It's a Two Way Street: Are You Listening?
Reprinted from Michigan Music Educator, Spring 2011
I can hear the music from the street as I wait in line to get in. I notice the people on either side of me moving to it as I feel myself doing it too. I finally break through the threshold and look around for where the sound is coming from. "Sweet! Open mic tonight," I say to myself as I spot the drum set. I see people sitting at tables playing guitars and singing together, others tapping on tables working out some kind of changes, "Let's take it back from the chorus," I hear someone else say as I walk by his group. I want to be part of it too. Creating with other musicians is what I do. It's who I am. I sign my name on the list, sit back, tap a rhythm on the table and listen with anticipation to the other people and think how I can add my voice to the music. Let's jam tonight! Let's make music. . .together.Thinking in sound is what underlies all musical engagement, performing, creating, and listening. People experience sound and form understanding of and through the sounds around them. As music educators, we facilitate musical experiences for the music educators, we facilitate musical experiences for the music learners in our classrooms to expand and enrich their capacity to hear in sound-hear intelligently in sound. We also need to create space in our music curricula to engage learners in real-life experiences, like the one described above, so they may be successful lifelong music makers and consumers. I choose to use popular music in my own classroom to facilitate an environment where musicians are thinking about different and innovative ways to create and manipulate sound because they view themselves as popular artists.
I invite you to reconsider the ways that your classroom supports a learning environment that fosters learners' capacity to engage with music through thoughtful, minds-on experiences. The room environment and the relationships you foster with your students are some of the most important facets of a successful classroom. Learners construct their own understanding of their experiences and organize them through the lens of their life experiences (Brooks & Brooks, 2001; Fosnot, 2005, Wiggins, 2009). Teaching is establishing environments that foster and enable such experiences and supporting learners within those environments as they figure things out for themselves. In a healthy learning environment, students value the understanding the teacher brings, but teachers must also value the understandings that learners bring, learned through peer collaboration and their own prior experiences both in and out of school. Valuing the music that students bring into your classroom is valuing them as musicians and musical thinkers. Of course, the converse is also true: not valuing students' own music sends a message that you do not value them as musicians and musical thinkers. Engaging your students in conversations about their music and musical thinking is a way to foster this mutual respect. Ask them why they chose to share this particular piece with you. Ask how it is meaningful to them. Especially for upper elementary through secondary students, their choices are generally thoughtful and personal. A student will have made a conscious choice, a thoughtful choice, and an emotional choice.
The curriculum I describe here is one I developed as a teacher in a moderately sized K-12 school district where I teach general music to elementary, intermediate, and high school students. Composing, arranging, improvising and questioning the boundaries of what and when is music through the manipulation of sound and silence are some of the ways music learners interact with music in my classroom. These experiences foster an environment where learners feel safe to share musical tastes and ideas, feel a sense of investment, and have the desire to create a composite of personal expression (Davis, 2005). Jamming together and creating music collaboratively is what the music learners in my classroom look forward to most. From their perspective, these are the most relevant and meaningful experiences they can have, because it is what they do when they get home.
Initially, as I got to know my students, I was interested to learn that, as they progressed through their lower elementary years and into the upper elementary/intermediate schools, they tended to put up a wall between "their" music or what they perceived to be the "real" music and "school" music. These learners had no conception that there was a connection between the music that was the soundtrack of their lives and the music that they had been experiencing in their music room. The problem was that the musical experiences in which they had engaged in school were so detached from what they knew music to be, that they created another category for it; school music (Green, 1988, Kratus, 2007; Rodriguez, 2004). We can begin to decrease the opacity of this wall by making relevant connections to popular music in primary and secondary school music curriculum. Perhaps the [rejection] is simply that at the time of reason many learners feel "music education" is irrelevant (Dello Joio, 1968).
When I began facilitating learner-centered, problem-solving musical experiences (Wiggins, 2009) with these same learners, I noticed a change in the way they connected concepts with which we engaged in the music room to the music they appreciated outside of school. These meaningful connections build a classroom environment where students creating their own works bridge the gap and unify the concept of music. Designing authentic, meaningful, and relevant experiences for learners to become engaged in the creative process of music is one way to connect with the holistic, collaborative, and real-life experiences of being a popular musician.
As a profession, we are stumbling over a hurdle when it comes to the practice of using popular music in our classrooms. Most music educators are working comfortably within their comfort zones. They have been taught to teach music in a certain way, using certain practices. In a long and successful career of teaching this way, some may be intimidated by the invitation to try something new. Music of our world is changing all around us and children are attuned to this change. Learners are connecting to the music of their experience in such meaningful ways that we, as a profession, owe it to them to design musical experiences that will help them understand these connections and applications more deeply. Often when approaching the designing of experiences for music learners, we think about presenting a musical work as a standardized or fixed moment rather than as organized sounds moving through time along a continuum of an emerging art. As learners interact with music through listening, performing, and creating, they deepen their understanding of music when they can create and express freely within it.
When music learners are given the experience of creating music with their peers without the constraints of style or genre, they often compose in their own style, which has common characteristics of pop music. This music is the soundtrack of their everyday lives; it is pervasive in all their most personal experiences. Teens rely on music as a metaphor to help them understand feelings and situations they cannot articulate.
For example, engage learners to consider the role of chords, specific progressions, and their inter relationships. Entering this unit of study, music learners often have the shared understanding that the ability to play along with other musicians by using your ear is important. Due to students' immersion in popular music, they may intuitively hear and understand tonic, dominant, and subdominant harmonies (which they know as "home chord," "away chord," and "resting chord") or through experiences with the blues or other genres that use these harmonies. For this project, each class agreed on a popular song that we would take a closer look at the chords and their inter-relationships. We downloaded a legal version of the chord sheet and I played the chords as the class sang the song while listening for chords. Drawing on their prior experience, they were able to pick out the I, IV, and V chords by the way they sounded and felt. Their understanding of scales (established in a prior unit of study) enabled them to figure out the other chords in the song. This teacher-scaffolded, whole class experience gives them an insight into the thought processes behind how to listen to and feel a longer and more complex chord progression. Next, the class splits into small collaborative composing groups and each group chooses a song they want to cover. Depending on each group's prior experiences, some groups decide to play pianos and synthesizers, while others play electronic Autoharps. They work independently for two class periods and perform and reflect on the third day. This performance experience enables musicians to collaborate in recreating a popular song of their choice. Each group realizes their chord progression and adds rhythmic instruments of their choice to make their own "cover" of a popular song. Working together with their peers fosters a community where musicians look to each other for help and ideas, allowing for peer scaffolding while engaging real musicians in real musical experience.
Cover songs, remixes, sampling, improvising, and original compositions are a few of the experiences in the music curriculum I facilitate, which is why I advocate making connections to popular music in classrooms. For example, learners really connect to popular music because at this age their actions and beliefs are opposed to mainstream values and some tend to be abrasive to what society holds as the norm. The "popular" movement is similar in that the artists who align themselves with this movement hold the same values. Although this quality may be the precise reason some educators choose not to honor popular music, if you consider the importance of meeting students where they are, you may understand better why it is a good idea and not one to be feared. By no means is popular music the only music we engage with in my own classroom. I am inviting and honoring their music but also bringing my own and asking them to honor that. It is a mutual sharing and a mutual quest to understand more about music and its capacity to express through sharing mutually our musical experiences and decisions, and learning about connections the various styles and genres have in common that make them music-all music. Once students understand and feel comfortable with you respecting their choices, they are more open to honoring and respecting yours and what you have to say. It's a two-way street.
The importance of teaching experimentation and innovation through the manipulation of sound is at the center of an experientially based constructivist approach to music education. Learners entering a music room already have their own personal music identities and already are active music consumers. Their experiences in the classroom should facilitate their rethinking and reconstructing of what they already know as music and sound, and push their musical development in a direction that will enable them to stretch their hearing ears and be inspired to experiment with sound in new and innovative ways. When learners are asked to compose a piece in the general music classroom, they already have the sounds in their heads of how their music is going to "go." These sounds in most cases are not going to be in the style of classical composers or free-form jazz. The innovative contemporary music of today is the music of the learners' lives and what is socially relevant to them. Since it is the music of their experience, it is the music they draw upon as they think in sound and invent original ideas. As learners are creating their original pieces in the classroom, they are engaging in the creation of popular music, their music, which they find "profoundly relevant and worth their finest efforts" (Rodriguez, 2004).
Music educators must be careful not to use popular music as a bait and switch for their own agendas. I bring my own music into the classroom as a door into dimensions of music (Wiggins, 2009), not to coerce them into enjoying a piece because it is the next one in the lesson plan. I have used Phish's "First Tube" when exploring ostinato as an organizational tool, not because it is a rock song from a jam band, but because its most prominent characteristic is the layers of repeated rhythmic and melodic patterns. A relevant and meaningful connection to popular music is presented in different parts of units throughout the primary and secondary music curriculum in Brandon School District. The doorways into musical dimensions may come from music that I bring into the classroom or in the music that someone else has brought in to make our connections deeper. It's a two-way street.
The learners in your classrooms are musical thinkers and thoughtful decision makers who enter with their own musical identities. We need to help them make connections with their previous experiences of thinking in sound while listening, performing, and creating in new experiences in our classrooms on their way toward musical independence (Boardman, 2002). We need to listen to and validate learners' choices of their own music and meet them halfway with our own music to form relationships of mutual respect and common understanding of music. It's a two-way street.
1These experiences are similar to those designed by Lucy Green (2008) for the Musical Futures Project, but in my classroom, I provide more teacher scaffolding at the outset to help students understand and develop strategies to enable their success.
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