Making Music Classrooms More Student-Centered


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The longer I teach, the less I want to direct my students’ learning. By this I mean that the least effective teaching I do is when I am most in control of what is being taught. When students have no say in what or how material is taught, they are far less apt to be interested, engaged, and ultimately successful. This is not to say that we should all chuck the curriculum and let students do whatever they want in class, but they should have many more opportunities to choose materials that interest them and methods that suit them than they are often given.

Typically, the least productive class of the year is the last day of school. Knowing this, I enjoy just giving the reins over to the students on this day. They and I have been together long enough for them to know that no matter what, I expect them to do something musical in my room, so given the chance, out come the phones and the ear phones. Some will just listen to music privately, but it is the students who share and participate that I really enjoy watching and listening to. These students will gather themselves in a small group, usually three or four of them together, choose a song they all know and like, set it to playing on one of their phones, and then sing and drum along. Because the song is often a rap song, some will rap while others drum, depending on which a student is more comfortable with. One or two others may be drawn over and sit on the outskirts of the group and listen, beginning to move to the beat, and quickly welcomed into the group as a participant-listener. In this group of now five or six people, one song has engaged every student by affording each the opportunity to choose how they will engage and participate; as singers, rappers, drummers, or listeners. For me, this is the ideal scenario for a music class. On those occasions when I can prime the context with the musical context I want to teach that day, students leave at the end of class excited, having engaged with music and through their engagement and enjoyment having learned the curricular content for the day.

Starr Stackstein provided some excellent tips for producing great student led discussions in class. I have adopted them for music, and present them here.

  • Start by reviewing small group protocols that include speaking and listening, always adding value  ideas rooted in the music.
  • Provide time for students to think about what is to be discussed first. When a performance for you is the means for assessment, students will want to go back and get it right. Evaluation and discussion will be an important piece in this, and the best ideas come when students have “think time” before someone else takes over the conversation.
  • Suggest having students develop questions while they listen or prepare as conversation starters. This is a great way to involve the listeners who have chosen not to perform.
  • Allow students to have a discussion without raising hands, thereby learning how to listen and wait, deferring to each other where necessary.
  • Create a Twitter backchannel so that more reticent students can be heard. This can be a great way to also get other questions dropped into the fray by students. If one or two students are monopolizing, create a protocol where they need to practice listening for a little while and then they can write down their thoughts and post them to Twitter afterward.
  • Encourage students to piggy-back off ideas of each other. “I agree with ________ when he/she said… because…” or “I disagree with ________________ when he/she said… because…”
  • Encourage students to feel comfortable disagreeing as long as there is evidence to back up ideas.
  • Foster an open environment where everyone’s ideas are welcomed and considered.
  • Allow kids to make connections to other learned information not just in your class, but anything applicable.
  • Give every child an opportunity to hold the floor.

How It All Works Together

2011Symposium_1_2When you teach a child to play an instrument, what is the goal of doing so? This may seem like an odd question, because we are inclined to answer that the goal is to lead the child in gaining proficiency on the instrument. There is nothing wrong with this goal; it can be defined, growth can be measured, and a child can work to gaining a degree of proficiency as measured on an assessment. But is that the only right answer to my question? Is gaining performance proficiency the only legitimate goal for learning to play an instrument. I would argue that no, it is not.

An example is my third grade classes, to which I am teaching recorder. Certainly, as I teach them how to play, I want the quality of their playing to improve, but that is not the reason I am teaching them recorder. My goal is not to make recorder players out of them. My goal is to improve their music reading, and to build in them skills that will transfer to band instrument when they are old enough to join the instrumental music program. I know that every child will enjoy their music lessons more if they experience success at sounding good on the instrument, but if the class is not ready for a concert at the end of the recorder unit, but can measurably read music better, and demonstrate good articulation, breath control and cover the holes on the instrument so that a pleasant tone is emitted, then my goals will have been met.

Another example is my seventh grade classes. These students are learning to play the guitar. Guitar is one of those instruments that is ultimately difficult to play, but initially easy to get a good sound out of and enjoy quick success. It is also an instrument that many adolescents are interested in learning to play, so it is the perfect means through which to teach music concepts, especially rhythm and standard music notation. It is also an opportunity to teach guitar tableture, preparing students to be self-sufficient in learning hundreds of songs on their own once they are finished with my class. Again, my goal is not to make world class guitarists out of any of them, but to use the guitar to improve their musical skills, and give them a means by which they can enjoy music making throughout their adolescent and adult lives.

I was somewhat opportunistic with these students. They had just gone to New York to see Aladdin on Music-Feelings-300x197Broadway, so when they returned, I began teaching them “A Whole New World” on the guitar. They were excited to learn this song, probably because of having just seen the show. They learned to play the melody from tableture faster than it normally takes. Now I can write other songs and riffs on the board and they can work on them from the tableture. Furthermore, because they studied piano earlier in the year and have proficiency reading standard music notation, I can also connect tableture and notes they are pressing on the fingerboard with notes written in standard music notation. I have them find notes by letter name on a blank chart of a guitar fingerboard, and write in the note name on the right string and in the right fret, and circle the note name. They can then transfer the notes they have labeled to the actual instrument, and know what notes they are playing. As long as I use a liberal dose of popular songs and riffs, they are more than willing to deal with the notation issues. From a class management perspective, having the combination of written and performance work keeps everyone engaged when  some need to wait for their turn on a guitar (we have fewer guitars than students). It also affords me the opportunity of assessing students through more than one means. Some students do better with written work, some with performance work. Always using one or the other to assess students and assign grades is unfair, so using both and then weighting the class grade toward the student’s strength gives me a better reading on how each is doing.

From all of this instruction, some students will usually emerge as accomplished beyond the mean. These students exceed my goal and take what they have learned beyond what is required and done in class. That, of course, is wonderful. The best learning is learning that is taken out of the classroom and applied to daily living. For others who meet the goal, they are more proficient at reading music and playing an instrument than they were when we started, and are equipped with a foundation for further growth and enjoyment should they choose to pursue playing the instrument further at a later time. I think this is what so-called “general music” should be: an opportunity to enjoy and experience music for a lifetime without the pressures of having to partake in formal performances.

A Strategy For Improving Student Engagement

2011Symposium_1_2When an entire class is singing or playing musical instruments, having everyone actively participating is a given. There is no waiting to be called on and no hoping not to get called on. Music ensembles involve everyone all the time. Every student is either singing, playing, or tracking measures of rest so they will make their correct entrance. But once the music stops, and the director addresses a section, what happens to the engagement of the students not being addressed? I have written elsewhere about things students can be doing during those “down” times, but how can a director keep them engaged in the class without relegating them to these other tasks? The answer is to use the students to do at least part of what the director usually does; evaluate and suggest a way to correct deficiencies.
Five point rating scales are useful for rehearsal and classroom use. People have five fingers, so anything can be evaluated by holding up any number of fingers between 0 and 5. Instead of having most of the ensemble listen to the director work with one section, the director can identify a specific criteria, have the section play or sing the measures that need attention, and then have everyone else evaluate the performance on the given criteria with a show of fingers. For example, suppose that a director wants to rehearse a long crescendo. He or she has taught the ensemble how to make a long crescendo by not getting too loud too quickly, and by making a noticeable change in dynamics from the start to the finish of the crescendo. Students, once they know this, can evaluate how the section did making the crescendo. It is just a matter of indicating on a scale of one to five how well the crescendo was done. If there is disagreement, students who give markedly differing evaluations can be asked to support their evaluation with a brief description of what they heard. By involving otherwise idle students in this kind of evaluation and dialogue, they are learning as much, or possible more, than the students who were actually playing or singing.
This strategy also works well in general music classes. The other day, I was continuing to teach my sixthclassroom grades about phrases. On this day, I was teaching them to hear tension or stress at the ends of phrases. At first I used a song with phrases that ended just on ^5 or ^1. There was either tension or relaxation. Told them to point up if they heard tension and down if they heard relaxing. Because these are non-verbal responses, all students could continuously respond at once.
Next, I chose a song that had different degrees of tension at the ends of phrases. Phrases ended on ^6, ^2, ^3, ^5 and ^1. For this, I had the students decide how much tension they heard at the end of each phrase as the listened, and respond by holding up 0-5 fingers. Again, all could respond at once and continually. It’s one thing to tell students they always have something to do because they should be listening to their classmates’ responses and forming their own response, and quite another thing to give all students a way to respond all the time. It makes it harder for students to decide not to participate and easier for the teacher to assess students and hold them accountable throughout class. For times when the teacher wants words or phrases for a response, each student can be given a small white board and marker. Students write their response and then hold up the whiteboard so the teacher can see it. if the students are seated in rows, they won’t be influenced by their peers’ answers because holding the whiteboards up facing the front of the class,they will have a hard time seeing each other’s answers. much of our success as teachers depends to a large extent on frequent student engagement. These strategies are helpful in this area.

Assessment Ideas for the Music Classroom

2011Symposium_1_2By now, most music teachers are familiar with and using some form of assessment in their classrooms. Directors of performing ensembles give periodic playing or singings tests and quizzes, and may also administer written tasks to assess knowledge of music reading and analysis. General music teachers have become accustomed to collecting written student work, and using a variety of performance assessments in the classroom. Today I would like to describe an assessment procedure that has at least made a dent in my most pressing difficulty with assessment: finding the time to assess 400 students who have music class one day a week for forty-five minutes.

Finding a way to assess large numbers of students efficiently and accurately in a reasonable amount of time has been challenging for me and I suspect for many music teachers. Giving paper and pencil assessments is an easy solution, but insufficient for music. While I do assess knowledge and understanding with written tasks, I must also assess singing and playing. This is where the time issue comes in. Hearing every student individually is time consuming, but unless I do this at least three times a year, I have no way of knowing how my students are doing individually. With this in mind, I make an audio recording of each student performing a short song three times a year: once at the beginning of the year after I have taught the song. Because I teach the song first, it is not a pre-test, but the assessment of each recorded performance does provide me with a baseline against which to measure growth on the remaining two assessments. I listen to each recording and score them on a rubric, and the students fill out a self-assessment immediately after they make their recording. It is important to teach students to self-assess accurately. I look for agreement between each student’s self-assessment and my assessment of that student. The second recording is made mid-year, sometime in January after winter concerts are completed. The students record themselves performing the same song, so the two recordings can be compared for growth.  The third recording is made in June, close to the end of the school year.

In between these three major assessments, I have an in-class procedure that helps me gather other Musical-Balanceinformation about my students’ performance in class. I give each student a piece of blank paper and have them write their name and the date at the top. I tell the students what I am assessing that day, and that I will go around the room stopping to listen to them sing, and then put numbers on their paper. The numbers will be rubric scores for the single item I am assessing. For example, if I am assessing accuracy of pitch while singing, I might assess on a scale of 1-4 how frequently they sang the right note over a ten-second time interval. The entire class is singing, as they would anyway, but I am standing next to individual students listening to one at a time. I can assess an entire class this way over the course of a class period. This data is more informal than the recorded assessments, but it gives me a sense of how students are singing in a group, and to what extent students are participating when everyone is singing. It also gives me the opportunity to encourage shy or reluctant singers, who will sing for the assessment, but not always otherwise. A high score and word of praise often results in students improving both their singing and their participation that day and in future classes. I target the object of my assessment on whatever I have identified in the class objective. Some days I assess steady tempo, or use of singing voice. I don’t try to assess more than one thing at a time so the students can stay focused on one element, and so I can be sure to assess every student in one class period.  When the marking term is over, I have a good amount of data to accurately assign music grades based on documented achievement and effort.

How Much Music Reading Instruction is Enough?

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I observed that music reading has received minimal attention in the new NCCAS music standards. To be sure, music reading is not necessary for every musical experience. From a global perspective, our Western music notation is not used at all in many places, especially where music culture is preserved within an oral tradition. In the United States, in spite of an extensive symphonic tradition and many fine symphony orchestras and music conservatories, many people enjoy music daily, including classical music, without knowing how to read it. I have argued elsewhere that music reading should be taught, and that it is an important link to great music repertoire and traditions. Still, its importance to the musical culture in which my students exist is not what it once was. The question I want to discuss today is, how prominent should music reading instruction and practice be in music classes? Before I go on, I should define what I mean by music reading. It is looking at music in traditional music notation, hearing it in the imagination, and the playing or singing what has already been internally heard. Gordon calls this audiation. I am not considering merely naming notes or applying a fingering on an instrument as reading music. Naming notes is a skill that facilitates notational audiation, but it is not in and of itself music reading.

To be honest, I could spend every class all year teaching nothing else but i-get-itmusic reading, and guide my students to high levels of proficiency. But that would exclude too much of what else there is to teach them, and it would stretch my students’ patience to the breaking point. No matter how important music reading is, there are other and more fun things to do with music than read notes. On the other hand, without at least some music reading in every class, and all my classes meet once or twice per week for 45 minutes, no meaningful progress can realistically be expected. Contact with reading traditional music notation must be frequent and consistent. Nothing is gained by an occasional diversion into music reading. What’s more, students will not enjoy reading music until they at least begin to get good at it. This requires repetition. An efficient way of teaching and practicing music reading while also teaching other things is needed. Here are a few ideas. I hope you will provide others in the comment section.

  • Have a student sing a few measures of a song that is on their mind, and you transcribe it on the board, and then have the class read the transcription. This is a short warm-up activity, and connects popular music to music notation.
  • Start each class with Gordon tonal patterns from notation. Have them written on the board, and have the class and individuals sing them.
  • Using a 5 x 5 grid of motifs, have students sequence four of them into a melody and then sing the melody they have made. This is a good warm-up activity for a lesson on composition, melodic contour, intervals, style, or, depending on the motifs, can even be a “guess that motif” game.
  • Have each student transcribe a phrase of music you sing or play for them. The phrase should be in the style of the music you will be using for the rest of the lesson. The transcription can then be used as an example, and further studied.
  • Play “name that tune” from music notation.
  • Have students play or sing endings to classical music themes. This is a good way to teach style, as some endings will sound stylistically appropriate than others.

All of these can be done in the first 5-10 minutes of a general music class. Besides giving students regular and consistent contact with music reading, they also help establish the classroom routine of doing reading work as soon as they enter your room. As students become more and more proficient at reading music, they will enjoy the broader world of music that opens before them.

On Teaching Music Composition in General Music Classes

2011Symposium_1_2Although most music educators have solid training in vocal and instrumental techniques, expertise in teaching music composition is less common. There are, I suspect, fewer music teachers who are composers than instrumental or vocal specialists. Even so, music composition is an important part of musicianship, the development of which is at the heart of music curricula and standards. At some point, students need to advance from interpreting expressions of others to expressing themselves through original work. Creating was part of the original content standards, and are even more prominent in the new standards. I will offer some suggestions on how to approach teaching music composition.
All creative work begins with fluency and thought. Fluency is necessary for the clear articulation of ideas, and thought is necessary in order to imagine and form those ideas. To write a poem one needs to be fluent in a language, and to compose music, one must be fluent in sound. Creating music requires the creator to think in music; to imagine groups of pitches and durations, and to be able to play with them until a sequence of sounds is found that meets a the creators expressive intent. Because of this, composers need the same abilities to audiate as music readers; therefore music composition should not be taught until the students can audiate learned and original music ideas.

Teachers can use call and response by singing part of a phrase and having the students sing the next part. Students will MusicEarneed to audiate what the teacher sings and what comes next in order to keep their place and sing their part correctly. After that, improvisation can be mixed in to further prepare students to compose by giving them practice in generating ideas, and playing with them without being concerned with notation. Both activities should be initiated on a neutral syllable and then continued with solfege. The use of fixed do will prepare students for notating their ideas. When students are fluent in their use of fixed do to respond and improvise, the call and response activity can be revisited with the additional step of writing down their responses after singing them with solfege. The next step after that is to have students begin writing down their own ideas. To keep original work from being randomly organized, once ideas are generated and written down, students should write don a plan that clearly states the expressive intent, form, purpose and context. In addition to proficiency in aural/oral notional and writing audiation, prior learning must also have included musical form. Students are then held accountable for carrying out their plan as they play with their ideas and compose their musical work. At this stage, students should also be given time to play with those ideas, exploring the possibilities with which ideas can be sequenced and fashioned into a musical work according to an expressed plan.

It is important that student work be performed during the composing process so that work can be evaluated and refined. With each performance, students should compare the result to their intents as expressed in their plans, and make revisions to refine their work until the plan and the expressive intent are proficiently met. When student work is completed, it is important that it be performed so that the student can enjoy the satisfaction of hearing his or her completed work, so that others can have the opportunity to share in the expressive intent of the composer, and so the student and the teacher can assess the composition to inform and improve future work. The fulfillment of the stated plan provides an objective means of assessment that avoids subjective judgements, or worse the problem of trying to objectively assess something that is a subjective matter. The point of the final assessment is not whether the teacher likes the work, but instead how well did the student do in accomplishing what s/he set out to do? Other objective criteria can also be inserted. For example, to what extent was the intended form adhered to, or to what extent was the composition correctly notated according to standard music notation practices? There is always room for subjective response to an artistic work, but quality work is crafted from procedures that can and should be objectively measured.