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.

The Exit Ticket for Music

2011Symposium_1_2If there’s anything that music standards have done to help me improve my teaching over the years, it is to get me beyond singing songs and playing instruments to teaching musical concepts, skills, and processes through singing songs and playing instruments. In other words, standards have taught me that the song is not the objective, it is the means through which the objective will be taught and learned. Part of seeing that students meet the objectives I have set for them is to have a way of knowing what they have remembered and learned as a result of each class, and what they intend to do with what they have learned. If all students leave my class with is a good time, then they will not value music learning the way I want them to. If I find that students are not growing in musicianship, including all of the processes in the new core arts standards for music, then I must revisit how I am planning and teaching my lessons. Just because students are enjoying themselves in class does not mean that they are learning what I hope they are learning. Yet because much of what I do with them in class is not written, and takes place in ways that are not easily observable, I need a way of finding out what is going on “inside” my students emotionally, attitudinally, and intellectually. Though not unfailingly reliable, because not all of this learning can be observed or even accurately described by the students in words, I find that the exit ticket is a useful tool in assessing both my students’ learning and the effectiveness of my teaching.

An exit ticket is a quick, expedient way of assessing learning at the end of a lesson. It creates closure for the student, provides data for the teacher, and even helps focus lesson planning when I consider that there must be something concise, relevant, and apparent that students have learned and will know they have learned at the end of the class. Because this is a quick check and not a formal quiz or test, I keep my exit ticket short and focused. It includes three questions: What did you do in music class today? What music things did you learn form doing what you did in music class today? What is the next step you will take with the music things you did and learned in music class today? It is readily apparent that the questions build on each other. First, I’m asking the student to think back over what they did. “I named the notes in the first phrase of the melody of “Trepak,” I found those notes on a piano keyboard, and I practiced playing the melody.” So far there is no indication of what the student learned, only of what s/he did, but I want the student to connect what they did with the benefit that came from it, so calling to mind what they did first is important.

Next, the student tells me what they learned from doing what s/he did. “I learned that the keyboard i-get-itnotes are alphabetical from left to right, and to look for notes that are the same so I don’t have to keep figuring out what they are.” I’d be happy with that answer, but not with this one: “I learned to play a song on the piano.” While it’s good this student can now play a song he or she couldn’t before the class, there’s no indication that s/he met the objective, which was to play the melody at a steady beat. There was no indication of this in the first answer either, but there were other things that are valuable mentioned that the student did learn, and which I can use to advance the student closer to being able to play the song with a steady beat.

The last question is critical, yet easy to overlook. I want my students to plan on using what they have learned in my class. The answer to this question doesn’t have to be what I hope for them, although it could be. If a student wants to learn another song they didn’t think they could ever play before today, but now think they can, that’s a great next step. If the student wants to teach a sibling how to play the melody on the piano, that’s also a great next step. This question leads students into finding a connection, a relevance, and most of all a value in their learning. Without this, what I teach my students won’t have a lasting impact on them; and while they may think their education is only for the present, I strongly believe that their education is also for their future success and happiness.  Using an exit ticket is a relatively new strategy for me, so if you have one you’ve been using and found success with, let me know.

Why Do Kids Want To Take Music Lessons?

2011Symposium_1_2Why do people take music classes or music lessons? It’s an interesting question. There is no shortage of articles and even books on why people should take music lessons, but that is a different issue. While there may be some children of overly ambitious parents who take music lessons to improve their math scores, for example, most kids I know don’t find reasons like this on why music is important to them.

For better or for worse, music has been fashioned into an exclusive club. The fallacy is that you have to have enough talent to belong, and that music lessons  can be your entry into the club if you don’t have enough talent, or they can be your way of gaining more prestige within the club by continuing to study music, preferably with the best teacher. While this may work for some, it is not a good place to hang your hat if you are a music educator. If every child deserves a music education, then talent has nothing to do with who is taught music. We believe that every child benefits from music education.

Chief among the reasons kids want to take music lessons is that music lessons are the way they can connect themselves with the music they so enjoy. Guitar students want to play the riffs they hear in their favorite songs. People want to sing their favorite songs and sound good doing it. They want to join in with the band without being a member of the band. They want to experience music with their friends beyond just listening, but out of the scrutiny of a wider public.

This is one reason why classical music is such a hard sell to young people; they can’t dance, sing, Crowd Listeningand drum along with a live performance. They are required to be a non-participant, which takes the very reason they enjoy music away from them. My experience has been that the students most likely to listen to classical music are the ones who play an orchestral instrument in school. It is no coincidence that a sizable portion of their musical training has been in learning to be accomplished players of scales, arpeggios and solo repertoire in the Western art music tradition. They enjoy classical music because they are able to relate to the performers from their own experience of practicing, studying and performing on an instrument they see on stage.

We loose students’ interest in music when we insist on teaching them music with which they cannot possibly have any participatory connection. Students who claim to dislike classical music nevertheless perk up and smile when they hear “Ode to Joy,” and can’t wait to show me that they still remember how to play it on the piano. These are not piano students; they are students in my general music classes. As long as there is a performance experience with a piece of music, there is usually an enjoyment of that music. This is not just a knowledge about the music, but a first-hand experience playing at least an artifact of the music they will hear. I can play themes from The Nutcracker before taking students to a performance, and they will recognize those themes when they hear them from having heard them before, in class, but there is always excitement and joy in recognizing those themes when they have not just heard them, but sung them. Once you have performed a piece of music, it becomes part of you. You are not just visiting the music, you are at home with the music.

Music, because of the way it evokes emotions and emotional involvement, has an affect on us that is close to that of a relationship with another person. The performance factor deepens that relationship, and is made possible by taking music classes and lessons. This is a worthy purpose for music educators to have for their students and their teaching. It is also why most kids want to take music lessons.

Up Is The Way To Go

2011Symposium_1_2When a boy realizes his voice has deepened, it can become difficult to convince him to sing in his upper range. Many are proud of their deeper voices, and do not want to sound like younger boys whose voices have not yet changed, and they are more secure singing down. In spite of this resistance, it is important to have boys sing in their upper voices, so that their singing voices will fully develop. Training young singers in their upper adjustment voices can be difficult, but with persistence and some helpful exercises, it is well worth the effort.

Much of what I have found successful to this end has come from Kenneth Phillips’ excellent book, Teaching Kids to Sing (1996, Schirmer Books), and online sources. I like to start with training students to manage their breath with a non-vocalized exercise. After taking a few deep relaxing breaths, I have students make a marcato thrust to initiate a hiss, which they then sustain and slide downward in pitch. I watch for use of the abdominal muscles in producing the thrust, and sustaining a constant dynamic level as the pitch of the hiss descends. From their I move onto Phillips’ marcato thrust exercise. The student sings on or around fa on the top line of the treble staff on “hooo” beginning with a strong abdominal thrust and sustaining through a descending glissando. I watch for abrupt abdominal movement on the thrust, and tell the students to use plenty of “h” in their “hoo.”It is important for the students not to sing in falsetto, but to produce a light “whistlelike” quality.  I then complete the warm-up with a canon. Many canons require light singing, and extend into the upper range, so they are well suited for following up on the previous exercises. I especially like “Kookabura” because it starts in the vocal range we were just working in with the marcato thrust exercise, it begins with the consonant “koo” which facilitates opening the throat on the following vowel and connects easily with another exercise I like to use, which is done entirely on “koo.” I will describe that exercise now.

This exercise is also from Kenneth Phillips. He calls it “staccato koo-koo.” The basic boy singingpattern (in fixed do solfege) is do la do la do_ti_, where the first four notes are sung staccato quarter notes on “koo” and the last two tones are sung legato half notes, also on “koo.”  I generally start on re (re ti re ti re_ti_) and then repeat the pattern down on half step, until I reach re a whole step above middle c. The staccatos can be combined with abdominal thrusts to avoid singing in falsetto, or can be artiulated with the consonant and supported by constant contracting of the abdominal muscles. I have had excellent results with third through eighth grade students using this exercise.

Once the warm-up is done, and by now we have seen that it is more than a warm-up, but also an important time of training, I continue the rehearsal with a song that will immediately take the singers into their upper range. So much music written for adolescent voices is in the middle to lower part of their register, it sometimes takes diligence to find music voiced appropriately for developing upper adjustment singing. Sometimes it can be as easy as transposing, while at other times it requires careful selection of literature. Henry Leck materials are often well-suited for this purpose. With a treble unison choir, or two part choir, it is easy to hear singers who are singing down, and it is usually a boy or two who is doing so. Insist that they sing up, and remind them of all you just did with them to prepare them and give them practice at singing the way you are now requesting. Be sure they transfer what has been learned and practiced in the first part of the rehearsal, the warm-up/training time, to the singing of repertoire. Praise every success, and they will after a time take pride in their upper adjustment voices too.

The Way of Musical Beat Development

2011Symposium_1_2In music, awareness and sense of beat develops from a largely kinesthetic-motor response in the pre-kindergarten years, to a more internalized understanding with older children. Beat can be felt in any of a number of locations in the body, but it must be felt. Beat is not something that can be understood only from an intellectual perspective. Knowing about beat is not a substitute for knowing beat, or even knowing the beat. Gordon found that beat is felt in the body only when a shift of weight is involved. This disqualifies foot tapping as a way of knowing the beat, because no shift of weight occurs when a person is just tapping a foot. Foot tapping can be part of choreography through which beat is performed or expressed, but it must be known and felt elsewhere. Rocking motions are effective with young children for this reason; a shift of weight is felt with each rock. Other motions that are effective include swaying of the body, swaying of the arm, walking and stamping with alternating feet.

All of these motions should be done while music is being heard or performed, and the relationships between the movements and what is heard or performed must be learned. Rhythms can be equal to, elongations of, or divisions of the pulse being felt through movement. It is best to let elongations and divisions be learned by rote and occur naturally as children are moving to a steady pulse, instead of pointing out the relationship and trying to teach the music theory behind it. As children become accustomed to moving to a steady pulse while singing, chanting and listening, they will develop a sense of beat.

To begin to help children internalize musical beat, the motions can progress from largeDance-and-Movement muscle to smaller muscle. For example, initially children will rock, sway their arms and walk. Later, when they have become secure with musical beat understood through these motions, smaller muscle movements such as finger snapping with a gentle sway, shoulder tapping, head nodding or bouncing on the balls of the feet can be incorporated. These motions are more localized in the body. When the child has become accustomed to several of them, they should be encouraged to choose the one with which they can most easily feel the beet. People feel the beat best in different parts of their body, so giving this choice increases the effectiveness of using movement to develop beat. The more localized and the smaller the muscles involved, the more internalized the experiencing of beat will become. Most people will never loose the urge to move something when they listen to music, and just the presence of that urge is evidence that a sense of beat has been internalized.

With the exception of finger snapping, I have so far avoided movements that create sound, such as clapping and patsching. I have found that students who are unsure of the beat will try to copy what they hear other students doing. As a result, they are always a little after the beat, and will practice this inaccurate pulse keeping so that they become quite good at it, but they will not develop beat independence. For this reason, I prefer to delay using sound producing movements until all students are secure in their pulse keeping, at least for their current  level and repertoire. Once non-sound-producing motions are being used comfortably, the pulse can be securely performed aurally with little need for remediation or further training. This same principle holds for transferring body percussion, which is sound producing, to instrument playing. I keep students on body percussion as long as possible before giving them Orff instruments to play. I also like to have them sing the rhythm or solfege syllables of the music they will eventually be playing on instruments during this stage of instruction.  Doing so prepares them for success on the instruments much better, and allows them to enjoy playing accurately from the start.  Beat is foundational to all musics of the world. The importance of developing a complete understanding of it cannot be over stated.

There will not be a posting to this blog on Thursday, November 27 or Friday November 28. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Life’s Lesson Brought To You Through Music

2011Symposium_1_2There’s a quote going around the internet that goes like this: “if you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new.” Implicit in this saying is the expectation that most people will not succeed at most things the first time they try. In order to succeed, skill and expertise will need to be developed through hard work, practice, and often help from others. There‘s another adage, “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” This prevents a person from making that first try and then giving up after little or no success. If you’re going to make the effort to try the first time, it’s worth your while to keep trying until you can do the thing well. Then of course there’s “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The use of the word “try” twice brings home the point that not only will success probably not come on the first try, it will probably not come on the second try either. It will take many repetitions, each with a slightly elevated skill level and awareness of what is needed, before a person will succeed. The positive way to avoid failure is to pursue success.

There is another way to avoid failure, but it leads to stagnation, not success. That is to avoid trying something new or challenging. People who only do things they know they can already do avoid failure, but never grow or improve, and they are constantly fearful of failure and on the lookout for what to avoid that might expose them as a failure. People employing this way will rarely admit that is what they are doing. Instead, they will call the activity stupid, say they just don’t feel like participating, or give other reasons why it is not worth their time and effort to do the activity. Many times, people offering these reasons, or I would call them excuses, are really just trying to avoid putting themselves in the position of trying to do something they are afraid they can’t do.

Where does this fear come from? It comes from making the cost of failure too high. It practicecomes from equating a person’s worth with what they can do. When this is done, a person comes to believe that if s/he can’t do something, then they are worthless. Educators dug themselves into a hole on this issue when for years they tried to build self-esteem by praising the slightest accomplishment and making it into a grand victory. But this proved to be a two-edged sword. If we were telling students they were wonderful when they achieved, we were also telling them they were horrible when they could not achieve. The truth is, life is not built on the bottom line; it is built on character, integrity, and hard work. Try until you can’t get any better, and celebrate the effort and the achievement. The character traits of perseverance and hard work will lead to results that are praiseworthy, and a self-image that is esteemed by oneself and others.

Now I must tell you where I learned all of this. I learned it through two years of struggling to succeed at playing the clarinet when I was 10 and 11 years old. In spite of poor results during this time, my mother’s “never quit” attitude and my innate love of music drove me through those two years of trying, often unhappily and unwillingly, until it all finally made sense and I became the professional clarinetist I am today. There is a life lesson to be taught through music that is desperately needed by many of the students we teach. A good life does not come cheaply, and does not come instantly. It comes with a cost paid in sweat and tears. But there are sweat rewards, particularly in music, for those who persevere, and the same lesson can be applied to all aspects of life.

Front and Center in the Background

2011Symposium_1_2My school has four exhibition nights, one at the end of each marking period. The school is a museum magnet school. The museum part of that means that as the students learn about something, they create artifacts that can be displayed in a museum and that demonstrates their learning. Student docents are selected, and parents come and walk through the school building transformed into a museum with the help of museum personnel from the many fine museums in New Haven. Because the superintendent of schools was coming, I was asked to play piano. The intent was that I would add a touch of class and ambiance to the evening. So, right at start time, I opened up my Real Book and began to play popular and jazz standards. The encounters that followed were enjoyable, fascinating, and instructive.

Not too far into the evening, I became aware of someone humming along to “God Bless The Child.” Soon, the man came over to the piano and told me he knew that song. I looked up and smiled at him as he continued to hum. He quietly began singing some of the words, and then went back to humming. I went around another time, and then the man stopped humming and just stood there listening and smiling. When I ended the song, he walked away with a look of satisfaction all about him.

Shortly after that, a high school student came along; one of my former students who had graduated from the PK-8 school and was now attending a performing arts magnet school. “Is that your Real Book?” he asked, again as I was playing. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it is,” I replied. I have one too. I’m playing out of it in school.” The boy is a trumpet player who started trumpet lessons in 6th grade. He was excited that I was playing out of the same book he was using, and stayed a minute or two and then left to view the exhibits. Three other former students came over to say hello, one of them with her sister who is a current student of mine, a fifth grader. It is always good to see former students, especially when they return to school and pop in to see me. My appearance playing piano gave them a chance to visit for a few minutes, and reminisce.

Occasionally throughout the evening I got up from the piano and switched over to clarinet. I had brought a few solo art-of-teachingpieces and played one now and then. The first one was Air from the Orchestral Suite in D by J. S. Bach, popularly known as “Air on the G String.” At this point, the crowd was sparse, and I wasn’t aware of anyone in particular listening, but the space had such full acoustics, I was just enjoying playing this beautiful melody there. When I finished I heard commendations addressed to me; I turned to find the source of these kind words was one of my teaching colleagues, a 6th grade teacher. He was in the kitchen heating up the pizza that was being served, had heard me playing, and had come down the hall to listen. He had never heard me play clarinet before, and told me I had made the Bach sound like a beautiful opera aria  He doesn’t particularly like opera, but he knows I do, so it was a thoughtful compliment.

Other students, mostly young ones, walked by and stopped to watch and listen as I played. Young children are fascinated by people playing musical instruments. It seems to them like some kind of magic whereby the player moves his or her fingers around on the keys to produce the music. Once, I looked to my right where a third grade class had their exhibition set up, and three of the children and their teacher were dancing to a jazz tune I was playing. When the pizza was ready, I took a break and went into the cafeteria to get a slice of pizza. The food service worker who was serving recognized me from seeing me playing in the atrium, and introduced himself. “Are you the music teacher here?” he asked me. We exchanged a few kind words, and then I returned to my piano, pizza and salad in hand. I doubt I would have really met the food service employee if I hadn’t been playing music. I would have just been one of many getting a slice of pizza.

When I was playing piano, my clarinet was carefully laid on my coat under the piano, but not so well concealed that a 2nd grade girl couldn’t spot it. “How does it work?” she asked. “Does it go up when you let go of it?” It took me a few seconds to grasp what she meant, but then I realized she had seen my fingers come off the instrument while hearing the pitch go up. Quite the observer, this second grade child. I explained how tone holes and keys worked, and confirmed that she was right about letting go and the sound going up. She was pleased that she had understood, and merrily skipped off as delighted children do.

When the event was over, I put my things away and headed for the door to go home. Two administrators caught sight of me with my coat on, thanked me for playing, and all said how wonderful it all sounded. Every encounter I had throughout the evening was different, every one was special, and all of them made me realize how much more there is to playing background music at a museum opening than just being in the background. My music meant something different to everyone I came in contact with, and it no doubt meant something to the many more who heard the music but did not stop by to say hello, hum along, or ask questions. Now if only I had thought to have a tip bowl.

That Elusive Groove

2011Symposium_1_2Some years ago, when I was leading a music rehearsal for our church worship team, often tried to stop the band from rushing tempos, while they for their part tried to stop me from dragging those same songs. I remember trying to teach them the groove I was feeling, but without consistent success. They naturally were comfortable in a driven rock feel whereas I was after more of a more laid back gospel or funk groove. The interesting thing was that their tendency to accelerate ended when they reached the tempo of their groove. In other words, it wasn’t the open-ended sort of rushing that just keeps getting faster until the whole thing falls apart because the tempo has out paced the musicians ability to play that fast. Our musical inner selves were set differently.

Why do people have different inner musical selves that cause them to approach the same music differently? Where differences like this exist, psychologists will tell us that there is a mixture of biological and environmental factors at work. We may play a piece of music differently because of differences in our biological cores, or because some were trained classically in a conservatory of music while others were trained under the mentoring of a popular or jazz musician. Some of us play music the way we do because we depend on music notation, while others play music the way we do because we are improvisers and skilled at playing by ear, but not music readers. A musician whose background is gospel, rhythm and blues, and funk will naturally approach music differently than a musician whose background is alternative rock. We bring the character and sound of what is familiar and what forms the foundation of our musicianship. This is why classical musicians rarely sound the same playing jazz as jazz musicians, opera singers seldom sound the same singing pop songs as pop singers, and why successful crossover musicians are so rare. These differences in biological make-up and musical experience also exist between students and their music teacher. Music teachers must consider the musical backgrounds of their students in order to understand why they interpret music they way they do, and to determine what training and experience is needed in order to appropriately interpret different musical styles.

There is, to be sure, a fundamental core of knowledge that every musician must start birdsongwith and build upon. For example, in Western music, the closest two pitches can be is one half step, there are diatonic scales, each divided into seven parts, and a chromatic scale divided into twelve parts. There is a rhythmic structure that includes meter and grouping arranged in a hierarchy, and there are pitch tendencies and attractions that define tonality and set a standard for intonation within the context of Western tonal music. I could perhaps continue the list of core fundamentals, but the point is that there is this body of knowledge that must be common to all Western musicians, regardless of in which genre individuals choose to perform. Other cultures could have quarter steps as the smallest interval, other tonalities, and other divisions of the octave, but there are, nonetheless, still core fundamentals for all musicians regardless of genre within a given culture, and if we generalize to fundamentals such as meter or scale, across all cultures.

Differences such as I experienced with my worship band, follow differences in styles and genre, but not in the fundamental way music is made. The more specific the issue is, the more defined the differences can be. For example, everyone in that rehearsal recognized the importance of establishing a steady beat, but did not agree on the more subtle differences of how notes are finessed in relation to the beat. Some wanted to play ahead of the beat, driving the music, while others wanted to play behind the beat, creating a more relaxed feel. I needed more experience performing music with a driving beat without rushing, and they needed more experience playing laid-back music without slowing down. As we fulfill our responsibility to give our students a diverse repertoire of quality music to listen to, practice, analyze, evaluate, interpret and perform, we must be sure that the fundamental core is solid, and that attention is given to stylistic differences so that they develop an ear for those differences, and a sense of how those differences affect interpretation and performance practices. Without a lot of listening, interpreting, and improvising in a less familiar genre or sub-genre, students brought up on rock will always rush jazz, and students brought up on hip-hop will always drag rock. It is the “inner workings” of each genre of music that give each genre a characteristic sound, groove and feel. Without an awareness of these, a diverse repertoire will sound strangely monolithic.

One Size Fits One

2011Symposium_1_2If every student learned the same way, and that one way was the same way you learn, then teaching would be easy. But as we all know, everyone doesn’t learn the same way, and we as teachers must be alert to how our students are trying to learn, and learn from them how to teach them. This may sound odd to some teachers. “Do you mean that I’m supposed to ask my students how to teach them?” Yes, in some cases, that is exactly what we need to do. Success in school should not be dependent on whether or not a child happens to have the same learning style as the teacher. Many students struggle not because they lack ability or effort, but because they just can’t think and reason in the mold we have given them to work with. Today in one of my 8th grade music classes, I was given the opportunity to learn how a student was trying to learn, and then to adjust my teaching accordingly. The result was, the student succeeded where she had been unable to succeed before.

The student was trying to learn how to play the melody of the refrain from the Imagine Dragons song “Demons.” This was in a general music class where the students have worked on several easy piano pieces, reading the notes from standard music notation. My way for them to learn has been to given them the printed music, review the note names and on the staff and the keyboard, and then have them practice in small groups. I work with one small group at a time on the piano while the other groups work on keyboard apps on their smart phones. Today’s melody was more challenging than music they had done before, and one student kept stopping after just two notes, unable to remember or read what came next. She kept asking me “what comes next.” I’d ask her to look at the music, she would, and would tell me the note names on the staff and the keyboard, but then was unable to play the melody beyond the first couple of notes. I observed her trying to memorize the sequence of notes by letter names and then transfer that data to the keyboard. Her strategy was overwhelming her with too much information to handle or retain. I said, “I have noticed you trying a learning strategy that doesn’t seem to be working well for you. Let me suggest another way, and we’ll see if that works better.”

I then went over the “landmark” keys on the keyboard of C and F; landmarks because C ispiano practice before the group of two black keys and F is before the group of three. I asked her to remember those two notes, and then start to remember where the other notes are in relation to them and the black keys. I then played the melody while she watched. Instead of trying to memorize what I was playing, I asked her to simply name what note I was playing at any given moment by watching my hand. As she did so, she began to connect her memorized sequence of note names to the piano keys. I then asked her to memorize the notes in groups instead of individually. It starts with two G’s followed by one B-flat, so we made that our first group. Eventually, she made the first group all of the notes in the first phrase except the last two. That was useful, because the second phrase is an exact repeat of the first phrase except for the last two notes. It was then easy to remember the last two notes of each phrase. Quickly the first two phrases were learned. Then, from what she could play on the piano, she could recognize what she was reading in the music. It was kind of like a modified “sound before sight” with the modification being playing the “sound” part included memorized pitch sequences partially learned from notation and partially learned by watching me play. She needed more visual learning than “sound” would allow. With her strength being visual learning, she may turn out to be one of the strongest music readers in the class. I will continue to match piano keys with what she is hearing after she has practiced naming the notes from notation. Eventually, I will try to merge the two so that she is hearing from notation while naming the notes and transferring the heard and read notes to the keyboard.

Preparing students to attend “The Nutcracker”

2011Symposium_1_2One of the delights of this time of year is the yearly field trip to see Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. While literally children of all ages attend performances of this holiday time favorite, I take the fifth grade at my school to a special morning performance our local ballet company puts on for students. Most of my students have never seen The Nutcracker before I take them, and many have never been to live theater. In fact, they are surprised to learn that I am not taking them to a movie! Today I would like to share with you what I have found to be worthwhile activities to do with the students prior to attending the performance.

My preparation has three goals. Before they see the production, I want my students to know the story and which piece of music is associated with each part of the story, I want them to recognize the major musical themes, and I want them to recognize the five basic ballet positions as they watch the dancers. Because the ballet director goes over the story before the performance, I spend the least amount of time on that. His recitation will be a review for my students, reinforcing their preparedness to follow the plot. Recognizing the musical themes is the most important goal for me. For this, I first play musical excerpts as I tell them the story for the first time. This is an introduction and overview to the music. Next, I use a chorus arrangement; Nutcracker Jingles arranged by Chuck Bridwell and published by Alfred. It is written for 2-part choir and is an ingenious combining of “Jingle Bells” with themes form The Nutcracker. It begins with a piano introduction playing the opening of the overture, followed by a rollicking setting of “Jingle Bells.” Next, “JingleThe Nutcracker Bells” is set as a partner song with “Marche” with added words for the latter derived from “Jingle Bells.” That is the approach for the rest of the arrangement: the main theme from a piece is set to words derived from “Jingle Bells.” Included are “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.” The students enjoy learning these sections, and by the time they get to the performance of the ballet, they are delighted to hear the themes they know well enough to sing. The only downside to all of this is that I occasionally have to stop them from singing along during the performance!

The next part of my preparation for them is to teach them the five basic ballet positions. These are described with photographs on numerous websites. I have them all stand and go to each position, and learn them by name. Then I teach them how to do stage fencing using third and fourth positions. We use rhythm sticks for “swords” and each student must maintain third and fourth positions, especially with toes always pointed in the right direction. The students enjoy pretending they are swashbucklers, and they gain appreciation for what it is like to travel about a stage with your feet pointing in strange directions. When they attend the performance, they can watch the dancers’ feet and recognize which position they are in when the dancers are doing ballet steps. My students also pantomime the opening scene of decorating the Christmas tree, trying to stand in one of the positions whenever they are not traveling across the stage.

The final part of their preparation is to learn about the composer, Tchaikovsky. For this I use an activity I found at makingmusicfun.com Each student has to pretend they are Tchaikovsky applying for either a teaching or composing job. The students have to read about Tchaikovsky and then, from the information in the article, write a resume for the job they are applying for. I then interview each student, asking them specifics about what they have put down. The questions I ask at the interview are all answered in the article, but they force the students to pay attention to every detail, instead of just gleaning the facts they need for their resume. While they work on this, I play lots of different music by Tchaikovsky, so that as they write down what musical works they (as Tchaikovsky) have written, they can hear the pieces and perhaps describe them in the interview. In all, preparing my students for their trip to the ballet takes about four 45-minutes classes. We have a lot of fun, and are well prepared to get the most out of our experience at the theater.