The Better Way

Version 2Times have changed. It used to be that teachers taught everyone the same way, without considering that children don’t all learn the same way. Then we realized there are different types of learners, and we began meeting the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Howard Gardner taught us about multiple intelligences, and a greater attention to special needs children challenged us to find ways to maximize learning for these children. These were all necessary and much needed shifts in educators’ thinking. Still, teachers still considered themselves as the determiners of what would be taught, and how it would be taught. The teacher’s job was to teach, and the students’ jobs were to learn in the way the teacher instructed.

One of the glaring weaknesses of this perspective is that when students are not interested, do not find what the teacher is doing relevant, and disengage themselves from the intended educational process, school becomes a struggle for everyone. Teaching becomes burdensome, and learning becomes boring. However strongly educators may insist that there are certain things all students should know, like Shakespeare, the Pythagorean theorem, or the symphonies of Mozart, no one, teachers in grad school or students in grade school, will be a high achieving learner, or will retain and apply learning, if it was taught to a disinterested, unmotivated student. There has to be a better way, and there is a better way. Student feedback and choice are a powerful combination of tools that quickly ramp up the level of learning and of engagement and interest. In this post, I will describe and discuss both of these.

Student feedback can take many forms. The kind I will discuss here is in regard to students informing teachers on how they prefer to learn, and on the effectiveness of whatever learning strategies the teacher had the students use. Having students generate this kind of feedback is beneficial to both teachers and learners. In giving this feedback, learners develop an awareness of how most successfully learn, and in what ways they most enjoy interacting with the material they are learning, be it knowledge or skills. Once aware of their preferred learning strategy and activity, students can take advantage of the opportunity to learn their way, and to develop a love for learning and for the material that both would otherwise been passed up.

I currently have a second grade student in General Music who dislikes singing to the point where he steadfastly refuses to sing. He will drum, chant, move, dance, play instruments, but will not sing. I am a very Kodaly centered music teacher. Singing is at the very center of everything I do, so with this child, I have a choice. I can just as steadfastly as he, insist that he sing, making our teacher-student relationship frustrating and to some extent confrontational, or I can acknowledge that he can meet a great many of the objectives I have for him and his classmates by doing things other than sing. I can reflect and acknowledge that singing in general music is a means to an end, and not the end itself. I have children sing to teach them to love music, love making music, be creative with interpretation and improvisation, and learn to express themselves in a personal, musical, expressive way.

Of course, a child can learn all those things by playing instruments, and listening to the expressiveness and creativity of others. While some aspects of musical development may be less served by minimizing singing, the detriment will not, I must acknowledge, be as much for someone who hates to sing as for one who enjoys or even loves to sing, like me. I cannot teach someone else to love music as I do by requiring them to sing, if they do not love to sing as I do. Instead, I have the opportunity to observe a child grow in musicality in a different way than I did or would prefer to, and thereby learn something about the child I would not learn otherwise. Learn what about music he or she really values, and what that child really connects with in music.

When a child says “I hate music,” it is rarely literally the case. More likely, what is meant is, “I hate doing what you’re asking me to do, and I won’t do that because I don’t think I’m very good at it and I don’t want anyone to hear me doing it.” But that is too much to say every time a child is asked to sing, so he just says, “I hate music.” Receiving student feedback gives the teacher the opportunity to know his or her students better, which enables the teacher to make content more relevant and attuned with student interests. It also demonstrates to the student that the teacher cares enough to consider him or her as a unique and valued individual, rather than one of many generic students.

Often times, if a student is given the opportunity to practice something like singing, or playing a guitar, or what have you in a safer place than where an entire class of peers will hear, a child will very quickly begin to flourish. I recently had a class of 7th graders working on a guitar project in small groups. There was a girl who just sat there with a guitar on her lap looking unhappy. I brought her out of her group and said I wanted to show her something. I took her guitar and played what I had asked her to play, then I said, I can have you playing that in 5 minutes. Watch. Reluctantly at first, she began to follow my instruction, and in less than 5 minutes, she sounded great. With a smile on her face, she assured me she would continue to play for the rest of the class, and the next class too. Nobody likes doing something they don’t think they are good at in front of an audience. For her, individual instruction was the way to go. For others, group learning is best.

A group of confident learners enjoying what they are doing usually produces exciting results. When given the choice, some of those student groups will choose to sing. They will sing, four or five at a time in unison, in harmony, or to a beat boxer, and enjoy every second. Others will prefer to play rhythms on drums, while others want to get their band instruments and add a flute or saxophone part to their classmates drumming or singing. The best learning occurs from a position of strength and confidence. When students have choices, they will choose to stand on solid ground. From that position of confidence they will be willing to take the risks that are necessary to push learning forward. When forced into a “one size fits all” model of teaching, only those confident in doing that one thing will succeed. Feedback informs instruction, choice empowers students.

Using Student Feedback to Improve Instruction

Version 2In order to provide the best possible instruction for our students, we must be informed about what they are experiencing as they go through the learning activities we have planned for them. We must know what difficulties individual students are having, what progress each student is making, and what connections the student is making between what we are having him or her do and learn with their own life and perspective. If we were to do this in great detail, we would easily be overwhelmed, because the typical public school music teacher sees 500-700 students every week. But their are things we can do that are easily managed and are effective in gathering student feedback which informs  us of these important experiences.

First, when we give our students written work, we can include some questions at the end of their work. Did you enjoy this activity? Was this activity worthwhile for you? Why or why not? What difficulty or difficulties did you experience while doing this activity? What were you able to do easily? Is there something else I could have asked you to do that would have been more helpful to you in meeting today’s objective? When students give honest and detailed answers to these questions, I am greatly helped in meeting their needs that day or during the following lessons. I can look for trends and alter my lesson planning accordingly, and I can find a type of activity that was effective for most or all of the class and make sure I use that type of activity again.

For example, none of my classes like sitting for the first 5-10 minutes of class while I lecture them on a musician or musical work, or what have you. But they love it when I write facts about, for example, a musician on index cards, hide the cards around the room and let them have a scavenger hunt to find them. They have to share with each other what different cards say (collaboration) and from the information they gather figure out who the musician is. Then the rest of the class is on that musician and his or her artistic work. I was spurred on to do this after I received feedback from a high achieving student that I should “make learning more fun.” This part of student feedback really comes down to putting ourselves in their place; of realizing what it is like for our students to be in our class, and then making sure that it is as stimulating, motivating, relevant, and fun as possible, because the truth is, students learn more when they are enjoying what they are doing.

A second kind of student feedback is giving students choices of what they will do to learn what you want them to learn and do what you want them to be able to do. In a general music class, students musical interests vary widely. Some students like to respond to music; they like to write about it. Writing about a text is something they are used to doing in other classes. Middle school students have spent years becoming capable writers in their Language Arts classes. When they come to music, many of them are taken out of theirMIOSM comfort zone when asked to perform music, but they are happy to listen to music and write about it, citing evidence from the text, that is from the music they hear, to support their arguments. In terms of the National Core Arts Standards, these students learn better when they are describing than when they are demonstrating. When either will do for assessing their proficiency, students can be given a choice of writing, verbally explaining (with their explanation assessed on a rubric) or demonstrating with a performance.

In this regard, I like to view the four artistic processes in a way similar to how educators view the multiple intelligences; that is, students often have a dominant artistic process. Some prefer to perform, others prefer to respond, as I discussed above. Some want to create artistic works, while others enjoy finding connections between artistic works and their lives, their community, or their culture. While no artistic process should be left out of any child’s music education, students can and should be allowed to be artistic within the process they most enjoy where the concept being taught can be learned within more than one process. For example, students can learn about timbre by responding to music to which they listen, by composing or arranging for solo and combinations of instruments, or by interpreting a musical work as a performer. If the objective is to understand and be able to demonstrate timbre, then a student can meet this objective through creating, performing or responding. Letting the student choose which artistic process to use is a form of student feedback, it increases the quality of their work, and it informs the teacher what kinds of learning activities will be most effective with individual students.

Below is a handout I developed for use with my 7th and 8th grade classes that is designed to walk the students through selecting an artistic process and guiding them through an activity using that process. I continue to revise it, but I present here in its current form as resource you may find useful. Feel free to tweak it or revise it to meet your students needs. If you’d like, please share your revisions through an e-mail attachment to the address on my contact page.

Select one of the following artistic processes and circle it. This is what you will be doing today.

Creating            Performing          Responding           Connecting

Choose one of the following, depending on which artistic process you chose.


a. generate musical ideas that express happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. You will document your ideas by writing them down using either standard music notation, or a kind of notation that you make up. Each ideas must be at least 10 seconds long, and you must generate and document at least three ideas.

b. organize your three ideas into a rondo form, that is, A B A C A, where the first idea is A, the second idea is B and the third idea is C.

c. revise your ideas if you think that is necessary in order to better express your chosen emotion (expressive intent).

d. practice performing your rondo, or teach someone else to perform it for you, using your written down documentation.

e. present your rondo to an audience of at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song you would like to sing, based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. determine what emotion the songwriter was trying to express, and then determine how you can sing the song in a way that best expresses that same emotion. Consider how best to use elements of music such as tempo (how fast/slow), timbre (the kind of sound you produce with your voice), and dynamics (how loud/soft).

c. determine what an excellent performance of this song would sound like, and then practice singing it, trying to come close to that excellent performance you imagined.

d. perform the song for at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song to which to respond based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. explain in writing how the songwriter applied the elements of music and expressive qualities to convey an emotion.

c. create criteria for evaluating songs, and then use that criteria to evaluate in writing this song.

d. present your findings to at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. Explain in writing connections between the song and a topic or text you have studied in another class, or between the song and observations you can make about the culture in which you live. Share your connections with at least 3 other people in class.

Music Education and Self-Directed Learning

2011 Symposium2

Many of us music educators have, over the years, spent a good deal of time advocating for music education. It can seem to us that at every turn, our programs are in danger of being scaled back or eliminated in the name of raising academic achievement–a strategy we know is ill-advised and contrary to an overwhelming body of research. In the midst of these ongoing battles, we can easily become overly defensive of our curriculum, and unintentionally overlook the very strengths of our discipline that make the strongest case for music in our schools. This defensiveness sometimes comes out in opposing allowing students to choose what they study. The argument against is typically that Math and Science teachers don’t give students this sort of choice, so why should music teachers? “We have a curriculum too, and by golly we’re going to stick to it!”

In making this argument, it is easy to overlook the truth that students don’t interact with and relate to Math and Science the way they do to Music. While it is true that students use math in everyday life, they don’t seek it out and connect with these subjects as they do with music. When we are teaching music, it is helpful to think of our lessons as projects. A teacher that assigns a project allows the student to choose what he or she will do, as long as the work will result in the student learning an identified concept. This is the key point: it is the concept, not the content, that matters. If you want to teach students to compose parts for a rhythm section in a popular song, they can use any song they choose (within guidelines of appropriate language) to delve into as a model. With my middle school students, I sometimes ask them “how would you like to learn today?” Some will choose to work alone, some will choose to work in groups. Some will want me to teach them directly, some will want to discover on their own through responding to music.

Yesterday, for their “do now” question, I even asked an eighth grade class, “what do you want to learn in music today?” I had a lesson all planned and ready to go, but only intended to use it if for students who didn’t respond to my question. All students did respond, and they came up with some excellent ideas; some of them pleasantly surprised me. For example, two boys chose to work together to find out what instruments were used in the Renaissance. I would never have thought to teach that, and there’s no way the entire class would have been interested in that, but these two boys were. They came up with some questions they would answer, and then used the internet to listen to examples of Renaissance music, identify the instruments they heard as best they could, and find out what instruments were commonly used at that time.

A group of four girls started out saying they wanted to “make a beat,” which translatedrecite-1nv08gg usually means they wanted to play the same hip-hop rhythm for half an hour. I asked them, how are you going to do that so that you learn something new? Now they were nudged out of their comfort zone, but they pressed on because after all, the whole thing was their idea. They decided to listen to a song and learn the rhythm part. “Great” I said, “what song do you want to use that will be a model for you making a new rhythm?” Now they needed a song that didn’t use the same old hip-hop beat. They chose a funky song they sort of liked, but they worked hard at learning the rhythm, and then had a good time performing it for me. In the process, they learned what back beats were, learned a rather advanced rhythm off of the bass line, and gained some new (for them) ideas to incorporate into their own composition.

When students direct their own learning, they will not learn everything you would have taught them if you were directing the learning, but they will learn thing you would not have taught them, and those things mean more to students, and make a more lasting impression, and have a greater effect on their lives. That makes the fruits of their self-directed learning incredibly important. The truth is, self-directed learning will result in students learning a diverse repertoire of music and body of knowledge. We can easily underestimate the diversity of interests our students have, and wrongly assume that if it were up to them, all we’d be doing all year is world drumming and hip-hop. I have been guilty of thinking this way, and honestly, when I first tried this sort of teaching, it looked like my assumption was playing out. The key is to manage the class so that students are not put in the position of declaring an interest in front of the whole class that is not shared by most. Those boys would never have announced to the whole class that they wanted to study Renaissance music. That would make them responsible for most of their classmates being bored with their choice. But given the opportunity to follow that interest with one or two others that share that interest, and knowing that the rest are being given the same opportunity, the risk is eliminated, and the opportunity becomes irresistible.

For all of this to work, it is not necessary to always give students the choice of what they learn. In fact, the first question I got when I asked them how they wanted to learn, was “what do you want us to learn?” It’s a great question, and students will be more willing to learn what you want them to learn if they get to choose how they learn it. There is great benefit in allowing students to choose how they learn, because it gives them the opportunity to work off of their strengths. Because of this, they will often experience enjoyment and success learning something they would neither have succeeded at or enjoyed had it been taught your way.

Student Choice in Selecting Repertoire

2011Symposium_1_2One of the challenges that often face music teachers is a tension that develops between students playing music they enjoy, and teachers who want their students to play music that facilitates growth in musicianship. Often, this comes down to the teacher wanting the student to play classical music, and the student wanting to play popular music. Many teachers take the attitude of accommodating their students with a sort of compromise, where if the student will practice a classical piece, the teacher will allow the student to prepare a popular piece for a portion of the lesson. While this arrangement is workable, there is a better way.

The core arts standards for music include a content standard for selecting under the artistic process of performing. The enduring understanding (EU) is, “performers’ interest in and knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context for a performance influence the selection of repertoire.” The essential question is, “how do performers select repertoire?” This immediately brings an aspect of music teaching that often is overlooked: teaching students how to select repertoire is one of the responsibilities of a music teacher. When the teacher selects all of the repertoire, or has an overriding influence on selection, the student never learns how to independently make these choices. The standard includes three areas for the performer to consider when selecting repertoire: interest, knowledge, and technical skill.

All three can be developed through further study, so sometimes a student may select a musical Personen / Musiker / Liszt / am Klavierwork from interest, but realize that s/he needs more technical skill in order to realistically begin practicing the piece. This can be an excellent motivator for working to develop technical skill, and for the teacher to assign exercises and repertoire to accomplish technical growth that the student might not otherwise be receptive to learning. On the other hand, a student may select a musical work based on interest and find that they have plenty of technical skill to play the music, and can successfully perform it with very little practice. These selections are valid for the student to simply enjoy music making, without attempting to grow or improve from the experience. We all enjoy just sitting down and playing or singing music without always working on things we can’t yet play fully. Selecting on knowledge can be a way for students to discover and explore new pieces within a familiar idiom. A student may be knowledgable about minuets, but perhaps has only played those of Mozart and Haydn. What about minuets by other composers? What about related forms such as Landler, waltz, scherzo and polonaise?

For the teacher’s part, one should sometimes take the approach that the skill or concept to be taught is more important than the musical work chosen. For example, if a piano teacher wants to work on developing independence of hands using a broken chord accompaniment, she might use Schubert’s Waltz in A-flat major, D. 365, but she might also use the song “Let It Go” form the movie Frozen. The student may practice “Frozen” much more, and learn the skill much better than if they must learn it from the Waltz. The teacher can then show the student that Schubert used the same kind of writing almost two hundred years ago, and perhaps interest the student in playing Schubert to after building the skill on the easier popular song. This makes the inclusion of popular music and classical music part of a holistic approach to music teaching, and makes it possible for the student to evaluate their own needs and interests while considering repertoire possibilities. We shouldn’t feel as though we must indulge in our students’ musical tastes in order to hold their interest, but instead look for opportunities for better, more effective instruction by using the music they are interested in to build concepts and skills. If the music they select is consistently “too easy” for the growth the teacher is looking for, add value to those selections by having the student improvise on their selection, thereby incorporating more advanced technical opportunities, or even compose variations which the student must then play. Judging music a student wants to play as inappropriate or as only a reward for good behavior practicing classical pieces promotes a musical narrow mindedness that is contrary to one of the goals all music teachers should have, that of teaching a diverse repertoire.

Components of Exemplary Teaching for Music Teachers

2011Symposium_1_2Exemplary teaching in today’s educational climate can be broken down into three areas each of which dictates to some extent what teachers do and what students do. While these nine areas apply to teachers in all disciplines, they can be discussed at the application level within a single discipline such as music. Today I will discuss these nine areas and how to apply them to teaching music.

The first area is assessment of student learning and teacher instruction. Assessment is not about grades or report cards; it is about finding out how well students are doing the things we are asking them to do, and where their areas of strengths and weaknesses are so that instruction can be appropriately adjusted, targeting the strengthening of weaknesses and the further development of strengths. Teachers who collect data consistently and effectively can gain snapshots of students at the time of assessment, and pictures of growth as data points are compared over time. Areas of need are identified with each assessment, plans for future instruction can be made or revised, and lesson plans can be under continual adjustment as needed. I have just completed giving a solo singing assessment to each of the 2nd grade children I teach. The assessment measured accuracy of the starting pitch, maintaining the tonality, use of head voice, intonation, tempo, rhythm, and expression with both a teacher rating scale and a self-assessment rating scale for each child. All performances were recorded for assessment purposes, and are artifacts of student work. I have a data point for each of these assessed items on the assessment, and an overall rating that represents the child’s placement in comparison to an established standard. I know in which of these assessed areas each child needs more instruction, and I can easily set goals for each child to improve in their weakest areas on the assessment. Frequently, students can be given a choice of how to demonstrate learning. For example, rhythm assessment can be demonstrated with chanting, singing, or drumming.

The second area is group dynamics and interactions between individuals. Any classroom is a social structure, and the art-of-teachingsuccess of the class depends to a large degree on the frequency and quality of interactions between the individuals in the class. The functioning of these social qualities must be open to consistent analysis and evaluation in order to identify aspects of it that need improvement. Exemplary teachers intentionally meet the social and emotional needs of students, and are knowledgeable about individual needs and interest, using this information in planning and teaching. Examples include allowing students to learn musical concepts with culturally relevant music, and to teach each other within a protocol of productive small group work. They develop and maintain standards of conduct that are clear to all students and reflect student needs, include all students in classroom activities, and provide opportunities for meaningful student choice. Examples of student choice in music can include interpretive decisions including dynamics and tempo, choice of repertoire from a menu, or choice of learning styles by providing time for small group learning, including student-run sectionals in performance ensembles.

The third area is challenging work. Instruction should be meaningful, and it can only be meaningful if it fosters growth. Growth is a product of gaining proficiency where there was none or less before. Every learning experience that results in growth will include a degree of challenge. To put it another way, you cannot sharpen a metal blade on a plastic knife. The metal is not challenged by the plastic, and will in fact become dull instead of sharper. The same is true of learners. Lack of challenge will result in dullness and boredom, not growth and learning. Meaningful learning is in-depth, and engages students with significant concepts and high-order thinking. Levels of challenge can be designed into all areas of music education: performing, creating, responding, and connecting. For performance, the complexity of the literature, for creating the quantity of concepts incorporated, for responding in the depth to which an analysis or interpretation goes, and for connecting the creativeness and diversity of connections made and the broadness of knowledge upon which the student can draw to make those connections. Challenge is where learning goes beyond learning facts and vocabulary to where they become tools used to creative, expressive, and artistic affect. As teacher evaluations become more sophisticated and demanding, and more research based, teachers can be exemplary by including these three areas, assessment, group dynamics, and challenge, in their daily work.