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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

Abril Classroom 12

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.


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

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.


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.


Smithsonian Folkways at the University of Miami

I am excited to report that the University of Miami and Smithsonian Folkways will be co-sponsoring a World Music Pedagogy Certification Course at the Frost School of Music during the 2013-2014 school year. Presenters from around the country, with diverse specializatFROST SCHOOL LOGOions in world music cultures, will bring their experience, musicality, and expertise to music teachers and community music leaders in the South Florida region.  The aim of the course is to provide opportunities in learning about world music cultures, with a special emphasis on those found in our rich cultural backyard. Specialists in Afro-Cuban children’s songs and folk music, Puerto Rican drumming styles, Eastern European song, Argentinean folk music, Uruguayan candombe, Maori song and movement, Brazilian folk dance, and more will be invited to work with participants. World music pedagogues, Patrician Shehan Campbell and Ann Clements, as well as world music song leadeSmithsonianr and composer/arranger, Nick Page, are a few of the distinguished guests who comprise the faculty roster.  Follow the link for more information about the Smithsonian Folkways World Music Pedagogy course at the University of Miami:

Towards a More Culturally Responsive Music Pedagogy


If you have an interest in making music pedagogy more culturally responsive, I invite you to read an article that I recently wrote for General Music Today called, Towards a More Culturally Responsive Music Classroom. In this article I seek to characterize culturally responsive teaching and consider how it differs from other pedagogical approaches in music that have been explicitly informed by culture, such as multicultural music education. Stretching the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay into music learning contexts, I consider how we might move our attention from the things we teach to the people we work with in socio-musical learning environments such as classrooms and community centers. Finally, I discuss ideas for making these environments more culturally responsive around five pedagogical action points:

·      See and come to know students

·      Create a social learning community

·      Recognize multiple perspectives and positions

·      Connect beyond the classroom

·      Select music and materials with culture in mind

I would love to know how others have approached culturally responsive pedagogy in the arts.