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.”

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.