Sunday, January 19, 2014

So Can 5th Grade Students Compose?

Too long ago, I wrote a blog post posing the question Can 5th grade students compose?
By "compose", I was testing if 5th grade students could use traditional notation to write an original work with some level of harmony.  These are students I have had since Kindergarten, so it was as much a test of my own teaching as it was their knowledge.  We took about 5 weeks (ten half-hour sessions) on Noteflight, with students working in pairs.
Students in pairs on

The answer is  YES!  and no ...
Yes - Students can craft a theme, notate it well, add a few instruments, and create harmony within guidelines.
But No - after a good start, most become a quagmire of notes because although making music is natural, the organizational principles that makes a composition successful are not always natural.

What students did well:
• Computer skills (logging in/create scores/input notes/copy & paste notation)
• Treble clef notation
• Writing a "theme"
• Identify and resolve dissonant harmonies
• Sequence a theme (copy & paste original theme, then transpose it up or down)

What students had trouble with:
• How to keep a theme short and interesting
• Keeping rhythms simple (not filling measures with notes)
• Bass clef notation
• How to use percussion notation to enhance/support a melodic line

I quickly realized we needed to develop some "Rules" or Criteria to guide student work.  Through a variety of assignments, we developed these rules together:
Rules or Criteria of 5th grade composing (please excuse the chalkboard, tech friends)
Rule #1 - We LOVE patterns in music (it gives our brain something to hook onto)
Rule #2 - If one part is slow, the other can be fast (we need contrast)
Rule #3 - Scales move stepwise up or down
Rule #4 - Chords stack notes (teach whole note chords in root position to support a melody)
Rule #5 - Leave some empty space (we don't eat Thanksgiving dinner every day)
Rule #6 - A Theme is short and to the point (like a topic sentence)

If you want students as young as 4th or 5th grade to be able to compose on Noteflight, here are some ideas I suggest you build into your elementary program.  These are the things I plan to enhance in my own program for the future:

• Teach students about the concept of a "theme" early.  We do a lot of program music in elementary school, but instead of just identifying themes (Peter and the Wolf, the Nutcracker or Firebird Suites, Danse Macabre, etc.) we need to investigate what makes a theme successful.  My 5th grade students did better when we defined a theme as a "topic sentence" - short and to the point.  John Williams music is great for investigating what you can do with just a few notes.
• Do MORE composing early.  We already do inventive notation projects in 5K, single line staff in 1st grade, 2-line staff in 2nd grade, progressing to traditional notation in 3rd grade, but I need to do MORE in each of those grades, incorporating the six rules above.
• Sing and identify the various types of harmony with students.  We learned at least one song in each of these categories: round, partner song, descant, homophonic (which we called "true harmony" rather than homophonic).  I wrote a blog post about teaching harmony in 5th grade earlier this year.  I will move this up to 4th grade.
• Bass clef notation.  I know ... it can be difficult enough to teach treble clef some years.

Have fun!  I hope to return to Noteflight with the 5th grade students after our Spring concert!

Friday, January 17, 2014


Starting this weekend, I am embarking on a new adventure.  This weekend I begin a master's program in Educational Leadership at Alverno College.  At the end of the program, I will have completed the coursework for licensure as a principal and as a director of instruction.  It is something that has been brewing for about the last two years.  And in the last few days, I have been thinking over what led to this point.  It's a combination of self-determination, taking advantages of seemingly small opportunities, and learning from great people.

On the very first day of inservice at my very first teaching job (15 years ago), I was talking to my principal about the inservice schedule and what meetings I was to attend.  She mentioned a Building Leadership Team ("BLT"/shared decision making) team that was optional.  But I went anyway, just to see.  Something about that snap decision to attend an optional meeting put me in contact with other teacher leaders right away, and people started to see leadership qualities in me as well.  Sometimes it's the snap decisions we make that can change the course of our lives.  I will always be grateful to that principal who invited me that day, who started as a Spanish teacher and is now a well-respected superintendent of one of the top school districts in Iowa.

When I moved to my current district, I was very happy, except that I had lost the sense of leadership.  I was in a suburban district where you needed to put in years of service before anyone would take real notice. After about six years, a technology committee was formed.  I was asked to join, and once again, joining a committee brought back that sense of leadership.  That committee, still led by one of the foremost tech-integrators in Wisconsin, opened up all sorts of new opportunities.

One more big event was being asked to serve as a CPI-trained crisis team member in my school.  As a result of this training, I was directly involved in student crisis situations, sometimes multiple times per day. Again, other teachers begin to see you as a leader - someone people look to take charge, able to think on your feet in the most difficult school situations.

Other opportunities have helped shape my experience: coaching classes, serving as a mentor, district visioning committees, K-12 music curriculum leader, tech conferences, and all sorts of other things ensued that allowed me the opportunities for leadership as a teacher.  Eventually, one gathers up all these experiences and starts to think "I can do this" - maybe I can serve our profession in a new way.

I once saw a tweet that said "You might be a leader if you want to influence people beyond the walls of your own classroom".  That has stuck with me.  Leadership looks different for everyone, and it's the decisions that seem small at the time that eventually lead to the big decisions we make in life.  It's also the people we meet that shape us and urge us on.  Then, it's up to us to decide what to do with all that.

Where will this lead?  Who knows, but it is really exciting to be at this point.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Random Articles: Music, Test Scores, and Intelligence

I have an inbox full of articles I've been meaning to blog about.  And they all seem to do with music, testing, and intelligence.  It seems that links between the study of music, test scores, and intelligence are coming out constantly these days.  (Death, taxes, and musical research studies?)

Of course, in the past, there was no need for studies like this because musical performance was a more regular part of people's lives.  Notice I said musical performance because so much of music today is passive - listening, observing - but not doing the things that can truly help us become more ... human. Church choirs, community bands, even the singing of the National Anthem have all dwindled.

The other sad thing is that no matter how many studies come out that suggest the link between music and thinking, we seem to be preaching to the choir (pun intended).  Who is reading the plethora of studies and saying "YES! Let's add more music to our curriculum!"  I am guessing very few.  Project-based learning - yes!  Flipped Classroom - yes!  More collaboration and creativity - yes!  Guess what?  Music has been doing all of that for centuries.

Lest this blog post sink further into despair, here are the truly uplifting stories that have crossed my radar in the last few weeks.

Article #1 came from the Pacific Standard.  The academic achievement of 180 students in an IB program in Quebec was studied.  It revealed that the students who choose to continue music study after it became optional in school scored higher than their non-music counterparts in 23 out of 25 classes. And in the other two classes, the non-music students rated only marginally better.  But the end of the article was the best: "It's conceivable that kids who feel socially connected (say, as members of a school band) develop the confidence and self-esteem that can lead to intellectual curiosity, and better grades." If this is true, then I would like to see studies that say the same of other non-music socially connected groups.

Article #2 came from  One of this year's Nobel prize winners, Dr. Thomas Sudhof, a Stanford University neuroscientist, said his most influential teacher was his bassoon teacher.  His quote: "My bassoon teacher, Herbert Tauscher, who taught me that the only way to do something right is to practice and listen and practice and listen, hours, and hours, and hours."  He also says he would like to have dinner with Mozart to find out if his creativity was "conscious or inherent".

Article #3 came from the New York Times editorial page on October 12, 2013, and is entitled "Is Music the Key to Success?"  One of the best quotes is from Microsoft's Paul Allen, who says music "reinforces your confidence in the ability to create".  Another is by advertising exec Steve Hayden, who says, "Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others."  But the real gem of this article is the fact that the famous people mentioned - Chuck Todd, Alan Greenspan, Paula Zahn, Paul Allen, Woody Allen, and others - were all strong musicians who learned communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration (the 21st century skills) from the study of music.  No, kids, you don't have to become a professional musician.  But the study of music will help you become a success at whatever you choose to do.

Lastly, I've been holding onto this tweet for awhile.  Good old Albert Einstein, himself a talented violinist, said the following:

Perhaps someday there will be a direct, uncontested link between music, test scores, and intelligence that people will believe.  But then I would worry that the establishment would insist that music programs only be delivered in the way that created the conditions in the original research project.  That would be anything but creative, and therefore, not music.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Can 5th Graders Compose?

In music, knowledge always manifests itself in a physical way.

Everything a musician (or artist, or athlete) knows about a topic is proven through performance. Musicians prove their skills through performance, artists prove their skills through their works, and athletes prove their skills through competition.  In the arts, in sports, and in any applied subject, the ultimate focus is never on skills - the focus is on what you do with your skills.

But at what age can we expect students to prove their skills at something as advanced as composing? That is what I hope to find in the project I have started with my 5th grade students.  We are composing using

To be fair, even 5K students can compose with inventive notation (I buy pipe cleaners in bulk).  But I am talking about real composing with traditional notation.  These two questions come to mind:

• Will the students be able to live up to their own expectations when composing a song?
     If the students are not able to compose something that sounds like the music they hear around them, they will likely give up before feeling a sense of accomplishment.
• Have I (as the teacher) given them enough skills to make this experience possible?
     I've had most of these students since 5K.  Have I made the most of every minute together so they can be successful at this project?  Have I scaffolded our learned appropriately over the last 5 years?

It is something I've always wanted to do with students, but in the golden age of Sibelius and Finale, composing was reserved for the few with the money and the skills. Now, web-based programs such as Noteflight have made it possible for anyone to compose easily.  Programs like Noteflight make it easy for students to experiment, make connections quickly, listen, and revise work without too much risk.

We will see - and I will let you know.  If you have used Noteflight (or similar programs) in upper elementary, please let me know what worked (or didn't work) for you.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What are the BIG Goals for Your Music Program?

What's the BIG Picture for your school music program?  Have you taken the time as a K-12 music department to put into writing the BIG Goals you have for students?

In my recent posts about music curriculum, I have mentioned that our district has undertaken a thorough review of all course curriculum using the Understanding by Design framework.  Good curriculum starts with the end in mind, and in Understanding by Design, the "end" is called "Enduring Understandings". These are the big ideas that should remain with students long past the time when they leave your classroom.

Honestly, we did a lot of searching online and found a lot of ... not so great ... examples of Enduring Understandings in a music program.  Written by well-intentioned teachers who may not have known what an Enduring Understanding really represents.  The only exception is #1, which did come from another source (though I have since lost the source). They are open-ended ideas, not specific skills or targets.  

As a K-12 music department, it took us several months to come to consensus on our Enduring Understandings.  We decided (as did our PE and art colleagues) to have a single set of Enduring Understandings for all of our courses.  We wanted a set of questions that could work for any grade level, so that no matter if a student is in 5K general music or 12th grade band, the reasons for music study and the final goals remain the same, even if the rigor increases.

Here are the five we now live:

1.  Students will understand that, at its core, music is about tapping into things deeply human: the desire to learn, to grow, to be in community with others, to contribute, to service, and to make sense of our time on earth.
2.  Students will understand that music provides a means of creativity and expression.
3.  Students will understand that all music has value, even if it differs from an individual's musical preferences.
4.  Students will understand that music is an important and influential element of the history and culture of humankind.
5.  Students will understand that music is an aural experience, but also a written language.

Notice there is nothing in the list about intonation, technique, playing xylophones, phrasing, or performing certain genres of music.  This list of Enduring Understandings is just that - the ideas we hope will endure; the ideas students should take with them.  And these understandings can be used at any age level - from 5K through 12th grade.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What is Music Curriculum??

I have written a series of posts about music curriculum work (here and here). As a K-12 music department, we have been part of a district-wide intensive review of the curriculum of every course we offer.  That means, as the K-12 music curriculum coordinator, I have spent a great deal of time the last 2-3 years thinking about what good curriculum is in a music classroom.  We use the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins.  

If you are a music/art/PE teacher, I bet you've had this conversation sometime:
"This curriculum stuff just doesn't work for us.  We don't fit into the neat model that everyone else does.  We're different.  We're constantly performing and assessing."

You're right.  And you're wrong.

If you are embarking on music curriculum work, the first thing you need to divorce yourself from is the idea that your songs are units of study.  Your songs are not units.  Your year is not made up of one concert unit after another.  In fact, I would suggest the music you perform is not even a topic within a unit.  The music we study and perform in music class is an activity.  

Ugh ... when our music department realized that the songs we study and perform are lowly activities ... the bottom of the curricular foodchain ... we went through a grieving process.  

If you don't believe me, consider this:
As a music teacher (or PE, or art, or any subject), you want to teach transferrable skills.  If you are teaching brush technique in art, you don't want to teach it from scratch every time you paint.  If you are a choir director, good breath support and tone quality are transferrable skills.  It doesn't mean the students will get it right every time, but the concepts of phrasing, diction, blend, etc. spiral upon themselves with increasing difficulty as your repertoire becomes more demanding.

Robert Duke in his book "Intelligent Music Teaching" (read it!) says,
There are physical habits and principles of music making that are applicable in almost all circumstances in which musicians find themselves, and it is these principles that form the core of what we refer to as musicianship. (145)

Adapted from our district's curriculum handbook
In other words, teach the transferrable skills.  A middle school or high school ensemble unit might be called "Musicianship Skills" and the topics might include breath support, tone quality, blend, dynamics, phrasing, intonation, etc.  And the activities through which you teach these skills are the songs you rehearse, study, and perform.  Another unit might be "Musicianship Knowledge" which could include topics on theory, history, and sightreading.  If you must have a "Concert" unit, make it the performance and audience skills that students gain by being part of a concert.

If you look at music curriculum from this perspective - from the perspective of transferrable skills - then music curriculum is just like every other subject in school.

By the way, if you are worried that all this curriculum work will stifle the creativity of your music program, think again.  Grant Wiggins, the guru of Understanding by Design, says so.  Well-designed curriculum will allow for more creativity, not less.

Curriculum Conversations

There are three elementary music teachers in my district (myself included) which serve four K-5 schools.  The three of us have been together for 11 years now - long enough that we can finish each other's sentences.  We know each other's areas of expertise.  We are a high-performing team.

But in the last two years, we have stepped up our game to a new level.  In my last post,  I mentioned the curriculum work in which our district has been engaged.  As a music department, we needed to take every course we taught (that's 23 courses K-12) and list out the:
Enduring Understandings
Essential Questions
Academic Vocabulary & Prerequisites
Academic Vocabulary & Common Assessments
Links to materials or websites
Learning Targets
Alignment to Standards

This was not a normal "scope and sequence" activity.  This has been a detailed work-up of every course (did I mention we have 23 courses ...) and entering all of this information into an online tool called Build Your Own Curriculum.

Back to the three of us elementary music teachers.  This meant sitting together for the last two years, hashing out not only what we taught, but how we taught it, and why we taught it.  Remember, we are three teachers with similar styles, curriculum, and expectations.  But we still found so many things that we do at different times, with different outcomes, and for different reasons.

The purpose of our conversations was not to get all three of us to teach exactly the same way.  Rather, the conversation was focused on best practice:
• What is one person doing that results in better achievement on a particular unit?
• What are the skills and steps students need in K-2 so that reading traditional notation is a logical next step in grade 3?
• What are the skills that need to be in place so students can sing in harmony by 4th and 5th grade?
• What might I have to drop or add from my teaching to help students become the best musicians they can be, both now and in the future?

If you have never engaged in "curriculum talk" at this level, beware.  You have to step away from your own egos, realize that your songs are not your curriculum, make peace with the fact that you don't need to change the art of how you teach, and be open to new ideas.

We were already a high-performing group.  Now, we have higher-performing curriculum as well.