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.

Ways of Developing Audiation Skills in Music Classes

2011Symposium_1_2Audiation is hearing and comprehending music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. Audiation occurs when we anticipate what will come next while listening to music, anticipate what music we are reading will sound like while performing from notation, think of what we will play next when playing “by ear,” improvising, composing or notating music. There are several classroom activities that music teachers can do with their students to have them practice audiating. Today, I’d like to share a few.

  1. Sing the first phrase of a song, and have individual students sing the next phrase. This requires the student to anticipate what comes next based on what he or she has just heard; to think of what comes next before singing it. This is the basic action of audiation, and what separates audiation from imitation. With audiation, the person is imagining the music out of his or her own thought, whereas with imitation, the person is copying what was heard without first imagining it. That which is being imitated takes the place of audiation. When a student continues a melody started by someone else rather than repeating what has just been heard, the possibility of imitating is removed.
  2. Name a song a student knows and have him or her start singing it. This is similar to the previous activity, except that now the student does not have the benefit of using the beginning of the phrase as a cue for what comes next. Having the student begin the song from only the title leaves the responsibility of imagining all of the music involved to the student. The only cue is the non-musical song title.
  3. Have students leave out designated words of the song, coming back in after the omitted word. Feirerabend uses “My Hat It Has Three Corners” for this. After the children know the song, one additional word is omitted each time the song is sung. The omitted word is replaced with a movement. “My” is replaced with pointing to oneself, “hat” with pointing to one’s head, “three” with holding up three fingers, “corners” by pointing to one’s elbow. When the students have worked up to omitting all of these words, most of the song is “sung” silently while doing the motions.
  4. Play two or three notes on the piano, and have children name as many songs as they can that start with those notes. For example, play do, mi, so. The children might name “Frere Jacques” or “Have You Ever Seen A Sailor” or “Pierrot.” In the act of thinking of songs that begin with the given sequence of pitches, the student is heavily engaged in audiation. The student not only audiates a single phrase that he or she will sing, but audiates all possible songs they can think of that begin with a common tonal pattern. The beauty of activities like this is to the student, it just seems like a fun game, but the music teacher knows that while the students are having fun, they are building their audiation skills.
  5. Have children respond to a musical question with an improvised answer within a given meter and tonality. This activity moves from performing and performing readiness to that of creating musical work. The student is now audiating original musical ideas instead of recalling previously learned ones. Previously learned ideas are the foundation of improvisation, but there is originality involved in improvisation that is not in play during recall.
  6. Sing short tonal patterns and have individual students repeat them after a brief pause between you and them.
  7. Sing rhythm patterns and have individual students repeat them.
  8. Have children sing a song alone. Singing alone leaves all of the audiation to the singer, and avoids the possibility of imitation. When students sing with others, they may imitate what they hear others doing, and are then not practicing audiation.
  9. Have children compose variations on a given theme. The ways in which the variations resemble the theme is evidence of auditaion. Writing variations involves manipulating the mental representation of the theme that the student has made, audiating all the while the theme and the changes made to it, in a constant comparison.
  10. Listen to classical music. If the music is familiar, this will enable students to anticipate what will happen, thereby audiating. It is also possible to audiate what will happen in unfamiliar music, based on what has happened in similar works that are familiar. In this case, students are using stylistic or cultural norms to audiate.

In each of these ten classroom activities, students must form a musical thought—hear music in their head that is not physically present—and then do something with it. They sing, convert to movement, associate with another musical work, find recurrences of the same thought in multiple musical works, generate a new thought that continues a previous one, reproduce the thought from hearing it, or manipulate and change but not replace the musical idea. These are activities many music teachers do often, but not always with audiation in mind. Students go beyond “naming that tune” which is recall, and think of several melodies that have the same beginning, which requires them to think of many melodies and test each one out for a match. When a student attempts to sing a song, but cannot continue to the end, another student continues it, and then the original student repeats what the second child provided. With the interval of time in between, the first child must audiate what the second child sang. This takes good questioning and discussion practices out of language and into the realm of music. Students who are asked to repeat a musical phrase but at a different dynamic are audiating dynamics to do so. Students who are asked to sing a song in a different meter are audiating meter in order to do so. Although more advanced, this last activity encompasses a creative aspect of audiation, much as improvising and composing variations. The point is to have the student imagine as many musical ideas as possible, and to have him or her manipulate them both in the imagination, performing a sort of musical spatial reasoning, and aurally in actions of performance and creating.

What Is Musical Ability?

2011Symposium_1_2What is musical ability? This question is not as easy to answer as first appears. It is tempting to define musical ability in terms of performance skills, and those are typically made manifest in public performances. Restricting a definition of musical ability to performance excludes non-performance musical behaviors, or musical behaviors that are needed to prepare a performance, but are not evident toan observer during a performance. A more inclusive definition was proposed by Hallam (2006), who found that subjects in a research project completed the phrase “musical ability is” with the following: expressing thought and feeling through sound, being able to understand and interpret the music, communication through music, responding to music, playing or singing, having a musical ear, listening and understanding, appreciation of music, creativity, evaluation skills, technical skills, composing or improvising, reading music, and knowledge about music. While some of these are primarily performance dependent, most are not. Musical ability is as much about the cognitive processes of understanding, responding and knowing as it is about performance.

Expressing though and feeling through sound could be performance, composing, improvising, or even using non-linguistic utterances such as staccato “ah, ah, ah” to express excitement or “ooh” to express empathy. Howard Gardner addressed this aspect of musical ability by including in his explanation of musical intelligence a sensitivity to rhythm and sounds in a person’s environment, and a preference for being taught with rhythmic speech. Those with musical ability take on a sonic flamboyance in the way they communicate that exceeds the norms of everyday communication.

Being able to understand and interpret music is as much for the listener/responder as it is for themusic consumer performer. Listeners become responders to music in part when they determine and respond to the expressive intents of the composer and performers, while performers determine the composer’s and their own expressive intent in preparing and giving a public performance. Understanding takes in this expressive and emotional aspect of music, but also includes cognitive activity that organizes the physically heard musical sounds into structures that make sense and that are consistent with cultural and stylistic norms.

Communication through music is primarily something performers do to an audience, but the audience is necessary for that communication to take place. There is a shared understanding of what is happening musically, and the effects it all has on those who hear it, that makes the performer’s communication through music successful. For example, the performer places emphasis on certain notes, and the listener uses those emphases to detect meter, and to perceive the expressive affect. Listeners who are fluent in the conventions of the music to which they are listening are using this aspect of their musical ability to make structural and emotional sense of the music. A listener continues to use this ability to respond to music. Response to music can be in many forms including movement, emotional, thematic, structural, and contextual. Performer respond to each other as they play or sing music, and each response has an effect on how all the others in the ensemble perform, thus shaping the performance.

Having a musical ear can also take on many forms. It may be that a listener recognizes a motif from another musical work in the one he or she is listening to, or it may be that a person can use an instrument to pick out the notes of a tune they have heard. People who can “name that tune” in just two or three notes have a good musical ear. It is worth noting that much of this particular ability comes from experience and an extensive repertoire of melodies committed to memory on which a person can draw to identify and connect with. People with a good musical ear are also highly sensitive to intonation and in tuneness, and may also have perfect pitch.

Evaluation skills is evidence of musical ability in performers who can use evaluation to refine and rehearse, of music critics who can judge the merits and shortcomings of a performance, and of listeners who can assess the quality of the musical work and the performance. A person evaluating also draws on knowledge about the music and performance. Knowledge about music includes cultural, social, historical, form, structure, performance practices and instrumentation, expectations, and expressiveness. Any one of these, or any combination, must be considered musical ability. Under this definition, virtually every student can be considered to have some form of musical ability, and none can justifiably be excluded from a school music program because of lack of talent. There ought to be opportunities for students to use their musical ability or abilities in whatever form they are present, within a school music program.

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.

Philosophical Musings on Art and Music

2011Symposium_1_2What do humans do? What are we made for? If we look at our educational institutions, we would conclude that we think and reason in words and formulas, create works of art that utilize mathematical relationships and perhaps words, but which express emotions and feelings, figure out how things work through scientific inquiry, and design and build things. These things that humans do roughly correspond to the disciplines of language, philosophy, mathematics, visual and performing arts, science, and engineering. We are reasoning, linguistic, inquiring, and creative beings. While none of these is independent of the others, one pervades all the others; creative thought is necessary for reasoning, communicating, and inquiring. Without creative thought, we fail to initiate inquiry that leads to innovation or improvement, and we struggle to comprehend our well suitedness to our earthly environ; just as our surroundings and indeed ourselves appear to us with color, shape, order, and often impressive beauty, the fruits of our creative activity is similarly crafted with those same attributes.

Visual art presents shapes and color in two and three dimensions that represents or challenges our awareness of our world and ourselves. Music presents sounds that are represented in our minds as shapes and colors in space that cannot be seen but are intimately known thanks to the creative invention of composers and performers of music. Dance is perhaps the perfect art form, combining the visual art of the dancer’s body with the aural art of the music to which the dancer dances. The arts are life imagined and reimagined. At times they give us a vision of what we could aspire to and at other times give us a candid view of what we have settled for, and thus take us at times to a high place of hope and aspiration, and at other times to a low place of regret and shame. Through these honest glimpses of the human spirit, and only through them, we face the certainty of mathematics, the logic of language, and the quest for knowledge of philosophy and science.

Mathematics is never so beautiful to most of us than it is on display in a work of art. Language is never so poignant to Einsteinmost of us than when adorned with melody, and science is never so ennobled as in combined tones forming harmonies and counterpoint that wondrously and miraculously combine to form an acoustic wonder. No less than Albert Einstein summed this up when he said “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.” Einstein’s second wife once explained, “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.” Late in life, Einstein observed, “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.”

It is this joy that is the essence of what we should take away from these remarks. Einstein was not a world-class musician, but nevertheless drew immense satisfaction, joy, and even inspiration form his musical performances. Einstein’s friend Janos Plesch once wrote about Einstein, “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling.” Students sometimes wonder why they have a music class because they are not going to be career musicians. Most will not question taking math though they have no plans to be career mathematicians, but the connection to “real life” seems to be more obscure for music. The answer is that most, like Einstein, will derive untold and probably unexpected rewards from performing music as an amateur along side whatever profession or career they choose. Music is immensely stimulating, and even more so when a musical instrument is played. If someone of Einstein’s stature could realize such benefit from being an amateur musician, our students can be sure of exacting a similar benefit, even if they do not become elite physicists.

 

http://www.pha.jhu.edu/einstein/stuff/einstein&music.pdf

What Your Students Will Tell You

2011Symposium_1_2As I taught my pre-kindergarten three year olds today, several of them were really good teacher’s helpers. I don’t mean they shared a snack, or helped a friend put on a jacket, I mean they helped me teach them their music class. Children will tell you a lot about how to teach them if you’re observant enough to notice. For example, at one point during the class, I told the class to walk to the beat of the music I would play. The music was the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Most of the children walked around the room, most of them doing very well to follow the beat. As I watched, I noticed two children were noticeably not stepping in time. One looked like he was running, and the other was hesitating, not knowing quite what to do. I was just about to admonish the first child for running when I noticed he wasn’t trying to run, he was stepping in perfect time to the eighth notes he was hearing. His beat was not the tactus quarter note, but the divided eighth note beat. I complimented him on his beat, and left him alone. No one else was as precise as he was. The other child wasn’t getting any better, so I said “walk to the beat, like this.” I began to walk beside him taking is hand, but his feet still didn’t move. Earlier in the class, we had moved expressively by moving our arms but not walking around the room. Perhaps this child remembered that. In a moment of brilliance, he began moving his arm to the beat, not his feet. His arm moved in perfect time to the quarter note tactus. Then, once his arm was going, he began to walk in time with his arm. As long as he kept is arm moving, his steps were in perfect time. No one can walk to a beat before they feel the beat in their body. This child couldn’t feel the beat by walking alone, but sure could feel it by moving his arm. After that, his whole body new what to do.

Later in the day, I had a class of third graders. These children were trying to do a body percussion activity designed to teach them to recognize eighth, quarter and notes longer than a beat in a familiar piece. The music was the first theme in Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slav.” They were to stomp on notes longer than a beat, clap on notes equal to the beat, and patsch on notes shorter than the beat. I had already taught the same activity to another third grade class earlier in the week, and they succeeded at it quickly, but not so with this class. It is one of the essentials of teaching that the same method rarely works exactly the same with all all children, so I was not surprised when this group of third graders had more difficulty. I thought there might be fewer auditory learners and more visual learners in this class, so I wrote the rhythm of the theme on the board, and taught them which motions went with which durations. I told them that all of the notes that were not colored in (half, dotted-half, and whole notes) were to be a stamp. Notes colored in (quarter notes) were to be a clap, and notes colored in that were connected (pairs of eighth notes) were to be patched. I presented it this way because although they frequently read rhythms, we use rhythm syllables, and I had not reviewed the note names lately. Almost immediately over half of those children who had been struggling were able to correctly perform the rhythm with the correct body percussion after three tries.  Switching to a notation based presentation was better suited to the learning styles of those students. When students are struggling, often they are telling you something very important;  “I’ve tried but I can’t get it this way. Is there another way I can do this?” Those challenges and the need to find another way are, for me, what makes teaching exciting and fresh every day.

 

How To Ease Musical Transitions

2011Symposium_1_2I expect that all of us have found from our own performance and from directing our performance ensembles that transitions always need extra practice; those measures in a musical work where the composer moves from one section to the next, or one theme to the next. Everything is going well, and then we arrive at something different and there is that hesitation when we can’t quite keep the music going. So we practice that transition over and over until we can play or sing through it smoothly and seamlessly. Why are musical transitions so difficult? What is going on in our brain that suddenly makes it so hard to go on and continue to play correctly?

Musical perception is a lot like visual perception. We organize what we hear into groups that consist of things that our brains perceive belong together. Examples of rules by which our brain organizes music include close pitch proximity, continuance of the same articulation, dynamic, or rhythm pattern, similar or same timbres, and organizing a group of notes the same as a parallel group we have already heard. In between these groups, there are boundaries. Boundaries can be rests, relatively long durations, or a highly stable chord, among others.

The difficulty in transitions is that they occur at a boundary. At that point we are trying to force two groups together that our brain has decided belong separated. There is momentary conflict between what we want to do and what our brain has prepared us to do. That is why we can play or sing after the transition and before the transition, but not through the transition. Our brain is happy to keep the two groups separate, because that is how it has represented the music in memory. We want to go, our brain wants to pause. Fortunately, musical structure as it is understood by the human brain is hierarchical. That means that those two groups we are trying to put together are two halves of, and subordinate to, a larger group comprised of the two subordinate halves. By widening our view and thinking of the two groups as one, we can change the way our brain describes the transition to our consciousness. This takes some analysis during which the musician finds a stronger boundary at the end of the two smaller groups, and that stronger boundary then becomes the end-point of the group. This larger group then can likewise be thought of as half of a still larger group. The process theoretically continues on to the end of the work or movement, although most of us will find it too difficult to maintain a single group over such a long time span. The larger the group, the more difficult keeping it mentally intact becomes, but even succeeding at two or three of these transitions by understanding the music’s hierarchy at a deeper level is helpful in that it eliminates one or two troublesome transitions.

Now, let’s briefly see how this works. Here is the opening of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 545.

K. 545

 

I can easily perceive each measure as a group. The first measure is all C major, the second measure starts on a dominant chord, then returns to the tonic, and there is a relatively large leap between the G an the B in the melody, suggesting a group boundary. The next two measures are parallel to the first, and so also can be divided into two groups, one for each measure. With the melodic leap and the bass note change, going from one measure to the next can easily feel like a transition. But the third beat of the second measure is much more stable than the fourth beat of the first measure, and the second measure ends with a rest, which is a much stronger group boundary. Together, the first two measures make a complete sub phrase, and so makes a stronger group than the one measure arrangement. Now, with the goal of the full cadence on beat three (and four) of the second measure, I can more easily connect the two measures. Likewise with the third and fourth measures; measures 5-8 look like they could each be a group, but there is a descending progression that doesn’t conclude until the end of measure eight, where there is an elision that both completes the melodic descent to D and begins the cadential sequence that brings the piece to a half cadence in measure 12. At this point, we find that the first 12 measures are one group, made of three subordinate groups of four measures each, which are each made of two subordinate groups of two measures, which are made of two subordinate groups of one measure, taking us back to where we started, confronted with the urge to pause at the end of each measure. By seeing the larger groups, and thereby organizing the music in such a way that it has fewer group boundaries and therefore transitions, we have an easier time keeping the music going. Our technique is urged forward by our structural understanding and audiation of the work.

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.