Openness by Design

I was recently invited to present a session at the Northern California Orff Chapter in the Bay Area and asked to contribute a blog post that would foreshadow some of the ideas presented in the session. Here is that post:

Any curriculum guided by the philosophical principles of Orff Schul1010963_283951575081896_1045654926_nwerk will include a number of creative music projects for students. These projects will likely have guidelines that provide focus and structure to students’ creative efforts. Depending on the nature of the project and number of restrictions, the project will be more or less “open” (i.e., free).

On one extreme, we have the most open projects.

Example 1: compose a piece of music.

On the other end of the continuum are more closed projects:

Example 2: compose an 8-beat piece in 4/4, using B on your recorder, using quarter and eighth notes only.

Both of these creative tasks are bound by time, space, and equipment, as well as student skill, knowledge, and cultural perspective; yet, they differ drastically in their degree of openness. Just about any creative project we design for the music classroom can be placed somewhere on a continuum of openness. This continuum focuses on the number of limitations of a given task; it does not imply a value. In other words, one end is not inherently better than the other.

The more open a task, the more choices students have, which could lead to greater motivation to work, originality, and divergence. Yet tasks that are too open can overwhelm even a musical genius. Take Igor Stravinsky, who, in his Poetics of Music, wrote:

“I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. If everything is permissible…if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile” – Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, p. 63

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If this is the case for a creative genius imagine what it is like for the rest of us mere mortals! Structure, limitations, boundaries, and guidelines, all of which make a task more

closed, can be very helpful to children.

The more closed a creative task, the safer students might feel because there are fewer choices to make and a greater chance of meeting the expectations. Furthermore, students may feel greater comfort in knowing what to do or how to earn a high mark. Yet creative tasks that are too closed may do little to develop creativity. They may serve to build skills on a recorder fingering or to reinforce rhythmic notation (example 2 above). I only provided two extreme examples to make a point. In reality, creative music projects are often somewhere in between these two ends.

Mindfully crafting a plan for creativity in a multi-year curriculum is imperative to developing students’ creativity in music. How would the nature of the creative projects we design change if the ultimate aim in our curriculum were musical creativity and self-expression? What if we are driven by the lofty goal articulated by Carl Orff, to “let the children be their own composers”? My hope is that the workshop will invite participants to think  about the ways they can vary projects to further students’ creativity.


Music Classroom as the Third Teacher

This spring I gave a talk at the Mountain Lake Symposium on the topic of classroom design. I thought I’d share a few practical ideas from that talk here, especially for music teachers who are dreaming up new ideas for the upcoming school year. I would venture to guess that many of us focus our curriculum planning and design attentions on three major elements: (1) the content area (music, instruments, songs, books), (2) teaching (approaches, techniques, methods), and (3) students (needs, interests, backgrounds). This makes sense, as these are three important and complex elements of our practice. In my post today, though, I want to focus on a missing element from this model, something so commonplace and visible, that it is rendered invisible—the classroom environment.

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This was not something invisible to one of the pioneers of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, Loris Malaguzzi. He argued that the classroom environment was so important to learning that it was the third teacher–after adults and children. Malaguzzi stressed the importance of constructing classrooms that act as agents in the educational process. When a classroom is functioning like a third teacher, it feels safe and welcoming to children, it is responsive to children’s curiosities and interests, and it furthers learning and encourages social engagement. The design of the classroom environment is an important (sometimes neglected) element of curriculum design that deserves our attention.

As you spend time this summer studying new music, constructing curriculum units, and planning field trips for your students, you might also think about the design (or re-design) of your music classroom to make it a “third teacher.” While some things are fixed, like walls and windows, many things are within your control. Think about your music classroom less as a  fixed shell, designed to contain students in manageable learning environments, and more like a space that can be inviting, dynamic, and conducive to learning. It can be a place that sparks children’s wonder and curiosities about music. How could you make the metaphorical walls around your classroom more porous? How could you make furniture and objects serve the curriculum to further student learning? Here are a few (Reggio-inspired) guiding principles to consider as you think about re-designing your music classroom this fall.

IMG_7751photo credit: Andrew Kromholz

AESTHETICS. The aesthetic of the classroom is more than bulletin boards and decorations. It is about the feelings that the music classroom conveys. Does it feel like an industrial space? A living room? A factory? A music production studio? Is there any place in the classroom that seems inviting enough that you would want to sit on the floor and listen to music or gather around to sing?  A Reggio-inspired classroom is one that strives to make classrooms feel warm and inviting, much like a home.  Think about what you do to make your home feel warm, inviting, and comfortable.  How might you design your classroom with that in mind? A Reggio classroom might have soft home-like furniture, table lamps for warmer lighting, and attractive decorative elements. Decorations need not be childish or limited to those image/decorations that are designed specifically for classrooms (you know the classroom cut-out cartoonish figures I am talking about).  What about an art print depicting music (Picasso’s Three Musicians) or better yet, children’s depictions of three musicians or pictures of students in musical trios? Think about bringing elements from nature in the space, including natural light, living plants, and natural materials such as wood and stone. Many classrooms, especially elementary classrooms, can become overly cluttered with ready-made school decorations, student work, charts, posters, materials, etc. which can be distracting and overwhelming to children. Remember the axiom adopted by modernist architect, Mies van der Rohe: “less is more.”


SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT. How does the classroom design encourage (or discourage) collaboration, interactions, and relationships among people? Chairs and working tables that are light and easily movable are ideal. How can you prepare the furniture you anticipate will be needed for a particular activity or project in the classroom such that students can learn from you and from each other?  A fixed, teacher-always-at-the-center, layout of furniture is not always the most conducive to learning. The music classroom might be conceived of in zones, each with different functions. Think of the social functions of different zones in your home: (a) the reading nook–a zone for contemplation and individual musical experiences, like listening, (b) the large kitchen table–a zone for small group work, discussions, or experimentation, (c) the hearth–a zone for more intimate, informal gatherings for reading, chamber music, or group singing, (d) the backyard–a space for free play and experimentation. These are just a few of the many ideas you might dream up.

Even the things you choose to display on the walls, windows, and doors can lead to greater social engagement. For instance, walls which display school-ready holiday decorations, pictures of composers, or rhythmic note value charts usually do little to encourage conversations or questioning. They tell closed stories. Instead, you might choose to decorate walls with students’ music compositions, drawings inspired by listening experiences, or photographs of students engaged in learning or performance. These tell more open stories, inviting conversations with parents, other teachers, administrators, and/or students.  They also make student learning and classroom engagements visible.

TRANSPARENCY. Speaking of the visible, one design principle of the Reggio classroom is transparency. That is, musical instruments and other materials and equipment for learning should not be stored out of sight, in a closet or an opaque storage bin. Instead, they should be displayed in transparent containers or on shelves so that children can see them. In sight, children are more apt to ask questions about them; teachers may be more apt to bring them out to use, study, or draw upon in a moment’s notice. A teacher might also choose to move an object to a prominent place, where children are bound to stumble upon it, examine it, and ask questions about it. You might sit a ceramic ocarina in a prominent place for children to notice as they come into the room. Moving an object into a prominent space to capture children’s attention is called a provocation. The idea is that the placement of an object sparks wonder, leads to questions, and allows for the curriculum to emerge from the child. How might students respond to seeing the inside of a piano at work? Transparency can be interpreted in numerous ways and inform classroom design decisions.

RE-IMAGINE. In a 2016 interview on On Being, Yo-Yo Ma compared performing to hosting guests at a dinner party–an act of hospitality. Its purpose, he said, “is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all?” How might you design your music classroom differently if you were to think of it as your home, where you host guests (children, parents, other teachers) for a limited period of time? What metaphor best described the classroom environment you hope to create? I hope this blog posts sparks your creativity in re-thinking the space  you call home during most of your waking hours. I’d love to see photos of your reimagined spaces for music learning.

The “General” in General Music

Recently, students in my general music seminar at the University of Miami debated the use of the term “general” in “general music.” I thought it was worth reflecting on the term given its power to limit, define, confuse, or clarify.

Descriptions of general music have proved confounding and contribute to its ambiguity. It is not uncommon for “other” music courses—meaning courses other than large performance ensembles—to be clumped under the term general music. General music has been distinguished from other types of music education through various descriptors of exclusion, function, and character, such as “non-performance,” “avocational,” and “alternative,” respectively. Some of these descriptors “other” or marginalize general music, focusing on what it does not do rather than what it does. Furthermore, they have done little to clarify the concept and can be limiting in excluding certain music learning experiences. With that said, setting general music apart from other types of music education can prove useful, both theoretically, for critical reflection and philosophical discourse, and practically, for policy, curriculum design, and instruction.

The qualifier, “general,” has been thought to be problematic because it suggests generality over detail, depth, and specificity in the study of music. But is it as problematic as some might suggest? Referring to something as “general” has been embraced in other professions. For example, a general practitioner is a medical doctor who is not restricted by specialty, and is the primary care giver when someone seeks medical advice or routine health assessments. The work of this doctor is no less valuable to patients than other forms of medical care. A general linguist is an expert who studies elements of language rather than focusing on a specific language. While this linguist may not examine a particular language in great depth, the value provided is in the broad study of language as a system of human communication. These generalists serve a unique and important function in their respective fields. So too do general music teachers.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 11.21.23 AMThe general music teacher, by definition, is a brand of music educator who provides a learning environment for students to develop musical knowledge, skills, and understandings through a wide array of experiences—from performance to deep listening to composition to historical study of music. This is different from the generalist teacher (classroom teacher) who provides instruction in all subjects (sometimes including music) and does not specialize or necessarily have formal training in music. The general music teacher is typically afforded the freedom to construct a curriculum that is not restricted to any one form of music making and learning, or specific style and genre of music. This freedom and breadth can seem overwhelming, especially for the inexperienced general music teacher, but it also offers the potential for the development of students’ diverse musical intelligences, which can lead to more specialized forms of music instruction, if so needed or sought by students. The holistic approach applied by general music teachers is no less challenging, relevant, or important than the specialized approach applied by other music teachers (e.g., performance ensemble teachers or guitar teachers).

“General” can also be associated with people, as in “general population” and “general public.” Historically, general music has referred to courses that are offered to all students, rather than the more closed systems of music education, which may assume a background in music performance or require an audition. Though inequities of access and quality are a reality, it is a type of music education that has consistently strived to realize Karl Gehrkens’ 1923 call and the profession’s mantra of the 20th century, “Music for Every Child; Every Child for Music”. This reference to all people rather than a few or specific groups, is most appropriate for general music because it is a curriculum designed to serve all students, regardless of talent, background, or socioeconomic status. This, in part, though not alone, is a defining characteristic of general music.

Is “general” music just good music teaching or is it truly something different from other forms of musically educating?

Music Teachers Perspectives on Music Education in the US

I am excited to share my latest collaboration with Julie Bannerman. In this study we examined the factors that are impacting music teachers across the country, as well as the ways they are acting to positively impact their programs and positions. Although prior research has found that state and national policies have had negatives effects on music programs in schools, which possibly explains decreases in offerings, participation and instructional time, this study found that almost 50% of teachers felt that these policies had no effect on their programs. Some (28%) thought they had a positive effect.  Factors at the school level, such as scheduling and instructional contact time, were thought to have the greatest negative impact on their programs. Many music teachers reported being given extra duties, outside of their subject area, and less planning time than their non-arts counterparts. The impact of these factors has implications on music teachers’ ability to plan meaningful lessons and to effectively teach children. The stakes are higher than ever for music teachers, whose evaluations are or may soon be linked to student performance on district or state music assessments.

Check out the full study Screen shot 2014-03-05 at 10.06.20 AM

Leaders (and Community Members) Taking a Stand

It is so good to know that there are leaders in positions of great power who stand up for the right thing for our students, teachers, and schools. The superintendent of the Miami-Dade Schools (4th largest district in US), Alberto Carvalho, has recently taken a stand against the damaging effect of over-testing in our schools. I hope other leaders will push back as well and end this era of high stakes testing that has eaten away at time for quality teaching and learning in a diverse array of subjects, including music, art, physical education, social studies, etc.

Check out the article in the Sunday NY Times:

High School Music Enrollment

Thought I’d share this article on high school music participation that Cathy Benedict brought to Ken Elpus’ and my attention. The numbers of students participating in high school music programs in the US is higher than many lead us to believe. Of course, there is always the question of quality.

Almost half of all high school students enroll in music programs.

Disseminating our Work

Screen shot 2014-04-13 at 5.48.38 PMI had the privilege of presenting a session with two PhD students and four PhD candidates from the University of Miami Frost School of Music (Sarah Bowman, Andrew Dahan, Craig Denison, Susana Lalama, Stanley Haskins, Sandra Sanchez) at the recent conference of the National Association for Music Education in St Louis. I thought I would add this post for those who are interested in doctoral education/curriculum and might be interested in knowing more about what we presented. Here is a sample:

Those who of us who work or will work as music teacher educators in doctoral degree-granting institutions are centrally concerned with preparing the next generation of music teacher educators and scholars. In reflecting on or preparing for the creation of the doctoral curriculum, we might ask some essential questions:

  1. What is it that we want students to know, understand, and be able to do?
  2. What is essential to the formation of a scholar and his/her future success in the field?

Many will probably agree that doctoral programs in music education are designed, in part, to enable students to ask important and meaningful questions, synthesize prior research and scholarship in music education and related fields, design and conduct research independently, examine and address perplexing pedagogical questions, and effectively share the results of their work with others.

Accomplishing these goals could be facilitated by the application of “signature pedagogies,” a term coined and described by Lee Shulman (2005) as characteristic forms of teaching and learning that prepare future professionals for developing specific habits within a given discipline. Shulman suggests pedagogy should closely align with the professional roles that a given program is designed to prepare students to fill. Understanding is necessary but not sufficient. A person should also be prepared to act, to perform, and practice.

What does that mean for music education professors? It means acting, performing and practicing as teachers, advisers, and researchers, serving the needs of our students, our universities, as well as our local and broader communities. We do that, in part, by disseminating our work through publications and presentations, yet many aspects of these processes are unclear and challenging to those beginning their career in academia. This, in part, led to the design of a one-credit doctoral seminar on disseminating scholarship in music education.

The topic of disseminating scholarship was one of many ideas I bounced around for doctoral students to choose from for a one-hour special topics seminar. The majority were interested in the topic for most it was because they realized it was so critical to their role as future professors, for others it seemed to be because of the mysteries of getting work published (i.e., peer review), and for a few it was to learn more about ways to be more disciplined writers.

The seminar was designed around the various ways that music education academics might disseminate their work (both traditional and emergent) and framed around written and spoken forms. The course also offered students opportunities to review books on subtopics of their interest, find related readings, lead class discussions, formally present on selected topics, and write proposals for specific venues.Screen shot 2014-04-13 at 6.02.13 PM

The purpose of our session was to share our experiences in this graduate seminar and consider how it shaped our thinking and helped to develop specific habits of the hand and mind.

If you’d like to learn more about the seminar and the resources we used, go to our seminar PREZI by following this link: