Why Practice?

Version 2I was in my senior year of my undergraduate studies, during my apprentice teaching semester. I shared an off-campus apartment with two other men, one a music major the other a psychology major. One day, after I had been practicing my clarinet, the music major said to me, “I don’t like listening to people practice.” Naturally I asked him why this was and he said that it was because when the people he knew practiced, they paid little attention to tone, and most of their attention to practicing notes. I asked him if that was true of me too, and he said that it was.

All these 39 years later, I have recently remembered those words and reflected on them. I have realized that the practice sessions I enjoy the most are the ones in which I am being most expressive; the ones in which I lose myself in the music and “play my heart out.” On the other hand, my least favorite practice sessions are those that are aptly described by my former room mate’s words; the ones in which I am merely practicing notes, drilling myself over and over until I play a passage with the correct notes. Of course, this kind of attention to right notes is necessary, but it is a temporary departure from what should be the main point of playing a musical instrument in the first place, which is to express something of the human heart and spirit.

Suzuki, the famed violin pedagogue, often spoke of the intimacy between heart, soul and music. To him, music was as essential to life and human compassion as the air we breathe. How unfortunate that some teachers have cherry picked playing by ear from the totality of Suzuki’s philosophy and method, forgetting or laying aside the development of beauty of tone and expressiveness in favor of playing dry renditions of Twinkle ad nauseam. Ever since the National Core Arts Standards were released with the pervasive presence of expressive intent throughout them, I have found it both energizing and challenging to frame every musical experience in the context of expressiveness. Yet that is exactly the point of art in general and music in particular–to express something personal from one musician to other musicians and beyond them to audiences. It has also caused me to call into question the premise that performances of classical music must be “authentic.” If a musician’s primary mission is to convey someone else’s expressive intent, then musicians are left with an enterprise that is marginally relevant to them at best. Whether the mandate is to reproduce a composer’s intent, or to follow strict instructions from a conductor, preparing performances to present to an audience without the creative freedom to convey personal meaning is rendering music study largely superficial, and limiting the true power and benefit of musical study.

If someone tells me about something about which they have strong feelings, those feelings are conveyed to me in body language, voice inflection, as well as the words themselves. Their feelings then interact with my own feelings born out of my own experience and interests, and are given an additional meaning that is personal and somewhat unique to me. If the person is telling me about a life event they have celebrated and are happy and excited about, anybody hearing them talk about it will get that the feelings being expressed are happiness and excitement, but my version of those emotions are different from others’ based on how I personally feel when I am happy or excited over a similar life event. The same is true with music. Whereas musicians may universally agree that Beethoven was expressing anger, or Haydn was expressing humor, individual musicians or non-musicians will relate to that anger or human in unique ways, influenced by life experiences only they have responded to in unique ways.  So it is here, in the mixing of life experiences and music that we as music educators much grant our students the freedom to interpret music they hear and perform in our rehearsals and classrooms in personal ways even when those ways are different from how we would dictate an interpretation to them were we to assume the role of traditional maestro.

In granting this freedom, we must prepare our students to create such interpretations by giving them ample experiences with music of the same idiom as that which they are preparing for performance or are listening to for responding to music activities. They must develop a “feel” for the music of Beethoven so that they can relate their own lives to what Beethoven invested into his music. The same is true of any composer of any idiom or time period. Interpretation is the melding of two contexts: that of the creator and that of the performer. The later must understand the former, but be left the latitude to understand the former in his or her own cultural and personal contexts. The more the students have a “feel” for a composer’s music, the more they will be able to understand it based on how they feel when they play, sing or hear it.

When this is applied to practicing or rehearsing, more attention is often given to details. For example, when students are focused on beauty of tone, they are concentrating on the expressiveness of perhaps only a single note, or a single phrase of music. This point is famously made in this moment from the movie Amadeus.

Salieri’s attention to that first sustained note is exactly the focus on expressive detail that is necessary for music to be understood as an expressive power. For Salieri, the miracle of this music is not in the specific pitches or even in the literal dynamics, but in the way in which these things are used for expressive effect. It should not be necessary for children to wait until they are in college or even high school to experience this level of musical sensitivity. The vibrant imaginations of children are perfect for exploring music in all of its expressiveness, much more for than for exploring the names of lines and spaces and the memorizing of vocabulary lists. These too must be included in our music instruction, but they should not become the primary focus.

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.

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.”

What Is The Purpose of Concerts?

Version 2For most if not all school music programs, the performing of concerts is at the core of what music educators and their students have uppermost on their agendas. Music teachers spend a great deal of time planning and rehearsing concert programs, always with the performance in mind. While (hopefully) plenty of musical concepts are being taught along the way to the concert, those concepts could and are just as effectively taught in non-performance ensemble classes such as general music. So what additional purpose is there in preparing and giving concerts? What value is there in presenting musical work to an audience?

The best way to answer this question is to consult our National Core Arts Standards under the artistic process of performing. With every occurrence of the phrase “for presentation” or “for performing”  in those standards, there is a clue to answering our question, what value is there in presenting musical work to an audience?

The first value is found before the public performance; it is in the preparation of a performance for presentation. We first encounter this phrase in the fourth anchor standard. The authors wrote that students will, ” Select, analyze, and interpret artistic work for presentation.” While most music educators will immediately recognize interpreting as a normal part of the rehearsal agenda, and most will agree they teach at least some analysis of the music they are preparing, the full value of students selecting music to perform may be a bit more elusive. We know that when students are performing music they like or that is familiar to them, they approach rehearsals with more motivation and enthusiasm. But there is more to it than that. In order for students to select music to perform, they must be aware of their own skill level and musical maturity, and the difficulty level of the music they are considering. The process of selecting music requires that students match their own abilities to the demands of the musical work.

First students need to assess their own skills. Teachers can do this by giving students two or three short works of decidedly different difficulty levels. By attempting to perform each one, students can determine which ones are too easy, which ones are too difficult, and which one is just right. While we want our students to challenge themselves in the music they select, we do not want them to attempt something way over their head and become discouraged. Students can answer questions like, “what difficulties do I anticipate having in performing this music?” What specific measures or sections do I think will take the most practice to master?” “What practice strategies will I need to use in order to learn this music?” Do I have enough time before the performance to get this music ready for presenting?” “What new learning do I need before I will be able to rehearse and/or perform this music?” “How will I acquire the new learning I need?” Going through the selecting process guides students through valuable  reflections and analyses that  raise the overall level of their musicianship and music literacy.

Students’ analysis go beyond assessing the difficulty of a musical work. It also prepares students for making informed decisions regarding how to interpret the music. An analysis of the composer’s use of expressive elements such as dynamics and tempo changes, articulation, and timbre and the effect of the use of these elements on their response to listening to the music provides clues to the composer’s expressive intent, which is a foundation for musicians’ interpretations. The expressive qualities the student discovers in a musical work are allowed to freely interact with the student’s own experiences and interest, and the combination results in a personal interpretation that is both personally relevant and interpretively appropriate to the context of the musical work and its creation.

It is probably evident by now that selecting and analyzing encompasses much of what ensemble directors are accustomed to doing for their students; however, when students enter into the rehearsal process at the point where all of the selecting and analyzing has been done for them, they collectively become little more than the director’s musical instrument used to perform the director’s music using the director’s interpretation. While this is stated in an extreme way, it is to some degree true if students are not selecting and analyzing as part of the pre-rehearsal preparation.

There is another aspect of performance preparation that is perhaps usually regarded as part of what the director does, but is better left at least in part to the students; that is, the aspect of deciding when a performance is ready to present to an audience. To make this decision, students apply “criteria and feedback to evaluate the accuracy and MIOSMexpressiveness of ensemble and personal performances.” Personal performances can include how each student is playing their own part in an ensemble, when they practice the part on their own, or it can be how they play a solo part or work. As students progress in their work and advance toward meeting the criteria and incorporating feedback, they can judge when they have met the criteria and incorporated the feedback. At that point, the performance is ready to present. One of the difficulties in leaving this decision to the director, is that students who are struggling or who have simply not met the criteria yet are left either unsatisfied by the performance  because they know they did not contribute what others did, or thinking that an only partially prepared performance is enough to consider that performance ready to present. When the performance decision is generated from within the ensemble, it is more solid, and more satisfying.

All of this gets us to the concert, yet little of it would have taken place without the concert to prepare for. At the concert itself, there are at least two main things to be accomplished. I’m sure most of you can think of more, but the two that I would like to present are first, as stated in anchor standard 6,  students “convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.” This is possible because the students have worked through the process of developing an interpretation, and so that interpretation means something to them both individually, and corporately. The students have learned that by developing an interpretation collaboratively, they have something unified to present and express. This is also possible because through that process, they have learned through analysis what the composer’s intent was, which translates through an interpretation into meaning. It is only by hearing a performance that an audience can ascertain the meaning of the music. Even if students were to describe the music they played in their concert, or if every audience member (cherish the thought) read the scores or listened to another ensemble perform the same works, they would not fully understand the meaning that those students conveyed through that performance after doing that preparation.

The second main thing to be accomplished by giving a concert is to add something worthwhile into the lives of everyone involved. Student performances should always have benefit and value for the student musicians and the audience. From a holiday concert, to a ground breaking ceremony, from a community carol sing at Christmas time, to a half time marching band show, the performance must add value to the community, the culture, and the individual through the conveyance of meaning, the expression of feelings, and the entertainment of all. From an educational perspective, the performance is a summative assessment in that it represents the quality of work that has gone on in selecting, interpreting, rehearsing, evaluating and ultimately deciding to present. There is no suitable substitute for the live concert experience of  musician. Writing papers or lowering grades to compensate for missed concert appearances does not replace the educational and life value lost. We give concerts because performing music fulfills the urging and requirement of the musician’s natural creative spirit.


Assessing Student Learning: How To Get At What Really Matters

Version 2Yesterday, I met with my professional learning community (PLC) to write an assessment for an instructional unit we had been working on. The unit is for 3rd grade and is a responding to music unit. We wanted to assess students in the areas of selecting and interpreting music to which they listen. We made our first attempt at this last month.  We wrote a prompt for the 3rd graders to respond to in writing. Taken from the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), for interpreting, we wanted them to be able to explain and demonstrate the elements of music, identify musical elements in a musical work, find clues as to the composer’s expressive intent in the way musical elements are used, and to conclude what the expressive intent is from the clues. Revisiting our work from a month ago, we all said at once, “what were we thinking?” We realized this prompt is too difficult for third graders, but we still wanted to assess the students at explaining how musical elements were used, and their relationship to the composer’s intent. But if we were going to do this, we had to find another way; one that was age appropriate. What we  had so far would be a usable assessment for older students, but we needed another way to assess the same things for our third graders. We had to find a way to make something that involved critical thinking accessible to children too young to effectively think abstractly as middle school students can.

We began to break what we were assessing down into a series of narrowly targeted questions in the hopes of arriving at the data we were looking for, but one step a time. First, we wanted students to show us that they knew what the musical elements were, but we didn’t want them to just memorize a definition that might or might not be understood, nor did we want to open endedly ask them for their own definition. We used a format we found in the 2nd grade model cornerstone assessment for responding to music. We gave choices in words and decided to ask the children to circle the correct answer. Because we have many English language learners in our schools, we also decided to accompany the word choices with pictures. The music that the students will respond to is “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. With this in mind, our first question was,

  1. Which of these is an example of: (circle the correct answer)

(Add pictures for each choice)

    1. Tempo                 soft                 fast
    1. Dynamics           clarinet          loud
    1. Articulation       legato             crescendo
    1. Timbre                 beat                bright
    1. Rhythm               ta ti-ti           re
    1. Beat                      pulse              drum
    1. Pitch                    ti-ti ta            mi

This question, as with the others I will present, are still a draft, so the exact terms may change, and the pictures for soft, fast, clarinet, loud, and so forth have not yet been added.

The second question is similar in design:

  1. This music is:
    1. Fast                                 slow
    2. Loud                                soft
    3. Legato                             staccato
    4. Dark                                bright
    5. Moving a lot                  barely moving at all
    6. Often high in pitch     often low in pitch

From there, we entered into the area of the composer’s expressive intent. Why did Tchaikovsky write this music (purpose), what was he trying to express or represent (intent) and how did he use those musical elements to accomplish his purpose and achieve his intent? We have not told the children about the ballet story, or even the descriptive title of the selection. Without giving them this information, we now ask them,

What picture do you imagine from hearing this music? Describe this picture in detail.

Here the children are being asked to describe with their words in writing. We could also accept a detailed drawing if using language was a problem. As the child imagines a picture, he or she begins to form an idea of what Tchaikovsky’s intent might have been. 

Because of the prominent use of the celesta, we decided to have the children respond to the musical element of timbre, so we ask, “How was timbre used to make the music sound like your picture?” Again, the children must write their answer using words. There really is no iconic alternate way to answer this question, so for those with language challenges, we might accept a recorded oral response. 

Finally, we want the children to listen for other clues as to what the purpose or intent might be, so we lastly invite them to name other musical elements and explain how the composer used each to express or represent what he wanted. To this end, we ask them, “what other musical elements also help to make the music sound like this l picture?  Give a reason for each musical element you name.  

For selecting, we faced the challenge of getting students to think about more than whether or not they like a song, or give more detailed reasons for their selection than that they like the beat or the artist. We wanted to prompt them to think about elements of music and expressive intent, and about their own interests, experiences, and knowledge.  As with interpreting, our first attempt relied on an open ended question asking them to give their selection, and support their choice by making connections with interests, experiences, purposes or contexts. We again decided to replace that approach with one that was more focused, and would lead the students to consider the things we wanted them thinking about and learning.

We chose three musical works from which the students would make their selection for the assessment. These were the opening of Symphony no. 5 by Beethoven, The Viennese Musical Clock by Kodaly, and Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. The students would respond to each musical work by answering six questions:

  1. What caught my attention in this music was __________________. It caught my attention because ________________________________________________.
  2. In this music I am curious about _____________________________________.
  3. I found this music interesting because ________________________________.
  4. What does this music remind you of?
  5. What could you teach the class about this music?
  6. Why do you think the composer wrote this music?

Once the students had collected their answers for all three works, they would answer one final question: Based on your answers, choose one that you would like to hear again. Write the title of the music you selected here. __________________________

With the first six questions, we think we will draw out how the students’ interests, experience, and knowledge connected them to the music. Questions 1 – 3 target interests, question 4 targets experience, question 5 targets knowledge, and question 6 targets purpose and context. Then we ask students to consider all of these responses, and to base their selection of one of these musical works on the connections they have become aware of through answering the questions. If you like this assessment, feel free to use it in your own classes. If you do this, please let me know how it goes, and send me feedback on changes that would make it better. We will be doing the same thing here.

Selecting Music to Experience

Version 2

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.