Music Teaching and Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Version 2When I learned Bloom’s taxonomy as an undergraduate, I always thought that the arts were short changed. Sure, there was the affective domain, but it just didn’t have the depth  to it that the cognitive domain had, and the affective domain was often presented as a sort of afterthought. When the taxonomy was revised, this changed. Bloom’s revised taxonomy is a more inclusive and complete model of how  intellectual processes work for all subjects, including music. Because of this, Bloom’s revised taxonomy is useful for writing lesson and unit objectives. In this post, I’ll examine music tasks in relation to this taxonomy.

The revised Bloom’s taxonomy  has 6 levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and applying. blooms-image-1

The levels increase in complexity from bottom to top. A major shortcoming of traditional teaching practice has been that too much attention was given to remembering and understanding, while students were asked to do relatively little at the upper four levels. The third level, applying, is really the gateway to relevant, meaningful, and lasting learning, because it is at this level that learning transitions from being abstract to practical; students can not only remember and explain, but they can also demonstrate and transfer learning to new situations and immediate needs.

Many teachers don’t realize how much of their teacher is at the remembering level. For music teachers, songs, tonal and rhythm patterns, instrument fingerings, and defining musical terms are all remembering level tasks. Questions like, “what is the name of the whole note in the first measure?” or “what does crescendo mean?” are remembering questions. If a music teacher plays or sings  a phrase of music and then asks the student to play it back the same way, that is also a remembering question as is practicing a passage over and over. These remembering tasks constitute a good deal of what students in music ensembles are asked to do. It is all remembering of fingerings, and repeating of a task until a level of competency is reached. Math teachers who give students pages of addition problems are also just asking students to remember. It is practicing something that has already been learned in order to get better at it. There is increased competency, but no new meaning is being learned, and no application of what is being practiced to a new situation is being attempted. If an objective for a lesson plan is that students will be able to play or sing a given passage of music with correct notes and rhythms, this is nothing more than a remembering objective.

So does this mean we shouldn’t ask our students to practice? Certainly not. It does mean that we need to change what we expect them to do when they practice.  I have written elsewhere about the importance of telling students why they are being asked to do a task; of students understanding the end to which a task is the means. Our subject here is different. Here we are interested in going beyond skill to reach meaning. The two phrases used in the understanding level that are of particular interest are “construct meaning” and “interpret.” In a structural sense, we construct meaning out of the patterns and groupings we perceive when we listen to music. We generally have no trouble moving to the pulse of music, of grouping a sequence of musical notes into a rhythm pattern or melodic phrase, or of perceiving the difference between a waltz and a tango.  In forming mental images of rhythmic, metric, and grouping structures, we are literally constructing meaning out of sounds. We are ascribing to what we hear an organization that enables us to make musical sense of the sounds by sorting them spatially and temporally. A student who is constructing meaning from music he or she is practicing might answer questions like, “what pulse do I perceive in the music?” “How many notes are contained within each pulse?” “How many beats or measures of music seem to go together before there is a natural break or pause, or before the pattern repeats? “At what tempo within the parameters of any tempo markings do I most enjoy playing this music?” “What can I do to bring out the qualities in this music that I enjoy so that others will notice them and enjoy the music as I do?” Answering these questions naturally leads into interpreting, which is taking meaning and performing in such a way that it is communicated or shared with listeners.

When a student has learned to answer questions like these, and to make constructing meaning and interpreting a priority for practice sessions, that student is then ready to operate at the application level. For example, once a student has learned to determine where the phrases and phrase boundaries are in one musical work by answering the question, “How many beats or measures of music seem to go together before there is a natural break or pause, or before the pattern repeats,” they can answer the same question, looking for the same things in another piece of music. They can also use prior learning to solve problems that show up in new works. Perhaps the first work had a repeated or parallel phrase, as in the “Ode to Joy” melody, so finding the phrase boundary was a matter of finding where the repetition began. Now the new work doesn’t have a repeated or parallel phrase, but instead it has a note longer than surrounding notes so that the music rhythmically pauses between phrases. Or perhaps the phrase ends on a cadence, or begins in a new register or at a contrasting dynamic. The student is still finding patterns, but the patterns are defined differently in the new work, so s/he must answer the question, “where is the boundary between phrases” by looking for different evidence.

Application has already led us somewhat into analyzing; finding the phrase structure and cadential points is surely analysis.  In analysis, the student goes further, finding out how the various parts relate to each other. We find where the antecedent and where the consequent phrases are. We find where the tension builds and where it relaxes, and what rhythmic and tonal relationships make it so. We find parallel passages and learn in what ways they are similar, and we find contrasting themes and in what ways they are different. The results of all of this analysis get folded back into interpretation, as the performer makes phrases, contrasts and similarities clear to the audience, and brings the whole practice experience to a higher, deeper, more meaningful level as the student directs his or her attention and purpose to matters far beyond the learning of notes and rhythms.

Evaluation is part of the practice process. As music is practiced, what has just been done must be evaluated so that the next action is apparent. Interpretation as well as accuracy must be practiced, and so each attempt is evaluated for how well the intended interpretation was done, and how accurately the pitches and rhythms were performed.

At the top of the pyramid is creating. I think it’s significant that creating is the highest level. We sometimes discount the creative process by throwing students into composing tasks without giving them substantial learning opportunities at applying, analyzing, and evaluating. If students spend most of their music time singing and playing instruments, then we must find ways for them to transfer what they have learned performing to creating. Taking melodies they are learning and asking them to change a rhythm or change  the last note of the phrase so that the effect or intent changes are possible activities to this end. Evaluating music others have written, and then writing similar music is also a time-honored technique. Trying out alternative interpretations is still another. It is not realistic to expect students to create music “out of thin air.” They must have the intellectual grounding from which the creative process can operate.

The top three levels of Bloom’s revised taxonomy can easily be a challenge for students and teachers alike. The new national core arts standards are helpful, because much of the standards found therein push students to those higher taxonomy levels. Pushing our students there creates a surge of challenge and motivation that students and teachers who have been stuck at the lowest levels of the taxonomy need.

If you would like to read more on this subject, please follow this link to another article.

My two latest compositions, Woodwind Quintet No. 1 in Bb Major, and Clarinet Choir No. 1 in Eb major are now available. If you are interested in purchasing either or both for your ensemble or your students, please use my contact page to request your copy.

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.

That Elusive Groove

2011Symposium_1_2Some years ago, when I was leading a music rehearsal for our church worship team, often tried to stop the band from rushing tempos, while they for their part tried to stop me from dragging those same songs. I remember trying to teach them the groove I was feeling, but without consistent success. They naturally were comfortable in a driven rock feel whereas I was after more of a more laid back gospel or funk groove. The interesting thing was that their tendency to accelerate ended when they reached the tempo of their groove. In other words, it wasn’t the open-ended sort of rushing that just keeps getting faster until the whole thing falls apart because the tempo has out paced the musicians ability to play that fast. Our musical inner selves were set differently.

Why do people have different inner musical selves that cause them to approach the same music differently? Where differences like this exist, psychologists will tell us that there is a mixture of biological and environmental factors at work. We may play a piece of music differently because of differences in our biological cores, or because some were trained classically in a conservatory of music while others were trained under the mentoring of a popular or jazz musician. Some of us play music the way we do because we depend on music notation, while others play music the way we do because we are improvisers and skilled at playing by ear, but not music readers. A musician whose background is gospel, rhythm and blues, and funk will naturally approach music differently than a musician whose background is alternative rock. We bring the character and sound of what is familiar and what forms the foundation of our musicianship. This is why classical musicians rarely sound the same playing jazz as jazz musicians, opera singers seldom sound the same singing pop songs as pop singers, and why successful crossover musicians are so rare. These differences in biological make-up and musical experience also exist between students and their music teacher. Music teachers must consider the musical backgrounds of their students in order to understand why they interpret music they way they do, and to determine what training and experience is needed in order to appropriately interpret different musical styles.

There is, to be sure, a fundamental core of knowledge that every musician must start birdsongwith and build upon. For example, in Western music, the closest two pitches can be is one half step, there are diatonic scales, each divided into seven parts, and a chromatic scale divided into twelve parts. There is a rhythmic structure that includes meter and grouping arranged in a hierarchy, and there are pitch tendencies and attractions that define tonality and set a standard for intonation within the context of Western tonal music. I could perhaps continue the list of core fundamentals, but the point is that there is this body of knowledge that must be common to all Western musicians, regardless of in which genre individuals choose to perform. Other cultures could have quarter steps as the smallest interval, other tonalities, and other divisions of the octave, but there are, nonetheless, still core fundamentals for all musicians regardless of genre within a given culture, and if we generalize to fundamentals such as meter or scale, across all cultures.

Differences such as I experienced with my worship band, follow differences in styles and genre, but not in the fundamental way music is made. The more specific the issue is, the more defined the differences can be. For example, everyone in that rehearsal recognized the importance of establishing a steady beat, but did not agree on the more subtle differences of how notes are finessed in relation to the beat. Some wanted to play ahead of the beat, driving the music, while others wanted to play behind the beat, creating a more relaxed feel. I needed more experience performing music with a driving beat without rushing, and they needed more experience playing laid-back music without slowing down. As we fulfill our responsibility to give our students a diverse repertoire of quality music to listen to, practice, analyze, evaluate, interpret and perform, we must be sure that the fundamental core is solid, and that attention is given to stylistic differences so that they develop an ear for those differences, and a sense of how those differences affect interpretation and performance practices. Without a lot of listening, interpreting, and improvising in a less familiar genre or sub-genre, students brought up on rock will always rush jazz, and students brought up on hip-hop will always drag rock. It is the “inner workings” of each genre of music that give each genre a characteristic sound, groove and feel. Without an awareness of these, a diverse repertoire will sound strangely monolithic.

Using New Learning to Focus and Structure Music Lessons

2011Symposium_1_2One of the risks of begin an arts teacher is that my lessons will be perceived as unplanned and lacking in structure. While I always have both plans and structure to every lesson I teach, the highly interactive nature of a music class sometimes gives the illusion that we are only responding to the moment without an overarching goal. For this reason, I try to build new learning into every lesson or rehearsal. By new learning, I don’t mean just improving performance through practice, evaluation and refining, though this is critical also, but I mean also that students will learn something new that they will immediately begin to use. New learning keeps long-term projects interesting, and helps me avoid just teaching skills without expecting students to use high level thinking and problem solving strategies.

In addition to writing the objective for each class on the board, I also write a list of new learning for each class. This list, which typically has two or three items, tells the students what they will need to know in order to be able to do that day’s class work that I haven’t taught to that class this year. It may be that some students know what is on the list from a previous year of music classes, or from music lessons they take outside of school. These students enjoy teaching their peers something from the list, and are encouraged by the opportunity to do so. I have found that starting a class with the new learning list gets the students’ attention, and putting the information up front at the beginning of class seems to cause more students to retain the learning, perhaps because they go through the steps of learning first and then applying what they have just learned, rather than trying to remember and apply something they learned a week or more ago, or learn as they go when they have become confused. The list also gives me a few concrete things to reinforce with students as I support their learning in small groups during the class. Reinforcing instead of introducing in small groups also helps increase retention of the material.

The new learning list also makes the structure of the lesson highly visible. The new learning items are amusic_words_large common thread that runs through the entire lesson. Activities the students are doing can be seen as opportunities to practice what they have just learned. The new learning is added in to what they were already doing, and so helps to improve the quality of the performance they are practicing, evaluating and refining. It is also helpful if new learning is easily connected to previous learning, either through application or similarities. For example, if the students learned last week that when a note has a sharp applied, the pitch is raised one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the right of the white key of the same letter or solfege name, then they will easily understand this week that when a flat is applied, the pitch is lowered one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the left of the white key of the same letter or solfege name. The half step displacement and proximity of the black key to the white key are similarities that tie the new learning about flats to the previous learning about sharps.

Once students have learned the new material, they are given something musical to do in small groups. The something musical is chosen from one of the artistic processes in the core arts standards: create, perform, respond, or connect. In the example above about sharps and flats, students were given the bass line to the song “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” in three different keys, each with a different key signature. The rhythm of dotted quarter, eighth, and two quarter notes is pervasive. The new learning list was key signature, flats on the keyboard, and dotted notes. Reinforcement occurred as I reminded students that a note was B-flat and not B natural because of the key signature, and when evaluation of performed dotted quarter and eighth note pointed out that they were played as if they were two quarter notes. Because the dotted quarter and eighth were followed by two quarter notes, students could compare the two aurally and visually, and learn to accurately. New learning can be any material related to what students are already doing with which students can create, perform, respond or connect.

The Tension Between Expediency and Rigor

2011Symposium_1_2Realizing that the world isn’t perfect, and that music directors sometimes do things they feel they have to do but don’t really want to do, I thought it would be useful to explore the tension that often exists between expedient and rigorous. First, I should define my terms. Expedient is training an ensemble to play the right notes, dynamics, tempi, and articulations as accurately as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Expedient training typically involves drill and rote teaching, is teacher centered, and leaves all of the interpretive and technical decisions to the teacher. Music teachers resort to this type of teaching when there is a performance looming, and too little time to prepare students by any other way. Rigor is teaching an ensemble to play the right notes, dynamics, tempi, and articulations as expressively as possible, which still requires accuracy, but the accuracy is gained through student centered instruction, leaving much of the interpretive decisions to the student, and allowing the student to solve technical problems to the greatest extent possible after teaching them practice and evaluation strategies.

This is a more time consuming approach, but one that results in a more meaningful music experience for the student. Students use teacher-provided and collaboratively developed criteria, and later personally developed criteria, to evaluate their own interpretation, technical skill, originality, emotional impact, and interest to refine a performance until it is ready to present publicly. Notice how far beyond accurate notes, dynamics and articulations this goes. When students are playing music just the way they are told to play it, personal meaning and expression are absent until the performance is fully prepared at which time there may be an emotional consensus on the effectiveness of the director’s interpretation. Through director centered rehearsals, visceral satisfaction and interaction with the music is rare or missing, because the investment of personal feelings is left out. When students are not actively involved in the evaluation and refining, all that is left is rehearsing, which alone is essentially rote learning or drill, neither of which builds musicianship.

Rehearsal should be the means to refining accuracy and interpretation, but both must first be conceived, developed, music and the brainand even practiced before they can be refined in rehearsal. Accuracy is born not only out of practice, but out of recognizing where challenges lie, and finding motivation in taking them on, equipped with a plan and strategies learned from good teaching. While accuracy can be practiced individually, interpretation must ultimately be executed corporately in an ensemble. Discussing, exploring, and trying multiple interpretations with the ensemble involves students in meta-cognitive activity that is essential for instructional depth in music performance education. It is, I believe, no accident that “interpret” precedes “rehearse” in the core arts standards for music. Interpretation requires intent and expression. Where interpretation is added on after notes, rhythms, articulations and tempi are mastered, the point of musical activity is lost. Put another way, pitches, rhythms, articulations and tempi are means to an expressive end, not the other way around. The point is not to learn the notes, but to express intent with notes. Observe the enduring understanding for rehearse, evaluate and refine performance: “To express their musical ideas, musicians analyze, evaluate, and refine their performances, individually or in collaboration with others.” The first phrase states the purpose of musical performance, that is, to express musical ideas. Students engage in analysis, evaluation and refinement individually when they practice, and in collaboration with others when they are in their ensemble setting. Being told how to play every note and nuance is not collaboration and is not what the writers of the standards intended. Collaboration involves taking ideas from many and creating something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because all benefited from each contribution of a part.

There is a tension between knowing this is how it should be, and knowing that there is not time to start doing all of these things. But there is eventually a return on every good investment. Students who become capable of being independent learners and interpreters of music, what Shaw had Henry Higgins call “a tower of strength” in Pygmailion do not need as much supervised drill, because they are capable of evaluating, refining and overcoming challenges in the text, and defects in the performance much more independently and therefore more quickly and efficiently, than students who must totally rely on their director for everything. This investment must be made at times of the year when there is time to make, or else every director must make time to do so. We must do this because we are not music trainers, we are music educators, which is a much higher calling.


Duke Ellington Had It Right

2011Symposium_1_2Duke Ellington once said, “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” There is a lot for music educators to think about in that statement, especially because an enduring understanding for performing includes “knowledge of musical works,” and “understanding of their own technical skill.” Learning, motivation, and satisfaction are always tied to a careful balancing of difficulty of the music and level of a student’s performing skill. Music that is too easy compared to skill is not motivating, is boring unlikely to be the vehicle for much learning. Music that is too difficult compared to skill is not motivating either, and is discouraging and again unlikely to be the means of much learning. Music that is perfectly matched to skill level will be motivating and satisfying for a time, but because it does not present much if any challenge, will be abandoned relatively quickly, again because of boredom.

Notice that Ellington did not suggest musicians select music they can play, he said they should select music they can master. To master a piece requires anchoosing-beautiful-music interval of time spent working at it; practicing, rehearsing, refining, evaluating, and learning about. A piece one can master is one that is not within immediate reach, but is within reach once reasonable effort is made to put it within one’s grasp, and then to take hold of it as master. The goal in selecting music is to choose a work that the student cannot play yet, and avoid works that the students simply cannot play; that is to say will not be able to play, even after working at it for a reasonable period of time. Remember, the student is the one doing the selecting. The music educator must teach students how to evaluate their music performance skills, the difficulty of a musical work, and guide the student in properly balancing the two to achieve the right amount of challenge. We are trying to train students to be wise musicians.

Ellington also calls musicians who choose music they can master “wise.” There is wisdom in choosing to be challenged, choosing to improve yourself, to constantly be working at becoming better. This is true for all human endeavors, whether vocational or avocational. Leading students to mastery is the heart and soul of education. Students who don’t take on challenges, who don’t struggle with problems, who don’t put themselves, or allow themselves to be put into situations where they cannot immediately succeed, are sure to miss the opportunity to master anything. Students should be encouraged to select music that will appropriately challenge them.

On the other hand, pushing someone to practice something that will continue to be beyond their ability, ever falsely encouraging them with assurances that they can succeed if only they will keep trying, is misguided and a disservice to the student. I have heard too many music ensembles perform works in concerts and adjudications that they simply had no business trying to play or sing. These were not pieces the ensemble could master, and were unwisely chosen. There is no virtue in performing great music badly, but a good deal of advantage in performing any worthy music with excellence. Isaac Stern, the great violinist captured this thought well when he said, “there are more bad musicians than there is bad music.” Music directors must, through exercising wisdom, present music that makes it and the performers look good, while developing musicianship through the process of rehearsing, refining and evaluating.