The Thing About Learning

Version 2I am by nature a very thoughtful person. People who know me well frequently accuse me of overthinking many things, and I have to admit that they are right–I do overthink often. As someone almost constantly in conscious thought about something, there are many thought that come and go, forgotten as quickly as they arrived, but others get my attention. Why are some noticed and others not? Because the ones that get noticed connect to something else I have been doing or thinking, and so are of particular interest to me at the time. The thoughts that remain are those that pertain to what I am at that moment most interested in, what I am presently doing or wanting to do.

There is an important lesson in all of this to teaching and learning, and it is this: in order for learning to succeed, it must be helpful in acquiring something the learner wants. We educators often concern ourselves with goals and objectives, both for our students and ourselves; and well we should. But goals and objectives that are only imposed on a learner, and around which a learner cannot contextualize with relevance are likely to meet with resistance, and be at best of limited use in bringing about the learning we desire. That is why connecting objectives for creating, performing and responding to music is so important, and why it should be done early in any teaching sequence, before the students become mired in trying to achieve objectives that have little or no meaning to them personally. Let’s look at how connecting works in a standards based music classroom.

First, we begin with an enduring understanding. “Musicians connect their personal interests, experiences, ideas, and knowledge to creating, performing, and responding.” When we present concepts, ideas, knowledge, and repertoire to our students, one of the first things they ask themselves if it all seems quite new and unfamiliar to them is, “what does this have to do with what I’m interested in?” “What in my experience with music does this sound like? What associations to familiar things does this music or idea or concept bring to mind? What is something I am familiar with that compares to this?” If the students comes up empty on each or even most of these questions, he or she is unlikely to have any desire to proceed with your lesson or instructional unit. You are about to abandon them to an intellectual deserted island, and that’s not a place where anyone (probably you included) want to be. So before “teaching to the objective” can begin, context needs to be established. Familiar signposts need to be pointed out, and the teacher must give a method of exploring something new in the context of something familiar.

Doing so will motivate learners and deepen understandings. Remember, understanding is not obtaining the ability to recall knowledge or repeat a task, it is the ability to apply previous learning to new situations. Application is only possible when connections are clear. A second enduring understanding states this clearly. “Understanding connections to varied contexts and daily life enhances musicians’ creating, performing, and responding.” Notice what we are trying to help our students connect; we want them to connect varied contexts, the variable, with daily life, the constant. Each new context must connect back to the same personal life of each individual student. Not all students will make the same connections, and not all connections will be equally strong for all students. In fact, one student’s strongest connection, may only be a hint at how to form a different connection to another student, but in an environment of shared learning, students’ connection to varied contexts become woven together, as one connection bolsters up or clarifies another.

I recently played the main theme from the film Indiana Jones to which 2nd grade students tapped a steady beat.  When the music stopped, one child pointed out that the music sounded like Star Wars. He had never seen Indiana Jones, but he recognized something in that music that sounded like music in a movie he had seen, namely Star Wars.  This was, of course, a brilliant connection, because both film scores were written by the same composer, John Williams. With the confidence of having made that connection, that child was now eager to find out what made the two themes sound similar, and a mini-lesson on melodic structure, specifically of dotted rhythms and large melodic intervals, was possible. Imagine the different result if I had begun by teaching


Aaron Copland

melodic structure using the unfamiliar movie theme. The context would have been all wrong, and the results would have been disappointing. By the way, John Williams’ film scores (familiar from daily life) are an excellent connector to music by Aaron Copland (a varied context) whose use of perfect fifths has been called “The American Sound” in so far as American symphonic music is concerned.

The connections students make will inform the choices they make when they create, perform, and respond to music. Students who grow up listening to jazz will demonstrate this knowledge, interest, and experience in the rhythms, melodies and harmonies that show up in their musical creations, and in the “flavor” of their interpretation of musical works composed by others. It will also influence to what their ear is drawn when they are listening to music. That jazz-oriented students will likely hear the arpeggiated trombones at the end of Dvorak’s Symphony “from the New World” as a boogie-woogie riff, whereas someone not familiar with jazz will just hear the same passage as part of the exciting buildup at the end of that symphony (which is probably all it was intended to be).

I began this article talking about goals and objectives, and then have been discussing contexts and connections ever since. I would like to conclude by returning to goals and objectives, but now within a better context in which to understand them. There are at least two kinds of goals we should use with our students; these are academic goals and character goals. The specifics of each kind will need to wait for another post, but for our purposes here, I will use an academic goal for an example. There is something compelling about the Rondo known as “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. Middle school students seem to almost universally be drawn to it and many of them will work very hard to be able to at least play the first theme on the piano. It seems it has become a sort of rite of passage to learn this theme, and so it is passed on from student to student as they teach it to each other, or come to me to teach to them in small groups. Clearly, this bit of Beethoven is part of their daily lives and as such can be connected with various contexts which may include dedications (Fur Elise means for Elise, indicating that the piece was dedicated to someone named Elise, though exactly who is unclear). Fur Elise could then be part of a unit that included other works, perhaps in varied genres, that were also known to be dedicated to individuals. Such a unit would establish one of the purposes for which music is sometimes written. The student may begin with a straight forward performance objective. “I want to be able to play the first theme from ‘Fur Elise’ by Beethoven.”  Doing so may involve reading music, especially if the music teacher is teaching the student to play the theme. If so, another objective might be, “I want to improve my music reading so that I can play the first 32 measures of ‘Moonlight’ sonata by Beethoven in time for my sister’s birthday in November.” Notice now the objective has a something in which the student will demonstrate growth (improve my music reading,” something the student will be able to do as a result of instruction and which will demonstrate the desired growth (play the first 32 measures of “Moonlight Sonata” and a time in which the objective will be completed (“in time for my sister’s birthday in November”). This instruction will be packed with relevance and connections for this student, and so is an excellent example of writing an objective around connections.

What Does Music Mean?

Version 2One of the more perplexing questions of the ages concerning music is the question, what does music mean? Philosophers from Aristotle to Bernstein have tried to answer this question, but none have done so in a way that once and for all settles the matter. Bernstein devoted much of his lecturing life to tackling the question, and most often insisted that music had no semantic, or literal meaning, but instead had metaphorical meaning. You can say music makes you feel this way or that way, or that music means one thing or another to you because it is like something else that means that to you, but music can never communicate a precise bit of information or thought such as “today is Tuesday,” or “the sky looks blue today.”

Music educators have by and large been content with maintaining that music expresses feelings and emotions, and have left the debate as to whether or not it communicates anything else, or if it is or is not a language, to scholars and philosophers. All of that changed, though, when the National Core Arts Standards were released in 2014. Those standards changed the conversation, because something the authors called “expressive intent” is embedded throughout the standards.  The standards force us to come down on the side that music does have meaning, and that it is every listener’s task to comprehend what it is. One of the “artistic” processes is responding, which is defined as “understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.” To support that definition, Anchor Standard number 8 is to “interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.” 

If we are to require students to understand and evaluate how the arts convey meaning, then we are assuming that the arts do convey meaning. Such an assumption makes it possible for a listener to construct an interpretation of a musical work that reveals a meaning that the composer intended to communicate to listeners through that musical work. But how can we know for sure from listening to a musical work that we got it right? How can we know for sure what meaning the composer intended to convey? The writers of the standards skirt that crucial question by stating that composers leave clues by their use of musical elements. The authors of the standards state that, “through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” That’s a start, but clues can only lead to guesses, not evidence-based conclusions; and if music can only convey metaphoric meaning as Bernstein insisted, it would seem that we are left with know way of knowing beyond a doubt. What’s more, do composers really consciously implant their music with “clues” or are they believing that they are expressing things much more succinctly than creating a musical mystery to be solved by detective-like listeners? How precise can those musical metaphors be?

We are used to performers offering an interpretation of a musical work but we are perhaps new to the idea of responders to music interpreting what they hear. Remember, we are talking about what the composer intended the music to mean, not what personal meaning an individual might find through association or experience, a process that is called connecting, or “relating artistic ideas and works with personal meaning and external context.” The authors of the standards defined expressive intent as “The emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music That definition implies something more than metaphor. The claim is that composers of music can, through their music, express thoughts and ideas. What thoughts and what ideas? Are there some thoughts or ideas that can be expressed through music, while others cannot? Can the musical metaphor as described by Bernstein be precise enough to express an idea or thought?

That depends on what a composer is trying to express. If I say “I have a burning desire to Bernsteinplay the piano,” I am expressing an inner experience (the desire) that drives me to an action (play the piano). The word “burning” here cannot precisely be explained so that someone else exactly experiences what I am experiencing. It can only generally describe my experience to that a person can relate to it, but not share or duplicate it within themselves. I could perhaps better express what it feels like to have this burning desire through music, symbolically representing my feeling through music that causes another person to also have a burning desire, if not for playing the piano, than equally for something else. When I have a burning desire, I am obsessed with the thought of doing something, and I have an overwhelming desire to do it. The thought of it all excites, and if I am not able to immediately go do the think, there are also feelings of restlessness, frustration, or despair. I could make music that sounds restless through active rhythms and oscillating dynamics, or I could use dissonance and dynamics to express frustration, or surging phrases to convey despair. The idea being expressed is that of doing something, of following the irresistible urge to do something and the emotional state I experience in the time preceding my opportunity to do so. The thought expressed is expected pleasure of doing the thing. I cannot communicate through the music that the thing is to play the piano, but I can convey the idea and the thought of doing something the anticipation of which causes me to think and feel what I can express with music. 

Getting back to the standards, we find the essential question, “How do we discern the musical creators’ and performers’ expressive intent?” If we trace the progression of standards from kindergarten through 8th grade, we find that those clues begin with dynamics and tempo, then continue with knowledge of concepts (meter, rhythm, pitch, form, etc), timbre, articulation, musical genres, culture, and historical context. We can see form this sequence that expressive intent is conveyed in its simplest form by manipulating the non-hierarchical structures of music, namely dynamics and tempo. Music that is loud and fast is likely to convey something akin to excitement, fear, or joy—the more active emotions that raise the heart rate and motivate us to physically move, while music that is soft and slow is likely to convey something akin to calm, restful, contented, peaceful respite, or melancholy repose. Later, when a child’s musical understanding has become more conceptual, more complex expressions can succeed that include the hierarchical structures of meter, phrasing, and patterns of tension and release. With these concepts intact, those ideas and thoughts can now be understood, because to convey them they must be apprehended over the course of extended musical time-spans rather than from momentary samplings of tempo and dynamics.

Music can mean anything for which a symbol can be made from sound. The extent of what can be symbolically represented with music depends on the familiarity the listener has with the musical genre being listened to, and with the composer’s ability to evoke in a listener a physical and/or emotional response that is recognizably associated with the thought, idea or feeling being expressed. The listener can successfully find the composer’s intent by observing what thought, idea or feeling is stimulated by the music quite apart from any personal associations or connections. 


Learning Objectives and Essential Questions

Version 2If you are a pubic school music educator, then you are accustomed to writing and posting instructional objectives for your students. In my district, student learning objectives must be posted on the front board at all times so that anyone observing the class can easily see what you are expecting the students to know and be able to do, and so that the students always have their objective right in front of them. This is good policy. It helps students understand what is expected of them, what they are trying to accomplish, and what knowledge, skill, and understandings they will have attained upon completion of the lesson. That said, learning objectives can easily be of limited value if the students have difficulty connecting what they are doing with achieving the objective. Objectives don’t necessarily state how to get from where the student is to where they want to end up; objectives only state what the finished product will look like.

At times, I have tried to handle this shortcoming by writing several smaller objectives, with each objective moving the student closer to the final objective. While this helped, I found that it also locked students into one way of learning–my way–and that it left little opportunity to students to direct their own learning in ways that were most relevant and most helpful to them. Students who learned in a way that was reflected in my objectives did well, while those that needed to learn differently struggled. Now I firmly believe that students can learn pretty much anything if given good instruction and enough opportunity to practice. The importance of practice in learning is well documented in research. But my instructional with my students is limited, and teaching them how to learn my way isn’t a good use of that time. Teaching them to go with their strengths as they work toward a common objective is more efficient, and leaves the students more motivated both by the added choices inherent in such an approach, and by the more frequent occurrences of success that result.

So what is the approach that avoids the vagueness of one objective and the restrictiveness of many objectives? State your objective as an essential question. Find a question that, in the process of being answered, will direct students through learning activity from which they can learn what you want them to know and do what you want them to know. For example, suppose you want your students to interpret a musical work they have selected to prepare for presentation to an audience. A reasonable learning objective might be, “students will be able to prepare, support and demonstrate an appropriate interpretation.” Before students can begin to build an interpretation, they must know where to start, and how to go about interpreting. A better place to begin than this objective might be to ask a question such as, “how do musicians interpret musical works?”

As a professional musician, you are in a great position to share how you interpret music you perform. Many things are considered. You might listen to recordings of great musicians performing the work, or you might remember studying the work with a teacher. You certainly would include using the expressive markings you find in the printed score, and clarifying those markings with knowledge about the composer, the historical period in which it was composed, and perhaps the purpose for which the music was composed. I find it fun to interpret music that has been interpreted in a variety of ways previously. Lorin Maazel always seemed to find an inner part to bring out that others had left buried. The range of tempi and resulting articulations for the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony provide audiences with very different experiences, and the variances in tempo and style conductors choose for the March movement in Holst’s First Suite for Military Band in Eb is at times entertaining in itself. On what basis do great conductors arrive at such different interpretations? How do you, as a conductor or soloist decide on such issues? The process of forming anart-of-teaching interpretation is one of discerning the composer’s intent, deciding on our own intent in terms of what we want to bring to our audience, and melding the two into one coherent presentation. Students must learn how to guide themselves through this process, which is one of reflection and discovery, before they can begin making “supportable” interpretive decisions. The expressive markings are, while helpful, only a start.

I have used the example of interpreting to show the rich learning possibilities of using an essential question as the starting point. Certainly this is not limited to interpretation. The advantages and benefits of starting with an essential question are present for any learning objective. Rather than stating “students will be able to rehearse their parts for “March” from First Suite in Eb for Military Band, start with the essential question, “how do musicians prepare a performance for presentation?” or “When is a performance judged ready to present?” You are asking these questions with your objective in mind, but you want your students to work through the answering of these questions in order to “be able.” “When is a performance judged ready to present?” is a great question, because it requires that students determine what the elements of their performance are, and how they will know when each of those elements is performance ready. Right notes must be played, right rhythms must be played, notes must be in tune with others, must be together rhythmically with other, expressive changes must be done together so that, for example, one instrument does not protrude beyond others during the coarse of a crescendo, ornaments and articulations must be stylistically correctly and so forth. You and your students might compile a different list of elements, but the learning takes place not in being given the list but in creating the list. There is great value in every student musician asking, “what are all the things I am trying to do, to put together, so that this music is performed well?”

Essential questions direct the learner beyond expedient answers and polished playbacks of things learned by rote. They make the student’s thinking, reasoning, inquiring, and concluding the center of learning activity so that when the objective is ultimately met, it has deep understanding and relevance behind it. Whether the student is creating, performing, responding or connecting, essential questions transport music learning to the realm of high level thinking just as surely as honors or A.P. courses. In fact, for this very reason, using essential questions to drive music instruction allows music classes, including ensembles, to qualify as honors and to carry with it the higher weighting so important to high achieving students who covet high class rank in American high schools. Everyone benefits from using essential questions in music education.

Musical Literacy and Inclusion

Version 2On September 15-16, 2017 I attended “Tanglewood Conversation” at Boston University. It was a meeting of music educators from within the Boston University music education community to discuss issues of importance to music education in 2017 and to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Tanglewood Symposium held in 1967. What follows are a few of my take aways from the sessions I attended. 

Though by now many or perhaps most arts educators are familiar with and are using the National Core Arts Standards, the conceptual foundations upon which they were written are perhaps less well known. This foundation is essential to understanding not only the intent of the standards, but indeed to clarifying or even formulating a philosophy of music education that represents the needs and contexts of all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic standing, or cultural background. Though much scholarly work has been done to advocate for promoting social justice, and ending the systematic privileging of one culture over another, these worthy goals have been and continue to be frequently unmet in the everyday common practices of arts educators.

The authors of the National Core Arts Standards made what I consider to be strides in the right direction by managing to come up with an explanation of literacy in the arts that is not dependent on any particular tradition or culture nor on reading and writing or even the existence of a system for writing and reading music. While some of this is due to the generality necessary for statements to apply to all of the fine and performing arts, the result can be construed as a basis for planning and teaching the arts in a way that does not exclude any racial or cultural constituency. Because this blog is devoted to music education, I shall limit myself to addressing this issue as it pertains to music, but educators in visual art, theater, and dance may also find application in what I have to say.

The overriding goal of the National Core Arts Standards is to make a path toward developing artistic literacy. Any type of literacy demands that at least two things be present: a text with which a person interacts, and the ability of that person to exercise certain cognitive and creative actions either in response to or creation or recreation of the text. With this focus on artistic literacy, we begin to see that music education must include the developing  through teaching and learning in the music classroom musically literate students. As we shall soon see, evidence of musical literacy is not and cannot be limited to ensemble rehearsals and performances, because both limit the musical cultures represented, and typically includes at most only a third of most school’s populations. To suggest that only students who can play a band or orchestral instrument or sing in a choir are musically literate is to deny the existence of excellent musicians around the world who have neither bands, orchestras or choirs to sing in but who never the less are masters of their art. On the contrary, we must view the entire population of our schools as being capable of and entitled to becoming musically literate. Music teachers at all levels must be the musical leaders of their entire school communities.

In presenting artistic literacy, the writers of the standards stated that, “artistic literacy requires that [students] engage in artistic creation processes directly through the use of appropriate materials (such as charcoal or paint or clay, musical instruments and scores, digital and mechanical apparatuses, light boards, and the actual human body) and in appropriate spaces (concert halls, stages, dance rehearsal spaces, arts studios and computer labs). For authentic practice to occur in arts classrooms, teachers and students must participate fully and jointly in activities where they can exercise the creative practices of imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect as unique beings committed to giving meaning to their experiences.”

Notice that the first quality of an artistically literate person is that they are capable of 3042301creating artistic works, and that the actions of imagining, investigating, constructing and reflecting in a highly personal and personalized way are involved in the act of creating. The writers went on to write that “throughout history the arts have provided essential means for individuals and communities to generate experiences, construct knowledge, and express their ideas, feelings, and beliefs.” This suggests that community and relationships between people who make up those communities are built and held together in part by experiences with the arts, knowledge shared through the arts, and ideas, feelings and beliefs that both give birth to artistic works and the ways in which people interact with those works once they have been created.

The authors go on to say that, “in addition to–indeed, as a result of–students’ creating and performing, careful study of their own and others’ art involves them in exploring and making sense of the broad human condition across time and cultures.” In other words, as people exercise their artistic literacy by engaging in creative activities to make and interact with artistic works, they are connecting with each other at a deep, somewhat spiritual level, as their creative work gives voice and life to aspects of our humanness not otherwise expressible or knowable.

We can begin to see that the expansive capacity and reach of the arts, when allowed to include all traditions and cultures represented in a given student population, puts all of these traditions and cultures on an equal standing. Music cannot build connections between people of diverse backgrounds if, for example, a musical genre students prefer is only used as a gateway to teach another musical genre the teacher prefers. This long-standing practice is privileging one musical culture (the teacher’s) over another (the student’s). Objectively examining, investigating, imagining, and constructing both musical cultures equally promotes replacing cultural animosity and obstructions with cultural understandings and relationships. The standards authors addressed this by writing, “The arts provide means for individuals to collaborate and connect with others in an inclusive environment as they create, prepare, and share artwork that bring communities together.”

Every type of music was and is created by a specific person or persons who are (is) a byproduct of a heritage which influenced the creator to create, express, share, and communicate a cultural truth and experience. To privilege one musical culture over another is to privilege the people of that culture over the people of another. To do so would be contrary to creating an “inclusive environment” and bringing “communities together.”

It should be apparent by now that when developing musical literacy is the goal of music education, there is no need to separate students into “performer” and “non-performer” categories. This binary construction is absent from much of the world’s music making environments. While some present at a place where music is being sung or played on instruments may be the focus of attention by others present, those others, as David Elliott argued in Music Matters, are also engaged in music making as they move, clap, sing, audiate, reflect on, and/or emotionally experience, to name but a few possibilities, the music they are hearing. All of these actions that those often described as non-performing listeners are doing are in fact creative actions that are evidence of musical literacy at work. The more we can blur or even eliminate the distinctions between performer and listeners or audience, the more we will acknowledge the importance of what the latter group is doing, and the more we will understand the need to direct instruction toward those activities as well as those of presenting in the traditional sense. There is much more to say on this subject, and I am sure I will return to it in the coming months.

Conversational Solfege and the National Core Arts Standards

Version 2Conversational solfege is a curriculum for teaching music literacy developed by Dr. John Feierabend. It is a literature based curriculum that is grounded in Music Learning Theory and the Kodaly philosophy for music education. It is not a method that one uses to the exclusion of all others, but rather an effective way of teaching tuneful singers to read, write, and create music.

Given that Conversational Solfege (CS) was developed during a time when music educators were using the original NAfME (MENC) content standards and before the introduction of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), it is natural to ask if CS is conformed to the NCAS. Here, I will discuss the performing and creating artistic processes included in the NCAS, and how well CS articulates the NCAS for each of those processes.

Music teachers should begin Conversational Solfege only when students are able to sing in tune by themselves. For most children, this occurs at at or close to 7 years of age, second grade in school; so we must begin by limiting our discussion to the NCAS for second grade and above. For performance, according to the NCAS, second graders when analyzing music will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts (such as tonality and meter) in music from a variety of cultures selected for performance.” They will also “read and perform rhythmic and melodic patterns using iconic or standard notation” when “analyzing selected music.” The term “demonstrate” is to “show musical understanding through observable behavior such as moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments.”  When interpreting, second graders will “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics  and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” Expressive intent is “the emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music>” Finally, after repeating repertoire during the coarse of instruction and rehearsal, the second student grade student will “perform music for a specific purpose with expression and technical accuracy.”

It is interesting that the only mention of reading music notation in the NCAS is for the purpose of analyzing. Nowhere in the standards is reading music included in ochetanconnection with actually performing or rehearsing music. This would seem to be a major omission in the standards, and would position Conversational Solfege to go beyond the standards in developing literacy as part of musicianship. At the same time, because CS is essentially an application of the Kodaly philosophy for music education, singing remains the primary means by which students learn to read and compose music. Being able to sing tunefully, beatfully, and artfully, which is the goal of Dr. Fierabend’s First Steps in Music, the preparatory curriculum for CS,  is necessary in order to be able to demonstrate understanding as it is defined in the NCAS. So in that sense, we could say that CS makes assessment of performing under the NCAS possible.

The other piece to music literacy in addition to reading is writing. For this, we must consider the NCAS for creating. Here we find many parts of CS, and of First Steps in Music. To begin, we find in the NCAS that second grade students shall “Improvise rhythmic and melodic patterns and musical ideas for a specific purpose.” In CS, “students begin developing improvisation skills which will enable them to later compose. Creating aurally “develops the ability to think and bring musical meaning to original musical thoughts.  Students create original rhythm or tonal patterns or melodies using rhythm or tonal syllables.” Take particular note of this next statement.  “Reading notation should not be introduced until students have achieved success at this.” This is often expressed in the phrase “sound before sight” yet it is so often violated in the common ways in which music is taught.

Later in the NCAS for creating, we find that a second grade student will “convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.” Here we come to the area of interpreting music; what Feierabend refers to as “artful” singing. Dr. Feierabend wrote that “one of the mysteries of notation is that the subtleties of expression cannot adequately be represented in notation.  It is the inherent expressiveness, however, that is the art part of music. What appears in notation is merely the skeleton of the music.  The interpreter of the notation must breath life into the skeleton.  This expressive sensitivity development must be assimilated from good musical models and from quality literature that embodies expressiveness.”  So just as reading and writing must be preceded with aural experiences with musical ideas, so to the ability to interpret music expressively must be preceded with models of good musical expression found in performances by great musicians. In responding to such performances, students learn what musical expression is, and what can be expressed with music. They then assimilate those experiences with hearing the models into musical expressiveness of their own. Once again, CS provides the means for teaching students how to accomplish what is called for in the NCAS.

This impacts responding as well. The NCAS includes a standard concerning interpretation. Second grade students will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts and how they support creators’/performers’ expressive intent.” We have seen that demonstrating understanding is done through moving, chanting, singing, or playing a musical instrument. This is in fact how we would present models of artful musical performance. By responding to expressive music with movement, or by imitating artfully performed musical phrases or ideas, students acquire the knowledge of music concepts, and how those concepts are manipulated by performers and composers, to create an interpretation that is expressive. Just as music can be read and heard through inner hearing, music can also be interpreted through inner hearing using notated music. Dr. Thomas Duffy, Director of Bands at Yale University, stated that, and I paraphrase, when sight reading, everything must be included, not just pitches and rhythms. All expressive markings must be included. The musically literate person can silently read a musical score with all the expressiveness that is notated and with the additional expressive nuances that are suggested by the musical context but which are not explicitly notated or able to be notated by the composer.

For the artistic process of connecting, we find in the NCAS that second grade students will “demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and the other arts, other disciplines, varied contexts, and daily life.” The literate students, trained in Conversational Solfege, is able to experience and understand music in written form as the conveyance in that form of ideas preserved in music for their benefit, in the same way that a poem, novel, play, short story, or piece of non-fiction is a written record of ideas preserved in language. Music literacy and therefore Conversational Solfege makes possible connecting music with language arts. Music literacy also builds connections to visual art, as concepts common to both are interpreted from examples of both. And of course, the very interpretation of music brings into play dance, storytelling, and drama; interpretations that often are only possible from written music, and that require musically literate interpreters. Taking all of this into account, it becomes clear that Conversational Solfege is both the development and at the very core of the National Core Arts Standards.

What Does ‘Explain and Demonstrate’ Mean?

Version 2As teachers, we are all familiar with asking students to explain something. Explaining requires that students go beyond reciting a memorized answer, or randomly deciding on a response. Explaining involves giving reasons for why an answer was given, and the giving of evidence from a text. Demonstrating, on the other hand, is showing or doing something. It involves applying knowledge and skill to the doing of a task that makes a thing clear to someone else. One explains by using words, but demonstrates using actions. So what does it mean to explain and demonstrate something in music? How does one, for example, explain and demonstrate tempo? This phrase “explain and demonstrate” is found frequently in the National Core Arts Standards, so it is important that we understand what is expected.

Some of the things students are to demonstrate in music are musical ideas they have created and selected for inclusion in a composed musical work for a stated expressive intent. In the creating artistic process, third grade students are to “demonstrate selected musical ideas for a simple improvisation or composition to express intent.” Some other examples are not so immediately clear. In the performing artistic process, those same third graders are to “demonstrate and explain how the selection of music to perform is influenced by personal interest, knowledge, purpose , and context.” In this case, students would need to demonstrate some aspect of an interest they have that is related to the music. They might share an interest in folk music by performing a folk song about the same subject, or a similar song they learned somewhere outside of school. Students would need to demonstrate knowledge they have about the music. They might have knowledge about where a song was most famously performed. Perhaps they know that the song was performed at a presidential inauguration, or that it was sung by a singer well known for singing gospel, or protest folk songs. They could play a recording of that performance, or show pictures from the press coverage. All of this could also be used to demonstrate context as well. In all of these cases, what the student is doing goes well beyond explaining or reciting facts. They are creating a context and showing an audience different aspects of the song, establishing a deeper understanding than explaining alone could.

Our third grader might also ” demonstrate understanding of the structure in music selected for performance.” This is still under the performing artistic process. Here, the student is showing that he or she understands how the music they are about to perform is put together. Here, the student might perform just the main themes, art-of-teachingidentifying them as “A,” “B,” or “C” within a three-part or rondo form. They might use same and different pictures to show visually the form that is found in the music, or they might present the phrasing structure through movement while singing part of the selected music. Demonstration goes beyond words. It gives the words further and more in-depth meaning, and helps others to better understand what is being presented. Demonstration also tends to include different modes of perception. Notice that while explaining the structure of the music just involves listening, demonstrating can engage the audience in visual learning (the pictures or the dancing), or even kinesthetic learning if the audience is asked to participate in the movement with the presenter.

The standards also include demonstrating related to interpretation in performance. Second graders are asked to “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” There are two dimensions to this statement. The first is to demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities. Dynamics is an expressive quality. If the student were explaining, he or she would simply define dynamics, give an example, and perhaps identify music being performed as being loud, soft, containing a crescendo, and so forth. Demonstrating expressive qualities means that the child will actually do something that is forte, piano, or a crescendo. They might sing or play a portion of the music that includes dynamic contrasts, and they might show the audience how they produced those various dynamics. Part of what makes music exciting for the performer is the demands playing loud or soft makes on the body. The level of exertion, control, and command of tone is something that can be demonstrated to an audience when they can see the performer, but goes overlooked by an audience when it is only listening, as to an audio recording. With a live performance, the audience can see a wind players face turn red, see the sweat as they delve into a lively section, hear the intensity of the breaths being taken or the bows being driven upon the strings. A student who does all of this and thereby creates varying dynamics, and in an expressive way is going beyond explaining, and is demonstrating.

Not only does the student demonstrate what dynamics are found in the music, he or she also demonstrates why those dynamics are found in the music. What did the composer intend to express with those particular dynamics, or articulations, or tempo? What feelings does the student experience when they play the music where the crescendo occurs, or where it gets faster? Were those feelings intended by the composer and a result of what the composer wrote, or are those feelings unrelated to that specific music and instead related to how we feel performing, e.g. nervous, or excited, or scare? By showing the connection between the expressive elements found in the music and the feelings that the music brings out in them as they perform it, students demonstrate how creators use expressive elements to convey expressive intent. Again, an explanation would identify those feelings, and perhaps associate them to specific locations in the music, but demonstrating allows the audience to also experience those expressive qualities, and experience first hand the communication of the composers intent to them.

As you work with the National Core Arts Standards, take full advantage of those places where you find the word “demonstrate.” Use those standards as an opportunity to get your students more deeply engaged with musical works (texts) so that students who are listening can have a similar experience to the performer. Not only will this result in more rigorous instruction, it will also raise the value of live music in the lives of those students.

Using Student Feedback to Improve Instruction

Version 2In order to provide the best possible instruction for our students, we must be informed about what they are experiencing as they go through the learning activities we have planned for them. We must know what difficulties individual students are having, what progress each student is making, and what connections the student is making between what we are having him or her do and learn with their own life and perspective. If we were to do this in great detail, we would easily be overwhelmed, because the typical public school music teacher sees 500-700 students every week. But their are things we can do that are easily managed and are effective in gathering student feedback which informs  us of these important experiences.

First, when we give our students written work, we can include some questions at the end of their work. Did you enjoy this activity? Was this activity worthwhile for you? Why or why not? What difficulty or difficulties did you experience while doing this activity? What were you able to do easily? Is there something else I could have asked you to do that would have been more helpful to you in meeting today’s objective? When students give honest and detailed answers to these questions, I am greatly helped in meeting their needs that day or during the following lessons. I can look for trends and alter my lesson planning accordingly, and I can find a type of activity that was effective for most or all of the class and make sure I use that type of activity again.

For example, none of my classes like sitting for the first 5-10 minutes of class while I lecture them on a musician or musical work, or what have you. But they love it when I write facts about, for example, a musician on index cards, hide the cards around the room and let them have a scavenger hunt to find them. They have to share with each other what different cards say (collaboration) and from the information they gather figure out who the musician is. Then the rest of the class is on that musician and his or her artistic work. I was spurred on to do this after I received feedback from a high achieving student that I should “make learning more fun.” This part of student feedback really comes down to putting ourselves in their place; of realizing what it is like for our students to be in our class, and then making sure that it is as stimulating, motivating, relevant, and fun as possible, because the truth is, students learn more when they are enjoying what they are doing.

A second kind of student feedback is giving students choices of what they will do to learn what you want them to learn and do what you want them to be able to do. In a general music class, students musical interests vary widely. Some students like to respond to music; they like to write about it. Writing about a text is something they are used to doing in other classes. Middle school students have spent years becoming capable writers in their Language Arts classes. When they come to music, many of them are taken out of theirMIOSM comfort zone when asked to perform music, but they are happy to listen to music and write about it, citing evidence from the text, that is from the music they hear, to support their arguments. In terms of the National Core Arts Standards, these students learn better when they are describing than when they are demonstrating. When either will do for assessing their proficiency, students can be given a choice of writing, verbally explaining (with their explanation assessed on a rubric) or demonstrating with a performance.

In this regard, I like to view the four artistic processes in a way similar to how educators view the multiple intelligences; that is, students often have a dominant artistic process. Some prefer to perform, others prefer to respond, as I discussed above. Some want to create artistic works, while others enjoy finding connections between artistic works and their lives, their community, or their culture. While no artistic process should be left out of any child’s music education, students can and should be allowed to be artistic within the process they most enjoy where the concept being taught can be learned within more than one process. For example, students can learn about timbre by responding to music to which they listen, by composing or arranging for solo and combinations of instruments, or by interpreting a musical work as a performer. If the objective is to understand and be able to demonstrate timbre, then a student can meet this objective through creating, performing or responding. Letting the student choose which artistic process to use is a form of student feedback, it increases the quality of their work, and it informs the teacher what kinds of learning activities will be most effective with individual students.

Below is a handout I developed for use with my 7th and 8th grade classes that is designed to walk the students through selecting an artistic process and guiding them through an activity using that process. I continue to revise it, but I present here in its current form as resource you may find useful. Feel free to tweak it or revise it to meet your students needs. If you’d like, please share your revisions through an e-mail attachment to the address on my contact page.

Select one of the following artistic processes and circle it. This is what you will be doing today.

Creating            Performing          Responding           Connecting

Choose one of the following, depending on which artistic process you chose.


a. generate musical ideas that express happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. You will document your ideas by writing them down using either standard music notation, or a kind of notation that you make up. Each ideas must be at least 10 seconds long, and you must generate and document at least three ideas.

b. organize your three ideas into a rondo form, that is, A B A C A, where the first idea is A, the second idea is B and the third idea is C.

c. revise your ideas if you think that is necessary in order to better express your chosen emotion (expressive intent).

d. practice performing your rondo, or teach someone else to perform it for you, using your written down documentation.

e. present your rondo to an audience of at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song you would like to sing, based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. determine what emotion the songwriter was trying to express, and then determine how you can sing the song in a way that best expresses that same emotion. Consider how best to use elements of music such as tempo (how fast/slow), timbre (the kind of sound you produce with your voice), and dynamics (how loud/soft).

c. determine what an excellent performance of this song would sound like, and then practice singing it, trying to come close to that excellent performance you imagined.

d. perform the song for at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song to which to respond based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. explain in writing how the songwriter applied the elements of music and expressive qualities to convey an emotion.

c. create criteria for evaluating songs, and then use that criteria to evaluate in writing this song.

d. present your findings to at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. Explain in writing connections between the song and a topic or text you have studied in another class, or between the song and observations you can make about the culture in which you live. Share your connections with at least 3 other people in class.

Why Teach Instruments in General Music?

Version 2From the outset, I want to assure all of you who are Orff teachers that I am not going to oppose children playing instruments in general music. My students play recorders, barred instruments, and non-pitched instruments, and I understand the value in teaching all of them, In fact, that is what I want to discuss today. For quite some time, music teachers have accepted the playing of instruments in general music class as a normal part of instruction. Rhythm Band, Orff, and World Drumming, to name a few, have and continue to be popular with music teachers and students alike in elementary and junior high school general music classes. The 1994 music standards developed by MENC (now NAfME) included “performing on instruments alone and with others a varied repertoire of music.” Another one of those standards, “improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments,” was also frequently taught with the use of musical instruments. In this context, instruments were a needed resource for learning varied repertoire, and improvisation.

This approach to instruments, that they are a resource to be used in learning concepts and enduring understandings is even more evident in the 2014 National Core Arts Standards. In these standards, playing instruments (or singing for that matter) is not even mentioned. That in no way implies that singing and playing instruments is no longer important. It does mean that playing instruments and even singing is a means to and end, and not the end itself. What is that end? There are several. Those mentioned in the 2014 standards are selecting, explaining, describing, demonstrating, generating musical ideas, and performing, all done with whatever means the students and teacher decide upon, playing and singing among them. In other words, we don’t teach a child to play a recorder, or xylophone, or what have you so that they can play an instrument, though they will be able to do so as a natural consequence of using musical instruments in class. Instead, we teach a child to play a musical instrument because that is the best way for him or her to learn to improvise, convey expressive intent, generate musical ideas, and so forth. The stipulation of learning varied repertoire is still valuable, so children also learn to play musical instruments in order to fully experience a repertoire of instrumental music. The goal is to be able to do and to know how to do these things. The goal is not to be able to play an instrument, it is to use playing an instrument as a means to learning music.

This approach to teaching instruments has the tremendous advantage of being more engaging and relevant to students. Consider the difference between telling a student or a class that they are going to learn how to play treble clef fourth line d on the recorder because that is the next note in their lesson book, compared to telling them that they are going to learn that note because it is an important note in “I Got A Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas, and that they are going to play part of the melody of that song and be able to improvise on it. The second reason for learning the note d is one that the students can immediately connect with. It gives the learning of the note an immediate purpose, and it will enable them to do something they anticipate enjoying. The purpose is to use the recorder and the note d, along with the other notes they have learned, to perform a specific task, that of playing a selected melody and improvising over it. The same lesson could be taught using a flute, a violin, boom whackers, a xylophone, or whatever instrument is chosen. It doesn’t matter what instrument is used because the point of the lessonrecite-uo6n4t is not to teach a specific instrument, it is to teach improvisation.

The choice of an instrument is made based on what is appropriate and appealing to the students. Orff instruments have been so successful because they are accessible to most children. That was what Orff wanted when he developed them. Besides having removable bars and a sonorous tone, they have the advantage of being played with movements that are transferable from body percussion to playing instruments. This can make the teaching of Orff instruments a means for teaching beat movements and movements for form. The same can be said for hand drums, shakers, cow bells, Claves, and any highly portable percussion instrument. Recorders are less useful for teaching movement, but more useful for teaching phrasing, because phrasing is more easily understood in terms of breathing than in terms of striking with a mallet. Tempo and rhythm, on the other hand, is more easily understood in terms of movement, so instruments that can be easily played while moving freely are better for teaching tempo or rhythm. The point is that what you are going to teach and who you are going to teach it to determine what instrument can be most advantageously used.

Instruments should not be used as the primary means to teach tonality and pitch. This is because accurate pitch is produced on virtually all classroom instruments with no effort on the part of the student. Like piano, students do not need to tune the xylophone pitches they play, so no ability to perform with accurate intonation is being developed by playing a xylophone. The same is true for all barred instruments and for boom whackers. Pitch development in the general music classroom requires singing. In the later elementary grades and beyond, instruments such as strings or trombone are useful in further developing pitch, because to play these instruments, constant adjustment is needed. Through singing and audiation skills developed through singing, children of any age will be able to predict what music they are about to play will sound like, and then perform the task of playing the notes that fit that prediction, which results in better playing and better musicianship.

Teaching musical instruments must be objectives driven. In designing instruction this way, it is important that the teacher never mistake task, what the student is doing a part of the process, with objective, what the student will know or be able to do once instruction is completed. Directing a student’s attention to the objective first, and then putting an instrument in his or her hands as a tool to use in working toward and achieving the objective is the proper way to teach musical instruments. This doesn’t mean that the child is left to fend for him or herself in learning how to finger an instrument or produce a characteristic tone; that must be taught and practiced. But the purpose for such instruction is to ready the student for acquiring enduring understandings and achieving concept driven objectives.


Teaching How To Learn

Version 2If you are a frequent reader of this blog, then you know that I am a strong proponent of goal and objective setting, and of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS). But just like the chocolates and cookies I’ve been enjoying this week, too much, even of a good thing, is rarely best. In teaching, the problem isn’t so much with the objectives and standards as it is in what we see in them. For example, one of the performance standards for 5th grade is, “Rehearse to refine technical accuracy and expressive qualities to address challenges, and show improvement over time.” This is a well stated and good objective for developing musicians, but there is an inherent limitation present; the objective states what the student is expected to do, but does not address how the student is to go about the task. Indeed, one must go all the way back to the 1st grade standard to find the language “with guidance” which implies that the student, at least at that early stage, is to be shown how to perform the task; how to rehearse so that refinement takes place, how to refine technique, how to refine, expressiveness, how to approach challenging passages and sections, and how to put all of these kinds of practice together so that overall improvement is shown.

Standards often fail not because they are bad standards, as many opponents of common core argue, but because students are not properly taught how to work toward them, and how to perform the tasks that are given to them as learning activities and assessments throughout the process of working toward achieving the objective. The result is often that there are many hard working students doing the best they know how to do, but who encounter frustration, discouragement, and something short of what they set out to accomplish simply because they do not know how to get from where they are to where they are expected to arrive. Setting clear goals is important, and letting students struggle through problem solving situations is valuable, but leaving students to meander and ultimately miss out on intended learning and success is bad pedagogy.

For musicians, one area where this often becomes all too clear is at auditions. Many people do poorly at auditions not because they did not put the hours in preparing, but because they do not know how to take an audition. These struggling auditioning students typically are trying to apply their experience as ensemble members to the audition situation. Had they realized the differences between playing in a band or singing in a chorus and taking a solo audition, they might have run their private practicing sessions differently. The standard for accuracy is higher than it is for many section players or singers. The requirements of having good tone and expressive interpretations are higher, and the stage fright factor is much higher. These students could have been told to practice with a friend in the room listening, to spend time on a slow etude and work on beauty and evenness of tone, to practice even the fastest passages slowly many times over, and to isolate articulation studies from the challenging passages in addition to playing through the piece everyday and hoping for it to go better than it did the day before. Of course, I’m not saying that teachers never do these things, but students are not often enough taught how to do what they are expected to do.

Sometimes, goals can be intrusive. Many if not all of us have, at some point, had a student come to us who had no interest in playing in a school ensemble or auditioning forPractice makes permanent anything. Instead, they just wanted to take music lessons to get better at doing something they intrinsically enjoy–playing or singing music for their own personal enjoyment. Just as different students need different “how to’s” for achieving a common goal, different students also come to music, and make music for different reasons. It is a tragedy how many students, and not just music students, are turned off from education because the whole of their efforts are spent on doing things that are important to others, but not to themselves. Ensembles spend months preparing music they don’t care about because it is on a festival list. Private music students spend months preparing a concerto movement when all they really want to do is play jazz, or whatever else interests them. Students in math classes spend months learning how to solve for variables or graph an equation when all they really want to do is make the necessary measurements to build something with a parent in a home project.

While it is certainly true that setting a curriculum is important, for without one students would never choose to learn everything they will need for a happy, satisfying and productive life beyond their school years, and for teachers would likely not plan and organize their instruction as well or effectively as they can with a stated curriculum, there is after all that too much content forced upon both reluctant learners and reluctant teachers. It is a critical truth that what students learn is not only dependent on knowing how, but also on understanding why. To what use will the learning be put once it is obtained? It is not enough to know what is to be done or learned, in order for learning to be embraced and ultimately done well, for the learner to be committed to learning, he or she must also understand why they are being asked to learn the particular content. To return to our original standard, of what value will it be to the learner to have rehearsed, refined, and shown improvement? Of what benefit will that work be to the learner? If the answer the student gets is something like, “you will be able to help our band score well at the festival,” then the student will need to have committed themselves to the festival beyond their own personal need, and that is difficult for many. On the other hand, if the director reminds the student how much pleasure and enjoyment he or she now gets out of playing a piece that was once challenging and on which he or she worked hard to learn, the director can then say, “you will have the same enjoyment at playing this work when you have rehearsed and refined it, and met the challenges that you are now facing.” That is a better motivation to learn. Students need to always now “how to” and “why” in addition to “what.”

Selecting Music to Experience

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One of the more challenging piece of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS) for music has been having students select music to experience. For years, I chose the music my students would rehearse, perform, and listen to. This was expedient, because I could select music based on what I wanted my students to learn and be able to do. While I haven’t, and don’t need to completely abandon choosing music for my students, I do need to turn some of the selecting over to my students. The authors of the NCAS stated in one of the enduring understandings that “Individuals’ selection of musical works is influenced by their interests, experiences, understandings, and purposes.” These four influences are not ones that students often think about on their own. For the most part, they choose certain songs because they like them, and if pressed for a reason, will usually respond that they like the beat, the lyrics, and/or the artist. They’ve  not usually thought of it in terms of interest, but rather in terms of preference. Interest is a much more promising basis for learning, because interests motivate curiosity and questions, which then lead to learning. Preferences, on the other hand, tend to bias students toward simply continuing to maintain their current listening habits without looking into them with any depth or detail.

Experiences are the gateway to students making connections between a musical work and their personal lives. When a student wants to experience a musical work because they heard their parent singing it, a brother playing it, or because they heard it in a commercial for a product they like to use, he or she is making such a connection. To get at experiences, we might ask students, “what special meaning does the song have for you because of your own personal experiences?” We might also ask, “What musical patterns are used? How has the songwriter/composer used specific musical elements to express what the song is about?” Or we might ask, “when you choose to listen to this song, what do you want to get out of the experience?” With this question, we are getting at what personal benefit they have received from listening to music before, such as improving one’s mood, or getting motivated to compete athletically or getting relaxed after a tough day at school.

We are also knocking on the door of purpose. Why did the composer or songwriter create this music,  and why did the performers present this music? This can be informed by the cultural context in which the musical work was created, or by the personal experiences of the composer. In the first case, the music might be intended for a ritual, celebration, or ceremony, it might be intended to tell a story, make a point, or it might simply be intended to entertain while conveying the expressive intent. For this, we might ask, “what are the experiences of the composer or songwriter out of which he/she wrote the musical work?” or “How is this musical work reflective of the culture from which it comes?”

Both composer/songwriter and performers have a purpose for presenting music to an audience. The composer/songwriter has an expressive intent in planning  and composing recite-1u4aczka work, and the performer has an expressive intent born out of planning and presenting an interpretation. In each case, someone is trying to express something or be expressive of something, through the music. For the listener, finding that intent becomes a purpose for listening, just as finding out what an author has to say is a purpose for reading a book. For this, we might ask, “How has the composer used specific musical elements to express that the musical work is about?” The answer to this question teases an interpretation out of the listener, founded on the performers’ and composers’ intents.  If there are lyrics, we can ask “what do the lyrics mean? What is the main message or point of the lyrics?”

Understandings get at what students know about the composer, musical work, musical genre and cultural and historical context. These are topics often found in traditional music appreciation classes, but without interests, experiences, and purpose, understandings can quickly become uninteresting and a nuisance to learn. Having understanding about music must inform understanding of music, the later of which is a product of experience, not just abstract learning. For understandings, we can ask “what musical style does this work represent, and what do you know about that style?” Many students can identify the style, but then really don’t know much about it. I played a song for a 7th grade class the other day, and they all recognized that it was hip-hop, and even told me that it was obvious, which of course it was. But then I asked them, right, it’s hip-hop, now what do you know about hip-hop culture and about rap music?” All they could tell me was that it had a good beat that is unlike the beat of other genres. This response was all I needed to see that I need to delve into the “about rap music” and not just use rap music as a material to teach rhythm and composing.  I’m going to teach them the experiences of a few rap artists, and the social and cultural contexts in which and for which they created their songs. The songs I use will be those that they select based on their interests, experience, understandings and purposes. And so we have come full circle, applying the essential understanding with which we began.

As we teach our students selecting music to experience, we need to keep a few goals in mind. Here is what I want my students to be able to do once I have taught them this unit. I want them to understand how music is influenced by interests, experiences, understandings and purposes through learning information about the music, culture, historical era, lyrics, and so forth. I want them to be able to explain the purpose of programming and what is considered when making  playlists for concerts, CDs, and radio stations are made. I want them to know definitions of musical elements such as articulation, dynamics, harmony, style, tempo, timbre and texture. I want them to be able to label musical elements while listening to music, and I want them to be able to compare across multiple listening samples.