Starting today, we all get one more chance to review the National Core Music Standards (and the other Arts Standards) before they become finalized. This summer, I wrote several posts about the first public draft of the k-8 music standards. Since then, the standards have undergone extensive revisions. However, the primary structure of the new standards remains unchanged.
So, briefly, here is my review of the new National Standards. I hope it is helpful to see someone else’s thoughts. Feel free to comment here or share this post with others. After reviewing the standards yourself, make sure that you fill out the online review survey.
First, the good.
- Focus on Process and Creativity
The new standards format is focused on the process of making and learning about music. The three overarching themes are Creating, Performing, and Responding, which are the three primary processes through which music is experienced. I think this is a clear structure. In contrast, the 1994 standards are based on a long list of skills. Three processes are easier to remember quickly than nine skills.
- Improved Musical Verbs
In the first draft, all of the action verbs for individual grade-level standards were borrowed from the Common Core in other subject areas. In some cases, the sentences did not even appear to refer to music as a subject matter. While it is still the case that the verbs are often generic (demonstrate, select, refine), the context given in each box is much more specific to music, and more clearly defined.
Now for my ongoing concerns.
- NO Skills or Elemental Concepts in Main Core Document
In an effort to align with the various Arts and Common Core subjects, the music document focuses solely on transferable skills and verbs, and makes no mention of specific musical skills or knowledge. For example,
- no mention of media (singing or playing instruments)
- no mention of specific musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, etc.)
Before you freak out, these skills and elements are addressed in supplemental materials, such as the General Skills and Knowledge Companion Table. But this is not the same approach taken by Literacy and Math in the Common Core. In fact, the detail of skills in the Common Core is quite detailed and specific. It is clear by reading the main documents that these are serious, challenging subjects that require in-depth study and serious time during the school day. By contrast, the new Music Core Standards appear to be achievable with little focus on actual skill-building and knowledge. Students must be able to select music (in the 90s many curricula referred to this as being “informed consumers”) but do not, according to the main document, have to learn any vocal technique. They must reflect and evaluate, but do not necessarily have to demonstrate a steady beat.
- Too Much Emphasis on Analytical Skill
Ok, maybe this is the same as my previous complaint, but it’s important. Music teachers are given a very small window of opportunity to teach children to be musical. While I have no problem in theory with the idea of children learning to select good repertoire, reflect on listening examples, and discuss the finer points of a performance, I strongly believe this is all secondary to the foundational skills of singing on pitch, keeping a beat, playing an instrument, creating original musical ideas, and performing in an expressive manner.
Through the Orff Schulwerk courses and workshops I teach and my local university, I have had the privilege to mentor hundreds of preservice and practicing music educators. I have unfortunately found that there are many music teachers out there who do not challenge their students musically at the elementary level. The students do not learn to play an instrument (three notes on Hot Cross Buns and then never touching the instrument again does not count, in my opinion). They are not asked to sing in rounds or parts. They do not get to manipulate rhythmic and melodic building blocks to create original musical ideas. The repertoire is based solely on what is popular, regardless of educational value. The blame for this lack of rigor is not just with the teachers, but also with the teacher education system that tries to teach them to be high school conductors and professional performers at the same time (and usually with more emphasis) as they are learning to be classroom music teachers. Many beginning teachers end up in elementary schools by default, assuming this is a temporary gig until they get a real job at a high school.
Good elementary music educators understand that they can not get an adequate training from a bachelors degree, and supplement with summer courses, Saturday workshops, conferences, and advanced degrees. These dedicated teachers then grasp the incredible abilities of even the youngest children, and creatively shape a challenging experience for each class. They structure sequential lesson ideas, and constantly monitor students for personal growth and needs. The focus of their lessons is on active music making, not analysis or discussion or paper/pencil worksheets.
I’m not anti-analysis. My second grade students today were looking at several folk songs, reviewing melodic and rhythmic material, identifying what was new, and labeling the phrase forms of the songs. But all of this was used in order to understand and perform the music. They will later take that same phrase form and improvise or compose original patterns. Thus, the analysis is the secondary skill, that is there to inform performance and composition, not the point of the lesson. We will also spend some time on listening to works that they cannot yet perform, such as symphonic music. But my fear of these standards is that poorly-trained teachers will use one third (as it is presented) of their class time to teach responding skills, and that they will miss the inherent connections that make responding a natural part of a performance or composition-based lesson.
The select strand under Performance is still controversial in my mind as well. Repertoire must be introduced to the children, just as literature must be. While students may choose a book to read on their own, singing in a class is not the same type of independent activity. Teachers must be free to select quality repertoire. I know the intention of this strand is to simply include student selection, not to replace the teacher’s role. But making this a core skill from Kindergarten means that an exorbitant amount of time must be spent on discussion, selection, and student choice. This makes the teacher’s job much harder. Now, instead of choosing one or two pieces to teach a particular elemental concept, we might have to include 3-4 or more, so that even if the students make a different choice than we anticipate, they can still experience and learn the same vital skills. Moreover, I cannot fathom a quick, seamless, and authentic way to include 25-30 (let alone 100+ for a performance) students in a selection process. Verbal discussion will only include a few leaders, or will be incredibly time-consuming. Written reflections will likewise be time-consuming, taking time away from making music.
Ultimately, I believe music is something that all people should learn to do. I think this is why it has been an important part of education since at least Ancient Greece. When we boil it down to cross-curricular analytical skills, I think we are selling out our art, our craft, our means of communication. I want every adult in the country to be able to sing in tune, plunk out a melody, keep a beat, and participate in musical expression throughout their lives. If, as a result of this inherent musicality, they can listen to a masterpiece and appreciate it, that’s a bonus!
Apologies for the poorly organized thoughts here. While I am frustrated by the predetermined, (in my opinion) flawed structure of the new National Standards, I do appreciate the work that went into them. I think the goal of looking at music from a process standpoint has merit. I just don’t like seeing the structural components of skills and elements, or the teacher’s role in teaching, being moved from the front page to the addendum. I think we should be proclaiming loud and clear that music is important in it’s own right, and because of the musical skills that students will learn, just as math and literacy are primarily important because everyone understands the needs for these skills. I’m afraid we as a profession are walking a dangerous path of appeasement and submission, where we are only important because we reinforce and align with what is already deemed important. I know that my reading is somewhat superficial, and that the supplementary documents will “fill in the gaps.” My point is that, to a beginning teacher or non-musical administrator, the supplemental documents may never be read. A principal will want to see strand number and maybe the Essential Question on a lesson plan or curriculum map, and that’s it. Beyond that, they won’t have the time to delve. Can we prove our worth with only what’s in the core document? Will a new, under-trained elementary music teacher be able to teach children to make music using this as a guide? I guess we’ll find out.