You’re The Guide, Now Where Are You Taking Them?

2011Symposium_1_2When I write my lesson plans, a lot of thought goes into stating a goal, finding materials, and ordering everyithing into what I think will be an effective progression of steps that will guide my students through the lesson and what I want them to do, leading them to the destination of the goal. While it is necessary for me to think through all of this before I teach the lesson, if I don’t share my reasoning with the class, they may not connect the dots as they progress through the lessons, and some learning may not be lost. I’ve found that while it is good to share the goal with the class, this alone is often not enough. Just because students know what they are to be able to do by the end of the class doesn’t mean they will pick up on their own what each step along the way has to do with achieving that goal. When I explain at the beginning of the class, not only what they are going to do, but why they are going to do each task, and how it will advance them closer to achieving the overall goal, students are noticeably more motivated and more engaged in the lesson. Let’s see how this looks in a class I recently taught.

The goal was that students will be able to use standard music notation to improve their efficiency at learning a musical work. The music was a piece the class had already practiced singing, though it was not completely learned. I began by telling the class that they would learn how to use a musical score to gather information about a piece, and to assist them in learning the music faster than just by listening to it. i then distributed copies of the vocal parts to the first page of “Dry Your Tears, Africa” by John Williams. I reminded them that this was a song they are already familiar with, and then told them they had two minutes to gather as much information as they could just from looking at the music. After two minutes, they began telling me what they found. First came pitches, rhythm, and meter, then the words and the fact that the text was in a language other than English. One student said the title suggested the song had to do with sadness because of the word “tears.” Another student was able to  notice that there were two voice parts, and that they were soprano and tenor.  By the end of this discussion, everyone was aware of the wealth of information that was available to them by looking at the score, and most of which had been overlooked by just learning the music by ear.

Next, we began to apply what we had found to performance. We had discovered that rhythm was one of the many things Op.59_No.1written in the music. The rhythm of the song was simple; all quarter, eighth and half notes, so they tried clapping the rhythm from reading. It didn’t occur to them to think of how the song went while they read the rhythm, so their first attempts were more imprecise than I anticipated. Then a few of the students thought of singing quietly while they clapped. I recognized this as a good idea, and the whole class did the same. Now with the notation and their performance melded together, first their clapping became more precise, and then their singing became more precise. As they became aware of how their singing and clapping were not together, they realized that both needed to be more precise and brought into agreement. Once this was done, their performance improved dramatically.

As we worked our way further into the music, I told them to apply the same strategies as they practiced a less familiar section of the music. While they were tempted to just keep singing the section, thinking repetition would result in improvement, I encouraged them to use the notation to read the rhythms they were unsure of. We reviewed the use of slurs to connect notes that are sung on the same syllable, and checked to be sure we noticed all of the notes included in the longer melismas. Slowly, as they shifted their approach from learning by ear to learning form notation, their performance began to improve more quickly, just as I had told them it would. Because everyone likes expediency, they were now gaining enthusiasm about using music notation. By the end of the class, they had used music notation to a delve deeper into the music, and had learned many uses of notation in learning music, and learning about music.

How Can A Musical Score Be Used As A Listening Map?

2011Symposium_1_2Many of us use listening maps to guide our students through musical works. When you think about it, listening maps are really music scores for non-music readers. They typically represent the main themes and sections of a piece with pictures or graphics. It is also possible to use an actual music score as a listening map. This has the advantage of familiarizing students with and giving them the opportunity to practice with an actual score. Today, I used a five-staff vocal score for this purpose. It had two voice parts, an instrument staff, and a grand staff for the piano part. After listening to the piece with score in hand, I asked students about what they heard. For example, I asked them if the two voice parts were singing in unison, or singing parts that were different. Several student responded that they were singing two parts that were the same. Then I directed their attention to the score. I had them look at the notes for each voice part, and asked them if the notes were the same or different. Same different is always a good place to start—it is the simplest form of comparative learning. Several said both parts were the same. In fact, only the rhythm was the same, not the pitches. I pointed out that the notes look the same because they are the same rhythm and line up perfectly, but that they should look carefully at where the note heads were placed on the staff. Were the pitches the same? After looking more closely, they discovered that the pitches were different. I then pointed out that this time when they listen to the song, they would hear that the parts were different because they were now aware of that difference. Although they would have had difficulty reading the music, they were able to discover differences by looking at the notation.

I then asked them where they thought the bass part was on the piano part. They couldn’t tell me at first, somusic and the brain asked them what kind of notes a bass plays, high or low. They knew a bass plays low notes, so then I asked them where they would expect of find low notes, toward the top or toward the bottom of the music? They knew it must be at the bottom. At that point they were able to locate the bass part. What about the guitar part? Does the guitar play lower or higher than the bass? Where would it be in the piano part? I then played them the two figures that were in the two voices of the treble staff of the piano part. I asked them which one sounded more like a guitar part. We couldn’t come to an agreement, so I played the song again, until they could decide which rhythm the guitar was playing. Now that they were aware of the guitar playing that rhythm, they could track the part, which they hadn’t noticed before.

What I was really doing with the score was using it like a listening map. I was using traditional music notation as a visual guide to what the students were hearing, and in the process of finding the various parts in the score, they became more aware of them, more tuned in to what these parts were and how they added up to the overall sound of the piece. I also got the students using a score, which for most of them can be intimidating, because they are not good music readers. By asking them about instrument parts, it got their attention off the lyrics, and onto musical symbols. The important thing about this was that they were able to connect what they heard to what they saw, if only at times in a general way. Next time I hand out this same score, they will be a little more comfortable with the idea of reading a score, and I will be able to hone in on more specific aspects of music reading.