The Thing About Learning

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

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

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

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

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


Aaron Copland

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

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

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

Musical Intelligence, Three Systems, and the Creative Processes


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

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look At The Four Artistic Processes: Connecting

2011Symposium_1_2In the conceptual framework for the national core arts standards, the artistic process of connecting is defined as “relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.” This definition delineates the process of connecting to do entities: one’s personal life, and the lives of others. The others may be contemporaries or historical, a concert venue or a practice room, an audience of family or of strangers, of an art music composer or a hip-hop songwriter. There are intact dozens of contexts with which an artistic idea and work can be connected. As we have seen with the other artistic processes, the possibilities create opportunities for students to choose which context they connect with, which one they have an interest in, which one they have knowledge of, and which one they pursue further learning about, Similar choices exist in how connections are made with personal meaning. A student can find personal meaning by connecting with their own interests, knowledge and abilities, with the artistic culture of their peer group, with the artistic culture of their family, or even with the artistic culture of people who they are studying in history or have encountered in a novel, poem,play or non-fiction piece they may have read in another class and with which they have already related in a personal way. In this sense, personal meaning can be a sort of higher level of external context once the external context has been related to and internalized so that it is now a personal or internal context.

It is within the connecting process that students will find relevance of content, and motivation to learn.  When the process of connecting is done successfully, learning does not become boring, but has an immediacy, freshness, and even excitement that leads to higher achievement. Connecting is also, of all the processes, the most dependent on personal relationships. Whereas with creating and performing, though interactions with others are certainly present and necessary, the focus was on the musical idea and work, with connecting the focus is on people through whom the music was created, performed, and experienced and through whom contexts were established. The process of connecting will fail if only connections with ideas and works are attempted. Connections with the peopled what they expressed through the ideas and works is absolutely necessary for connecting to occur.

As we look at the anchor standards for connecting, we see words that indicate high levels of reasoning and critical thinking. ExpectationsWe have already seen evaluation and analysis in the process of performing. Now we find synthesis, completing the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy learning domains. The anchor standards for connecting are, “synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art,” and “relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.” The first of these two anchor standards is interesting, because it specifies a reason for synthesizing and relating knowledge and personal experiences. The reason, according to the writers of the standards, is to make art (music). A cycle is set up whereby a student, having an understanding of how all the parts that constitute a musical work fit and work together to make a musical whole, will use that understanding to manipulate those parts in a similar way to make music of their own. This is consistent with the meaning of synthesize in the context of Bloom’s original taxonomy. There, the word was used to indicate that the student at that level of cognition would put the parts learned through analysis back together through synthesis for the purpose of creating new meaning. In the new Bloom’s taxonomy, “synthesis” was replaced with “creating.” The writers of the anchor standard embraced “creating” and interpreted it to mean making art (music).  In this way, connecting reaches back to creating and performing, and draws on knowledge and understandings gained through responding.

Music Class and A Student’s Life

2011Symposium_1_2We all need to be connected. Our humanity demands that we make sense of our lives, and our environment, and the only way that can happen is if what we are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling can be connected with something we know. When this happens, the world at that moment makes sense, and we can go on relatively undisturbed. If everything all at once is unfamiliar, we are likely to panic and become agitated, threatened or even fearful. Our relationships with people help us stay on firm ground, and the thoughts we have are all constructed of thousands of stimuli being connected together in some way.

There are a few curious surroundings we find ourselves in that are unique to themselves. These places are familiar because we keep going back to them, but they have a culture and a familiarity that are all their own. Musically, traditional Christian church worship services can be like that. Where else but in church music does a person come across hymns? Another place is music class. The repertoire of bands and choirs often is comprised mainly of music that is unlike music students are likely to hear elsewhere. Those “contest and festival” pieces we all find in the J.W. Pepper catalog are nowhere to be found on our students phones or on popular radio stations. Even more obscure are the works referred to as “educational music.” Though they serve good pedagogic purposes, they are rarely either masterpieces of musical art or mainstream music. The result of this is that our students are forced to exist in an unfamiliar musical world, dissimilar from the one they live in once they leave the music classroom.

While all of this is going on, many of these same students are also existing in another musical world, one that we music educators have little or nothing to do with. It is a world within which a kid learns how to play a popular guitar riff from a peer who is taking guitar lessons from a teacher who plays in a rock band. It is a world within which students share music videos and songs with each other on their phones, and perhaps sing along with both the recording and a friend or two. It is a world that I often get a glimpse at as two or three students walk down the school hallways on Dance-and-Movementtheir way to their next class, all the time chanting or singing part of a popular song. It is a culture that has changed the look of fashion and taught boys to wear their pants lower than we would like. Imagine what our musical world, the one we create in our classrooms looks like to our students, who step out of their musical world and into ours for a mere hour or less in their day. It is nothing short of a culture shock, repeated every time we have them for a music class.

We certainly are and must teach our students a diverse repertoire of music and styles, and much of what we teach will meet with resistance at first because it is so different. In order for students to accept and succeed in our musical world, we must help them transition into it. We must show them that there are more similarities than first meets the ear, and that differences and diversity are as rich and edifying in music as they are in people. There are a variety of musics that can give us similar emotional feelings and experiences, and those responses are one of the entry points. Another is expressive intent. Composers of all time periods and styles have written about love, war, stormy emotions, and tranquil peace. Exploring commonalities can help bring these two musical worlds together, a uniting that I believe is crucial for music education to succeed.

Using A Little Common Sense To Help Music Reading

2011Symposium_1_2When I was in elementary school lo those many years ago, there were a few years when I had trouble with math. I tried really hard, and spent a lot of time at home trying to get it, and practiced many strategies for understanding concepts and coming up with the right answer. Sometimes, after I had exerted great effort, I would come up with an answer, and be delighted to have done so. It never occurred to me to think about my answer to make sure it made sense. As a result, Johnny, after starting with five apples and eating two may have had 325 left on a few occasions. It took a patient teacher to point out the impossibility of my answer, no matter how much effort I had exerted. I could have used a little common sense to help me learn math. Eventually, having physical objects in front of me, and removing two from a collection of five led me to understand that Johnny must have had fewer apples after eating some than when he started, and that he had only three left after his snack. Seeing real objects made the abstract numbers meaningful.

The same applies to music. Last week, I taught a lesson on phrase structure. I had my students mark the phrases in printed music of “Jingle Bells.” I chose that song because I knew they all were familiar with it, and would be able to use their familiarity with the melody to find the phrase structure. I gave them four things to look for. I told them new phrases begin after relatively long notes or rests, when a rhythm pattern starts over, when there is a sudden change in dynamics or articulation, and that all of the phrases would be the same length. While most students were able to correctly using the phrase structure using these principles as guides, some misapplied them, and gave an analysis that made sense to them on paper, but not when I sang the song to them pausing at the places they claimed the phrases ended. “Oh what fun it is to” I sang. “Does that make sense, to pause there?” The student instantly recognized that it did not make sense, and quickly found the correct location of the end of the phrase while listening to the music, and was able to mark the phrase correctly in the printed music, showing that they did have enough reading skill to mark phrases in printed music.

It did not occur to the student to employ the strategy of singing this familiar song while Music Notes Backgroundfollowing the notation in order to find where one phrase ends and the next begins. They trusted what they thought about what they saw without checking their answer against some common sense. “If I have marked the phrase correctly, if I pause at that point, it will sound right, like a pause belongs there.” Because the student did not or could not connect what was read with what was imagined or heard, what was read could not possibly make any sense.

This brings out a fundamental problem encountered in learning: the connecting of everyday experience with abstractions of them. Written symbols, whether musical notes or words of a language are not the things themselves, but abstractions of them. The word “chair” is not a chair, but refers to a physical object we know as a chair. I am sitting in a chair now as I write this, but the word “chair” is on my computer screen, not under me. In the same way, a note is a sound with a certain pitch and a certain duration. It is something I hear, and it is caused by a physical thing, a sound wave, activating my ear and sending electrical impulses to my brain. This note is in the air or in my imagination, but not on the printed page. That note, on the page, is an abstraction of the real note. Understanding the abstraction, the written representation, is a matter of connecting experience with what is written. When the two cannot be reconciled, then one is in error; either what is written does not accurately represent what I have heard, or if I am reading, I have heard or imagined  something other than what is written. In order to accurately read music, we must be able to “check our work,” making sure that the two do indeed match.