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.

Vision for Music Education

I have spent the past two days reading, discussing, and writing about the new draft music standards from the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. What strikes me most as missing from these standards, unlike the specific list in my previous post, is understanding, experience, and vision.

The core writing team that developed this draft is mostly dedicated music educators. However, not a single member of the team is currently working in a PreK-8 setting, and some of them have never taught at this level, or been trained in one of the leading philosophies surrounding this discipline (Orff Schulwerk, Kodaly, Dalcroze-Eurhythmics, Music Learning Theory). The team includes high school teachers, collegiate professors, fine arts district supervisors, and fine arts state DOE coordinators. This is not a team with understanding, experience, and standing to speak to for our field of K-8 music educators.

What I do think this writing team has is a vision of what music education in the future would look like. I just don’t think that it looks like my vision. Sure, we have a lot in common, but I feel they are missing some big picture items in their vision:

Making Music is for Everyone

Sure, these new standards are written for teaching music to all children K-8. And they include creating and performing standards. But the vast majority of the standards, even categorized under creating and performing, are actually about analyzing, discussing, reflecting, justifying, and documenting. Those are their verbs, by the way. Yes, it’s a selective list, and there are better verbs in there (demonstrating) but they are in the minority, which proves my point. These standards are about understanding music, not making music. Making music is seen as a means to an end, rather than the actual point of the subject.

I’ve seen this before. Many people unfortunately still believe that making music is all or in a large part a “talent,” and that most students will therefore not be performers throughout their lives. Speaking as an experienced and trained music educator and as a father, I can assure you that, while talent exists, it is dwarfed by the regular skill-building process that all children use to learn to walk, speak, do math, etc. Music is a set of skills first and foremost. Some are talented at quickly learning those skills, but everyone (barring learning disabilities) can achieve them. The Zimbabwean proverb is familiar to most Orff teachers: “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.” Making music is part of the human experience.

Making Music is the Foundation for Understanding and Appreciation

With a strong foundation in music-making skills, and literacy skills to support the music-making, students will inherently have an appreciation for music and desire to learn more. In the new draft standards, rehearsing and presenting a performance come after selecting, analyzing, and interpreting the music. I get why this was done. First music must be selected, then as it is taught, skills and details should be highlighted through analysis and interpretation (although isn’t this part of rehearsal?), and finally it is polished and performed. The problem is that the selecting skill talks solely about the students making the selections, never the teacher. So to follow this “process,” you can’t get to the performance (even in-class performances) without first turning over selection of repertoire to the children. Wait, how do they know which music to select if they haven’t performed any of it yet?!

Allowing students to have input on the selection process is a wonderful learning tool and standard. It just doesn’t belong in it’s elevated spot, implying that this is the primary or only source for repertoire to be performed. It also misses the bigger picture of time and skills. Students must learn first by doing. They perform first, then they have the skills necessary to speak intelligently about their choices and preferences.

The third Artistic Process in the new draft standards is Responding, and here too, they begin with students making a selection, before any analysis or interpretation has taken place. Also, there are certainly active music-making skills that can be used to respond to and learn about music while listening, such as moving/dancing to the music, performing with a recording (body percussion), conducting, or listening and then recreating. These are downplayed with the single verb “demonstrate,” which is then only used through second grade. So 3rd-5th grade students are implicitly expected to do the selecting, interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating all in a passive manner.

Music Education is about Elements, Repertoire, and Media, not just Process

In my book Creative Sequence, I show teachers how to build their own curriculum around the Elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, etc.), varied relevant and culturally diverse Repertoire, and using multiple Media (singing, speaking, moving, playing). We then tie this all together in each lesson using a Process for teaching, which includes experience, analyze, and create strands.

Most of what I have discussed so far about these draft standards is the skewed perspective of their process. However, in the big picture, shouldn’t elements, repertoire, and media be addressed in national standards?! They were all there in the previous 1994 standards. Most people I have worked with on standards development would say the standard should show you what to teach, not how to teach it. This draft does the opposite. It doesn’t tell us at all what skills or knowledge to give students (except high-level thinking skills with no foundation), but it certainly prescribes a process, the “how.”

Vision for the Future

Where are we going? I envision a future where every adult in this country is moderately fluent in making music. Families and friends would think nothing of bursting into song during a conversation, gathering around a piano, or sitting on the porch with a guitar. Community get-togethers in the park would feature spontaneous or planned folk dancing, and most of the visitors would be participants, not observers. Many of our ancestors had these skills, do we want to be less alive and musical than they were? Our children love these activities, and it is slowly beat out of them by our culture’s cool attitude towards public performance by “amateurs.” Music is too important to be left up to the professionals (I think I stole that last quote, but don’t know who to attribute it to).

This to me is the reason for music education. How do we get there? Not by making higher-order thinkers who have limited experience in the craft. We get there by first sharing and training students to make and love making music. If we have time and can skillfully include analysis and reflection into our teaching, great! But this should be the icing, not the cake. If we don’t get to every advanced process by the end of fifth grade, have we done our students a disservice? Or have we equipped them with the age-appropriate experiences to allow later exploration and analysis of music?

What’s your vision?

New NCCAS National Core Music Standards

UPDATE: Creative Sequence Alignment post is now available for more info on national draft standards.

The new National Core Arts Standards have been released today for a public review process that will last until July 15. The National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, comprised of representatives from various Arts Education organizations, including the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME), wrote the new standards as an update to the 1994 National Standards. So I spent most of the day today poring over the new draft music standards, and I have to admit, I’m not excited. There are many glaring structural problems with the new standards. But first, the good points.

Clear “Artistic Process” Umbrella

In order to align all the arts in a cohesive manner, the writers chose three to four very simple, clear Artistic Processes to categorize all the standards under.

  • Creating – same across all disciplines
  • Performing/Presenting/Producingperforming for music
  • Responding – same across all discipliness
  • Connecting – used by dance, media arts, and theater, but considered integrated into the other processes for music

By using this simple structure, you can see that what was nine national standards in the past, can now be quickly remember by a simple three: create, perform, respond. Creating covers old standards #3-4, improvising and composing/arranging. Performing covers old standards #1-2, singing and playing. Responding covers #6-9, which include listening, evaluating, analyzing, and connecting to history, culture, and other disciplines.

Heightened Placement for Creative Process

As an Orff Schulwerk-trained teacher, I was of course thrilled to see the very first process to be Creating! Far too many music teachers do not believe in the creative potential of their students (or even themselves), and see music as merely a re-creative art.

Connections to 21st Century Skills and Common Core Language

I have been involved in the process to get the fine arts added to the Iowa Core Curriculum. During this process, I have learned a lot about 21st Century Skills. The universal skills like collaboration, flexibility, and productivity are great ways of thinking about cross-curricular success for our students. So I was pleased to see this kind of newer language infusing its way into the new arts standards.


So, I was really excited by all of this, and was looking forward to a day of nodding my head emphatically. Instead, I am left with a deep pit in my stomach.

No Listed Essential Music Skills

  • The new standards do not require students to sing. They do not have to match pitch.
  • The new standards do not require learning to play instruments, or even keep a beat. However, they do require students to perform music. They just don’t explain what this means.
  • The new standards do not require students to read music. However, they do briefy mention writing/notating music, to record and share compositions.

No Elements of Music

  • The new standards barely refer to the elements. Free improvisation in grades K-2 mention “tonal and rhythmic” patterns.
  • Performances and listening examples are to be “analyzed” for musical elements, but these musical elements are never listed or described beyond single examples (i.e., form).
  • Not surprisingly, since notation literacy is not mentioned, there is no expectation in the standards for students to read a specific rhythm, identify pitches, etc.

Too Much Emphasis on Student Production

  • Students in the new standards are expected to not only improvise and compose, but to first create their own improvisatory vocabulary through “free improvisation,” and then map out a “plan” of how they will improvise or compose. The teacher is not mentioned as having any input in this process, beyond words like “guidance” and “support”” (only used in Kdg and 1st Grade).
  • Students are expected to choose their own repertoire for performing and listening to. No mention of allowing the teacher to choose or influence repertoire choices.
  • Students are expected to analyze their compositions, their performances, and listening examples. While this is important work, given the skills and concepts missing from these standards, it points to an imbalanced, discussion/writing/listening based class, where active music-making suffers.

As you can see, I am deeply concerned about the direction these new standards are taking. I feel that the effort to align and make ourselves “relevant” is backfiring by eroding the core of what makes music education important. The bottom line is that these standards do not accurately represent what I believe a music education should look like.

Regardless of whether you agree with me or not, please take the time to visit and share your thoughts with the writing team. This is an opportunity that the last generation did not have to such an extent, and we need to make our voices heard!