What Are Music Teachers Really Trying To Accomplish?

Ask a Language Arts teacher what they are trying to achieve with their students, and that teacher will probably mention growth in literacy. He or she wants students to read and write effectively, with understanding and comprehension. Students are likely being asked questions like, “what is the author trying to say?” “How does the author feel about this topic, and what evidence do you find to support your answer?” These are good questions. Students who can answer them are bound to be engaged in critical thinking, and are likely to be showing growth very soon.

The Core Arts Standards were written with this kind of instruction in mind. They use the same approach to education and the same language as the original common core standards for language arts and for math. Because of this, it is good to understand how music students are, or ought to be, answering the same questions, and how music teachers ought to be after the same kinds of growth in literacy, only with music, not language. What does the language arts teacher accept as evidence of literacy? What does a child need to be able to do to demonstrate literacy? He or she needs to be able to look at words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections and entire essays or other works, and to not only recognize strings of letters as words, and strings of words as phrases, and strings of phrases as sentences, not only be able to speak with correct pronunciation all of those, but also to understand the meaning of each as it is revealed by context–the relationships between words, phrases and sentences that create meaning that is absent in the individual words and phrases out of context. Just begin able to read aloud or spell words does not indicate literacy. There must be understanding and comprehension.

Yet when it comes to music, music teachers all too often accept much less as literacy. A child who can look at a note on a musical staff and respond by pressing the correct key on a piano or other instrument is given credit for being able to read music. But that not on a staff is more than just a keystroke, and even when the note has been sounded, it by itself has no meaning, any more than a single letter has meaning apart from the word of which it is a part. When a child sees a word, if they can read, they associate the word with a person, action, object or concept. That is what a literate person does. When a child sees a musical note, if they can read, they associate the note with a sound that has a definite pitch and a definite duration. A sequence of several of these notes, that is to say several of these defined sounds, forms a musical idea. Musical ideas are combined into themes, and themes are combined into theme groups, sections, movements, and entire works. A musically literate person not only can audiate or know through inner hearing the individual pitches from notation, but also can understand how those notes are arranged into groups, and metrical patterns, perceiving them as the ideas, phrases, themes and so on that they are, with all of the relationships between notes that make them so. This goes far beyond matching a note with an instrument key.

How does this literacy come about? One thing that is for certain is that it does not come about through rote learning alone. Rote learning is an important first step, but when musical training does not go beyond rote learning, the associations between what is heard and what is seen in notation is never made, precluding development of true musical literacy. Perhaps the clearest explanation of how musical literacy is developed are the steps Feierabend gives in his Conversational Solfege. Essentially, these steps consist of rote learning songs with the voice on neutral syllables, then these same songs with tonal and rhythm syllables, “decoding” songs by hearing them sung by the teacher on neutral syllables and then repeating them with tonal or rhythm syllables, and then being able to do the same thing with unfamiliar songs. The final step is to create original musical ideas (composing and improvising) using labels (syllables).  The same procedure is used for reading and writing. Notice the transition from songs learned from rote, then applying labels to the notes of those songs so that the sounds are associated with the labels (syllables), and then using the labels (syllables) to assimilate new learning.

When notes are associated with instrument keys instead of syllables, the child has no way of knowing what the music sounds like apart from the instrument. A child in this situation cannot compose or improvise in a creative sense, because they have no materials to work with. To compensate for this, teachers who have failed to teach literacy often rely on music theory to teach improvisation. They will tell the students how to improvise over chord changes, and the student will “improvise” by playing from one chord tone to the next while counting beats or measures in order to know when to transition to the next chord. This is a highly unmusical way to create music, if indeed it is creating at all. Although a child trained in this manner can play on an instrument, the activity has avoided literacy training, and often built a dependence on the teacher to fill in the gaps in the child’s training. This in turn leads to the disturbing discovery that the child cannot play much of anything when the teacher is no longer there, resulting in a large attrition rate for school musicians after graduating.

Traditional music teaching methods developed by Orff, Kodaly and Dalcroze highly value true music literacy, and have been proven to be effective in developing musical literacy. Orff and Dalcroze also give priority to exploration and improvisation with movement and instrumental music. The use of barred instruments in particular is a well known aspect of Orff’s approach. The playing of those instruments is tied to movement and rhythmic activity on body percussion, and with improvisation over ostinati. Other methods that make use of technology as a means to quickly get students playing an instrument, especially a keyboard, can leave the child underprepared in these important aspects of a comprehensive music education.

Repeat, Vary, and Extend: Three Skills for Creating Artistic Work, Part 2

Note: This post is a continuation of another post from October 19, 2015.

2011 Symposium2

In part 1, I laid out a lesson for teaching students to extend rhythmic ideas, starting with language and then translating the sentence examples to rhythms. If you missed that post, you can click on the link above and get caught up. Once students understand how to retain part of an idea, and replace or add on to the other part of the musical idea, then the next step is to apply this knowledge and skill to analysis and creating. Just as we did before, we once again begin with examples from language. In fact, I returned to Malachi and his bike. I wrote these sentences on the board:

Malachi rode his bike.

Malachi rode his skateboard.

Most often, Malachi rode his bicycle.

Each student had a piece of blank composition paper and a pencil. They copied down the three sentences and then were told to put a bracket above the phrase that occurs in all three sentences. They placed a bracket over the phrase “Malachi rode on his.” Then they were told to put a circle around the word immediately following their bracketed phrase. For this, they circled the words “bike,” “skateboard,” and “bicycle.” Finally, they were told to put a rectangle around the phrase that was only found in one sentence. At this point, the only text left is “most often,” and the students enclosed that phrase.

With this completed, I then asked them, “f each word were to be changed into a musical note, how would we write our music using our brackets, circles and rectangle to guide us?” I asked for someone to give me four letters that are names of notes, because the phrase “Malachi rode on his bike” has four words. A student volunteered “d, f, e, b” and I wrote those notes as note heads only on my white board lined with musical staves. Then I asked what should go next. The students realized that the next notes were under a bracket, so the first three notes needed to be repeated. I continued the melody in this way, so that we now had “d, f, e, b, d, f, e.” The next word was “skateboard” so  we needed a new note because “skateboard” was a new word. A student gave us “a” which I added as the next note. The next phrase, “most often” had a rectangle around it, so we needed two new notes. A student chose “b” and “c” which were added as the next two notes. “Malachi rode his” is next, so the notes d, f, and e followed, and the last word, “bicycle” is new, so a new note, g, was added as the last note. We now had a note head-only melody of d (low), f, e, b, d, f, e, a, b, c, d (high) d (low) f, e, g.

With this composition completed, students now had learned how to do an analysis using the brackets, rectangles and circles, and had written a short melody (or pitch sequence) based on their analysis. The final leg in this lesson was to have them analyze a portion of a song as they had analyzed the sentences; with brackets, circles and rectangles. For this, I distributed sheet music for the song “I Really Like You” by Carly Rae Jepsen. I suggest you pull up the sheet music here to refer to for the next part of this post. Students looked for where the first few notes were repeated. That marked the beginning of the second bracket, and the first bracket could be begun at the beginning of the song. They then compared the notes of the melody from the beginning note for note and rhythm for rhythm with the melody form the beginning of the second bracket. Where the notes stopped being identical, the students drew the end of the brackets. The music that came between the brackets was circled because they were not the same. The last measure before the forward repeat sign is unique, and so was enclosed in a rectangle.

Once the students had completed this analysis, I played the song for them, and had them listen for the repeated and changed musical idea as they had marked them in their music. Now the students were able to hear the musical ideas and the extensions of them as they listened to a song that was already familiar to them, but about which they now had new knowledge.

Ways of Developing Audiation Skills in Music Classes

2011Symposium_1_2Audiation is hearing and comprehending music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. Audiation occurs when we anticipate what will come next while listening to music, anticipate what music we are reading will sound like while performing from notation, think of what we will play next when playing “by ear,” improvising, composing or notating music. There are several classroom activities that music teachers can do with their students to have them practice audiating. Today, I’d like to share a few.

  1. Sing the first phrase of a song, and have individual students sing the next phrase. This requires the student to anticipate what comes next based on what he or she has just heard; to think of what comes next before singing it. This is the basic action of audiation, and what separates audiation from imitation. With audiation, the person is imagining the music out of his or her own thought, whereas with imitation, the person is copying what was heard without first imagining it. That which is being imitated takes the place of audiation. When a student continues a melody started by someone else rather than repeating what has just been heard, the possibility of imitating is removed.
  2. Name a song a student knows and have him or her start singing it. This is similar to the previous activity, except that now the student does not have the benefit of using the beginning of the phrase as a cue for what comes next. Having the student begin the song from only the title leaves the responsibility of imagining all of the music involved to the student. The only cue is the non-musical song title.
  3. Have students leave out designated words of the song, coming back in after the omitted word. Feirerabend uses “My Hat It Has Three Corners” for this. After the children know the song, one additional word is omitted each time the song is sung. The omitted word is replaced with a movement. “My” is replaced with pointing to oneself, “hat” with pointing to one’s head, “three” with holding up three fingers, “corners” by pointing to one’s elbow. When the students have worked up to omitting all of these words, most of the song is “sung” silently while doing the motions.
  4. Play two or three notes on the piano, and have children name as many songs as they can that start with those notes. For example, play do, mi, so. The children might name “Frere Jacques” or “Have You Ever Seen A Sailor” or “Pierrot.” In the act of thinking of songs that begin with the given sequence of pitches, the student is heavily engaged in audiation. The student not only audiates a single phrase that he or she will sing, but audiates all possible songs they can think of that begin with a common tonal pattern. The beauty of activities like this is to the student, it just seems like a fun game, but the music teacher knows that while the students are having fun, they are building their audiation skills.
  5. Have children respond to a musical question with an improvised answer within a given meter and tonality. This activity moves from performing and performing readiness to that of creating musical work. The student is now audiating original musical ideas instead of recalling previously learned ones. Previously learned ideas are the foundation of improvisation, but there is originality involved in improvisation that is not in play during recall.
  6. Sing short tonal patterns and have individual students repeat them after a brief pause between you and them.
  7. Sing rhythm patterns and have individual students repeat them.
  8. Have children sing a song alone. Singing alone leaves all of the audiation to the singer, and avoids the possibility of imitation. When students sing with others, they may imitate what they hear others doing, and are then not practicing audiation.
  9. Have children compose variations on a given theme. The ways in which the variations resemble the theme is evidence of auditaion. Writing variations involves manipulating the mental representation of the theme that the student has made, audiating all the while the theme and the changes made to it, in a constant comparison.
  10. Listen to classical music. If the music is familiar, this will enable students to anticipate what will happen, thereby audiating. It is also possible to audiate what will happen in unfamiliar music, based on what has happened in similar works that are familiar. In this case, students are using stylistic or cultural norms to audiate.

In each of these ten classroom activities, students must form a musical thought—hear music in their head that is not physically present—and then do something with it. They sing, convert to movement, associate with another musical work, find recurrences of the same thought in multiple musical works, generate a new thought that continues a previous one, reproduce the thought from hearing it, or manipulate and change but not replace the musical idea. These are activities many music teachers do often, but not always with audiation in mind. Students go beyond “naming that tune” which is recall, and think of several melodies that have the same beginning, which requires them to think of many melodies and test each one out for a match. When a student attempts to sing a song, but cannot continue to the end, another student continues it, and then the original student repeats what the second child provided. With the interval of time in between, the first child must audiate what the second child sang. This takes good questioning and discussion practices out of language and into the realm of music. Students who are asked to repeat a musical phrase but at a different dynamic are audiating dynamics to do so. Students who are asked to sing a song in a different meter are audiating meter in order to do so. Although more advanced, this last activity encompasses a creative aspect of audiation, much as improvising and composing variations. The point is to have the student imagine as many musical ideas as possible, and to have him or her manipulate them both in the imagination, performing a sort of musical spatial reasoning, and aurally in actions of performance and creating.

Defining Some Words in the New Standards for Creating Music

2011Symposium_1_2The new music standards are published, and there are some interesting choices of words in them that tell us a great deal both about music and how it is to be taught. The first series of words that caught my attention were the verbs describing what students will be doing when they create music. In early childhood they will explore, experience and generate. The emphasis is clearly on taking music in, and building what Gordon has called a music vocabulary. This vocabulary will be put to use as the child begins to originate music. The word for this througout is generate, used in the phrase, “generate musical ideas.” Beginning in first grade, explore and experience becomes create, while generating continues. This begs the question, what is the difference between creating and generating? From the limited context of the standards, it appears that creating refers to orginating music off of a prompt, as when a child hears the beginning of a phrase and then creates an ending. Generateing, on the other hand, appears to refer to making a musical idea that is wholly made by the student. A generated idea is not the continuation or completion of someone else’s idea, but completely original to the student. In this context, generating is more advanced than creating.

A third verb for creating used in the standards is improvise. This word first ismusic_words_large seen for second grade. Improvising presumes a musical vocabulary has been established from which the child can draw material for an improvisation, and it implies that the child is able to do so in real time, spontaneously, not after considered thought. It would seem that to create is to give thought to a solution, as with creating a musical answer to a musical question, whereas improvising within the standards is only constrained by connections to “a specific purpose and context (such as personal and social).” An improvisation need only have a creator’s intent, but need not be, musically speaking, grammatically correct. That sort of correctness is achieved after creating, making creating more akin to what is often thought of as composing, compared to improvisation.

A second set of words that needs to be considered consists of patterns and ideas. For second grade, students are to “improvise rhythmic and melodic patterns and musical ideas” and “generate musical patterns and ideas.” Given the inclusion of both patterns and ideas, there must be a difference between them, but what is that difference? Again, reading from the context of the standards document, it appears that patterns are short motifs, analagous to words in language. Patterns are the building blocks of music, built one upon another into an idea which are longer. Ideas are made of multiple patterns. Ideas are melodies that have cultural and personal contexts, and are suitable for expression. Patterns are more limited. A single pattern has no or very little expressive potential.

What can we learn about music and music teaching from this examination of the new standards for creating music? The foundation for creating music is listening. Three and four-year-olds experience and explore music through listening to music placed in their environments, and experimenting with the sounds they discover they can make with their voices and objects. There is always the imperative that a music creator is born out of music that others have created before him or her, and out of new combinations of musical sounds, the idea for which springs forth from those expereiences with other creators’ music. We humans always create something out of something, never out of nothing. New music isn’t really new at all; it’s something new installed into something that already existed. That is true for generating, improvising and creating. As experiences grow, so does the material with which to create generate and improvise. Experiencing music as a creator gives us a view of music works from the inside out. This insight spills over into performing with more expression and listening with more emotional investment and enjoyment.

What is Musicianship?

2011Symposium_1_2Musicianship is one of those words that is used frequently but thought about rarely. As music teachers, we want our students to acquire musicianship, but we don’t necessarily spend much time specifically teaching it. Much of the time we are teaching skills, and then assuming musicianship will automatically follow. But it is often the case in education that the transfers of knowledge we think students will make on their own go unnoticed. Often, it is necessary for us to guide students through the transfer of knowledge from one application to another, or from one level of proficiency to the next. So it is with transferring skills to the practice of musicianship.

When I was an undergraduate at a major music conservatory, there was one weekly class I had to attend every semester for all four years. The name of the class was “musicianship.” Students signed up to play for a master class taught by a distinguished professor with the whole school watching. Several students would perform each week, and through it all we saw and heard how to shape musical phrases into performances that were pleasing, expressive and even passionate. What we did not learn in that class were fingerings, bowings, and what notes to play. That was not part of learning musicianship. Learning to play musically was the purpose of the class called “musicianship.”.

Implicit in this view is that musicianship is the highest level of musical thinking and performing—it is what elite players domusic_words_large to cause their performances to be outstanding above the rest. Musicianship cannot be thought of as only what a musician does, because some of what a musician does cannot be considered practicing musicianship. Knowing how to play, and practicing fingerings, notes, and other things must precede practicing musicianship, but technical matters of playing an instrument do not come up to the bar of what musicianship is. Knowing what to play is not included in musicianship, but knowing how to play and playing that way, does demonstrate musicianship.

So far I have defined musicianship in the realm of musical performance only, but musicianship can also be demonstrated by any act of music making. These include composing, improvising, and listening. In our Western art music tradition, composers create the master plan that the performers will follow during rehearsals and concerts. Because the composer imagines what the work will sound like when performed, all of the benefits of musicianship must come into play during the composing process. Phrasings and expressive details must be planned and executed in the writing of the music, and so requires musicianship. The composer builds a musical structure that the performers will animate with physical sound. Listeners then receive that sound, and must apprehend the structure and all that the composer and performers have expressed, and come to a hearing of the piece that includes the composer’s intent, the performers’ intent, and through the listeners’ own experience and musicianship, understandings of both. Listeners’ musicianship is apparent from the way they recognize musical patterns, respond emotionally to music, and remember motifs, themes, phrases and melodies. Musicianship is practiced wherever knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity, to borrow from the Random House Dictionary, are brought to bear on an act of music making.

When we are teaching students solfege, ear training, instrumental technique, sight-singing or any other musical skill, we are not teaching them musicianship, but instead preparing them to make music with musicianship. There is nothing particularly musical in an artistic sense of the singing that is done in an ear training class, or the music that is played in an early level instrument lesson. Though music is being made, it is not necessarily musical. This is because musicianship has not yet been applied to the skill of producing pitches and rhythms. Musicianship is a synthesis of music skills, accomplished in a single act of music making. We teach someone musicianship when we teach them to bring all the necessary music skills together into a performance of artistic excellence.