Thursday, March 31, 2016

Practice requirements in 5th and 6th Grade

Practicing requirements usually fall somewhere on a spectrum. On one end, there are no practice requirements, and students are not required to take their instruments home. On the other end, the students are required to take home weekly practice sheets, log their times and/or exercises, and return the slip with a parent's signature. There are many different views on this subject.

For teachers who do not require practice time from their students, there can be several reasons, such as assessing students in class. Students who excel naturally do not need to take their instrument home to learn the part, while students who are struggling will receive a poor grade unless they take their instruments home. Thus the students are not graded on their practice, but on their performances. A poor reason is that the teacher does not have the time, organization, or support from parents and administration to require at-home practice. Perhaps the teacher innocently believes that the students should want to practice, and that requiring students to practice goes against the teacher's philosophy. Also, a new teacher may hold a position where students are combative about practice requirements. Combined with an unsupportive administration and community, it may be in the teacher's best interest to leave this battle for another day.

Teachers who require students to log their practice time and return signed practice logs at regular intervals have several approaches. The simplest approach is to assign a regular amount of practice time for each week, such as the 45 minutes that are required here in Dutton, and to reward those students who practice with stickers and good grades. The philosophy is that practicing something is better than practicing nothing at all. Other teachers make specific assignments each week, requiring the students to practice certain exercises at home. In theory, this would be the best practice because the students would know exactly what was expected of them. However, in practice it is very demanding to create new practice assignments each week and assess whether they have been completed. The previous method takes much less effort, but it is also less effective.

Here is a third alternative which has just occurred to me: at the beginning of each midterm, the students are tested with a sight-reading exercise of appropriate difficulty. If they pass their sight-reading, their practice requirements are lowered for that term. For example, if all students are required to practice for 45 minutes each week by default, but Student X passes a sight-reading test, then Student X is either excused from practicing for that term, or has their requirements lowered to 30 or even 15 minutes a week. At the beginning of the next term, Student X is given a more difficult sight-reading exercise (if the student is progressing enough in class, then they would not be required to take their instrument home). Student Y, who is not as talented, does not pass the sight-reading test at the beginning of the term, so they are required to practice for 45 minutes each week until the next term begins, at which point they will have another opportunity to sight-read.

This model requires less work than assigning specific exercises each week and accommodates students who are either struggling or gifted. It also requires some thoughtfully chosen or created assessment materials, as well as some means of assessment. One final thought that just occurred to me: the 6th grade students should be given the second year book as well as the first year book. In rehearsal, they use the first year book. While practicing at home, they use the second year book.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Responsibility in band: Part 1

One of the problems that commonly occurs in band class is that students will forget to bring an instrument and music folder to class. Either the teacher must provide the student with an instrument and music (if one is available, which still takes up everyone else's time), or the student will have to sit for the period with nothing to do. Both of these situations are win-lose, so here is another alternative.

Band students need to learn how to be responsible. Sometimes it is necessary to take the instrument and music home to practice, so like everything else about classroom procedures, this should be practiced until the students are proficient. In other words, the students need to pratice taking their instruments and music home and bringing them back for the next rehearsal.

This begins with an assignment: all students must take their instruments and music folders home. Then the teacher must observe, at the end of the day, whether or not all of the instruments and folders have been taken. Next, the students must all bring their instruments and music back for the following rehearsal. This is much easier, as students who do not come prepared will be obvious. When all students are able to complete this assignment, the students no longer have to take their instruments and music home. Here is the catch: if a student forgets to bring his instrument home, or if he forgets to bring it to the subsequent rehearsal, all students must continue the assignment until all members of the class are able to follow the instructions. Also, if at some point throughout the year a student is unprepared (or perhaps leaves his music or instrument out), the task is reassigned to the entire class. This focuses not only on responsibilty, but also incorporates teamwork, because the students will be motivated to remind their classmates of their responsibilities.

Update: Some students are no longer trying to bring their instruments home. Many more students turned in their weekly practice slip, but getting that 100% seems to be unrealistic. Is there a way to modify this responsibility assignment? For example, separate the group by grade level or instruments and have a competition to see who can reach 100% first. Perhaps keeping a list and checking off a student's name once they have returned their instrument? (Although this contradicts the purpose of being responsible as a class - the teamwork side of playing music.) Finally, as a last resort I might have to punish students who do not show any effort to bring home their instruments.

Prepare to fail...

As the saying goes, if you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail. Time and time again I have experienced this, and hopefully (after 5 years of experience), I am starting to realize the truth in this statement.

Recently, during the 5th and 6th grade choir class, I have had several terrible rehearsals. While I can account these to student behavior, specifically the lack of an attention span, I have also noted a pattern in my own teaching. Usually, I will write down the order of songs to rehearse, but I will not plan exactly what to rehearse in each song. Halfway through a song, I may hear something that needs to be fixed, so we stop to fix the problem and then contine onward. At least, that is theoretically what should happen. However, with these students (and possibly older students - I don't want to experiment), their attention span goes out the window when I use what I call this "reactionary" technique. In other words, I am reacting to what is happening during the rehearsal, rather than planning for what should happen before the rehearsal even starts. Of course, this goes against all notions of good teaching, so I can't figure out why I keep falling into this pattern. Hopefully writing about it will reinforce the idea...

Rehearsals should not be "reactionary." They should be planned out ahead of time, knowing which issues need to be addressed and how to address them. "Winging it" is not a viable rehearsal option for any successful music teacher.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Elementary curriculum: Summarized in three concepts

With the recent reflection that I have been doing on third and fourth grade curriculum, I have discovered that almost everything fits into one of three categories. Furthermore, this framework might fit all elementary level music classes.

One category is "Music Appreciation." Music appreciation focuses on introducing students to culturally and historically important musical examples. The breadth of exposure relies on the beliefs of the teacher, and I believe that classical, multicultural, and traditional music should be included. Another idea included in music appreciation is the historical information behind composers and songs, as well as the forces that helped shape the music such as instrumentation. Music appreciation is experiencing music and knowing "about" music.

Another category is "Practical Theory." Music theory includes many subcategories such as vocabulary, form, pitch, and rhythm. Theory is not required for performing or listening to music, but it enables the students to understand music on a deeper level. At the secondary level, practical theory focuses on reading notes and rhythms in band, but that is just the bare minimum that needs to be known.

The third category is "Performance," which obviously includes any type of performing. Students should have experience singing, playing instruments, and moving to music. At each grade level, there are appropriate activities which should challenge the students (in order to nurture their musical abilities) without sacrificing the quality of the finished performance. Also note that many times the "performance" is not a formal presentation to an audience, but perhaps just a final run-through after which a new song is introduced.

In summary, all elementary music curriculum components fit into one of three categories: music appreciation (learning about music), practical theory (learning how music works), and performance. Each of these categories then contains subcategories for different concepts, which can then be assigned to specific grades, semesters, and unit plans.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Concert Band curriculum

Aside from learning the repertoire, band students should also be learning about rudiments and practical theory. Most bands across the United States use the first portion of rehearsal as a "warm up," where the director develops the fundamentals of playing. What then should be included in the curriculum?

First, my band is combined 7th through 12th grade band. This poses some problems with designing a curriculum, because some students are going to have up to 5 more years of experience than other students. I have tried using Essential Elements books with the combined band, with limited success. Some students easily become bored and want to move on to the next exercise, while other students may be struggling and unable to play a certain exercise without multiple repetitions at slow tempos. This predicament adequately portrays the major dilemma of teaching a combined band: finding a balance between challenging the advanced students without leaving the beginning students behind.

This brings up the idea that there are some fundamentals that are practiced daily even by professional musicians. These things could be included in the curriculum, like breath control, articulations, tone quality, dynamics, scale patterns, and other etudes. Ensemble concepts such as balance and phrasing are also important. How do you teach these concepts over the course of 40 weeks in a way that keeps the students interested?

One other idea to consider before planning a curriculum is that most of these fundamentals are required from the very beginning to make good music. In other words, you can't save dynamics for the fourth quarter because you'll need them during the first quarter. The same thing can be said about tone quality, balance, rhythm reading, breath control, and several others. Of course, you can't teach all of these things in the first week, but perhaps there is a way to design a type of spiral curriculum that briefly addresses each fundamental (or a few) each week, and then returns a few weeks later to develop that fundamental even further. For example, you can't just focus on breath control for the first quarter. You could, however, work on breath control and tone quality in the first week, dynamics and articulation in the second week, phrasing and style in the third week, posture and technique in the fourth week, range and dexterity during the fifth week, and then return to the beginning of the cycle during the sixth week (although I know I'm missing a few fundamentals in this list, but it is just an example). This could be implemented in a such a way that the curriculum essentially restarts at the beginning of each midterm or quarter, and the fundamentals can be expanded based on the progress of the entire class.

In summary, the warm up portion of the class should be devoted to developing the fundamentals in a logical, cyclical progression so that the students become well-rounded performers on their instrument. The repertoire can be used to teach specific concepts in context.

Continuing on 3rd-4th curriculum

Today I searched for the Essential Elements method book for Recorder, and discovered that it exists! Although I was only able to view a few pages, it looks like a valuable addition to the curriculum. Continuing from my previous post about 5th grade students and band instruments, this book seems to address notes and rhythms in the exact format that they will be presented on instruments.

Getting a little bit more into the details of the curriculum, I would say that the beginning of the first quarter would include a unit that reviewed notes and rhythms using a variety of materials and activities such as worksheets, movement, barred instruments, non-pitched percussion, and technology. Immediately following this unit, the students would receive recorders and the Essential Elements book, which would be used throughout the rest of the year. The thought comes to mind about partnering 4th grade students with 3rd grade students, essentially allowing the older students to tutor the younger students. If the 2nd year students are bored by the repetition ("We already did this!") and are not consoled by the idea of helping a 1st year student, an alternative book could be used on alternating years (such as Standard of Excellence). Advanced books could be provided for students who excel at music. The current curriculum (GamePlan) only offers about 16 tunes over the course of the year, and I think that the students would really benefit from the 120 offered in Essential Elements. The books are also very affordable.

Just to put an idea out there, there are 40 weeks in the school year, 10 in each quarter. After the note and rhythm review in weeks 1 and 2, the students would begin on the recorder. During weeks 3, 4, and 5 (up to the first midterm), students would learn and review the basics of playing the recorder. This includes playing positions, finger positions, air stream and tongue, etc. After the first midterm, recorders would be available for students to buy, and Essential Element books could be sent home. Using one of the two days per week, perhaps Thursdays, the students would spend some time learning 3 or 4 songs from the book. They could partner and work on their own, or we could spend time as a class going through each song together. Students would be required to bring their books on Thursday, and they could bring them home over the weekend. The goal would be to reach the end of the book by the end of the year. Other objectives include learning to play and read notation, consistently practicing, responsibility for bringing materials, and learning repertoire.

One final remark - recorder in 3rd-4th grade needs to be balanced with other elements of the curriculum, including: singing and solfege, music appreciation and repertoire, music theory and vocabulary, movement and dance, performance, and composition.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Combine JH and HS, or keep them separate?


- Larger group
- More instruments covered
- Less pressure

- Differing abilities
- Differing maturity


- Larger group
- Less pressure

- Differing abilities
- Differing maturity

Other considerations:
- 2 days or 4 days a week?
- once set, can it be changed?
- jazz band/orchestra/elective?

Edit (3/26/17):

It seems like combining the groups remains the best option for several reasons.

First, the obvious con: there will be a considerable amount of skill difference between younger and older students. The music will naturally be intimidating to 7th grade students and mundane for 12th grade students.

Here's my solution: if 7th graders are completely unable to learn the music, just write an easier part for them. Call it the "7th grade part" where all instruments play the melody in unison, or some variation of that idea. For the 12th graders, combining classes would open up an extra period during the day where I would be able to offer an "Advanced Ensemble" class, open only to 9th-12th grade, possibly by audition only, but require Advanced students to also be in the Concert group. This would allow the students an outlet for challenging themselves and also keep them enrolled in the larger group and provide for a better concert experience for the younger students.

Another reason for combining the bands/choirs is simply the number of students at Dutton/Brady school. Even if 100% of the student body enrolled (which isn't likely in the next five years), I would still only have about 45 students, which is actually a pretty good, average-sized band or choir. Having multiple instruments playing the same part or multiple voices singing the same part would allow me to group inexperienced players with experienced ones, providing the younger students with good role models and someone to help them when they get lost.

On the topic of either two or four classes per week, it seems as though meeting four days a week is impractical. The problem with asking for four classes per week is that I am not allowing the other departments at Dutton/Brady to have an equal amount of time with the students (unless we went to something like 10 periods a day, which won't happen). Therefore, especially with the junior high students, it will need to remain two classes per week. However, I would like to argue for requiring the junior high students to take a full year of band for both the seventh and eighth grades. This would be accompanied by required scheduling of shop, FCS, foreign language, art, etc. so that all of the junior high students would have experiences in all of the electives in order to make a better choice of which electives to take during high school.

Music appreciation

One of the responsibilities as a music teacher is to acculturate students to different styles of music. Traditionally, this has been predominated by Western Classical composers such as Bach and Beethoven, but I would like to take a deeper look into what it means to teach music appreciation in a P-12 setting.

The first question is to decide what classes and grade levels should have a music appreciation focus. Should 7-12 band and choir students focus on music appreciation? While there is a place for active listening, I think that these two classes are performance-based classes and should focus on performance. In other words, it doesn't hurt to include some forms of music appreciation in band and choir, but I hesitate to say that it deserves a formal place in the curriculum. 5th and 6th grade students are also enrolled in band and choir, so I would also shy away from music appreciation in these classes  as well. (although it may be a good time to include focused listening, provided it is well structured into the curriculum). This leaves active listening to preschool through 4th grade - six years of instruction to cover the vast subject of music appreciation.

So what is music appreciation? It consists of learning about and listening to different styles of music, focusing on a variety of high-quality selections and historically significant selections and composers. The problem arises of which songs should be studied and how much time should be spent on each song. The possibility arises of combining active listening with music history, music theory, and movement activities. In other words, music appreciation is least effective when it is just focused listening. There needs to be some kind of activity or context. This further complicates the inclusion of music appreciation into the curriculum.

Finally, the most common question about music appreciation needs to be addressed. What music should be included in the curriculum? While the final decision rests with the teacher, there should be some kind of guidelines that make it easy to include the right music. I believe that the song selection should mirror the cultural and historical values of the community - the school, city, state, and country - where the students live. However, this also needs to be balanced with the traditional Western art music curriculum that is so prominent in music education. Personally, I believe that Western art music is the foundation of music education - it's something that we cannot afford to leave out of the curriculum. Next in importance comes traditional music from America and around the world. This includes folk music as well as historically significant popular music such as those in Broadway productions. Third is cultural world music, including jazz, that educates the students about people of other cultures. Finally, if at all, is the current popular music that the students can hear on the radio.

While this is a broad generalization of active listening, or music appreciation, a curriculum must be designed that includes specific styles, songs, and composers with accompanying intentions and activities that fit and balance with the rest of the curriculum. 

P-12 curriculum ideas: Third and fourth grade notes and rhythms

Currently, I am concerned about the readiness of students who are entering 5th grade and beginning band. The focus at this level should be on learning to play the instrument - using the appropriate technique to create a characteristic tone. In order to be able to focus on this facet, the students should be musically literate - able to read notes and rhythms with impressive accuracy and capability. Of course, reading notes requires instruction and then practice. Instruction could be approached in one of two ways: gradual or complete. In gradual instruction, the students learn about notes in a successive order (preferably in the order that they would learn them on the recorder, e.g., starting with B-A-G) until they have learned all of the notes, including ledger line notes. Whether they should also learn bass clef could be determined by which instrument they would like to play in 5th grade. The second type of instruction, complete instruction, essentially includes one lesson in which all of the notes are introduced, followed by repeated practice throughout the year. This method has its benefits and drawbacks. It is a theoretical approach, whereas the other is a practical approach. This approach teaches the "why" of note names, and allows students to find notes based on a systematic method, rather than memorization. Also, note naming is a rather limited set of information - small enough to hypothetically avoid overwhelming students.

After teaching for several years, I have discovered several prerequisites to note reading with young children. For my teaching situation, which includes combined 1st-2nd and 3rd-4th grade music classes, it would be ideal for the students to learn these prerequisites by the end of the 2nd grade. They include the basic concepts of notes and the staff. For example: knowing that there are five lines and four spaces, knowing how big a note should be, knowing that notes are either on a line or a space, knowing that the "musical alphabet" has only 7 letters. Using xylophones and white boards, 1st-2nd grade students can begin experiencing the fundamentals. Then, in 3rd-4th grade, they learn the systematic method of identifying notes and reinforce recognition through repetition. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the underlying system and, more importantly, to quickly recognize notes by sight - possible by memorization through repeated practice. At the end of the 4th grade, students should be extremely proficient in identifying any common note on the staff and capable of identifying less common notes through a methodical approach. By the time they have a band instrument in their hands, they should not be worrying about note names - they have enough to worry about!

While writing this, I am becoming more aware of rhythmic concerns. The students should not be learning rhythms during their first year of band - they should already know them by then. Just as recorders and xylophones can be used to focus their attention on reading note names, a percussion ensemble could be used to reinforce rhythmic reading. What type of instruments would work the best for this? Why not traditional percussion instruments, or nontraditional ones such as garbage cans and buckets? By age 9-10, I think that the enthusiasm for rhythm sticks, hand drums, and jingle bells, etc., have worn off. In other words, I would like to try including percussive music throughout the year at the 3rd-4th grade level to develop rhythmic reading. As with note naming, rhythm reading also has prerequisites. Younger students need to have experience with rhythmic concepts such as steady beats, meter, subdivisions, and notation differences for different rhythmic values. They should be able to identify whole note, half note, etc., and their related rests, and put them in order from longest to shortest. All of this can be done through various activities at the 1st-2nd grade level.

To summarize, the 3rd-4th curriculum needs to include both note reading and rhythm reading activities throughout the year, at least on a bi-monthly basis (theoretically). Note reading should be taught holistically at the beginning of the year and practiced often. Rhythm reading should also be taught holistically at the beginning of the year and practiced often through non-pitched percussive exercises. In short, 5th grade students should not be learning notes or rhythms while playing their band instrument - the focus should be on technique and execution, not on theory. This is only possible if the students have already learned everything they need to know for their first year of band by the time they finish the fourth grade.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Behavior Management

After five years of teaching P-12 Music classes, I think I have finally developed the perfect management plan! At least, here's the main ideas behind it:

1) When students are misbehaving, praise another student who is showing appropriate behavior.
2) When no one is currently showing appropriate behavoir, choose a student who is showing innappropriate behavoir and write their name on the board (or several students).

That's it, plain and simple. You can make up your own rules for your situation, but this is how to apply them.

The reasoning for item number one is that positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement. It works better because it reinforces the behaviors you want and makes them more likely to reoccur. Negative reinforcement should be used sparingly, as it does not make students show appropriate behaviors more often - it makes the behavoir less likely to occur (theoretically), but it does not help students learn good behavior. Often times, bad behaviors are replaced by different bad behaviors. On the other side, it makes the teacher feel better when he or she uses positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement. Finally, it gives the teacher the opportunity to pick which student to praise when there is a choice. This creates an opportunity to establish a positive relationship with each individual student, especially with students who are often caught misbehaving. Similarly, the misbehaving student will take a sense of responsibility by realizing that their behavior is not being praised and know that they are doing something wrong rather than being told by someone else that they are doing something wrong.

The reasoning behind item number two is that there will be times when no one is showing the desired behavior. Previously, this had been the point where I would start yelling at someone or the class in general. Yelling is bad. It destroys trust between teacher and student, and it is ineffective. What's more, it is embarrassing to go back and listen to a recording of a lesson where you had to yell at someone. Now, when everyone is off task, I simply choose someone who is clearly acting against the rules, and I write their name up on the board. The students know that the first time their name is written, it counts as a warning, and the second time they are caught misbehaving they will receive a checkmark next to their name and a 15 minute detention after school. The reason why I write a name on the board is not to punish one student in particular, but to refocus the class on behavior issues. Usually after writing a name or giving a detention, at least one student will begin showing the appropriate behavior, at which point you can go back to using the first method of giving positive reinforcement (always the preferred method).

Whatever you do, DO NOT TELL THE STUDENTS ABOUT YOUR MANAGEMENT STRATEGY! Only tell your students that whoever is caught misbehaving will have their name written on the board, and that the second time results in a checkmark and a 15 minute detention. That's all they need to know! Anything else, and I fear that some student might try to take advantage of the situation. Of course, don't forget to explain all of the rules and procedures for your classroom, just don't tell them about your method of enforcing the rules!

Best of luck. This strategy just came to me today, and I've got a feeling that it will work for a long time.