The Thing About Learning

Version 2I am by nature a very thoughtful person. People who know me well frequently accuse me of overthinking many things, and I have to admit that they are right–I do overthink often. As someone almost constantly in conscious thought about something, there are many thought that come and go, forgotten as quickly as they arrived, but others get my attention. Why are some noticed and others not? Because the ones that get noticed connect to something else I have been doing or thinking, and so are of particular interest to me at the time. The thoughts that remain are those that pertain to what I am at that moment most interested in, what I am presently doing or wanting to do.

There is an important lesson in all of this to teaching and learning, and it is this: in order for learning to succeed, it must be helpful in acquiring something the learner wants. We educators often concern ourselves with goals and objectives, both for our students and ourselves; and well we should. But goals and objectives that are only imposed on a learner, and around which a learner cannot contextualize with relevance are likely to meet with resistance, and be at best of limited use in bringing about the learning we desire. That is why connecting objectives for creating, performing and responding to music is so important, and why it should be done early in any teaching sequence, before the students become mired in trying to achieve objectives that have little or no meaning to them personally. Let’s look at how connecting works in a standards based music classroom.

First, we begin with an enduring understanding. “Musicians connect their personal interests, experiences, ideas, and knowledge to creating, performing, and responding.” When we present concepts, ideas, knowledge, and repertoire to our students, one of the first things they ask themselves if it all seems quite new and unfamiliar to them is, “what does this have to do with what I’m interested in?” “What in my experience with music does this sound like? What associations to familiar things does this music or idea or concept bring to mind? What is something I am familiar with that compares to this?” If the students comes up empty on each or even most of these questions, he or she is unlikely to have any desire to proceed with your lesson or instructional unit. You are about to abandon them to an intellectual deserted island, and that’s not a place where anyone (probably you included) want to be. So before “teaching to the objective” can begin, context needs to be established. Familiar signposts need to be pointed out, and the teacher must give a method of exploring something new in the context of something familiar.

Doing so will motivate learners and deepen understandings. Remember, understanding is not obtaining the ability to recall knowledge or repeat a task, it is the ability to apply previous learning to new situations. Application is only possible when connections are clear. A second enduring understanding states this clearly. “Understanding connections to varied contexts and daily life enhances musicians’ creating, performing, and responding.” Notice what we are trying to help our students connect; we want them to connect varied contexts, the variable, with daily life, the constant. Each new context must connect back to the same personal life of each individual student. Not all students will make the same connections, and not all connections will be equally strong for all students. In fact, one student’s strongest connection, may only be a hint at how to form a different connection to another student, but in an environment of shared learning, students’ connection to varied contexts become woven together, as one connection bolsters up or clarifies another.

I recently played the main theme from the film Indiana Jones to which 2nd grade students tapped a steady beat.  When the music stopped, one child pointed out that the music sounded like Star Wars. He had never seen Indiana Jones, but he recognized something in that music that sounded like music in a movie he had seen, namely Star Wars.  This was, of course, a brilliant connection, because both film scores were written by the same composer, John Williams. With the confidence of having made that connection, that child was now eager to find out what made the two themes sound similar, and a mini-lesson on melodic structure, specifically of dotted rhythms and large melodic intervals, was possible. Imagine the different result if I had begun by teaching


Aaron Copland

melodic structure using the unfamiliar movie theme. The context would have been all wrong, and the results would have been disappointing. By the way, John Williams’ film scores (familiar from daily life) are an excellent connector to music by Aaron Copland (a varied context) whose use of perfect fifths has been called “The American Sound” in so far as American symphonic music is concerned.

The connections students make will inform the choices they make when they create, perform, and respond to music. Students who grow up listening to jazz will demonstrate this knowledge, interest, and experience in the rhythms, melodies and harmonies that show up in their musical creations, and in the “flavor” of their interpretation of musical works composed by others. It will also influence to what their ear is drawn when they are listening to music. That jazz-oriented students will likely hear the arpeggiated trombones at the end of Dvorak’s Symphony “from the New World” as a boogie-woogie riff, whereas someone not familiar with jazz will just hear the same passage as part of the exciting buildup at the end of that symphony (which is probably all it was intended to be).

I began this article talking about goals and objectives, and then have been discussing contexts and connections ever since. I would like to conclude by returning to goals and objectives, but now within a better context in which to understand them. There are at least two kinds of goals we should use with our students; these are academic goals and character goals. The specifics of each kind will need to wait for another post, but for our purposes here, I will use an academic goal for an example. There is something compelling about the Rondo known as “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. Middle school students seem to almost universally be drawn to it and many of them will work very hard to be able to at least play the first theme on the piano. It seems it has become a sort of rite of passage to learn this theme, and so it is passed on from student to student as they teach it to each other, or come to me to teach to them in small groups. Clearly, this bit of Beethoven is part of their daily lives and as such can be connected with various contexts which may include dedications (Fur Elise means for Elise, indicating that the piece was dedicated to someone named Elise, though exactly who is unclear). Fur Elise could then be part of a unit that included other works, perhaps in varied genres, that were also known to be dedicated to individuals. Such a unit would establish one of the purposes for which music is sometimes written. The student may begin with a straight forward performance objective. “I want to be able to play the first theme from ‘Fur Elise’ by Beethoven.”  Doing so may involve reading music, especially if the music teacher is teaching the student to play the theme. If so, another objective might be, “I want to improve my music reading so that I can play the first 32 measures of ‘Moonlight’ sonata by Beethoven in time for my sister’s birthday in November.” Notice now the objective has a something in which the student will demonstrate growth (improve my music reading,” something the student will be able to do as a result of instruction and which will demonstrate the desired growth (play the first 32 measures of “Moonlight Sonata” and a time in which the objective will be completed (“in time for my sister’s birthday in November”). This instruction will be packed with relevance and connections for this student, and so is an excellent example of writing an objective around connections.

When Performance Requests and Developmental Appropriateness Collide

Version 2A music teacher recently asked for suggestions on how to teach The Star Spangled Banner to her kindergarten and first grade classes. She didn’t say why she wanted to do this. Perhaps she was asked to have her youngest children sing it for a program, or perhaps she just felt it could never be too soon to teach their country’s national anthem. To be honest, I had never considered teaching The Star Spangled Banner to children so young; it encompasses a range of an octave plus a perfect fifth, and is a challenge for adults to sing well, let alone 5 or 6 year old children. It even has a secondary dominant that introduces #^4 to the melody in the very first phrase. It’s enough to make any Kodaly teacher cringe! If dissuading this teacher from pursuing her plan of teaching the song to those children was not an option, I would support other ways of handling the song that avoided having to attempt its formidable challenges. For example, the children could chant the words in rhythm. They could be told the story with vocabulary they can understand, and then set to expressing the story through movement while listening to the music. Or, it could simply be used as a song tale, sung by the teacher for the class to listen to. The seeds of learning the song would be planted for a future year when their voices and audiation skills were suitably developed to negotiate the range and pitch set.

While it is true that the Star Spangled Banner is unquestionably on the list of songs every American school student should know, it is not necessary to teach such a difficult song to such young children. They can study the singing of it when they are in upper elementary or middle school grades. The question of how to teach a song must always be considered along with the related question of when to teach a song. In fact, this principle equally applies to any number of other concepts. Surely, if you follow the Kodaly pitch sequence, you would not teach the tritone to a first grader, but would not hesitate to do so with a high school junior or senior (especially if they were cast as Tony in West Side Story).

Because one of the purposes of music is to celebrate occasions and holidays, and because most schools, especially elementary schools, have music classes for children, when the need arises for singing for an event or occasion, music teachers are from time to time asked to prepare children for singing engagements which may not be developmentally appropriate or which may come at an inopportune time within the year’s curriculum sequence. When this occurs, whenever possible it is a good idea to create a context in which the request can be fulfilled in a developmentally appropriate way, or in altering the request to something more educationally sound. For example, getting back to the Star Spangled Banner, if I were required to have a first grade perform it, I might have them chant the words in rhythm while I played the music instrumentally in the background. I might also display children’s crayon drawings of a fort under rocket siege as part of my presentation. If pressed, I would explain the impossibility of children that young singing The Star Spangled Banner successfully, or of getting anything positive out of attempting to learn to do so. We surely wouldn’t ask a child that age to recite Shakespeare or Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; it is just as unreasonable to ask a child to sing The Star Spangled Banner. The argument must be made.

The point now must be made that there is nothing wrong with using music with children that is too difficult for them to sing, as long as they are not asked to sing it. Many songs should be presented to children to hear, respond to, and audiate that they will not sing perhaps for another year or two. It is good pedagogy to familiarize children with songs of varying tonalities and meters, and containing many rhythm and tonal patterns so that these become familiar, even before teaching them as material to be sung. Words to a song chanted in rhythm, as noted above, is an excellent readiness activity to precede singing-kidssinging the song to a class. The children can then recognize the rhythm patterns as they listen to the entire song sung by their teacher. Rhythm patterns learned this way can also be clapped or played on drums, and even used as ostinato accompaniments for repeated performances by the teacher. All of this is building musicianship with advanced repertoire without asking the children to do something, like sing intervals of an octave or greater, before they are ready to do so.  In fact, children should regularly be introduced to new concepts this way before they are asked to perform them.

A related principle is that tonal and rhythm patterns that children have become familiar with through musical experiences outside of school can be used to good advantage in the music class. My older students never tire of sharing with me their favorite rap beats that they have learned simply by listening to rap songs by their favorite artists. This is a great foundation from which improvised drum circle performance can be built. Students naturally organize themselves into leader-follower relationships, and teach each other patterns to expand what started as a solo drummer. Contrast this to a music teacher who tries to teach rap drum beats by passing out notated rhythms and requiring that students learn the patterns from notation. Teaching rhythm notation from rap beats is likely too big a jump in music reading proficiency. Students will always be, and should always be more advanced in their aural learning than in their notational learning.

These students also enjoy singing songs they have learned through listening. This joy of music making can be a starting point from which other songs can be introduced. For example, teaching the guitar chords or keyboard chords to another song by their favorite singer sets up the ability for a friend or two to collaborate with the singer and make a joyful solo into a fun group music-making experience.

Keeping instruction developmentally appropriate, relevant, and within the context of well planned and sequenced instruction is of paramount importance. While administrators or civic leaders may be well versed in what poems and proclamations students can read publicly, it is likely they are not knowledgeable in what children of a given age can be expected to do musically. We must be true to our wisdom, realistic in our expectations, and consistent with our curriculum as we navigate requests for our students to perform. Getting students out into our communities to sing and play music is a great way to promote our music programs and to enrich the experiences we provide within our schools, but we must manage these opportunities with wisdom.