Making Lessons Interesting and Important

Version 2Any classroom will run more smoothly and be a place of effective learning when the lessons taught are both interesting and important to students. Lessons that are interesting to students are about things that students can use, want to use, and to which they can make connections with their personal lives, their other classes, their families, and/or their culture. While music often has a higher interest level for many students than other subjects, not all music is of equal interest. At times, one student or another will spontaneously break out into song. While this could be a good thing, when it comes at my mid-sentence to the class, it interrupts what I am doing. When asked to stop, the student typically will respond, “but it’s music, and this is music class.” This little vignette illustrates interest. The student is interested in the music he or she is singing, not necessarily the music that I am teaching at that moment. On the other hand, if I plan a response to listening, or creating, and base it on rap music, (I teach in an urban school district, and rap is by far the genre of choice among my students) their interest is high, and they are much more engaged and productive.

Music that interests students is also likely the most familiar to them. Many of my students can play the intricate hip-hop rhythms, sometimes better than I can, and they never tire of playing along with their favorite artist recordings or in some cases writing their own lyrics or free-styling. I am using rap as an example. Genres of interest will vary with different students, different school districts, and different cultures. The point is that this music of interest is something the students have largely taught themselves to be fluent in, and they are ready to make music together with their classmates in music class. This opens up many possibilities for authentic musical experiences in my classroom. With students already proficient and familiar with music making in a genre, I am free to have them create and perform in various forms, with various expressive intents, and with a variety of instruments including technology. Their interests form the basis for teaching and learning musical concepts, using the skills they already have. Of course, I can also improve their technique, showing them, for example, how to hold drumsticks, how to take their beatboxing or body percussion onto a drum kit, and how to add instrumental backgrounds such as synth pads, to their created musical works.

From their current musical interests, I also have the opportunity to develop new interests, not by forcing other kinds of music on them like convincing them to like it was some kind of crusade, but by making connections between what already interests them and other styles of music. For example, here are two tracks that combine elements of jazz and hip-hop, giving me the opportunity to teach both, or to bridge from hip-hop to jazz, always retaining just enough hip-hop to keep my students’ attention.


That’s music that interests students. Now what about music that is important to students? Interest and importance are certainly related, but they are not the same. Things that are interesting are connected to one’s personal life, and the lives of others directly involved in a person’s life. Interesting things include what self, friends, family, and those with which we come in frequent or daily contact. Important things go beyond our immediate sphere of influence (and of being influenced). Important things affect people on a larger or even universal scale. Patriotic songs, or recordings to raise money for the needy such as the “We Are The World” projects are examples of important things. These songs are only important to students if the universal context, purpose, or intent is also important to students. For example, Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame once wrote as one, “With Your Face To The Wind” to honor a young woman fighting cancer. To me, this was an important song because of its purpose, and I found the passionate live recording of the trio’s performance moving. I shared the recording with some students who were apt to be outspoken on many issues, and was surprised to find they attached very little importance to this young woman’s struggle or the encouragement the musicians were trying to offer. Her battle was not their cause, so they didn’t see the song as important.

I think music teachers run into this problem often when teaching classical music. We consider the so called masterworks of the great composers important from a historical and cultural perspective. These are great works of music and should be known by all Westerners just as surely as should Shakespeare or any other author one would care to name. But these creators of artistic works aren’t important to many students. They have grown up in an environment where everything including artistic works are much more disposable than a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Classic rock is old enough for them, and then only if the message of those old songs connects with their contemporary experience. The answer to the unimportance of classical music to young people is not to water it down, package it with sexy marketing of artists, or jam it into a rock or hip-hop beat (remember Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven?”). If classical music is going to be important to anyone, it will have to connect with the very spirit and reality of existence that young people have today. My students almost invariably like Beethoven music because they marvel at how anyone could write something like that and not be able to hear. Beethoven’s symphony becomes not so much about “great music” as it is about a person with a physical handicap overcoming his disability to accomplish something great. That’s important to kids. I know there will be some who will disparage that last point, arguing that I am basing the importance or even meaning of music on something extramusical. But no one would care one wit that Beethoven was deaf if he had written mediocre or bad music. It is the greatness of the music itself that makes his achievement as a deaf composer remarkable and interesting. So it is about the music, and also about the composer.

Music as we teach it is not an object that comes through earbuds to individual people. It is an art form that is created by a person for other people, with an expressive intent, a purpose, and within a context. Every musical work, be it a symphony or a rap song is intended to reach a community of people, to bring among other things a message or expression or affirmation. The more we can help students connect with those messages, expressions and affirmations within their own contexts, the more important, and interesting, music will be for them.


Student Engagement in the Music Classroom

Version 2Music is one of those areas where people seem to think natural ability has as much to do with success as anything. Whereas we assume that with differentiated instruction all children can learn to read, learn to reason and compute mathematically, and learn to use the scientific method to find and discover knowledge and understanding, people often take a different view of the arts. This perspective is often held by our students as well. Many students believe that they cannot sing, compose, or play an instrument well because they lack the talent. They believe that no matter what amount of effort they put into it, the results will not be worth the investment of time, and so they do just enough to get by with a grade that is acceptable to them, and perhaps to their parents.

The critical point in this is that when a student has decided that in spite of his or her best effort, he or she will not attain the level of proficiency expected, that student has no reason to continue trying, and will exhibit behaviors of a disengaged learner; refusal to do the work, excessive talking, and other behaviors teachers would call disruptive or misbehaviors. Music teachers, usually without realizing it, reinforce and confirm the students conclusion that effort doesn’t matter when they assign grades on what the student achieves, accomplishes, or produces, regardless of what effort has been made. It can seem to the student unfair that he or she did the best they could and still received a poor grade. Whatever effort was needed to produce a better result, if it was beyond the student’s ability, then what ever effort they did put into it was for naught.

This raises the issue of whether or not grading should be based on effort at all; if grades should be solely on the end product. Conventional wisdom tells us that the younger the child, the more effort should be counted. This is so that children can learn that there is a correlation between effort and achievement, and that success rarely comes to someone who doesn’t try. In it’s most simplistic form, it is like the lottery slogan, “you can’t win if you don’t play.” You can’t succeed if you don’t try. This is a valuable lesson, and we teachers should never stop helping students make the cause and effect connection between effort and achievement. To those who believe that grades should only be based on achievement, I would say at some point, maybe graduate studies, that is true. But we are teaching students who have not fully learned how to learn, how to be a learner, a scholar, and even a success. We must do everything we can to complete that training as we also teach them our subject matter. If we have students in our classes or ensembles who are not succeeding, are discouraged and disengaged learners, then we cannot simply lower the boom of a bad grade and expect things to change. Students don’t choose low achievement, they experience it because something in the learning process is broken and needs fixing.

Counting effort as at least part of the music grade is an effective way to encourage a i-get-itdisengaged student to re-start with the hope of a different experience; one of success. Students like this need to hear feedback like, “I know the result of your work today wasn’t what you were hoping for, but I really liked the effort you put into it. You worked really well today and I’m confident that as you continue to work that way, you will see the kind of results you want. Keep up the good effort.” For a student like this, knowing that even though their achievement grade wasn’t great, they still walked away from that lesson with a solid effort grade. Those two grades, effort and achievement, can be scaled however the teacher wishes, but I would suggest a sliding scale, where for the struggling student effort is perhaps 60% and achievement 40%. As the student reaches set benchmarks in the achievement grade, the proportions can change until they are reversed: 40% for effort, 60% for achievement. I believe it is important to keep effort in the equation as a constant reminder that effort does count. Even when a student is getting straight A’s for achievement, he or she must remember that effort counts, that it is needed for continuing that excellence, or building greater achievement. Students who have that truth in front of them at all times, that effort counts, will be more engaged and better behaved in class.

Effort connects to one of four essential questions that every student asks him or herself (Marzano & Pickering, 2011). The question is, “can I do this?” The other questions are, “how do I feel? Am I interested? Is this important? The question of “can I do this” is tied to what a student bases his or her self-identity on. Dweck (2009) explained that students who believe success is based on talent or natural ability tend to stick to what they know they can do, and avoid trying new things or taking risks. This is because they fear failure, because if they fail people will see them as a counterfeit, as one who really wasn’t all that talented after all. In contrast, students who believe success is based on effort do not fear failure, but know how to use failure as a tool for learning and self-improvement. They have not tied their self-identity to talent, but if to anything then to the perseverance manifested in one who continues to try as a strategy and pathway to eventual success. This is why it is important to continually encourage students to maintain the effort, and to guide through taking away from failures all that can be learned from them, so that they assist in advancing toward the goal.

A student who is engaged in learning is able to answer the question “can I do this” in the affirmative. A belief in the value of effort is key to giving this answer. There is one more question that relates to being an engaged learner, and that is, “is this important.” This question is often referred to as relevance. Briefly, establishing relevance is contingent on the student being able to connect what he or she is learning to prior knowledge, experiences, interests, and context. These are addressed in the National Core Arts Standards wherever connecting is mentioned. Teachers can help students find material relevant by bridging to prior learning, giving students choices of how (written, oral, performance, etc.) and what (selecting artistic works to perform or to which to respond, and by planning authentic learning experiences, which are activities that reflect what musicians do in the real world, that is, outside your classroom.  Teachers who understand their students’ interests and ambitions can direct instruction toward what is most important to the students. The result will be that the students will see what they are learning as relevant, and their level of engagement will be correspondingly higher. Helping students gain the position of being able to answer the two questions, “can I do this,” and “is this important” affirmatively will cause them to be highly engaged in learning in the music classroom.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Heflebower, T. (2011). The highly engaged classroom. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset. New York: Random House


Success Starvation

2011Symposium_1_2I teach in an inner-city urban school. With many of the students I teach, there is a kind of starvation that has nothing to do with food. The children get a nutritious breakfast and lunch at school every day, so their dietary needs are being met. But they are still starved–starved for success. I have come to realize that many times, when a student is not finding success, it isn’t from lack of ability. It is because they have given up trying, and they have given up trying because they just haven’t had enough success when they were trying to make it worth their while. They will protest that the work I give them is too hard, or that they can’t do what I am asking of them. Of course, if I have miscalculated and truly given them work that is too difficult, it is up to me to adjust the level of challenge so that their assignment is realistic, and so that the child sees the task as doable. But more often than not, the child needs enough support to guide them through the task so that they can find their way to a successful conclusion. If left on their own, these children who believe they cannot stay in the game will become chronic behavior problems, and many of them will eventually drop out of school when they are old enough to have the opportunity; so getting it right early on is important. Let me illustrate with am example from this past week.

There is a seventh grade boy I teach, I will call him Frank, though that is not really his name, who has already become a chronic behavior problem in the school. It is difficult for any of his teachers to motivate him to do much in class, and he frequently interacts with students in disruptive ways, or just sits in class and avoids getting involved in anything. Every once in a while, a teacher gets an opportunity with a child like this. For whatever reason, he is not his usual self and decides to do what he is told, more because he hasn’t got the inclination or the energy to resist that particular day than that he has decided to turn his school career around. I was presented with such an opportunity this week with Frank. After not putting in much effort to prepare his piano piece on his keyboard app for my assessment, I called his name to come to the piano and play. He responded as expected, that he didn’t know what to do. At other times I might have tried to hold him accountable, reminding him that he was to have used the preceding time to apply what he knew to preparing the song. But today, he came up to the piano, sat down, found middle C with his right hand thumb, and then repeated that he didn’t know what to do.

But he did know where to place his hands on the keyboard. “That’s okay, you’re here to learn. It’s okay if you don’t i-get-itknow how to play all of this song yet, let’s learn how right now.” I then reviewed with him the fingerings in the music, and he began rehearsing the finger numbers with the keys and their letter names. That was a good start for Frank. Next, I said, “okay, good, now what note does the song start on? What finger do you play that note with? What note comes next?…” I went on like that for about five minutes, and he did a great job of staying with me. Gradually, he began putting the song together, and then he played it, from beginning to end. “That was very good; look at what you just accomplished, look at what you were able to do. I can see by the smile on your face that you are proud of what you have accomplished, and you should be. I’m so pleased with what you have done.” Frank now had a big success that made him feel a whole lot better about being musical and learning to play the piano. I’m glad I didn’t just see Frank sitting unproductively in my class that day, and assume that he would once again resist doing anything productive. A window of opportunity was open, and it led us to an important discovery, which Frank would describe this way: “I can do it. I know this because I did it.” Now hopefully he is looking forward to another song and another success. Sometimes learning that you can succeed is as important as the success itself.

A Strategy For Improving Student Engagement

2011Symposium_1_2When an entire class is singing or playing musical instruments, having everyone actively participating is a given. There is no waiting to be called on and no hoping not to get called on. Music ensembles involve everyone all the time. Every student is either singing, playing, or tracking measures of rest so they will make their correct entrance. But once the music stops, and the director addresses a section, what happens to the engagement of the students not being addressed? I have written elsewhere about things students can be doing during those “down” times, but how can a director keep them engaged in the class without relegating them to these other tasks? The answer is to use the students to do at least part of what the director usually does; evaluate and suggest a way to correct deficiencies.
Five point rating scales are useful for rehearsal and classroom use. People have five fingers, so anything can be evaluated by holding up any number of fingers between 0 and 5. Instead of having most of the ensemble listen to the director work with one section, the director can identify a specific criteria, have the section play or sing the measures that need attention, and then have everyone else evaluate the performance on the given criteria with a show of fingers. For example, suppose that a director wants to rehearse a long crescendo. He or she has taught the ensemble how to make a long crescendo by not getting too loud too quickly, and by making a noticeable change in dynamics from the start to the finish of the crescendo. Students, once they know this, can evaluate how the section did making the crescendo. It is just a matter of indicating on a scale of one to five how well the crescendo was done. If there is disagreement, students who give markedly differing evaluations can be asked to support their evaluation with a brief description of what they heard. By involving otherwise idle students in this kind of evaluation and dialogue, they are learning as much, or possible more, than the students who were actually playing or singing.
This strategy also works well in general music classes. The other day, I was continuing to teach my sixthclassroom grades about phrases. On this day, I was teaching them to hear tension or stress at the ends of phrases. At first I used a song with phrases that ended just on ^5 or ^1. There was either tension or relaxation. Told them to point up if they heard tension and down if they heard relaxing. Because these are non-verbal responses, all students could continuously respond at once.
Next, I chose a song that had different degrees of tension at the ends of phrases. Phrases ended on ^6, ^2, ^3, ^5 and ^1. For this, I had the students decide how much tension they heard at the end of each phrase as the listened, and respond by holding up 0-5 fingers. Again, all could respond at once and continually. It’s one thing to tell students they always have something to do because they should be listening to their classmates’ responses and forming their own response, and quite another thing to give all students a way to respond all the time. It makes it harder for students to decide not to participate and easier for the teacher to assess students and hold them accountable throughout class. For times when the teacher wants words or phrases for a response, each student can be given a small white board and marker. Students write their response and then hold up the whiteboard so the teacher can see it. if the students are seated in rows, they won’t be influenced by their peers’ answers because holding the whiteboards up facing the front of the class,they will have a hard time seeing each other’s answers. much of our success as teachers depends to a large extent on frequent student engagement. These strategies are helpful in this area.

Developing Engaged Learners in Music

2011Symposium_1_2There is much to recommend developing our students into independent and engaged students. The two are related: engaged students go beyond what is asked or required, and generate their own questions that drive their learning. By contrast, dependent students are often compliant, but not engaged. It is easy to settle for a compliant student, even though it is only through engagement that a student will meet appropriately rigorous educational goals. Compliant students are the “ones who follow directions, diligently complete assignments, and get good grades mostly because of their effort or adherence to directions. They do the work because it’s assigned, not because they find it interesting or relevant” (Jackson and Zmuda, 2014). There is a good chance that many teachers were themselves compliant teachers, and because they achieved career goals by being compliant in school, they have come to believe that being a compliant student is the way to success. From a teacher’s point of view, compliant students are easy to teach, and because they score well on tests and projects, they give us the feeling that we have succeeded with them. If our aim is to receive completed work from our students, then these students do indeed represent successes. But if our aim is that students gain learning and experience that will benefit their interactions with our discipline and life in general, then we are probably not measuring success in our classrooms appropriately. There is little chance that a student will retain, use, or in the end benefit from learning he or she has considered uninteresting and irrelevant all along.

Music teachers have the luxury of teaching a subject that students are happy to engage in now. There is no need for promising a future return on studying math or science, the return comes immediately, making music a potentially relevant subject for most students. Of course there will be later returns as well, as is born out in research on music contributing to building and strengthening neural connections, especially those used for spatial reasoning and language. But students gain much for experience in music right away, and this benefit should be taken full advantage of in our music classes. Here are some keys to helping students become engaged in their work.

First, be clear about what you are expecting students to do.  Use essential questions and 101authentic outcomes to design lessons that will engage students. For example, rather than just having students complete a unit on emotions in music, be clear about your expectations by proposing an essential question such as, “How did the composer use the musical elements of pitch, dynamics, and timbre to create scary music? What are alternative ways the composer could have used pitch, dynamics and timbre to create music that was more or less scary? This line of questioning prompts the student to come up with alternatives, and to evaluate on a scale of more or less scary. In both cases the student is practicing both critical and creative thought. The result is a creative product, the revised music, that the student can claim as his or her own, and see as evidence that something tangible and of value has been made out of what the student learned.

Second, place the work within a relevant context. Be able to explain to students why it is important for them to be doing what you are asking them to do. Your assignments need to be relevant today, not just in the future.  One strategy can be to have students realize their own applications. What will you do with this learning? This not only prompts students to find relevance, but also gives them the opportunity to personalize their own learning. To their relevance, the teacher can add their own. In the example above, knowing how composers use musical elements to express feelings prepares students for creatively expressing their own emotions in a healthy way, through music, and of understanding piano practiceemotions of others that they have expressed through music. The immediacy of music in our students’ lives makes most musical processes and skills of immediate use to them. The key is to have students use what they have learned, never leaving anything at the “book knowledge” level. Nineteenth century symphonic music is relevant today not only because we still connect with the emotions these composers were expressing in their music, but because the way in which those emotions were expressed reflects the cultural norms of the day, meaning that those emotions can still be expressed today, but with the cultural norms of our day. There is a connection made between people across time in the commonality of human emotional experience, and in discovering how that experience is continued through centuries across changing and changed genres and styles of music.

Third, create a supportive classroom culture. This involves designing learning activities with the right amount of challenge so that student interest is maintained without creating boredom over something too easy or discouragement over something too difficult. “What we know about learning is that the learner stops expending effort if he or she believes there’s little chance for success.” There must be room for failure in the context of it being an opportunity for learning and improvement. There is no shame in trying, and much to be gained. When the cost of failure becomes greater than the cost of trying, learning is choked off. Ultimately, final work will be evaluated, but the process along which that final work is assembled must be constituted with cycles of inquiry, research, effort, attempts, and a mixture of failures and successes, where failures is understood in the context of “I haven’t succeeded yet, I need more work, information, practice this time around so that I can succeed.” This last point is critical. Engaged learners ask a lot of questions, follow a lot of paths, and discover a lot of information that may not be in your plan. This open-endedness can make engaged learners unpredictable, but it is just that unpredictability that produces interest, relevance, and in the end far more learning than most compliant learners ever obtain.

Jackson, Robyn & Allison Zmuda (2014). 4 (secret) keys to student engagement, Educational Leadership, September, 18-24.