Using Core Arts Standards to Teach Students How To Select Repertoire

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

How do performers select repertoire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do Language and Music Mix in the Music Classroom?

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

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

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

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

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

What Can L.A. and Math Teachers Learn from Music Teachers About Practice?

2011Symposium_1_2It is always good to read that researchers have found ways in which music benefits brain development, spatial reasoning, language acquisition, and other areas of learning. Such studies have often been sited by music education advocates in defense of maintaining or even expanding music programs in schools. Work has also been done on integrating common core standards into music instruction by fashioning language arts and math objectives into music objectives, making it possible to claim that music teachers are supporting common core. While neither brain research nor utilizing common core in music instruction should be ignored, one area that has not been given much attention but which music educators are perhaps pre-eminent experts is practice.

The very nature of performing arts education demands practice and rehearsal to achieve excellence in performing specific musical works. From the outset, repertoire is selected, and students rehearse in full ensembles, practice in small group lessons, and practice individually outside the classroom setting. Students proceed through each type of rehearsal or practice with clear goals in mind, which may be to improve a specific aspect of performance, such as tone, rhythmic precision, or expressivity, and with specific strategies to achieve those goals, such as to keep the pulse steady throughout, or to infuse the sound with more air to improve tone. Such strategies are measurable and well suited for learning and improvement.

The strength in all of this is that there is ample opportunity, indeed requirement, for practice, and that is directed at things that are clearly stated, easily observable, measureable, and a manageable portion of the overall process of performing music. This last point is key. One of the values of practice is that component skills of a process can be isolated and worked on in a way that they cannot in a performance. When musicians perform, they bring technique, tone, interpretation, and contextual knowledge to bear on the performance, but they do not have the opportunity to improve on these individually. Every student in every discipline needs to practice every skill and process in order to learn every thing that might be taught in school, or for that matter anywhere else. The key is to have students practice the right thing the right way. The two things that matter are what is practiced and how it is practiced.

This is the great lesson teachers in other subjects can learn from music teachers. They can first learn to ask the question, “what skills go into a student Practice makes permanentbeing able to do what I’m asking him or her to do? How can I design practice activities so that one or more of these skills is easily observable and measureable? Once a student has succeeded in doing what I’ve asked him or her to do, do I give the student opportunities to continue to practice so that he or she becomes better at the things he or she is already good at?” To this last point, it is important to remember that if we stop practicing once we “get it,” then we never develop past a novice level of proficiency, and discourage attaining excellence. It is better to do a few things excellently than to do many things adequately. Music teachers know how to isolate skills, practice areas of weakness, and practice beyond initial proficiency and on to excellence.

There are not many things in life that can be stated so emphatically as the necessity of practice. The fact is we are constantly practicing things, whether we mean to or not. Every time we do anything, we are practicing it and all of the skills that go into doing it. That is both the power and the danger in practicing. If we are not intentional and focused about what we are practicing, then It is just as likely that we are practicing the wrong thing as the right thing. A person who misuses a word in a sentence fifty times has practiced using that word, but only learned through practice to use it wrongly. Those who practice two or more digit addition but forget to carry to the next column have practiced addition, but only learned through practice to add incorrectly. Without practice carrying to the next column or using the word correctly, a person will continue to improve at making those errors, and will not improve in writing or adding, no matter how long they practice. The way music educators teach students to practice needs to come out of the practice rooms and rehearsal halls and into the academic classrooms. Music teachers for their part need to be sure attention is paid to designing practice that is focused and measureable, and to use feedback obtained from assessments to drive student improvement.

What are Ways to Handle Performance Anxiety in Student Musicians?

2011Symposium_1_2For anyone who performs music in public, or directs music ensembles, performance anxiety is something that must be dealt with. Different people experience performance anxiety differently, and to different degrees, but the person who has no anxiety when performing in public is rare. Last Friday, my 5th grade chorus participated in a choral adjudication. My students sang for adjudicators who gave written comments, and spent time working with my students, doing a short clinic with them. When we were not on stage, we were able to observe two other schools perform and the sessions with the adjudicators that followed. As I watched the other schools, I was struck by the differences in each group’s experience on stage. As it happened, one group was clearly excited and joyful about what they were doing, and the other group was terrified. These differences not only came out in their respective performances, but also in the students’ body language. It caused me to start to consider, why do some ensembles experience much performance anxiety while others experience so little? In this post, I’d like to explore a few possible answers to this question.

The first answer is, because students take on the temperament and anxiety level of their director. The first director I observed appeared calm and in total control. She smiled, announced her group in a calm tone of voice, and exuded confidence and certainty that they were going to enjoy the experience. Sure enough, her choir sang with smiles, just the right amount of animation, and with visible confidence and enjoyment. The second director came out on stage visibly shaken. She fumbled a bit with the CD player where the accompaniment track would be played, and then announced, “I’m as nervous as the students.” There it is. Having made this announcement, the students new for certain, if they didn’t know before, that there was something to be anxious about, because their director was nervous. Indeed, they sang timid, unsure at times, and visibly afraid of making a mistake.

For my own group, yes I was nervous, but I acted as if I was not. I smiled at them on stage before we began, and I reminded them to sing their best and to have fun. Earlier that morning, when we had our final practice, some of the students were still unsure of one phrase of a harmony part. We went over it so that it got better, but the students were still not confident, so I said, “if you feel you can sing that part, please do because the music will sound that much better with it, but if you’re not sure of it, just sing the melody. Either way, you’ll sound fine.” I learned a long time ago that when it’s performance day, you go with what you have, and you don’t invite performance anxiety by trying to cram. When it came time for my students to sing, they were a little nervous, but as soon as they started singing, and I gave them another smile, they perked up and sang well. They demonstrated that they were prepared to perform for the adjudicators.

There are three points to take away from this discussion. First, prepare your students in such a way that you and they can performance anxietyfeel confident about what you are about to do. Preparation not only includes what and how you rehearse, but also in the music you select for your students to sing. Challenge them, but not so much that they can never get comfortable with performing what you’ve chosen. At some point before the performance, they have to feel that they have it, believe they will do it well, and have enough room to enjoy themselves. No one likes performing when it takes every ounce of ability just to get the notes right. Second, value growth over product. The improvement, fun, expressiveness, and musical growth that students experience over the course of rehearsing a piece is more important than the final product, the performance. When the process results in growth, fun, and expressiveness, the performance will demonstrate those things, and be successful. When the weight of success rests solely on a single performance, performance anxiety will run rampant, and few will enjoy music making.

Third, teach your students that it is not all about them. The purpose of the performance is not to provide an opportunity for other people to judge them. The purpose of any performance is to give a gift of music to an audience, and to themselves.  Even adjudicators appreciate receiving the gift of a musical performance. They are committed to fostering growth, and encouraging enjoyment, not to tearing down and discouraging. Also, do not overlook that the ensemble is also an audience. Ensembles should enjoy performing for themselves. The act of music making with others is in itself enjoyable.

I remember one winter when I was an undergraduate, I was involved in a dress rehearsal for a wind ensemble concert that evening. Meanwhile outside, there was a snowstorm bearing down. The program was one we were all excited about and looking forward to performing. It was challenging, and we had just played it excellently. Just as we were nearing the end of the rehearsal, an administrator walked into the rehearsal hall and told the conductor that the university was closing down, and that our concert would be cancelled.

We were all hugely disappointed as we heard the announcement. And then the conductor did something I will never forget. He told us that we had worked very hard on this program, had accomplished much. We should not let the cancellation ruin what we had done. This moment would be just for us. Then he asked if we would all stay late, and perform the concert right then, before the university closed, just for ourselves. No one left the stage and all embraced the idea. We played for ourselves with all the excitement and passion we so wanted to share with others. It was, oddly enough, one of the most memorable performances I have ever been involved with. It would have been great for others to be there to hear it, but it was enough that we could all share that performance with each other.

Lead with confidence, prepare well, value the process, and perform for others and each other. These are key ways to minimize performance anxiety in our student ensembles, and in our selves. We will never eliminate performance anxiety, but we surely can keep it from ruining our musical experiences.