Should We Be Judging Our Kids’ Musical Performances? (Spoiler alert: I think no)

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Would this performance get a “I” rating? Probably not.  Is it a worthy musical experience? Yes!

I live and teach in a state where adjudicated events are a standard part of music education. Schools prove their worth – (read directors and students) – by the ratings they bring home from marching band contests, solo & ensemble contest, and large group contest.  The very high school I attended had a wall full of plaques declaring superior ratings at state contest. My band uniform was covered with blue ribbons I received at solo & ensemble contest.   The single II I received on a piano solo because of a memory lapse was a source of shame and disappointment.  My senior year, with a new, young band director, we received a II at state contest.  Even though that young man was (and still is) a fine musician and a remarkable teacher, we felt as though we had failed. It didn’t matter that we were playing college level music that had moments of brilliance.  We had failed to convince the judges we were worthy of a “superior” rating.  As far as I was concerned, our  worth and accomplishments as musicians were reflected in ratings at contest.

And, like many aspiring music teachers, this is the attitude and philosophy I took with me into my undergraduate music education program and first year of teaching.

Then I had my own bands and choirs.  And later my own children.

They didn’t all get Is. They didn’t even all get IIs. There were the dreaded IIIs and even an embedded IV from an occasional judge.

These ratings broke my heart. Not because of the crushing blow to the ego as a director, but because of the blow to the musical spirits of my students and my own children.

You see, there wasn’t one single judge who knew where those students started.

Not one who spoke to a student to learn how he or she connected with the music.

Not one measurement of the aesthetic experience on stage as everything faded away and a child became lost in the music (as if such a thing could be measured!)

No judge sees the band on the practice field for the sixth hour on a hot, summer day or the bruised lips from hours of playing.

No judge knows the courage it took for a particular soloist to decide to even try a solo, let alone walk into a room and play for someone they don’t even know.

No judge knows that a choir director lost 1/3 of her choir two months before contest because of schedule conflicts.

No judge knows the number of students that can’t afford to take private lessons even though their parents already work two jobs.

No judge knows that a band or choir lost a member earlier in the year and making music together has helped heal their hearts.

Judges are not heartless people – but their task is to evaluate the performance on a certain day at a certain time. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If one of the goals of music education is to instill a love of music making, a love for the experience of getting lost in the experience, how can we allow a rating to steal the joy and pride our students feel when they complete a performance they know was their best? How can we allow a judge to tell them that was nothing to be proud of?  I can think of no better way to crush the musical spirit of a student or director than to tell them it doesn’t matter what you felt as you were playing – the worth of that performance is decided by my rating. Is this said outright? No (at least I hope not) … but it is too often the message received from years of tradition and expectations.

Is there a place for adjudicating music? Yes – for those who wish to pursue professional careers in music performance, their playing ability will be judged – often harshly.  But even then, musical spirits are crushed when the love of creating something beautiful is found to not be beautiful enough.

So what is the alternative to judging our students? Allow them to experience the joy of making music together. Easy music. Difficult music. Songs we love. Songs we’ve heard. Songs that are new to us. Music from far away places and music from our past. And don’t forget listening to music. Listen to music together. Listen to different styles, different performances of the same piece, listen to instruments you play and those you don’t.

Standards don’t need to be lowered, but perhaps they need to be changed. Instead of judging a performance by being “grand champion” or getting a I, look at the young musicians reactions. How did they feel about their performance?  Was it something that instilled pride? Did it move them? Teach our students that a performance isn’t good because someone else says it was – they have the ability to determine its quality on their own, with their own ears.

Take it a step further and it doesn’t even have to be a performance. High quality musical experiences can happen in a drum circle in a middle school general music classroom where students improvise rhythms that gel into a groove that everyone in the room feels – and no one wants to stop playing.  They can happen the first time a student realizes she has the power to create her own music on a ukulele or guitar. They can even happen outside of school – as students jam together in a garage band (on instruments that often can’t seem to find a place in school music.)  They can happen as friends and family sit around on an evening singing songs of their faith or childhood. Maybe even at a barn dance as a hodgepodge of folk instruments compliment each others melodies and harmonies.

If we want the value of music education to extend beyond traditional ensembles and ratings, we must realize the harm we are doing to ourselves and our students when we make them compete to see who’s music is worthy of recognition. When students make music it is worthy of recognition. When this is the standard we strive to meet, we will truly be able to say we are providing music for all – for all times.

 

 

Tech Native vs. Tech Literate

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This year I decided to change the purpose of technology in my classroom.  Instead of using IMG_0051it as a glorified notebook/poster or game center (think word processing, slides, and apps), I wanted my students to use technology as a tool for learning new content.  When we talk of 21st century skills, this one stands out to me.  There is no way that teachers can impart every important bit of knowledge to students by the time they graduate from high school. IBM estimates that knowledge doubles every 12 hours.  That’s all the knowledge in humankind. Let that sink in for a minute. Even if 12 hours an exaggeration, we can’t keep up. No one can. We need to teach our students how to gain knowledge on their own.

With this in mind, I wanted to create projects where instead of telling students what I want them to know, they find what they want to know about a particular topic. So I signed out the computer cart, explained the topic to my students (traditional/authentic music from around the world), explained the rubric, and sent them off into the big, wide, internet.


 

Here’s what I expected:

  • Students would do a Google search for something like “traditional music from Japan”
  • They would find a list of titles of traditional music
  • They would find examples of traditional instruments from a country/culture
  • They would then search those titles and find audio examples
  • To go above and beyond they would also find traditional dance and clothing from a particular culture
  • Students may even find modern, westernized music that contains elements of its traditional roots

 

Here’s what happened:

  • Students went to YouTube and typed in “Music from Japan”
  • Students included the first example in their slide show (sometimes without even listening to it). These examples were most often pop tunes and/or compilations of nameless background music – what I like to call cultural elevator music.

So what went wrong?

I assumed that my tech native students were tech literate.

The very students who know the newest apps and every trick on their phone don’t necessarily know their way around the internet.  And why should they?  We’ve implemented hardware and apps into our classrooms to engage our students but have we really shown them how to navigate the world of knowledge available to them?  I see at least one post a day from teachers on social media where they say something like, “I’m getting iPads/Chromebooks/etc. for my classroom. What are your favorite apps?”  Don’t get me wrong – apps are great. But that’s not where our use of technology should end. And coding is great, too – but that’s not where it should end either.  Because if students don’t know how to grow their knowledge, what’s the use of an app?

So how do we help our students become tech literate to independently grow their knowledge?

  1. Teach students how to search
    • If you’re old enough, you remember being taught how to do an internet search in a class or inservice.  This included the proper use of “and” or “or” in our search terms.  Luckily, all that happens automatically these days, but you still have to know how to create a search phrase. Instead of searching for “music from Japan”, search for “traditional music from Japan”.  When a search for “polar bears” doesn’t return what I’m looking for, I need to be able to restate it as “shrinking polar bear habitat”.  In other words, students need to be able to restate, narrow, or even widen their search phrases in order to get the results they are seeking. Which leads us to our next skill ….
  2. Evaluate search results
    • Sometimes we get lucky and the first result gives us exactly what we want. Sometimes not. Actually, if students are asking complex questions, it shouldn’t be the first search result – or even just one. So our students need to learn to scan results to look for hits that might give them what they need. Some will clearly be off track so don’t waste time on them. Some may look promising so click on them to check them out.
  3. Reading a webpage
    • Reading this webpage is easy (I hope).  Some webpages, however, are not.  They can have normal text, bold text, highlighted text, pictures, text boxes, ads, videos … it’s all there. Once students know where their attention needs to go (or how to prioritize their attention), they can fall back on their traditional reading skills to look for pertinent information.

 

IMG_0561These steps are just the beginning of becoming tech literate. Just as knowledge grows exponentially, so do the the skills required to take it all in. Ideally, students would have a tech class where they not only learn to use basic software tools but also the literacy they will need to navigate the oceans of information they will encounter in their lives. These 3 steps, however, are a starting place for any teacher who wants to incorporate tech literacy into a project. None of them are earth shattering, but they serve as a reminder that sometimes students aren’t successful because we’ve assumed too much. We need to take a step back and look at the holes in our students’ skills and knowledge and fill them so they can meet our expectations – and go beyond theirs. 

When this project came around for my second semester class, I added a day at the beginning where I taught them how to search, evaluate their results, and find the specific information they needed. And just as my students became better at searching, I became better at stating my expectations. I gave examples of what traditional is AND isn’t.  I gave examples of what represents a culture’s musical heritage – and what doesn’t.

And guess what …

I didn’t get one example of traditional music from England that included Adele.

 

Music & Health (a.k.a. 1 of my favorite units EVER)

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Anyone who listens to or makes music will tell you it often makes them feel better.  You may even know of situations where music helps improve medical conditions like dementia or speech impediments.  In recent years, we’ve moved beyond casual stories of the benefits of music to research that suggest the effects of music are physiological.  All of this creates the perfect setup for a Music & Health unit in our Music+STEM class.

Two of the goals for Music+STEM are:

  • Reveal to and engage students in the ways in which music is part of our lives and society
  • Engage students in the practice of the scientific process, critical thinking skills, and 21st century skills

We may take music in our daily lives for granted, but if students understand its direct effect they will be able to make intentional choices about its use – for themselves and those around them.  In addition, we move beyond answers that include phrases like “I think…” to researched-based responses such as, “The research shows…”

So…how did we do all this?

First, we did a very limited review of the research that shows the benefits of music.

We focused on five areas:

  1. Music reduces stress and anxiety
  2. Music decreases pain
  3. Music may improve our immune system
  4. Music helps us exercise
  5. Music may aid memory

We looked at the research in each of these areas, being sure to understand the research process, included control groups and variables. We also talked about replicating studies and comparing the results.

Next, we narrowed our focus to music and memory.We watched the documentary, “Alive Inside“.  This is an amazing look at the effort of one man to “awaken” nursing home dementia patients with music from their past.  My students were absorbed in listening to the stories of the patients and seeing their reaction to music. I debated whether or not to show “Alive Inside” to my students, thinking it might be too serious for them, but decided to for three reasons. First, it’s message matches our course goal of discovering how music is a part of our lives. Second, many students have family members with dementia or may someday and it’s important for them to have the knowledge to help their loved ones. And third, the documentary shows the power of social media in the hands of young people to make a difference in the world.  In the end, I’m glad I took two days to show the documentary.  The responses of my students show it made an impact.

Someday I hope to partner with a nursing home so that my students can create playlists for residents – just like in “Alive Inside”.  Since this was the first time we attempted this I decided to start closer to home.  My students set out to create a MEAM – Music Evoked Autobiographical Memory  – for a teacher.  Teachers volunteered the year they graduated from high school and students chose one teacher for whom to find music (some students were so into this they did more than one teacher!)

Students then found the top 5 songs of the year the teacher graduated from high school and the year they were in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade.  Students then chose one song from each of those years to share with the teacher and get their reaction and memories.  A few students did this in person with their teacher, playing the songs for them and writing down their reaction.  To make it easier to schedule, most students wrote a letter to their teacher (in Google Docs) and included links to the songs and questions to answer.  The teacher then listened and typed their response when they had the time available. I was afraid I was adding one more thing for already busy teachers to do, but  MANY said this was great fun and they looked forward to doing it every semester!  The students also had a great time listening to popular music that their teachers listened to and reading their responses.

 

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Finally, we needed a way for students to put everything together and showcase their learning.  I initially considered filming news broadcasts. This is often a challenge with middle school students, however, because so many are self-conscious about how they look on camera. As an alternative, we recorded podcasts – an audio version of a news story.  This exposed students to a form of media many were not familiar with and eased the anxiety when it came time to record.

 

Students had to include specific items in their podcast:

  1. At least 3 benefits of music to mental or physical health
  2. At least 1 piece of research to support one of the benefits
  3. A “real life” example of one of the benefits

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In groups of two to four, students spent about two days writing and practicing their scripts for the podcasts. We then recorded them using the Podcast feature on Garageband. This was very easy to do and even allowed for editing when students were struck with the giggles or lost their place in the script.

The podcasts really showed what the students learned and the range of kids we have in middle school – from very serious, down-to-business to goofy, adolescent jokes and funny voices …. all while summarizing what they learned about Music & Health.

We put the best ones on our class youTube channel – here are a couple samples…

 

 


 

In the end, this is one of my favorite non-performing units I’ve ever done with middle school kids. My students were engaged and gaining knowledge that will truly help them throughout their lives, the teachers who helped us had fun and deepened their relationships with kids, and students created a final product that went public and informed others. Win – Win – Win!