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:


What Do Videos Games Have to do with Music Education?

Dr. Ann Clements was a recent guest of the Music Education Department at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. Among other outstanding presentations over two days, she gave one particularly thought-provoking talk on what music education can learn from video games, which was featured in the Miami Hurricane (the University of Miami student newspaper). Here is an excerpt of that article. The full article can be accessed by clicking the link on the title of this entry or the URL below.

The Miami Hurricane

Carlos Abril, director of undergraduate music education, is [co-editing] a book on innovative approaches to teaching music…He invited Penn State professor Ann Clements to the University of Miami’s Music Education Forum to talk to students about how “technology and gaming can inform music education practice.”

“Learning is a joy and a pleasure, and only in schools is it repressed,” said Clements, who is writing a chapter in the book.  “Schools are just providing the game manuals and not the games themselves.”

The main point of her talk was how incorporating the idea behind video games into classrooms, of all grades and ages, would motivate students to learn.  She also said video games would motivate students’ passion to learn. Clements believes that students will respond to failure in a more positive and constructive way if the failure is creative and fair.  If so, the students will have more interest and motivation to overcome the failure and become successful, which is the goal in most video games. If schools collaborate using creative and sophisticated methods, they will see the average number of students retaining information increase dramatically.


Mapping, Collaborating, and Connecting through PREZI

Many of you may know Prezi ( as an online presentation tool that frees you from the linearity of Powerpoint, but did you know that it makes for a great mind mapping tool as well? In the last three years I have primarily used it that way in my classes, during brainstorming sessions, in meetings, and for project planning and management. I thought I would share a few of the ways I have been using Prezi for instructional purposes along with some recent Prezis.  (As my students know, I usually can’t contain my excitement about all it can do, so simply)

MAPPING. I recently used Prezi on the first day of the Smithsonian Folkways World Music Pedagogy course at the University of Miami as a way to introduce participants to the musics of the world we would be studying throughout the school year. Initially it served as a way to provide an overview of the course. As I videotaped the grScreen shot 2013-10-05 at 10.22.05 AMoup learning songs, dances, games, and music, I realized Prezi could also serve as a repository for these videos. I have since given participants in the program access to the Prezi so they can recall the songs, note how the songs performed differ from the notated versions, or link to the Smithsonian music collection. As the course evolves, I imagine it will include many other things as well. At the end of the six sessions, spread over a school year, we will have documented the many musical cultures studied, the curricular frameworks discussed, and the projects created. This is a work in progress. You might want to check back to see how it has changed in six months.

COLLABORATING. In the past I used to bring in large posters and markers into class when I wanted my classes to break up into small groups to brainstorm or work on an in-class project. Class members would usually assemble into groups around the classroom to work on their posters (if you were my student at some point, you probably remember doing that). Screen shot 2013-10-05 at 10.24.36 AMNow I use Prezi as a way for students to work collaboratively, documenting their thinking and ideas. For instance, in my History and Philosophy of Music Education course this semester, I had students (all of whom I granted editing access to our class Prezi) synthesize some of the key ideas of formalism, utilitarianism, praxialism, contextualism on Prezi.   We could see our individual avatars moving through the Prezi, adding images, text, and videos in real time.

CONNECTING. I’ve been using Prezi in my general music methods courses for three years now. Each semester, I start with a blank Prezi; each class period is an opportunity for us to build and extend it. In so doing, we map what we are learning from the readings,  experiences in the field, and in-class discussions. We also use it as a way to make inter- and intra-unit connections. Many of the videos I ask students to watch are found on the Prezi, as well as videos and books we recommend one another because of their relevance to the course content. You can also see students’ illustrations, representing their visions of the elementary music classroom (they are actually kind of fun, revealing, and funny all rolled into one). Like the prior Prezi, this has no animation and is a work in progress.

I hope this blog entry gives you some ideas for how you might use Prezi or some other mind mapping tool in your own teaching. I’d love to hear how some of you are using it in your own work.