What Does Music Have To Do With Social Development?

2011Symposium_1_2School is a social environment. Learning takes place in classes where groups of children are gathered, usually 20-25 at a time. When everything is going smoothly, students are listening to a teacher and to each other, are asking and answering questions, responding to prompts, understanding what is being said or done, and keeping their attention focused on the one speaking or doing at any given time. All of this depends on everyone in the room interacting not only intellectually, but socially as well. Listening, responding, and learning from each other takes social skill, and functioning relationships between classmates and between the class and the teacher. Dr. James Comer referred to this part of a child’s development, the part where they learn to effectively utilize social skills, as the social pathway. Children need an ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships and to appropriately handle challenging relationships. A large part of this comes from being skilled at empathy. Children make healthier behavioral choices when they realize the affect those choices have on others, and how they are causing others to feel with their actions.

Related to the social pathway is the psychological pathway. Here, the focus is on a child’s self-awareness and self-esteem, including feelings of worth and competence, and on appropriately managing emotions. Teachers should try to help children develop a strong, positive sense of self, and build the child’s ability to manage their emotions well.

Now think of music making and music education. One of the foundational benefits of music education is to provide children with a healthy outlet for personal expression. Music can help people express the full range of emotions, and do it in a way where even the most negative or angry emotions are expressed not only in a healthy way, but in an enjoyable way. We enjoy and are stimulated and excited by rowdy music, be it the cannon shots in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or the stormy, turbulent and sometimes schizophrenic ravings of a Mahler symphony. We let go on a Friday afternoon to heavy metal, head banging riffs, and are soothed by a gently ballad or beautiful melody. People not only interpret music, but at times it seems that music interprets people, or at least we are helped in interpreting ourselves by listening to music that draws out a tangible image of how we are feeling or want to feel. Interpreting music brings students face to face with the reality that others feel emotions and what they are feeling is expressed in this music. They can learn to understand what another is feeling by interpreting an artistic work. Students can also express how they feel about what the composer is feeling by responding to the music and performing it with their own expressive intent, the feelings and emotions they have for the music, added to the expressive intent of the composer.

The way in which music is performed is also important to consider. Music is nearly always performed in groups. singing-kidsBands, orchestras, choirs, or soloists with accompaniment, it all works because people are playing and singing music that all fits together according to a creators design and expressive intent. There is the expression from creator to performer, and from performer to audience and performer to performer, in an array of social constructs in which the artistic expressiveness is spread around and cultivated into a very personal and never quite the same experience. Children who are making music are drawn into working, functional, rewarding social units in which normal disfunctions are suspended, and from which children can learn a better social way when the music stops. Because understanding the music and understanding oneself are melded together, children not only understand themselves better through the actions of music making, they understand each other better also. Voice teacher Susan Anders Brizick recently wrote that, “Musical study involves understanding the music, the composer, and the teacher. This translates over into better understanding other peoples’ feelings and reactions in their everyday life.”

It should be evident now that music making, and the teaching of it, is highly effective in helping students develop their social and psychological pathways. The inner world of music and of music making is a model for social and psychological health. Even the notes themselves, the way they combine to form harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint, is a model of how people combine sometimes in agreement, sometimes in combinations that work together, and sometimes in disagreement and tension, but ultimately to achieve something positive and worthwhile, working through conflict, just as the notes of a good counterpoint or the contentiousness of the relationship between the piano solo and the orchestral part in a nineteenth century concerto come around to a masterful combining to form great art.

Two Questions Every Student Asks and What To Do About Them

2011Symposium_1_2I find that there are two critical questions that most students ask themselves at the beginning of my music classes. One is, “can I do this?” and the other, “is this going to be worth my time and effort to succeed at?” Many students would rather not try than for it to be seen that they are unable to do something. The level of challenge up front can make or break a lesson. I tend to want to hold students accountable for what I have taught them. If I have taught them all they need to know for a given activity, then I want to give them the work, and make them figure it out. To a point, this is a sound strategy that develops students’ capacity to think critically and problem solve, both highly valued skills in today’s educational environment. But at some point, it makes no difference whether or not I have taught the students something I now expect them to know. If they don’t remember, don’t understand, or can’t apply the teaching, then requiring them to find their way can easily lead to embarrassment or discouragement, both of which will shut down many kids.

At the same time, a wholesale review is likely unnecessary for everyone, and will cause those who are ready to tackle the assignment to become bored and impatient waiting for the others to be caught up. Some review is always good, as long as it is fast paced and reinforces learning for the higher achievers, and helps lower achievers grasp what they missed the first time. After that, some differentiation is needed. The lesson I taught to my 7th grade class today is a good case in point.

The students are learning to play keyboard using phone or tablet apps of a piano keyboard. Students had previously performance anxietylearned a rote song, read melodies notated in the treble clef, and learned how to find c and f on the keyboard. I had not taught them how to read bass clef, although some students in the class take piano lessons and consequently already knew how. On the white board at the front of the room I had written the bass part to “Lean On Me,” notated in the bass clef. I also wrote note names under some of the notes to guide their study. I projected a picture of a piano keyboard with the letter note names marked and reviewed how to find c and f, and how the other notes can all be figured from c or f. I then left the slide on my computer monitor and invited the students to walk over to my desk and refer to the picture whenever they needed to. I played the bass part on the acoustic piano a few times to set the rhythm in their memory. All of the students were familiar with this well-known bass part, so my playing was sufficient review to strengthen that familiarity. I then set them about practicing the bass part on their keyboard apps, and to play it for me when they were ready. Some students did very well fairly quickly, while others struggled to find the notes on the keyboard in spite of the resource of the chart I had provided. One of the students who had quickly succeeded or I gave the ones who were struggling one-on-one attention. The struggling students appreciated the help and the privacy of one on one that avoided making their difficulty public. Even students who sometimes refuse to do much became engaged and motivated, largely from the appeal of learning piano, and largely from the real opportunity to succeed that the structuring of the activity afforded.

At some point in the lesson, all of the students were able to answer the first question in the affirmative; yes, I can do this. Upon deciding the task was doable, the second question was much easier to also answer in the affirmative. Realizing that success was in their grasp, they also decided that it was worth their time and effort to work through the assignment to achieve the goal set before them of playing this bass part on the keyboard. Next week, I am now in a position of building on what was accomplished today, reviewing and giving the students some time to practice more, and then making what they have learned to play part of an ensemble experience as they play the bass line and I play the melody. This will also provide me with the opportunity to play my clarinet for them. I like doing this periodically because it reminds my students that I am not only their general music teacher, but also a professional clarinetist. Beyond playing the melody for “Stand by Me” I will also play a short recital encore to demonstrate what years of practice and training lead to. It is important for students to see their teachers as professionals in their field, and no more so than in the arts.

What Can You Do With A Free Piano Keyboard App?

2011Symposium_1_2For several years, I have wanted a piano lab in my general music classroom for my seventh and eighth grade students. Many of them want to play piano, and with just one acoustic instrument, I just don’t have the resources to teach many of them, and certainly not during a class with only one instrument. While the solution I’ve found doesn’t do everything a piano lab would, it has provided a way for me to teach basic piano keyboard to a whole class of students without a lot of expensive equipment; in fact, I can teach my class keyboard for no expense whatsoever.

I sometimes wonder if technology really has made my life easier, or if it has just given me more things to spend my time on. While the jury is still out on that, technology has made it possible for me to reach most of my students with keyboard instruction. Most of my students own smartphones, and regularly bring them to school. In fact, keeping them off of their phones during class can at times be challenging. Now, when I’m teaching them keyboard, I want them to have their phones out and ready to use. I had each student download a free piano keyboard app for his or her phone, and I also downloaded one on my own iPhone. I use Real Piano, which is a free app available for both iOS and Android. There is also a paid version with more features, but these are not necessary for what I am about to describe.  I also have a Bluetooth speaker in my classroom, so whatever I play on my phone app, the class can easily hear, and other students can share their work over the Bluetooth speaker as well. Because phones can be listened to with ear buds, I distribute music for the students to work on, then with their ear buds plugged in, give them time to practice. I can help individual students by visiting their seats and listening in on their practice using one ear bud held close to my ear, while the other bud remains in the student’s ear. When the designated time for practice has elapsed, students unplug their ear buds, and play their work for the class and me to hear using the Bluetooth speaker.

If there are issues with a student’s performance, a classmate who excelled at his or her performance gets paired up withDance-and-Movement the student who needs further practice. Other students who successfully performed the assignment are rewarded with time to play with their keyboards, ear buds in. My students enjoy exploring and improvising with their keyboard apps, and allowing them time to do so is worthwhile, because it gets them thinking in music, and practicing performing through improvising. Using piano keyboard apps also has the advantage of enabling students to take their instruments home to practice assignments, and because the phones already belong to the students, there is never a liability to the school for damaged or missing inventory.

Another advantage to using phone apps is that the instruments are highly portable. This makes it possible for students to move around while playing, something they can never do with most keyboards, and certainly never with an acoustic piano. To teach intervals, I have students create short musical phrases on their apps, and then “step” their melodies. Ascending intervals are a step forward, descending intervals are a step backwards, and all steps are proportional in size to the size of the interval. For example, if a student plays C, G, F, E, D, C then he or she would take one large step forward, and four normal sized steps backward. Stepping both direction and interval size makes the distances between notes more understandable than just seeing them in reduced sizes, and from left to right. Partners can also give and take dictation. One student steps a motif, and the partner plays it on his or app. If the stepping student audiates what they think they are stepping while they are stepping it, then they can evaluate the notes their partner plays, and valuable ear training is taking place.

Although I don’t do this, one could also have a giant staff on the floor and have students step to where the notes they are playing are on the staff, which would accomplish experiencing direction and interval size, and also serve as a music notation activity. Partners could even notate on conventional music paper where their partner was standing for each note, and end up with a notated transcript of where the student stepped on the staff. These kinds of activities are great for seventh and eighth graders, especially boys, who find it so difficult to sit still, and enjoy the opportunity to move around as part of the lesson.

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.

 

Responding to Music in the Core Arts Standards and Beyond

2011Symposium_1_2Responding to music has been among our music standards from the beginning of the first standards. In its original context, responding was primarily a standard for non-performing students, and was most utilized in music appreciation classes, or listening units in general music sections. As it is now presented in the Core Arts Standards for music, responding is more all-inclusive. Student composers, performers, and listeners are all expected to respond to music through analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. I will look at each of these types of responses to music, and connect them to the common core state standards (CCSS) environment in which we work.

The Enduring Understanding (EU) for responding with analysis is, “Response to music is informed by analyzing context (social, cultural, and historical) and how creators and performers manipulate the elements of music.” For this type of response to music, students look at how music concepts are used, how music concepts support a purpose, how students respond to structure, and how students respond to context, including social, cultural and historical. For example, meter might be used to support a purpose that the music be a certain type of dance, such as a landler, or gavotte; or rhythm might be used to prepare and execute a cadence according to cultural norms of the Baroque period, or timbre might be used to support the purpose of representing a battle and commemorating a military campaign, as with Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav.

The EU for responding with interpretation is, “Through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” Here, students show awareness of expressive qualities such as dynamics, tempo, timbre and articulation, and demonstrate and describe how performers use these to reflect the composer’s and performers’ expressive intent. Through the demonstrations, students perform with the expression they have found the composer to have intended, and may add some of their own expressive intent. In demonstrating expressive intent through the manipulation and use of expressive qualities, students gain a practical knowledge and experience of the expressive qualities and potential of music from the perspective of both composer and performer.

The EU for responding with evaluation is, “The personal evaluation of musical works and performances is informed by Musical-Balanceanalysis, interpretation and established criteria.” Evaluation begins with personal and expressive preferences in music that are applied to the evaluation. The evaluation is then focused on a specific purpose, and then expanded to both musical works and performances to which established criteria are applied. In addition, the appropriateness to the performance context is discussed, with evidence from the elements of music. For example, ensemble size and dynamics might be evaluated in terms of the performance space. A very small and quiet ensemble performing in an open outdoor space would be found to be an inappropriate use of dynamics and timbre for the context.

Where demonstrations are given, data is collected and can be used for assessment. Where descriptions are made, writing can be collected and evaluated, vocabulary can be taught and assessed, and many of the CCSS requirements can be supported without compromising the integrity of music education. Throughout the response process, ample opportunities are present for learning and applying vocabulary to authentic learning tasks, including music criticism and commentary. All aspects of responding to music are equally useful to composers, performers and listeners. Student composers respond to their own creative work by explaining their expressive intent and how they attempted to express it through specific elements. Performers respond to their own performance, explaining both the intent of the composer that they found in the music, and the expressive intent they have found for themselves through the music, and how they attempted to express it through specific elements and performance decisions. Listeners respond to both composer and performer’s expressive intent through analysis to ascertain the composer’s intent, and interpretation and comparisons of multiple performances of the same work to determine the performer’s expressive intent. Where student composers, performers and listeners are present in the same class, a worthwhile dialogue and discussion can take place between the three groups, members of each group learning from the other about the musical works they experience together.

For Our Students, ‘Careers In Music’ Isn’t Just About The Future

2011Symposium_1_2In a time when music is so easily accessible, students can easily loose sight of all the work and people it takes to bring an album to their listening ears. All many of my students ever see is the album or song title on their phone, or the album art. They just take it for granted that music will be there to download or stream at any time. But before that music becomes available to them, many hands have gone in to creating and preparing it for distribution. Students should be made aware of what is done to make music ready for them to consume so they can become more engaged with the process, so they can enjoy music and music making beyond just listening, and so music will continue to be created and produced by their generation.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) has an excellent online resource that lists and describes many careers in music. The resource is organized by categories of Music Education, Performance, Music Business, Healthcare, Worship, Music Production, Music Technology, Music Publishing, Musical Theatre, Instrument Making and Repair/Restoration, Movies/TV/Radio, and Administration. Under each heading are 3-8 specific careers, with a description of each that includes skills needed and qualifications. These descriptions are valuable because they move the conversation beyond the obvious. For example, it seems silly to ask students to explain what a singer does, because the obvious answer is “sing.” But in the description, they learn that there is much more to having a career as a singer. For Pop/Rock/Jazz singer, the author wrote, “Most pop vocalists earn their living in a variety of music areas – concerts, recordings, club work, radio and television commercials, Broadway musicals, and even teaching. Versatility is absolutely essential in this career, especially to the vocalist who may not have the good fortune to gain star status. Performance situations are competitive, often demanding years of experience to gain a solid reputation and a high level of proficiency. A vocalist who sings reasonably well, can sight-read, knows all styles of music, and has a solid knowledge of music theory is going to be in demand.”

Having students think through the whole creative process brings them to discover a host of careers they may not have music consumerconsidered. “What has to be done first in order for a recorded song to get to you?” This begins with the producer putting together a timeline that starts with the composer/songwriter creating the song. Personnel must be assembled, including other singers, and instrumentalists. Often, a sound designer must be found to create rhythm tracks or special effects electronically that will be edited into the final mix. The song has to be rehearsed, probably edited and revised, and then eventually recorded by a recording engineer. Then the song is edited and mixed down into its final form. When the song is ready, the publicist needs to create a campaign to get the word out that the song or album is available. It needs to appear on Amazon, iTunes, and a number of streaming sites, and it needs to get air time on popular radio stations. And then there is the DJ who completes the on-air package, and helps promote the music. Suddenly, students realize that there are many career opportunities within the process of making recorded music; and they haven’t even considered musical theater and opera, or the many jobs that must be done in order to pull off a concert or concert tour.

This brings us to the students who are interested in music, but don’t see themselves as performers. For students who don’t see themselves as singers but want to pursue a music career, the resource offers many options, including recording engineer, recording producer, composer, publicist, sound technician, or sound designer. There is also the whole field of music business and administration. Berklee has an excellent resource on line that includes many music careers that the NAfME does not include, particularly in the popular music fields.

Many of these careers offer opportunities for classroom activities that students will enjoy, find relevant, and may lead them to choose a career in music. Creating, producing and recording a song in class, with small groups of students assigned to the various jobs along the way, offers an authentic educational experience, and the benefit of a product that every student can get a copy of and take with them—the recorded song. Careers in music is a good basis for many worthwhile units of instruction in the music education classroom.

Fostering The Desire to Sing in Reluctant Singers and Songwriters

2011Symposium_1_2Music is a window into the soul. I don’t know if I made that up or read it somewhere, but the phrase came to mind the other day, and it sounded good enough to remember. In just a few words, it explains why music is so wonderful, and why it is so intimidating. Why so many kids love it and are afraid of it. It is easy to find students who listen to music, who have favorite songs, and who can’t get through even a day without their phones and ear buds for listening to music. Listening to those songs, and even moving and singing along, is fun. Listening to someone else sing their song, and looking into the window of someone else’s soul is fun and safe. A student will often relate to a song, but it’s still the recording artist that’s laying it all out for the world to see.

Singing and writing one’s own music isn’t so safe. Students are concerned with how they will sound, what others will think, and what they want or don’t want others to know about them through their song lyrics. Being a singer or a songwriter takes courage, especially when done in front of peers and others know you and who you will continue to be with for many days, possibly years to come. Yet most students really do want to be good singers, they just don’t want everyone to hear them before they have done so.

While some of these apprehensions come from the personal and expressive nature of music, much of the reluctance of Ensembleadolescents to sing comes from the stakes being made unnecessarily high. Students, particularly those not in performing ensembles but enrolled in general music classes, must be able to experience making failed attempts that don’t carry negative consequences. We should want these students to try, to make their best effort, and to get out of each attempt all they can, including, and perhaps most importantly, the desire to try again, and to improve with each attempt. To this end, attempts, at least at the early stages, should be valued more than results. With every attempt, the teacher should identify what the student succeeded at, and use those successes to encourage and motivate further attempts. There is a place for pointing out errors, and making corrections, but these should be done in proportion to the confidence that the student has built up, and the successes the student has enjoyed. Coming off a confidence building attempt from which the student has found motivation to go further and to do better, corrections can be given as a means to an end that the student is now motivated to achieve.

Progress like this is slow, and cannot be sped up by quick prescriptive discourse from the teacher, or expectations that the student will instantly implement the plan. No, this kind of progress will happen at a different rate for every student; the rate at which each student feels ready, confident and motivated to move on. It cannot be made to conform to a performance deadline, semester calendar, or the voice of impatience found in teacher or student. This kind of progress must advance slowly, steadily, and strongly—the way of a good friendship. Good teaching is always found where student and teacher develop a mutual rapport and trust in which it is okay to make mistakes, because they are valued as indispensible teaching and learning tools, and in which challenges are kept to a manageable level with careful planning by the teacher. Well-planned learning experiences should be positive and focused from moment to moment, keeping a balance between success and challenge that both encourages and motivates. They allow time for students to make repeated attempts, make mistakes, solve problems, and ultimately work their way through the process until performance goals are achieved. Teachers should not try to help the student or spare them the hardship of working through mistakes and making repeated attempts, because the greatest benefit to the student is in the learning that happens during the challenge, and the gratification of victory when the challenge is met. A “rescuing” teacher short-circuits all of that, and leaves the student cheated out of a deep learning experience, and the opportunity to know that they, and not the teacher, have accomplished something worthwhile.

Is Meter the Overlooked Element in Your Music Teaching?

2011Symposium_1_2

Today I asked a class of 7th graders to explain how, when they move to a current pop song I played in class, notes on beats feel different from notes between beats. If I were to have taught them the answer, I would have told them that the notes on the beat feel stronger. I would have told them that notes between beats sometimes make syncopation, giving the music motion that lifts and points toward the next beat. I might have told them that the notes in between beats pull me toward the next beat or finish a rhythm started on the previous beat. What my students wrote for their answers was interestingly different from what I would have told them.

My students found that the notes on the beat are slower than the notes in between beats. Some wrote that the beat repeats over and over and the notes in between beats make different rhythms. One student wrote “there are switching places in between the beats.” A couple of students answered with descriptions of instruments that played on each of the four beats of a measure. They apparently were tuned into the pitch and timbre rather than the rhythmic feel. Overall, references to faster or slower rhythms were prevalent in their answers, and many responses evidenced thoughtful if unexpected answers. References to accent, weight, or metrical structure were noticeably missing.

After looking at the students’ responses, it was evident that more teaching on meter was necessary. To be honest, I have not used enough movement in teaching these students meter in previous years. Just as being able to give letter names to pitches doesn’t mean a person can read music, reciting the meaning of the time signature and drawing measure lines in music that has none does not mean a person understands meter, which is patterns of strong and weak beats. Strong beats can be heard to a certain extent, but they are much more meaningful and clear when they are put in the body with movement.

One Dalcroze activity I like to use for this is bouncing, catching and tossing a ball. For common time, students walk tometer signatures the beat while, on successive beats, bouncing, catching, tossing, and catching the ball. The bounce on beat one feels stronger than the toss on beat three, and the catches on beats two and four feel like preparations for beats three and one. Earlier this week, with a different class than the one I mentioned above, I asked them which of the four beats in each measure felt the strongest. We first discovered the strength of bouncing the ball, and then tried bouncing on each beat, a different beat each time through the song, that was offered by students as the one they thought was the strongest. First we tried making beat four the strong beat, and then we tried making beat one the strong beat. They all agreed one felt more natural as the strong beat. Having bounced the ball and felt the strength of the bounce match with the strength of the first beat, they now had an understanding of meter they would never have acquired by simply listening for a strong beat at the start of each measure.

The big point here is that music simply cannot be experienced fully apart from dance or movement. Music is movement—the movement of pitches and durations across time. As it is with anything that moves, music has speed (tempo), signposts (accents), and distance or length (time-span). To try to understand music by sitting still may be good etiquette in a symphonic concert hall, but it is an ineffective and confounding way to learn music. Meter seems to be an aspect of music that many unguided and inexperienced listeners overlook. Leading the way for students to discover and enjoy meter, which is integral to rhythm in general is an important job for music educators.

 

What’s an Effective Way to Teach A New Song?

2011Symposium_1_2For the most part, my students love to sing. This almost always is a good thing, but it is not always so. If I don’t make sure I start them off singing in their head voices, many will practice singing incorrectly, getting better at poor singing and no better at good singing. I like to have them do Gordon tonal patterns first, but transposed up so that at least some of the pitches are above middle line B-flat on the treble staff. They quickly go into their head voices, I compliment on using their singing voices so well, and then remind them to keep singing with their singing voices as we learn the next song.

Another problem occurs when I am teaching them a new rote song; they usually want to start singing it right away. They want to follow close behind me, singing along as I sing; even if it is the first time they have ever heard the song. This is doubly troublesome, because even if they sing a phrase correctly, they are only imitating me, not singing from audiating. Singing first for them, and then having them sing what I have sung after a brief pause forces them to recall what I sang, which is a form of audiation.

I sometimes let them start singing too soon, before they have heard the song enough times to remember it accurately. Then, they make mistakes that have to be corrected. For this reason, I often use questioning and song analysis during my introduction of a song. “Do you hear this chord?

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la fa fa la do do (remember, I used fixed do).

“ What function is that, tonic or dominant? Please sing that chord for me. Listen to me sing the first part of the song again, and then someone will tell me what note it ended on.

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la fa fa la do do re do la fa re do la fa la la so so fa

“That’s right, it ended on ‘fa.’ I’ll then ask several students to sing fa.

Now I’ll start the song, and you continue it from where I stopped.

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la fa fa la do do

The class then sings the song to the end. Notice I left them to sing the part that starts high enough for them to easily continue using their head voices. Next, I will hone in on a spot that is often troublesome.

Fa fa fa la fa fa fa la

The class then sings, or should sing,

fa fa la do do

But the children often sing a third fa in place of la, because there were three occurrences of fa twice already. This is a passage that can be practiced until it is right. Then I will replace the solfege with the words, and sing it for them again.

Rocky mountain, rocky mountain, rocky mountain high

When you’re on that rocky mountain, hang your head and cry.

Everyone sings it. Next, I may go on to the next section, or I may have individual students sing alone the first part. The latter strategy has the advantage of affording the children more times of hearing the song. By the time we have gone through this entire sequence, the children have heard the song many times, have sung it in parts with and without the words, have practiced audiating when they had to continue where I left off, and as a result know the song very well. Through it all, I have been able to control when they sing and when they listen much more easily than just asking them not to sing while I sing. I have also avoided singing with the students, which, along with having them sing alone, as I have mentioned before, is crucial for developing independent singers, and for me being able to hear and objectively assess my students’ singing.

Teaching Beat Divisions is Essential To Teaching Rhythm

2011Symposium_1_2It is quite common for music educators to ask of young students that they move to the beat. Patsching the beat is a basic skill that all children should acquire in formal music training from three years of age and older. One often overlooked aspect of perceiving the beat from a musical work one is hearing is being able to recognize divisions of the beat. Without knowing how the beat is divided, meter and beat becomes a highly subjective item. It is not at all unusual for some of my youngest students to patsch micro beats while others patsch macro beats to the same music. Those patsching macro beats have realized that at least some of the beats contain two equal notes, whereas those patsching micro beats have concluded that every note is a beat. These students are also more likely to patsch the rhythm instead of the beat.

This misunderstanding occasionally happens with older students. Today, my sixth grade students were doing a eurhythmics activity, walking to the beat while bouncing, catching and tossing a ball, also to the beat. The music they were walking to was the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto in F major. I played the opening bars first so they would become familiar with it, and demonstrated how to use the ball, and how to walk to the macro beat. The students then got to practice with the ball before using it to the music or walking. The micro beat pulse is relatively prominent, and this one student, attempting to walk to the beat, began walking to the micro beat, while her classmates all walked to the macro beat. She could not at first accommodate two notes within a single beat. The sixteenth notes did not present a problem, because they are not constant, and therefore cannot be a steady pulse. Training students in divisions of the beat forms the basis for accurate beat perception, meter perception, and rhythm performance. What follows are some activities that can be used for this purpose.

Practicing rhythm patterns on a neutral syllable while keeping the macro beat on the floor with the heels of the feet isMusical-Balance an essential part of rhythm training. Once rhythm patterns are learned on neutral syllables, they should be done again, this time with functional rhythm syllables, such as those provided by Gordon. With the mico beat always chanted to “du,” and all divisions consistently assigned their own syllable, students learn the divisions of the beat by name: du de for divisions into two, du-ta-de-ta for divisions into four, and du da di for divisions into three. Tapping the heels forces a weight shift which is necessary for a person to feel the beat in their body. Merely tapping the toe is of limited value, because no shift in weight occurs. With the heels tapping, students repeat after the teacher rhythm patterns in duple and triple meter with the tactus and its divisions into two, three, and four micro beats. Students can also practice tapping quarter note micro beats with their heels while patsching eighth note micro beats. Both activities afford the student the opportunity to feel a pulse and a division of the pulse at the same time.

Another activity, this one from Jaques-Dalcroze, is to have students walk to the rhythm of music the teacher plays on the piano, while they conduct the beat with their arms. As the teach plays, s/he calls out the subdivision, and then proceeds to play music with that subdivision. For example, the teacher calls out “two” and then plays music where the beats are divided by two. After several measures, the teacher may call out “three” and then play music where every beat is divided in three (perhaps an excerpt form the “Moonlight” Sonata of Beethoven). The teacher continues to change divisions and the children adjust their stepping accordingly, going from a comfortable walk for “one” to a trot for “two” to a run when “four” is called. Throughout, students maintain a steady pulse in their arms, even as the divisions change.

From these activities, students learn that through a steady pulse, beats are divided several ways, and the variety of divisions is what makes rhythm. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also elongations of the beat, which also can be experienced with a combination of conducting and movement; this time with a bending at the waist for the duration of the note while the conducting continues. The differentiation between beat and rhythm becomes part of the student’s personal experience, and then transfers to musical performance.