A Strategy For Improving Student Engagement

2011Symposium_1_2When an entire class is singing or playing musical instruments, having everyone actively participating is a given. There is no waiting to be called on and no hoping not to get called on. Music ensembles involve everyone all the time. Every student is either singing, playing, or tracking measures of rest so they will make their correct entrance. But once the music stops, and the director addresses a section, what happens to the engagement of the students not being addressed? I have written elsewhere about things students can be doing during those “down” times, but how can a director keep them engaged in the class without relegating them to these other tasks? The answer is to use the students to do at least part of what the director usually does; evaluate and suggest a way to correct deficiencies.
Five point rating scales are useful for rehearsal and classroom use. People have five fingers, so anything can be evaluated by holding up any number of fingers between 0 and 5. Instead of having most of the ensemble listen to the director work with one section, the director can identify a specific criteria, have the section play or sing the measures that need attention, and then have everyone else evaluate the performance on the given criteria with a show of fingers. For example, suppose that a director wants to rehearse a long crescendo. He or she has taught the ensemble how to make a long crescendo by not getting too loud too quickly, and by making a noticeable change in dynamics from the start to the finish of the crescendo. Students, once they know this, can evaluate how the section did making the crescendo. It is just a matter of indicating on a scale of one to five how well the crescendo was done. If there is disagreement, students who give markedly differing evaluations can be asked to support their evaluation with a brief description of what they heard. By involving otherwise idle students in this kind of evaluation and dialogue, they are learning as much, or possible more, than the students who were actually playing or singing.
This strategy also works well in general music classes. The other day, I was continuing to teach my sixthclassroom grades about phrases. On this day, I was teaching them to hear tension or stress at the ends of phrases. At first I used a song with phrases that ended just on ^5 or ^1. There was either tension or relaxation. Told them to point up if they heard tension and down if they heard relaxing. Because these are non-verbal responses, all students could continuously respond at once.
Next, I chose a song that had different degrees of tension at the ends of phrases. Phrases ended on ^6, ^2, ^3, ^5 and ^1. For this, I had the students decide how much tension they heard at the end of each phrase as the listened, and respond by holding up 0-5 fingers. Again, all could respond at once and continually. It’s one thing to tell students they always have something to do because they should be listening to their classmates’ responses and forming their own response, and quite another thing to give all students a way to respond all the time. It makes it harder for students to decide not to participate and easier for the teacher to assess students and hold them accountable throughout class. For times when the teacher wants words or phrases for a response, each student can be given a small white board and marker. Students write their response and then hold up the whiteboard so the teacher can see it. if the students are seated in rows, they won’t be influenced by their peers’ answers because holding the whiteboards up facing the front of the class,they will have a hard time seeing each other’s answers. much of our success as teachers depends to a large extent on frequent student engagement. These strategies are helpful in this area.

Music is the Ultimate Social Media

2011Symposium_1_2Today was the last day of music class for my 8th graders, who will be graduating tonight. Last class days are more laid back than other days. I began by showing them the segment from Disney’s Fantasia 2000 that sets the story of Noah’s Ark to the music of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. I though it would be fitting because in just a few hours, each of the students would be processing into the gym to the same music. When they heard the familiar music, many were excited and then they were interested to hear the rest of the music beyond the familiar part. After that video, I left the students to arrange themselves and find something to do on their own. I expected them to do something musical, but beyond that, it was up to them.

When it is up to them, my students usually do one of two musical things, and this time was no exception. They took out their phones and shared their favorite music with each other, or they formed a group at the piano and asked me to play their favorites. One of those favorites is the theme from Halloween. Many of the boys like playing it on the piano, and others always want to learn how, so this group occupied itself with playing the theme or teaching it to others. This group, the one at the piano, exemplifies an ideal music class. Students are engaged in self-directed learning, practicing, peer and self evaluating their attempts, refining, and finally presenting their accomplishment. I became involved when they did not know how to play the transposed occurrences of the theme, and when they added an extra beat to the right hand part, but otherwise, they worked on their own, and accomplished a good amount of proficiency and improvement.

The other group, the one listening to and sharing music, also exemplifies an ideal music class activity. Music is highly personal with teens. I was reminded of this when I asked my daughter if she wanted to connect her iPod to the outdoor sound system I had set up for her graduation party. She did not want to use her music, and said that music is personal, and that she didn’t want everyone else hearing her songs. The sharing that was going on in my class among peers was special to the students, because they were not just sharing music, they were sharing themselves through the music. This personalgraduation identification with music presents a dilemma when it comes to composing. On the one hand, students with so much to identify with in music potentially could be powerful expressers through original music. On the other hand, because music so powerfully expresses what they are feeling or thinking, they often don’t see the need to create music; someone else has already done it for them. One need only see a teen get excited when a particular song begins to play, and hear them respond out loud, “that’s my song.” Students typically have several of these, but how wonderful it would be if one or more of them could be one they composed.

This brings me back to Pomp and Circumstance. I’m pretty sure most of the students won’t remember it was written by an English composer named Elgar, or that it is part of a set of ceremonial marches, or that this particular march is also known by it’s lyrics, “Land of Hope and Glory.” But whenever they hear that music, they will always remember that was the music that was played as they marched into their graduation. To be honest, though I’ve played or conducted that music for 27 graduations, and marched to it for three graduations of my own, that first time, at my own high school graduation is the one I remember, and when I do, it still sends chills up my spine, even all of these years later. On this day of my students’ graduation, congratulations to all those graduating this spring, and to all teachers who have sent another class on their way, prepared for long, productive lives with the knowledge, know-how, skills, and wisdom you have given them.