A Music Teacher’s Balancing Act

2011Symposium_1_2One of the greatest challenges I face as a music teacher is balancing two important influences. These influences are student interest, student confidence, and curriculum. Many of my students love to listen to music, but aren’t interested in learning about music, or learning to perform it, even the music they listen to. Just the fact that they enjoy their music and perhaps singing along with a recording alone or with friends is enough for them. While singing alone and with others is part of the music standards, singing along with a recording isn’t really singing alone, so independence and individual musicianship aren’t being developed if this is all they do. But because they enjoy this, they lack a motivating influence to push them to go further.
This is where student confidence comes in. Confidence in one’s ability to perform music or understand about music is an effective motivating influence to move them into deeper experiences and understandings of music. But building confidence through, for example, teaching them how to sing better must be done initially with the style of singing they are most comfortable with, and which they have a desire to sing with, namely the styles of popular music culture. This opposes the traditional approach of teaching singing through classical music voice training. To be honest, most teenagers aren’t interested in sounding like opera singers. Still, research has shown that people have difficulty singing in tune if they are not using a head voice, so head voice must be taught, and should be taught from an early age so that by the time the student is a teenager, they are familiar with and at least somewhat accomplished with head voice singing.
I frequently reassure my students that I am not trying to make them opera singers, but am teaching them how to better use Dance-and-Movementtheir head voices in order to sing more in tune, to avoid tightness and discomfort while singing, both of which will result in better sounding singing. I also look for examples of head voice singing in songs they like to listen to. While belting and chest voice are prevalent in popular music, there are occasions where head voice is used, and its presence in popular music, however rare, bolsters students’ willingness to invest the time to work on it, because they see it as a way of sounding more like a singer they admire and whose work they like.
Once reluctance and reticence are replaced with willingness and smiles at the results they are starting to obtain, students opposition to working on music performance and to learning about music begins to soften. The more confidence they gain at performing, the more they want to do more of it, and the less reluctant they are to sing for others. During this transition from opposition to acceptance, it is a good idea to let students sing in small groups, gradually decreasing the size of the group down to two, and then finally to solo singing. Assess growth, and do not compare students with students or professional singers. As long as students see their own growth, they will be encouraged to progress further. They will also begin to better understand understand and appreciate what those popular singers are doing to sound as good as they do.
At some point, it is essential to point out that students in your class singing acoustically will not sound exactly like or even as good as the voices they hear in recordings, because the latter has the benefit of a myriad of technology to enhance their voices and compensate for inaccurate singing. Filters, equalizers, and the seemingly ever present auto-tuner make these professional recordings no match for students in classrooms where little or non of this technology is available. But I hard sell the fact that once they have reached the point where they are singing with excellence, they would sound as good, or nearly as good, if they did have access to that technology. I have found students receptive to this point of view, and emphasizing it causes many of them to imagine themselves sounding like a recording artist, which is something they never would have done at the beginning of the process.
classroomAs the students gain proficiency and confidence performing music, they also become more motivated to learn about the music they are singing, and about other music that is similar. Now that they are personally invested in particular musical works, it is natural that they will become curios and motivated to learn more. It is in the teaching about stage that non-performance curricular topics are brought in to the teaching sequence. While many teachers teach about a musical work before beginning to work on performing it with their students, where initial motivation and interest is low as I have described, I find it more helpful to delay teaching about the music until the motivation and interest has risen. Connections that can be made are helpful, and may make teaching about music earlier advisable. For example, if a song was used in a movie that is now very popular, there may be an opening to teach about that song for the time before it was placed in the movie. It’s currency and popularity are motivation enough for students to want to learn about and learn to perform. This is part of the balancing act between student interest, student confidence, and curriculum.

Music and Literacy–The Backbone of Musicianship

2011Symposium_1_2In my last post, I discussed the meaning of musicianship. Certainly, part of what goes into musicianship is the part of music literacy that is the generating of musical ideas. Literacy of any kind does not only include reading and writing, but also creating ideas and communicating them to others. In music, improvisers do this all the time. Improvising is communicating musical ideas to others aurally. Because of this, improvising is the form in which we think in music. When we converse with another, what we say is not premeditated, but thought of in real time in response to what has just been heard. This is thinking in words, or using linguistic improvisation. When a musician improvises, they are thinking in music, or using musical improvisation. Teaching students to think in music is the most important element in a music curriculum—it is central to all other musical acts including performing, composing, reading, writing, and responding to music. Teaching students how to think in music is the only way music can be taught from the perspective of “sound before sight,” which has been considered the best way of teaching music for centuries. The only way to know what the sound is before reading or hearing it is to be able to audiate, and audiating is what I am referring to as thinking in music.

A child will play a melody more successfully and with less work if s/he first sings it. A child will not need to select notes by trial and error, but will purposefully write down musical ideas if s/he first thinks it. A child will respond to music more knowingly with movement, singing or discussion, if s/he is tracking the musical grammar and anticipating what will come next according to cultural norms learned from listening experience. A child will always have a companion if there can be music playing in his or her imagination at will. I have happily and contentedly passed the time of long bus commutes many times by enjoying the music that played in my head. I have even used such intervals of time to practice my clarinet in my imagination when playing the actual instrument was impossible.

Learning to think in music requires a lot of listening to music, a lot of improvising in music, and a lot of writing down of music and the brainyour thoughts in music; and they must be done in that order. Repetition, and call and response are invaluable tools in teaching students to think in music—in fact in teaching students how to think. Somewhere along the way, educators have bought into the idea that memorization and recitation are to be avoided because they do not involve higher-level thinking. But one cannot think at a high level without thinking about something. There must be thought seeds planted for ideas to grow, and those seeds are musical patterns learned from repetition and recitation. At first, they are ideas being learned. Then they become catalysts for different ideas the student generates in the act of improvisation. Later still, the student learns to write down both the original ideas and the improvised ones, and perform from traditional music notation ideas created by others. At this point the student is truly musically literate.

I must caution you that the student is the one who must do the heavy lifting in all of this work—memorizing, improvising, creating, writing, and reading. While resources such as software can assist the teacher in teaching students, technology must not be allowed to subvert the student’s part in the learning process. At the end of the learning sequence, the student must be able to read music from music published on a sheet of paper, must be able to write original ideas on a sheet of manuscript paper, or enter them into music transcription software without using the playback or real-time audio capabilities of the software. Technology is useful when it serves the teacher and the music, but it is detrimental when the teacher and the music serve the technology.

The process of memorizing, improvising, creating, writing, reading and performing must be taught with constancy, cultivated over time. Sight singing, sight reading, melodic dictation, and composing must all be taught, practiced and brought to performance often in order to the training up of students in this area of musicianship to be successful.



What is Musicianship?

2011Symposium_1_2Musicianship is one of those words that is used frequently but thought about rarely. As music teachers, we want our students to acquire musicianship, but we don’t necessarily spend much time specifically teaching it. Much of the time we are teaching skills, and then assuming musicianship will automatically follow. But it is often the case in education that the transfers of knowledge we think students will make on their own go unnoticed. Often, it is necessary for us to guide students through the transfer of knowledge from one application to another, or from one level of proficiency to the next. So it is with transferring skills to the practice of musicianship.

When I was an undergraduate at a major music conservatory, there was one weekly class I had to attend every semester for all four years. The name of the class was “musicianship.” Students signed up to play for a master class taught by a distinguished professor with the whole school watching. Several students would perform each week, and through it all we saw and heard how to shape musical phrases into performances that were pleasing, expressive and even passionate. What we did not learn in that class were fingerings, bowings, and what notes to play. That was not part of learning musicianship. Learning to play musically was the purpose of the class called “musicianship.”.

Implicit in this view is that musicianship is the highest level of musical thinking and performing—it is what elite players domusic_words_large to cause their performances to be outstanding above the rest. Musicianship cannot be thought of as only what a musician does, because some of what a musician does cannot be considered practicing musicianship. Knowing how to play, and practicing fingerings, notes, and other things must precede practicing musicianship, but technical matters of playing an instrument do not come up to the bar of what musicianship is. Knowing what to play is not included in musicianship, but knowing how to play and playing that way, does demonstrate musicianship.

So far I have defined musicianship in the realm of musical performance only, but musicianship can also be demonstrated by any act of music making. These include composing, improvising, and listening. In our Western art music tradition, composers create the master plan that the performers will follow during rehearsals and concerts. Because the composer imagines what the work will sound like when performed, all of the benefits of musicianship must come into play during the composing process. Phrasings and expressive details must be planned and executed in the writing of the music, and so requires musicianship. The composer builds a musical structure that the performers will animate with physical sound. Listeners then receive that sound, and must apprehend the structure and all that the composer and performers have expressed, and come to a hearing of the piece that includes the composer’s intent, the performers’ intent, and through the listeners’ own experience and musicianship, understandings of both. Listeners’ musicianship is apparent from the way they recognize musical patterns, respond emotionally to music, and remember motifs, themes, phrases and melodies. Musicianship is practiced wherever knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity, to borrow from the Random House Dictionary, are brought to bear on an act of music making.

When we are teaching students solfege, ear training, instrumental technique, sight-singing or any other musical skill, we are not teaching them musicianship, but instead preparing them to make music with musicianship. There is nothing particularly musical in an artistic sense of the singing that is done in an ear training class, or the music that is played in an early level instrument lesson. Though music is being made, it is not necessarily musical. This is because musicianship has not yet been applied to the skill of producing pitches and rhythms. Musicianship is a synthesis of music skills, accomplished in a single act of music making. We teach someone musicianship when we teach them to bring all the necessary music skills together into a performance of artistic excellence.

On Teaching Music Composition in General Music Classes

2011Symposium_1_2Although most music educators have solid training in vocal and instrumental techniques, expertise in teaching music composition is less common. There are, I suspect, fewer music teachers who are composers than instrumental or vocal specialists. Even so, music composition is an important part of musicianship, the development of which is at the heart of music curricula and standards. At some point, students need to advance from interpreting expressions of others to expressing themselves through original work. Creating was part of the original content standards, and are even more prominent in the new standards. I will offer some suggestions on how to approach teaching music composition.
All creative work begins with fluency and thought. Fluency is necessary for the clear articulation of ideas, and thought is necessary in order to imagine and form those ideas. To write a poem one needs to be fluent in a language, and to compose music, one must be fluent in sound. Creating music requires the creator to think in music; to imagine groups of pitches and durations, and to be able to play with them until a sequence of sounds is found that meets a the creators expressive intent. Because of this, composers need the same abilities to audiate as music readers; therefore music composition should not be taught until the students can audiate learned and original music ideas.

Teachers can use call and response by singing part of a phrase and having the students sing the next part. Students will MusicEarneed to audiate what the teacher sings and what comes next in order to keep their place and sing their part correctly. After that, improvisation can be mixed in to further prepare students to compose by giving them practice in generating ideas, and playing with them without being concerned with notation. Both activities should be initiated on a neutral syllable and then continued with solfege. The use of fixed do will prepare students for notating their ideas. When students are fluent in their use of fixed do to respond and improvise, the call and response activity can be revisited with the additional step of writing down their responses after singing them with solfege. The next step after that is to have students begin writing down their own ideas. To keep original work from being randomly organized, once ideas are generated and written down, students should write don a plan that clearly states the expressive intent, form, purpose and context. In addition to proficiency in aural/oral notional and writing audiation, prior learning must also have included musical form. Students are then held accountable for carrying out their plan as they play with their ideas and compose their musical work. At this stage, students should also be given time to play with those ideas, exploring the possibilities with which ideas can be sequenced and fashioned into a musical work according to an expressed plan.

It is important that student work be performed during the composing process so that work can be evaluated and refined. With each performance, students should compare the result to their intents as expressed in their plans, and make revisions to refine their work until the plan and the expressive intent are proficiently met. When student work is completed, it is important that it be performed so that the student can enjoy the satisfaction of hearing his or her completed work, so that others can have the opportunity to share in the expressive intent of the composer, and so the student and the teacher can assess the composition to inform and improve future work. The fulfillment of the stated plan provides an objective means of assessment that avoids subjective judgements, or worse the problem of trying to objectively assess something that is a subjective matter. The point of the final assessment is not whether the teacher likes the work, but instead how well did the student do in accomplishing what s/he set out to do? Other objective criteria can also be inserted. For example, to what extent was the intended form adhered to, or to what extent was the composition correctly notated according to standard music notation practices? There is always room for subjective response to an artistic work, but quality work is crafted from procedures that can and should be objectively measured.