Friday, December 30, 2016
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Beyond The Basic Rock Groove: Addressing Linguistic Rhythm in the Music Classroom Through Improvisation
Fifteen years ago, I was an English teacher at an inner city high school in Philadelphia. As a way to connect with my students, I decided to teach drums after school. I made this decision on a whim, and what I didn’t know then was that it would transform the professional and creative direction of my life. One moment in particular had a tremendous effect. I had been reaching out to struggling students, and inviting them to come after school and jam with me. One of them was named Brandon, a quiet student who simply could not complete any assignments. I had been working with him individually, but found that he struggled just to write one sentence. I also found that when he and I spoke, I had to give him directions in small chunks, for only then would he accomplish tasks. I was a pretty inexperienced teacher, and I was really scratching my head over how to help him make progress, so I invited him to play drums after school. It took a while, but he finally showed up. He shyly sat down behind a drum set and I began to teach him what I always teach new students – the basic rock groove. This groove is based on two beats, and it repeats itself every four seconds. At the same time, when played correctly, it sounds like the beat of pretty much every rock, hip-hop, or pop song ever written. It is a simple way to make the students feel like they have accomplished something very quickly. Once they feel that success, they are more confident to take on more tricky challenges.
Teaching Brandon the basic rock groove, I was stunned by what I heard. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get his body to play more than two beats. One, two, stop. Restart. One, two, stop. Restart. It was frustrating for him to endure, and confusing for me to see. Suddenly, I realized that he could not sequence the steps in the pattern. He could play beat one, and allow that to lead into beat number two, simply because the second beat was the physical carry-through of the first beat. But when it came time to repeat that step, to hold on to what he had just heard and performed, he could not do it. Every time he executed the rhythm, it was like he was starting from square one all over again. I realized that this was how Brandon was processing everything he heard around him. He was hearing sentences one at a time, not as part of a larger discourse composed of ideas woven together. Similarly, when it came to writing, he could only process his ideas one at a time. He could not string together ideas from one sentence to the next. I was frustrated by the fact that I did not know how to help him. I had a hunch, however, that the answer was hidden in the drumming.
As an English teacher who plays the drums, I have spent the past fifteen years searching for a way to bring together language and rhythm in the classroom in ways that benefit students who struggle with language. Our educational system is arranged in such a way that students are forced to process language all day. Can drumming help those who are most at risk? Can it help students improve the ways in which they process and, ultimately, comprehend language?
To answer this, we must understand what rhythm is, and how it influences both music and language. Only then can we see if musical rhythm, as expressed when we play drums together in groups, can influence the rhythms of language. In Music, Language, and the Brain, Aniruddh Patel provides a detailed definition of rhythm, and demonstrates that if we are to consider its influence on language then we must acknowledge the similarities and differences between musical and linguistic rhythm.
As a whole, rhythm refers to the concept of periodicity, or patterns that repeat periodically (Patel 98). To musicians, periodicity refers to a repeating pattern set against a backbeat of some kind. Whether it is the stately dance of a sarabande, or the driving drums on side two of Zeppelin IV, musicians use rhythm as a guideline for where to place their melodies and harmonies. But rhythm happens all around us – our circadian rhythms keep us healthy, and the rhythm of the seasons help us track the years passing by. And these patterns, while definitely rhythmic, do not proceed in periodically repeating patterns. They ebb and flow with time. That does not mean they are not rhythmic. In the same way, the rhythm of spoken language serves different purposes and exhibits different qualities from musical rhythm. Whereas musical rhythm relies on the periodic repetition of stresses and beats, linguistic rhythm relies more on ways in which patterns of emphasis and duration are grouped together (159). Musical rhythm deals with the patterning of sounds in terms of timing; linguistic rhythm deals with the patterning of sound in terms of prosody and duration of sounds (98, 112).
Prosody is crucial to processing language. It refers to the elements of language that allow for expressiveness, including vocal pitch or intonation, loudness, and importantly, rhythm (Mannell 2007). As Patel has pointed out, prosodic rhythm refers to how long a syllable lasts. This is referred to as duration (Mannell 2007). When we emphasize words in spoken language, that emphasis comes not only from the loudness of that particular word, but also by lengthening the amount of time that the word takes in comparison to the other words in the sentence. This lengthening and shortening of duration as we speak essentially creates the rhythmic patterning that Patel speaks of. The constantly shifting duration of words in spoken language create a distinction between linguistic and musical rhythm. To put it simply, language has no backbeat. Therefore, in order to see how rhythm affects language, we must begin to view rhythm as more than simply periodicity. “By abandoning a fixation on periodicity one is freed to think more broadly about speech rhythm and its relationship to musical rhythm” (Patel 159). When we do this, we begin to see some cognitive and neurological correlates between linguistic and musical rhythm, and thus establish an important relationship between language and music.
The greatest connection can be found in those patterns created by prosody that we discussed above, and which Patel refers to as prosodic groupings. Spoken language, especially English, tends to contain alternating patterns of strong and weak syllables. Therefore, we hear changes in the duration and loudness of words when we listen to someone speak. These rhythmically repeating patterns enable listeners to make predictions about the end of sentences, and to create mental boundaries around what we hear. In other words, the prosody of spoken language allows us to understand when ideas begin and end, and the rhythmic patterning of prosody – the ways in which accents and duration of sounds and syllables are grouped into phrases, helps us process the meaning of language more effectively (139 - 150). Consider the various ways to say the following group of words: Come to the store with me now. If we raise the pitch of our voice at the end of the sentence, we are asking a question. If we lower the pitch and extend the duration of “now”, we are giving a command. If we extend the duration of the word “me”, while simultaneously raising its pitch, we are expressing some kind of preference. Come with me, not someone else. Similarly, composers use accents and shifts in duration to signal changes in their music. A common example of this is the lengthening of the final note in order to signal that the piece is coming to a close. Therefore, as a result of a wider perspective on rhythm, one that takes into account shifts in duration and fluctuations in pitch, we begin to see similarities between musical rhythm and linguistic rhythm. Taking it a step further, we can also begin to see that there are some underlying neurological correlates when it comes to processing both musical information and linguistic information (174). Already, I can begin to feel glimmers of hope for students like Brandon. If there are indeed rhythmic connections between music and language in the brain, then the Basic Rock Groove just may help them after all!
We must remember, however, that Brandon could only process language in small chunks. He lacked the ability to hear the rhythms of language that Patel speaks of, and this was clearly reflected in his inability to hear and repeat musical patterns. If I could go back in time, would it be possible, armed with this new understanding of ways in which musical rhythm can mirror linguistic rhythm, to help him out by playing the basic rock groove? To answer this question, we must dig deeper, and look at the work of Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist studying the relationships between rhythm and language in the brain. Kraus takes Patel’s ideas one-step further by looking at the precise areas of the brain which process rhythm, leading us to a discussion of Auditory Temporal Processing, which is the time it takes for us to process what we hear. In one compelling study from 2015, Kraus and her associate, Samira Anderson, found that the ability of children between the ages of three and four to synchronize with a rhythm was a predictor of future reading ability. “The synchronizers had more accurate brainstem processing of speech … [as well as] higher pre-reading skills (phonological processing, auditory short-term memory, and rapid naming)” (Kraus, Anderson 2015). Reading this, I can remember watching Brandon trying so hard to play along with my beat, and failing over and over again. Then I thought of him trying so hard to understand what I was saying to him in class. Is this the connection I have been looking for?
Kraus shows us that “Impaired temporal processing reduces the accuracy of sound to meaning connections that are the necessary building blocks for learning to read” (Kraus, Sanderson 2015). A student who processes more slowly has reduced accuracy in their comprehension. She continues, “The ability to follow the rhythms of speech is one aspect of temporal processing that has been linked to reading ability” (Kraus, Sanderson 2015). And there it is: the connection between musical rhythm and linguistic rhythm, the ability to predict meaning based on prosodic groupings, the capacity to comprehend what we hear in a timely and accurate fashion. All of it relates back to the rhythms of language. The longer it takes for us to process what we hear, the worse our ability to perceive those rhythms becomes. We hear words, and in our labor to process them, we miss the important rhythmic cues that give our words additional meaning. As our ability to perceive those rhythms decreases, our comprehension of language decreases with it. In this way, we can see that language, rhythm and comprehension are intrinsically linked. Kraus also argues, “meaningful information unfolds simultaneously over multiple timescales in both speech and music, from overarching rhythms and stress patterns, to the fine-grained timing differences which differentiate consonants and characterize the distinctive timbre of a voice or musical instrument” (Kraus, Slater 208).
So now I return to my original question. Can drumming help children like Brandon? Well, if we hear what Kraus and her colleagues are saying, it seems as if drums alone can’t do it. Additionally, as Patel pointed out, the backbeat found in music doesn’t generalize to language. But as both researchers have shown, the other aspects of rhythm that appear in music – timbre, duration, pitch fluctuation and stress - are incredibly important in language. So what’s the answer? In my experience, the answer can be found in improvisation. This is a visceral and engaging musical form that meets the students at whatever ability or experience level, providing them with a musical experience in which they must synchronize with rhythms around them, and also listen intensely to the expressions being played – paying close attention to the rising and falling of pitches, similar to linguistic intonation, imitating and responding to both subtle and wild shifts in dynamic range, similar to the variations in loudness found in language. In addition, they must listen carefully to what their peers are playing, noting when musical expressions begin and end around them so that they can complement them and contribute appropriately to the music. This final piece is the most powerful aspect of improvisation because it so closely mimics the rhythms of language – the ways in which prosodic groupings can suggest meaning. Not only that, but for students like Brandon, who struggle with processing speed and working memory, improvising with peers enables those peers to support him. As they create music together, Brandon is not left alone behind the drum kit trying to find the beat like he was that afternoon so long ago. He is in a group working together to create music, and his part in that creation is valued, no matter what his contribution. In addition, improvisation provides him with real-time feedback about where the beat can be found, and how his contributions are working. It engages him in a much more intuitive way, and can hold his attention because, in improvising, he is working with a group of peers, and they all must work together in order to make the music happen.
One example of how we mimic linguistic rhythm can be found in an improvisational game called “The Soap Opera”. This game works well with High School aged students. One student begins by making up a line from an imaginary soap opera. I model some silly examples, and encourage the students to play up the melodrama. Once a line is spoken, another student sitting at the keyboard must make a sound that responds to what was spoken. For example, a student might accuse another of murder, and the music should reflect this shocking accusation - perhaps a dark, percussive chord created by banging on the keys. In this way, the students are listening to spoken language, and responding with musical language. They are bringing together the two different modalities and exercising their auditory temporal processing abilities. Not only that, they don’t even realize they are doing it because they having so much fun pretending to be on a soap opera! For Middle School aged students who may not be as uninhibited as their older counterparts, we often use a game called the Fish Hook. In this game, one student begins by creating a repeating pattern, usually on a xylophone. Once the pattern becomes repeated, the next player joins in by either imitating what they hear or adding something new. Players continue to layer in sounds until we have the whole group jamming together. The ability to hear when a melody begins and ends tells the students when to join in, and as the piece progresses and develops, students must pay extra close attention to and play along with several elements – the rhythm or groove, so that they can stay together, but also the more subtle shifts in the piece, such as fluctuations in volume, shifts in dynamics, and changes in timbre. In this way, they are practicing fundamental musical skills, but also mimicking the rhythmic aspects of language, and doing so in a fast paced, totally immersive experience that requires them to exercise how well they process what they hear and how quickly they do it.
Improvisation can be done using simple-to-play instruments such as hand drums, wooden xylophones, or other diatonically tuned instruments. In this way, students are free to experiment any way they choose, while at the same time focusing on and practicing those elements of music that are so close to language. It is important to consider that if Brandon could not execute a simple groove on drum set, it is possible that improvising in the ways described above will be even more difficult. However, removing the concept of periodicity from the ways in which we play with rhythm in the music classroom not only makes improvising easier than executing a back beat, it also works in such a way that it can be done at any pace, and at any ability level. It is scalable to the students’ experience, processing speed, and ability, and is therefore more powerful than simply drumming. In addition, in the years since working with Brandon, I have seen improvisation help many other students who struggle similarly to process language begin to open up, communicate more clearly, and as a result improve both their expressive language and their interpersonal skills. Consequently, the music classroom can become a place where students are encouraged to practice both musical and linguistic skills, all the while working together to create music that can be, at times, wild and unpredictable, and at others, beautiful and distinct. Immersing students in music in this way may involve a reimagining of how we teach music, but it must happen if we are to help students like Brandon. Knowing what we do about how music and language are related, we have a responsibility as music educators to use this information to help our most at-risk students exercise their language processing in such a humanistic and intuitive way. Taking a broader view of music, rhythm, and language, we can help children like Brandon move beyond the basic rock groove, and develop skills that not only improve their musicianship, but their future as well.
Kraus, Nina, PhD, and Samira Anderson, Aud,PhD. "Beat-Keeping Ability Relates to Reading Readiness." Hearing Journal (2015): 54-56. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
Kraus, Nina, and Jessica Slater. "Music and Language: Relations and Disconnections." Handbook of Clinical Neurology 3rd ser. 129 (2015): n. pag. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.
Mannell, Robert. "Phonetics and Phonology: Introduction to Prosody Theories and Models." MacQuairie University. MacQuairie University - Department of Linguistics, 2007. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.
Patel, Aniruddh D. Music, Language, and the Brain. 2nd. edition ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010. Print.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
I wrote this song about two years ago. One of my favorite things to do is to sit on my front step on a nice spring day while my kids play outside. I listen to them run around, and I goof around on one of my guitars. I also love to play with strange tunings. This song was originally written on my old Alvarez baritone guitar. I use two partial capos on it - one at the second fret and one at the fourth fret, and this gives me a nice open tuning. Open tunings are great because, as you can hear in this song, they enable me to easily access some really dense, strange, and wonderful chords.
Anyway, the day I wrote it, I was entranced by the looping main guitar riff. I played it again and again, and after a while, I felt like I was spinning around and around, like as if I was on a merry-go-round, hence the title, "Calliope".
It was a working title for a long time until the words came together around it. When I wrote them, I was trying to say something about letting go of ourselves, our agendas, our goofy ideas about right and wrong, our dysfunction and our very identities, and just giving into the rhythm of the planet and the universe. I was thinking big, perhaps too big, so I stripped them down to only a few words. I hope they mean whatever you want them to mean. Enjoy!
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Personal Intelligence Theory and Improvisation - How do we assess learning in a more meaningful way?
Since I have been searching for a theoretical foundation for the type of teaching and curriculum I am attempting to design for my music students, I have been studying several theories of learning and intelligence in order to see if there is one that seems to support what I do. I have also been looking for theories with which I disagree so that I can position myself and develop a voice about where I stand and what I believe about how my students learn and how best to teach them. In the case of the work of Scott Barry Kaufman, I most definitely and wholeheartedly agree.
Like my students, Kaufman has struggled with a learning difference, and his experiences in school have motivated him, just like many of my students, to seek out some explanation of how he became the way he is. His book, Ungifted, tells his story, and also traces the history of our understanding of intelligence, culminating in his final chapter, the subject of these annotations, in which he creates his own, empirically supportable definition of intelligence, and outlines his own theory of intelligence, Personal Intelligence Theory.
Kaufman begins by reviewing the definition of intelligence put forth by fifty-two experts in the field of intelligence and published in The Wall street Journal in 1994:
“Intelligence is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. …it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings” (291).
First reading this definition, especially after studying theories of intelligence and learning by Howard Gardner, Lev Vygotsky, and David A. Kolb, it seemed to adequately capture the ways in which intelligence manifests itself. One thing is for sure, after twenty-two years of teaching, I know that “intelligence” manifests itself in my students in myriad ways. And many of them are not related to traditional academic skills, such as note-taking and critical writing. Not only that, I have seen Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences be used to pigeonhole my learning different students into a box that they can’t break out of and that limits their academic potential. So this definition, by its sheer wordiness alone, seemed to be hedging all of its bets and covering all of its bases. Most importantly to me, it speaks to the value of learning from experience. This is an aspect of intelligence that affects the way we approach almost every problem we encounter, and yet subjective experience is kept out of so much of our academic discourse. Kaufman seems to feel the same way about the depth of the definition, but asserts, “defining a term is one thing, measuring it is another” (291). This contradiction becomes the crux of his argument against so many prevailing definitions of intelligence, and the foundation of his own theories. The paradox is that, as Kaufman describes throughout the chapter, most theorists agree that intelligence is really much more than intellectual capacity, and yet our measures of and expectations of intelligence by and large focus only on this one element of overall intelligence. Therefore, our schools and our assessments only cover part of the picture; only teach part of the person. David Wechsler (of the WISC fame – the general IQ test that tortures my students!) has even said, “My main point has been that general intelligence cannot be equated with intellectual ability, but must regarded as a manifestation of the personality as a whole” (298). If we agree that intelligence is much more than just intellectual ability, why do we test students on one aspect of intelligence alone? And who decides what those academic skills are that best manifest intelligence? And why does this single test burden so many of us for the rest of our lives? Sure, intelligence is an amalgamation of affect, volition, intellectual capacity, and adaptability, but most tests of intelligence test only intellectual capacity. Do poorly on one of those tests, and you will be labeled for a long time. You’ll be deemed “ungifted”, as Kaufman coins, and your education will forever reflect that title in both the limited curricular offerings, and stilted expectations of your peers and teachers. This is, of course, ridiculous and unfair, and has both Kaufman and me asking the same question – why do we still bother with these tests at all?
Many theorists have tried to compensate for the shortcomings of IQ testing by creating other criteria that aptly demonstrate other characteristics of intelligence, but they all require testing as well, thus piling on test after test on a poor child who struggles with learning, all in an attempt to quantify something that we all know and see in our experience of that child, and that we know does not even need to be tested. Kaufman argues,
“From the very first test of intelligence, we’ve been operating in an individual differences paradigm, and have been stuck in that paradigm ever since. Attempts to go beyond IQ seem to just add on more individual difference variables, and slap the label ‘intelligence’ on them. This creates more tests, and more ways to compare one person to another on whatever tests of intelligence the psychologist has created. But here’s the thing: there’s no objective reason why society still needs to operate in this paradigm” (300).
Yes! I could not agree more. Why are we persisting in comparing our students with each other, when the reality of the world is that they will need to dig down deep within themselves to find their own inner strength and intelligence in order to achieve the dream that they want for themselves. I, for one, never wanted to fulfill the dreams of my English teacher. And while my dad seemed to have a good idea of what I should do with my life, I sure as hell wasn’t going to oblige with his goals. I knew what I wanted and have sought for most of my life to get there. How I compare with my peers has nothing to do with that, but that is how our schools have been set up. This is why my learning different students so often come to me beat up by school (metaphorically and yes, sometimes literally). They have been compared with their peers for so long, and they just don’t fit in with the arbitrarily defined criteria of what comprises intelligent behavior in school. They have been taught, essentially, to become helpless. They have no ability to dig down deep within themselves anymore because school has taught them that what they need can’t be found there. It can be found in some textbook they can’t read, or some test they can’t pass. And indeed, many of those books and tests are the exact walls that are keeping these students out of fulfilling, powerful opportunities.
So, indeed, I agree with Kaufman that we need a new definition of intelligence, and a new way to frame intelligence in the classroom, and a new way to assess it that more accurately captures what it really is, and the purposes it really serves in our lives. “For too long, there has been a mismatch between theory and practice” (300). Kaufman seeks to bridge this gap with his Theory of Personal Intelligence. Here, intelligence is defined as “the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals” (302). The most important parts of this definition, for me are the words, “personal goals”. I feel relief that someone is finally admitting that the hoops set up by traditional education are just that: hoops. They have been placed there for me to jump through, and when I get through them all, I can go do what I really want to do. Whether or not what I learn in school helps me accomplish my own goals has little or nothing to do with how I achieve them. My “intelligence”, as it was framed for me by my years of educations, is not related to “intelligence” as it is manifested every day in doing what I love to do. Kaufman expands on this by providing four basic tenets of his theory: “the self is a core aspect of human intelligence, engagement and ability are inseparable throughout human development, …both controlled and spontaneous processes can be adaptive for acquiring a personal goal, … [and] there are no ‘ten-year rules’ or ‘creativity thresholds’” (303-305). In my own words, I see these four tenets as meaning that, first, we must stop comparing ourselves with others. A grade in a class we take is a rating, a means of comparing how we did in arbitrarily defined assessments with our peers. Such measures are artificial in truly assessing an individual’s true intelligence, and by extension, their potential. Second, our engagement is intimately tied to our ability. By this, I’m not arguing for the ten thousand hours rule about talent, rather, I’m saying that time devoted to a domain improves ability. What do my students devote their time to? I’m not sure. I’m too busy assigning them papers in my English classes, and of course grading them to find out. And as Victor Wooten argues, “Many music teachers never find out what their students have to say, we only tell them what they are supposed to say” (TED-ed). As a music teacher, the work of which is most relevant to my research here, I have tried to rectify this problem, but much more on that later. The point here is that many students never get to demonstrate their intelligence because it is manifesting itself in an activity outside of the traditional norms of education, where intelligence is most commonly assessed. They are spending hours building computers in their basements, or composing songs on their laptops, or coding video games with their friends. The sheer time devoted to these tasks determines their ever-increasing ability. Not only that, Kaufman’s idea completely flips the concept of a linear curriculum - learn one concept and move on to the next. Instead, don’t be afraid to spend a great deal of time in one area, for the time devoted to it will increase intellectual capacity. Expecting our students to learn as quickly as we do is simply silly. Third, we view our traditional models of education as full of “best practices”. Once, while teaching in the inner city of Philadelphia, surrounded by students who could easily beat me up if they wanted to, I realized how absurd and precarious it was that they so willingly spent forty minutes a day sitting in my presence while I, standing in front of them, spoke. Not only, neither of us was particularly interested in the information I was spewing at them. Why didn’t they ever revolt? I like to think it was my rapier-like wit, or the fact that I’m an all around great guy, but I know that it really was nothing except learned behavior. We see controlled environments as the best ones for acquiring knowledge and striving towards goals. But control is not always a good thing. Sometimes spontaneity gets us much more. Sure, sometimes it causes chaos, injury, or some sort of property damage, but at others, it leads to brilliant decisions. Sometimes, decisions made in an instant of impulse, passion, or desire, can lead to life-changing realizations, like when I spontaneously dropped out of my first graduate school. I remember driving as fast as I could to get to my advisor’s office to tell him I was quitting. It was completely liberating, even though professionally, it was a crazy idea. That decision, made in one afternoon, completely changed the course of my professional life.
Lastly, Kaufman’s assertion that there are no benchmarks is, in my experience, simply true. When my oldest daughter was an infant, our friends told us that by three months, she’d be sleeping through the night. Didn’t happen. The doctors told us, put her down and let her cry. In a half hour she’ll stop. She lasted four hours one night. Now, at age twelve, she stills wakes me up every night. Benchmarks are just one more comparative measure. We have to start asking, “compared to what?”
Of course, Kaufman’s theory, while I agree so strongly with it, has yet to be put through a serious battery of quantifiable tests. But one thing is for sure, his work flips education on its head, and I really like that. As a mostly self-taught music teacher working with students who learn differently, I have sought to teach in innovative, humanistic, intuitive ways. I have actively tried to stay away from traditional approaches to teaching music, learning music, and performing it. In this way, I feel that Kaufman’s Personal Intelligence Theory, along with a few other theories, informs and supports my work. Since I use improvisation as my main mode of teaching, students are able to play music at any ability and experience level. In this mode, all ability and experience levels are honored as the same. In fact, the least experienced player in an improvising ensemble is the default leader because their ability sets the standard by which all others playing in the improvisation will have to compare. I see improvisation as humanistic and fulfilling Kaufman’s tenet of placing the individual at the center of their own determination of intelligence, because every player in my classroom has equal value, and the spontaneous playing of any player at any time, regardless of experience or ability, can sway the entire class. In this way, we exercise both controlled and spontaneous processes in the work of helping students achieve their learning goals. In addition, improvisation requires a depth of engagement that completely removes the roles “teacher” and “student” from the relationship. Instead, when improvisation is happening properly, we are all equally and intensely listening like mad to each other, and focusing entirely on the goal of creating the most beautiful music we can in the moment. This is not only both controlled and spontaneous, but it also requires that all of us log serious engagement hours in the pursuit of increasing our abilities and creating beautiful music. Lastly, the idea that improvisation thrives on diversity of ability and experience is in line with Kaufman’s powerful argument against benchmarks. In the improvising music classroom, we are all learning at the same pace because we are all learning at our own pace. And each of those individual experiences of learning contributes equally to the power and beauty of the music.
In the end of the chapter, Kaufman describes several examples of educational practices that he sees best fulfilling and playing out his theory. Through all of it he enthuses, “the full landscape of human intelligence really is so much more beautiful, exciting and hopeful than any single perspective can possibly reveal” (314). I completely agree with this, and seek to empower and give voice to as many perspectives as I can through an innovative, humanistic, intuitive approach to music education. Maybe Scott Barry Kaufman and I could get together for coffee one day and talk about it all!
Kaufman, Scott Barry. Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. New York: Perseus Group, 2013. Print.
TED-Ed. “Music as a Language - Victor Wooten.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.
Friday, November 25, 2016
When students first enter my music room, I begin to play music with them almost immediately. This is one of my favorite ways to greet them, especially those who come from more structured school environments, or who have little experience. It is so interesting to see how they react to someone who is inviting them to just make some noise and have fun. Most students have never been told that they are allowed to play freely on the instruments in their school’s music room. Many have been taught that there is a strict regiment of exercises that they must follow until they will be able to play freely. Perhaps this is true, but the way I see it, this is only true if one’s goal is to be a professional, world-class, virtuoso musician. What about if you’ve just had a bad day, and you need to make some noise? What if you’re a wiry teenager and you’ve had one of those weeks when you feel like no one ever listens to you? Maybe you just need to be heard.
I love to listen to the sounds they create. We often begin with an exercise called One Quality Sound. This exercise presents one of the fundamental truths of my approach to music – all music begins with one quality sound. If you can make a sound that authentically expresses who you are at that moment in time, then you can make music. In his guide for facilitating improvisation, Return to Child, Jim Oshinsky says, “One Quality Sound is one note or tone – just one! – that authentically expresses how you feel at the moment you sing or play it” (18). This is a total reimagining if what music instruction is. Notice Oshinsky’s use of the word “tone” in addition to “note”. “Note” implies a right or wrong choice. But “tone” simply means that you are to make a sound. And if you can make one sound, then who’s to say you can’t make two? Once you’ve made two, why not three? And once you can make three sounds on an instrument, why then you’ve begun to play a melody! By this line of reasoning, anyone has the ability to play any instrument; if only they are able to forget everything else they have learned about what is “right” or “wrong” about musicianship. If only they are willing to listen to themselves. If only they are courageous enough to let their inner voice speak.
The rules for what is right or wrong go out the window when we view music in this way. I take away the top-down instructional model that says the teacher has the right to dictate what the students should play, and in its place I set up a model where the student is the center, and their own sound, originating from deep inside them, becomes the measure by which I assess their musical ability. They create music based on what is happening inside them in the moment, not based on what someone else is telling them should be happening. In this way, as Victor Wooten argues, students can learn music the same way they learned to speak as babies.
“Think about the first language you learned as a child. More importantly, think about how you learned it. You were a baby when you first started speaking, and even though you spoke the language incorrectly, you were allowed to make mistakes, and the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled... As a baby, you were allowed to jam…” (TED-ed).
Not only can this free play in the music classroom help break down the initial walls of inhibition and open doors to deeper understanding of music, it has the power to transform students. Beginning with the simplicity of One Quality Sound, I meet the students where they are, and permit them to discover the music that lives inside them, and by extension I give them the opportunity to be heard in a new way. Because my students learn differently, they have only been told what they are not able to do, and what they need to change about themselves in order to survive academically. But here, I have the power to throw that thinking away and ask them, “What do you have to say? How do you feel? What are you experiencing right now? What can we learn from that?” I allow the student to show me what they can do. The experience of making music, of hearing and expressing the inner voice, becomes the teacher. I become nothing more than an awed listener. Arguing the value of such an experientially based approach to education, Malcolm McKenzie urges, “Let the students loose … They will soon convince the adults in the community of the learning that takes place there” (McKenzie 28).