The Tension Between Expediency and Rigor

2011Symposium_1_2Realizing that the world isn’t perfect, and that music directors sometimes do things they feel they have to do but don’t really want to do, I thought it would be useful to explore the tension that often exists between expedient and rigorous. First, I should define my terms. Expedient is training an ensemble to play the right notes, dynamics, tempi, and articulations as accurately as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Expedient training typically involves drill and rote teaching, is teacher centered, and leaves all of the interpretive and technical decisions to the teacher. Music teachers resort to this type of teaching when there is a performance looming, and too little time to prepare students by any other way. Rigor is teaching an ensemble to play the right notes, dynamics, tempi, and articulations as expressively as possible, which still requires accuracy, but the accuracy is gained through student centered instruction, leaving much of the interpretive decisions to the student, and allowing the student to solve technical problems to the greatest extent possible after teaching them practice and evaluation strategies.

This is a more time consuming approach, but one that results in a more meaningful music experience for the student. Students use teacher-provided and collaboratively developed criteria, and later personally developed criteria, to evaluate their own interpretation, technical skill, originality, emotional impact, and interest to refine a performance until it is ready to present publicly. Notice how far beyond accurate notes, dynamics and articulations this goes. When students are playing music just the way they are told to play it, personal meaning and expression are absent until the performance is fully prepared at which time there may be an emotional consensus on the effectiveness of the director’s interpretation. Through director centered rehearsals, visceral satisfaction and interaction with the music is rare or missing, because the investment of personal feelings is left out. When students are not actively involved in the evaluation and refining, all that is left is rehearsing, which alone is essentially rote learning or drill, neither of which builds musicianship.

Rehearsal should be the means to refining accuracy and interpretation, but both must first be conceived, developed, music and the brainand even practiced before they can be refined in rehearsal. Accuracy is born not only out of practice, but out of recognizing where challenges lie, and finding motivation in taking them on, equipped with a plan and strategies learned from good teaching. While accuracy can be practiced individually, interpretation must ultimately be executed corporately in an ensemble. Discussing, exploring, and trying multiple interpretations with the ensemble involves students in meta-cognitive activity that is essential for instructional depth in music performance education. It is, I believe, no accident that “interpret” precedes “rehearse” in the core arts standards for music. Interpretation requires intent and expression. Where interpretation is added on after notes, rhythms, articulations and tempi are mastered, the point of musical activity is lost. Put another way, pitches, rhythms, articulations and tempi are means to an expressive end, not the other way around. The point is not to learn the notes, but to express intent with notes. Observe the enduring understanding for rehearse, evaluate and refine performance: “To express their musical ideas, musicians analyze, evaluate, and refine their performances, individually or in collaboration with others.” The first phrase states the purpose of musical performance, that is, to express musical ideas. Students engage in analysis, evaluation and refinement individually when they practice, and in collaboration with others when they are in their ensemble setting. Being told how to play every note and nuance is not collaboration and is not what the writers of the standards intended. Collaboration involves taking ideas from many and creating something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because all benefited from each contribution of a part.

There is a tension between knowing this is how it should be, and knowing that there is not time to start doing all of these things. But there is eventually a return on every good investment. Students who become capable of being independent learners and interpreters of music, what Shaw had Henry Higgins call “a tower of strength” in Pygmailion do not need as much supervised drill, because they are capable of evaluating, refining and overcoming challenges in the text, and defects in the performance much more independently and therefore more quickly and efficiently, than students who must totally rely on their director for everything. This investment must be made at times of the year when there is time to make, or else every director must make time to do so. We must do this because we are not music trainers, we are music educators, which is a much higher calling.


What Is Music Literacy?

2011Symposium_1_2What is literacy? The word is used across all disciplines, including music, yet I find a surprising range of understandings of just what literacy is. Does literacy refer to just reading? Does it include writing? Must someone be an effective communicator orally in order to be considered literate? Is there any requirement for being able to analyze or respond to a text? Is there a performance component, for which a person must be able to communicate effectively or expressively in public?

If we are going to concern ourselves with teaching a population of students to be literate, it is paramount that we know what it takes to be literate, or else how will we know what to teach or when we have succeeded? As we consider this issue, I want to keep practicality at the forefront of my thoughts. People need to be literate not just for literacy’s sake, but for people’s sake, both the one who we want to be literate and the many more with whom our literate students will influence and affect throughout a lifetime of being literate. With this in mind, it makes no sense to be content with someone simply being able to read. Unless they understand the meaning of what they have read, can remember what they have read, (such memories are made of chunks of information that only a literate person can understand) and can analyze, discuss, and evaluate the ideas of what they read and that grew out of it, literacy is of very little value. I would argue that a person that cannot do all of these things cannot be considered literate. Literacy requires at least proficiency in reading, writing, analyzing, discussing, remembering, evaluating, and applying the contents of a text, and a text can be written or oral.

Now consider what is too often passed off as music literacy. A child can name notes with letters, and say how many MusicEarbeats different kinds of notes are given, and they are passed off as musically literate, yet most if not all of these same students with top grades on their music worksheets cannot sight-sing, cannot sight-read, cannot improvise within a given tonality and meter, cannot discuss or analyze a musical work beyond a few words of liking it or not liking it. These students, good at note naming though they may be, are not musically literate because they cannot hear music in their imaginations from reading the notation for it, and they cannot hear music in their imaginations and then give voice to those thoughts through singing or playing a musical instrument. Imagine not being able to think of words. What would one say? How would one get on if they could only name the letters contained in words, but could not pronounce the words because no word came to mind when they looked at language? Such a child would never be called literate. The bar for musical literacy should be set no lower, but sadly often is.

Music literacy begins a birth, and its development begins long before a child even knows how to hold a pencil. Through years of listening to music around her, imitating musical sounds with the voice, and with percussive explorations on body percussion, toys, pots and pans or the classic toy piano, (now probably an iPad app), a child learns to be musical with sounds, and learns to hear certain kinds of sounds as musical. Those sounds will vary according to culture and other environmental variables, but the process is the same; hearing, imitating, understanding, and accurately creating and reproducing musical sound. When these sounds are given symbols the child can begin to read and then write music by connecting the familiar sounds to the new symbols. When a literate person writes a note, she knows exactly what it sounds like the moment it appears on the paper or computer screen. There is no going to a teacher and asking for the created music to be played so the child can hear what it sounds like. No, anyone who doesn’t already know what their music sounds like is not literate.

Because music does not have explicit meaning as language does, musical reading comprehension is structural, and expressive. Asking a student what she has read in a musical score can only be answered in one of three ways; either the students sings what was silently read, or the students expresses through movement what the music sounded like or what the child felt when she heard it in her imagination while reading it, or the student describes the structure. The first is a recitation, proving the child can read, while the other two are the musical equivalents of “what does it mean.” When we ask students “what did you read,” we are really asking them “what did you hear?” In the first case, the music is not physically present, so the hearing is by audiation. In the second case, the music is physically present, and is what is called in the arts standards responding to music. Both types of response can be gathered as data that substantiates evidence of literacy. As long as musical symbols have no sounds, and no sounds can be put to musical symbols, then there is no literacy in a Western European-based culture.

When Students Exactly Learn What We Did Not Intend To Teach

2011Symposium_1_2Teaching may not always be an exact science, but often what children learn is more exact than what we have taught. Let me explain. Suppose I want to teach children about legato using movement. Legato is a term used in both music and dance, so it is especially fitting that I use both to teach the concept. I begin by having my student imitate my motions, as I move smoothly and continuously. Most of us will naturally move slowly as we do this to bring out the smoothness and connectedness of our movements. There is the first pitfall. Legato is not a word that refers to tempo, but to articulation. It is important that we change the tempo of our motions so that the children do not learn that legato means slow. It means connected and smooth at any tempo. So I have them imitate fast legato, slow legato, and medium legato. I might say, “all of my motions do not have the same tempo, but all are called legato. What makes them legato? The smoothness and connectedness makes them legato. I can do legato fast, or I can do legato slow, or I can do legato in between. It’s all legato just the same.

Another example is found in a method for teaching whole notes. Having children toss balloons or scarfs into the air and then catching them after four beats is how these are sometimes taught. This method provides a clear visual representation of sustained movement over four beats, and is readily transferable to sustaining sound as movement through singing or the playing of a musical instrument. A child can see the object floating in the air for a time-span of four beats, and then land in her hand to complete the note. The pitfall is that because the object is doing all the work between the release (attack) and release (capture), the child does not experience the effort needed to sustain a musical pitch, and may erroneously learn that sustaining whole notes is effortless. Instead of tossing the balloon, a child can blow it into the air, and continue to blow on it for four beats. When they stop blowing on it, the balloon comes down into their hand, ready to be made air bound again at the next exertion of blowing. They can even blow on their own hand as they raise and keep it above them for four beats, and then stop blowing as they lower their hand. This retains the floating of an object (balloon or hand) for four beats, but also adds the act of breathing that is essential to sustaining a musical tone.

scarf toss

Parents and their children toss colorful scarves into the air at one of Charity Kahn’s dance and music classes.

The observant reader has also noticed the potentially confusing contradiction in terms. The start of a note is referred to as an attack, but the start of the balloon whole note can be initiated by a motion of releasing it, the term in music used for ending, not initiating a note. The teacher must be specific about he motion used to make the balloon air born, making the motion one that exerts a force on the object, setting it in motion. It is this setting in motion by pushing or “attacking” the balloon that must be the focus, and not the letting go of the balloon as it begins its flight.

Because the body is involved in producing musical sound, non-musical movement that we use to teach musical concepts must be carefully connected to the musical behavior for which we intend to prepare students. For this reason, it is sometimes useful to work in both directions. Beginning with the music and then moving to it causes students to interpret the music with movement. Beginning with the movement and then singing or playing a musical instrument to it causes students to interpret the movement with music. By doing it both ways, a clearer connection is made between music and movement. This clarity then helps gives movement a musical context, and music a movement context. Students will sometimes prefer or be better at one direction than the other. By including both, they are able to practice their strength and strengthen their weakness.

Because of how holding and playing instruments naturally restricts movement and access to space to move in, instrumental directors may want to practice movement and music without instruments as a warm-up activity, having students sing their instrument parts while moving to them. It is eye-opening to see the different parts, melody, harmony, and counterpoint, moving each according to its function in the music. Marching bands can, of course, do interpretive movement as they play, in addition to (if they are different) their assigned steps. Choirs have an easier time moving about a room while singing, and should take full advantage of this frequently in rehearsals. Interpretive movement can also develop into performance-worthy choreography that helps communicate the singers’ interpretation to an audience, and adds visual interest and variety to concerts. In short, there is everything to be gained, and little if anything to be forfeited by incorporating movement into all varieties of music making.

Using Core Arts Standards to Teach Students How To Select Repertoire

2011Symposium_1_2The new core arts standards are made in the same form as the Common Core State Standards, and contain similar vocabulary. Because of this, we can plan, give and assess music instruction with Common Core connections already embedded by using the Core Arts Standards as our foundation. The heart of the matter is expressed in an essential question for each sub process. Today I will look at the perform process essential question for selecting music to perform:

How do performers select repertoire?

Select is the first of five sub processes for performing music: select, understand, interpret, improve, and judge, or perhaps evaluate. These verbs must be taken in order. For example, students cannot understand a musical work before it is selected, and they cannot interpret a musical work until it is understood. So the first area for instruction is how to select music for performance.

The standards contain seven bases for selecting musical works. The first basis is personal interest. At its most simple level, this simply involves preference. A student prefers this musical work to that one. At the next stage, the student is able to use knowledge about the musical work to discuss their preference. In addition to stating what the preference is, the student can now discuss the preference with another student or the teacher. The student is not able to explain the preference on his or her own, but can discuss it and respond to questions about the preference.

SelectAfter that, a student can explain their preference, and include in their explanation the purpose for which the musical work was intended. Music can have one of many purposes, including dance, tell a story, celebrate an event, help memorize something, personal expression, or just to entertain. Students may prefer a musical work because they like dance and the music is intended for dancing.

Next is context, which includes where the performance took place, the culture from which the musical work was created, the student’s own points of reference with the musical work, and the way in which the musical work is related to the social environment in which it is heard. A student may prefer a work because it is the product of his or her family’s culture, or because it is a showpiece for a virtuosic guitarist, and the student takes guitar lessons.

After context, technical skill is added. At this stage, the student is able to assess their own skill level, and determine where in their musical skill set the musical work lies. The student can determine if the musical work is too difficult, too simple, or well suited to their skill set. They can also determine what added skills they need to acquire or improve before they can successfully perform the work, and if this further learning is realistic at the present time. If it is, then the student, perhaps with the help of the teacher, can write learning goals fitted to the student’s desire to perform the musical work.

The sixth basis is expressive qualities. Here, the student is able to discuss the expressive qualities present in the musical work, and then use that information as a point of consideration in deciding whether or not to select the musical work. “Expressive qualities” is an especially important basis because it is used and developed further for the Interpret sub process of the performing process. Expressive qualities can include dynamics, changes in tempo and the use of rubato, melodic contour, and orchestration. Students can explore alternate ways of performing the same musical phrase, evaluate each version, and then select the one they find most expressive as a way of learning about the expressive qualities of music.

The last basis is technical challenges. These will likely come out when the students self-assesses skills. The right level of technical challenge is often a motivating factor. Music that is too easy quickly becomes boring, and music that is too challenging results in discouragement. Often, if students are persuaded by other bases to select the work, they will be willing to take on a higher level of challenge to learn the music they want to perform.

Going through this selection process is probably not something many students are used to doing, so they will need to be taught how to complete each step along the way; they will need to be taught to reflect on why they prefer one work to another, to look for information about a musical work that goes deeper than whether or not they like it and who is performing, to consider the purposes of music, the affects of venue, culture, and personal experience on a listener, the ways in which music is expressive, and learn how to self-assess skills necessary for performing musical works in general, and specific musical works. Student work can be assessed with checklists and/or rubrics that include each item. All of this will take the students to a deeper level of understanding, and a higher level of proficiency and musicianship. Building skill sets that enable students to perform music they select and want to perform gives student work direction and authenticity, adding rigor to instruction. The earliest basis, personal interest can be started in kindergarten, knowledge about and purpose in first grade, context in third grade, technical skill in fourth grade, and technical challenges and expressive qualities in seventh grade. Each year builds on the previous ones, and students become more independent at utilizing each basis as the years progress.

Why Do We Have Students Play Musical Instruments?

2011Symposium_1_2Today, I want us to think about a question that most of us have either overlooked or taken for granted. I want to explore why we teach people to play musical instruments. This is a deceptively important question, because how we answer it affects everything we do with our instrumental students; it affects what we teach, how we teach, and perhaps most importantly, it affects how lasting the affect and benefit of music education is going to be on students after they graduate from our program. NAfME (formerly MENC) provided us with nine content standards, and among them was this:

Performing on instruments alone and with others a varied repertoire of music.

This content standard, when we stop to examine it, gives us a clue as to how to answer our question. To do so, we must ask three more important questions:

  • Why should students perform on instruments?
  • Why should they do so both alone and with others?
  • Why should they perform on instruments a varied repertoire of music?

Students should perform on instruments because entire musical cultures have evolved with musical instruments as an integral and at times the only means of performing. We know that music has been and is part of virtually every human culture on earth largely because of artifacts and drawings of musical instruments. They are an important part of human history, and merit the attention of educators and their students. Musical instruments have been used to imitate nature, to aid in hunting food, and as an extension of the human voice to give better expression to human emotion. Students should play musical instruments because doing so is part of their creative and expressive humanness.

We have now arrived at the doorstep of the other questions I raised. Students should perform on musical instruments both alone and with others, because in each of these settings, a different reason for playing on instruments is addressed. Playing on a musical instrument alone enables the student to be self-expressive and musically independent. When playing on a musical instrument alone, the player must make all decisions and execute all notes and phrases correctly on his or her own. There is no possibility of relying on others to carry the tune, nor to make interpretive decisions. The student must rely on his or her own interpretive, emotional and physical powers to play well. To avoid doing so would be to play in a perfunctory, artistically bankrupt manner, which would be missing the point entirely. It is in playing alone that the student develops the skills, concentration and will to be a powerful interpreter of art. Instrumental teachers who do not provide ample opportunities for students to play alone deprive their students of the means to acquire fundamental aspects of musicianship.

Playing a musical instrument with others draws people together emotionally, which strengthens relationships Ensembleand harmony between individuals who would not otherwise relate to one another as well. It also enables a player to participate in performing music that would be impossible to play alone; music with harmony, counterpoint, and a variety of timbres. It is upon these very things that Western art music is built, and from which the great masterpieces we wish to familiarize our students with is forged. Western musical culture is, in all of its variety, tonal, and therefore dependent on multiple tones being sounded together, an arrangement that requires, in most cases, the employment of people playing on instruments together. Students should also play with others because that is how music for most instruments in our Western culture needs to be performed in order to produce harmony. Although there is a repertoire of solo works, it is relatively small, with the exception of keyboard and guitar repertoires. Most Western music is written for at least two instruments.

Within that Western culture, there is a large variety of musical traditions. To focus on one while ignoring the others would misrepresent Western music, and deny many students the opportunity to learn about their own musical heritage. Western music is more than centuries old sonatas, concertos, symphonies, tone poems and operas. It is inclusive of many other traditions such as Indian raga and Native American songs, all of which have a rich instrumental repertoire.

Where does that leave instrumental music programs that feature concert bands, wind ensembles, and symphony orchestras? Often, it leaves them playing narrow repertoire that is not inclusive of many Western traditions, or playing arrangements of songs from these other traditions that misrepresents the original music because it is not properly contextualized. It also leaves it lacking in opportunities to play alone, instead providing hiding places for underdeveloped student musicians. To fully implement the standard, and to realize the intent of the standard, instrumental ensemble directors should implement the following action points:

  • Make having every student play alone a priority. This can be done during small group lessons, or by rotating through your large ensembles five or six students every rehearsal, going through the entire roster and then starting again. These playing opportunities should not be for a grade; they should be positive experiences for all where playing is assessed but not graded, and personal musicianship is practiced grown.
  • Teach your students the history of instrumental music. Have them see that band or orchestra is not all about shiny mass produced hardware, but began and in parts of the world continues today as a tradition of hand crafted instruments suitable for local cultural purposes and needs. Having them try to make an instrument from locally available materials is a great eye opener.
  • When students are playing together, focus their attention on each other so that they relate, communicate, and have a shared artistic experience. Students should never feel like a cog, but organically connected to the whole.
  • When you rehearse a transcription, have your ensemble listen to the original first; have them describe and talk about the expressiveness of what they hear and of the composer/performer’s expressive intent. Then discuss how the ensemble can interpret the transcription to preserve the same expressive intent, while infusing it with additional expression, personalized for the ensemble and the instrumentation performing. The same action point applies when rehearsing a work originally written for your instrumentation, but based on a melody from another musical tradition, as, for example, with Variations on a Korean Folk Song by John Barnes Chance.

How Do Language and Music Mix in the Music Classroom?

2011Symposium_1_2As we saw yesterday with rhythm, language and music are closely related so that training in one strengthens proficiency in the other. Although language and music differ in form, purpose, and use, both are highly syntax-dependent. Neither music nor language makes sense if the sounds heard cannot be cognitively organized, and if meaning cannot be found in the structured arrangement of sounds. . Researchers have found that some of the syntactic processing involved in listening and responding to both music and language is done in the same area of the brain. For both, Broca’s area is involved in the processing. While the differences in linguistic and musical syntax require separate cognitive processes, the integration of stimuli into comprehensible structures relies on the same neural resources. This immediately suggests that music or language activity mutually strengthens the neural connections used for the other.

Part of the syntactic processing mentioned above is handling expectation and connecting one event to another. Through proper use of grammar and syntax, language communicates a subject, verb and object, described by Patel as “who-did-what-to-whom.” Music, through syntax but not grammar, communicates patterns of tension and relaxation. These musical events succeed through a composer’s manipulation of expectations, making it possible for the listener to predict what will happen and when it will happen. When expectations are not met, tension results, and when expectation is met, relaxation occurs. This is an important aspect of the temporal nature of music.

Language is also presented to the auditory system temporally. Because of this, the human brain must process rapid successions of stimuli, and quickly find whisper_musicmeaning in sequences of sounds. Tallal explained that, “Children with language learning problems (or weak language development) can’t sequence two simple tones that differ in frequency when they are presented rapidly in succession. They do absolutely fine when you present two tones separated further apart in time. So the actual precision of timing in the auditory system determines what words we actually hear.” Researchers have found that musicians find it easier than non-musicians to detect small differences in word syllables. Musical experience improves the way human brains process rapid changes in sounds used in speech, and may help in acquiring the skills needed for learning language and reading.

Another benefit of musical training to language development has to do with understanding language through noise. Strait and Kraus found that musicians were better at understanding speech in noisy environments than non-musicians. Music listening depends on an auditory process called streaming, wherein certain sequences of sounds are grouped together and segregated out from other concurrent sounds. It is the facility that allows us to have a conversation in a room where others can be heard having other conversations. In music, listeners follow a melody line, and keep it separate from harmony or contrapuntal parts heard at the same time.

Just as the mathematical aspects of music are organic to music study and do not require separate instruction, so too with the linguistic aspects of music. All of the benefits to language development through music study are realized during the course of normal music instruction. Just by listening to and performing music, the requisite brain activity will benefit language development. To help this along, ask students to predict what they think will happen next in a piece of music. Ask them what they can do in a performance to build the listener’s expectation of what is about to happen. Ask them to memorize short, quick phrases of music. Make the music slow enough so that it is accessible, but fast enough so that they cannot memorize individual notes. This will cause their brains to remember the music as a group of notes instead of a sequence remembered individual notes, and in the process improve their ability to capture meaning from rapid successions of data. Much of our syntactic knowledge of music is acquired naturally and so does not need to be entirely learned in class. Most students can find the tonic in a tonal song by the time they are in kindergarten. We should draw on this intuitive knowledge with activities that give students practice at understanding and even conversing in music.