Two Questions Every Student Asks and What To Do About Them

2011Symposium_1_2I find that there are two critical questions that most students ask themselves at the beginning of my music classes. One is, “can I do this?” and the other, “is this going to be worth my time and effort to succeed at?” Many students would rather not try than for it to be seen that they are unable to do something. The level of challenge up front can make or break a lesson. I tend to want to hold students accountable for what I have taught them. If I have taught them all they need to know for a given activity, then I want to give them the work, and make them figure it out. To a point, this is a sound strategy that develops students’ capacity to think critically and problem solve, both highly valued skills in today’s educational environment. But at some point, it makes no difference whether or not I have taught the students something I now expect them to know. If they don’t remember, don’t understand, or can’t apply the teaching, then requiring them to find their way can easily lead to embarrassment or discouragement, both of which will shut down many kids.

At the same time, a wholesale review is likely unnecessary for everyone, and will cause those who are ready to tackle the assignment to become bored and impatient waiting for the others to be caught up. Some review is always good, as long as it is fast paced and reinforces learning for the higher achievers, and helps lower achievers grasp what they missed the first time. After that, some differentiation is needed. The lesson I taught to my 7th grade class today is a good case in point.

The students are learning to play keyboard using phone or tablet apps of a piano keyboard. Students had previously performance anxietylearned a rote song, read melodies notated in the treble clef, and learned how to find c and f on the keyboard. I had not taught them how to read bass clef, although some students in the class take piano lessons and consequently already knew how. On the white board at the front of the room I had written the bass part to “Lean On Me,” notated in the bass clef. I also wrote note names under some of the notes to guide their study. I projected a picture of a piano keyboard with the letter note names marked and reviewed how to find c and f, and how the other notes can all be figured from c or f. I then left the slide on my computer monitor and invited the students to walk over to my desk and refer to the picture whenever they needed to. I played the bass part on the acoustic piano a few times to set the rhythm in their memory. All of the students were familiar with this well-known bass part, so my playing was sufficient review to strengthen that familiarity. I then set them about practicing the bass part on their keyboard apps, and to play it for me when they were ready. Some students did very well fairly quickly, while others struggled to find the notes on the keyboard in spite of the resource of the chart I had provided. One of the students who had quickly succeeded or I gave the ones who were struggling one-on-one attention. The struggling students appreciated the help and the privacy of one on one that avoided making their difficulty public. Even students who sometimes refuse to do much became engaged and motivated, largely from the appeal of learning piano, and largely from the real opportunity to succeed that the structuring of the activity afforded.

At some point in the lesson, all of the students were able to answer the first question in the affirmative; yes, I can do this. Upon deciding the task was doable, the second question was much easier to also answer in the affirmative. Realizing that success was in their grasp, they also decided that it was worth their time and effort to work through the assignment to achieve the goal set before them of playing this bass part on the keyboard. Next week, I am now in a position of building on what was accomplished today, reviewing and giving the students some time to practice more, and then making what they have learned to play part of an ensemble experience as they play the bass line and I play the melody. This will also provide me with the opportunity to play my clarinet for them. I like doing this periodically because it reminds my students that I am not only their general music teacher, but also a professional clarinetist. Beyond playing the melody for “Stand by Me” I will also play a short recital encore to demonstrate what years of practice and training lead to. It is important for students to see their teachers as professionals in their field, and no more so than in the arts.

Reflections on a New School Year

2011Symposium_1_2As the new school year begins, it seems fitting to call to mind the things teachers do to get themselves and their students off to a good start. Students need five things from teachers to succeed in school, and they are never more receptive to them than at the beginning of the year. Those five things are clear behavior expectations, classroom procedures, clear academic goals, interest, and confidence.

The last two things, interest and confidence, are arguably two of the greatest gifts a teacher can give a student. Not all material covered in a class is naturally of interest to everyone, but teachers who make the uninteresting interesting, and the unexciting exciting can motivate students to try things, do things and accomplish things they would not otherwise. Teachers who do this love their content, love learning, and love teaching. They get others excited about what they are excited about; be it grammar, geometry, Gymnopedies or George Washington. Good teachers can make all of this fun without watering it down. The beginning of the school year is a great time to infuse this kind of fun into learning. For music classes, playing singing, rhythm or movement games is a great way to begin. It gets every student in a class doing something active together while providing review and practice of basic musical concepts and skills. Middle school students appreciate the chance to move around while learning, and younger children enjoy the sheer fun of playing a game.

The first three things, clear behavior expectations, procedures, and clear academic goals make the others possible. Theysinging-kids are not always observable to the untrained eye, but are in constant use. They are as important to learning as a good cinematographer and director are to a movie. They work off-camera but provide the direction and structure that keep actors in the right place at the right time, providing them with an opportunity to flourish practicing their art. Expectations, procedures, and goals do the same thing. They let everybody know what is expected, what to work for, how to know what is left to be done in order to succeed, and what success will look like.

Some students will have difficulty meeting behavioral expectations, and will need constant reminders. Giving these students logical reasons why you are expecting what you are expecting can help. No student wants to do badly, but many also don’t want to change their plan of doing what they want no matter what. The teacher must connect meeting behavior expectations and academic goals with student success, and make that success something the student wants. In this way, all five things work together as students desire to do well at what has been made interesting, and in order to do so are willing to meet expectations and goals. When my students say “I want to be able to do that,” then they have the reason they need to meet your expectations because they are now a means to getting what they want, which is what you want. When all of that aligns, it is a beautiful thing.

Procedures include how to enter the room, how to get to seating assignments, and how to pass papers out and how to collect papers. Also included are when to sharpen pencils, how to leave the classroom for the lavatory and then how to re-enter. Another is how to move from one seating plan to another; for example, from rows to group clusters for collaborative work. All of this needs to be practiced until the class can do it right repeatedly. A few minutes of time saved every day by efficient procedures saves hours of time for instruction and learning over the course of an academic year. Procedures also teach students how to be organized and efficient, both skills needed throughout life, particularly in the workplace and in managing a home. When a class moves through procedures rightly, there is time and structure for doing those fun learning activities like playing the rhythm, singing, and moving games mentioned earlier. Building these good habits into the beginning of the year will help keep things running well all year.

Academic goals are now clearly articulated in our Core Arts Standards. Anchor goals and essential questions for each of the four artistic processes provide clear direction for music teachers and their students. As a result of music classes, students will be able to select, analyze, interpret, rehearse, evaluate, and perform. They will be able to generate, develop, evaluate, revise and perform original musical works, respond to music they hear, and connect music and musical experiences.

Using Core Arts Standards to Teach Students How To Select Repertoire

2011Symposium_1_2The new core arts standards are made in the same form as the Common Core State Standards, and contain similar vocabulary. Because of this, we can plan, give and assess music instruction with Common Core connections already embedded by using the Core Arts Standards as our foundation. The heart of the matter is expressed in an essential question for each sub process. Today I will look at the perform process essential question for selecting music to perform:

How do performers select repertoire?

Select is the first of five sub processes for performing music: select, understand, interpret, improve, and judge, or perhaps evaluate. These verbs must be taken in order. For example, students cannot understand a musical work before it is selected, and they cannot interpret a musical work until it is understood. So the first area for instruction is how to select music for performance.

The standards contain seven bases for selecting musical works. The first basis is personal interest. At its most simple level, this simply involves preference. A student prefers this musical work to that one. At the next stage, the student is able to use knowledge about the musical work to discuss their preference. In addition to stating what the preference is, the student can now discuss the preference with another student or the teacher. The student is not able to explain the preference on his or her own, but can discuss it and respond to questions about the preference.

SelectAfter that, a student can explain their preference, and include in their explanation the purpose for which the musical work was intended. Music can have one of many purposes, including dance, tell a story, celebrate an event, help memorize something, personal expression, or just to entertain. Students may prefer a musical work because they like dance and the music is intended for dancing.

Next is context, which includes where the performance took place, the culture from which the musical work was created, the student’s own points of reference with the musical work, and the way in which the musical work is related to the social environment in which it is heard. A student may prefer a work because it is the product of his or her family’s culture, or because it is a showpiece for a virtuosic guitarist, and the student takes guitar lessons.

After context, technical skill is added. At this stage, the student is able to assess their own skill level, and determine where in their musical skill set the musical work lies. The student can determine if the musical work is too difficult, too simple, or well suited to their skill set. They can also determine what added skills they need to acquire or improve before they can successfully perform the work, and if this further learning is realistic at the present time. If it is, then the student, perhaps with the help of the teacher, can write learning goals fitted to the student’s desire to perform the musical work.

The sixth basis is expressive qualities. Here, the student is able to discuss the expressive qualities present in the musical work, and then use that information as a point of consideration in deciding whether or not to select the musical work. “Expressive qualities” is an especially important basis because it is used and developed further for the Interpret sub process of the performing process. Expressive qualities can include dynamics, changes in tempo and the use of rubato, melodic contour, and orchestration. Students can explore alternate ways of performing the same musical phrase, evaluate each version, and then select the one they find most expressive as a way of learning about the expressive qualities of music.

The last basis is technical challenges. These will likely come out when the students self-assesses skills. The right level of technical challenge is often a motivating factor. Music that is too easy quickly becomes boring, and music that is too challenging results in discouragement. Often, if students are persuaded by other bases to select the work, they will be willing to take on a higher level of challenge to learn the music they want to perform.

Going through this selection process is probably not something many students are used to doing, so they will need to be taught how to complete each step along the way; they will need to be taught to reflect on why they prefer one work to another, to look for information about a musical work that goes deeper than whether or not they like it and who is performing, to consider the purposes of music, the affects of venue, culture, and personal experience on a listener, the ways in which music is expressive, and learn how to self-assess skills necessary for performing musical works in general, and specific musical works. Student work can be assessed with checklists and/or rubrics that include each item. All of this will take the students to a deeper level of understanding, and a higher level of proficiency and musicianship. Building skill sets that enable students to perform music they select and want to perform gives student work direction and authenticity, adding rigor to instruction. The earliest basis, personal interest can be started in kindergarten, knowledge about and purpose in first grade, context in third grade, technical skill in fourth grade, and technical challenges and expressive qualities in seventh grade. Each year builds on the previous ones, and students become more independent at utilizing each basis as the years progress.

Jaques-Dalcroze and Rhythm Training

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed solfege exercises developed by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. Today I will examine some of his rhythm exercises. Like contemporary scholars, Jaques-Dalcroze found that rhythm and pitch are more easily taught separately than integrated together. Jaques-Dalcroze also believed that because movement, through which rhythm is expressed, is natural to humans, whereas pitch is not, it is best to begin with rhythm. The essence of Jaques-Dalcroze’s method for teaching rhythm is to gain control over the body through practice and conditioning so that it is able to work with the mind in interpreting and expressing music as movement. He wanted each student to become aware of every part of his/her body, and be able to use the full spectrum of movement to interpret music. The use of individual muscle groups would become automatic, and students would develop attention, consciousness and will power so that all exertion could be used for the “freest possible play to subconscious expression,” and to train the student to “see clearly in himself what he really is, and obtain from his powers all the advantage possible.”  Jaques-Dalcroze wanted to train students to be able to “put the completely developed faculties of the individual at the service of art and to give the latter the most subtle and complete interpreters—the human body.” This enables the student to realize a “wholly instinctive transformation of sound movements into bodily movements.”

In practice, the rhythmic portion of the method involves showing time, including tempo and beat, with arm movements, and note durations with feet and other body-part movements. For beat and tempo, the students march, accenting steps where needed, and contracting the arm muscles on metrically strong beats. As students become more advanced, they are able to suddenly stop, discontinue accenting with one or both arms or with one or both feet, substitute an arm movement for a foot movement, insert an extra accent either with the arm or foot, or do other similar things the teacher might direct.

For rhythms, individual movements are learned for specific durations, and then are sequenced into a series that 101together form a rhythm. The movements are first practiced alone, and then in groups. Students later learn to decode a rhythm the teacher plays on the piano or a drum into movements, or a rhythm they see another student do. The learning sequence is the same as that recommended by Gordon and Feierabend for aural learning, but with the student audiating physical movement from sound. Eventually, the student learns to arrest movement abruptly or slowly, to move alternately forwards or backwards, to move suddenly on cue, to lie down or stand up to precise time, and all with a minimum of muscular effort and all with continuous feeling for each time-unit of music. The student also learns to silently count time in accordance with movements he is making, resulting in a stronger feeling for the movement.

Students learn to divide the beat into various subdivisions. The teacher calls out a number, and the students divide the beat into that number of subdivisions by taking that many steps to each beat, while moving to the beat with the arms. Independence between arms and feet is further developed until the student can move to counterpoint by moving the arms to each note of the melody while taking a step to each note of the counterpoint. This is possible from a solid grasp of beat and rhythm understood as movement, and performed with the body in motion. Expressive gestures are added to indicate dynamics. Apart from rhythm and beat training, there are times when the formal movements for expressing rhythm are abandoned, and free movement is used to show what is being expressed in the music and/or the musical form. Students may practice making movements to sounds the teacher provides, or may reverse the process and practice making sounds to movements the teacher makes. Jaques-Dalcroze was adamant that all of this training must take place before a child is given formal instruction on an instrument, such as piano. Without eurhythmic training, playing will be an intellectual exercise, and the student will be unable of playing expressively because the whole body will not be involved in presenting the music. For more information on this subject, please refer to The Eurhythmics of Jaques-Dalcroze.

Is There Madness in the Method?

2011Symposium_1_2Music teachers are often concerned with method. If you go to most music education conferences, you’ll find sessions on the Kodaly Method, the Dalcroze Method, Gordon Music Learning Theory, the Orff Method, Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege, the Suzuki Method, to name a few. Music teaching methods are like Protestant denominations: there are many of them, they all have a common core, but are different in some ways. These differences lead music educators into discussions about how to best go about their business. Traditional or Suzuki? Ta ti-ti or du du-de? Which is better; solfege, numbers, letter names, or fixed do? The truth is, none of these methods is as good as using the best from all of them. While any of them is better than using no method at all, tying oneself to one limits the scope and sequence of what we teach. The key to knowing how to make wise methodological choices is to have a firm grasp on what the essential, non-negotiables are, and then find the best way to build of them.

There are some common threads that run through many of these methods. One is the idea that music is akin to language and should be learned in a similar way. Suzuki referred to learning music as one learns the “mother tongue,” through listening and imitating first, then when fluency is gained adding reading. Learning from listening and imitating is also central to Gordon’s music learning theory, and Feierabend’s conversational solfege, and both of these fit nicely with Kodaly, who also believed music education should start early, and be centered around growing musicianship first through the singing voice. “Sound before sight” is a phrase often used to describe this approach to music teaching; it is one of the essentials of music education methodology.

A second essential is that music is learned through movement. The method of Dalcroze features movement as a key methodelement in building musicianship. With this approach, musical expression through movement is featured. Children develop musical skills through kinesthetic experiences, moving in response to rhythm and structure they hear in music. The movement is often spontaneous and can include moving to the beat as well as moving more freely. Orff also emphasized movement. In his method, it is an integral part of a musical experience, and is also often used to prepare children to play mallet instruments. Students are given the opportunity to explore and create and then to “intellectualize” what they have done afterwards. Orff explained, “Elemental music is never just music. It’s bound up with movement, dance and speech, and so it is a form of music in which one must participate, in which one is involved not as a listener but as a co-performer.” Orff’s view of music education blurs the line between performer and audience, which is in keeping with the way much of the world experiences music.

These two essentials, developing pitch and rhythm aurally as a child’s native language is learned, and understanding and experiencing music both as a performer and a listener kinesthetically through the body, leads to building musicianship and music literacy, which is the bottom line of music education. How we as music teachers bring our students to the point of mastering musicianship and music literacy is far less important than that our students succeed at both. Methods wars are fought every day over fixed do or moveable do, Kodaly or Orff, Gordon or tradition. All have their rightful place in the repertoire of methods from which a good music teacher will draw. We must emphasize what all of these methods have in common, for it is in the commonalities that we find what is most important.

A Better Way To Teach Rhythm

2011Symposium_1_2I have noticed that there is a great deal of interest in how best to teach rhythm. Perhaps this reveals challenges that music teachers find in teaching rhythm, made manifest in students’ difficulty in performing rhythms accurately. While I cannot know what transpires in every music classroom, I can at least address problems I have observed in my own students, and how I have addressed them.

The first notion that must be developed is a definition of rhythm. This is not an academic exercise, but a necessary step in arriving at an effective way to teach rhythm. We must agree on what rhythm is, how it works, and how our students perceive it before we can effectively teach them how to perform it. This is because every musical utterance must be preceded by a mental representation of what is to be uttered, just as every utterance made with words must be preceded by a thought couched in language. My students frequently confuse rhythm with beat. They are clearly not the same thing, and the relationship that exists between the two is critical. A rhythm is a pattern of durations; a beat is a steady pulse to which the listener organizes the rhythm. Meter is also important to rhythmic understanding, and is a pattern of strong and weak beats. Because none of this involves pitch, rhythm is best taught separate from pitch, before it is combined with pitch in a complete musical performance. Gordon and Feierabend have both written that rhythm should be taught with chanted rhythm patterns. In Conversational Solfege, Feierabend describes using a learning sequence of rote on neutral syllables, rote with rhythm syllables, decoding familiar patterns from neutral syllables to rhythm syllables, decode unfamiliar patterns, and create aurally with familiar patterns using syllables. All of this is done before notation is introduced. When it is, rote learning begins again, this time while the students read what is being rote taught, then decoding familiar then unfamiliar patterns from notation. All of this is done apart from pitch and apart from singing or playing repertoire or exercises, and the result is that students are able to audiate rhythms, meters and beats; that is, they are able to hear rhythms, meters and beats in their minds for which there is no physically present sound (Gordon). Pitches are taught separately but in the same manner, using tonal patterns that are characteristic from the repertoire of music the students will be performing. When students can also audiate pitches and tonalities, then they are ready to combine pitch and rhythm elements in performance.

I believe that it is common practice among music teachers to try to teach rhythm “on the fly” while teaching exercises Feed Your Brain Musicand repertoire. This requires the student to attempt to succeed at the most advanced stage of music learning without having had the opportunity to develop readiness skills. Music teachers are wont to establish a beat and then have students perform to that beat. Besides being very difficult to do, this is the opposite of what people do when they listen to music. When people listen to music, they hear the music first, and then determine the beat. In other words, the beat is made evident in the music, and specifically in the rhythm. We deduce a beat from the patterns of durations we hear. Instead of sounding a beat for our students before and while they perform, we should establish the meter, which includes the beat, and then have the student continue the beat through audiation before beginning to sing or play. If the student looses the beat, it will be because s/he has stopped audiating the meter. In this case, more training is needed with rhythm patterns and tapping the beat while the teacher performs, until the student gains proficiency at audiating the beat from music s/he hears. This proficiency is then transferred to music s/he hears while performing.

When performing, if the performer has audiated what s/he is about to perform, then the beat can be perceived from the music more quickly than from hearing another performer, because the performer knows what the meter and tactus level is and knows what is going to happen next. For example, if I play the beginning of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, I know before I start to play that there are three durations per tactus beat, and from audiating a pattern of six micro beats, I can establish for myself the beat the music will have when I begin to play. On the other hand, if a teacher were to tell me to play the beginning of the “Moonlight” sonata to this beat, and clapped a beat for me, that beat has no musical meaning until I start to play, and I must now make calculations in order to fit the music to the beat.

MusicEarThe two situations are quite different. In the first instance, the beat is perceived from the music, whereas in the second instance, the music is fitted to an artificially generated beat. The latter is much more difficult to do, but this is exactly what we ask music students to attempt, and all the more if they are having trouble. We think that by providing them with an audible beat through hand clapping or a metronome, we will guide them to play the rhythm accurately. But this simply is not so. The student will not play the rhythm accurately until s/he is audiating the music and perceiving the beat from the music, not our noise making. As a result, our well-intentioned time keeping, instead of being helpful, can be a distraction and a hindrance.

Interventions such as clapping for the student and using a metronome are unnecessary if the learning sequence described above is followed. If enough time is spent on pre-notation learning, students will reliably be able to accurately read and perform rhythms in music. Where remediation is still needed, the music teacher should revisit an earlier step the sequence, and once again work down; but if enough time has been spent at each step, this should not be necessary.

In addition, students can be helped in combining rhythm and pitch with a similar sequence I have developed off of Conversational Solfege. First, perform the music for the student while tapping the beat and have him or her repeat the performance, also while tapping the beat. Because we are performing both rhythm and pitch, use neutral syllables. Second, perform the music for the student without tapping the beat, and to have the student repeat the performance while tapping the beat. Third, perform the music for the student without tapping the beat and have the student perform the music without tapping, maintaining the same beat. This learning sequence of three steps keeps the process in the right order, gradually teaching the student to audiate the beat while performing. One final caution is that rhythm cannot be audiated without a metric context; therefore, never rely on rhythm syllables to generate the rhythm without an established beat and meter. I have written elsewhere in this blog on rhythm syllables and rhythm counting systems. If you are not familiar with either of these, it would be helpful for you to read those posts.

How Do Language and Music Mix in the Music Classroom?

2011Symposium_1_2As we saw yesterday with rhythm, language and music are closely related so that training in one strengthens proficiency in the other. Although language and music differ in form, purpose, and use, both are highly syntax-dependent. Neither music nor language makes sense if the sounds heard cannot be cognitively organized, and if meaning cannot be found in the structured arrangement of sounds. . Researchers have found that some of the syntactic processing involved in listening and responding to both music and language is done in the same area of the brain. For both, Broca’s area is involved in the processing. While the differences in linguistic and musical syntax require separate cognitive processes, the integration of stimuli into comprehensible structures relies on the same neural resources. This immediately suggests that music or language activity mutually strengthens the neural connections used for the other.

Part of the syntactic processing mentioned above is handling expectation and connecting one event to another. Through proper use of grammar and syntax, language communicates a subject, verb and object, described by Patel as “who-did-what-to-whom.” Music, through syntax but not grammar, communicates patterns of tension and relaxation. These musical events succeed through a composer’s manipulation of expectations, making it possible for the listener to predict what will happen and when it will happen. When expectations are not met, tension results, and when expectation is met, relaxation occurs. This is an important aspect of the temporal nature of music.

Language is also presented to the auditory system temporally. Because of this, the human brain must process rapid successions of stimuli, and quickly find whisper_musicmeaning in sequences of sounds. Tallal explained that, “Children with language learning problems (or weak language development) can’t sequence two simple tones that differ in frequency when they are presented rapidly in succession. They do absolutely fine when you present two tones separated further apart in time. So the actual precision of timing in the auditory system determines what words we actually hear.” Researchers have found that musicians find it easier than non-musicians to detect small differences in word syllables. Musical experience improves the way human brains process rapid changes in sounds used in speech, and may help in acquiring the skills needed for learning language and reading.

Another benefit of musical training to language development has to do with understanding language through noise. Strait and Kraus found that musicians were better at understanding speech in noisy environments than non-musicians. Music listening depends on an auditory process called streaming, wherein certain sequences of sounds are grouped together and segregated out from other concurrent sounds. It is the facility that allows us to have a conversation in a room where others can be heard having other conversations. In music, listeners follow a melody line, and keep it separate from harmony or contrapuntal parts heard at the same time.

Just as the mathematical aspects of music are organic to music study and do not require separate instruction, so too with the linguistic aspects of music. All of the benefits to language development through music study are realized during the course of normal music instruction. Just by listening to and performing music, the requisite brain activity will benefit language development. To help this along, ask students to predict what they think will happen next in a piece of music. Ask them what they can do in a performance to build the listener’s expectation of what is about to happen. Ask them to memorize short, quick phrases of music. Make the music slow enough so that it is accessible, but fast enough so that they cannot memorize individual notes. This will cause their brains to remember the music as a group of notes instead of a sequence remembered individual notes, and in the process improve their ability to capture meaning from rapid successions of data. Much of our syntactic knowledge of music is acquired naturally and so does not need to be entirely learned in class. Most students can find the tonic in a tonal song by the time they are in kindergarten. We should draw on this intuitive knowledge with activities that give students practice at understanding and even conversing in music.