Evaluate or Judge?

2011 Symposium2

One of the mainstays of standards for music education has been to evaluate musical works. Whereas evaluating is a generally well understood concept when it comes to student work, evaluating artistic work has often been more problematic; it has been confused with editorializing. Under this confusion, if I like a musical work, then it is good, and if I don’t like a musical work, it is bad. This has led to an even more unfortunate position; that is, teaching students that the music I like is good, and the music you like, because I don’t like it, is bad or at least inferior in some way.  But whether or not I, or you, or anyone else likes a musical work is not a reliable indicator of the quality of that work. It may be one among other indicators, but opinion alone is not a sufficient criterion for evaluating a musical work. When one supposes it is, then that person is judging the musical work, not evaluating it.

In order to evaluate anything, there must first be criterion on which to base the evaluation. For example, we might evaluate a composer’s use of timbre when orchestrating a work originally written for piano alone. We could compare Rimsky-Korsakov’s popular orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain to the composer’s own orchestration, and determine which is more effective in conveying the dark, supernatural, ghoulish, other worldlyness that Mussorgsky intended. The important thing is that we are comparing effectiveness to a purpose or intent; the composer meant to do this, and succeeded in these ways and fell short in these ways. The degree to which the composer succeeded in conveying the intent or fulfilling the purpose is the criteria. That is what true evaluation of a musical work must be.

Sometimes a musical work is evaluated on the basis of how well a composer executed his or her craft. Much was made in the play Amadeus of the difference between the imaginative improvisations on a theme of Salieri and the original work. Clearly, Mozart was being presented as the composer of “better” music because it was more interesting, imaginative recite-vvse4eor original. This can be a valid basis for evaluation, as long as clear criteria are used to evaluate the craft evidenced by a composer. But even here, we must be careful not to overlook purpose in our evaluation. While Mozart’s music may have legitimately been evaluated higher than Salieri’s in terms of execution, Salierei’s little ditty is clearly ranks higher if the criteria is repertoire for a beginning keyboard player.  In the play, Salieri’s pupil struggles to play the simplest of tunes with a left hand accompaniment, so Mozart’s elaborate ideas would be entirely unsuitable for the beginning student.

That said, evaluation of a musical work must not be based on some sort of “purity law.”Mozart’s mastery of sonata form in an opera overture does not necessarily mean that the overture to the Magic Flute is a better overture than, say, Wagner’s overture to the Flying Dutchman, in which sonata form is not as pristine. Both overtures are effective in doing what one could argue a good overture is supposed to do: set the mood and emotion for the drama to come, and preview some of the themes that will be important later on. With these criteria, Wagner’s overture is every bit as effective, if not even more so, than Mozart’s.

Notice I have so far used comparisons between musical works of the same genre. This is important, because an artistic work should only be evaluated against other works that are similar and that were designed with similar intents. It will not do at all to compare a Mozart overture to a song by Justin Bieber, or a song by Drake to a solo by Charlie Parker. It is valid to compare styles and genres, but not to evaluate them so that one genre or style is claimed to be superior to another. That again, is not evaluation, but judgment. Evaluation should never preclude or discourage students from listening to music they enjoy. We as music teachers should be teaching music concepts, and concepts over arch all of music. Tempo, rhythm, pitch, timbre, meter, and phrasing or grouping are present in all music, and can be taught with any music. In fact, West African drumming provides a richer context from which to teach rhythm than the relatively rhythmically limited context of Western  art music. While you could teach thematic development in the context of Western art music, including the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, you could also teach it along with improvisation with Hindustani classical music in which the player develops a performance from  a raga.   Hinustani classical music  European classical music written by Paganini or Liszt, electric guitar solos by the likes of Joe Satriani, Jimi Page or Van Halen, jazz solos by the likes of Charlie Parker, Art Blakey or John Coltrane are all dazzling in the depth of invention and the skill and virtuosity of the performers.

None of the genres from which these great musicians come can legitimately be found to be inferior to another. Different, but not better or inferior. Indeed, this sort of judgmental thinking has at times distorted American’s view of our own musical history. Consider that although Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” has generated at least as many songs and improvisations as the blues, Gershwin is rarely discussed on the same level as contemporaries Ravel or Stravinsky. Yet it is Gershwin’s music and not that of the others that repeatedly earns sold-out houses and rousing ovations. Consider this account, found in the Atlantic in 1998. “Two years ago in Vienna I heard the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, which many American critics have hailed as the finest orchestra in this country, perform Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, Strauss’s Don Quixote, and, almost as an encore, Gershwin’s An American in Paris — a difficult program, chosen to show off the orchestra’s technical prowess and stylistic range. The audience sat on its hands after the first three works, bursting into an ovation only after the Gershwin” (Schiff, October, 1998).

Music is nothing if not heard and enjoyed. There are various degrees of excellence found within every genre, style, and historical period of music. Each kind of music grew and matured out of a particular culture and for particular reasons. The quality issue has for the most part taken care of itself. We have classic repertoire and we have forgotten repertoire. Both standings are a result of a popular kind of evaluation wherein the public has either sustained its liking or not. But it is also true that madrigals, fugues, love ballads, dance music, and rowdy songs have also existed for centuries, and none of these musical forms or genres is better than another. Each was designed to serve a purpose and a public, and each still does. We must stick to evaluating within genres, and avoid judging genres themselves.



When Teaching Music Appreciation, Keep It Simple

2011 Symposium2

I’ve always had a love for classical music. I’m not sure why, but for as long as I can remember, and my family tells me it goes back further than that, I have pulled myself away from distractions and settled in to enjoy a symphony, concerto, or sonata. With this background, it is not surprising that I enjoyed a music appreciation class that I took in high school. The class gave me the technical low down on music I already enjoyed, and introduced me to music that added to my listening repertoire. I’m convinced that this all worked for me because the explanations of sonata form, fugues, and so on came after I was an experienced listener and after I had developed a love, or “appreciation” for the music.

I have observed that trying to come at it from the other direction is not nearly so successful. It is very difficult to develop a love for classical music in an inexperienced listener by explaining musical form, history, and theory . In fact, what better way to drive people away than to tell them they have to study all of these things before they can hope to enjoy the music? A great symphonic or chamber work is great because it has been and still can be enjoyed by anyone, even those who are unaware of what technical matters the composer was using to create the musical work.

While it will be fascinating to many to learn how these masterworks are put together, it is essential to realize that the nobility or ferocity or tenderness or anguish or unbridled joy that comes forth out of the music is what brings about enjoyment from music. I or anyone else no more needs to know the composer’s bag of tricks to enjoy his or her music than one needs to be well versed in literary form to enjoy a good play, novel, or poem. Great artistic works speak for themselves, and do not need to be analyzed to reveal that which brings us enjoyment. Analysis brings its own enjoyment to those who choose to pursue it, and as I have said, to those already familiar with a work, but it should never be made an obstacle or gate through which the novice listener must pass as theoretical expertise were required for entrance into the  concert hall. There is nothing wrong with analysis, or

New World Example

Opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor

studying music theory or history, but these things must be taught a the right time. Just as reading music cannot successfully precede aural/oral audiation, music theory cannot successfully precede gaining experience listening to music which will afterwards be analyzed.

So where should one begin. Most people naturally enjoy music they are familiar with. This makes introducing them to new music challenging, and to a new musical genre even more so. The more familiar ground we can rest on the better. Many of our students will  know more classical music than they realize. Between hearing classical themes in cartoons, movies, television commercials and video games, the overall sound of a symphony orchestra is likely to be familiar to most. Begin with something they are likely to have heard before, like the toccata from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or the introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Have a conversation with the students on what they like about these pieces, what emotions they experienced from the music, or just having them try to describe what they heard. We can insert music vocabulary as they respond, but we are not trying to be technical at this point. Once a few pieces have been enjoyed, suggest other pieces that are similar. If they liked Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop,” perhaps they will also like a gallop by Kabelevsky or Shostakovich. If they liked the Allegro form Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, then perhaps they will also enjoy the first movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony.

Many composers wrote variations before they wrote symphonies or sonatas. When you want to introduce form, follow their lead and start with variations. The great advantage in this is that you can select variations on a theme that is familiar to your students, making it fun to travel through the variations. Mozart’s variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” or Beethoven’s variations on “God Save The King” are good choices. When you are ready to teach sonata form, use a piece you have already had your students listen to and respond to in the ways I discuss above. As with the variations, with a familiar theme they will be better able to understand the developments, and by repeating works, you will also be building greater familiarity. Students seem to universally like the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and Mozart’s symphony no. 40 in g minor, or Dvorak’s “Overture Carnival” are good choices.

Classical Music and Contemporary Culture

2011 Symposium2

Elsewhere on this site, I wrote about the top 25 classical music works, and key words that help explain why they are as popular as they are. After writing that post, I decided to take the results to my eighth grade students and see if the key words in the survey resonated with these adolescents. Some of them are reluctant to listen to classical music, but many of them were surprised to find how much classical music was already familiar to them through the media. For my inquiry, I made a list of 10 pieces from the top 25. These pieces were the first theme from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, the finale from the 1812 overture, allegro from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the toccata from toccata & fugue in d minor by J.S. Bach, the finale from the William Tell overture, Pachelbel’s canon in d, “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, the opening from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Infernal Galop” from Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach, and “Hallelujah” from The Messiah. For each excerpt I had the students circle all choices that applied to complete the sentence “What I like most about this music is…” from the following list: a. the rhythm and the beat, b. I recognize this music from a cartoon, c. I heard it at a wedding I attended, c. I heard it on tv or in a film, d. the melody is easy to remember and/or sing, e. the music evokes a strong emotion in me i.e. joy, scary, sad, excited, etc.

The results indicated to me how important contemporary culture is to the enjoyment of classical music. Thirty students participated (n = 30). The results are given shown in table 1.

Table 1 Tally and Percentage of each choice for each excerpt

  Total Percentage
The rhythms and the beat 116 64
I recognize this music from a cartoon


93 52
I heard it at a wedding


28 16
I heard it on TV or in a film


168 93
The melody is easy to remember and/or sing


82 46
The music evokes a strong emotion in me 58 32

Students indicated that what they liked most about the classical music they heard was that it was familiar to them from television or film. The students gave this as a reason for liking the classical music they heard 93% of the time. None of the other reasons were close. Of the remaining choices, the next most often chosen reason was the rhythm and the beat, which was given as an answer 64% of the time. This also points to contemporary cultural influences, because contemporary popular music privileges the musical elements of rhythm and beat. On other occasions, my students have told me that the absence of a prominent beat (by which they often mean rhythm too) was the reason they did not care for a particular classical music work.

The low placement of “the music evokes a strong emotion in me” is interesting. At one point in the closure portion of the lesson, as student asked how music could be expressive if their were no words. He had not considered that the music itself, that is the musical elements of rhythm, pitch and so forth, could in and of themselves be expressive. With adolescents so focused on the beat and rhythm and after that the lyrics, expressive qualities of the music apparently often go unnoticed. This suggests that even when students are just listening to music, when there are lyrics, much of the music is background to the privileged elements of lyrics, beat and rhythm. This indicates to me the need to teach more instrumental music and to focus on expressive use of musical elements in contemporary popular music when using it in a lesson. To be sure, pop, rap, and rock composers frequently are not trying to be expressive beyond the lyrics, but there are enough songs where the music is expressive, particularly among pop ballads,  to be useful in teaching students to recognize and enjoy the expressiveness of music.

I also see in all this a recommendation for symphony orchestras. They need to take back their music; reclaim their repertoire from the popular media. Many of the works on that list of the most popular ones were orchestral classics long before the movies, commercials and television programs scooped them up and popularized them. These pieces need to graduate from pops concerts and be featured often to young audiences. These new concert goers will delight in hearing this familiar repertoire, and will, I believe, develop a curiosity about other works by the same or similar composers, and in this way be drawn to return to the concert hall.

Strong Beat and Driving Rhythm Found in Top Classical Pieces

2011 Symposium2

The popularity of classical music is of interest to those who teach music, and to those who run symphony orchestras. One of the things that attracts audiences to concert halls is favorite repertoire being on the program. Contemporary composers of classical music have at times been at odds with audiences, because their music was not what people wanted to hear. Much has been written about the lack of appeal that atonal and aleatoric music has to audiences, but knowing what audiences do like and want to hear is important if orchestras are going to attract and audience outside the tried, true and aging faithful. A list of the top 100 classical music pieces found on kickassclassical provides some interesting food for thought. Let’s look at what is there.Top Ten Classical Pieces

While there are really no surprises on the list, what I find particularly interesting are the keywords associated with each piece. I counted the number of times each keyword shows up in the top 25 pieces; here is what I found. Four pieces or 16% (rank 3, 6, 15, 19) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of life events. Ten of them, or 40% (rank 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 22, & 23) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of emotions, and half of them are in the top ten. Five, or 20% pieces are associated with the word cartoon. This is born out in my classes. Students will invariably get the most excited and motivated to listen when they hear classical music that they recognize from or that sounds like music they have heard in cartoons.

Another interesting finding from this list is that all of the top five and 8 of the top ten have prominent rhythm in the themes. This produces an overall more driving, active kind of music, and it also results in a more explicit beat. This last point I believe is key. Young people in particular enjoy the heavy rhythm and beat emphasis of popular music. I have observed in my classes that the more rhythm and beat are prominent in a classical work, the more likely it is that they will enjoy that piece. Though not on the list, it is worth mentioning that among contemporary composers, the minimalists, including John Adams and Philip Glass, have been among the most popular, and that minimalist music is much more rhythmic than other styles.

It is also noteworthy that 15 of the top 25 pieces were written in the 19th century, and that the two most popular composers on the list are Beethoven (3) and Tchaikovsky (2). If my students are any indication, it appears likely that Beethoven’s popularity is driven in large part by two works, one of which (surprisingly) did not make the list: the fifth symphony, and Fur Elise. Tchaikovsky gets heavy promotion in the United States every American Independence Day (when the 1812 overture is common fare) and every Christmas season with the innumerable productions of The Nutcracker. 

In general, I could conclude that pieces that have been worked into popular culture are also the most popular in the symphonic concert hall. Between weddings, holiday celebrations and films, many of the pieces on this list are familiar to a large population of people who have rarely or never been to a symphony orchestra concert. That familiarity breeds popularity is a well worn adage in the popular music industry, which relies on heavily promoted concerts and frequent plays on radio stations to popularize its product, and it was well understood by Richard Rodgers, who once explained that he could pick a song from a show and make it popular by placing it in the overture, in the first act, in the n’tract, and reprised in the second act. By the tie the audience left, they had heard the song four times and were humming it on their way home.

Singablility may well be another hallmark of more popular classical pieces. The bottom half of the list also includes many pieces made well known by use in popular media, but many of these have less lyric melodies. These works include Grieg’s Piano Concerto (used in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita), Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (used in a recent DirectTV commercial), Overture to The Magic Flute, “Mars The Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (used often in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and referenced in the opening bars of (Imperial March” from Star Wars), and even “March” from  The Nutcracker, which comes in at only number 75. In conclusion, it may be that the most popular classical pieces strongly appeal to at least one emotion, are already popular to audiences through popular media, and are comprised largely of memorable and singable melodies.

When Planning Music Lessons, Watch Your Language

2011 Symposium2

Experienced teachers know that words matter, and that when writing out a lesson plan, the more specific our language is, the better for us and our students. For example, a teacher might write that students will be able to discuss the use of dynamics in Mozart’s overture from The Marriage of Figaro. This objective specifies exactly what students will be discussing. But it is not as specific as it could be. We have to really think through what students will be doing and what they will be learning. In order for students to be able to discuss anything about this overture, they must first listen to it. What will they be doing while they listen to the music? What will they be listening for? If we just ask them, “how does Mozart use dynamics,” we will probably get all kinds of answers, many of them not very helpful. For example, some student is bound to answer, “he uses dynamics to make the music get louder and softer.” Once we have this answer, we must admit that it is a correct answer to the question we asked. It even shows us that the child knows what dynamics are. But surely we wanted the student to learn more about Mozart’s use of dynamics than that. The fact that he or she did not is because we didn’t ask the right question; we didn’t ask the student a specific enough question to get a deeper answer. If we want the students to go deeper, we must ask better questions so that we are guiding them where we want them to go. In the example of the Mozart overture, we will get a better result if we decide what about dynamics we are wanting to teach. I like to teach students how dynamic make music more expressive.



To get at that, I might ask the class to sing the second half of the opening theme. It is a rising melodic line that is sung with a natural crescendo to the highest note, the tonic D. I would then have them sing the same melody, but with no change in dynamics, and then have them compare how their body physically responded to each performance. Most children get excited, and feel their bodies stretch upwards as they sing louder. This physical response helps them understand that changing the dynamics changes their body and the way they respond to the music. Having them trace the dynamics contour, with arms going up on crescendos and down on diminuendos is another way of helping them realize the expressiveness of changes in dynamics.

Once they have been so prepared, I can now ask them to observe how their body and emotions change when the dynamics in the music to which they are listening changes. After they have listened, the question now is, how did the way your body felt change as the music got louder? How did it change as the music got softer? What was your reaction to the sudden loud notes? Did they startle you? What was startling about those notes? There are lots of questions that now can be used to probe their understanding of Mozart’s use of dynamics, because the students’ attention has been shifted from what Mozart composed to how each individual child responded to the music. Students are now talking about themselves at least as much as about the music, yet they are discovering something very important about music: that it is used by composers to express emotions and feelings, and that when a person listens to music like this, they can share in those feelings and emotions, and have fun doing so.

When we write our lesson plans and especially our objectives, it is important to think through the process by which students will do and learn. The process will help us anticipate the students’ perspectives on being in our class, and enable us to more realistically plan what we want students to do.

The Amazing Human Musical Mind, Part 2

2011Symposium_1_2Since Friday, I have been sharing a presentation I gave at two conferences of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). In this session, I gave an overview of what the very youngest human minds can do musically, and how early childhood educators who are not music teachers can still include music in their programs. Today I begin with discussing why educators who are not music teachers should care about music instruction in their classrooms.

Now being the dedicated and outstanding teachers that you are, you may be going into a sort of panic right about now. You want to take advantage of that window of opportunity, but there are problems. “Well that’s great, Robert, but I don’t have the time or the expertise to be giving music lessons in my classroom.” If you’re thinking that, you needn’t worry. You don’t have to be a music teacher. Just using music in your classroom a little more than you may be doing now, in ways that are a little more targeted to the musical needs of children and their natural musical abilities will make a big difference. Let’s first see what very young musical minds care capable of doing musically, and then I’ll show you what you, yes everyone of you, can do with music in your classes.

I would like to explore the human brain at its very early stages of existence, even before a child is born. Just a short time ago, in 2013, researchers in Finland (Partanen, Kujala, Tervaniemi, & Huotilainen, 2013) found that a child still in the womb makes mental representations of a melody played outside the mother’s womb. They learned this by having mothers play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star 5 times a week for their unborn child during the last trimester of pregnancy. After these children were born, at age 4 months, the researchers played altered versions of the song to them, and measured brain activity while they listened. They measured increased brain activity for unchanged notes compared to changed notes, and compared to children for whom the music had not been played in the womb, they showed greater brain activity overall. All this to say that, the 4-month-old children recognized music they had heard before they were even born.

In a study done in 2013, researchers found that infants between 4-1/2 and 6 months recognized phrase endings in Mozart’s



music, and not in Mozart’s music where the researchers changed the phrase endings (Krumhansl & Jusczyk (2013). In another study (Lonie, 2010), researchers found that 9-month-old infants could tell the difference between conventional and unconventional melodies as long as the last note was predictable. This is remarkable, that already, after just 9 months, infants know how music they have been exposed to is supposed to go. They have already begun to perceive musical grammar, just as they also perceive linguistic grammar. As children get older, and their familiarity with music further increases, they can tell the difference between conventional and unconventional melodies regardless of the predictability of the last note. Papousek and Papousek found that 2-month-old infants can match the pitch. loudness, and melodic contour, that is the shape of the ups and downs of the pitches, of their mother’s songs, and that at four months old, they can match rhythmic structure as well. These finding of musical abilities just a few months into life are so important. If these capacities are left unused for an extended period of time, they will weaken and fade instead of strengthen and grow. That is why it is so important for newborns and infants to be placed in a musical environment where they have the opportunity to match pitches and rhythmic structures with musical stimuli there for them to encounter. Already, at 2-4 months, the young child is demonstrating a degree of intellectual control over pitch and rhythm. Before he or she enters kindergarten, they will have added emotional response.

An amazing human musical mind

Dispelling the Wrong Note Fallacy

2011Symposium_1_2If you’ve ever written a thesis, book or even a blog post, you probably know that just the right words don’t always just come flowing out of your brain onto the screen or page. Case in point, I have already deleted one word and replaced it with another in just these two opening sentences. The fact is there is very little we get perfect the first time, let alone at all. Good writers don’t worry about getting it down perfectly in the first draft, they just write and then go back later to revise, edit and polish.

When it comes to music, composing works much the same way. Though legends of Mozart composing whole symphonies at a time at one sitting, and without need of revision, this would be an astounding exception to the way most composers have and continue to work. Creating art takes time, requires many attempts and reworking before it finally settles into what the composer will accept as the finished work.

There is another aspect of creating music that lies somewhere in between the alleged perfection of Mozart and the seemingly endless struggles of Beethoven when composing. This aspect is improvisation. Like writing and composing, improvisations probably don’t come out just right most of the time, but unlike writing and composing, there is no opportunity to go back and edit. Once the tone is played or sung, it cannot be taken back. It can only be decontextualized into consequent tones that make the regretted tone sound less out of place or wrong. This is acceptable in improvisation, and the mix of “wrong” notes and “fixes” for them is what gives improvisation its often edgy and thrilling demeanor. In fact, many improvisors don’t consider there is such a thing as wrong notes when improvising.

It does, though, take a great deal of courage to improvise, especially in front of friends and peers. For less experienced music and the brainstudents, the fear of sounding bad is real, and prevents some from even trying. To be fair, most of us wouldn’t feel too good about giving a speech infant of our peers without any notice to prepare what we were going to say. Only a few people, the late Robin Williams among them, can just improvise a coherent, or at least entertaining five or ten or thirty minutes of comedy or poetry or prose. This is the obstacle young student improvisors face. How to play improvised music that sounds good to everyone listening.

Swing is an excellent choice of styles for inexperienced improvisors. The tempo can be held at a comfortable medium tempo, and a major scale has few if any bad sounding notes in it when played over a ii-V-I-vi progression. I like to teach my students the swing feel first by having them sing a couple of swing songs, and listen to a couple of swing charts. The song “To Swing or Not to Swing” from the Music K-8 series is a good tool to teach students what swing is. I then like to use Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Ticket A Tasket” as a song for the students to sing, and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” for them to listen to. I have them describe what they hear the performers do that makes the music swing. Key is that they acquire an ear for the swing eighth notes, and be able to sing and tap them.

When these materials have been learned successfully, I then use a medium swing backing track for the students to improvise over. I pass a small Orff style xylophone around the class, and give each students 16 beats to improvise with swing rhythm, especially swing eighth notes. The students are quickly amazed at how quickly they sound good with the backing track, and are encouraged by quick success to continue improvising. Many will just play on the beat at first, and then will begin to venture into adding a few swing eighth notes. For the more reluctant students, I encourage them to continue playing on the beat, and every so often just play twice on a bar using a rhythm of two swing eighth notes. I try not to play or model too much at this point, because I want the best music to be made by the students. Once everyone has succeeded, then I take my turn before giving the xylophone back to a student. The important thing is that once the students start playing, they slowly realize that there are no wrong notes, and that a good rhythm anywhere on the diatonic scale will make them sound like a pro. Try this out with your students using this backing track.

What Is The Context?

2011Symposium_1_2Most ideas and words can easily be misunderstood without context. Take the word chair. If I sit on the chair, he’ll expel me from the committee. If you were thinking of a piece of furniture, my sentence didn’t make much sense. You had to know I was talking about the chair of a committee; a person. Slightly more meaningful would be a phrase. For example, “to be or not to be, that is the question.” Most will recognize this phrase from Act 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but will know little if any of the story of the play from which the phrase comes, or of the high quality of the play as a whole. It is good to know the phrase, but better to know the work.

So it is with musical themes. Music students, especially instrumental students, learn countless “themes from” in their music books. The purpose behind including these is no doubt to enrich the students with a knowledge and familiarity with great themes from musical masterworks. But if the teaching never goes further than the eight or sixteen measure theme, a vast array of learning and enriching has been missed. If one is teaching “theme from Surprise Symphony,” is the important thing that there is one loud chord that surprises us in an otherwise dynamically soft context? No, of course not. The important thing about this theme is that is the theme upon which a wonderful set of variations is written, and that this theme and variations is one of four movements in a symphony written by Franz Josef Haydn. Students should listen to the whole movement, and make a study of variation form, not just learn to play the theme, or more often the first half of the theme.

Another instance of a problematic context is when classical music is used for commercial use such as advertisements or movie soundtracks. Again, the familiarity and popularity that exposure to classics in the popular media produces is a positive thing, but if left to the versions heard there, students will again get a limited or misleading notion of what these musical works are all about. There was a commercial a few years ago for Direct TV that featured the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. The use of that music in the ad made it possible for me to play the beginning of the Lacrimosa for my students, and have them immediately recognize it. That’s good. But they had no idea that it had been written by Mozart, or that there was more to the Lacrimosa than the seconds of music in the ad, or that even the entire Lacrimosa movement was part of a larger work, written as a memorial for someone’s death. Playing the whole movement, and excerpts from other movements gave them an understanding of the requiem form, and a more balanced, though still incomplete experience of Mozart’s Requiem. Other classical works used in movies and television warrant the same attention. Our students are hearing these works, so music teachers would be wise to take advantage of this introduction, and take study of these works further than a one minute sound bite.

Classical music used in the media also presents a second opportunity. Why did the advertising firm representing Personen / Musiker / Liszt / am KlavierDirect TV decide to use that particular music for that commercial? What was the music expressing that matched what the advertisers wanted to express or have consumers feel as they were watching the ad? Trying to get inside the minds of advertisers who use classical music is a great way to teach expressive intent of the composers of this music. Of course, the same can be taught about other genres of music used in commercials, thereby broadening the study of expressive intent from classical music to popular music. I tell my students that all music expresses something. When a visual image is paired with music, the music can strongly suggest what the visual image expresses. It can be fun to play different music to commercials or movie scenes that originally had just music (no speaking) and compare the emotional affect of the scene or commercial with different music. This too is a study in context.

As we teach a diverse repertoire of music to our students, we must be careful not to skim the surface to shallowly. We must always present music with enough context to accurately represent the genre, specific musical work, and expressive intent, and give students a fair opportunity to accurately interpret and analyze what they hear and perform. Every theme has a context of music that surrounds it, every musical work has a context of other works written in the same genre, culture and time period. We must be sure to include both contexts, going far beyond assigning a theme fragment.

Student Choice in Selecting Repertoire

2011Symposium_1_2One of the challenges that often face music teachers is a tension that develops between students playing music they enjoy, and teachers who want their students to play music that facilitates growth in musicianship. Often, this comes down to the teacher wanting the student to play classical music, and the student wanting to play popular music. Many teachers take the attitude of accommodating their students with a sort of compromise, where if the student will practice a classical piece, the teacher will allow the student to prepare a popular piece for a portion of the lesson. While this arrangement is workable, there is a better way.

The core arts standards for music include a content standard for selecting under the artistic process of performing. The enduring understanding (EU) is, “performers’ interest in and knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context for a performance influence the selection of repertoire.” The essential question is, “how do performers select repertoire?” This immediately brings an aspect of music teaching that often is overlooked: teaching students how to select repertoire is one of the responsibilities of a music teacher. When the teacher selects all of the repertoire, or has an overriding influence on selection, the student never learns how to independently make these choices. The standard includes three areas for the performer to consider when selecting repertoire: interest, knowledge, and technical skill.

All three can be developed through further study, so sometimes a student may select a musical Personen / Musiker / Liszt / am Klavierwork from interest, but realize that s/he needs more technical skill in order to realistically begin practicing the piece. This can be an excellent motivator for working to develop technical skill, and for the teacher to assign exercises and repertoire to accomplish technical growth that the student might not otherwise be receptive to learning. On the other hand, a student may select a musical work based on interest and find that they have plenty of technical skill to play the music, and can successfully perform it with very little practice. These selections are valid for the student to simply enjoy music making, without attempting to grow or improve from the experience. We all enjoy just sitting down and playing or singing music without always working on things we can’t yet play fully. Selecting on knowledge can be a way for students to discover and explore new pieces within a familiar idiom. A student may be knowledgable about minuets, but perhaps has only played those of Mozart and Haydn. What about minuets by other composers? What about related forms such as Landler, waltz, scherzo and polonaise?

For the teacher’s part, one should sometimes take the approach that the skill or concept to be taught is more important than the musical work chosen. For example, if a piano teacher wants to work on developing independence of hands using a broken chord accompaniment, she might use Schubert’s Waltz in A-flat major, D. 365, but she might also use the song “Let It Go” form the movie Frozen. The student may practice “Frozen” much more, and learn the skill much better than if they must learn it from the Waltz. The teacher can then show the student that Schubert used the same kind of writing almost two hundred years ago, and perhaps interest the student in playing Schubert to after building the skill on the easier popular song. This makes the inclusion of popular music and classical music part of a holistic approach to music teaching, and makes it possible for the student to evaluate their own needs and interests while considering repertoire possibilities. We shouldn’t feel as though we must indulge in our students’ musical tastes in order to hold their interest, but instead look for opportunities for better, more effective instruction by using the music they are interested in to build concepts and skills. If the music they select is consistently “too easy” for the growth the teacher is looking for, add value to those selections by having the student improvise on their selection, thereby incorporating more advanced technical opportunities, or even compose variations which the student must then play. Judging music a student wants to play as inappropriate or as only a reward for good behavior practicing classical pieces promotes a musical narrow mindedness that is contrary to one of the goals all music teachers should have, that of teaching a diverse repertoire.

What Your Students Will Tell You

2011Symposium_1_2As I taught my pre-kindergarten three year olds today, several of them were really good teacher’s helpers. I don’t mean they shared a snack, or helped a friend put on a jacket, I mean they helped me teach them their music class. Children will tell you a lot about how to teach them if you’re observant enough to notice. For example, at one point during the class, I told the class to walk to the beat of the music I would play. The music was the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Most of the children walked around the room, most of them doing very well to follow the beat. As I watched, I noticed two children were noticeably not stepping in time. One looked like he was running, and the other was hesitating, not knowing quite what to do. I was just about to admonish the first child for running when I noticed he wasn’t trying to run, he was stepping in perfect time to the eighth notes he was hearing. His beat was not the tactus quarter note, but the divided eighth note beat. I complimented him on his beat, and left him alone. No one else was as precise as he was. The other child wasn’t getting any better, so I said “walk to the beat, like this.” I began to walk beside him taking is hand, but his feet still didn’t move. Earlier in the class, we had moved expressively by moving our arms but not walking around the room. Perhaps this child remembered that. In a moment of brilliance, he began moving his arm to the beat, not his feet. His arm moved in perfect time to the quarter note tactus. Then, once his arm was going, he began to walk in time with his arm. As long as he kept is arm moving, his steps were in perfect time. No one can walk to a beat before they feel the beat in their body. This child couldn’t feel the beat by walking alone, but sure could feel it by moving his arm. After that, his whole body new what to do.

Later in the day, I had a class of third graders. These children were trying to do a body percussion activity designed to teach them to recognize eighth, quarter and notes longer than a beat in a familiar piece. The music was the first theme in Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slav.” They were to stomp on notes longer than a beat, clap on notes equal to the beat, and patsch on notes shorter than the beat. I had already taught the same activity to another third grade class earlier in the week, and they succeeded at it quickly, but not so with this class. It is one of the essentials of teaching that the same method rarely works exactly the same with all all children, so I was not surprised when this group of third graders had more difficulty. I thought there might be fewer auditory learners and more visual learners in this class, so I wrote the rhythm of the theme on the board, and taught them which motions went with which durations. I told them that all of the notes that were not colored in (half, dotted-half, and whole notes) were to be a stamp. Notes colored in (quarter notes) were to be a clap, and notes colored in that were connected (pairs of eighth notes) were to be patched. I presented it this way because although they frequently read rhythms, we use rhythm syllables, and I had not reviewed the note names lately. Almost immediately over half of those children who had been struggling were able to correctly perform the rhythm with the correct body percussion after three tries.  Switching to a notation based presentation was better suited to the learning styles of those students. When students are struggling, often they are telling you something very important;  “I’ve tried but I can’t get it this way. Is there another way I can do this?” Those challenges and the need to find another way are, for me, what makes teaching exciting and fresh every day.