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.”

A Closer Look At The Four Artistic Processes: Creating

2011Symposium_1_2The National Core Arts Standards are written around four artistic processes. For music, these processes are creating, performing, responding, and connecting. How do these four artistic processes translate into what music teachers and students are to do in a classroom? I will take each process and, using the framework (see my post from July 8) unpack each one. In this post, I will begin with creating.

Creating is “conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.” In order to do this, students “generate and conceptualize, organize and develop, and refine and complete artistic work. These three pairs of actions form a work flow for creating artistic work. The first pair, generate and conceptualize, is the beginning of the creating process. To generate is to bring about a result from applying certain rules and procedures. A generated artistic idea does not come into existence from nothing, but is the result of actions taken with entities that already existed. This can be seen in linguistic where a sentence or phrase is brought about by applying universal rules of grammar to lexical input. Lerdahl and Jackendoff demonstrated that a corresponding situation exists in music whereby an experienced listener intuitively applies universal rules of musical grammar to generate structure in music to which he or she listens. Generating musical ideas, then, involves using what has been learned through experience with music and bringing different ideas to light with the same structures as the music with which the music creator is experienced. This is why a person who has heard Western art music for years, but never heard Gamelan, will generate musical ideas that are structured as and sound Western not Indonesian. From this, we can see that students who are immersed in several musical cultures will be capable of generating a wider variety of musical ideas than students who are immersed in primarily one or two genres.

To conceptualize is to envision, imagine; to form an image in one’s mind. When an idea is conceptualized, it is held in the Expectationsbrain in a form which can be remembered, altered, examined, and played with. A conceptualized idea is one that has according to Gordon been audited, and according to psychology on of which a person has made a mental image. A conceptualized idea is one that can be found to be similar or related or parallel to another, making the composing and recognition of variations and developments possible, as well as making it possible for one musical work to remind a listener of another, or to enable a listener to categorize a musical work according to composer, historical period, or genre. Conceptualization requires not only listening experience, but knowledge about music, especially styles, genres, composers, and historical periods and cultures. This kind of knowledge equips learners to go beyond generating an idea and to do something with the idea.

In order to create, students also “organize and develop artistic ideas and work.” Organizing artistic ideas follows generating and conceptualizing. Once ideas have been generated and conceptualized, they can be organized into sequences of ideas and developed so that those sequences flow and have breadth to bring enjoyment and expression to the listener. This too requires experienced and knowledgeable listeners. Through their experience with and knowledge of musical genres, students have a basis on which to organize their ideas in a way that makes sense according to musical grammar and well formalness, and according to a plan for the musical work they have made. Students’ intuition about music that sounds “right” can be seen by playing two half phrases from two different musical works that clearly don’t fit together, and observing students’ reaction. They are likely to either cringe or laugh at the music, because it will either sound awful or funny due to the incongruity of the two half phrases. Music has to have a sense of rightness, and that comes from grammatically well formed organization, which is learned through listening experience. Developing music is a product of the same experience. There is always a predictability and balance to well-conceived music. Skilled composers find just the right balance between fulfilling and delaying listeners’ expectations, in order to create stress and release in a satisfying, exciting, and expressive musical work.

Finally, in order to create, students refine and complete their artistic work. As a result of experience listening to music, students acquire a sense of what outstanding, good, fair, mediocre and bad music is. Based on this experience, gained through another artistic process, responding, students are able to evaluate musical works, including their own, and conceptualize improvements. Through a cycle of evaluating, reflecting, and revising, students improve the quality of their artistic work until they have realized their intent, and have a musical work ready for presentation to an audience.

Using New Learning to Focus and Structure Music Lessons

2011Symposium_1_2One of the risks of begin an arts teacher is that my lessons will be perceived as unplanned and lacking in structure. While I always have both plans and structure to every lesson I teach, the highly interactive nature of a music class sometimes gives the illusion that we are only responding to the moment without an overarching goal. For this reason, I try to build new learning into every lesson or rehearsal. By new learning, I don’t mean just improving performance through practice, evaluation and refining, though this is critical also, but I mean also that students will learn something new that they will immediately begin to use. New learning keeps long-term projects interesting, and helps me avoid just teaching skills without expecting students to use high level thinking and problem solving strategies.

In addition to writing the objective for each class on the board, I also write a list of new learning for each class. This list, which typically has two or three items, tells the students what they will need to know in order to be able to do that day’s class work that I haven’t taught to that class this year. It may be that some students know what is on the list from a previous year of music classes, or from music lessons they take outside of school. These students enjoy teaching their peers something from the list, and are encouraged by the opportunity to do so. I have found that starting a class with the new learning list gets the students’ attention, and putting the information up front at the beginning of class seems to cause more students to retain the learning, perhaps because they go through the steps of learning first and then applying what they have just learned, rather than trying to remember and apply something they learned a week or more ago, or learn as they go when they have become confused. The list also gives me a few concrete things to reinforce with students as I support their learning in small groups during the class. Reinforcing instead of introducing in small groups also helps increase retention of the material.

The new learning list also makes the structure of the lesson highly visible. The new learning items are amusic_words_large common thread that runs through the entire lesson. Activities the students are doing can be seen as opportunities to practice what they have just learned. The new learning is added in to what they were already doing, and so helps to improve the quality of the performance they are practicing, evaluating and refining. It is also helpful if new learning is easily connected to previous learning, either through application or similarities. For example, if the students learned last week that when a note has a sharp applied, the pitch is raised one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the right of the white key of the same letter or solfege name, then they will easily understand this week that when a flat is applied, the pitch is lowered one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the left of the white key of the same letter or solfege name. The half step displacement and proximity of the black key to the white key are similarities that tie the new learning about flats to the previous learning about sharps.

Once students have learned the new material, they are given something musical to do in small groups. The something musical is chosen from one of the artistic processes in the core arts standards: create, perform, respond, or connect. In the example above about sharps and flats, students were given the bass line to the song “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” in three different keys, each with a different key signature. The rhythm of dotted quarter, eighth, and two quarter notes is pervasive. The new learning list was key signature, flats on the keyboard, and dotted notes. Reinforcement occurred as I reminded students that a note was B-flat and not B natural because of the key signature, and when evaluation of performed dotted quarter and eighth note pointed out that they were played as if they were two quarter notes. Because the dotted quarter and eighth were followed by two quarter notes, students could compare the two aurally and visually, and learn to accurately. New learning can be any material related to what students are already doing with which students can create, perform, respond or connect.

The Tension Between Expediency and Rigor

2011Symposium_1_2Realizing that the world isn’t perfect, and that music directors sometimes do things they feel they have to do but don’t really want to do, I thought it would be useful to explore the tension that often exists between expedient and rigorous. First, I should define my terms. Expedient is training an ensemble to play the right notes, dynamics, tempi, and articulations as accurately as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Expedient training typically involves drill and rote teaching, is teacher centered, and leaves all of the interpretive and technical decisions to the teacher. Music teachers resort to this type of teaching when there is a performance looming, and too little time to prepare students by any other way. Rigor is teaching an ensemble to play the right notes, dynamics, tempi, and articulations as expressively as possible, which still requires accuracy, but the accuracy is gained through student centered instruction, leaving much of the interpretive decisions to the student, and allowing the student to solve technical problems to the greatest extent possible after teaching them practice and evaluation strategies.

This is a more time consuming approach, but one that results in a more meaningful music experience for the student. Students use teacher-provided and collaboratively developed criteria, and later personally developed criteria, to evaluate their own interpretation, technical skill, originality, emotional impact, and interest to refine a performance until it is ready to present publicly. Notice how far beyond accurate notes, dynamics and articulations this goes. When students are playing music just the way they are told to play it, personal meaning and expression are absent until the performance is fully prepared at which time there may be an emotional consensus on the effectiveness of the director’s interpretation. Through director centered rehearsals, visceral satisfaction and interaction with the music is rare or missing, because the investment of personal feelings is left out. When students are not actively involved in the evaluation and refining, all that is left is rehearsing, which alone is essentially rote learning or drill, neither of which builds musicianship.

Rehearsal should be the means to refining accuracy and interpretation, but both must first be conceived, developed, music and the brainand even practiced before they can be refined in rehearsal. Accuracy is born not only out of practice, but out of recognizing where challenges lie, and finding motivation in taking them on, equipped with a plan and strategies learned from good teaching. While accuracy can be practiced individually, interpretation must ultimately be executed corporately in an ensemble. Discussing, exploring, and trying multiple interpretations with the ensemble involves students in meta-cognitive activity that is essential for instructional depth in music performance education. It is, I believe, no accident that “interpret” precedes “rehearse” in the core arts standards for music. Interpretation requires intent and expression. Where interpretation is added on after notes, rhythms, articulations and tempi are mastered, the point of musical activity is lost. Put another way, pitches, rhythms, articulations and tempi are means to an expressive end, not the other way around. The point is not to learn the notes, but to express intent with notes. Observe the enduring understanding for rehearse, evaluate and refine performance: “To express their musical ideas, musicians analyze, evaluate, and refine their performances, individually or in collaboration with others.” The first phrase states the purpose of musical performance, that is, to express musical ideas. Students engage in analysis, evaluation and refinement individually when they practice, and in collaboration with others when they are in their ensemble setting. Being told how to play every note and nuance is not collaboration and is not what the writers of the standards intended. Collaboration involves taking ideas from many and creating something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because all benefited from each contribution of a part.

There is a tension between knowing this is how it should be, and knowing that there is not time to start doing all of these things. But there is eventually a return on every good investment. Students who become capable of being independent learners and interpreters of music, what Shaw had Henry Higgins call “a tower of strength” in Pygmailion do not need as much supervised drill, because they are capable of evaluating, refining and overcoming challenges in the text, and defects in the performance much more independently and therefore more quickly and efficiently, than students who must totally rely on their director for everything. This investment must be made at times of the year when there is time to make, or else every director must make time to do so. We must do this because we are not music trainers, we are music educators, which is a much higher calling.


Duke Ellington Had It Right

2011Symposium_1_2Duke Ellington once said, “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” There is a lot for music educators to think about in that statement, especially because an enduring understanding for performing includes “knowledge of musical works,” and “understanding of their own technical skill.” Learning, motivation, and satisfaction are always tied to a careful balancing of difficulty of the music and level of a student’s performing skill. Music that is too easy compared to skill is not motivating, is boring unlikely to be the vehicle for much learning. Music that is too difficult compared to skill is not motivating either, and is discouraging and again unlikely to be the means of much learning. Music that is perfectly matched to skill level will be motivating and satisfying for a time, but because it does not present much if any challenge, will be abandoned relatively quickly, again because of boredom.

Notice that Ellington did not suggest musicians select music they can play, he said they should select music they can master. To master a piece requires anchoosing-beautiful-music interval of time spent working at it; practicing, rehearsing, refining, evaluating, and learning about. A piece one can master is one that is not within immediate reach, but is within reach once reasonable effort is made to put it within one’s grasp, and then to take hold of it as master. The goal in selecting music is to choose a work that the student cannot play yet, and avoid works that the students simply cannot play; that is to say will not be able to play, even after working at it for a reasonable period of time. Remember, the student is the one doing the selecting. The music educator must teach students how to evaluate their music performance skills, the difficulty of a musical work, and guide the student in properly balancing the two to achieve the right amount of challenge. We are trying to train students to be wise musicians.

Ellington also calls musicians who choose music they can master “wise.” There is wisdom in choosing to be challenged, choosing to improve yourself, to constantly be working at becoming better. This is true for all human endeavors, whether vocational or avocational. Leading students to mastery is the heart and soul of education. Students who don’t take on challenges, who don’t struggle with problems, who don’t put themselves, or allow themselves to be put into situations where they cannot immediately succeed, are sure to miss the opportunity to master anything. Students should be encouraged to select music that will appropriately challenge them.

On the other hand, pushing someone to practice something that will continue to be beyond their ability, ever falsely encouraging them with assurances that they can succeed if only they will keep trying, is misguided and a disservice to the student. I have heard too many music ensembles perform works in concerts and adjudications that they simply had no business trying to play or sing. These were not pieces the ensemble could master, and were unwisely chosen. There is no virtue in performing great music badly, but a good deal of advantage in performing any worthy music with excellence. Isaac Stern, the great violinist captured this thought well when he said, “there are more bad musicians than there is bad music.” Music directors must, through exercising wisdom, present music that makes it and the performers look good, while developing musicianship through the process of rehearsing, refining and evaluating.