What Is The Difference Between Standards and Curriculum: A Primer for Music Curriculum Writers

2011Symposium_1_2Some of you who are music educators will be doing curriculum writing work over the summer, while others will be planning for the coming school year. In either case, it is important to understand the distinction between standards and curriculum. With the presence of common core in many states, standards have taken on a renewed importance in planning and delivering instruction. In music, the core arts standards have refocused instruction on the four artistic processes of performing, creating, responding and connecting. In past years, before these new standards, local curriculum writers frequently transferred the music standards into curriculum documents, and with little additional work, published the standards as a curriculum. Clearly this approach obscured the difference between standards and curriculum, as writers supposed that the two were virtually interchangeable.

As we write new curricula using the new core arts standards for music, we must avoid repeating this mistake. There is indeed a difference between standards and curriculum. Standards express what all students are expected to achieve. They are equally applied to all students in all districts, regardless of differences between districts, schools, classes, or students. As such, they include the body of knowledge and skills that are deemed essential for all students to be able to demonstrate. Standards do not include how these knowledge or skills will be taught or learned, only that they will be taught and learned. With this in mind, it is easy to see why presenting standards as a curriculum is unacceptable; there is no guidance included in what the teacher is to do, what materials or activities will be used, or how learning will be assessed. These matters are specific to local districts, and the responsibility of individual teachers to implement.

This brings us to the question of what is a curriculum. Simply stated, if standards are what all students will learn and do, then Expectationscurriculum is how some students, those in a particular school district, will meet the standards. This is why one set of standards suffices for an entire state or nation, while each school district needs its own curriculum. It is in the curriculum that the individual needs of students and districts is taken into account, and articulated so that meeting the standards fits students who are different in ways that affect their learning.

Whereas the standards say that musicians select music to perform based on interests, knowledge, abilities, and context, the curriculum says that students will draw on known cultural influences on interests, knowledge and context, and will direct students to self-evaluating their abilities. For example, an urban district might specify in the curriculum that blues, rhythm and blues, rap, and gospel musical styles will be included in middle school music instruction. Students will develop performance ability though targeted instruction and practice, create learning experiences from which students will acquire knowledge of and develop interests in these musical genres, and then provide them the opportunity to select and practice songs based on the knowledge and abilities they have acquired from the instruction. Having done so, they will have met the standard under the process of selecting music for performance. In a rural district, the same standard might be met with folk, bluegrass, and country music genres. Finer differences would likely occur. For example, improvising is more likely to occur in rap and blues than in folk or country music, so the urban class might emphasize improvisation and/or creating more than the rural class. On the other hand, instrumental music tends to be more prevalent in country and bluegrass than in rap music, so the rural class might emphasize instruments, especially violin/fiddle, more than the urban class. These differences would also be shaped by differences in student interests. Yet in both the urban and rural classes, the standard would be equally well met, all instructional factors being equal. Curricula specify the best means for the students in a given district to accomplish the means of meeting the standard.

The curriculum, unlike the standards, must also include the method by which student learning will be assessed. If students are supposed to be able to select music to perform based on knowledge, interests, context, and ability, then they must select music that they will actually perform, and the selection must be assessed based on how well it aligns with each of those criteria. Requiring students to select music within their ability can also motivate them to increase their performance proficiency so that they can perform a song that at present is challenging, but which they are highly motivated to sing or play. In any case, it is necessary to assess learning in order to determine if the standard has been met after instruction according to the curriculum has been given.

Making Music Classrooms More Student-Centered

2011Symposium_1_2

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The longer I teach, the less I want to direct my students’ learning. By this I mean that the least effective teaching I do is when I am most in control of what is being taught. When students have no say in what or how material is taught, they are far less apt to be interested, engaged, and ultimately successful. This is not to say that we should all chuck the curriculum and let students do whatever they want in class, but they should have many more opportunities to choose materials that interest them and methods that suit them than they are often given.

Typically, the least productive class of the year is the last day of school. Knowing this, I enjoy just giving the reins over to the students on this day. They and I have been together long enough for them to know that no matter what, I expect them to do something musical in my room, so given the chance, out come the phones and the ear phones. Some will just listen to music privately, but it is the students who share and participate that I really enjoy watching and listening to. These students will gather themselves in a small group, usually three or four of them together, choose a song they all know and like, set it to playing on one of their phones, and then sing and drum along. Because the song is often a rap song, some will rap while others drum, depending on which a student is more comfortable with. One or two others may be drawn over and sit on the outskirts of the group and listen, beginning to move to the beat, and quickly welcomed into the group as a participant-listener. In this group of now five or six people, one song has engaged every student by affording each the opportunity to choose how they will engage and participate; as singers, rappers, drummers, or listeners. For me, this is the ideal scenario for a music class. On those occasions when I can prime the context with the musical context I want to teach that day, students leave at the end of class excited, having engaged with music and through their engagement and enjoyment having learned the curricular content for the day.

Starr Stackstein provided some excellent tips for producing great student led discussions in class. I have adopted them for music, and present them here.

  • Start by reviewing small group protocols that include speaking and listening, always adding value  ideas rooted in the music.
  • Provide time for students to think about what is to be discussed first. When a performance for you is the means for assessment, students will want to go back and get it right. Evaluation and discussion will be an important piece in this, and the best ideas come when students have “think time” before someone else takes over the conversation.
  • Suggest having students develop questions while they listen or prepare as conversation starters. This is a great way to involve the listeners who have chosen not to perform.
  • Allow students to have a discussion without raising hands, thereby learning how to listen and wait, deferring to each other where necessary.
  • Create a Twitter backchannel so that more reticent students can be heard. This can be a great way to also get other questions dropped into the fray by students. If one or two students are monopolizing, create a protocol where they need to practice listening for a little while and then they can write down their thoughts and post them to Twitter afterward.
  • Encourage students to piggy-back off ideas of each other. “I agree with ________ when he/she said… because…” or “I disagree with ________________ when he/she said… because…”
  • Encourage students to feel comfortable disagreeing as long as there is evidence to back up ideas.
  • Foster an open environment where everyone’s ideas are welcomed and considered.
  • Allow kids to make connections to other learned information not just in your class, but anything applicable.
  • Give every child an opportunity to hold the floor.

The Other Singing Voice

2011Symposium_1_2Music teachers of young, primary grade children know it is important to teach children to find and use their singing voice for singing. Left on their own, most children will try to sing with the same voice they use for speaking, which is very limited in range, and usually too low to sing accurately or with a clear tone. With children 2-3 years of age, they are still exploring what sounds they can make with their voices and how they can control them. Modeling the difference between singing and speaking and then letting the children play spontaneously with sung sounds is a good strategy. Gradually, the selection and accuracy of pitches will improve, and a tonal center will be perceivable. In these initial stages, and with voices this young, the upper range of the child’s voice is where we want them singing, to separate and differentiate from the speaking voice.

By first or second grade, though, children who are accustomed to singing will need to learn and use the lower part of their singing voice, the part that overlaps with their speaking voice. Now the question isn’t how to use a different part of the voice, but in how to use the same part of the voice differently. Even when the ranges of singing and speaking voices overlap, the way the voice is used for singing must be different than how it is used for speaking. Respiration, breath management, resonance, and vowel use, to name a few, are concepts that must be handled differently for singing than for speaking. Because children spend more time talking than singing, these concepts are less developed and less natural for singing than they are for speaking. Most children receive formal music instruction once or twice a week in public schools, so encouraging them to practice good singing habits on their own is helpful.

To develop the lower adjustment singing voice, imitating animal sounds is helpful. In working on this with my second graders, I began by working from the familiar upper adjustment.  I asked them to name animals that made high sounds. They quickly identified cat, owl, and bird (there is no need to distract them with the fact of an owl being a bird). I suggested that because there are so very many birds, we pick one, and use the singing-kidscuckoo. I modeled each sound so that they would produce it exactly how I wanted it, and then had them imitate me. Once they could make all the sounds musically, with a good singing voice, we sang “Old MacDonald” using those animals with the practiced sounds. I pitched the song in C major so that they would be singing in the middle to upper parts of their range. Then we named animals that made low sounds. We used tiger (grrr) with a phonated “rrr” at a low pitch, a cow, and a big dog with a low bark. We then sang “Old MacDonald” again, this time in B-flat major, an octave lower than before. Going back and forth between singing and making animal sounds, they began to transfer the lower adjustment of the animal sounds to their singing.

After this, I had them sing a song that went from high to low adjustments. I used “As I Came Over Yonders Hill.” I pointed out the upper and lower adjustment parts of the song, and told them to listen to the quality of my voice as I sang in one adjustment and then the other. I then had the class sing the song, and told them to listen for how their own voices changed from upper to lower adjustment. They were happy and a little excited to hear the two adjustments in their own voices. They now were aware that they have these two parts of their singing voice, and that a singing voice is not always a high voice. Eventually, I will work on blending the two, but initially it is good for them to hear the difference and be able to sing correctly in both. This lower adjustment is the other singing voice.

Reflective Questions for 5th Grade Music Composition

2011Symposium_1_2Today I am going to discuss questions students can use to reflect on their creative musical work. In Connecticut, these questions are part of the Common Core Assessments for music. Each question gets at an important musical aspect or concept, and helps focus students on more than just getting notes down on paper and singing or playing what they have written. These questions move a student’s musical thinking up to a higher level, and deepen musical understanding. You will see that the questions also go beyond what can be seen on paper, into the realm of what is heard and perceived in the composer’s mind.

The first question is, “what pitch is your tonal center?” An advanced composer will know immediately what the tonal center is, because they had it in mind the whole time they were composing. Even so, this question presents the opportunity to check if the intended tonal center is fact the tonal center a listener hears when the musical work is performed. For the novice composer who has perhaps not audiated what he or she has composed, this question demands that the piece be heard, either in physically present sound or through audiation, and the tonal center determined. After listening to a melody, a tonal center may be poorly established or not present at all, in which case revisions are called for that will establish or strengthen a tonal center. This question alone can bring out substantial learning.

The next two questions are follow ups to the first: “Where is the first time the tonal center pitch occurs in your composition?” and “where is the last time the tonal center pitch occurs in your composition?” These questions require that the student composer not only know what the tonal center is, but also where it occurs. It is relatively easy to recognize a tonal center when it is the last note of a melody; the closure that the tonic pitch brings is highly noticeable. But recognizing it in the midst of a melody, especially if it does not occur at the end of a phrase, is more challenging, especially for less experienced students. These questions make the student composer aware of where and how the tonal center has been used, and how the tonal center brings relaxation to a melody, between instances of relative tension from other tones. Although not included in the Connecticut set of questions, locating all occurrences of the tonal center can also be instructive, especially if there is too much or too little tension in the overall melody.

The next two questions address matters of rhythmic structure. First, “what rhythmic values did you use?” For this question, the student is to identify note values employed. As with the tonal center, these should have been audiated during the composing process, and should be recognizable by composer and audience alike upon hearing the work performed. Unless the rhythm is audiated, students will have difficulty in determining where the beats are, which in turn is needed for audiating the meter. Equally important is that the written symbols be correctly identified as representing the audiated durations. .After identifying the rhythmic values, the student is then asked, “How many beats are there in each measure of your composition?” In all likelihood, a number was determined as part of the assignment, but this still needs to be checked by the student as part of his or her reflection. This is also where identifying rhythmic values in the context of a beat is useful. Students must not mistake two eighth notes as two beats, or a half note for one beat. As students answer this question, the teacher can check for any misunderstandings of beat due to flawed audiation or understanding of the concept of beat itself.

Upon completing these reflective questions, students will have a well-grounded and thorough understanding of the musical elements of tonality, beat, rhythm, and meter, and will in many cases have been challenged to “think in music” to a much greater extent than they would have otherwise, even while and in response to composing music. Tomorrow, I will discuss reflective questions having to do with the actual performance of the composed musical work.

Describing Music and Teaching Music

2011Symposium_1_2If you are a music reader, want you to pretend you know nothing about music notation. If you don’t read music, you’re all set. Now take what I’m about to write absolutely literally. “A quarter note gets one beat, and a half note gets two beats.” Just from that description, do you know that the duration of a half note is twice as long as the duration of a quarter note, or did it sound like you should play two quarter notes, which are two beats, every time you see a half note? The latter is what many novice music students take the statement “a half note gets two beats” to mean. If one beat is a quarter note, it’s logical to think that a note that gets two beats gets two quarter notes. This misunderstanding is possible because note values are often defined as mathematical quantities and not durations. Children are used to seeing pictures of apples and pencils and ice cream cones on their math worksheets. Two pencils in one picture equal two apples in another. So it is reasonable to transfer mathematical logic to music when it is presented mathematically. A quarter note equals one beat. A half note equals two beats. Sing a half note. The child does two quarter notes because he or she was asked to sing two beats. It makes all the sense in the world.

Durations are measured with numbers, but they are measurements of  how long something we hear lasts over time, or how long an object takes to move from one point to another, or how long we waited at the doctor’s office in the waiting room. We can’t see time, we can only experience it and represent it abstractly with numbers. A duration is not how many of something there is, like apples in a basket, but of how long it takes for something to occur, from onset to offset, from start to finish, from beginning to end. You can have two quarter notes and two half notes. There are two of each, but knowing that is not helpful in knowing how to perform either, and although there are two of each, and they are all notes, they are not the same notes; they have different durations. The half note has a duration of two beats and the quarter note has a duration of one beat. Both are single notes, but they last for different amounts of time, measured (usually) in beats.

In music, we generally have a reference note that is equal to the duration we consider the beat. This duration isnote_hierarchy called the ictus. Where the quarter note is the unit of measure, a half note is an elongation of the beat. This is a helpful term, because it describes something longer than something else, not bigger or in greater quantity. Elongation means to make longer, so a half note is longer than a quarter note, not multiple reproductions of it. A whole note is also an elongation of the beat, but also an elongation of a half note. How much longer? Two beats longer. Beats is the unit of measuring the duration of a note.

If there are notes (durations) that are longer than the beat, there are also notes (durations) that are shorter than the beat. If the unit of one beat equals a quarter note, then an eighth note is a division of the beat. Once again, we want to avoid language like, “a quarter note gets two eighth notes.” This can lead to children playing two notes when they see a quarter note, just as they did with the half note. Describe eighth notes as durations. Eighth notes last only half as long as quarter notes, so two of them can be sung or played in the same time as one quarter note. Children can tap quarter notes with their heels while chanting eighth notes, and experience the durational relationship between them. As students get older and more advanced, the same approach should be taken with other note durations that are both smaller and larger than those discussed here. The important thing to remember is that notes have duration measured in beats; they do not have beats. Through hearing patterns of durations, which we call rhythms, we are able to detect a beat, but that beat is made manifest by the pattern of durations. Keeping the concepts of duration and beat separate will clear up many rhythm problems commonly encountered in our teaching.

What Would Music Be Like Without Change?

2011Symposium_1_2Although most would probably say they don’t like change, the fact is that we need change and are designed to change and benefit from change. This can be clearly seen if we consider minimalist music. When a minimalist piece begins, it has our attention, because what we hear is a change from not hearing it a moment ago. As the repetition continues though, we begin to take it for granted, while hoping and listening for something to change. When it does, we are gratified, refreshed, and our interest in the music is renewed. As the music goes on, and we long for another change, we begin to notice more subtle changes, because now we are focused on change. We naturally overlook things that stay the same, and notice things that change. Think of sitting in a quiet place where there is little sound and movement, and./or constant sound and movement. We do not notice anything in particular until something changes. We instantly notice the sound of a door closing, or the motion of a paper falling to the ground off of a desk. Evolutionists will say that we notice these changes because they must be tested as possible threats to our safety. Once we realize, even in a fraction of a second, that there is no danger, we return to a state of relaxed indifference to our surroundings, until something else changes.

When music changes, it arouses this alert response in us, and that is why we feel aroused and excited, even agitated by music that surprises us. Loud sounds are initially understood as a threat, and so startle us. Quiet sounds arouse curiosity and caution. These are involuntary responses, so even though we know music does not pose a threat, our threat response system reacts anyway, and we experience the “high alert” as exciting experiences with music. Without these reactions, music would be dull and uninspiring. That is why the best composers skillfully balance repetition and variety, or change. The repetition lulls us into a calm repose, and the change rouses us out of our relaxed state. No where is this more plain than playing music for children that has a surprise in it. In thirty years of teaching, I have never played the “surprise” movement of Haydn’s “surprise symphony” without seeing a response of giddy delight on the children as that bombastic chord jumps out of the quietest of passages. Even when they know it is coming, it still has great affect.

Now contrast that to the pedantic drudgery of drilling the first few pages of an instrument method book. The songs are each comprised of one pitch, repeated on one rhythm, a whole note, each separated by a whole rest. Change is nowhere to be found, and the emotional delight that gives us all reason to want to make music is entirely missing. These early days of instrument lessons need to be recharged with change. An instructor can change dynamics, articulation, tempo or even instrumentation if the class is grouped heterogeneously, to create variety and change, and even to surprise the young musicians so that a spontaneous and emotionally charged response is enjoyed.Musical-Balance

Listening to music, even popular music which tends to be highly repetitive, can be more exciting by directing listeners’ attention to what is changing in the music. There is the form. Some students will be so focused on the rhythm and beat that they will overlook changes from one section of the song to the next, or changes in instrumentation or backing tracks. Musicians and their producers know the value in change, even in a highly repetitive musical form, and embed changes, however subtle at times, into the recorded music. Students can learn about musical form and production while learning how to enjoy their music more by practicing perceiving these aspects of songs. This type of listening can then carry over into art music, opening up greater understanding of the classics as well.   While too much change is confusing to anyone, a good balance of change and repetition in our presentation of the music we teach with will increase student interest and enjoyment.

How We Describe and Write About Music We Hear+

2011Symposium_1_2Asking students to describe music you play for them has several benefits. Most obviously, descriptions tell us what the student though about and experienced from listening. We may learn how the music affected his or her emotions, what musical elements were noticed, or what and when certain musical events occurred. For the most part, when we give students a response to music writing assignment, we are trying to ascertain what they are hearing and understanding in the music to which they are listening.

In the course of writing about music, students have the opportunity to use music vocabulary. The way in which this vocabulary is used tells us a great deal about the understanding students have of the words themselves. It is not uncommon for students to misuse musical terms, or to fail to recognize cultural differences in the meaning of certain words. For example, when my students are talking about the beat, they often mean the rhythm. While the two words mean very different things in Western art music culture, in contemporary popular music, especially hip-hop culture, “beats” are the rhythmic patterns to which the rapper performs. Sequencing software allows the user to choose “beats” by dragging them into the compositions and looping them any number of time. We can no longer simply correct students when they use “beats” in this way, we must acknowledge that this is now a legitimate use and meaning of the word. There is nothing wrong with students understanding both meanings of “beat,” and also with teachers including both meanings in their instruction. It is a term that must be defined, if not implicitly in context, then explicitly, to avoid confusion.

Today, second grade students I taught were asked to write down musical elements that they heard change while listening to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” Three of the children wrote down “up and down.” I asked them what went up and down, and one said that the rhythm went up and down. I said I didn’t think rhythm could go up down, but that pitch and dynamics could. I asked if they meant either of those, and she replied no. Eventually we determined that she meant tempo, which in fact had slowed at places and sped up in places. Tempo and dynamics go up and down in the way numbers increase and decrease. They don’t go up and down in space the way pitch does. This shows that even the words “up” and “down” can mean very different things depending on which musical element we are describing.

In the same second grade class, I began by showing the children the ways a conductor indicates changes in dynamics, boy singingtempo, meter, and articulation, and then I mentioned that a conductor cannot change pitch or rhythm–those are written by the composer. After each child conducted the class singing “Skip to My Lou” while changing one or more of the musical elements of their choice, I then had the class move to the music while I played variations on “Skip to My Lou” on the piano. After each variation, I asked them to identify which element I had changed. There were some good teaching moments in this, as when they began to move faster when I played louder but at the same tempo. We talked about the difference between loud and fast, and how movements can get bigger without getting faster. Putting that into motions in addition to words is a good way to gain understanding. Then I went from major to minor. They identified the element I had changed as pitch. I then said, should your movements change if I change pitch? They thought about their conducting and then decided no, it shouldn’t change. Conductors don’t change what they’re doing when the pitch changes. But then I said that movement could change if the change in pitch caused them to notice different feelings being expressed in the music. Did the change in pitch change the mood or emotions of the music, I asked. Yes, it did. They said minor made it sound scarey. So although they wouldn’t change their movement because the pitch changed, they would change their movement because of what was being expressed changing. This changes the conversation from one of musical elements, to one of interpretation. When students move to music in this way, they are interpreting the music, and how we interpret the music, whether as performer or listener, leads how we describe the music we are performing or hearing. When we pay close attention to how our students describe music, we can learn a great deal more about music and our relationship to it.

Classroom Management in the Music Classroom

2011Symposium_1_2Classroom management is part of good teaching in any discipline. Because of the more active nature of music activities, it is especially important in the music classroom. In general, students who know what they are expected to do, how they are expected to do it, and why they are expected to do it, will be better behaved than students who don’t know or are unclear on any of these three points. Smoothly run class starts with established entry routines. Students, particularly adolescents, need to understand that they are in your class and that they have a place to be and a way to behave and function while they are with you. With older students, I like to have written work waiting for them on their chairs (I don’t have desks or tables) when they arrive. This shows them that there is something they are expected to do right away, and that there is nothing for them to wait for before beginning their class work for that day. The very presence of the paper indicates there is work waiting for them, which is infinitely better than they waiting for work.

My classes begin with a statement of the objective, and how each activity they will be engaged in relates to the objective. Students are more focused on the lesson if they understand that they are working step by step toward the stated goal. I don’t want them to think that after they have finished the first activity, they are done for the day with time on their hands. I use a series of activities so that they have a sense of accomplishment and of progressing at the completion of each activity without thinking they are finished. Having a series of activities also helps me differentiate. Students who need more time or help are not locked into an all or nothing situation, but have the opportunity to demonstrate understanding and work on and complete segments, even if they don’t reach the end that day. Students who don’t complete all their work still can leave having finished something, and with an understanding of what they did. That learning can be carried over to the next class, or if I think the student is ready to work more independently, I will assign them to finishing for homework what others finished in class. Most students are appreciative of this opportunity, because it puts the focus on successful learning, and not on receiving a poor grade for not finishing and then going on to the next class only to start something else they may not understand. The best way to achieve good classroom management is for students to experience success.

It is a fact of my teaching life that all of my students are not interested in everything I teach them. Because ofclassroom this, I find it necessary to offer incentives for them to complete some work. For example, I have three 7th grade students who are highly unmotivated in music, but who would spend the whole day in the gym shooting baskets if they could. I have arranged with the gym teacher to allow these students to go to the gym for the last 15 minutes of my class if they have correctly finished the assignment I gave them. For my part, I accept what I consider a reasonable amount of work for 30 minutes. This “deal” has resulted in these students accomplishing more in thirty minutes than they were accomplishing in  forty-five minutes of music class. Other incentives are sometimes concert tickets to reward high achievement. while I do not agree with working for rewards in place of intrinsic rewards of accomplishing excellence, with some students this does result in more effective learning, and so is worth employing. In the end, achievement and success are worth the means. Such arrangements also place a clear goal in front of the student, and give them something tangible to work for. Whenever a student does well, I make it a point to commend their achievement, and the effort they put into achieving what they did. It is important for students to connect effort with achievement; when they put in the effort, good things result. Staying positive also helps me build relationships with my students that encourage cooperation and respect, and avoid adversarial situations.

More On Differentiation in Music Classes

2011Symposium_1_2The Core Arts standards include selecting music for performance and listening. Among the things to be considered are student abilities and student interests. Students should have an accurate assessment of their abilities so that they can choose music that is within their capacity to play or sing, and students should have the opportunity to study music they like and in which they have an interest. The same concern for student ability should be considered whenever a learning activity is given to a student. One of the challenges of teaching many students at one time, as is done in a typical school classroom, is that although all students are expected to complete a curriculum, not all students have the same ability to do so any any given time. What’s more, the ability a person has to do a task that is placed before them directly affects the confidence they have in achieving success, and the interest they have in pursuing completion. Very few students will make a concerted and extended effort to do something they are convinced they cannot do.

Many students want to play the piano, and begin study, whether individually or in group lessons, with a high level of enthusiasm. After a while, those that have realized some measure of success will continue with high levels of motivation, while others will begin to doubt that continuing is worth the effort. For these students, obstacles have become burdensome and discouraging. For some, music reading frustrates. Even when new notes are presented logically and only one at a time, some students fail to make the connections necessary to understand that pitch is a function of where the note head is placed on the staff, and rhythm is a function of stems, beams, and filled or unfilled note heads. For others, the connection between the printed notes and the corresponding keys on the instrument is only made with difficulty. These students typically can play by fingering numbers, but are at a loss as to what to do when they must read the notes without fingerings marked. Still others find using the correct fingerings awkward and inconvenient. Because the utility of being particular about fingering early on often does not become apparent until the music becomes substantially more advanced, students must press on in faith with exacting fingerings, even when they are fully able to play beginner level music with practically any combination of fingers.

All of these issues, and more, factor in to how well a student does, how they perceive themselves progressing, piano practiceand how they self-assess their ability to succeed. I’m convinced that most if not all students reach a balance point between motivation and self-assessment. A student is motivated by his or her desire to play the piano, but that motivation is lessened as the student continues to believe that they are not able to improve and that the proficiency level they are at is not high enough to give them a sense of being able to play the piano as they envisioned it when they started. In order to challenge a student without triggering a persistently negative self-assessment, reachable short-term goals must frequently be placed in front of the student. A goal should not be to complete a particular page in a book, but to master a particular skill or concept being taught on that page in a book. For example, instead of making the goal to finish page 34, make the goal to be able to smoothly play back and forth between C major and G7 chords in three-part voicing with the correct fingerings. The student can begin with a single arpeggio for each chord, continue by playing the block chords, and finally by playing a simple melody with the right hand while playing the chords in the left hand. .

Completing one, two or all three of these tasks counts as meeting the goal. Students who are struggling or need more confidence should be guided through the first task, and commended for completing it. Students who quickly finish the first task and are eager to continue go on two the second and then possibly third task. As teachers, we accept whichever represents substantial progress for that student, and are not concerned with whether or not they finished all three or finished the page. In time, when the confidence level of the student who could only complete one task grows, he or she will gladly complete more tasks, and instead of a discouraged drop-out, we have a now motivated achiever or even high achiever.

Value Outside The Testing Box

2011Symposium_1_2Before you read the rest of this post, I want you to make a list of the five things you do that add the most value to your life. These should be things that are not the source of regret or seem fun at the time but exact a high emotional or financial price afterwards. Just write down things that are life-enriching and that have lasting value to you and others. Don’t read further until you have made your list.

Now, look over the list and put a check mark next to each one that you were tested for when you were in school, from kindergarten through graduating from high school. While some of you may have Calculus and Physics on your list, as important as they are, for most of us, they are not what we choose to consume our time with when we are looking to build value into our lives and the lives of loved ones. It is much more likely that things related to the arts, sports, and spending time with loved ones was on most of your lists; yet most of us never had to take a standardized, mandated, government authored test on any of these things. In fact, you may have discovered that the more heavily tested something was, the less value it now adds to your life, and the less tested something was, the more value it adds to your life. While this is not an iron-clad argument, it is worth observing that students who spend as much time being tested as our students eventually come to the reasonable yet false conclusion that because the only thing that seems to matter to educators is testing, the only things they do in school that really matter are those things that are tested.

That list I had you make is a powerful statement of how backwards so many have this issue. It is a worthwhile exercise to have students make that list, and then ask them how many of the items on the list they have to be tested for. Students quickly see that what passes them through school will not be enough to get them through life. Most of them can scarcely get through one day without singing, drumming, dancing, or interacting in some way with some art or other. Yet because the arts are so accessible and so pervasive in their daily lives, they can sometimes go unnoticed even as they are being enjoyed. They are the very essence of a thing taken for granted, and devalued as a result.

The Arts Education Partnership has noted that the arts prepare students for work and life. They do this by singerfilling in education that is easily overlooked in academic classes, but when missing is the root cause of apathy, behavior problems, and disenfranchisement. According to AEP, the arts prepare students for work by equipping them to be creative, strengthening problem solving skills, building collaboration and communication skills, and increasing a capacity for leadership. The arts prepare students for life by strengthening perseverance, facilitating cross-cultural understandings,building community and supporting civic engagement, and fostering a creative community. This last group, how the arts prepare students for life, is perhaps the most important, because unlike the ways in which the arts prepare stduents for work, the way in which the arts prepare students for life are not as well represented in athletics. Cross-cultural understandings beyond those already acquired through associations at school, and building a creative community are especially needed and absent from athletic programs.

The obsession with testing in our schools and valuing only what is tested there is, I think, a symptom of an American obsession with competing in the workplace, and winning at all costs. Such a worldview devalues all that is not profitable financially, and leaves the competitors to lead futile, hapless lives caught in what has been coined the rat race, which as too many have learned, is unwinnable. The solution is to jump off the race track and embrace the arts as a pursuit through which all humans can find a missing piece to the whole and satisfying life we want and were meant to have.

During school spring recess next week, I will not be posting new material. Please enjoy the archive of posts available on this site, and look for new material beginning Monday, April 20.