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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructing a Music Assessment

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In my last post, I began discussing assessment in the music classroom. I explained that conceptualizing the assessment must take place early in the planning process, right after the goal, enduring understanding, and essential question is stated, and before the instructional sequence is written. From our example in that post, the goal was stated in the performance standard: “Identify and apply personally- developed criteria (such as demonstrating correct interpretation of notation, technical skill of performer, originality, emotional impact, variety , and interest) to rehearse, refine, and determine when the music is ready to perform.” The enduring understanding was, ““To express their musical ideas, musicians analyze, evaluate, and refine their performance over time through openness to new ideas, persistence, and the application of appropriate criteria,” and the essential question was, ” “How do musicians interpret musical works?” Now let’s use the goal, the enduring understanding, and the essential question to construct an assessment.

According to UbD, we have four guiding questions to use in constructing our assessment. First, “through what authentic performance task will students demonstrate the desired understanding?” The two key words in this question are authentic and understanding. Authentic means the students will perform a task that is something they would do in normal life and in normal experiencing of music. The task is not to be contrived or artificial, but something that the students will be likely to repeat on their own as they encounter and engage with music outside your class. The task also must include the opportunity for the student to show us he or she can do everything we asked them to do. In the case of our example (from my last post) we asked them to analyze, rehearse, evaluate, refine, and determine when the performance was ready to present. The evaluation is done with student authored criteria, so their assessment will include the results of their analysis showing what the musical ideas are, and an evaluation instrument, probably a rubric, which they will use to evaluate their performance. There will also be evidence of students trying different ways of expressing the musical ideas through their performance, and of them selecting what they deem to be the best way to perform those ideas. This could be in the form of a practice journal, or it could be that the teacher has a checklist he or she fills out while observing the students rehearse.

Refining inherently means there will be growth, so a measure of growth must also be part of the assessment. This is easily accomplished by evaluating the students’ performance of the music before any rehearsing, analyzing or evaluating is done (pretest), and then again when their rehearsing, analyzing and evaluating is completed. Though this all may sound like an overly involved assessment, most of the work is done by students. The teacher is

No single type of assessment can provide a complete picture of where a student is with his learning.

only directly involved in pre- and post-assessment of refining. The students assess everything else on their own. Obviously, students need to be taught how to do this if they have little or no experience, but that will be part of an early learning sequence, not part of the assessment itself. The teacher will, in collaboration with the students, develop an assessment instrument for the pre- and post-assessment of refining. Students should always know exactly how they are being assessed, and the results of all assessments must be shared with them so that they can use the results of the assessment to further their own learning. Assessments from which the only the teacher knows the results are of limited value in improving student learning.

It is important to point out that the foregoing assessment was multi dimensional. It included both written and performance assessment components. This is important, because no single type of assessment can provide a complete picture of where a student is with his learning. For instance, it is possible for a student to rehearse and refine a performance without analyzing musical ideas, or even being aware that there are discreet musical ideas combined into an expressive artistic work. On the other hand, it is also possible that a student can do an exhaustive analysis of a work, yet be only able to give a marginal performance. Because analysis, rehearsal, evaluation and refinement are part of the single process of preparing a work for presentation, each skill cannot be made discreet while maintaining that the goal is to “rehearse, refine, and determine when the music is ready to perform.” The goal isn’t just to rehearse and then perform. It is more detailed, rigorous, and meaningful than that, so all parts of the process must remain part of the whole.

One of the problems often encountered with performance assessment (what I have presented as pre- and post-assessment) is consistency. We love our students and want to give them the benefit of the doubt, and so we go easy on them, confident that if they were at their best they would have done better. While this approach to assessment may be compassionate, it obstructs knowing the true state of affairs concerning the students’ current skill. The best way to address this is to make audio recordings of all performances being assessed, and to manage it in such a way that when you assess the performances, you do it later, and you do it not knowing whose performance you are listening to. To accomplish this, number your assessment forms. Have a roster of your students with you when you hear them perform, mark the number on the form next to the student’s name on your roster, and clearly speak the number on the recording preceding the performance. Then, when you go back and assess the performances later, you can do it without knowing whose performance you are assessing, and then match the number with the name later. A copy of the completed assessment form can be returned to the student, and you will have a portfolio of student work in the form of audio recordings. Later in the year, you can compare recordings for growth assessment, and at any time after you make your assessment, you can play the recording for the student and have them self-assess their performance. For more information on assessing music students, Mitchell Robinson wrote an excellent article which can be viewed here.

 

More on Learning Objectives

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No matter what we do, having a target in mind is essential. If we don’t know what we are trying to accomplish, nothing but sheer luck can bring our endeavor to a successful conclusion. In fact, without a target, we can’t even know what success is or how to recognize we have succeeded. This goes for both teachers and students. Both need to know what the target is, what progress has been made, and when success has been reached. Knowing how to write  a good learning objective is key to having and communicating useful targets. A good learning objective has four traits. It is specific, measurable, clear, and related to a body of knowledge, skills and meaningful learning. Let’s take these traits one at a time to fully understand them.

First, a good learning objective is specific. Learning objectives are different anticipatefrom goals, which should give a general overview of what the student will learn and be able to do at the conclusion of instruction. Learning objectives are specific in that they hone in on a single thing that a student will be able to do. Making the objective specific allows the student to know exactly what is expected and why that expectation is being made. For example a good objective might go like this: “students will be able to identify the key of each work they are playing in band, and be able to play the ascending and descending scale of that key accurately in sixteenth notes at 60 bpm.”  An example of a bad objective for the same expectation might be something like this: “Students will understand scales of pieces they play in band.” Whereas the first objective states precisely what the student will do to demonstrate understanding, the second objective doesn’t even give a clue what the student is expected to do. It does not indicate what is meant by “understand scales,” nor does it make clear what connection between scales and musical works the student is expected to make. Without specifying these things, the student is unlikely to know what he or she is supposed to do, and stands little chance of succeeding at whatever the teacher had in mind. There should be no mystery about the teacher’s intent. Both teacher and student must know exactly what the student is to do and learn.

i-get-itSecondly, the objective must be measurable. It is a fairly simple matter to take the good objective and derive an assessment from it. The student indicates what key a piece is in, which is a knowledge question that can be answered aurally or in writing, and then the student plays the scale. The good objective includes only verbs that can be measured, identify and play, and that can easily be linked to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. It also includes a description of what will be identified and what will we played.  A rubric constructed for the purpose can be used to rate the tempo (60 b.p.m.), the rhythm used (sixteenth notes) and the accuracy of the pitches. By contrast, it is impossible to form an assessment from the bad objective, because there is no way of knowing exactly what the student is supposed to to do or what the student is supposed to learn from doing it.

Learning objectives are written for the teacher, student, observing administrator, and parents. These are all interested parties in the education of children. In the case of music, it is not uncommon for observing administrators to lack content knowledge, so objectives must be written plainly so they can be understood by the non-music specialist. Parents must also be able to understand learning objectives. They have an interest in understanding what is expected of their child in music class, and well written and widely understood objectives adds credibility to music as an academic and core subject. Taken together, learning objectives should present a very clear picture of purpose, and outline a set of actions that students can readily complete.

Finally, learning objectives must be related. They must clearly align withmusic and the brain knowledge, skills and meaningful learning. A purposeful and logical order to the objectives must be apparent, with one objective building on another, addressing a single topic from multiple perspectives, or covering several elements or concepts that are part of an essential understanding. Taken together, good learning objectives will reveal a continuity of instruction, whereas bad learning objectives will appear to be random, haphazard, and poorly organized. Good objectives will lead learners through learning sequences and units of study, leaving them with the assurance that they are growing and making gains in their studies.

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

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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.

Types of Assessment and Their Uses in Music Education

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We music educators sometimes have difficulty assessing our students. There are several reasons for this, including large student loads and limited instructional time, but perhaps one of the most important reasons is that assessment is something we don’t fully understand. What purpose should be achieved by using assessment? What kinds of assessments are there, and which one is best suited for a particular purpose? I will discuss the answers to these questions today.

To begin, there are two main types of assessment: formative, and summative. Our troubles with assessment often begin here, when we confuse these two assessment types. Formative assessment is used to “monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that teachers can use to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. Formative assessments help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work, and help teachers recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately. Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value.” (Carnegie Mellon) Formative assessments are not used as the basis for project, teacher-and-student4homework, test, or report card grades. Instead, they provided feedback that prepares students to be graded on future evaluations. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main learning point of a class (This could be an “exit ticket.)
  • turn in a music composition project for early feedback
  • take a practice test
  • give a performance that is adjudicated using a performance rubric.
  • Feedback given by conductors and private tutors during rehearsals and lessons. (These should be documented so they can be referred back to.)

Rubrics tend to work well for music, because much of what is experienced and learned in music classes is subjective. Often, music teachers are not interested in responses that are “right” or “wrong” but instead are interested in to what extend certain aspects of music making occurred. For example, whereas a language arts teacher might count up the number of errors in an essay, a music teacher would probably not count up the number of wrong notes in a performance. Instead, the music teacher would find an accurate description of the success of the performance from rubric criteria that might include,  “made some errors, but they did not detract small group instructionfrom the overall enjoyment of the performance,” “made some errors, and they did detract from the overall enjoyment of the performance.” These two statement recognize that there is a factor more important than the number of errors made, and that factor is what kind of errors were made; how impactful were those errors on the performance. Priority is given to the performance being enjoyable and expressive over it being note perfect. Enjoyable is a subjective unit of measure that is made measurable by use of the rubric.

As formative assessments, assignments that are turned in are not given a final grade, but are given comments and returned to the student for further work. Support is provided to guide the student in incorporating the feedback into a more successful revision of the same assignment. This cycle of student producing work, passing it in to the teacher (or peers) for feedback, and then returning to the work for feedback is the essence of formative assessment because it walks the student through the process of shaping work into a finished product of the highest possible quality. Once the student work has been revised and put in the best possible condition, then it is ready to be assessed summatively.

Summative assessment is used to “to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. EnsembleSummative assessments are used as the basis for project, homework, test, or report card grades. They are given at the end of a project, unit, semester, or course, and should reflect the extent to which students have met the goals and objectives of that unit, semester or course. Summative assessments are not used to provide ongoing feedback during work, they are used to provide a final evaluation of the finished work. Whereas music teachers might adjudicate their students and give them feedback on their performance that they can use as they continue to prepare for an audition (formative assessment), eventually the students will go to the audition (summative assessment), and either be accepted or not accepted, for example, into a college music degree program, or to participate in a music festival, perhaps an all-state or all-county festival.

Formative assessments tend to be more incremental in that they measure how a student is doing in stages or steps toward completing a larger work. It is a tool used during the learning process. Summative assessments tend to be more holistic in that they measure how a student has done on the completed larger work. It is a tool used at the completion of the learning process. The two types of assessment work hand in hand. When effective formative assessment has taken place, student success rates will be higher on the summative assessment, teaching will be more effective, and student learning will be significant. When formative assessment is ineffective or missing altogether, students will generally to more poorly on summative assessments because they haven’t been as well prepared, and haven’t learned as effectively without the feedback that formative assessment provides.

The Versatility of Tic-Tac-Toe

2011Symposium_1_2When I was a kid, I like playing tic-tac-toe. It’s an easy game to play and almost every child knows how to play. With a little creativity, it can become a useful and versatile teaching tool in the music classroom. I like to use it periodically as a fun way to give my students practice at music reading, and to assess their progress. Today I will share some of the variations on this classic game that I use.

Unscramble Tic-Tac-Toe combines sequencing with reading. I have a white board with music staves painted on. Off to one side, I write a melody that is familiar to the class, with the measures in the wrong order, and numbered. In the center of the board, I have drawn a Tic-Tac-Toe board so that each square has part of a musical staff going through it. The class is divided into two teams. One student at a time must choose the measure that begins or comes next in the melody, identifying the measure by number. If he or she answers correctly, the student chooses where to place an “X” or an “O” on the game board. Depending on the age of the class, I may also have the student copy the measure onto the game board in the square the child has chosen. If the student answers incorrectly, it becomes the other team’s turn. Play continues until one team earns three squares in a row, just like traditional Tic-Tac-Toe.

For Singing Tic-Tac-Toe, the game board is already filled in with tonal patterns. Before play begins, I have the class sing each pattern, so that they are sure to be familiar with them. The class is divided into two teams, and one child takes a turn for their team. For each turn, the child chooses a square on the board, and then must correctly sing the tonal pattern in that box. If he or she sings it correctly, then an “X” or an “O” is placed in that box. Play continues until one team earns three squares in a row, just like traditional Tic-Tac-Toe.  This version of Tic-Tac-Toe can also be done with rhythm patterns, in which case students chant the pattern when it is their turn, or with melody fragments, in which case the student must sing both the pitches and rhythms correctly to win the square.

Name That Tune Tic-Tac-Toe has students trying to identify the song from which a fragment is written in eachtic_tac_toe square. For example, mi mi fa so might be in one box, and the student who identifies the tune as “Ode to Joy” would win that box. Each fragment must be reasonably identified with a familiar melody. With older students, once the player whose turn it is has chosen a square, a player on the other team writes a fragment in that box for the student whose turn it is to identify.

Pitches and rhythms are not the only things we want our students to be able to read in music, so Tic-Tac-Toe can be used to teach and assess other musical symbols and signs, including repeats, dynamics, tempos and articulation. For this variation, a list of musical terms and symbols is made off to the side. These can be a dynamic, tempo,  or articulation markings, or any symbol that directs a performer to sing or play in a particular way. The student whose turn it is selects a box. Either you or a student from the other team performs any bit of music with one of the markings from the list. If students are performing, I have the terms written down on index cards, so I can hand one to the student to perform without letting the rest of the class know what it is. For example, if staccato was chosen, you or the student on the other team would sing or play something with staccato. If “forte” was the term, something would be sung or played loudly. The student trying to win the square must correctly match the performance with the term listed on the board. If he or she succeeds, an “X” or an “O” is placed in the square selected. In this game, not only are students learning and being assessed on musical terms and vocabulary, but, when students do the performing, they are also practicing performing the various terms. The terms can then be more meaningfully referred to in “real” performance situations, with the affect of being done more expressively.

I’m sure there are countless other ways to use Tic-Tac-Toe in the music classroom. My hope is that this brief survey of ones I like to use will be useful, and will spur your own creativity on to create your own games.

How to Build a Music Portfolio

2011Symposium_1_2When it comes to student work in music classes, it can be difficult to collect student work because much of what students do in music classes is not normally written down. Singing, playing instruments and improvising produces no tangible artifact that can be collected into a folder and shared with students, teachers and parents. While some work in music class is (or should) be written, much of it is not. Nevertheless, music teachers must document what progress students are making with samples of their work. A good music portfolio will have a combination of writing about music, original music compositions, and music performances.

I used to think that if I assessed student musical performance with a rubric, and collected the rubrics into student folders, that was sufficient. The problem with that is the completed rubric is not what the student did. Calling completed rubrics of student work is like trying to persuade others that your grade book contains student work. Clearly it does not, it contains the results of evaluations of the student work. The thing that you graded, be it an essay, composition, or performance, is the student work, and it is those, in addition to  the assessment and evaluation documents that need to be preserved.

Recording student performances is the only way to collect student work when it is playing or singing. Students must be recorded individually on the same piece periodically throughout the year. By recording students performing the same piece, progress can be assessed. By making a recording, the student work is available for the teacher to assess and to compare with previous recordings, for the student to self-evaluate and hear his or her progress over time, for administrators who want to have tangible evidence of student work, and for parents who want to have a concrete answer to the question, “how is my child doing in music?”

The logistics of how to record large numbers of students individually presents a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. I prefer to just dedicate two or three class periods three times a year to recording every student. I make sure I give the class written work they can do independently and then call the children up to my desk one at a time to perform. If the rest of the class wants to quietly listen, fine, or if not they have their seat work to do silently. At other times, I will require that the class evaluate each student using the same self-evaluation instrument each child completes after they have made their recording. This gives students added practice at using the self-evaluation instrument, and sharpens their awareness of what good singing or playing is.

Another method to use is to have the recording device set up in an adjacent room, such as a practice room, and have students go make their recording one at a time independently. This method has the advantage of allowing you to teach a normal lesson and avoid suspending your normal classes while you assess the class. For this method, you must train your students in how to operate the recording equipment, and other logistical matters. For example, I like to keep the recordings anonymous when I’m assessing them, so I have students sign their name to a numbered list. Each student is assigned the number next to his or her name, and I record my assessment by these numbers. Later, after I have finished assessing, I can go back and add the names so I know how each student did, and look for growth compared to the last recording. The recordings are mp3 files, so they can easily be stored on a computer or compact disc, or shared with students via e-mail.

Written work from other music classes is still collected into folders and saved as part of the student’s portfolio of piano practicework. These include worksheets, journal entries, and essays about music. Self-evaluations and goal setting documents pertaining to preparing a musical work for performance can round out a portfolio that also includes audio recordings of the performance. Including audio recordings in a portfolio of music student work just makes sense. It frees music teachers up from artificially inventing written assignments just to produce tangible student work, and instead allows the teacher to document the actual presentation of musical works.

What Do Class Objectives Look Like in Music?

2011Symposium_1_2One of the most important things any teacher does is set an instructional objective for every class meeting. For music teachers, these goals ought to be tied to our profession’s content standards which will soon be the new NCCAS standards. Standards help teachers focus their planning and teaching on what has been identified as most important, such as essential questions and enduring understandings. Enduring understandings are those ideas and processes that are central to a discipline and have value beyond the classroom. For example, in the new music standards, there is an enduring understanding for interpreting music; “performers make interpretive decisions based on personal understanding of the work and the creator’s intent.” This leads to the essential question, “how do performers interpret music?” With these in hand, the music teacher can now plan lessons that teaches students how to understand a work, how to determine the composer’s intent for composing the work, and that provide practice in doing both. Cultural, stylistic and historical contexts would be brought in as well as appropriate performance practices, and information left by the composer. Once all of this is discovered, the student then identifies how he or she relates to the music: what emotions the music draws out in them, and how to express those emotions and the composer’s intent in a performance. The process of preparing to perform a musical work becomes a mix of composer and performer, with the musician attempting to be faithful to both.
Objectives for all of this might say,

  • Students will describe the historical, cultural, and stylistic contexts of the the work.
  • Students will describe the composer’s intent in composing the work.
  • Students will identify the emotions that the work draws out in them.
  • Students will explore ways to express those emotions, and demonstrate them through performance.
  • Students will present the musical work, demonstrating in their performance appropriate style, and a balance between the composer’s intent and the performer’s emotional intent.

These five objectives are too much for one or even two classes, so the teacher would decide how to divide them into realistic goals for each class of a unit devoted to the work being studied. The unit would culminate in a performance of the work by students, and possibly a comparison of performances by different students or groups of students. Planning and teaching with these kinds of objectives provides rigor to the instruction, in a way that simply saying that “the student will learn to sing or play a song” cannot. The standard-based objectives answer critical questions such as, why will they learn to sing or play a song?, why will they learn to sing or play this song?, what will they learn from learning to sing or play this song?, and what will they learn about this song?

They also provide the basis for objective assessment of and data collection from music lessons. Students can be assessed on how well they employ each of the contexts and considerations in their interpretation, and how clearly and thorougly they present descriptions and explanations of each context and consideration. Apart from technical accuracy, the performance can then be assessed on these aspects as well. Giving students a specific focus for their class time through stated objectives and questions is providing them with a tool for higher achievement and more rewarding musical study.

Performing Music Alone–Why It’s Important

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You can now listen and subscribe to the podcast of this blog (Mr A Music Place: The Podcast) on iTunes. Podcasts are also available at mramusicmusicplace.podbean.com

Recently, I wrote a post on lesson planning. In it I laid out a three-part method of teaching: the teacher does, the students do with the teacher, and the students do independently. The first two steps are part of the teaching cycle, the last step is an opportunity for the student to show what they can do and what improvement they have made. I want to discuss this third step, the student doing independently, as it relates to students performing.

People perform music in real time, in public, and often with others. When it is done with others, an individual student can rely on another to pull them along in moments of uncertainty. The phrase “there is strength in numbers” refers to this very thing. Everyone doesn’t have to be excellent all the time if there are enough people involved, because those who are getting on excellently will be numerous enough to hide the mistakes of the few at any given moment. Studnets can learn much in this environment. One student can hear another do something really well, and then imitate what was heard. But the imitator needs to grow so that s/he is the one being imitated. Ideally individuals in an ensemble continue to grow so that eventually there is no need for imitating, because all are performing on a high level nearly all the time. This is one reason why singing or playing alone is so important. At some point, every student needs to “fly” on his or her own, and they never will unless they practice soloing regularly.

There is another reason why singing or playing alone is important. Teachers cannot assess individual growth based on singergroup performance as accurately as they can assess it based on solo performance. I have recorded individuals while singing in a group, and have received valuable data on how proficiently they are singing in the group, but I have no way of knowing how much of what they were singing was the result of imitating others compared to initiating excellently performed notes. Performing with others is an effective strategy for learning a piece and practicing intonation and other matters of ensemble, but it does not develop individual proficiency in music making as well as solo performance. Singing or playing with your students can be effective as a method of modeling, but it should be done sparingly; it is very difficult to hear and assess students when you are singing or playing.

There are several ways solo singing can be used for assessment in a non-intimidating way for the reluctant public singer or player. One popular method is to have individual students leave class and go into an adjacent practice room where a recording device is set up. The student records him or herself performing the assigned piece or excerpt, and then returns to the class. Students continue to record themselves in a pre-arranged order throughout the class. Alternately, and if your school policy allows, during class time allotted for practice and refinement, individual students can record themselves when they are ready on their own mobile device, and then e-mail you the sound file. You can then listen to and assess their performance later. If you use this method, be sure the e-mail contains the student’s name.

After three or four recordings have been made over a period of weeks, students will be pleased to hear their improvement, and realize they can sing for others with confidence and enjoyment. Once this happens, a third method becomes possible. Have individual students perform for the class. Once they have documented their improvement over time, many will gain enough confidence to be eager to sing or play for their peers. The performance is always the goal, and the process of preparing the performance is where the bulk of learning takes place. By the time the performance is given, the student has the benefit of what was learned during the process, and that should be celebrated as much if not more than the performance itself.

Assessment in the General Music Class

2011Symposium_1_2There is no question in my mind that music is fun. It is fun to perform, fun to teach, fun to listen to, dance to, create, even fun to practice. It has been that way for me since my childhood, and it is that way for many, perhaps even most of the children I teach. Sometimes, I think music is too much fun, so much so that it prevents students and parents from taking music seriously as a subject in school. When a student receives a low grade for a marking period in music, frequently a parent will ask, “how could my child get such a low grade in music?” They can understand a low grade in science, or English, or social studies, but in music? They think all there is to music is singing songs and having fun.

Truth be told, for a long while singing songs and having fun was all that children did in many music classes. If a child was present and made an effort to sing well, they got high marks. But now, with assessments and evaluations required in every subject, including music, that kind of grading scheme just won’t do. Music grades have to be documented, student work must be assessed and evaluated, and data must be collected. While educators may not agree that the level of testing that has become prevalent in education is healthy or even constructive, assessing student progress and growth, and using those assessments to inform planning, teaching, and learning is a good thing for music education.

When students sing in class, it must not always be group singing. Students must also sing alone, and have that solo singing assessed. Doing so informs the teacher of areas of strength and weakness. This information can then be used to plan individualized instruction, and can make the teacher alert to individual student needs even as the whole class is singing together. Assessment results also help focus students on areas that need their attention and offer encouragement by revealing areas of proficiency.  Assessments in music can take the form of recorded solo performances, recorded individual performances while singing in a group, self-evaluations of solo or group performances, written responses to music including analyses and critical reviews, notated compositions assessed with a rubric, and writing about music using music vocabulary.

Today, I had one of my eighth grade classes do an analysis of two songs they had selected for responding last week.Music Notes Background The songs had been selected using criteria we wrote together, based on interests, knowledge, ability, and context. First, we discussed what an analysis is. I told them that to analyze something you must identify parts of the thing you are analyzing, and then explain how the parts work together to make the thing work. I provided two examples: a phone and a sentence. Then I asked them to name parts found in music. They came up with rhythm, tempo, melody, musical ideas, and timbre. I told them to listen for those parts while they listened to the song, and to write down any other parts they heard along the way. Eventually we added ostinato, rhythm section, background singers, verse and refrain. Finally, I asked them to write a paragraph that explained how the parts they had listed worked together to make the music. They recognized that the ostinato that began one of the songs continued under the voice, and that the background singers sang accented notes that became part of the rhythm section. This was good analysis, and it revealed aspects of the song that the students had never noticed or considered before. They practiced responding to music at a deeper level of observation and understanding than they were accustomed to, and the new discoveries proved exciting for them and me.

Beyond what the students learned from this activity, I also acquired a basis on which to assess the depth of each student’s response to two songs that they were already familiar enough with to select for the activity. My assessment of their written work will guide my planning for their next class. For them, they now realize that just because a song is familiar through repeated hearing, there still can be brand new things to discover and learn from it. On another day, they will sing one of these two songs either individually or as a group. While they sing, they will record their voice on their mobile device. The students have a portfolio of such recordings, so that they can track their progress at improving their singing. Charting progress is important. I tell them that in order to know how you’re doing, you have to know three things: Where you started, where you are, and where you want to end up. By comparing recordings made at intervals of weeks within a marking term, students can assess each performance and track their own progress, and I can track it too. To keep them honest, I reward students for self-assessments that are close to mine, Tracking progress depends on accurate data.

With portfolios, written responses to music, and some creative work as well, my grading of students is easily defensible to any questioning parent, and the quality of my teaching and of my students’ learning grows together. When a parent of a child who has gotten a low grade in my class sees the evidence, their indignation usually turns to admiration, and they leave assuring me that their child will do better from now on, now that they know what is expected. That is the best possible result, because achieving growth is the goal.