or are they believing that they are expressing things much more succinctly than creating a musical mystery to be solved by detective-like listeners? How precise can those musical metaphors be?

We are used to performers offering an interpretation of a musical work but we are perhaps new to the idea of responders to music interpreting what they hear. Remember, we are talking about what the composer intended the music to mean, not what personal meaning an individual might find through association or experience, a process that is called connecting, or “relating artistic ideas and works with personal meaning and external context.” The authors of the standards defined expressive intent as “The emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music That definition implies something more than metaphor. The claim is that composers of music can, through their music, express thoughts and ideas. What thoughts and what ideas? Are there some thoughts or ideas that can be expressed through music, while others cannot? Can the musical metaphor as described by Bernstein be precise enough to express an idea or thought?

That depends on what a composer is trying to express. If I say “I have a burning desire to Bernsteinplay the piano,” I am expressing an inner experience (the desire) that drives me to an action (play the piano). The word “burning” here cannot precisely be explained so that someone else exactly experiences what I am experiencing. It can only generally describe my experience to that a person can relate to it, but not share or duplicate it within themselves. I could perhaps better express what it feels like to have this burning desire through music, symbolically representing my feeling through music that causes another person to also have a burning desire, if not for playing the piano, than equally for something else. When I have a burning desire, I am obsessed with the thought of doing something, and I have an overwhelming desire to do it. The thought of it all excites, and if I am not able to immediately go do the think, there are also feelings of restlessness, frustration, or despair. I could make music that sounds restless through active rhythms and oscillating dynamics, or I could use dissonance and dynamics to express frustration, or surging phrases to convey despair. The idea being expressed is that of doing something, of following the irresistible urge to do something and the emotional state I experience in the time preceding my opportunity to do so. The thought expressed is expected pleasure of doing the thing. I cannot communicate through the music that the thing is to play the piano, but I can convey the idea and the thought of doing something the anticipation of which causes me to think and feel what I can express with music. 

Getting back to the standards, we find the essential question, “How do we discern the musical creators’ and performers’ expressive intent?” If we trace the progression of standards from kindergarten through 8th grade, we find that those clues begin with dynamics and tempo, then continue with knowledge of concepts (meter, rhythm, pitch, form, etc), timbre, articulation, musical genres, culture, and historical context. We can see form this sequence that expressive intent is conveyed in its simplest form by manipulating the non-hierarchical structures of music, namely dynamics and tempo. Music that is loud and fast is likely to convey something akin to excitement, fear, or joy—the more active emotions that raise the heart rate and motivate us to physically move, while music that is soft and slow is likely to convey something akin to calm, restful, contented, peaceful respite, or melancholy repose. Later, when a child’s musical understanding has become more conceptual, more complex expressions can succeed that include the hierarchical structures of meter, phrasing, and patterns of tension and release. With these concepts intact, those ideas and thoughts can now be understood, because to convey them they must be apprehended over the course of extended musical time-spans rather than from momentary samplings of tempo and dynamics.

Music can mean anything for which a symbol can be made from sound. The extent of what can be symbolically represented with music depends on the familiarity the listener has with the musical genre being listened to, and with the composer’s ability to evoke in a listener a physical and/or emotional response that is recognizably associated with the thought, idea or feeling being expressed. The listener can successfully find the composer’s intent by observing what thought, idea or feeling is stimulated by the music quite apart from any personal associations or connections. 

 

Using Student Feedback to Plan Music Instruction

Version 2When it comes to teaching, I’m a pretty old school kind of guy. Many teachers, and I count myself among them, tend to teach the way we were taught, especially if we were generally successful in school. For me and I would guess most others of my generation, we accepted what the teacher told us to do, and did things their way. If we didn’t, we either got bad grades, got in trouble, or both, and we could count on negative consequences as a result when we got home. A lot of research and reforms have come to education since then, many of them good. Among the positive change is the recognition that not all students learn the same, and even more importantly, teachers can be guided by their students on the best ways to instruct individual in a class.

The issue isn’t just whether a student is a visual, aural, or kinesthetic learner, nor is it just which of the multiple intelligences is a student’s strength or weakness. No, the issue also must include how a student responds, manages and utilizes his or her internal world of emotions, physical health, language, cognition, relationships with others, and self-worth. These all affect achievement in school and are separate from learning style. Many if not most times, the condition of any of these can only be known by soliciting student feedback. Often times, this kind of feedback will only be offered to a teacher with whom the student has developed and trusting relationship, so relationship building must precede the effect use of student feedback to effectively improve teaching and learning.

It is important to understand that the type of feedback I am writing about is focused on making the learning situation for the student better. I am not referring to student reflections on negative behavior. While such reflections may have their place and helping a student realize that he or she could have handled a situation in a more positive way, and learning what they way might be for next time, improving the learning environment for that student probably will remove the reason the student acted negatively in the first place. For example, if a student is struggling to stay focused and is becoming distracted and engaging in off-task behavior, and if usual strategies for redirection have been ineffective through the class, feedback from that student could be a successful tact.

The teacher might slip the student a note that in effect says, “Today I was pleased to notice that you tried to complete your work. I also noticed that even so, you became distracted from your work and ended up not finishing. How can I help you overcome the distractions so you can finish your work?” A note like this is personal because it is about something specific to that one student, it shows that you noticed that child, and that you care about his or her success enough to seek them out and work for a solution that will bring better results. It is positive because it acknowledges a success (effort), and offers support in making improvement. It avoids negative consequences for being distracted and off-task, and replaces them with positive action to replace the off-task behavior with something more productive and ultimately rewarding.

There are also times, perhaps once every six weeks or so, when seeking feedback from an entire class can be effective and helpful. Mendler  (2000) suggests that “questions like the following can lead to helpful information.

  1. What can I do to be a better teacher for you?
  2. How can I help you be successful?
  3. Two things I say or do that you think I should continue doing are ________________.
  4. Two things I say or do that you wish I would do less of are _______________________.

If students answer these questions anonymously, the results can be analyzed as data, with the most frequently given answers driving changes or reinforcing current practice in instruction. If students answer these questions and put their names on their papers, then the results can be used to differentiate instruction for individuals. Students will be willing to put their names to their answers if a relationship of trust has been established between students and teacher.

There is also much good that can come from just observing groups of students at work. For example, there may be a small group of students in a class who typically are less engaged than the others, who tend to want to socialize rather than stay on-task, or who simply refuse to do assigned tasks. By observing these students over several class meetings during which they are asked to do different types of learning activities, it is possible to observe them becoming more engaged in certain types of activities than others. In a music classroom, some students may work diligently at a response to music activity that is primarily writing, where as those same students may be reticent to play or sing music. From this observation, it may be possible to replace one kind of response (demonstrate by performing) with another kind of response (explain in writing) as the means by which those student demonstrate learning. Then, during subsequent lessons, the teacher continues to build on the strength (writing) while gradually building confidence and competence in the weakness (performing) until the latter also becomes a viable kind of response.

Typically, with a group of students who tend to talk too much to each other, the teacher would respond by separating those students. However, if that is the group that prefers verbal responding to performance responding, it may be more effective to put them together and give them the opportunity to use their preference (talking) to verbally respond and then perhaps record their responses in writing. This is not to say that unwanted talking should be encouraged, only that it is often possible to channel it into a more productive purpose.

It really all comes back to building relationships. The longer one teaches, the more difficult it can become to put ourselves in our students place. But we were all elementary, middle and high school students at one time. When we felt unsure of ourselves, how did we get helpful encouragement from others? What did they say to us or do that put us at ease and freed us up to proceed with confidence and to succeed? When we walk into a room of peers, even peers who are familiar to us or friends, what do other people do to make us feel accepted and comfortable? Are students doing those things for each other in our classroom? Do our students feel that our classroom is a socially safe place for them to be and in which to learn and even take risks such as volunteering an answer, or even singing for the class? We can obtain answers to these questions and more by gathering student feedback from students who are convinced they can trust us with their struggles and obstacles. That is the necessity of building trusting relationships, and the payoff that student feedback from trusting students offers.

Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care: Successful techniques for educators. Bloomington: Solution Tree.

 

What Do We Want Children To Be Able To Do In Order To Sing Well?

Version 2Good teaching is largely about stating clear objectives, and then instructing students in how to achieve those objectives. When it comes to singing, often times music educators frame the task in terms of singing on pitch, using a head voice, and maintaining a steady beat. Clearly these items are important to good singing, but as objectives, they do not get at the heart of the matter, which is what do singers do to stay on pitch, stay on beat, and maintain a head voice? If we attempt to get at pitch by matching pitches to a reference source such as a piano or our own voices, we are not teaching accurate singing, we are teaching pitch matching, which requires a reference tone and avoids producing accurate pitches independently. Likewise, if we attempt to get at steady beat by following a conductor, drum, or other reference, we are again teaching beat matching , which requires a reference beat, and avoiding teaching accurate singing. To truly teach students to sing accurately, we must develop what Kodaly specialists call “inner hearing” and what Gordon called “audiation.” Both concepts, though not identical, include hearing aspects of music in the imagination that cannot physically be heard.

The process of developing audiation/inner hearing (which from here on I will simply refer to as audiation) begins with rote learning, progresses through verbally associating tones and rhythms to verbal labels, and associating the connected tones or rhythms with notation. This means that steady beat can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students, and patterns of tones can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students. When students are echoing in groups, they must reproduce what you have performed without using you as a reference, but they still use each other as a reference. Because of this, it is important for students to also echo you individually once they have learned patterns from rote.

If we take a closer look at this learning process, we must examine how students will know if they have echoed the teacher’s models accurately. This comes down to the abilities to make tonal sense of what has just been heard, and to make same/different discriminations. In the first instance, the child must be able to perceive harmonic functions of tones, especially tonic and dominant, must be able to cognitively organize groups of tones into familiar patterns such as chords, familiar motifs or phrases, and so forth, and must be able to make same/different discriminations between what the child has heard the teacher do, and what the child has done in an attempt to echo. The child must ask him or herself, “is what I just did the same as what the teacher did or was it different? If it was different, how and where was it different? What was my error? How can I make it the same next time?” When I am teaching phrases or patterns to the group at the rote learning stage, I will repeat the phrase or pattern several times if noticeable inaccuracies occur. The student know that I have determined that their echo is different from my source and so they listen critically and try to correct their error. Even in a group, they are usually able to detect the difference and improve their accuracy without my telling them what the error was. This ability to self-correct is evidence that learning is taking place. If I were to tell them every error and “fix” them by rote repetition, that depth of learning would not occur.

The same is true of steady beat. “Was the tempo the same throughout, or did you get faster or slower?” Changing tempo can often be corrected simply by having the students tap the pulse on their knees as they sing. It must be said that simply having students tap a steady beat in the absence of music from which the beat can be extrapolated is of extremely limited value. Rhythm is a complex concept. It is a blending of tempo, duration, and meter. Steady beat is extremely difficult to maintain when meter is not

score

The metrical hierarchy demonstrated

being considered. Patterns of durations, which is what comprises rhythms, are only made meaningful when they are grouped into patterns of strong and weak beats from which we perceive meter. Meter gives us frames of reference that make apparent levels of rhythmic structure and clarify what the beat unit of each level is. Music progresses along beats that can be measures or single note durations. Without these sign posts resulting from the combination of levels, a listener or performer can become lost in an ongoing sequence of indistinguishable beats. It’s as if every person we met had an identical appearance, like twins. We would quickly loose the ability to tell one person from another. So it is with beats. One beat is set apart from others by where it falls within the metrical pattern.

What, then are the implications for teaching singing? Pitch matching must be replaced by pitch echoing within a tonal context, and playing with a provided beat must be replaced by playing with one’s own audiated beat and that beat within a metrical structure. For pitches, it is helpful to establish a tonality before asking the student to sing. This can involve singing or playing for the student a I-V-I progression, either sung in arpeggiated form, or played as chords on a keyboard. After the tonality is established in this way, the student will have a tonal context in which to place the tones he or she sings. For example, if the child is to sing the folksong “Rocky Mountain,” then he or she will begin knowing that the first note is the tonic note, and that the first phrase is entirely comprised of the tonic triad. This fits easily into the I-V-I preparation, and facilitates singing all of the tones in tune, avoiding matching pitches with an external reference, and making it unnecessary to attempt to sing intervallic ally from one tone to the next. Being able to keep the tonality firmly in mind while singing guides the singer in staying on pitch, and also makes more apparent deviations, because they are not gradual distortions of intervals, but dissonances to the tonal environment active in the singer’s mind. Strategies such as interrupting singing to have the student jump to the tonic note, or to identify occurrences of the tonic note while singing help.

For steady beat, the procedure is much the same. First, establish a meter by chanting a rhythm pattern that includes ictus value notes, and next-level beat divisions; that is, that contains, for example, quarter notes and pairs of eighth notes. This rhythm would establish the meter as duple, because the ictus is divided into two sounds. After establishing this, the student will then continue to divide each beat into two parts. Maintaining that meter will facilitate maintaining the steady beat. So when it comes down to it, teaching students to sing accurately is more a matter of teaching inner hearing/audiation, than it is about teaching imitation or matching. It is about building musicianship to the point where the student organizes musical sounds into patterns and structures that demand and facilitate accurate performance to maintain.