The Things Students Do To Show Us They Have Met An Objective

2011 Symposium2

Assessing students is only possible if they have been working toward a clearly stated objective; one that both the teacher and student fully understand, with all of its requirements and implications. A good objective includes a statement of what the student will have gained once the objective is met, and how the student will prove that he or she has met the objective. How the student will provide proof is the means by which student work will be assessed. A teacher might say, “I know that you understand appoggiaturas, because you have given me an accurate definition, you have performed one correctly, and you have appropriately interpreted the notes involved.” A student who can only give a definition knows what an appoggiatura is, but cannot apply that knowledge to performance or interpretation, and therefore has an incomplete or even irrelevant understanding. What good is it to have knowledge that cannot be put to use?

squidward clarinet

Squidward happily interpreting on his clarinet.

By this we can see that in doing something observable and measurable, the student not only makes it possible for the teacher to assess the work, it also helps the student apply and find relevance in what has been learned. Well done objectives and assessments (and I hope by now we understand the two must go hand in hand) are an essential component of effective teaching and learning. To help in writing lesson plans with clear objectives, certain terms from the national arts standards must be understood. I will discuss those words in the remainder of this article.

The first component in both responding and performing processes is to select repertoire. For performing, the authors of the standards explain that to select is to “choose music for performing, rehearsing, or responding based on interest, knowledge, ability, and context.” Context is defined as the “environment that surrounds music, influences understanding, provides meaning, and connects to an event or occurrence.” It is a simple matter to choose one’s favorite song, or one that is most familiar, for responding or performing. It is quite another thing to choose a song after considering what one knows about it, what performing abilities one has, and for whom and for what purpose the performance will be given. With those criteria in place, the student must give the selection more careful thought, and may need to discard that favorite song or think of other choices that would better meet more of the criteria. Those additional criteria, beyond simple preference, set up a learning environment for deeper learning and understanding that will be demonstrated by the selection made, and the support from evidence, drawn from interactions with the criteria, explaining how and why the selection was made.

boy singingAnother important word for us to understand is interpret. Students develop an interpretation for their own performances, and determine a composer’s and performer’s expressive intent through interpreting music. Interpret is to “determine and demonstrate music’s expressive intent and meaning when responding and performing.” This definition immediately leads us to define another word, and that word is “demonstrate.” How will a student demonstrate expressive intent and meaning? To demonstrate is to “show musical understanding through observable behavior such as moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments.” Notice talking or writing about music is not given as an example of demonstrating, nor should it be.

Aaron Copland in What To Listen For In Music wrote, and I agree, that meaning of a musical work cannot be fully, adequately, or accurately described in words. Musical meaning is experienced and personal. It is manifested in feelings, emotions, and physical responses that quickly exceed the capacity of words to represent or convey. When a person demonstrates musical meaning, they must rely on the observer relating to the outward expression of that meaning, making it a shared meaning seen and heard through artistic gestures. The responses of moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments are artistic actions that give voice to expressive intent and meaning, and allow the student him or herself to create an expressive intent, if only in passing along their response to an observer. Responding in this way is a kind of second hand performance. Unlike the original performance to which an audience is listening, which is a single one, response performance to the single original is plentiful, because each audience member is a response performer giving a personal and unique interpretation and meaning to the original. The same is true for performers interpreting a musical work. Though many orchestras or soloist may perform the same symphony or sonata, each performer will demonstrate a different though perhaps similar expressive intent through interpretation. It is only when the music is performed, original or response, that interpretation can be assessed.

Pitfalls and Remedies to Teaching Instrumental Music

2011Symposium_1_2Learning to play a musical instrument is one of life’s joys and one that many children enjoy, and many adults wish they had taken advantage of when they had the chance in school. Beyond the enjoyment of playing music, learning an instrument is also an excellent way to learn most musical concepts. For example, students can learn most of what there is to learn about music from a well designed curriculum for a piano lab. Keyboards are a popular musical instrument with students, including children in the middle school years, when engaging and connecting with students in general music can be challenging. If you are like me, you do not have the budget to purchase a piano lab, but many of the benefits are still available by utilizing piano keyboard apps for mobile devices. While these apps can never replicate the feel of true weighted keys, they do provide enough simulation to be of use in teaching keyboard and music concepts. Recorder and guitar are also a popular instruments for achieving the same goals. I prefer the “Real” series of apps. There is Real Piano, Real Guitar, and Real Drums, all of which are excellent, with enough options and reasonably realistic sounds, even on the free versions. Real Guitar is of less use, because there is no provision for fingering chords or notes: they are selected with a push of the button. But the strumming and sound is realistic. The drum and piano apps are more useful, because they leave all of the playing to the user.

With recorders, there is less of a need for apps because the instruments themselves are affordable. Students can purchase working recorders for under five dollars, and can progress form beginning levels to highly proficient and advanced levels playing Renaissance and Baroque repertoire. Although students take a while to achieve a characteristic sound on most of these instruments, once they do, they are less prone to being self-conscious about performing in public, because not everyone can play and most friends, teachers and adults are impressed with proficiency on a musical instrument. Playing music develops confidence that carries over into other areas. These are all important benefits of instrumental music instruction.

There are pitfalls, though that must be kept in mind. People who play piano tend to have a less accurate musical ear than those who play violin. This undoubtedly is because  there is no possibility of tuning individual notes as one plays a piano, whereas a violinist must be adjusting intonation constantly. If intonation and developing a musical ear is ignored when teaching non-tuneable instruments like the piano, or semi-non-tuneable instruments like most wind instruments where real time tuning is necessary but restricted, then playing becomes a mechanical task; no more than operating a machine that happens to make musical sounds. To avoid this deficit in instruction, music teachers of instruments must include singing and ear training as part of their curriculum. Keyboard and wind instrument students must be required to sing their parts, learn solfege, and audiate what they are about to play, and then play fully, informed by their prior singing and audiating what the music will sound like if they play it correctly. This is a method that has often been taught in teacher preparation programs, occasionally included in instrumental method books, but too infrequently carried out by teachers. The value of sight singing for instrumental students cannot be overstated.

A second pitfall is that too many students do not receive enough experience being expressive and interpreting what Ensemblethey play. They often either spend hours practicing alone for solo auditions to music festivals, or practicing ensemble parts, or they are spending their playing time in large ensemble rehearsals where everyone is trying to execute the conductor’s interpretation, and where experience may not exceed playing the right notes, dynamics, and tempos. The real training ground for building musicianship on a musical instrument ought to be in chamber music ensembles. This can take the format of frequently practicing a solo with a pianist, or playing music in ensembles of popular instrumentations such as a trio, quartet or quintet. In these settings, every player is easily heard, and each player’s accuracy and expressiveness is apparent. The feeling of becoming lost in a large ensemble is replaced with the excitement and even thrill of hearing every moment of one’s playing combining with other timbres to form a vibrant, musical performance. Not only do chamber groups develop musicianship more effectively, but the added musicianship gained then goes back into the large ensembles in which those same students play. Ultimately, instrumental music programs must place a greater premium on building musicianship, and not stop at merely achieving note, dynamic, and tempo accuracy.

Why Music Rehearsals Are Different from Other Learning Experiences

2011Symposium_1_2For the typical American student, class time is spent doing things individually or in small groups. Students are used to  activities such as watching and listening to a teacher’s presentation, reading aloud or silently, doing a writing assignment, math problems, or science experiments. Although everyone in the class is doing something, the class is not doing anything active together. The students are not reading aloud in unison, reciting math facts in unison, or doing the science experiment with whole-class collaboration. Students may all be doing the same or similar things, but they are each doing the thing independently of other students or small groups.

Contrast this to the typical music ensemble rehearsal. Students sing or play parts all at the same time. Each students activity is a part of what the whole class is doing in real-time. In a choir, small groups are made of sopranos, altos, and perhaps tenor and basses for older groups. The groups all sing at once, each group part of the real-time product of the activity, and each student within each group sings at once. There is no independent work. All are involved. Of course groups do sit through measures of rest and through periods of time when one group is singing and rehearsing while another is not, but the mere presence of music being made in the ensemble activates involvement of others as the students respond to their classmates efforts as they do to any music they are hearing. These periods of down time also afford opportunities for several other kinds of involvement that are more far-ranging than what is possible in, for example a reading group. For more on these opportunities, see my post from “What Idle Students in Music Ensembles Should Be Doing.”

With all of these differences between what students do in their other classes and what they do in their music ensembles, it should not be surprising that it is at times necessary to teach students how to rehearse, and how rehearsals work. Students who try to apply learning strategies that work in other classes, such as collaborating with other students and doing independent reading, may not be appropriate or even helpful in a full rehearsal. Because both student engagement and the teacher’s instruction are ongoing, creating an environment of constant and active give and take between students and teacher, students who veer off into independent work will often quickly miss important segments of instruction and learning. Small group and independent work is certainly a component of music study, but often special “sectional” rehearsals need to be planned, or individual practice needs to be carried out for these strategies to be effectively employed. More often, students need to realize that in music, they most effectively learn by doing, and the doing is the active involvement in music making, an activity that is instantly accessible by all in the room. Students don’t need to share what their thoughts are; when they play the music, the product of their work is already made known. When students respond to questioning, they are likely evaluating what they or others have performed, or proposing an interpretation that is informed by what they have learned about the music throughEnsemble performance. The focus is more on what they have done as an ensemble, and less on what they have achieved individually. Each student’s accomplishments are immediately needed and valued by the group in a way that they are not in other academic areas.

With all of this in mind, I will end with a few observations on what students need to know about rehearsing. First, students need to become accustomed having no down time. Active participation and engagement is demanded by the very nature of music and a rehearsal. Second, everything they do matters to everyone else in the room. Each student’s work is not just about his or her own grade or success; it is about everyone’s success and enjoyment of the music being made and all the benefits that come with music making. Third, the social aspect of music ensembles is important, but not in the sense of socializing. The social aspect of music ensembles is found in the close integration of what each member of the group is doing. Fourth, the greatest success and growth can be realized in an environment characterized by the greatest cooperation and unity of action and purpose. These points easily come down to not only musical training, but character development. Caring about others and the greater good while foregoing personal desire to disconnect with one or two friends, and finding greater reward and satisfaction in the greater achievements of the group, which are simply not possible on an individual basis. When these principles are front and center with music ensembles, the results are better music and better living.

Expressive Intent and Student Opinion

2011Symposium_1_2Expressive intent is an important element in the new core arts standards for music. Under the standards, students determine the expressive intent of the composer, and how the composer uses musical elements to achieve that intent. Students also determine how they will use musical elements to express both the composer’s and their own intent. When listening to a performance of a musical work, expressive intent can be the basis of evaluating the performance. Questions like, “how well did the performers convey the composer’s expressive intent” are good prompts for responses. At times, the composer may have indicated what the intent was through spoken or written words. For example, several popular songwriters wrote songs in honor of Martin Luther King after he was assassinated. When a composer or songwriter states their expressive intent, then listeners can critically evaluate how successfully the song achieves the stated intent. On Monday, I posted links to several songs about Martin Luther King, anticipating Martin Luther King Day next week.

One of those songs was “Dream Speech Auto-Tune” by The Gregory Brothers. The song is just what the title implies: a recording of Dr. King giving his famous speech was processed with an auto-tuner so that both pitch and timbre were altered to create a melody sung with the typical electronic timbre we are used to hearing in contemporary popular music. The song was intended to honor Dr. King, but has always been controversial. I played the songs mentioned in last Monday’s post, including “Dream Speech Auto-Tune” for my middle school students. I told them what the intent was, to honor Martin Luther King, and what the song was, a recording of Dr. King run through an auto-tuner, and then asked them to give me their opinion as to if The Gregory Brothers succeeded in honoring Martin Luther King with the song. Of the approximately 80 students I played the song for and asked their opinion of, only two thought the song was honoring, and one of those was not sure. Interestingly, a mitigating factor for those two was when the song was written. If it was written close enough to the event so that it was a reaction to it, then the song might be honoring; but if it was written far removed from the event, then it would not be honoring. I asked them if the song were written in the 1980s would it be honoring, and they though it would. Then I told them it was written in 2009, and they wavered. This example is a good illustration of one way expressive intent can be combined with student opinion to teach students about music.

Many times, expressive intent will be more concerned with emotional expression than paying homage to an anticipateindividual. Because most of the music students listen to are popular songs, and those songs have lyrics, an issue they often encounter is how well the music expresses the emotions of the words. Popular music, because it is so mainstream, is also prone to be cast in predictable forms that anticipate continued popularity but dull expressive impact with musical cliches and intra-song similarity within the work of individual artists. If it worked to produce the last hit, it will work again to produce the next one. In this context, it is a valid question to ask how well each melody suits the lyrics to which it is set. Similar musical settings suggest similar lyrics. The relationship between variety of lyrics and song topic and variety of music for those songs can begin fruitful inquiries for students. One song will often be more successfully expressive than a similar song with lyrics or music that is dissimilar and from the same artist. Composition projects can spring from realizing that a particular lyric could be more effectively set to different music, or that a particular melody could be more effectively set to different lyrics. All of this creative output is started with evaluating the success of the realization of the expressive intent. Expressive intent and related student opinion is a powerful resource in the music classroom.

Responding to Music in the Core Arts Standards and Beyond

2011Symposium_1_2Responding to music has been among our music standards from the beginning of the first standards. In its original context, responding was primarily a standard for non-performing students, and was most utilized in music appreciation classes, or listening units in general music sections. As it is now presented in the Core Arts Standards for music, responding is more all-inclusive. Student composers, performers, and listeners are all expected to respond to music through analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. I will look at each of these types of responses to music, and connect them to the common core state standards (CCSS) environment in which we work.

The Enduring Understanding (EU) for responding with analysis is, “Response to music is informed by analyzing context (social, cultural, and historical) and how creators and performers manipulate the elements of music.” For this type of response to music, students look at how music concepts are used, how music concepts support a purpose, how students respond to structure, and how students respond to context, including social, cultural and historical. For example, meter might be used to support a purpose that the music be a certain type of dance, such as a landler, or gavotte; or rhythm might be used to prepare and execute a cadence according to cultural norms of the Baroque period, or timbre might be used to support the purpose of representing a battle and commemorating a military campaign, as with Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav.

The EU for responding with interpretation is, “Through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” Here, students show awareness of expressive qualities such as dynamics, tempo, timbre and articulation, and demonstrate and describe how performers use these to reflect the composer’s and performers’ expressive intent. Through the demonstrations, students perform with the expression they have found the composer to have intended, and may add some of their own expressive intent. In demonstrating expressive intent through the manipulation and use of expressive qualities, students gain a practical knowledge and experience of the expressive qualities and potential of music from the perspective of both composer and performer.

The EU for responding with evaluation is, “The personal evaluation of musical works and performances is informed by Musical-Balanceanalysis, interpretation and established criteria.” Evaluation begins with personal and expressive preferences in music that are applied to the evaluation. The evaluation is then focused on a specific purpose, and then expanded to both musical works and performances to which established criteria are applied. In addition, the appropriateness to the performance context is discussed, with evidence from the elements of music. For example, ensemble size and dynamics might be evaluated in terms of the performance space. A very small and quiet ensemble performing in an open outdoor space would be found to be an inappropriate use of dynamics and timbre for the context.

Where demonstrations are given, data is collected and can be used for assessment. Where descriptions are made, writing can be collected and evaluated, vocabulary can be taught and assessed, and many of the CCSS requirements can be supported without compromising the integrity of music education. Throughout the response process, ample opportunities are present for learning and applying vocabulary to authentic learning tasks, including music criticism and commentary. All aspects of responding to music are equally useful to composers, performers and listeners. Student composers respond to their own creative work by explaining their expressive intent and how they attempted to express it through specific elements. Performers respond to their own performance, explaining both the intent of the composer that they found in the music, and the expressive intent they have found for themselves through the music, and how they attempted to express it through specific elements and performance decisions. Listeners respond to both composer and performer’s expressive intent through analysis to ascertain the composer’s intent, and interpretation and comparisons of multiple performances of the same work to determine the performer’s expressive intent. Where student composers, performers and listeners are present in the same class, a worthwhile dialogue and discussion can take place between the three groups, members of each group learning from the other about the musical works they experience together.

Where Is That Meter?

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I attended a chamber music concert that included the first of Beethoven’s “Razumofsky” string quartets, the Op. 59, no. 1. The performance was by an ensemble made of advanced musicians from prestigious music conservatories that had gathered to attend a music festival. As the performance got under way, I quickly became unsettled. I couldn’t quite grasp the meter, even though I knew it was in common time. Eventually, the meter sorted itself out in my perception, but wondering what was causing my confusion distracted me. A day later, I have discovered that there are indeed metrical elements in this quartet that pose a challenge to those who perform it, and that this student ensemble did not always meet those challenges.

Looking at the score, It interests me to examine the opening theme, and see why the meter was so illusive.


Through enculturation, we become accustomed to perceiving meter through certain cues composers place in their music. Because meter is a pattern of strong and weak beats, the listener must have some way of knowing which beats are strong. One such cue is that usually, chord changes occur on strong beats. In the opening bars of this Op. 59, no. 1, there is a harmonic ostinato, and when it finally ends in the seventh measure and a chord change occurs it is not on the downbeat, but on beat 3 in common time. It is no coincidence that this is the very spot where my sense of meter began to falter. It was here I began to doubt I was hearing common time, and became persuaded that it was instead two-four meter. To deepen my doubt, at that exact same spot, there is the start of a relatively long duration, which is another cue for strong beats. This happens at the beginning also, but when we get to that same seventh measure, two quarter notes follow four eighth notes. In other words, both a chord change and a longer duration occur on beat three.

Yet another cue for perceiving meter is the onset of a relatively long articulation. At the very beginning, with the second violinist and violist playing the steady eighth-note ostinato, the entire burden of establishing metric structure falls to the cellist. The longest slur, one and a half measures, is in the third and fourth measures, beginning on the third beat of the third measure. Not only that, but this relatively long slur also starts on a harmonically strong pitch, the tonic, giving that third beat even more weight. As a result this third beat, like the one in the seventh measure, can easily be heard as a downbeat. Interestingly, Beethoven does not articulate the parallel occurrence of this theme the same way. When the first violin plays the same melody staring in the ninth measure, the slur has been shortened, so that the new relatively long slur does begin on a downbeat, supporting the perception of quadruple meter. So what is a player to do in order to overcome these ambiguities?

Phrasing and interpretation become essential. The first step is to be aware of the challenges present in the music. Beethoven was moving into his middle period when this quartet was composed, and here, as in the Eroica Symphony, he was experimenting with metric ambiguities. Although I will only be discussing those in the opening bars of Op. 59 no. 1, they are found throughout the work. To be effective, these devices must be set in relief against a well-established metrical structure. The cellist playing this quartet must be certain to inflect the opening phrase so that a tactus at the half-note level is established. The tactus in music is the pulse listeners perceive as the beat of reference. It is the steady beat a conductor indicates and to which a listener is apt to move. If the listener is perceiving the half note as the tactus, then the irregularities of articulation and chord changes will be perceived for what they are meant to be—essentially, syncopations. With a half note tactus, the pattern of strong and weak beats at the whole note level (each measure equaling one beat) comes off as first strong and then weak.

The relatively long notes fall on strong half-note beats, and the longest note of the theme, the whole note in the fourth measure, is rightly heard as the ending note of the phrase. With a quarter-note tactus, the dotted half note that begins the second measure takes on more prominence, and the first measure sounds like a weak measure dominated by the ensuing dotted half-note event. The quarter notes in the first measure must be handled expressively so that the dotted quarter that immediately follows them sounds like closure to the first sub-phrase, and likewise with the two quarter notes in the third measure followed by the whole note. Although this is somewhat counter-intuitive, it is an essential part of Beethoven’s rhythmic structure at this point in the work. Beethoven’s indication of “e dolce” serves not only as an expressive marking, but as a practical matter for helping to establish the meter.

Finally, the cellist must be sure to play the last note of the theme, the whole note in the eighth measure softly, even though it is completing a phrase that has up to this last note been played with a crescendo. The inception of a relatively long dynamic usually occurs on a strong beat, and the piano dynamic at measure nine is an example of this.

During the early moments of the performance I attended, these important points were not observed. The cellist played in a steady tone and dynamic that concealed the metric nuance I needed to grasp the metric structure. My experience with that performance and my subsequent reflections on it highlight the importance of analysis and interpretation to good performance preparation. Though the players competently played the pitches and durations in the score, their weakness was not paying enough attention to analysis and interpretation, and realizing their importance to a successful performance.

This is the lesson for us as we study scores and then teach repertoire to our students. Analysis and interpretation are not just academic exercises; they are integral parts in the performance process and cannot be overlooked. Remember, an audience rarely sees the score, they can only hear the music. Metrical form is more than time signatures and bar lines, for an audience see neither. Metrical form is a musical structure that must be perceived aurally, and therefore placed into the musical surface, beyond what the musicians see in their scores. Meter is not self-evident to an audience or even to the performers. It must be felt, perceived, and communicated.

What’s Your Interpretation?

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed creativity in the music classroom. When children perform music, and when I say perform I include practice, rehearsal, and concertizing, they need freedom to explore the interpretive possibilities before them. I think it is an unfortunate result of our pre-service training and perhaps also of our experience playing and singing under some conductors, that we prepare a particular interpretation and then go about training our students to carry out our interpretation. The trouble with that approach is that it relegates all of the creative activity to the conductor, and reduces what the students are doing to little more than following a set of how-to directions. I’m convinced that we take a lot of the fun out of music making, and indeed miss the point of including students in music-making activities, if we dictate a one and only interpretation.

Leading student musicians should be a lot like being a good listener in a conversation. It’s not good to do all the talking, or to not really listen to what the other person is saying because we’re eager to refute what they haven’t even finished saying. When our students are playing or singing music, we must really listen. The object of our listening shouldn’t be to catch all of the mistakes and tell them how to do it right, it should be to catch what they are trying to do with the music and help them to do it better. If I am leading an ensemble, and they are struggling, I may ask “am I going too fast?” If they say yes, it means I’m making it too difficult for them. If they say no, we want to go faster, then the rhythms may not be falling into a groove for them at the tempo I’m going, so it’s worth trying a faster one.
At other times, it’s worth just giving them choices. For example, “we could diminuendo to the piano and then crescendo after the piano, or we could sing forte up to the piano, and then suddenly get soft. Let’s try it both ways, and see which way we like better.” The students can try it both ways, discuss the differences, and then agree on one or the other.

It is also a good idea to share with your students how you arrive at an interpretation. I concentrate on three aspects of the music. First, I like to consider the meter, and how the composer has used the chosen meter to create the different levels of beat. I want to discover how the music feels in my body, how it urges me to move. My conducting should reflect those urges so that it will serve as a model for my students, helping them discover how the meter feels in their bodies. Second, I look at how the phrasing is structured. I discover the length of phrases, and how they are marked off in the music. For example, do phrases tend to end on relatively long notes? Do phrases end with a change in articulation? Do several phrases have parallel characteristics that show me the should all be described the same way? Third, I look for the most important note in each phrase. This note will be the destination of the phrase, and will be the one I want to build up to and release from. Each phrase has one most important note. Parallel phrases will have the same most-important note, so again it is important to recognize similar phrases so I can interpret them in similar ways.
When my students are sensitive to these three aspects of music–meter, phrasing, and most-important notes within each phrase, they are equipped to interpret the music, or at least contribute to the interpretation. In doing this, they are applying analysis techniques to creative decision making. As Richard Rodgers once wrote, “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” To make an interpretation, there must be something to interpret. Analysis shows us what is there, and informs creative decisions. Student-centered interpretation is another dimension of creativity in the music classroom.