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.

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. 


Child Development and Music Education

Version 2Dr. James Comer of Yale University has found six pathways along which children develop. These pathways are described as physical, cognitive, language, social, ethical, and psychological. While music education clearly has ties to all six pathways, I would like to focus in on two of them: cognitive and psychological.

The Cognitive Pathway and Music

The cognitive pathway addresses critical and creative thinking, and applying learning to accomplishing goals. It encompasses the highest levels of cognitive activity on Bloom’s classic taxonomy, those of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing. Critical thinking is the  objective analysis of facts for the purpose of arriving at an unbiased and informed conclusion. Creative thinking generates an element of newness into an observed entity. Creative thinking may result in a new product or artistic work, an new insight or interpretation of a pre-existing object, or a new approach to or way of thinking about something.

Anyone who is preparing to perform a musical work engages in both critical and creative thinking. Critical thinking is involved in selecting, analyzing, rehearsing and refining, and determining when a performance is ready to present to an audience. When selecting music to perform, musicians consider there own knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context in which the work is to be performed. Each of these considerations requires critical thinking. The musician must evaluate his or her own knowledge, reflect and assess their own technical skill as compared to the technical skill that will be required to perform the work,  ascertained through analysis, and the appropriateness to the anticipated audience and physical surroundings that is anticipated at the performance. All of this must be synthesized into a final judgment as to the merits of performing the particular musical work.  Once a work is selected, further types of analyses need to made on the music including harmonic, thematic, structural, expressive intent, and so forth. Once the rehearsals begin, the musician is constantly evaluating what he or she has just done, and planning what improvements and corrections need to be implemented during the next attempt. This is a cyclical process that continues until the rehearsal process is completed. Though many times the end of the rehearsal process is marked by a deadline, ideally, it should be ended when the performer(s) have evaluated their work and determined that the performance is ready to present to an audience. Throughout the process, there is abundant critical thinking being brought to bear.

Preparing a musical performance is not all about critical thinking, though. There is also the interpretive aspect of preparation. I mentioned in passing analyzing a musical work for expressive intent. This is an area in which critical thinking is of limited value because there is an absence of facts on which analysis can be performed. A listener’s interpretation of music can be influenced by non-musical factors such as life experience

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

and associations, and prior knowledge about the composer. For example, Margulis, Levine, Simchy-Gross, and Kroger (2017) found that when listeners were given positive information about a composer they were more likely to hear their music as happy, whereas when they were given negative information about the composer, they were more likely to hear the music as sad. A person’s own emotional status, especially with younger children, can also be transferred to music they hear, independent of a composer’s intent. Consequently, analyzing expressive intent cannot be done with “cold hard facts,” but instead with clues the composer leaves in the form of expressive elements and terms. Elements such as dissonance, accelerando, and crescendo tend to build tension, whereas resolution of dissonance, ritardando, and decrescendo tend to release tension. Low pitch can sound gloomy or scary, while mid-range pitches can sound relaxed. Isolated high pitches or low pitches can sound comical, while a low minor sonority can sound fatal or tragic. These are culturally normed emotional references that composers use and to which listeners respond with their imaginations and creative thinking. Still, they are only clues, and it is the purpose of a performer’s interpretation to convey the desired intent. That interpretation is arrived at, and rehearsed prior to presentation with the use of creative thinking.

The Psychological Pathway and Music

The psychological pathway is about an individual’s self-image and self-esteem. It includes their concept of self worth and competence, and ability to appropriately manage emotions. Research into the relationship between self-image and musical experience has been inconclusive. Whereas success in musical activities does tend to raise self image of musical ability, it does not necessarily raise self image in general. Music has been shown to be an effective aid in altering or controlling emotions. People often use music to reinforce a pleasant emotion that are experiencing, or to change an undesirable emotion that want to change. One of the  strongest foundations for advocating for music education is that music provides a healthy outlet for emotional expression. Just as students can use their language pathway to resolve conflict with words instead of violence, they can use their psychological pathway to control negative emotions by engaging with music.

According to researchers, there are several ways we listen to music in order to better manage our emotions:

  • Entertainment – listening to music to maintain a positive mood or to evoke positive emotions.
  • Revival – listening to music to relax or get energized.
  • Diversion – listening to music to forget about something undesirable.
  • Discharge – listening to music to release an emotion, such as anger.
  • Strong Sensation – listening to music to stimulate our senses in new ways.
  • Mental work – listening to music to get inspired or get new ideas.
  • Solace – listening to music to experience comfort after an unfortunate event.

These are all examples of the different ways we may listen to music in order to regulate our emotions and channel them in positive ways. In research from Gothenburg University, listening to music was one of the most frequently reported main activities. Of the music-related experiences, up to 67% of individuals reported that listening to music had changed their emotions. Most of these emotions were reported to change in positive ways. These changes were most reliable when the music used was of the listener’s own choosing, compared to music that someone else (a music teacher, perhaps) chose for them. This last point highlights the importance not only of music in managing emotions, but in allowing students to select music not only to perform, but also to which to listen.

Music has a legitimate and important place in the physical development of children. Its emotionally charged and expressive nature, the manner in which it is performed and heard in communities, and the ways it engages the physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological dimensions of humanity are proof positive that music is key to healthy human development.


Margulis, E. H., Levine, W. H., Simchy-Gross, R., & Kroger, C. (January 01, 2017). Expressive intent, ambiguity, and aesthetic experiences of music and poetry. Plos One, 12, 7.)

Perceiving Expression in Music

Version 2The authors of the National Core Arts Standards placed a high premium on expressive intent. It is included in Creating; plan and make, and present, Performing; interpret, Responding; interpret, and in the overriding artistic process on connecting. As I have written elsewhere, expressive intent is problematic in that the listener rarely knows for sure what a composer or performer intended to express. Determining expressive intent becomes largely a generalization based on how people generally perceive and respond to given musical conventions.  The truth is, researchers over the years haven’t even agreed on how or in some cases even if music expresses anything. This is interesting, because it is useless to be concerned with what a musician intended to express if music cannot be used to express anything.

I am going to assume that music can express some things, namely emotions. Juslin discussed three methods of “coding” that people use to perceive emotions in music. These are iconic, intrinsic, and associative. Iconic coding is the most universal of the three. It is based on universal uses of the human voice to express the basic human emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. The idea I extrapolate is that music reproduces in a stylized way the inflections and patterns of the human voice when these emotions are being expressed. According to this perspective. happy music is bouncy and jocular resembling giggling or laughing, sad music is weepy and sigh-like, angry music is loud, focused and forceful, and fear is dark, uncertain and cautiously quiet. Because all humans cry sadness, laugh happiness, burst out anger, and withdraw in fear, music that cries out, laughs out loud, rages or withdraws into tense quietness is understood by all people, regardless of context, as expressing those emotions. As long as the emotion is common to all people, and the vocal expression of that emotion is common to all people, then emotional expression will be iconically coded by human listeners.

Intrinsic coding has universal aspects to it, but is at least in part culturally specific. From this perspective, structural elements are used to express emotions. For example, harmonic movement away from the tonic creates tension, and movement toward the tonic creates relaxation. Emotions are perceived through the lens of the extent to which tension is present in the music at a given moment and over a given time span. Anger and fear are expressed when tension i s present to a greater extent,  happiness is express ed when tension is minimally present, and sadness is expressed when a moderate amount of tension is present. Because these parameters are generalized, mixing in some iconic coding with intrinsic coding helps clarify with more precision what emotion is perceived. Indeed, it is rare that any of the three types of coding is used to the absolute exclusion of the others. Listeners can and do mix coding systems to arrive at a perception of expressed emotion in music to which they listen.

The most culture specific coding method of the three is associative coding. Simply put, this is the tethering of an emotional experience to a musical device. Here music is perceived as happy or sad or angry or fearful because the listener connects what is heard with an experience that aroused the same emotion. Although the music initiates the perception of an expressed emotion, that perception is dependent on an extra-musical association to hit home.

These are ways a listener perceives emotional expression in a musical work, but is what

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

the listener perceives what the composer intended to express?  To whom did the composer expect to convey his or her expressive intent? These are important questions. With intrinsic coding, the structural norms with which a composer creates music may not be the same with which a listener is familiar. With associative coding, the emotional experience to which a listener connects a heard musical device is likely unknown to the composer of the music to which the listener is making that connection. When we are considering a composer’s expressive intent, what matters are the icons, structures, and associations he or she uses to create the music, and the degree to which those are shared with the listener. Composers of one culture to whose music people of another culture are listening will share fewer associations and common practice structures than when the composer and audience are of the same culture, or when the listeners have been well versed in the composer’s culture. Therein lies the importance of music education to developing listeners who can apprehend a composer’s expressive intent.

Any listener will be able to apprehend an expressive intent perceivable through iconic coding, because the means of expression is, as we have seen, known to all as part of the common human condition. The more culture-specific musical devices a composer uses, the more education is needed to familiarize listeners with the structures and associations the composer is relying on to  convey the expressive intent. For intrinsic coding, the issue isn’t so much that students know what sonata form or rondo or theme and variations is, though that is useful knowledge, but rather that they understand how composers use musical structure within these forms to convey musical meaning. Structures of tonal music are meter, phrasing, and patterns of harmonic tension and relaxation. Of the three, meter is the most universal, and is not limited to Western tonal music, but all three are crucial to tonal music. A familiarity with all three is necessary to gather in expressive intent using intrinsic coding. Structures are built up into forms, but forms are not as important to expressive intent as structures. Forms can be compared to a filing cabinet where files are placed so that they can be found and accessed as needed. Structures can be compared to the files themselves, which contain the needed information. A single body of information may be contained among several folders just as a sonata movement is comprised of theme groups, themes, phrases and motives, each comparable to nested folders. When one understands the contents of each folder, of each phrase, theme, theme group, etc., and the  relationships between them, then a person understands the intended meaning of all the files, of all the music combined.

In the case of associative coding, listeners need to learn associations that were well known to the original audience of a musical work but that might be lost on today’s listeners. For example, Mussorgsky’s “Bydlo” is meant to depict the slow lumbering progress of an ox-drawn cart. The sight of such a cart would have been well known by Mussorgsky’s audience, but most children in the United States have never seen one, so the expressive intent they perceive through associative coding would be connected to an entirely different image, and perhaps a different emotion as a result. One must also be cautious not to mistake titles for a composer’s expressive intent. For example, Mendelssohn’s famous “Spinning Song” was given that title by the publisher and was unknown by Mendelssohn when he composed the piece. All of this comes down to context. The context in which a composer creates and an audience listens must be brought into harmony if expressive intent is to be successfully conveyed.

Depth of Learning in Music Classes

Version 2One of the challenges school music teachers face is the wide range of grades many of us teach. It is not uncommon for public school music teachers in the United States to teach every student in a school that serves children from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. Many music teachers teach 500-700 students throughout the course of a single week. That amounts to many instructional units being taught at once, many levels of assessments being given, studied and used to improve or continue instruction, and many times barely a moment to catch one’s breath as the teacher moves from teaching 3 year olds for one class, and eleven, twelve, or thirteen year olds the next. The adjustments are many, the opportunities for preparing between classes are few to none. How does a music teacher in such a situation as this maintain substantial depth of learning, and avoid falling back into superficial or cognitively low level teaching?

Superficial learning in a music class most often results from the teacher focusing on the activity instead of the objective. When the teacher is working for nothing more than getting students prepared to present a concert, the skills of tone production, executive technique and hopefully interpretation are being developed, but there is little if any attention given to music concepts. Concepts, as opposed to skills, are embedded in essential questions and enduring understandings. They are the knowledge upon which music is universally grounded, and without which one cannot hope to come to a meaningful, lasting, relevant understanding of music upon which life-long enjoyment of music depends. When a teacher is teaching a musical work because it will be presented in a concert, that teacher is only developing skills, and is teaching at a low cognitive level. By contrast, when a teacher is teaching a musical work because it is an example of a particular use of a specific musical element in a given genre, style, and/or historical time period, then that teacher is asking students to analyze, interpret, and connect, and then transfer knowledge to how they apply their executive technique, tone production and interpretation. Seeking after exemplification and use of the concept in the musical work being studied, yes studied as in under investigation, sets the expectation that students will ask and answer questions through more than a utilitarian view of the piece.

Though all of this may sound complicated and time consuming, it is neither. it is instead a shift in perspective for the teacher. The teacher shifts from seeing teaching as concert preparation in the same way a math teacher might see teaching as state testing preparation, to seeing teaching as a straight line on which the concept is ever present, and through which the musical works and activities run. It is a shifting of focus from the activity and/or musical work to the concept. Instead of selecting repertoire to suit a Feed Your Brain Musicconcert program, musical works are selected to suit the teaching of stated concepts which form the substance of teaching objectives. The repertoire is then a resource used in the teaching of the concept, and the eventual presentation of the performance is a by-product of the teaching, not the primary reason for rehearsals. Though this shift will certainly alter many behaviors and decisions the teacher makes as to what he or she does in the classroom with students, it does not take any more time to implement than the concert based  method. On the contrary, once students catch on to the higher purpose of instruction begin given, they become more interested, invested, and motivated in what they are being asked to do, and the teacher also has the pleasure of seeing students more engaged.

The extra time needed for this type of teaching is not found during the actual classes taught, it comes in the planning of instruction. It will initially take more time to identify the artistic process (creating, performing, responding, connecting), an anchor standard (cross discipline) and  performance standard (discipline specific), Enduring understanding, and essential question for each lesson, but doing so absolutely hones the teacher in to a very clear purpose that focusing teaching and is easy to communicate to students to that they understand what is expected, and what they are supposed to know and be able to do as a result of instruction. Doing all of this, I write a week’s worth of lesson plans for grades kindergarten through 8th grade in two hours.  I have found that it is time well spent, as evidenced by greater understanding and proficiency by my students, better classroom management that results for more focused and invested students, and more joy of teaching to me. For me, the time spent planning is an investment in the success of my students and in my own enjoyment of teaching them that is well worth it. Here is a lesson plan for first grade that includes all of the components I have discussed. All of the content prior to the instruction section is taken from the National Core Arts Standards “Standards at a Glance” table. This kind of planning does not fit into a standard lesson plan book, so I use Planbook.com where I can customize the format to fit my needs.

Artistic Process: Creating
Enduring Understanding: Musicians’ creative choices are influenced by their expertise, context, and expressive intent.

Essential Question(s): How do musicians make creative decisions?

Anchor Standard2: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.

MU:Cr2.1.1a With limited guidance, demonstrate and discuss personal reasons for selecting musical ideas that represent expressive intent.


  1. Play “Clouds.” Tell the class that the name of the song is “Clouds.” Ask students to listen carefully so that they can describe what they heard when the song is over.
  2. After playing the song, ask the children how the composer used dynamics, rhythm, timbre and pitch. What effect did the use of these elements have on them as listeners? Ask them to compare the sound of the music to the look of clouds in the sky. How was the music like clouds?
  3. Give a row of children barred instruments. Play a pattern on a barred instrument. Tell the children one at a time to repeat the pattern you played if it reminds them of clouds, or to play a different pattern if the pattern you play does not remind them of clouds. Do two patterns for each child. After completing a row, go back and ask each child, “if you chose to play my pattern, why did it remind you of clouds?” or “If you chose to make up your own pattern, why did your pattern remind you of clouds?
  4. Review the song, “Migration” by Nancy Steward. Once the class has sung it together, have one row of children at a time create an accompaniment using the minor pentatonic scale, and rhythms of half, quarter or eighth. Ask children to explain their choice of notes and rhythms as a good fit for the song, “Migration.”
  5. Finish with tonal patterns for individuals.

Issues With Expressive Intent in the Core Arts Standards

2011 Symposium2

One of the pervasive threads that is woven through the national core arts standards under the artistic processes of performing and of responding, is the idea of interpreting based on an expressive intent. The pertinent anchor standard for responding is “interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.” For third grade, the performance standard is to “demonstrate and describe how the expressive qualities are used in performers’ interpretations to reflect expressive intent.” It is very easy to believe and to tell our students, as I have done often, that music expresses feelings and emotions, that those feelings and emotions are expressed by a composer, and that it is part of the performers job to pick those feelings and emotions up and pass them along to an audience through the way they play or sing that composer’s music. The problem is, how do we know what emotions and feelings a composer, particularly of instrumental music, was intending to convey through his or her music, and how do we know that the feelings and emotions we feel when we hear the music, or perceive but don’t feel when we hear the music, are the same feelings and emotions that the composer intended for us to perceive and/or feel? There simply is no way of knowing. We are working on the assumption that if a group of students or professional musicians agrees that a certain bit of music is angry, or melancholy, or bursting with happiness, that this is what the composer meant the music to communicate. But absent some sort of statement from the composer, we can only guess at what his or her expressive intent is because music cannot as precisely express the same emotion to everyone as, for example, “I love you” or “I hate you” expresses specific emotions, though still individually nuanced.

When a group of people agree that a musical work sounds happy, or sad, or angry or what have you, these are only general labels for emotions that have many gradations. For example, sadness may be of the kind more specifically described as melancholy, despairing, disappointed, lonely, let down, and so forth. Studies have shown that there is not reliable agreement among people who agree that a bit of music is sad as to which type of sadness the music expressed. Because of this, a composer’s expressive intent ends up being a highly subjective thing and one that can vary from one group of listeners to another, or even from one listener to another within the same group, if the feeling or emotion is narrow enough, such as the lonely sort of sadness.

The problem of finding a composer’s expressive intent is compounded when one considers that all of these difficulties that face the listener also confront the performers, from whose performance the listeners are supposed to learn the composer’s expressive intent. It becomes something like a child’s game of telephone, where a simple word or phrase is secretly passed around a circle of players until the last person says out loud what they heard. Everyone has a good chuckle because the word or phrase has invariably been misheard many times so that the final result is nothing like the word or phrase that began the game. So it is with a composer’s expressive intent. Performers who cannot be certain of the intent agree on what they think it is and pass it on to an audience. Some of those in the audience grow up to be professional musicians, who, based on their listening and performing experience, present the same work to another audience with a somewhat different interpretation. Interpretations of works written hundreds of years ago continue to be performed and recorded, all the time being reinterpreted. Most of these interpretations demonstrate a high level of musicianship, excellence, and I dare say expressiveness, but perhaps they have, over the generations, strayed further and further from, or inadvertently stumbled precisely on the composer’s expressive intent.

Where does this leave us? Of what use is a composer’s expressive intent if we cannot discover it? I propose that exactly because we cannot be sure of a composer’s expressive intent, we ought not to claim that we know it, nor should we make demonstrating or describing it a standard to be met with our students. Instead, unless we can ask a living composer or infer from the composer’s documented words, we ought to think of expressive perception. The standard becomes more serviceable if it were “demonstrate and describe how the expressive qualities are used in performers’ interpretations to reflect your expressive perceptions. Without knowing for sure what a composer or even performers intended to express, we cannot know if the conveyance of an expressive intent was successful. We can, though, know how the performance affected us individually, and through discussion in what ways it affected individuals in our group similarly. This approach allows us to discuss the specific nuances of each listener’s interpretation with reliability and precision. If we want to bring the composer’s intention into the conversation, we can do so honestly, in the context of speculation based on how we interpret the music, rather than on a statement based on speculation and masquerading as  fact.

Though learning a composer’s expressive intent is difficult at best and often impossible, learning performers’ expressive intent is more manageable. This is an area where the educational programs of symphony orchestras and chamber musicians can be a great asset. At performances and masterclasses for students, these musicians ought to share with their young audiences what they are trying to express and communicate through their performance of the repertoire they are presenting. If done before the performance, it would serve to educate the listeners on how the “expressive elements” of music are used to convey a specific intent. If done after the performance, and after the performers have asked the students what they think the expressive intent of the performance was, then it would be either encouraging if the students agreed, or eye-opening if they did not. Annotators writing program notes for classical audiences would also do well to consult with the conductor of the orchestra, or the musicians of a chamber group to ascertain the expressive intent, and then include it in the printed material the audience will read before the concert. In this way, the intended musical communication would more reliably take place.

Finally, I have not yet mentioned music with lyrics. Popular music, opera and classical art music are among this type of music. Where there are words sung to the music, the expressive intent is more certain. The listener can easily interpret or even know what emotions and feelings are being expressed simply by considering the words being sung. Here the composer’s expressive intent can be known with substantial confidence. The problem here is that the discussion turns soley to the words while ignoring the music. In these cases, it is good to explore how the music expresses the meaning of the words. If the lyric is “I’m lost without you” then how does the music express what it feels to be lost and alone; how are musical elements used to express these feelings? The opposite can also be of educational value. Present to the students a melody only, perhaps even a well known bit of Beethoven or Bach, and have them write lyrics that are of the same feelings that they hear in the music. Still another approach is to present students with a lyric and have them write a melody that expresses the feelings of the lyric, and then to explain how they used musical elements to complete the task. These activities will give students first-hand experience with expressive intent that is tangible and not left to guessing.

Teaching Music Interpretation

2011 Symposium2

Interpretation is included in the anchor standards for both performing and responding to music found in the national core arts standards. Interpretation is closely tied to expressive intent, which is what the composer intended to express in a particular musical work. This aspect of interpretation is important, because it gives the interpreter a starting place in forming an interpretation of someone else’s created artistic work. When the composer’s intent is considered, the interpretation cannot be a free for all in which the performer has license to do anything and everything he or she wants. The whole idea that a composer wrote a piece of music with a purpose to express something requires that anyone setting out to prepare a performance of that musical work has a responsibility to determine what that composer’s intent was, and to use interpretation to communicate that intent through the performance. The conveying of a composer’s expressive intent is the objective side of interpreting and artistic work. It prevents a performer from, for example, playing Bach’s “Air” (on the g string) on a distortion electric guitar backed by a full rock band. The expressive intent aspect of interpretation makes it the interpreter’s first job to determine what that intent was, and then to work from there. The expressive intent, if determined accurately, will be the same or similar for all performers for a given musical work.

If that is so, then why aren’t all interpretations highly similar or even identical? The answer is because there is a second aspect of interpreting, and that is the expressive intent of the performer. Musicians respond to a musical work with emotions and connections to their own experiences, just as listeners for whom the work will be performed do. In the act of conveying a composer’s expressive intent, each performer will pour into that conveyance a bit of themselves; their emotional understanding and their influences from life and musical experiences. While one musician may play Bach’s air with joy because he or she remember it being played at his or her wedding, another may play it with sorrow because he or she remembers it being played at a loved one’s funeral. Both are consistent with the music as Bach wrote it; however the original was in D major and written for the entire string section of an orchestra, not for a solo instrument, and not for playing entirely on the G string. The highly personal expression of a soloist is quite different from the collaborative expression of a string orchestra, which allows for a wider dynamic range, higher voicing, and ultimately greater expression. A solo performance in the original key ofMusical-Balance D major,and not transposed down an octave as the “on the G string” version in C major is, comes closer to Bach’s intent. Such a performance would also be a good example of how a composers’s intent combines with a performer’s intent to create a unique yet appropriate interpretation.

Interpretation is not just a matter for performers. It is also something that listeners and respondents to music do. The same two elements are in force: the composer’s expressive intent and the performer’s expressive intent crafted together into an interpretation. Because a listener is not producing musical sound, but perceiving and responding to it, his or her part in interpreting is to understand what the composer and performer, in their collaboration, intended or are intending to express. This becomes a bit tricky, because it can be very difficult to separate the two intents. As with the performer’s interpretation, the listener begins with knowledge of the musical work. The listener gathers understanding through analysis. This analysis can be as simple as identifying the the era in which the music was composed (baroque, classical, romantic, etc.) and calling to mind the conventions of expression typically used in that era, or as complex as a study of the harmony used and how it contributes to patterns of stress and relaxation. Expression that goes beyond or outside of the conventions can confidently be assigned to the performer, while expressions perceived directly from the use of musical elements such as melodic contour, pitch selection, and rhythms can undoubtedly be attributed to the composer. Elements such as tempo and dynamics can be attributed to either if the listener knows what the composer indicated. The net result of analysis and listening is a listener’s perception of an interpretation. The listener can then evaluate the interpretation, determining if what the performer did was in line with what the composer wrote. When the two are compatible, the result is a great interpretation, and one that moves us emotionally and leaves us with a memorable musical experience.

“But I Am Listening”

2011 Symposium2

The direction to listen to music can mean different things to different people. To a music educator, listening to music usually involves giving attention to recorded music being played or to music being performed live, and also involves listening with a stated purpose. For example, a class might be asked to listen for  a singer’s use of his or her voice to convey an expressive intent. Or the listeners might be listening for how the second chorus in a song is different from the first. This is a level of listening that many students are not accustomed to, and infrequently practice on their own. Students, particularly teens, are much more apt to be “listening” to music while they are doing other things, including conversing or doing homework. With this type of listening, the student is enjoying the music, but remains unaware of many musical details that are present but unnoticed.

The result of this disparity in what listening to music means,MusicEar students often need to be taught how to listen to music before they can successfully respond to and connect with music in a music classroom. This can be challenging, because many students are content with the way they listen to music in the background, and are resistant to promoting music to the foreground for deeper learning. As I frequently do, I like to approach this from the perspective of language and then transpose concepts to music.

At the very core of listening to anything, is the idea that something being listened to conveys meaning. Whether it is the sound of the wind conveying that it will be necessary to wear a jacket outdoors, a reminder from someone, or the melody of a symphony or the lyrics of a song, whatever is being listened to has meaning there for the taking. In order to take the meaning, one first must give their attention to that to which they are listening; otherwise, the meaning will “go in one ear and out the other.” The first step is “give attention.”

Self-ImageThe next step is to “take meaning.” Given that all sounds have meaning, everything that is heard can be understood. Of course, it is not necessary or even advisable to give full attention to every sound. Many times, simple awareness is enough to know I am not in danger, and there is nothing I need to know or be concerned with in what I am hearing. The sound of chairs being dragged on the floor in the classroom above mine minutes before the end of a class period is an example. Those rumblings, while they have meaning (students are dragging their chairs and preparing to pass to their next class), they are not the product of expressive intent. The students up there are not trying to convey any meaning to me–in fact, they are not even aware that I m hearing their rumblings. From this, we realize that we should prioritize sounds that we know have expressive intent. This includes spoken words and music.

The third and final step is threefold: to think about or consider that to which the student has listened, to connect it to other things he or she knows, knows about, and remembers from listening, and then to make a response. This is perhaps the most challenging step. People get so used to a particular kind of music, and to enjoying the rhythm, or groove, or sound of a singer’s voice, that they just stay in the moment and don’t make connections or thoughtful responses.  There is nothing wrong with being in the moment with one’s music, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying music without making an intellectual exercise out of it. But there is more enjoyment and more to take out of the moment when the listener makes him or herself part of the music making process. An expressive intent is just that, an intent, until that which was intended is accomplished. For an expressive intent to become an expressiverote note accomplishment, the listener must understand what the performer has done with the song; how musical elements have been utilized in an expressive way, and what has actually been expressed. An expressive accomplishment is a visceral musical experience. Music listening that is grounded in expressive accomplishment, which is understanding an interpretation, is the type that music educators want to take place in their classrooms. From the perspective of interpretation, students can explore, discover and come to enjoy a much broader range of musical genres. Once they understand that all music expresses something, then they can listen to music purposefully–the purpose being to understand what is being expressed through interpretation. Comparisons of an interpretation of a violin sonata with that of Adele’s “Hello” can be made, and the violin sonata can be understood in terms of the similarities in interpretation, though the musical styles are quite different. Connections can them be made with different people in different places and times intending to express the same thing through very different kinds of music. By pursuing this line of learning, students will see that music that appeared to be very different, is really very similar when differences in people, places and times is understood and taken into account.

Arranging and Expressive Intent

2011 Symposium2

When musicians prepare for a performance, there are countless decisions that are made and problems that are solved. Most often, a composer and an arranger have made many artistic decisions, and indicated them in the score. Dynamics, articulation, tempo and who sings or plays what are all mapped out. Though printed music certainly doesn’t play itself, students and their directors can achieve excellent results by following these decisions closely. Sometimes, articulations, bowings, an other performance information is provided in music edited for educational use that are not present in standard editions used by professional musicians. While one can purchase many fine arrangements of folk music, it is also of great value to allow students to make decisions and solve problems as part of preparing for a performance, whether public or classroom. Folk music can be arranged in many ways without compromising the cultural norms from which it comes. In a recent class for 5th grade general music, I divided my classes into three groups, and assigned one Native American song I had previously taught them to each group. The groups were given the task of deciding how the group would perform the song, including how and if instruments would be used, when to have solos, small groups or whole group singing, and how to use articulation and dynamics to make the music interesting and expressive. Instead of just thinking musicfollowing the work of a published arranger, the students set about trying different ideas and combinations. In addition to purely musical decisions, they also had to deal with how to use students who didn’t want to sing, how to deal with students who wanted to play a drum but didn’t play a part that fit the song, and how to keep instruments and voices balanced. Given the freedom to choose how to arrange each song, and the opportunity to explore their ideas, sorting through them and keeping the ones that worked and discarding those that didn’t, I listened to each group gradually build a viable arrangement.

Once the students in each group had made the decisions, then they began rehearsing and refining their execution of their ideas. Whereas before the students had performed their song in bits, searching for how each section of the song should be arranged, now they were beginning to perform through the whole song, and listening to how it sounded. Their attention shifted from what they were going to do to how they were going to do it. Transitions are always challenging, and these students were repeatedly going back to places in the song where singers or a rhythm pattern in an instrument was changing, practicing that transition until everyone was sure of how to smoothly keep going. Because three groups were rehearsing all at once in the same room, each group needed to keep their “conversation level” to a 2, which is just loud enough for a small group to hear itself, but too soft for other groups to hear. This leaves the room with a manageable noise level.

The final segment of the lesson was to have each group perform for the rest of the class. Because the lesson was on arranging, I was more interested in the ideas each group came up with, and holding them accountable to perform the arrangement they had agreed upon, than I was in the details of their singing or playing. To this end, before each group performed, I asked one group member to describe the arrangement: who was going to sing when, and who was going to play and when. Once they had told me what they intended to do, I gave them any instruments they required. All rehearsal was done without instruments, with students playing intended instrumental parts on body percussion. With a clear understanding of what the arrangement would be, the group performed and then received brief feedback, mostly positive, from me. With more experience at arranging, I will have students give feedback. Any time students perform in class, an opportunity exists to remind and practice good audience behavior. Transitions in class are challenging just as they are in musical performance, so after each performance I needed to wait for the class to be ready to listen to the next group.

The more creative and artistic decisions can be left to students, the more learning will be meaningful and impactful. Leaving these decisions to students elevates the level of critical thinking involved, and raises the student’s  investment in both the activity and the product, in this case the arrangement and the performance.

There’s Always So Much Going On Inside Music

2011 Symposium2

Until I got to college and began working on my music degree, I thought music was a pretty simple thing. There were people like me who sat in a band with a clarinet, and people like the conductor who told me and all of the other players what to play, and how to play it. There wasn’t much decision making to be done on my part. If we all succeeded in doing what the conductor wanted, the music would come out sounding good, and we’d all be very pleased with our concert, and look forward to the next one.

When I studied music theory, I began to get a different view. There really was quite a bit to how al of this music was put together. Music appreciation made me aware of themes, and motivic development, and the term “recapitulation.” To this day I don’t know where the capitulation is that requires a recapitulation at the end. When I tried to explain sonata form to members of my family, I became frustrated when they couldn’t hear how the themes were being developed like I could. I came to realize that listening to music was harder than playing music. While I had a conductor to tell me everything I needed to know and do when I played, no one told me what to listen for while I sat at a art-of-teachingsymphony concert or opera. Once I read the program notes, then I was on my own, and so were all of the other people in the audience.

Now that I’ve been a music teacher for 30 years, I realize that a teacher who tells his or her students everything they need to do or know isn’t such a good thing after all. It robs students of the opportunity to find an expressive intent of their own, and to interpret the music so that it become personally meaningful and expressive. It takes a lot more time to let the students do the thinking and interpreting, but it’s worth the investment.

My fourth grade class today offers the perfect example. I built their whole lesson around performing repetitions expressively. The premise was that when something happens more than once, or a single note is held more than a beat, you must change the repetition or the note so that the note, or motif, or beat, or whatever it is does not sound exactly the same both times. I told them that they needed to change the way they sang the repetition by changing the dynamics and/or the articulation.

anticipateGiven the freedom to alter the music in this way, they found delight in singing a sixteenth note flourish louder, infusing it with energy it had lacked before. They were sure the music would sound better if the same phrase were sung louder the second time, and coming off of an ascending line, they were exactly right. When they got to the end of the song and realized it had an Amen, they insisted that it be sung soft, because, well, Amens are supposed to be soft. They put all of these changes together into a couple of performances, and they instantly became more interested in the music, and instantly began singing better both in accuracy and in just staying together and listening to each other. All of this in a simple sixteen bar melody.

The skeptics will say that such student involvement in interpreting is too time consuming, but this class of 26 children reached consensus on expressive decisions quickly. A section in a band or choir can just as easily decide where to crescendo, where to accent, and so forth. Letting the students make these decisions puts the making of music into the hands of the ones who are actually making the musical sounds. It redefines a conductor as a collaborator with the musicians he or she leads. There is a journey of building an interpretation together in a way that enables the students, who are supposed to be the learners, to learn how to make music, and to practice doing so.

Teaching music this way goes beyond just crescendos and articulations. There are many musical elements which a composer uses to fulfill his or her expressive intent. Some of these are fixed and not left to the discretion of the performer, such as pitch and rhythm and usually instrumentation. But within those constraints, there are many possibilities. There is the freedom to decide how to play a pitch, with what tone color to play an instrument, and how to bring out the many and subtle nuances of rhythm out of which metrical structure is perceived. In our busy and hasty routines of preparing concerts, we mustn’t forget that the essence of music, and perhaps the very reason we first loved music, was because of the little things that make music beautiful, but that we all too easily treat with indifference when we teach. We mustn’t be teaching music as if we were dispensing push notifications to our students. We must teach music through making music.