What Do You Want Your Parents to Know About Your Music Program?

Version 2Although it seems we have had high stakes testing, district assessments, UbD, PBIS, NCAS, and any number of other strings of letters forever, most of the parents of our students remember music class as just a place where they went to sing songs, play instruments, and be entertained. The idea that there are standards, assessments, written assignments, and a core of learning to be had is new to them. Whereas in years past, students may have received As in music just for showing up and having good behavior, in today’s educational climate, that is no longer acceptable practice. Student learning must be assessed in music, and instruction must be conceptual, not just skill based.

So what specifically has changed in music programs since our students’ parents were in school? What different between then and now? Then, music teachers selected music for their ensembles to play, showed, taught, demonstrated how it was to be interpreted and played, and rehearsed through repetition until the ensemble reproduced the teacher’s interpretation. This was a teacher centered classroom where the students were expected to closely follow the teacher’s directions and instructions in order to prepare a performance that was in many ways unknown to the students until they were ready to present the concert. Now, students participate in selecting the music they will learn, taking into account their interest, abilities, understandings, and the context for which the performance is intended. This might be accomplished by the teacher presenting their own criteria, or developing criteria with students for selecting concert music, and then presenting the ensemble with a list of possible selections, and then having students choose a concert program, providing supporting evidence using the criteria to support their decisions.

Then, the teacher might tell the students about the form or structure of the music they were learning. For example, if a band or orchestra were playing a fugue, the director would tell the students that they were going to learn a fugue, and then point out the subject, counter-subject, counterpoint, episode, stretto, and so forth. The teacher might ask questions like, “who is playing the subject at letter B?” It would be the teacher’s analysis, while the students job was to identify or label the various parts. This left the higher level thinking, the analysis, to the teacher, while the lower level thinking, labeling and identifying, were given to the students. Now, students learn the musical elements and forms, and then they do the analysis. In so doing they demonstrate understanding of the musical elements and structure.

Then, directors told and showed students how the music went. Crescendo here, retard there, play more staccato here, play more legato there. Now, students discern the composer’s expressive intent, and then explore ways to manipulate musical elements to effectively convey that expressive intent through interpreting the music. Dynamics, tempo, timbre, articulation/style, and phrasing are all at the students disposal; a palette of interpretive devices to use, blend, mix and match until the most effective way to perform a musical work is found. The director might ask, “what is the composer’s expressive intent from letter F to letter H?” “It is to provide release from the tension filled section that preceded.” Okay, then how should the way we play this calm section differrecite-u8vgbf from how we just played the section with all that tension?” “Well, it should get more quiet.” “Good, what else?” “It can get slower.” “Maybe not slower. Do you see that the composer has written “L’stesso tempo” at letter F?” “Yes, I see that, but what does that mean?” “It means at the same tempo.” “Oh, so not slower.” “No, but what about those staccato notes? Should they be like the stressful once at letter D?” “No, they should be a little less short, and maybe less accented too.” “Good, I think that’s a good way to interpret those staccato notes.” The director can be marking a grade book as each student responds, making an informal assessment of his or her students’ interpreting.

Whereas ensemble students are likely to select music for presenting, general music students are just as likely to select music to which to respond as to present. For listening, students are asked to explain the connections between a musical work and specific interests or experiences for a specific purpose. The purpose can be student or teacher generated. For example, students may be given an assignment to determine the composer’s intent for three contrasting musical works. The purpose in this case is to find three musical works that are dissimilar but that still all interest the student. Or the students may have earned free listening time and individual students have different purposes for listening during this time. One may want to use music to alter their mood, one might want to listen to a favorite song they especially enjoy, and one may want to listen to a work they are practicing on an instrument for a recital. In each case, it is of great value to have the student select the music, and to have and use defensible and explainable reasons for his or her selection. Once the student selects the musical work, he or she can then interact with it in any number of ways, from simple enjoyment, to evaluating, analyzing, or preparing a performance. The teacher can use the music the student has selected to teach any number of musical concepts and skills, with a much higher student engagement level than is likely with teacher selected music.

I also want parents to know that while these aren’t the primary goals of music class, participating in music class assigned tasks teachers students to collaborate, problem solve, reach consensus, work collaboratively in groups, respect and listen to each other, think critically and creatively, and communicate effectively in a non-linguistic way. All of these life skills are taught as students interpret, select with an audience and purpose in mind, and manage their voice or instrument part in an ensemble. Group interpretation requires consensus, rehearsing, evaluating and refining a performance requires problem solving, and practicing good musicianship requires respecting all members of the ensemble in keeping balance, blend, and interpretation at appropriate levels so that all parts are audible and able to together create the desired intent.  When parents know all these things, they take music as a school class more seriously, and that attitude transfers to their children, who then also take an improved attitude toward music; one that rivals that taken toward language arts, math and science.

Moving Music

2011 Symposium2Let me just say straight out that I don’t think it is possible to understand, appreciate, or be “moved” by a musical work unless one moves. The physical body is expert in understanding the beats, rhythms, and spatial placements that make up music. Because I believe this, I find it interesting that so few symphony musicians move while playing in the orchestra, but are much more apt to move while playing a concerto, sonata, or even in a chamber ensemble. Why is that? Today, I will explore this observation.

This whole issue is a matter of how music is interpreted and who interprets music in a symphony orchestra compared to a chamber ensemble or soloist.There is a dynamic in a symphony orchestra that does not exist when playing solo or chamber music. Though every musician in a symphony orchestra is an exemplary musician, each one cedes the function of interpreting to a conductor. The conductor’s primary function is to interpret the music the orchestra is playing. He is in an excellent position to do this, because he or she is standing, moving, and has plenty of open space around him. We don’t (usually) hear music emanate from a conductor, but we see what the music sounds like, conveyed through movements. The musicians see this too, and what they see the conductor doing governs how they play the music. The interpretation does not originate with the people playing the music; the musicians ascertain the interpretation and transfer it from what they see to what they do. Because they are agents through which the conductor’s interpretation is conveyed, there is little need for them to understand and interpret the music the way the conductor does, so there is correspondingly little reason for them to move while they play.

Contrast this with how a solo or chamber music is interpreted. In these cases, there is no conductor. There may be a leader of a chamber ensemble, but even so, the process by which an interpretation is reached is typically more democratic and collaborative; there are discussions and explorations of different interpretations, and discussions on how a passage may go. It is also possible, because of the small number of musicians involved, for the players to respond musically to each other, playing off of each other’s decisions on phrasing and nuance, so that the interpretation evolves out of an organic process that may never reach a final resting point, as these interpretive interactions continue right through a performance and on to another. Because chamber musicians are true interpreters, and not only conveyors of someone else’s interpretation, they move while they play.The movement Conductor Feebacknot only helps each musician understand and make an interpretation, but it also helps unify the performance. A nod from all together communicates that a certain stress is to be placed at the next beat, much as a conductor would prepare such a moment. Movement in unison among the players is way of sharing in an interpretation beyond the sounds, as each one’s body transmits and receives emotional information that helps make an emotional response to what is being played, and build the emotional expression that will follow.

In addition, there are also a different kind of motions that musicians make as they perform. I am thinking of the executive movements required for physically playing an instrument. Not only does the flowing extending and collecting of a right arm guide a bow along a violinist’s string to produce an expressive tone, it also sends the sensation of beauty and legato through the players body. The elegant and gentle placement of a clarinetists fingers on the keys and tone holes, or the finessed striking of a timpani by a skilled timpanist do the same. It is at once choreography and utility, music in motion and body parts in motion dedicated to making and expressing that musical motion. All of this applies equally to the soloist, who stands in front of a piano or orchestra, free to move and interpret as a conductor, but with the added advantage of being the sound source. The soloist and conductor will frequently exchange glances, facial expressions, movements and gestures, all of which are expressive and informative to the other. By such means, the two interpreters meld together as one. So it is too with soloist and accompanist, though a pianist is restricted in movement to the head, shoulders, arms and hands. Still, how expressive is the force with which a powerful chord is produced, or the elegance with which a melody or accompanying arpeggio is coaxed out of the piano. All of this motion is inseparable from the priceless result, which is the making of great music.

“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.

A Closer Look At The Four Artistic Processes: Responding


This summer, I’m looking for funding to purchase music keyboards for my classroom. Many of my students want to learn how to play piano, but cannot afford or find transportation to a piano teacher. My kids love it when I give them time on the piano, but one piano for classes of twenty or more kids just isn’t enough. If you or someone you know would like to help hundreds of inner city kids receive music lessons on the piano, please donate to my Donors Choose project.

Today, my post is the third in a series on the core arts standards. In previous posts I discussed the artistic processes of creating and performing. Check the July archives if you missed those posts. Today, I will discuss the artistic process of responding. In one sense, responding to music is the most fundamental artistic process, because it is something everyone can and does do. While not everyone is a composer or a performer, virtually everyone listens to music and responds to what they hear. People may respond to music by moving, singing, dancing, drumming, feeling. and above all enjoying the music to which they are listening. In fact, at that point, a person is doing more than just listening, they are partaking in music making; what David Elliott referred to as “musiking.” There is a legitimate place in music classes for providing the environment for groups of students to experience music in this way, without any further intention or agenda on the teacher’s part. This kind of activity certainly qualifies as responding to music. It is not, however, what is described in the standards.

The difference between “musiking” and responding in the sense of the standards is an important one. Musiking is more closely aligned with teaching the student, while responding according to the standards is more aligned with teaching the content. When the alignment becomes too heavily placed on teaching content, students may become bored and disenfranchised. They sometimes lose the ability to connect what they are being taught with their own lives (part of the fourth artistic process of connecting). This is especially true of students who consider themselves non-performers. These students are apt to enjoy music on their phones, and sharing and talking about songs they like with their friends.

To many of these students, analyzing, evaluating, and understanding music is a misuse of their time, and draws them away from enjoying music as they choose to do so. Traditionally, some form of responding to music has been given over to non-performers in general music classes, while music performance took place in ensembles for the band, orchestra and chorus crowd. The problem with this approach is that, whether we realize it or not, the goal is to make music students instead of music lovers. The reality is as long as students are doing things with music that they don’t enjoy, they will never become Expectationsmusic lovers if they aren’t already, and worse, many will become music class haters if the lesson stand in the way of enjoying music. Learning music and enjoying music are not necessarily synonymous.

With that said, I will now discuss the actual standard for responding to music. The authors of the core arts standards define responding as “understanding and evaluating how the arts (in our case music) convey meaning. If you read my previous post on performing, you will recall that the overriding purpose of performing music is to communicate meaning. Now, on the audience side of the equation, knowing what meaning has been communicated or conveyed is the central concern. Here is where connecting with the student is critical. We mustn’t limit a musical work to communicating musical things, or to teaching students what we think the music means. When a student says “that’s my song” they are inviting you into their musical world, telling you that the songwriter and performer have connected to something that they have experienced or can relate to, and because of that they like the song. It could be the beat, the lyrics, an instrument, or it could be that they generally like the work of a particular recording artist. Whatever it may be, it is important to validate the meaning the student has found in the music in addition to pointing out additional meaning we may want to teach them.

The anchor standards for responding are that students will perceive and analyze artistic work, interpret intent and meaning in artistic work, and apply criteria to evaluate artistic work. Students tend to be more interested in interpreting than analyzing, so I like to link the two together, teaching them how composers and performers use musical elements to give meaning to their work. This loops back around to performing, giving students greater understanding of how to express intent when they are performing, and it uses their interest in meaning to teach them other musical concepts.

When it comes to evaluating musical work, I once again try to strike the right balance. Using criteria based on the craft and structure of the music  has its place, and is a time-honored way of teaching many musical elements, but it is not the only way. Just as legitimate, for example, is how well a musical work conveys meaning. Taking this approach opens a discussion on what meaning music should convey, and then how well a particular musical work conveys that sort of meaning. Other criteria are also possible, and they should be generated by the students. How engaging is the beat? How exciting is the tempo and instrumentation? How meaningful are lyrics? By the way, although I try to avoid focusing solely on lyrics, because words are not, strictly speaking, music, lyrics are an integral part of most of the music my students listen to, and must be included in any discussion, analysis or evaluation of music they spend most of their musical time with. So developing the criteria that is applied to evaluate a musical work is done collaboratively with the students, and not imposed on them. This is in keeping with our desire to balance teaching content with teaching students.

With Music, The Learning Is In The Doing

2011Symposium_1_2Today, one of my eighth grade classes was composing percussion ensemble pieces. They had begun their works last week, and were continuing composing today. As I circulated through the class, looking at student work and pointing out notational issues that needed to be corrected, I was reminded of how many students make the same errors, even though the material has been taught several times, and was taught often in earlier grades. Perhaps some of these errors are familiar to you from your students: eighth notes with the heads not filled in, an incorrect number of beats in each measure, and beats not lined up vertically in the score. Each student heard my correction, and eventually corrected the notation on their scores, but I sensed that they really didn’t grasp why beats had to be lined up, and why there needed to be a certain number of beats in each measure. I found that lack of application was leaving my students’ learning incomplete.

The activity was planned so that while the students worked on their compositions, even if I hadn’t looked at their notation yet, they could get up with two friends (the pieces were for three instruments) and try out their composition at a “try out corner” where a full compliment of instruments was set up. Students who had not corrected their notation and who went to the try out corner had to deal with their incorrect notation in performance. These students, unlike the ones who only corrected their notation from their seats, quickly understood the repercussions of not having the same number of beats in all staves of a single measure. They couldn’t continue in their performance, because the part with not enough beats always got ahead of the others. They realized why all of those measures had to have the same number of beats: so that all the parts would fit together and come out right on each beat that followed. The application of “how to” was needed to complete the learning sequence. Those that hadn’t played were just following directions, but they weren’t able to understand why following those instructions was necessary.

Students can learn about, or learn how to do many things in music, but until they actually do the thing, learning can be tooi-get-it abstract to be truly understood. If, as David Elliott claims, music is something people do, then it must be in the doing of it that students come to truly understand music. While it is possible to compose percussion parts mostly from mathematical processes—placing the right number of beats in each measure—there are other considerations that may not become apparent until musical processes are applied. Doubled rhythms create strength and bring out a part, complementary rhythms create a transparent texture that allows multiple parts to be heard, and a mixture of metrical and phenomenal accents creates metric tension that cannot be seen on the page.

That the learning is in the doing is probably evident to most when it comes to playing an instrument. Few if any would attempt to learn to play an instrument just by reading or learning from a teacher how to play. Most if not all would recognize that they must actually play the instrument to learn to play it. Music listening is also learned by doing. Some aspects of music are intuitively understood from listening once a musical idiom has become familiar. Hearing patterns of tension and relaxation in music and detecting meter are probably accomplished intuitively with culturally familiar music. For other aspects of music, such as motivic development and theme and variations, students learn about and learn how to first, and then practice listening to gain proficiency in hearing these devices. No one learns how to trace a theme through a set of variations just by learning about the form. The person must actually listen to variations to understand them.

Notice that for each of these ways of making music, multiple competencies must be employed to gain understanding. The composer must also perform, the performer and the listener must also analyze and interpret. When students or teachers try to isolate these things, learning is bound to be incomplete and confused. The applied teacher must not just teach performance, but analysis and interpretation too. The music appreciation teacher must not just teach listening, but analysis, interpretation, music history and music theory too. The composition teacher must not just teach compositions, but interpretation, analysis, performance, and theory too. In each case, the teacher must not just teach about or how to, but also provide the student with opportunities to do. In music, the learning is in the doing.