I didn’t expect to go to a Conservatory for a master’s degree in horn performance and come away with a stronger identity as an educator. I started my undergrad as a music ed major and decided after a practicum in a middle school band that I just couldn’t stomach the large group setting. But I realized later that the bigger problem was that I didn’t really have any enthusiasm for the medium. I didn’t love band. And I’m not very invested in the public school education model. On top of that, all of the teaching models in my life were burnt out, or cynical, or both. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and I watched as she wore herself out year after year. The teachers I shadowed had more advice to give about how to manage the kids rather than engage them. I realized that if I didn’t have any real enthusiasm now, how could I possibly hope to end up any different? So I decided that yes, I would teach, but only privately. But these classes in the MIE department have opened up a whole host of possibilities for engaging in education in a variety of meaningful settings, not just in the public school band room or in a private setting. As a teaching-artist, I have so many opportunities to interact with my students in different ways than their classroom teachers. I am likely to be unbound by curriculum requirements and the time constraints that accompany them. I will likely be one of the few teachers that doesn’t have to give them a grade. I will likely be able to engage them in smaller group settings and get to know them more individually. I have the freedom to pursue an area of interest or abandon a lesson plan that isn’t engaging them. All of these have the potential to show my students that learning is so much more than content and grades. And they are so much more than sedentary receptacles.
After graduation from NEC I am intending to move to St Louis to help my sister expand her nonprofit, Intersect, to include music programs in addition to the visual arts programs it already offers. When I tell people about this, I usually joke that I’m going to go do a bunch of things that neither of my degrees have qualified me to do including grant writing and arts administration. While I may not feel particularly qualified, I do feel excited, and in a certain way, equipped. I feel that I have been prepared to be unprepared, I have learned that content is only a small part of what makes up meaningful learning and that the care and interest invested by the teacher goes a lot further than any external motivators.
In music education, what matters most is that students have learned to be present, to invest themselves fully in the learning process. It matters that they feel valued. It matters that they learned something about themselves. It matters that they saw the world as something mysterious and beautiful, that reality is a gift. It matters that they learned something about what it means to be human and what it means to connect with other human beings. These things matter more than ever in an era where we are drawn away from each other, away from our histories, and away from the beauty of our world into fabricated realities which are only a mirage of what we desire.
In the end, the thing that makes us human and the thing that makes humans do art is that we are meaning-makers. So if we can teach our students to make meaning from the world around them, we are teaching them a little bit about what it means to be human. We are teaching them to engage their present reality. And we are teaching them that what they think about the world matters.
This semester I learned so much about the process of learning itself. Not the science of it, the humanness of it. I learned about myself, that I need to cultivate patience in my own learning in order to exemplify that learning is worthwhile. It’s even worth one of our most precious commodities: time. Patience is a measure of worth. We communicate that something is worthwhile when we work at it diligently and actively. We communicate to ourselves and to each other that we are worthwhile when we give ourselves and each other patience.
I am excited to join the generations and generations of teachers who have been given the responsibility and joy of learning alongside their students over and over. I am excited to make music time after time. I am excited to discover beauty upon beauty, again and again. I am honored to show love after love—love for the world and for music and for my students. I didn’t expect to come through my performance degree at NEC with a stronger identity as an educator, but it’s the greatest gift I have received here.
Thank you so, very much,
Intro to Music in Education
This course served as an introduction to the Music in Education Department at NEC. We read a diverse cross-section of articles and excerpts by a variety of authors including Duckworth’s Grit, Trotter’s “The Mystery of Mastery”, Coyle’s “The Talent Code”, and Booth’s “Performing Musicians as Artist-Teachers”. These readings and the class discussions surrounding them helped shape the Teaching Rationale that I produced by the end of the semester. This rationale aims to answer the question, “What is the essential role of Music in Education in the 21st century?” In many of our schools across the nation, the more pressing question is whether or not music should have a role at all. My thesis argues that while the arts are valuable for many different reasons, such as their benefit to other academic areas, we cannot justify the arts along utilitarian lines. The thing that makes the arts unique and valuable is the gratuitous dimension that is beyond utility. By affirming the value of the arts beyond utility, we also affirm that every human being should be valued, not because of their productivity or capabilities or talent, but because of inherent worth. A pdf of the document is included at the bottom.
What is the essential role of music in education in the 21st century? Is the role of music the same in the 21st century as it was in the 20th? Is it the same as it was in the 18th or during the Renaissance or in ancient Greece? Is it the same in the U.S. as it is in Peru or Japan? In the current American cultural and educational climate, the question is not so much what is the essential role of music in education as, should music have a role in education?
In antiquity, music firmly held a place in the quadrivium alongside the other math-related subjects of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Currently, music is fighting to find a place at the table amongst the other academic disciplines, particularly STEM, our modern quadrivium, which has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Music is being treated in many schools as extra-curricular, to be pursued as an additional interest or hobby, similar to the chess club. In some schools, including the charter school where I tutor in Dorchester, MA, the only arts component offered is theater and is linked to their speech and language arts program. When I tell my students there that I play the horn, none of them know what it is. Some know what a trumpet is, few have a vague ideas about trombones. To me, this seems like a significant knowledge gap due to lack of exposure. It’s along similar lines as not knowing how to do long division or not knowing that mixing yellow and blue pigments makes green. And yet, the emphasis and funding that music and arts programs have received would suggest otherwise.
As a result to this very real threat to music in education, artists, teachers, and researchers have begun to explore various avenues of justification for the arts in education. For example, research has shown that knowledge transfer between music and other academic disciplines is possible, given the correct learning conditions, and the conversation surrounding funding for the arts in education has latched onto this rationale as a primary way to affirm the value of the arts and defend its role in education. Other inquiries include: Is the purpose of music in education to function as an outlet for self-expression? Is the purpose social or emotional, in order to build self-esteem, rapport, and community? If so, many other activities have these side effects including track and field and the debate team. Is the role of the arts in history a justification to continue studying music as an essential part of education? Plato believed that “music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” Are any of these reasons enough? If they are, why have the arts still suffered in the way of financial support in our schools?
These are the questions that the future of music in education in the 21st century faces and it’s no wonder that artists and musicians are on the defensive. All these questions have significant implications. It is true that students learn skills through music that are transferable to other academic disciplines. It is true that music has a profound impact on the self-concept, confidence, emotional awareness, and social skills of students, particularly teenagers. It is true that music has a remarkable capacity to bring together individuals and groups of people and strengthen a sense of community and commonality. But are any one of these reasons enough to justify the high cost of funding the arts in education? I believe that these answers are not enough because they answer only half of the question. Through philosophical and scientific inquiry, we have given a rationale for the value of the arts in education, providing evidence of its positive effect on other areas of life, but we have not answered whether or not music itself is essential. How can we argue that music plays an essential role in education, or any role at all for that matter, if music is fundamentally nonessential?
Coming from an anthropological standpoint, an argument can be made that music is essential because it exists in every known culture. Many would argue from a cultural or personal standpoint that music is essential in terms of quality of life. But why do we find many people who are unconvinced, who feel little connection to music beyond listening to their favorite band on spotify, and feel that music education is superfluous to their ability to enjoy music as a consumer? Perhaps musicians should have the courage to entertain the ways in which music is, at the most fundamental level, nonessential. We don’t need it for survival. We need to be willing to admit this because that is exactly the heart of its value. Music is a gift. Not a commodity. It needs no justification because it is an inherent Good like Truth or Compassion or Beauty.
Writer and editor Andy Crouch says, “art can be provisionally defined as those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility.” Jim Watkins explains this idea further in an online book review:
“[the arts] have an ‘extra’ or ‘gratuitous’ dimension that always eludes and exists beyond the particular ways that we use them. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in the making of art. Although artists use their materials, they often have a respect for the ‘otherness’ of their materials, and find value in the way the materials resist the artist’s use of them. Artistic creativity is an encounter with excess beyond utility: a reminder that this object does not exist solely for my use, and that it has, in some sense, a life of its own.”
If these statements hold true about music, then, ironically and paradoxically, a certain degree of uselessness is actually essential to the arts. Perhaps in many ways it is more essential than any utilitarian aspect of music, and we are working against ourselves if we try to justify the arts solely along utilitarian lines. Perhaps even more than working against ourselves, we are stripping music of the very thing that makes it an invaluable gift.
Perhaps a useful analogy can be drawn; the arts are like a ripe summer peach. Not only is a peach extraordinarily rich in nutrients (music bolsters academic performance), it is also delicious and enjoyable to eat (music is an emotional outlet for self-expression). We also know food to be a remarkable way to foster community (music does much the same). A peach that is shared between two friends sitting on a dock by a gorgeous midwestern lake is probably more memorable than the one you scarfed down at the bus stop the other day on your way to a meeting, although even that may have been a rapturous experience that pulled you out of an otherwise monotonous day. But even these things aside, a peach is not only nutritious and delicious, it is also beautiful. Imagine the color of the inside of a peach, that glorious gradient from bright yellow orange to deep carmine red. The color gradient of an avocado is similarly marvelous. While this may seem like an inconsequential detail, it has important implications for art.
My thoughts on this were stimulated in part by one of my favorite poems, “From Blossoms” by Li-young Lee. Lee paints a scene of a roadside stand with peaches for sale and the experience of eating these unexpected delights. Her response? Abundant gratitude. The excess of her gratitude is indicative of the excessive goodness she has received. It would be a very different poem if she spent three of the four stanzas describing the caloric value of the peach, listing the vitamins and nutrients it contained, discussing the exact amount of days necessary for it to develop on the tree, and justify eating it because her body needs the energy to finish the activities required that day. While each of these makes interesting inquiries in their own right, they don’t describe the essential goodness of the peach… or, perhaps, that which is nonessential. Perhaps this is what we do to music when we try and justify it in relation to other academic disciplines or in its economic value as a cultural good, or in its capacity to develop active and responsible citizens. But enough talking about the poem. Here is the poem itself. Taste each word. Feel the weight of the late afternoon sun on your shoulders. Revel in the abundance of a gift shared so vividly through words.
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Music is one of those sweet impossible blossoms that is becoming ever sweeter. This is the gift each one of us carries inside us. And this is the posture from which I choose to affirm that music, and all the arts, hold an essential place in education. Certainly, music is in relationship with other academic disciplines. What a wonderful benefit! Certainly, aesthetic experiences are one one the great contributions to quality of life. Certainly, when we participate in music, we join an ancient, cross-cultural history and learn something about what it means to be essentially human. But most importantly, every student deserves a musical education because, like music, every student’s value is not defined by their productivity or their talent or their future capacity to contribute to society, but by inherent worth. Music should not be held in reserve for the talented, the privileged, or the affluent. Music is a gift for everyone. As music educators, we are planting orchards inside each student we love and nurture. These orchards will blossom and, in time, bear fruit that is nutritious, delicious, and wonderfully, excessively, uselessly beautiful.
Improvisation in Music in Education
“Are you ready, through the power of your listening, to take what you hear and turn it into art?”
As to be expected for a course in improvisation, I never knew what to expect from class each week. It could be anything from playing toy instruments like a crocodile xylophone and octopus squeaker to creating free improvisations based on the sonorous quality of a poem. We might spend twenty minutes clapping and stomping which would turn into an 8-person game of patty-cake, or we could end up creating a 15′ painting. Most likely some people would show up late and we’d all stay even later.
But the one common thread throughout the entirety of the course was this curious question, “Are you ready, through the power of your listening, to take what you hear and turn it into art?” To which the expected response was a loud and resounding, “YES!!!” I’ll admit that, at first, the question seemed a little trite. One of those rhetorical questions that you answer out loud in order to be a good sport. Warren assured us that the energy in our answer speaks to the performers’ subconscious. They are no longer responsible for creating art. We have agreed to take on the responsibility of making meaning and significance and beauty.
What a joyful task it has been! I have been amazed and overwhelmed; I have laughed too loud for a ‘classroom’ setting and been brought to tears; I have been honest and candid; I have been uncomfortable and transparent and vulnerable. I have created art. With my voice. With my hands. With my horn. With my eyes and with my ears.
I’ve learned that it’s not a silly question. It’s an essential question. A pressing question. A question we must ask ourselves and our students. We must communicate that making meaning from the world around them is their responsibility and empower them to answer with a confident and resounding “YES!!!”
The following improvisation activities are drawn from the exercises we did in class. Each includes a set of instructions or guidelines for how we went about performing the improvisations. Some are followed by further reflections and applications to other educational settings.
Name note exercise:
- Everyone says their name on the count of three (several times)
- Everyone says the first syllable of their name on the count of three
- Everyone says the first syllable of their name on a comfortable pitch in the middle speaking register of their own voice. This is the “name note”
Mingling Note Exercise:
- Each person sings a pitch different than the one sung before
- Everyone begins walking around the room, listening to their own note, others notes around them, and to all of the notes as a conglomerate
- Walk faster and slower, turn in circles, turn your head, walk alongside someone else
- Experiment with adjusting pitch microtonally
- Begin singing pitch on a repetitive rhythm
- Some may interpret the instructions to begin a repetitive improvisation with several pitches
- The way the instructions are given and the way they are interpreted will produce different experiences!
- Interesting to observe that some people feel compelled to continue following the given instructions throughout the exercise and that others chose to bend or break the parameters.
- Discussion on foreground and background in music
- Features of foreground: soloist, contrasting timbre/ texture, melodic contour, volume, self-standing
- Features of background: repetition, softer dynamic, less contrast, more subtle shifting
- Have groups create improvisations that create a foreground and background within an ABA form. Give limited preparation time so that the groups can plan the form, but not really have time to rehearse or get concerned about the actual execution of the piece.
Vocal duet with drone exercise:
- In pairs, one person hums or sings a drone.
- The second person improvises with their voice over the top of the drone.
- When the second person is finished, they settle on a new pitch which becomes the new drone and indicates to the other person that they should begin their improvisation over the new drone.
- Switch back and forth so that each person improvises twice and then both people should settle on a pitch to end the piece.
- long/short : beautiful/fun
- fast/slow : hot/cool
- curvy/angular : willowy / expectant
- Unanimous decisions… why? uncovering intuitive knowledge
Improvisation: Each group selects a poem and decides how to portray the text verbally and represent some aspect of the words’ sonorous quality musically.
Constraint/ Stipulation Improvisation:
- How do constraints have a different effect (especially in a teaching situation) than a stipulation?
- In what ways can constraints/ limitations/ parameters/ stipulations produce increased creativity?
- At what point do constraints act as reverse psychology? Why do rules sometimes cause us to want to follow them (like the rules of a game) or sometimes want to break them (like the rules of a classroom or household)
Acting and Music: The Power of Accompaniment
Visual Art/ Musical Improv Exercise:
Graphic Symbols Exercise:
Improv with clapping exercise:
- Clap and tah on the beat.
- Add an eighth note after the beat so that you are clapping on the beat and saying tah on the offbeat.
- Switch back and forth.
- Now clap and tah on the beat but add an eighth note to the clap so the clap is on the off beat.
- Create aggregate rhythms with a group and add pitch.
- Add stomping. Encourage variations like a pianist doing the exercise between their right and left hands.
Internalization of compound meters:
- Use the syllables taki and gamelan to form groups of twos and threes and construct asymmetrical meters like 7/8, 13,14,15/8, etc.
- Teach by demonstration and immediate group imitation.
- Then have the group clap on the offbeats.
- Have different people do different patterns at the same time, i.e. different configurations of groupings in the same meter.
- Add stomping.
- Add pitch/ harmony.
- Stand up and dance.
- Make it into an interactive patty cake game where you stomp the big beats and slap your partner’s hands on the off beats.
- Form a large circle and tap the person’s hands on either side of you.
- Do any other variations you can think of!
Cross-Cultural Alternatives for Music Education
Reflections on Class Activities:
One of the most memorable and meaningful experiences from the course was building our own instruments from recycled materials. Cardboard tubes, tin cans, fishing line, foam packing material, goatskin and glue for drums; it all became material for creative sound exploration. As we journeyed through the process of building an instrument, learning to play it, and then making music together, we were given opportunities to reflect. At first we were mostly preoccupied with the process of learning technique, mostly interested in ourselves. But then, as we gained in confidence and competence, we began to listen to each other, to be invested in the communal nature of our music-making. If we had stopped here, the exercise would have been worthwhile. But we went even further. We were drawn even outside the classroom, thinking about what it meant to use a part of what was once a living animal to create a drum. We were drawn into a long history of humans that have made the instruments they played, who had a relationship with the materials that created the sound. And we were able to experience first hand what it is like to take pride in joy in something we built with our own hands. But the learning continues even further! What were the materials we used to create our instruments? Trash! Things that otherwise would be thrown away. But we honored even these mundane materials by creating something of value and meaning with them. We have an opportunity here to teach our students about the value of reusing and recycling. If no material is disposable, then surely, no person is. If all materials are valuable and worthy of honor, then surely every human being is valuable and worthy of honor. If even trash is full of creative possibilities, then surely every human being is ripe with immeasurable creativity.
We did other activities that connected our learning to frameworks that were larger than ourselves, larger than our classroom, larger than our own culture, and larger even than our own time. We learned about the delightful mysteries of overtone singing and explored the natural phenomena of the overtone series with clothesline, a monochord, audio technology, a piano, mathematical equations, our ears, and our voices. We participated in the history of teaching and learning songs by ear, joining an oral tradition that has existed as long as people have had voices to sing.
Music and the Brain
This course, Music, Brain, and Development, overviewed the basic anatomy of the brain, outlined the course of human development, and explored the relationship between our brains and our capacity to learn and create music. One thing that struck me particularly strongly throughout my study in this course is that the field of neurology is such an exciting and dynamic field where important studies and discoveries are being made all the time. As an educator, and as a musician, it is important to keep up to date with this research as it has important implications for nurturing the unique capacities of every student.
Throughout the course, we studied and discussed several different texts about the brain, development, and implications for classroom learning. Excerpted reflections on each of the three texts are included below. We also constructed a lifecycle map of our own lives, past and future, that is based off of Thomas Armstrong’s descriptions of the human life stages from The Human Odyssey. We share these lifecycle maps with each other in class and it was striking to describe a great degree of commonality between our life experiences, but also many important differences that were related to who we have become today. We also emphasized wholistic learning and how to engage every part of ourselves in the learning process. One example of this was the day we built a model of our brains from clay to learn about their structure. This was not only a very fun activity, but also made the information more tangible and made it easier to retain long term. A few pictures from this activity are included at the top.
The following reflection is in response to John Ratey’s book, A User’s Guide to the Brain. This text explains the basic structure and functions of the brain and how biology impacts our perceptions, emotions, behavior, and personality. Ratey firmly believes in the brain as a remarkably plastic organ that is capable of much learning and change. Throughout, Ratey features a wide variety of case studies and stories from his own clinical experience which provide insight and human connection.
Chapter 5: Memory
Playing a piece; analyzing a piece? What is the difference? What reasons can you find in this chapter to do both?
When you do music, almost every part of your brain is involved. Music involves cognitive processes related to space and time, it involves the visual centers involved in interpreting notation, aural centers responsible for listening, emotional connections related to the conceptual content or social experience of being engaged in music-making, and the movements involved in playing an instrument or singing! Music-making is such a powerful and encompassing experience because it does engage every part of the brain and causes it to create unique neural pathways and patterns that increase the communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. Analyzing music, while it can be meaningful, enjoyable, or informative, does not necessarily involve the entire brain in the same way that making music does. You will likely employ cognitive processes that help you relate the notation of a piece to the sound you hear. You might reorganize previously existing schema as a result of analyzing a piece. But you will not likely be coordinating movements with these cognitive processes. Analysis also often bypasses social and emotional processes that are a part of music-making. Given this knowledge, it is possible that these processes could be better engaged while analyzing music. Perhaps working together in groups could create more of a social component or realizing chords on the piano could connect the movement centers of the brain to the analysis. For example, you can learn what a dominant seventh chord sounds like, and what it looks like on the staff, but what does it feel like in your hands to play it on the piano? What does it feel like emotionally when you hear it? These questions could potentially enrich the analysis of music so that it becomes a more engaging experience for more parts of the brain and increasing connections between the two hemispheres.
The next reflection is in response to Thomas Armstrong’s book, The Human Odyssey. This book outlines the different stages of life including infancy, early, middle, and late childhood, early adulthood, midlife, mature adulthood, and late adulthood. Throughout Armstrong highlights the gifts of each stage as well as the challenges. At the end of each chapter, he provides a list of suggestions for how to engage with individuals in each of those life stages, as well as how to tap into the gifts of those stages at any time during your life. This reflection is on life stage that occurs from approximately age 35-50, or midlife. Here I propose a possible way for adults during their midlife to prioritize contemplation and participate in music.
Chapter 9: Midlife (35-50)
Contemplation: 1) What skill or attitude emerges during this age? 2) Identify some possible ways to engage the midlife person in some musical activity. Think of this as developing a program for folks of this age.
The gift of midlife is contemplation. Individuals during this period are able to reflect on a larger swath of life experiences and can see the way roles in the family or workplace shift over time. It is also during this time that the first signs of the body’s aging begin to appear. The individual has already lived a good portion of their lifespan, but there is still a significant portion to go and they must decide how to best live it. Carving out time for meaningful reflection can be challenging in the midst of many demands from family and career, however. As musicians, we could design programs for individuals in this age range to help them set aside time for contemplation and reflection. I think that music provides a sort of space and time set apart by creating an alternative environment. Listening can also quiet the noise of the outside world and leave room for inner thoughts. I think that the act of doing things like painting or writing can free the mind for reflection. If I were to design a program for adults in this age group, I would pair different types of music that are non-developmental (minimalist music, Indian classical music, etc) with different activities including watercolor painting, journaling, meditation, and mindful observation. These sorts of activities also give mid-lifers the opportunity to gain confidence again that they can learn new skills, which they may not have had time to develop in the last stages of life. I would then provide one open-ended prompt per session or ask members of the group to bring a question for the week. These activities could conclude with group discussion, or could result in private written reflections.
Classroom Activity and Discussion:
In this activity, I developed a set of questions that explored the main ideas of Chapter 4: Memory of the Scalise and Feld book, Why Neuroscience Matters in the Classroom. The activity briefly outlines and defines the three different components of memory, acquisition, retrieval, and retention. The following questions were discussed in pairs, each member of the pair telling a story from their own life when they learned something that they later struggled to retrieve or retain. Then the pair brainstormed ways that the learning situation could have been modified to improve retrieval and retention. Finally, one member of the pair shared one of the stories with the class and their proposed learning modifications. The third question outlines some learning and teaching strategies that improve retrieval and retention in the learning process. Then each pair was asked to apply one or more of the concepts to a theoretical teaching situation.
Three Memory Processes:
- Forming mental representations of concepts; crucial first step in the learning process
- The ability to access information readily
- The ability to maintain information over time; the permanence of ideas, knowledge, or skills
Discussion/ Reflection Questions:
1.Reflect on a time when, as a student, you were able to acquire a knowledge process or concept, but had difficulty retrieving or accessing that knowledge in a different context from the one in which you had initially learned it? How could this learning situation have been modified to improve your ability to retrieve the information?
2. Reflect on a time when, as a student, you were able to acquire knowledge, retrieve it, and apply it, but were unable to retain it long term? Were you surprised later that you had forgotten? How could this learning situation have been modified to improve your ability to retain the information?
3. The following strategies are useful in improving acquisition, retrieval, and retention: chunking, spaced practice (smaller units of practice spaced out and revisited over time), integration with other skills and knowledge, application to other contexts, modification of scaffolding, constructive repetition. Describe how you would use one or more of these concepts in a music lesson where you were teaching a skill such as major or minor scales.
Teaching Fellowship at Boston Latin Academy
Over the course of the last two years, I have been a Teaching Fellow through NEC’s Community Performances and Partnerships department. I have worked as a brass sectional coach Boston Latin Academy under the leadership of Jacob Eisman. I have worked with groups of middle and high school horns, trombones, and trumpets as well as a few students individually. Depending on the schedule, I’ve been able to work with some groups regularly and others only a few times over the course of the year.
Throughout the year, I have developed various routines, but the general format of each session is as follows: warm-up routines, ear-training, exercises in rhythmic and/ or free improvisation, technique building, and in-depth work on their band repertoire. With my groups of horn players this year, I created an activity to explore the harmonic series with various length of plastic tubing.
I am really grateful for this opportunity that the CPP department has provided me and I feel that I have grown so much as a teacher, particularly in a group context. My students have been so hard-working and engaged. Each group has it’s own unique social dynamics, energy levels, motivational needs, and successes and have taught me so much!
Below are a few of the exercises I use frequently with the students.
Establishing Routines: Warm-Up, Ear-training, and Improvisation
I usually begin each class session by chatting with the students for a few minutes about their weeks, breaks they’ve had recently, tests they have coming up, etc. while they get their instruments out. I’ve found that even just these few minutes at the beginning to connect have formed some really valuable relationships with the kids.
As students are continuing to take their instruments out and get set up, I ask them to do some buzzing on their mouthpiece, which is familiar to them from their regular band routine.
Descending Lip Slurs
All brass instruments use an overtone harmonic series, so I vary this exercise depending on the instrument, but the basic goal is the same for all; getting the air moving through the horn, getting a consistent buzz, producing a good tone, and listening to match intonation with their peers. Because of the simplicity of the exercise (high do, sol, low do, all on the same fingering or slide position), the students don’t need to think about fingerings or positions or tonguing. As we go down by half step and repeat the exercise, I will ask various students to tell me which pitch is a half step lower and ask another student for the fingering or slide position. This keeps them thinking and engaged.
Rhythmic Improvisation and Ear Training
This exercise is the first thing I do to introduce the concept of improvisation. Most students are not familiar with the concept at all and are sometimes amazed that a musician could play anything on their instrument without music in front of them telling them what to play. This exercise begins by going back to mouthpiece buzzing and creating a simple rhythm game.
- Everyone taps their feet in a steady pulse in 4/4 time.
- I buzz a rhythm in 4/4 on my mouthpiece.
- The group buzzes back the same rhythm immediately in the next sequence of 4 beats.
- I repeat any rhythms that seem like the students may not have caught on the first hearing.
- Each student takes a turn making up rhythms in 4/4 time and the group copies them.
- Make it a game by having them repeat any rhythm that any one member of the group didn’t get.
- Vary the exercise by adding pitch, having them use double tonguing if they’ve already learned that technique, or doing rhythms in a different meter.
- Put the mouthpieces back on the horns, ask the students to take out their scale sheets and have one of the students chose a scale. I’ve found that it helps for them to have something to look at, but I’ve been weaning them off of it.
- Repeat the exercise using the tonic pitch of the chosen scale to create the rhythms. Repeat back and forth with each student taking a turn.
- Slowly expand the number of available pitches for the exercise. I’ve usually started with just do and re of a given scale, then do re mi, and then continuing up the scale.
- After several weeks of doing this exercise, you can skip the earlier steps and go right to the later ones so the exercise can function as a warm-up that gets everyone engaged because you have to think on your feet, listen closely, and stay engaged to keep up in time.
Improvisation over a Drone
I began using this as an application of an exercise we did in my Improvisation in Music Education course this spring. In the class, we did vocal duets in which one of the two people would sing a drone and the other person would improvise over the drone. After the person who was improvising finished, they would settle on a new pitch which would become the drone and the other person would then improvise over that drone. You can continue going back and forth until the improvising person settles on the same drone pitch as the one already being sung in order to end the improvisation.
- I begin the exercise by starting a cello drone on my phone to use as a reference for intonation.
- One of the students holds that drone while the other begins an improvisation over top.
- Once the student who is improvising is finished, have them settle back on the same drone pitch, hold it, and indicate a cutoff to the other player. This is a great opportunity to work on communication between players within a section and how to give physical cues to indicate entrances and cutoffs.
- Ask another student to choose a different drone pitch and begin the exercise again, having the students switch roles.
Modifications and Strategies
- This exercise also works well with groups of three. With three, I usually have one student hold the drone, the second student plays long notes within a diatonic scale, and the third student improvises.
- Some groups of students have had really great success with free improvisation over the drone, creating really beautiful chordal formations, while other students feel uncomfortable with free improvisation. For those students that are struggling, more structure helps. Giving students a diatonic scale to play can be really beneficial so there is less likelihood of them ending up feeling lost in their own harmonic series, unsure of which partial they are playing and unable to create clear, centered pitches because of this uncertainty. Providing a pulse can also help. I have connected the exercise back to our previous ear training rhythm exercise. We start the pulse and then start the drone and then they begin with short segments of rhythmic improvisation. If they are really reluctant, I have encouraged them to create rhythms on the drone pitch and then rhythms on the third or fifth of the scale. After a little while, they are more comfortable to move more freely within the diatonic scale.
Expansion to other Musical Concepts
As you can imagine, these simple exercises are doorways into working on many different musical concepts. Each time we do these exercises, they provide opportunities to pursue a different path and work on different skill sets. The following list is a summary of those skills:
- Intonation- Long tones with drone, creating consistent sustained pitches; listening to pitch within the section, comparing pitches and asking students to compare their sound to the sound of the student that played before them in terms of higher, lower, or matching, listening to the beating created when pitches are played out of tune; experimenting with adjusting the instrument’s slides to see if the pitch becomes better or worse, talking through the physics of sound, i.e. the longer the tubing the lower the sound, so pulling out the slide will make the instrument longer which will make the pitch lower, asking students to problem solve this verbally rather than just telling them to pull out their slide or push it in
- Musical communication- Communicating entrances, cutoffs, and pulse with physical cues
- Phrasing- The exercise with creating rhythms in 4/4 time has been a great opportunity to discuss phrasing, especially when students are ready to use at least do, re, mi or more pitches of the scale. Some students will naturally alternate open and conclusive phrases in order to create a period structure. I’ve taken this as an opportunity to talk with students about what makes a phrase feel like it should keep going or what makes it feel that it is finished or complete. With examples, students are able to identify that ending on the tonic creates a conclusive ending. We have done some exercises continuing this idea where students should play several inconclusive phrases back and forth with their peers and then stop playing after playing a conclusive phrase.
- Rhythm- For some students, rhythm seems to come easily while others need more practice with keeping track of when a 4-beat bar begins and ends. Some subdivide accurately, others have trouble with dragging and rushing. Some internalize the pulse strongly in their body and are accurate with coordinating the tapping of their feet and the articulation they create with their tongue. Others have trouble tapping their feet accurately and have difficulty playing in time. For any students, though, this exercise is very useful for developing a strong sense of rhythm.
- Ear training- Students have become more and more comfortable with being able to listen and play back what they hear.
- Confidence playing alone- Most students aren’t used to playing alone, but have gained confidence in being willing and able to do this. I think it is important for students to listen closely to their own sound. Being comfortable with making mistakes myself has helped students to realize that accuracy in brass playing is one of the major challenges and it’s ok to make some blunders, it can even be funny!
Harmonic Series Lesson Plan
I began developing this small-group lesson plan as a hands-on way to learn about the harmonic series and the acoustics of brass instruments. The lesson plan involves visualizing wave forms using clothesline and experimenting with the harmonic series using lengths of clear tubing and a mouthpiece. I have used it with a small group of middle school students at Boston Latin Academy and have observed that their understanding of their instruments is improved through the process and that their natural curiosity is piqued through experimentation. The pictures below show the cut lengths of tubing. I selected a size of tubing that fits a horn mouthpiece and made two sets tuned to the harmonic series above a concert D.
The pictures above show the lengths of tubing. The long length is the fundamental and the shorter lengths on the right are the harmonics, each labeled with a number in permanent marker on the tube. The gauge of the tubing fits a french horn mouthpiece.
Part I: Clothesline Activity
The first part of the lesson uses a long fabric clothesline to visualize the formation of sound wave patterns. The following steps describe how I carried out the activity with the students.
- Ask for a volunteer to hold the end of a long close line. Have the volunteer hold their end steady and swing your arm so that it creates a single loop as if someone were to jump rope, but higher up so it doesn’t hit the ground. Observe that the greatest amount of motion happens in the center of the loop, directly between the two people and the least amount of motion happens at the two ends where it is being held relatively stable. Tell the students that this single loop is like a half of a sound wave.
- Next, demonstrate how, when swinging the rope at a faster frequency, you can create two loops on the line with a steady ‘node’ in the center. Observe how there are now two loops and three nodes whereas there used to be one loop with two nodes. Tell them that this two loop vibration of the string is a full wavelength.
- Demonstrate again how you can create, three loops (four nodes), four loops (five nodes) and on up until you can no longer create higher numbers of loops.
- Then have the student practice creating the loops by swinging their end of the rope.
- Have the class divide themselves into pairs, spread out in the space, and try doing the exercise themselves. Ask for observations about how it felt to do the exercise.
The following video shows shows my students quickly replicating the exercise during the second week of our exploration of the harmonic series.
After the clothesline activity, I gave each of them a sheet that had the waveforms of the harmonic series printed on it like the illustration below.
Click the link for a pdf of the worksheet. The second link shows how the worksheet was completed by the end of the two week lesson.
Looking at this sheet, we made connections between the clothesline and a string that you could make vibrate by plucking, strumming, or bowing it. We talked about how you could create the divisions of the string by placing your finger at the halfway point, or at one third or one quarter and it would create a node at the place you touched. Then I asked them what a vibrating string might have to do with a brass instrument? Having talked in the past a little bit about how longer and shorter tube lengths create lower or higher pitches, they readily made the connection that the division of the string corresponds to the length of the tube. We then talked about how when you blow into a tube it makes the air molecules in the column of air vibrate in the same pattern that a string vibrates.
After making these connections, I explained that the lowest pitch that a string or column of air can make is called the fundamental and each further division of the string of tube is called a harmonic. So we labeled the top figure on the sheet the fundamental (1) and then each consecutive figure below that Harmonic (2), Harmonic (3), etc.
Wave Generator App
Next I pulled up a wave generator app on my phone called Tone Generator and showed the students how changing the frequency (vibrations per second) produces different pitches. Using the app translated the visual information of looking at the waveforms into sound. I showed them how doubling the frequency made a waveform twice as fast and asked them to observe what happened to the pitch. They said it got higher. I asked, how much? After some puzzling, we figured out that it was higher by an octave.
Experimenting with Tubing
By this point, we were ready to explore the tubing. I set a drone with the wave generator at 294 hz, or the D above middle C, which is the fundamental pitch of the set of tubing. I asked the students to see if they could figure out how to find the pitch of each tube without using their mouthpiece. I did this because it is much easier to manipulate the pitch using the mouthpiece and can get confusing to find the actual pitch of that tube length. After a little bit of prompting they began discovering ways to interact with the tubing without their mouthpieces. I had them start on the harmonic tube lengths rather than the fundamental because it’s easier to produce, hear, and sing those higher pitches. They found that if you hit the end of the tubing with their palm it would make a pitched thump. They also found that if you blow across the end of the tube like a pan pipe, it will whistle the same pitch that it made when you hit it. When you close the opposite end of the tube off with your thumb, the pitch drops by an octave and is a clearer, less airy whistle. I asked the students to figure out why this was the case. They figured that the pitch got lower because the tubing got longer, so they air must travel to the end and then back out the top. I asked them how much it got lower by and they figured out that it was lower by an octave. I asked them why it changed by that interval and we found the pitches in the Tone Generator app and saw that the frequency of the lower pitch was half of the upper.
After figuring out how to find the pitches of the tubing lengths without the mouthpiece, I asked the students to pick the same length, find it’s pitch, sing the pitch, and then play the pitch on the length of tubing with their mouthpiece. This was actually the most challenging step. They had some trouble finding the pitch with their mouthpiece because they could manipulate it quite a lot in order to produce other pitches. But, by going back and forth between blowing through the tube, singing the pitch, and playing, they were able to find each one.
After this phase of experimentation, I gave them the fundamental tubes. I kept the drone going the whole time so they would always have that home ‘D’ in their ear. After a little bit, they were able to buzz with slow enough air to produce the low fundamental D. On their harmonics worksheets, I had them write ‘D’ next to the Fundamental wave. Next, we took the second harmonic and went through the process of tapping, whistling, singing, and buzzing that pitch. Then I asked them which pitch the second harmonic made. They figured out that it was also a D, higher by an octave. I asked them to write another ‘D’ next to the second harmonic, and showed them the shorthand label, P8, to show that it was an octave above the fundamental. Next, we took the third harmonic tube and went through same process. This one was a little harder to figure out the interval above the second harmonic. So I asked them to take out staff paper and write a ‘D’. Then we sang up the scale, pointing to the line or space on the staff as we went up until we came to the pitch of the tubes. I did this process in several different ways, sometimes have one of them holding the pitch of the tube while the other student and I sang up the scale from the fundamental, counting on our fingers. Then we would switch and the other student and I would sing up the scale. Then I would hold the upper pitch and they would sing up the scale together. After they had gone through the process, I asked them to write an ‘A’ on the third harmonic line, and a P5 to indicate that the third harmonic is a perfect fifth above the second harmonic. Over the course of the two weeks, we repeated this process with each of the tubes until the seventh harmonic. I would have them figure out the pitch of the tube and the interval between that harmonic and the previous harmonic as well as the interval between that harmonic and the fundamental. This involved some instruction about naming intervals, especially as we got into naming the quality of intervals by counting half steps, as in major and minor thirds and seconds.
This was a slow process that approached finding the solution of pitch and interval in a variety of ways. We used our ears and our voices to sing up the scale to find the pitch and we used notation on the staff to visualize the interval. I affirmed the students throughout the lesson for sticking with me in figuring out each length of tubing. Having only a small group to work with was really helpful to keep them engaged in the activity.
After they had figured out the seventh harmonic during the second week, I let them go through the rest of the harmonics up to the 13th aurally only without figuring out the pitches and intervals. They were really happy to be able to progress through the process more quickly and had, by that point, gotten the idea that the intervals between each consecutive harmonic were getting smaller as they went up. We talked about some applications of this principal for the french horn. It was a nice moment when one of the students said, “Oh, so the notes get closer together as you get higher which is why you can play a high F and G both on open!” As we listened to the higher harmonics, we talked a little bit about how as the intervals get smaller and smaller we get pitches that aren’t exactly in the scale we use on the piano. I gave them a brief introduction to how our equal tempered scale is really constructed from fourths, fifths, and thirds.
At the very end, we did a brief experiment with creating the harmonic series with the wind from the end of a tube that was being buzzed. I told the students about how there is a very old tradition of ‘overtone singing’ in which the singer will sing and create a certain shaped cavity in their mouth to create overtones. I demonstrated and then showed how we can do the same thing with the air from the end of one of the tubes. I had each of the blow a low fundamental and had them listen as I created the overtones with the other end of the tube and my open mouth. Then I blew the fundamental and had each of them change the shape of their mouth to create the overtones. They thought this was simultaneously very silly and mysterious.
Application on the horn
After thorough experimentation with the tubing, we applied the concepts to our instruments. The students readily made connections with the tubing and changing the lengths their horn. They understood how pressing down a valve adds the corresponding length of tubing which lowers the fundamental. A different fundamental generates a different set of harmonics above it. After making those connections, we began to play some ascending harmonics series. The students are still working on both ends of their range, so they are not always able to produce the fundamental, but usually enjoy trying. They are able to play the second harmonic and can start the harmonic series from their. They observed how it feels like you blow more air and then the horn jumps up to the next division of vibrations.
Overall, this activity was a great break from the usual routines of technique and repertoire and gave the kids a chance to experiment and learn more about the fundamentals of their instruments. By the end, they had discovered a lot, but were ready to get back to playing their horns rather than plastic tubes!
Arts in Dialogue: Music, Painting, and Architecture with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
I offered the course, Arts in Dialogue: Music, Painting, and Architecture through Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Tufts University. I designed the course in order to explore interdisciplinary connections between various artistic mediums, especially music and architecture, and music and painting. The final session explored the neurological phenomena of synesthesia, especially chromesthesia which is a physical connection between sight and sound. We explored the scientific side of the phenomena, various musicians, composers, and artists who experience it, and the artistic collaborations that resulted. We also discussed ways that every person experiences the phenomena to some degree. The main emphasis of the course was to demonstrate that each person has a creative responsibility in engaging any artwork and to empower these adult students to make connections and create meaning.
To read the course description published in the Osher Winter Term Registration Catalogue, the course outline, and a bio, click on the link below.
Below is an outline of the course by week. The included links will bring you to the power point presentations from each session as well as the handout that accompanied the presentations that was given to students as an additional guide. Both of these materials were sent to the students via email following that week’s class.
Week 1: Music and Architecture
Week 2: Music and Painting
Week 3: Making Connections
For the third week of class, students were asked to give a short presentation on a pairing of a piece of music and a visual artwork. They were asked to send me their choices via email and I compiled them into a presentation so the class could view the material and listen as each member explained the connection they found between the two pieces. The instructions for the project are below.
For next week, bring in a pairing of:
a piece of music (instrumental or vocal)
and a visual artwork (drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, textiles etc.)
Share how your pairing is related in some way. The works do not have to be overtly related or made during the same time period. They could be works that you created, composed, or performed. If you would like, feel free to include a text that you feel relates to the two works (poem, quote, excerpted prose).
Week 4: Synesthesia
For the final week of the course, we ventured into the field of neurology to learn about a phenomenon called synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes crossed responses to sensory stimuli. For example, a person with sight-sound synesthesia might see colors when they listen to music, or might hear sounds when they see a painting. There have been some famous artistic responses and collaborations between artists and musicians who experience the world in this way and we took a look at some of these works. In the second half of the class period we ventured into a discussion about the ways in which we are all capable of making connections between sight and sound, the descriptors that we use to describe music and visual art, and what can and cannot be translated across mediums.
A neurological condition in which a person experiences “crossed” responses to stimuli. It occurs when stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (e.g., hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (e.g., vision).
This document was sent out as a google doc to all the members of the class after the course had concluded and participants were encouraged to add sources that they felt were related to the topic of the course. The format is intentionally informal so as to be as inviting as possible for people to make their own additions.
Music and Landscape with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
This 8 week course, Music and Landscape was offered through Other Lifelong Learning Institute at Tufts University in the spring of 2019. The course was designed to look at the connections between music and landscape in a variety of ways. Each of the four parts, Land, Water, Seasons, and Caring for Our Home explored the topic through ethnomusicology and through exposure to musical works from within the western classical tradition. The final part, Caring for Our Home, focused on the environmental issues we face today and the role that music plays in addressing those issues. The course description as published in the OLLI Catalogue is included below.
In this course, we will be exploring a sampling of music from around the world that is related to landscape. We will travel to India and hear the monsoons represented through Raga Malhar. We will see the sunrise over the Alps in Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and track the journey of Bohemia’s mighty Vlatana River in Bedrich Smetana’s Die Moldau. We will hear the distinctly American voice of Aaron Copland as he vividly describes east and west of the United States in Appalachian Spring and Hoedown. In addition to studying musical examples, we will discuss environmental issues that we are currently facing in our world, artists who are using music to address them, and things we can all do to help! No required reading, but plenty of listening!
The presentations and lecture handouts that were given in class are accessible through the links below. Students were emailed pdfs of the presentations and handouts following each week’s class.
Part 1: The Land
Part 2: Water
Part 3: Seasons
Part 4: Caring for Our Home
Emergent Listening List and Other Resources:
This list was compiled throughout the 8 week course. At the end of each Part, students were encouraged to brainstorm other musical works they could think of that were related to the topic we had just studied. Students were also able to submit suggestions to the list via email after the class. I compiled this list and sent it to students as a google doc so they could continue contributing to it in the future. At the end of the list, I include several resources we used during the class sessions as well as suggestions for further reading.