What Is A Learning Objective?

Version 2Let’s begin with a brief definition, and then go from there. A learning objective is a statement of what a student will know and be able to do after receiving instruction. It is generally not long term, but stated in terms of what will be accomplished at the end of each class meeting. An objective is not a statement of what activity will be done, but instead of what will be learned as a result of doing the activity. In music, an objective is not playing or singing a song, but instead what learning the student will demonstrate while playing or singing the song. This could include demonstrating an even tone throughout the range, accurate performance of dotted rhythms, or appropriate use of ornamentation in two pieces of contrasting historical periods.

Educators are fond of using the acronym SMART to describe good learning objectives. The acronym reminds us of five key components of a good learning objective: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. A specific objective states plainly what the result of instruction will be, and what the student, teacher, and anyone else who is watching will be able to observe as evidence that the desired result has (or has not) been achieved. A good objective allows the student to say after instruction, “I did it” or “I got it” with a full understanding of what “it” is. If we give an objective that is too general, the student is likely to be unclear about what is expected, and why he or she is doing the activity. For example, if the objective given is “play Scarborough Fair,” the student has no way of knowing why you want him or her to do so, or what kind of performance will be acceptable. On the other hand, one could write an objective using Scarborough Fair that might go something like this: The student will demonstrate proficiency in the use of pitch, particularly the #^6 in Dorian mode by accurately singing Scarborough Fair.” With this objective, the student knows that the entire song is expected to be done accurately, but that particular attention and practice should be directed toward singing the #^6 when it occurs in the song.

When an objective is specific, it will most likely also be measurable. Consider the two examples given above. With the first, “the student will be able to play Scarborough Fair,” any performance resembling the named song fulfills the objective. As stated, the student either plays the song, or doesn’t. There is no way of knowing how well it has been played, so the student has no way of knowing how he or she is doing. If this is given as the objective, then it is unfair to give a poor assessment for a poor performance, because even a poor performance meets the objective; that is, even if the student plays the song badly, he or she has still played it, and that is all that was stated in the objective.  With the second objective, there is something to measure–pitch. The overall pitch accuracy can be measured using a rubric, and the accuracy of the #^6 can be measured, also with a rubric. Another approach could be to access how particular scale degrees are performed. In this case, a checklist might be used. All of the scale degrees could be listed, and for each one that is sung accurately, a check is placed next to the scale degree in the list. This kind of assessment gives the teacher and student specific feedback that can be used to improve overall pitch accuracy.

It is important for the student to believe that the objective put before him or her ismusic_words_large realistic and achievable. Objectives can easily be too ambitious, especially if the teacher has confused goals, which are long-term and general, with objectives which, as we have already stated, are short-term and specific. A goal for a string player of accurately performing a solo part to a Vivaldi concerto grosso might be a worthwhile goal for a semester, but it would be discouraging and achievable for one or two class meetings   When directors throw an audition piece in front of a student and tell them to learn it over a weekend for an all-state audition next week, they are presenting an underachieve objective than can only lead to discouragement, anger and a failed audition. The objective must be realistic and achievable considering the time to be given to the task, and to the abilities of the student.

Specific objectives are also more likely than not to be relevant, because specificity usually answers the question, “why am I doing this?” When the objective is clear, the student can be motivated by the reason. But specificity is not the only consideration in writing a relevant objective. Student interests also must be taken into account. If the student is not at all interested in the material, no amount of objectives is going to make that material relevant. This is a tricky area for many teachers who hold fast to the idea that teachers have the first and last word on what their students do in their classroom. While it is true that teachers are the managers of their students and their students’ learning, it is also true that students must be able to transfer and apply their learning. This means that what students learn in your classroom using your materials can be used outside your classroom with other materials that are completely of the students’ choosing. It also means that students can use what they learn from achieving one objective, in the accomplishing of other objectives; that is they can transfer their learning from familiar to unfamiliar material. The writers of the  National Core Arts Standards have featured selecting in all of the artistic processes; students select music to be performed and to which they will respond.

Good learning objective are also time-bound. We have already seen that the time it will take a student to complete the objective figures into making the objective achievable. Beyond this point, objectives must have check points and end points so that students can know how they are doing and how they did. They also need end points so that the objectives can be finished, for without an end point, there is no closure, no opportunity to grow from feedback, and no sense of accomplishment. Along the way, there must be times when students get a sense of how things are going so that they can make needed corrections and revisions. Check points are less necessary when the objective is for a single class, but even there, work can and should be  checked so that students who are “on the wrong track” can be redirected, which maintains the possibility of success by the end of the period. Students want to know when work is due, so they can plan and budget their time in consideration of work they have for other classes, and of other activities they are involved in outside of school.

The Exit Ticket for Music

2011Symposium_1_2If there’s anything that music standards have done to help me improve my teaching over the years, it is to get me beyond singing songs and playing instruments to teaching musical concepts, skills, and processes through singing songs and playing instruments. In other words, standards have taught me that the song is not the objective, it is the means through which the objective will be taught and learned. Part of seeing that students meet the objectives I have set for them is to have a way of knowing what they have remembered and learned as a result of each class, and what they intend to do with what they have learned. If all students leave my class with is a good time, then they will not value music learning the way I want them to. If I find that students are not growing in musicianship, including all of the processes in the new core arts standards for music, then I must revisit how I am planning and teaching my lessons. Just because students are enjoying themselves in class does not mean that they are learning what I hope they are learning. Yet because much of what I do with them in class is not written, and takes place in ways that are not easily observable, I need a way of finding out what is going on “inside” my students emotionally, attitudinally, and intellectually. Though not unfailingly reliable, because not all of this learning can be observed or even accurately described by the students in words, I find that the exit ticket is a useful tool in assessing both my students’ learning and the effectiveness of my teaching.

An exit ticket is a quick, expedient way of assessing learning at the end of a lesson. It creates closure for the student, provides data for the teacher, and even helps focus lesson planning when I consider that there must be something concise, relevant, and apparent that students have learned and will know they have learned at the end of the class. Because this is a quick check and not a formal quiz or test, I keep my exit ticket short and focused. It includes three questions: What did you do in music class today? What music things did you learn form doing what you did in music class today? What is the next step you will take with the music things you did and learned in music class today? It is readily apparent that the questions build on each other. First, I’m asking the student to think back over what they did. “I named the notes in the first phrase of the melody of “Trepak,” I found those notes on a piano keyboard, and I practiced playing the melody.” So far there is no indication of what the student learned, only of what s/he did, but I want the student to connect what they did with the benefit that came from it, so calling to mind what they did first is important.

Next, the student tells me what they learned from doing what s/he did. “I learned that the keyboard i-get-itnotes are alphabetical from left to right, and to look for notes that are the same so I don’t have to keep figuring out what they are.” I’d be happy with that answer, but not with this one: “I learned to play a song on the piano.” While it’s good this student can now play a song he or she couldn’t before the class, there’s no indication that s/he met the objective, which was to play the melody at a steady beat. There was no indication of this in the first answer either, but there were other things that are valuable mentioned that the student did learn, and which I can use to advance the student closer to being able to play the song with a steady beat.

The last question is critical, yet easy to overlook. I want my students to plan on using what they have learned in my class. The answer to this question doesn’t have to be what I hope for them, although it could be. If a student wants to learn another song they didn’t think they could ever play before today, but now think they can, that’s a great next step. If the student wants to teach a sibling how to play the melody on the piano, that’s also a great next step. This question leads students into finding a connection, a relevance, and most of all a value in their learning. Without this, what I teach my students won’t have a lasting impact on them; and while they may think their education is only for the present, I strongly believe that their education is also for their future success and happiness.  Using an exit ticket is a relatively new strategy for me, so if you have one you’ve been using and found success with, let me know.

A Tale of Two Temperings

2011Symposium_1_2In our well-tempered musical culture, all musical keys tend to sound the same, except for being higher or lower. Yet throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, composers enjoyed the rich and expressive variety in the way different keys sounded. Rousseau described D major as being suited for “gaiety or brilliance,” Schumann spoke of C major as “simple, unadorned, while Schubert, describing Bb minor, said “preparation for suicide sounds in this key.” The San Francisco Symphony has a wonderful demonstration of how different keys have different qualities when played on a piano as it would have been tuned in Beethoven’s day.

When you listen to the difference in tone quality and color between the keys outside of equal temperament, you realize that all tonics and other functions within a diatonic scale are not equal. The tonic in D major sounds quite different than the tonic in Eb major, apart form the difference in pitch. It is easy to forget, or perhaps never discover, that these differences exist, because equal tempering causes the notes that establish a tonic to be sterile duplications from one key to another. One of the things I like about fixed do solfege is that calling tonic notes by different names in different keys forces us to think of each tonic as a unique entity, related intervallically and harmonically to the other diatonic tones, but not to tones in other keys Tones that are called by the same name ought to sound the same.

Why don’t all keys sound the same outside of equal temperament? To answer this question, we will look at how pianos are tuned. Today, pianos are generally tuned with equal temperament, meaning the distance between every half step is exactly the same. This eliminates the differences between keys described by many of the classical composers. Well temperament was used by Bach and nineteenth century composers. Well temperament allowed the piano to be played in tune in all keys, but preserved the different character of each key by avoiding equal temperament. Pianos tuned with well temperament, which is not the same thing as equal temperament, are tuned with slower “beats” compared to equal temperament. “Beats” are the oscillations heard when shared overtones between two tones are not perfectly in tune. Slower beats are produced by notes that are less tempered. Tempering is the change from pure tuning. Well tempering creates a tuning where different keys will take on different characters and colors, but will still be useable in all keys. The tuning standard for well temperament is C. With the addition of each additional sharp or flat, more dissonance is introduced. That is why C major is the purest sounding key, and sharp keys are often described as more colorful; they simply have more dissonance built into them.

When a soloist plays with a pianist using an equal tempered instrument, the music can easily sound outWTC of tune because the soloist, if he or she is well trained, will avoid equal temperament as part of his or her collection of expressive performance devices. These notes clash against the equally tempered notes of the piano. This is also why singers and non-keyboard instrumentalists should not learn tuning from a piano. Matching pitch with a piano is destructive to good intonation for a singer or instrumentalist. While equal tempering is necessary for highly chromatic, frequently modulating, and atonal music, it is not necessary for performing music of the standard orchestral repertoire. A more authentic and expressive experience would result from using well tempering for these performances. Ear training in our music conservatories would also be improved with the use of well tempering, and the steady and historical rise in the tuning standard of 440 cycles per second for the tuning note “A” might be stopped or even reversed were well tempering employed, because the richer pallet of timbres musicians seek by playing on the sharp side would be readily apparent from the affects of the tempering. For music teachers, an awareness of the advantages of well tempering, and making use of them in their teaching is certainly worthwhile.

An Intervention Strategy for Teaching Music Reading of Rhythms

2011Symposium_1_2It seems there can never be too many methods for teaching music rhythm, especially where reading music is concerned. It is interesting that music notation can be at once both so logical and so confusing. Researchers have taught us that music reading is learned similarly to language reading; first we learn a vocabulary of patterns, then we learn what they look like written down. Once the sound we learn first is matched with the notes we see, music reading takes place. While there is no question that this is sound theory and leads to sound teaching, there are nevertheless times when students don’t make the necessary matches and connections. At these times, we need other strategies to help them see the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Today, I will describe one such strategy.

Music rhythm can be approached as a series of sounds and silences. Notes are sounds, rests are silences. Each serves as a kind of on switch and off switch for sound along a continuous span of time. This time is measured at first as all eighth rests drawn above a blank staff on my white board. Each rest represents one beat of silence. Each beat can be “turned on” by placing a note on the staff under one of the eighth rests written above the staff. Each beat can remain turned off by carrying an eighth rest from above down into the staff. Once some beats are turned on with eighth notes or kept turned off with an eighth rest, students can begin reading and drumming or clapping the rhythm by following half-beat pulses and making a sound on notes and keeping silent on the rests written in the staff.

Once they get the hang of this, I then add in quarter notes and quarter rests. These each equal two eighth note rests, so after playing a quarter note, the switch stays on for one more beat before going off again. If there is a quarter rest, the switch stays off for one more beat before going on again. At this stage, I do not use two or more rests consecutively. I assist the students’ reading by pointing to each eighth-note beat with a pointer on the notation on the board as they read and play the rhythm, or have a student point while the others play. With ten to fifteen minutes of practice, even the student who is initially most confused about how to read rhythms is demonstrating some fluency at performing rhythms from notation.

Aside from how well this method works, there is another advantage it offers. Whereas research based note_hierarchymethods precede reading a rhythm with hearing and performing it, such a method does not provide a strategy for reading an unfamiliar rhythm. In other words, if there is notated a rhythm pattern that is not in the student’s rhythm vocabulary, how does he or she figure out the rhythm from the notation? In teaching language, students can sound out words and string together vowel and consonant sounds to speak an unfamiliar word. They then learn the definition, perhaps from a dictionary or teacher. In music, there are no definitions of patterns; a patterns meaning is what it sounds like in the context of beat, meter, and tonality. The method I have advanced here can be used to figure out unfamiliar rhythms, and will be unnecessary for patterns that the student recognizes and can sing at sight. Remember, this method is designed as an intervention for students who, in spite of research-based instruction, still are unable to perform rhythms from standard music notation. Once an unfamiliar pattern is learned with this method, the durations involved should be collected into a group and learned as a pattern so that it will be remembered the next time it is encountered.  This method is also similar in conception to piano roll notation used in music sequencing software, and may be of use in teaching conventional notation from piano roll notation by having students convert from one to the other.

Teaching Antecedent and Consequent Phrase Structure in Music

2011Symposium_1_2One of the musical structures we must teach our students is that of phrasing, or what Lerdahl & Jackendoff refer to as grouping. Basic to musical phrases is the concept of antecedent and consequent phrases. Antecedent phrases are complete phrases that end on a pitch of relative instability or tension, resulting in the listener expecting continuation, even after the performer takes a brief pause or breath. Consequent phrases are also complete phrases, but they end on a pitch of relative stability or relaxation, resulting in the listener recognizing the conclusion of the musical thought. Themes, sections, movements and works end on consequent phrases. Very often, consequent phrases end on the tonic, and antecedent phrases end on the dominant. Because antecedent or consequent phrases are defined primarily by the harmonic function of the last note, they are most effectively taught by holding rhythm constant while giving students creative license with pitch. The only stipulation is that the consequent phrase must end on the tonic. It is also possible that students can use elaborative notes in the consequent phrase. Take the melody “Mary Had A Little Lamb” as an example.


Structurally, the first line is a reduction of the second. The quarter notes on beats 3 and 4 of the second measure of the second line reduce to one half note in the first line, and the quarter note on beat 3 of the third measure in the second line is an upper neighbor tone that is omitted in the reduction, in which a half note on D occurs. The last measure of the first line could be reduced further to a whole note on G, the dominant. In its reduced form, the second line is identical to the first except for the last note; the antecedent ends on the dominant and the consequent ends on the tonic. Students can be given the first line, with the further reduced last measure, and then asked to write a consequent phrase ending on the tonic pitch. They would be at liberty to write any diatonic pitches, but to maintain the rhythm of the first line exactly. One possible solution is given below.


Prior learning will include voice leading, analysis of stylistic elements, and skill at audiating so that students do not write down random notes, or notes that are stylistically incompatible with the antecedent phrase provided. Doing this activity with antecedent phrases of different styles and genres provides the opportunity for students to learn about and compare each style or genre represented. Assessment would include ending on the tonic, maintaining the same rhythm  preserving the same style, using diatonic pitches, and observing good voice leading. If student work is handwritten, assessment could also include accurate forming of note heads, stems, measures, clef, and time signature, and the correct number of beats in each measure. Students who do the work on music notation software should nevertheless be asked to demonstrate understanding of notation conventions such as correct length and direction of note stems, and of the metrical arrangement of notes within measures. Technology should never allow students to bypass the learning of concepts.

A great deal of learning can result form this one activity. Phrase structure, style, genre, and notation are all closely related issues in music. This activity fosters an efficient use of time because all of these can be addressed at once in a practical, relevant way; students need to know about and apply their knowledge of style, genre and music notation in order to gain a deep understanding of the target concept, that of antecedent and consequent phrases.



Deeper Understanding Must Follow Rote Learning

2011Symposium_1_2Last week, one of my third grade classes did not enter my classroom according to my expectations. Some ran in, they were generally noisy, and even though they have assigned seats, they were rushing to sit elsewhere. This doesn’t happen every time they come in, so I don’t why it happened that day, but it did. I try very hard not to even give the impression that something like this doesn’t matter, or that it is alright, so I passed out lined paper and told them to take five minutes to write down how they are supposed to enter my room. There are twenty-three children in that class, and only one of them correctly described the procedure correctly. Is it possible that these children were mindlessly following each other into the room and sitting in their seats without consciously considering what they were doing? The teachers have a line order for bringing them to music, so the seating chart for my room follows their line order; first row in first, followed by the second and then third rows. On this day, when many decided not to stay in line, there apparently was nothing left in their understanding of the procedure to guide them, once part of the routine was broken.

Are there other things our students do that we think they understand, but that they are really just king out of habit without any real understanding of what they are doing? The great advantage of routines can also be their greatest disadvantage: they become so automatic that it is easy to forget why we’re doing them, or even how we are doing them. There is a possibility that anything we teach by rote can become a routine that is mindlessly duplicated week after week. That is why rote learning should never be the ultimate goal, but a means to end of deeper understanding. There is much value in teaching something by rote, but that value is only realized if the thing so taught, once learned, is studied and becomes the object of deeper thinking and understanding. One cannot (or should not) analyze a song one has not first learned, but once learned by rote, analysis, interpretation and evaluation are necessary areas of learning as part of the process of preparing to perform or respond to the song.

After finding only one student able to write down how each child was to enter my room, I led the class through the Practice makes permanentprocedure, not by having them practice doing it, but by making them orally describe the procedure in a step by step fashion. Stay in line. First student sits in the first chair, first row. Students follow in line, filling the rest of the first row. The next child in line goes to the first chair in the second row, and those following fill in the second row, then the next child goes to the first chair in the third row and the rest of the children follow, filling in the third row. Steps to follow expressed in words and representing an action that students will need to perform. The next time that class came in, they had no trouble with the procedure. They have learned the rote lesson. But let’s not stop there, satisfied that they did it right. We can go deeper.

Why do they come in that way? It is efficient. It keeps students together who get along, and keeps students separated who do not. That helps get the class going quickly, and avoids unnecessary interruptions. That is important for children. Learn how to properly focus attention, and stay focused. Learn how to avoid situations that will pull you off task, or lead you into situations you should avoid. Know your purpose in every context you find yourself in and stick to it. That is the deeper learning one can come away with from a procedure for entering a classroom. Once learned, being guided by the reason and purpose will make forgetting the procedure less likely. It is the same with songs or anything else.

There are hundreds of songs children listen to, but probably only two that have mixed meter, and both of those they learned in my class–Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, movement 4, and Orff” Carmina Burana, “Tanz.” Those two songs have a unique meaning. My students have moved to them, done body percussion to them, listened to them, sung the themes from them. Their knowledge of these songs is much more than mere rote familiarity. Their singing of themes is not merely intellectual recall of pitches and durations, it is the sound that is melded to the movement and emotion that the music brings about; it is deeper understanding. There’s nothing wrong with just singing a song you like, but if that’s as far as you go, that song won’t reach your core, your inner self. The ones that really mean something and last are the ones we experience deeply, with more than a passing acquaintance.

Anatomy of a Lesson Plan

2011Symposium_1_2Teachers seem to write lesson plans for different reasons. Some make plans to guide themselves through the teaching of a lesson, some make plans to document what they did so they can repeat the lesson another year, and some write lesson plans just because they have to. My guess is that most of us write plans for some combination of these reasons. Most lesson plans include at least an objective, steps that will be taken toward achieving the objective, how work will be assessed, and perhaps a list of materials needed. All of these elements answer the question, “what?” What is the objective? What will be done? What is needed? A question that is easily overlooked is, “Why?” Why is this objective being taught? Why is this objective relevant to my students? Why do I intend to have my students complete this step? Why (or how) is this activity related to the objective? Why is this the right time to be doing this?

Let me use teaching a class a new song as an example. General music teachers do this all the time, but for different reasons. Why teach this song and not that one? As the winter holidays approach, I like to teach my third graders the song, “Here We Come A-Caroling” (sometimes referred to as “Here We Come A-Wassailing”). I could teach this song because I like it, or because it is a holiday song suitable for this time of year, but there is a more compelling reason why I choose this particular song. By the time November arrives, I have taught those children numerous rhythm patterns in duple and triple meter, and I have asked them to identify the meter in some of the songs they have learned. This song begins in triple meter (or what some would call compound duple), and ends in duple meter. Because of the meter shift, it provides the children with an opportunity to contrast the two meters, and to experience in one song how each meter has a different feel to it, without making things overly complicated with unusual or mixed meters.

As I introduce the song, I will accompany myself on the piano and sing it for the class. As I do this I will have them Mozart2patsch the beat, because I am using the song to teach meter, not because the song has a particular meter; I want them to immediately have the beat as a reference point for dividing the beat into threes and later into twos. While they are doing this, they are also hearing the song and becoming familiar with it, becoming prepared to eventually sing it themselves. But that is incidental at this point. It happens without my really trying to teach them the song. I am presenting them with tuneful beats divided into duple and triple divisions. That is why I am singing the song to them.

Other classroom activities support my purpose. I tie the learning of this song to Dalcroze activities where the children walk to the beat and bounce a ball on the first beat of each measure as I improvise on the piano. I call out the meter, which changes every few measures. With “Here We Come A-Caroling” the meter change does not alter the beat, or the occurrence of a strong beat on every other beat, but the divisions of the beat change from duple to triple. That the children feel the difference is evidenced in how they toss the ball to the ground on those strong beats. There is more stress on the duple beats than on the triple beats. Many want to skip on the triple beats and walk on the duple beats, which is a way to do it without using the ball. So I teach the song because I am teaching meter and meter changes. I use it at this time of year because it is a holiday song. It serves two purposes, but the most important purpose is that of teaching a musical concept.

Many songs have a function or purpose, but these are not the same as an educational reason. A song may be associated with a holiday, worship, or celebration. It may be a cue for action, as with a cleanup song, a traditional beginning to an event, as the National Anthem is to sporting events, or be in honor of an event, person, or group of people, as the Transmigration of Souls honored those who died on September 11, 2001. Yet we do not teach The Star-Spangled Banner to prepare children for attending sporting events, we teach it for its historical significance, patriotic meaning, and perhaps use of dotted rhythms, triple meter, and clearly arpeggiated chords. These are educational reasons for teaching the national anthem.

What Idle Students in Music Ensembles Should Be Doing

2011Symposium_1_2Classroom management in large music ensemble rehearsals can look a little different from that used in conventional classrooms. The number of students is larger than an academic or general music class, and the nature of what we are asking students to do—make sound—is also different. If everyone were always playing or singing, there would be little difficulty; but what strategy is best for those frequent times when we are working with one section of the ensemble? What are the rest of the students supposed to do? Leaving students with nothing to do is never a good plan, and allowing them to talk quietly until they are asked to play again rarely stays at a quiet level.

This issue comes up because we incorrectly decide that teaching playing skills is why the students are there. Teach notes, teach fingerings, teach interpretive gestures such as articulations, tempo, and dynamics, and we are satisfied that it was a good rehearsal. But if we have properly prepared our students for playing in an ensemble, they will be equipped to do some work on their own; work than can and should be done during those minutes when other sections are playing or singing. Students can “whisper sing” their part. This is done by blowing air through the lips, like whistling, but without making a sound other than the air flow through the lips. Anyone who can whistle will intuitively know how to do this. If it is an instrumental ensemble, the student can finger the notes being whisper sung for added benefit. Students can whistle sing a part they are having trouble with that is unrelated to what is being rehearsed with the other section, or they can whistle sing their own part that they would be playing or singing with the material that is being covered if the whole ensemble were performing. Articulation can be practiced too. Singers can whisper the text in rhythm with attention given to making clear consonants and with precise rhythm. Wind instrument players can practice tonguing with teeth together and the syllable “ta” articulated on the roof of the mouth. I practiced many etudes this way on the train to and from lessons in New York City.

There are also opportunities for students to work within artistic processes other than performing Ensembleduring their down time in rehearsals. Students can be required to have a journal and a pen or pencil. When not playing, they can listen to another section as they rehearse, and write down what is being worked on, what progress is being made, what strategies were employed for each attempt at improvement, and how well each strategy worked. This exercise engages students in evaluation, and also provides a record of practice strategies that they themselves can employ in rehearsals and when they practice alone. It can also be extended by asking students who aren’t playing to suggest a strategy for those who are rehearsing. The possibility of being called upon to do this will tend to focus everyone’s attention on what is going on in the rehearsal, and will further strengthen the learning that came out of writing in the journal. This activity also is an effective way to include writing in band, orchestra or chorus rehearsals without taking time away from rehearsing; remember, you weren’t having these students do anything productive before, so any of these strategies is giving them a way of using their time more effectively, and is likely to increase student learning.

Students whose parts are not being rehearsed can also be included in the rehearsing of other sections. One way to do this is to have non-performing students clap a steady beat, as a human metronome, or perform with body percussion the actual drum parts or rhythm of the piano accompaniment with or without the percussion section or pianist playing. You can also up the ante and have the students do the same with the rhythm of a part other than their own. This develops awareness of what the other sections are doing; an awareness that will result in better ensemble playing when they are added back into the rehearsal. It is very important to me to not waste time. Students should be on task nearly all the time they are in your rehearsal. They should never be sitting idle for long amounts of time within or throughout the rehearsal. Keeping their minds active with musical things is the best use of time in a music classroom.

Life-changing Memories

There are a handful of orchestral concerts I attended years ago that I still remember, while there are many more I don’t recall in the least. Today, I’m interested in why this is. Why is it that I remember some performances and not others? When I thought about it, I realized that in each case, there was a specialness to what was going on in the concert, to the person I attended the concert with, or to the reason I was at that particular concert. In other words, what made each of these concert memorable was the context in which they were given and in which I attended.

Sometimes in the winter of 1974, I attended a performance of Verdi’s Requium. The performance was in a huge cathedral with an echo I seem to remember timing at 7-11 seconds. The choir was massively big. It was a field trip taken with my high school music appreciation class, and it was the first time I had heard a choir that large. To this day, the Verdi Requiem is one of my favorite pieces. Later that same year, in the spring, I attended my first opera with the same class. It was Puccini’s La Boheme, and the effect on me was much the same. I was enthralled with the music, captivated by the plot, and was absolutely carried away when the tenor sang Che gelida maninia. To this day, La Boheme is, you guessed it, my favorite opera. In both of these cases, with the Requiem and with La Boheme, there was an exciting newness, and a powerful emotional surge that burned the whole package—music, staging, story, and how it all made me feel—into my memory. As a music educator, I cannot forget the impact that a music teacher who took his students to these concerts had on me, and the ways in which it brought my love for music to full bloom.

Sometimes, when I take my students to concerts, I am sure that a similar awakening will occur in at least some of them. It is not always readily apparent, Many kids, when asked after the performance how they liked it, will nonchalantly reply that it was “good,” or “okay.” Then, maybe a year or two later, when they realize I’m taking another class to a concert, they will light up and excitedly tell me how much they liked going to a concert, and many will ask if they can go again. These kinds of encounters with the arts are deep-seated, life-changing, permanent memories. The emotions the arts draw out of us, at those moments when they are especially strong, change us.

I know my memories won’t be the same as yours, but here are just a few more of mine; a sort of greatest hits from my musical memory.

Harold Wright playing Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto

Richard Stoltzman playing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in Carnegie Hall with the Tokyo String Quartet

Leonard Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony at Tanglewood

Pavarotti giving a recital in Hartford, Connecticut, 1977

A Way to Differentiation in the Music Classroom

2011Symposium_1_2Differentiation is one of the more important methods facing teachers today. With a diversity among students that is greater than ever, meeting individual student needs within a single classroom can be challenging. Some of the challenge of differentiation can be eased by structuring the learning environment so that students develop skills to be independent learners. When more of the responsibility for learning is placed on the student, differentiation becomes a matter of self-pacing, which is a more effective strategy. To explain how this plays out in a classroom, I will once again use my 7th grade class as an example.

The bass clef is relatively new to many of my 7th graders. They have had ample opportunity to learn and practice using the treble clef, but limited opportunity to use the bass clef. My lesson plan for them this week was for them to practice and perform the bass line of “Stand by Me” on their piano keyboard apps I had them download to their smart phones. This is the second class for them to work on this project. During the last class, I noticed that although I had some of the note names labeled on their music, some students were still unsure of the notes names and even unsure of where they are on the piano keyboard. Others had all of the note names down, and could quickly find them on the keyboard, but needed practice playing the music in time. This set up a situation where differentiation was needed. I wanted to improve the skill of those who could already find the right notes on the keyboard, and build the skill at a more basic level in those that were not yet at that level.

I began class by giving them a note naming worksheet. I offered them optional extra credit if they timed themselves on each line; one extra point for every second under one minute for completing the line if all the answers were correct. The students appreciated the chance to get extra credit and some of the boys made a friendly competition out of it. Once they had finished the worksheet, I had them choose one line and play it on their keyboard. This was to connect the note names to keys on the piano. The pitch set on the worksheet was exactly the same as that for the bass line they would be practicing. Students worked at their own pace, and those who were slower were not penalized for not timing themselves.

Next, the students were told to find the notes they just named on the worksheet in the music for “Standart-of-teaching by Me.” I then played the recording of the song while they did this, so the rhythm, which they were not asked to read, would be fresh in their minds. When the recording was over, students began practicing the music. Some worked in small groups, playing the music together, others worked alone, and those having the most difficulty worked with me on my acoustic piano. Having the music played on the acoustic piano so that everyone could hear it in the background of what they were doing served as a frequent reminder of what their performance should sound like. Five students working on the piano went from not knowing where to start, to playing the first half of the music correctly. Those students were then able and happy to show their new-found skill to others who needed help, and a productive work group was formed, freeing me up to hear and assess those on their phone apps.

This approach was different from the one I used for the other 7th grade class, in which there were much fewer students who needed substantial assistance. In that class, students who were doing well were able to pair up with students who needed help, and bring the latter up to speed that way. So there was inter-class and intra-class differentiation leading to the point where all 7th graders could play the bass part to Stand by Me on a keyboard. All of these students will increase their skill at performing this song with further practice, and their performance will eventually become accompaniment for playing or singing the melody. This brings me to one more important point. We often stop building proficiency too soon—as soon as a student “gets it.” But excellence isn’t achieved by just getting it; it is achieved by exceeding a baseline. We should be building student skills beyond a basic proficiency, and onward to a high level of performance.