After the Review

Edit: The NCCAS review, once submitted, cannot be updated (and I’ve already done mine). If anyone wants to borrow my structure below and submit it, you are welcome to steal!

There is one week left to review the new National Core Arts Standards. If you haven’t yet taken the time, please do the review today!

Despite my participation, urging, and normal positive outlook, however, I must admit to being depressed by the state of these Standards. Here’s an analogy:

You are a fisherman (or woman). You spend your whole life on boats, and understand watercraft well. One day, a group of fishermen show you the new larger fishing vessel they are crafting together. They tell you that this new type of boat will replace all the older boats, and they want you to help them by commenting on the paint, the size of the cabin, and the number of cup holders.

Your first thought is, “Ok, cool!” But when you approach the ship, you notice right away that the keel and rudder are on top of the cabin, far from the water! You try to point this out, but that’s not what they want you to review. They say, “Well, the cars don’t have things dragging underneath, and we need to keep up with the cars. Please tell us if this is the right shade of purple.”

So, the analogy isn’t perfect, but it expresses my frustration with this process. The new standards are flawed before you get to the individual grade-level descriptions they are asking us to evaluate. And like the fishermen, I’m afraid there’s been too much invested to start over, even if they see the flaws.

It didn’t have to be this way. Here’s an example of what the standards could have looked like.

  1. Creating
    • Exploring
    • Improvising
    • Composing
    • Arranging
    • Notating
    • Reflecting and Refining
  2. Performing
    • Singing & Expressive Speech
    • Playing Instruments
    • Moving and Playing Body Percussion
    • Reading & Analyzing
    • Interpreting
    • Reflecting and Refining
    • Presenting
  3. Responding
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
  4. Connecting
    • Connecting to History & Culture
    • Connecting to Other Disciplines

Notice that this version maintains all the skills from the 1994 Standards, but places them under the new umbrella to align with the other arts. Anything that you might think is “missing,” such as selecting and planning would more appropriately be used as sub-level descriptors underneath one of the listed analytical standards (reflect, analyze). The Connecting strand, as written in the draft, essentially just doubles what has already been said. By bringing back in the specific connections listed in 1994, we create something new.

If we started with something like my list above (and by no means do I think it’s perfect), we could list grade-appropriate expectations for musical skill and knowledge development, which is completely missing from the main document of the draft. I’m not quite sure why this isn’t the approach they took. It seems to me they put the rudder on the roof by taking musical skills and knowledge out of our core standards.

So what do we do now? Do we accept whatever comes out of this national process, or do we fight on at the state and local level to keep reasonable standards that make sense to us? I know personally that I cannot endorse the draft standards as they stand, and don’t think the state of Iowa that I call home should adopt them. I worked on the recent addition of Core Companion (so-called because they haven’t been legislatively adopted yet) standards in Iowa, and they are aligned to the 1994 standards. I see no benefit from going to these new standards. Iowans believe fiercely in independence and local control, which is why we are only now getting around to state standards at all.

What can you do? First, don’t give up on the draft quite yet. Do your part and follow the review, but make full use of the blank input boxes to go beyond the questions asked. Second, if it comes to it, support meaningful standards in your state. Talk to your Dept. of Ed, your legislators, your Arts associations. Work in your district to adopt a meaningful curriculum that has skills and content.

And cross your fingers and hope the rudder gets put back in the water.

Vision for Music Education Part II

In my previous post Vision for Music Education I laid out my argument for what I see as the purpose of music education, and did so in the context of the new draft national music standards. After reading other blogs, comments here, and the ongoing facebook and twitter conversations surrounding the drafts, I feel the need to express my beliefs and argument even more strongly.

Then, I realized that I have already written it. So in the desire to further the public dialogue, below is the opening chapter to my book, Creative Sequence: Teaching Music with Flexibility and Organization.

The Importance of Creativity and Active EngagementĀ in the Music Classroom

Children today are bombarded with “media” and “entertainment.” These passive and/or interactive technologies have, for over a century now, replaced many more traditional activities. Instead of playing ball, we watch a ballgame on TV, or use a controller to make a digital avatar “play” the sport in a video game. Instead of making music with our own voice or an acoustic instrument, we listen passively to a recording, or strum a plastic controller along with a prerecorded track.

While there are many ways in which the technological explosion of the past hundred years has enriched and expanded our lives, Creative Sequence is based on the premise that music, dance, drama, art, and physical activity are still essential human activities that every child should learn to DO, not just watch. Children inherently love to move, drum on things, make noise, and explore their environment. As teachers, it is our duty to engage this natural tendency, and to lead them to discover the joys of an active lifestyle.

The primary goal of quality music education is guiding children to create, love, and learn about music. Notice that, in this list, learning about music is the last item. The rationale is simple. Children who love and are engaged in a subject will want to learn more about that subject. Children who are not actively engaged will learn only when forced, and retain as little as possible when they leave your room.

All children can and should learn to make music.

To some, this statement may seem obvious. Yet, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, some still hold to the antiquated notion that singing and music-making areĀ  “talents” gifted to a few children at birth. This flies in the face of modern educational psychology, cultural evidence from around the world, and the day-to-day experience of parents and educators with young children.

Children learn at varying paces, according to their background, interest, and attention span. Of course, there are students who struggle with certain musical skills. Many students also struggle to learn mathematics or reading. No one questions the basic assumption that all students (excepting those with serious disabilities) will master these skills. When it comes to music and the arts, we should accept no less for our children.

In cultures around the world where technology has not yet completely changed the pace of everyday life, there are numerous examples of entire villages where music is a community activity in which everyone participates. Even in more advanced societies, there are pockets of close-knit communities where music and dance remain vital to social events. Unfortunately, mainstream Western culture supplants community gatherings altogether with digital communication, single-family homes, and private transportation. No wonder we seek to fill our desire for artistic expression by turning to the pre-recorded music of professionals.

If musical expression is going to remain an integral part of the human existence, it must start in the home, the preschool or elementary school. By the time most students are given the choice to play in an ensemble like band or orchestra, many have already made up their minds about whether they consider themselves musicians or not.

All other curricular objectives, including music literacy, are secondary to a positive, expressive experience making music.

Toddlers must speak before reading language. They must be able to count before identifying numerals. Yet as trained musicians, we educators have spent so much time learning and perfecting our reading skills that we often equate notation with music. In fact, the English language encourages this confusion by calling paper notation “sheet music” or even just “music.” You hear trained musicians use this all the time. (“I forgot my music! Can you see the music?”)

Let’s be very clear. Music does not exist on paper. Music is human expression in sounds organized through time. Notation is the written record of what a piece of music should sound like. Therefore, music literacy should only be taught at the appropriate time, and following the appropriate development of musical skills.

Appreciation of music arises naturally from making music, and exploration of cultures, styles, and history should be interactive whenever possible.

The advantages of modern society and technology include affordable means to record, play back, and share music around the world, as well as access masterpieces from throughout history. What once required musicologists to travel the globe and attend universities with large research libraries can now be found online and for free. Music teachers must take advantage of these technologies, showing their children the songs, games, and styles of music from different corners of the globe. They should compile at least a cursory introduction to music history, highlighting famous pieces (Bach’s Prelude & Fugue, Pachelbel’s Canon, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, etc.)

The danger of teaching children music history and culture, however, is that it can be a passive experience. Children sit at desks silently for so much of the day, and have so little time in music class, that they should be actively involved whenever possible. Instead of simply listening and talking about musical examples, students can draw a picture while listening, or move expressively to the storyline. Choose musical excerpts from various styles that children can recreate and explore on barred percussion, recorder, or singing. When studying a time period or culture, look at not just the music, but the dances and games that accompany the music. By interacting and performing the arts of another culture, students can learn to embrace differences in all aspects of life.

Music should be a creative art, not simply a recreative art.

Our final guiding principle highlights the different ways of “making” music. When vocalists and instrumentalists in our Western culture traditionally perform a work, they are re-creating the music of a composer. All the basic musical elements – melody, rhythm, form, dynamics, tempo – are laid out in the score. Of course, great performers and ensembles make interpretations to go beyond the written notation. But the piece is essentially unchanged in any serious details.

This is not the only way to make music. Jazz musicians, folk musicians, and pop artists are much more accustomed to adapting, arranging, or even composing or improvising their own music. Composers create everything from lullabies to symphonies by writing new melodies, rhythms, and forms. By manipulating the very materials that make up a composition, these musicians gain a greater depth of understanding and sense of ownership in the resulting performance.

Children can and should be led to take this same ownership of their musical experiences. Rather than all of the decisions being made by the composer or the teacher/director, the master teacher guides his or her students to make creative choices. Students can compose accompaniments based on repeated ostinato patterns, improvise solos on given scales and phrase patterns, choreograph dances and games to accompany a song, and combine all of this to create longer performances out of simple songs.

Organizational Change in the 21st Century

I am involved right now in two meaningful and somewhat parallel discussions online. The first is the discussion over the new draft National Standards for Music Education, sponsored by NAfME but organized through the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. The second is a discussion about another organization of which I am an active member, and it’s desire to be relevant to 21st century needs. (Sounds just like standards reform, no?)

In both instances, well-meaning people with elected authority have sought to bring about change to improve the situation for music education and music teachers. In both cases, the effort for membership/public feedback was taken care of through an online survey. In both cases, there is a concern by some that the leadership is not listening or did not listen or will not listen to feedback.

First, I believe in the goals of both organizations. I truly do believe that the leadership seeks positive feedback and has positive intentions.

Second, I can see that in both instances, a survey may be the cleanest, but not necessarily the most informative, way to gain feedback. The advantage of a survey is that it is standardized, quick, and easy to understand the results. The disadvantage of the survey is that it is standardized, quick, and does not elicit ongoing conversation. In the vacuum left by the closed nature of the survey, those outside of the leadership looking to speak up in dialogue have turned to social media.

Welcome to the 20-teens. A decade ago, an emailed survey would have been the best solution for a situation like this. Today? Look at what a computer programmer does to perfect his or her app. An online forum, reviews open to the public, and constant adaptation and updates. Built in feedback tools that highlight problems immediately. Contrast this with education “Standards,” where we as a nation get one shot at the right answer, which could potentially dominate the educational institution for the next generation or longer.

We need to figure out how to apply crowd sourcing to our large music education organizations. But as one of my mentors has pointed out in these discussions, we need to do this in a way where we don’t just value the “quick fix,” but also constantly reflect on historical practice and involve those with the greatest knowledge and experience.

Busy Fall!!!

This fall has been one of the busiest and most rewarding of my professional career. At school (Price Lab/NU), I had three concerts this month (3-5, 6-8, & 9-12), took two students through the All-State audition procedure (one was recalled, one accepted), helped the sixth grade and fifth grade write a rap and a song (respectively) about the Leader in Me initiative (Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits adapted for children) and still managed to do report cards, planning, and mentoring six college students through a field experience!

Outside of school has also been busy! At the Unitarian Universalist Society, I continue to lead a children’s choir, an adult choir, and a strings band, with three rehearsals and a service every week.

In September, my colleague Aaron Hansen and I co-presented an Orff Schulwerk workshop for the Sioux Valley chapter. That was an exciting first! Aaron presented on primarily movement topics, and let me tackle some big “process” ideas, and we managed to tie it all together beautifully. Participants were surprised when we told them this was our first joint session!

This month, I was invited to direct the fifth graders at the Dubuque Catholic Schools Choral Festival. Again, an exciting first! I had never guest-conducted a group of children before. I had two hours to work with the students on three pieces, plus I got to conduct a combined piece with the fifth grade, the middle school students, and two college choirs (Loras & Clark)! Definitely a fulfilling professional experience. I hope to do more children’s choirs in the future.

So what’s next? At the American Orff Schulwerk Association conference next month, I will be presenting with my good friends from the BW Orff Course, Laura Webster and Michelle Przybylowski. We are presenting a tale and background information on the Eastern Woodland Native American people of Pennsylvania. The story is Rainbow Crow, and my part of the session is guiding the creation of an original musical composition based on some of the musical traditions and styles of the Native American tribes. Can’t wait!