Monday, October 16, 2017

What is a Concert Reflection?

More specifically, what is the educational objective of having the students write a reflection after a concert performance?

First, is it even worth writing a reflection, or is it a waste of time? I've tried both ways. My students get a free period the day after a concert. At first, we would listen to the recording and have a brief discussion before they were given their free time, but recently we have just been ignoring the concert reflection and going straight for the free time. Why? Because the students didn't seem to get anything out of it. There were one or two students who would keep the conversation going, but the rest of them just sat there and waited until it was over. The answers were usually thoughtless when I picked on a student to try and get them involved. 'Uhmm, it was good?' or 'We should have practiced it, (Practiced what?) The music.' Those are pretty common. So why bother if the students aren't getting anything out of it? Might as well teach them to enjoy music and skip over it.

However, the problem isn't with concert reflections or free periods, it is a question of how the reflections are conducted. Do the students have to write something? Do they have to be a part of a conversation? Do they have to answer specific questions or just answer generally? Are they giving facts or opinions? Maybe the reason why most students want to skip the concert reflection is because they aren't really getting anything out of it, and they see it as a waste of time. But if they could benefit from it, and know that they are benefiting from it, wouldn't they be more likely to participate? More of them would, at the very least. And skipping the concert reflection ignores a huge, important aspect of being a musician - that is, musicians reflect on their performances to identify strengths and weaknesses. As a professional soloist, I would be listening to my recorded performances for areas that were comfortably good and for areas that needed attention. Obviously, not only is this important for a musician to do, but it is also an important life skill to learn - that of self-reflection.

So now, what is the educational objective of having the students reflect on a performance?

The main objective is for students to identify strengths and weaknesses. An audio recording allows students to focus specifically on the sound of the performance, while a video recording gives a more complete idea of the performance. The important thing to remember about identifying is that facts are more important than opinions. It's okay to say, "that sounded good," unless you don't provide any facts to back up that statement. "That sounded good" and "That sounded bad" is meaningless by itself. It only serves to make someone feel good or feel bad about their performance which is not very helpful in almost every situation. So, in order to identify a strength or a weakness, one has to answer the question "WHY does it sound good or bad?" Be careful of words like: good, great, better, best, well, awesome, rad, perfect, sweet; and their opposites: bad, worse, worst, horrible, awful, nasty, gross, and terrible. These are all opinions. If a student uses one of these words, they also have to explain the facts that brought them to that conclusion.

Put this into practice, and it looks like this: "Okay class, what were some of our strengths at the concert?" Jimmy answers, "We sounded great!" Teacher responds, "What makes you say that? What did we do that sounded great?" Jimmy then says, "We played our instruments really good." Teacher asks, "Why do you say that? What was really good about our playing?" Jimmy hesitates, and then says "It was good." Teacher says, "What made it good?" Then Jimmy says, "I don't know. Call on someone else." What happened here is that the student opened up with an opinion which may have been totally valid, or maybe it was just garbage to begin with. When the teacher pressed for the facts, the student was unable to explain them. Again, this could have been for two reasons. One (the better option) is that the student really doesn't know how to explain why they came to that conclusion, and the second (the worse option) is that they really don't care enough to have an opinion and they just spouted out the first string of words that came to mind. (Maybe they are used to doing this in other situations and it just carried over into the music classroom.) If it's the first option, then use it as an opportunity to teach the class how to talk about music. Put words into the student's mouth and ask specific questions like, "Was it easy to hear the melody over the rest of the group?" Even if they say 'yes' just to get off the hook, they are still learning to talk about music intellectually.

The secondary objective related to identifying strengths and weaknesses is to figure out the reason behind them. What did we do during the rehearsals leading up to the concert that made us stronger? What did we neglect to do that made us weaker? This is important to point out because it makes the students responsible for doing well or doing poorly. For example, if one of the strengths was balance, how did we achieve that? Was it because we pointed out the melody so often during rehearsals? Was it because we actually changed the written dynamics? Was it because we focused on listening during the actual performance? Those are things that are important to point out because then the students will do them more in preparation for the next concert. Another example, if one of the weaknesses was inaccuracy in rhythms, what did we neglect to do that resulted in that problem? Did we lose track of the beat? Did we never really learn how the rhythm was supposed to go in the first place? What could we do differently to turn rhythm from a weakness into a strength for the next concert?


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Fundamental Idea for Great Rehearsals

The fundamental idea for great rehearsals is this: always rehearse the highest priority areas first.

What is a high priority area? Think about your last rehearsal with the group. What was the most offensive mistake that they made? Where was the ugliest part of the song? Where did they fall apart the worst? Whatever the answer is, that is the highest priority.

Every rehearsal should address the high priority areas first. Start at a specific measure with the entire group. Play or sing it once through to illuminate the problem area. Then reach into your rehearsal tool box and find the most efficient way to solve the problem. Maybe that's playing it slower. Maybe it's singing it on a neutral vowel. Maybe it's going one note at a time. Maybe it's working with sections or individuals. But whatever you do, make sure that you are working on the worst areas of the song first, and as they continue to improve, repeat that section over and over so they learn how it is supposed to sound.

But what about all of that score study that I did? Should I just ignore the problems that I found while I was looking at the score? The answer: yes. And no. Score study is essential for many reasons. For one, you won't know what the song is supposed to sound like if you don't study it first. For another, you will be able to guess where the problems might happen and look for the best solution. Do you think there might be a rhythmic problem? What's the best way to fix it? Do you think there might be a balance problem? What's the best way to fix it? Those are all questions that you should know the answer to if you want to have great rehearsals. However, the fundamental idea of rehearsals is not to work on the problems that you think might occur before they happen. The fundamental idea of great rehearsals is to fix the most glaring problems first. Start with this in mind, and you will see your rehearsals (and your ensembles) improve.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The IWYY Model: Teaching Songs to Elementary Singers

IWYY stands for "I, We, Y'all, You." It is the best teaching model to use when elementary students are learning to sing a short song because it provides an aural image, promotes successful singing in a group, and provides an opportunity for students to sing alone or in a small group. It is simple to understand and implement in almost any music lesson.

The basic structure of the IWYY model is to repeat a short song four or more times with different expectations each time, represented by the words "I, We, Y'all, You."

1. Sing for the class, not with the class; focused listening.

The first time a song is presented, the teacher should sing it for the class alone ("I sing"). The students are expected to listen to the song carefully and critically. Usually it is easier for them to focus on listening to the words at first, but you can challenge them to listen for a specific tonal or rhythmic pattern as well. Sometimes I check for understanding by having the students fill in the missing word at the end of a phrase, or raising their hand when they hear a specific word, rhythm, or tonal pattern, or by counting the number of times a word occurs, or by asking text comprehension questions. The song can be sung with an accompaniment or without, and the teacher can ask the students to keep a steady beat or mirror actions during the song.

2. Sing with the class, focusing on pitch/contour or beat/rhythm.

Once the students have heard the song, they are invited to join in singing it with the teacher ("We sing"). Students and teacher sing the song together so that the students can follow along with the teacher in case they are lost or unsure of what to sing. Singing as a large group with the teacher provides timid students with a safe atmosphere for singing - they can hide their voices behind the teacher's voice. While some people argue that this is detrimental to the student's progress, I believe that timid singing is better than no singing at all, which furthermore is much better than embarrassed singing. Often times at this stage I will show the melodic contour of a song with my hands and even ask the students to mirror me. Showing melodic contour is different than showing the solfege hand signals. It is appropriate to use the solfege if that is the focus of the activity, but it is simpler to use a hand gesture that looks like a "cut" motion (all fingers extended, palms flat towards the floor) for each note at different heights in the space in front of me. Simpler is better because students focus on getting their voices to the right pitch instead of making the right shapes with their hands and fingers. Another important concept that can be practiced in this stage is the rhythm of the words. Teacher and students can clap each word as it is sung. If the occasion calls for it, I might repeat "We sing" a second time and play an accompaniment on the guitar or piano, or perhaps focus on some other element of the music such as the beat, timbre, dynamics, style, or expression.

3. Listen to the class sing for you, then rehearse or give feedback.

The third step in the IWYY model is for the students to sing as a group ("Y'all sing"). without the teacher. This step is designed to do two things: one is to challenge the students and the other is to provide an opportunity for the teacher to listen critically to the group. Students will find out that they don't really know the song as well as they thought when they have to sing it alone. It is eye-opening for them to fall apart in the middle of a song. They start to realize that music is not such an easy subject and that they need to focus and give an effort in order to succeed. The teacher should be listening for parts where the students fall apart or make big mistakes, and then formulate a plan to rehearse those parts before the students even get to the end of the song. That might mean a little bit of direct instruction and then trying again, or it might mean going back to the first or second step of the whole process. The teacher should not exclude pitch accuracy from their assessment! In my opinion, 99.999% of children have the ability to sing in tune. A quick review of head voice, breath support, and pitch matching might be necessary to get the students on the right notes. It is very important that a teacher should address this issue! Even if just one student is singing in a speaking voice, the teacher should identify the problem and give the entire class another chance to succeed. Accepting the wrong, low pitches once will always make the problem harder to fix on subsequent days. The level of accuracy in general might depend on your educational objectives for the song, but I would argue that everyone should be at least 70% correct before moving on to the next stage. Anything less will hurt struggling students in the long run. That being said, there are times when it is best to focus on participation rather than accuracy. Maybe you are a new teacher in the district and the students are just getting used to you. Maybe there is a new student and it would be harmful to put them in the spotlight on their first day. Maybe it's a class of kindergartners who have never sang before! The final decision of whether or not to focus on participation or accuracy rests with the teacher.

4. Select students to sing alone or in small groups for the class.

The last step of all is to choose individual students or pairs to sing for the group ("You sing"). This step is so important to include. Here is a chance for students to not only hear what their own voice sounds like, but also helps them to build confidence for singing in front of other people. By asking for volunteers to sing alone, you give them a chance to do something that is required of every musician - to make music without anybody's help. It is vitally important to give every student this opportunity often so that they become independent musicians before going into junior high and high school band and choir. Also, at the lower elementary levels, there is very little pressure to be perfect, so this is a great time to get them comfortable with giving their best shot even if they make a mistake. You can also use duets or small groups to work towards the same goal, or even just to give more students the opportunity to perform. I have used duets where I pick one student who will be able to help the other student, who otherwise wouldn't have been able to sing it on their own. This last step can also be used to ask a star student to demonstrate the proper sound for the rest of the class. Overall, it is an important tool in your music teacher tool box.

When I first started teaching music, I would usually sing all of the songs with the students. They were able to perform well when I was helping them, but they didn't build the skills needed to be successful in more complicated performances like part singing or playing an instrument in band. When I started using the IWYY system, I noticed the difference right away, and I hope to see a big difference in these students when they are old enough to join the band and the choir.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Practice Slips in Elementary Band: Finding a Balance

This has been a topic of debate for as long as I can remember: how much should students be required to practice?

First, let me say that I have tried three different methods in my 6 years of teaching. The first method I tried was to send home "practice assignments" each week - every student would get a personalized practice slip for what they needed to practice each week. The second method was in response to being totally overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to keep up with that: I did not require students to turn in any form of practice slips. The third method is common among band teachers, and I remember my band teachers using it in elementary and junior high: requiring students to practice a certain amount of time each week. Some schools require an hour and a half or more, some require thirty minutes or less. I require my students to practice for 45 minutes a week.

Now, how much should a first or second year band student be required to practice? Let's look at the method that doesn't work before comparing the other two.

At one point in my teaching career, I decided to forgo practice requirements completely. The students complained about having to practice, and even the parents were complaining about the students having to practice! I was completely buried with other concerns, so I thought to myself that this was one battle I would  be willing to lose. When I told the students that they didn't have to practice at home anymore, two things happened. First, the students celebrated because they hated doing it and it meant they had less homework each week. I watched as instruments were left at the school day after day, week after week, weekend after weekend. The second thing that happened is that the students stopped getting better at their instruments. The only time that they played them was together in class, which means that they never played them alone and probably never heard their own sound apart from the rest of the group. Sure, we worked through songs in band class, but it was usually one or two of the more talented students that carried the rest of the group. Some of the students couldn't play a song by themselves even at the end of the year. So, getting rid of practice requirements made life easier for everyone, but it also made the band much worse, and it meant that educational goals weren't being met. My opinion: having no practice requirements is the worst option available.

Between the two remaining options, each one has clear benefits over the other. The main benefit of sending home individualized practice sheets each week is that the students have obvious goals and will know what they need to spend the most time practicing. The main benefit of requiring a flat-rate amount of time per week is freedom from the logistical nightmare of creating individual practice slips for every student, every week. I think that the best place to start is the flat-rate method for that reason, but I also see the benefit of trying to work towards the more student-centered individualized plans.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Problem with the old curriculum: Finding a solution

The first week with the old curriculum was very refreshing. I've taught it for five years and I remembered why: it has a great balance of singing and activity. Also, all of the materials are already there, and I don't feel like I have to create something from scratch. It's a pre-designed curriculum that covers six years of elementary music education.

Now into planning the second week, I have come across an old problem. The old curriculum uses the Kodaly methodology of teaching solfege, or in other words it has a very specific progression of which solfege notes are supposed to be used and in which order. That in itself is not the problem. The problem is that the curriculum takes traditional folk songs and changes the melody to fit the Kodaly progression - and not just by a little bit. This week the song Clap, Clap, Clap Your Hands is reduced to a simple So-Mi pattern. My conscience is offended by the thought of teaching this to the children.

So, seeing as how teaching the false version of the song is not an option for me, I need to find a new solution. Right now, here are my thoughts: the solution has two parts to it. The first part is to keep the traditional folk songs that are included in the old curriculum but use them as listening activities, for there are many great recordings of these songs available online. The students can even sing along with the recordings, but the main goal will be to experience the traditional folk music in its original form. So, the first part is to change the melodies back to their original form. Now I am no longer a conscientious objector to the old curriculum. This will require me to design my own activities to support the new goal of active listening.

However, that leaves a gap in the old curriculum, because the songs were being used to teach the students how to use solfege. This of course is a monumental part of their education, so I will need to be very diligent in seeing that it is not neglected. My current plan of action is to use an alternative curriculum to supplement GamePlan. A few years ago, I attended a workshop with Dr. John Feierabend and was completely convinced about the accuracy and efficiency of his methodology. I purchased his curriculum Conversational Solfege, but I haven't done anything more than glance through it to understand its core tenets. So, my plan is to open up this second curriculum any time that the old curriculum uses modified folk songs to teach solfege. The most important thing is for me to try, or to at least begin trying. I will see how everything fits together as I go along, but my gut tells me that this will be successful.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Giving up on writing a new curriculum.

What I've realized is that designing a comprehensive K-4 Elementary Music Curriculum from scratch is like trying to design, code, and do graphics for your own computer game - there is no way for one single person to do a good job because of the amount of work that it takes. I've been working hard for several months trying to create my own elementary curriculum, but I have been met with limited success. I also am struggling to really properly design a coherent process or procedure that goes from Day One of kindergarten to the Last Day of fourth grade. It's too hard to figure out what to do first, next, etc., when I'm also having to teach the classes, keep up with paperwork, rehearse band and choir classes, plan concerts, and still try to have time for my life outside of work. It is exhausting, but it has not been fruitless.

Yes, I am giving up on writing my own curriculum from scratch. I plan on going back to the old curriculum that I used when I first started teaching, one that has elements of Dalcroze and Kodaly and Orff all mixed in. One that already has a large list of songs, poems, games, activities, and other materials ready for me to use. However, even though I am using an old curriculum, I am approaching it with a new perspective that I have gained from trying to design my own. I am not going to pursue it like I used to, but I am going to use it in a new way. I will still add extra materials here and there, and omit certain songs and activities, but I am planning on teaching my new curricular ideals through the old curriculum. In other words, I am planning to tweak each lesson to focus on the musical goals that I have chosen through much study and deliberation. Many lessons will not require much change. Some will only need a small change. The point is that now I have an understanding of the Big Picture, and that will guide my teaching.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Secondary Band and Choir Thoughts

In my school, our first concert is in the middle of October. That leaves about 8 weeks to get ready for it and then 9 weeks before the Christmas program. In other words, there's a first quarter concert and a second quarter concert. This post is about what I should be teaching the students during those first two quarters.

In Choir, I have been teaching the students how to sing using the Kenneth singing method. It is a sequential approach to getting them to sing well, and it covers the physical skill of singing with a good tone and with good technique. I have found this to be effective in giving them a foundation to putting on a good first concert - at least enabling them to do so because they will have a good sound.

TL;DR: Teach fundamental singing technique in the first quarter, then teach elements of sight-singing in the second quarter. Teach rhythm reading in band during the first quarter, then teach scales during the second; focus on tone and technique always. In both groups, begin heavy on the warm-up portion and then spend less and less time as performances approach (but always spend some time even if only one minute).