Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is the goal of music education?

The goal is ultimately to put on a good concert. I mean, you can include things like music theory and composition and identifying world instruments and music appreciation, but all of those things culminate towards one goal: to put on a good performance. In a poorly oversimplified way, that is what any music program is all about: putting on a good concert.

The question then arises, what does it take to put on a good concert? 

One thing that matters is having the right repertoire. That detail mainly comes down to the foresight of the conductor (me), but also is limited by three factors: the ability level of the students, the instrumentation of the group, and the availability of the music.

The second thing that makes a good concert is the quality of the performance. A high-quality performance does not insult the ears. There are very few wrong notes, there is good balance and good tone quality and good intonation. Rhythm aligns with the beat, and the beat is the same from one musician to the next. In a good performance, the performers listen to one another and communicate with one another through their music.

Now, let's consider how this applies to the Dutton/Brady music program.

A very large part of my job is to select the right music each year for each concert. I then design a series of exercises and assignments to be used throughout the rehearsal process. Rhythm and scales are foundational to all music, so they are a part of each day's lesson. If the goal is to put on a good concert, then I need to choose music that meets that goal according to the requirements listed above.

The quality of the performance is very much dependent on the musical ability of the students. They need to know how to work their instrument or voice in order to produce the required sound. They also need to know what the music should sound like: what their part should sound like and how it relates to the entire piece. Furthermore, they should be able to identify any errors in their own performance and practice so that they can play or sing everything correctly.

But what about elementary general music classes?

There are two ways to structure an elementary curriculum. The first way is to treat elementary music as if it were just a prerequisite for band and choir. In other words, the main goal of general music is to prepare students for junior high and high school. The focus should be on learning to read music and perform accurately on voice or instruments. In this approach, elementary music is the means to an end. The second way to structure elementary music is to make it an end within itself, or teaching the music for music's sake. This type of curriculum focuses on providing musical experiences that are appropriate for childhood in such a way that children learn to enjoy music. The goal of this type of program is to pass on our rich musical heritage to the younger generation lest it be forgotten.

To me, it is obvious that the goal of elementary music should be a balance between these two types of programs. Young students should be taught certain songs for music's sake and other certain songs for the sake of learning to read music and perform accurately. They should have some performance experience and gain a basic understanding of music theory and performance, but the daily activities and experiences in the classroom are equally important. Therefore, the goal of music education at the elementary level is both to prepare for junior high ensembles and to learn about the joys of music.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How Not to Arrange

I had a great idea to make my students in third and fourth grade come up with their own arrangement for Aura Lee to perform at the Spring Concert. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. It meets the new standards for composing and it gives the students a project to work on as a class. There is probably a good way to go about planning a series of lessons that culminate in a good arrangement that is entirely student-made, but I definitely found the way NOT to present this project:

My students were doing a great job with singing Aura Lee and playing it on their recorder as well. However, a small group of students were not successful at playing on the recorder, including one student with disabilities. I didn't want to single anybody out on the "triangle part" (a part that I would have created to be as simple as possible so that students who couldn't play the recorder could still be successful), and I wanted to challenge the students and meet the new standards by allowing them to come up with their own arrangement. So far, this wasn't a bad idea.

When it came to creating new parts for the song, I should have followed the Orff Method more closely - that is, I should have had the students sing the song together and come up with an ostinato pattern using body percussion only. Then, after the students were able to perform the ostinato and sing successfully, I should have added one instrument in place of the body percussion. This would have been enough to satisfy both the challenge and the standards, or even a second ostinato and instrument could have been added.

Instead of following a logical plan like that, I chose a more chaotic route: I brought out all of the instruments at once, allowed students to choose any instrument that they wanted, and then I played Aura Lee on the piano and asked the students to improvise an accompaniment on their instrument. Now, the result was obviously a chaotic mess. I did accomplish one objective of getting students to improvise. Actually, accomplish is the wrong word. After the first chaotic attempt, the new task was to try and make the chaotic mess into an acceptable accompaniment, which so far has been unsuccessful. I feel bad having to tell certain students, "No, your part doesn't fit, sorry." It's just been a backwards process from the beginning.

How do I fix this mess before the concert in two weeks? I don't think that it would hurt to go back to the beginning and spend part of a period starting from scratch. I mean, have the students sing the song and create a body percussion ostinato, then add some drums and tambourines to it. I also don't think it would hurt to keep the triangle part that the students already worked on. Everything else, however, must go. I also think that the song form needs to be one of the "compositional parameters" that I assign, rather than have the students try to figure it out. I guess we'll try it on Thursday and see how it goes.