Talk About Music Education

What we talk about when we talk about music in education…


In the Zone, Creative Process and the Right Frame of Mind…


Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really…. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance, that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself. [1. Pirsig, R. (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Harper Collins.]

~ Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In my Arts Business & Technology class we’ve been attempting to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), as a doorway into deeper thinking about creativity, the creative process and aesthetics. I’ve done this very successfully in the past with past classes, but I’ve also had difficulties in the past as well. ZAMM is a tough read for high school students and they don’t always “get” the concepts we’re trying to discuss. This year’s class is no different, but I’m having a tough time getting them to just read the book. They are obstinate seniors with severe senioritis, and while they’re willing to learn, reading a difficult text like ZAMM is not on the top of their priorities. I’m at the point where I’m reading to them and going over the points in the book much in the same way the narrator from ZAMM reads Thoreau’s Walden to his own son. With the time I’m allotted each day for class, however, I will not have the luxury to work this way and address the other parts of our curriculum. Nor would we be able to get through everything in the book that I’d like to address, so I’ve given up and resorted to discussing the aesthetic and creative concepts while elusively quoting the text and referring to Pirsig’s ideas. While the students may not grasp the entirety of Pirsig’s concepts of aesthetics, Quality, and the dichotomy of the classical and romantic sides of thinking and the aesthetic, I’m at least planting the idea and hoping that someday they’ll return to ZAMM and explore the ideas the book has to offer when they are ready. I myself have read this book four or five times and each time I uncover something new, something different, something that makes me look at my work in a different way as both a teacher and a musician.

This week we’re discussing the narrator’s run-in with the rotisserie instructions at a friend’s house and how the best directions he had ever read started with… “Assembly of bicycle requires great peace of mind.” After discussing what the narrator is trying to convey about this concept of “peace of mind” with the students, I lead the discussion towards your own state of mind as an artist before diving into a practice session, performance or some other creative endeavor. This year’s class continued past the idea of “peace of mind” and also discussed being in the “zone” during practice – the opposite of practicing with the wrong frame of mind – it’s perfect practice.  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi identified this as “flow” in his book  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it he outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. [2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.] The idea of “flow” is identical to the feeling of being “in the zone” or “in the groove”, and it’s the exact opposite of trying to work when you’re not in the right frame of mind. This is an important concept to understand as an artist – how to have peace of mind and the right “frame of mind” in order to practice or work effectively. I remember trumpet my teacher saying – “don’t get frustrated – if you’re having a hard time with a certain passage – relax, get a drink, walk away from the music and come back later.

My students will be doing some research on this topic on their own, and they’ll be writing about their own personal experiences with either being “in the zone”, or with their frustration  over not having the right “frame of mind” for practice or creativity. I myself have experienced both ends of the spectrum – having some great sessions working, arranging or composing when the writing just flows and you get so much done without even realizing how much time has past. I distinctly remember composing a piece entitled Hunter’s Moon for my first percussion ensemble when I began teaching. I was living in my first apartment on 48th Street in Bayonne, NJ – I remember the room , the computer, and where it was set up in a little corner, away from the window. I remember sitting at the computer (still on Finale at the time) and composing that piece, and how easily the notes seemed to flow from my brain to the computer screen. It was completed in a matter of a few days – working after school, and was performed by my percussion ensemble later that year. The following year it was also performed by the New Jersey City University percussion ensemble. Since that time I do more arranging than composing, and even more curriculum and unit writing, but the idea of flow is still there – and still works its way into my own workflow – regardless of the type of creative work I’m doing.

Is this a concept high school students can really grasp? I hope so, as I think many young students venturing into undergraduate study in the arts truly struggle with this. I remember many frustrating practice sessions in the basement of the Old Music Building at Rutgers and I have witnessed my own son struggle with these issues as a young classical guitarist – to the point where he sometimes questions his own talent and abilities, not seeing that his frustrations and “frame of mind” are the problem and not his musicianship. To me this is the creative process, and being able to get into that groove, is an essential part of being a successful artist.


The Creativity Post – Musical Creativity and the Brain

Psychology Today – How Practicing Less Can Foster Musical Growth 

 Teen Jazz – Seven Ways to Deal with Stress for Musicians Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness

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Evernote Portfolio Update

In the past month I have rolled out portfolios for two of my classes – AP Music Theory and Arts Business & Technology. I started a few months ago by creating notebooks for each of my students. I then began collecting artifacts for each student – at that time mostly tests and written work that I scanned in, graded on my iPad with the help of a stylus. Dropbox,  and a notebook app that allows me to mark up PDF files. The paperless route for grading was really successful as I’m able to scan in tests, return them ungraded to students immediately, and then review the tests for corrections and revisions – all before they even receive their grades. In this way the students can become a part of their assessment process without the risk of them changing answers or fudging their own grades. Once my tests are graded they went right into the student notebooks on Evernote and that was that. I also tried out several different ways of organizing the student notebooks – first by class, with separate notebooks for students that might be in two different classes, but that became too cumbersome so I now have one portfolio for every child and all artifacts are tagged by class. Now if a student has three different music classes all of their work is kept in one notebook. I also experimented with several different ways to organize the notebooks (portfolios) into Stacks on Evernote. (Stacks are collections of related notebooks) I ended up creating several stacks for portfolio notebooks and they are labelled alphabetically. Once I was happy with my own workflow and they way I organized the portfolios I began sharing them with students.

The student reception was really good. Students not only loved the idea of having their work collected for them, but they also loved Evernote and several students began using it in their other classes as well. All of this serendipitously coincided with our school’s launch of B.Y.O.D., or Bring Your Own Device, so students are now able to access Evernote in any of their classes on either their smartphone, laptop or tablet and they will also soon have access to our school’s new wifi network. In addition to the student portfolios I also shared resource notebooks with students that contained copies of worksheets, study guides and other class handouts.

Next marking period I’ll continue to roll out my student Evernote portfolios to my performance classes. I’ve been collecting their work over the past few months as well, but now I’m also beginning to collect audio data, recorded performance tests and rubrics in order to create a true performance portfolio. Over the next few months I’ll also be looking into:

  • Email – Teaching students how to email me their work through SmartMusic for inclusion in their portfolio which will be great for extra credit and practice work as I won’t have to create assignments in my SmartMusic gradebook. Once I teach students how to format the subject line of their email I’ll be able to forward the email to Evernote and have the note automatically filed in the correct portfolio – easy.
  • Student Contributions – Allowing students to add to their portfolios and create notes. They should be able to do this from their free account as all of the notebooks are hosted at my paid account. I was worried about students deleting artifacts or changing grades, but that won’t be an issue as all of their work will be backed up on my own DropBox and students cannot really change their grades as their papers are graded by me by hand on my iPad – the worst they could do is delete an artifact, they will not be able to edit a PDF.
  • Critiques – I’m going to have students listen to their own rehearsal recordings and critique their work right in dropbox. Before the end of this grading period students will report to our music lab and type up their critiques right in the lab. They’ll also be able to include a link to the recording of the ensemble right in the notebook.
  • Rubrics & Resources – In addition to their portfolio, students will also have access to a notebook that will store the class rubrics, exercises, etc.
  • Practice Journal – In the past I’ve experimented with practice journals using Edublogs, but they did not work. Students simply didn’t take the time to sit down at their computer each week to type up a reflection on their weekly practice. With Evernote, however, they use their phone or tablet to add audio and written reflections on the spot, right into their portfolio. I’ll probably use this exclusively with my private students and with my serious high school students who study privately and are college bound for music.

With the advent of the new required Student Growth Objectives in New Jersey, and new requirements to keep evidence of student growth I can think of no better way to track students in a music class. The portfolios will allow for recorded audio files which are essential to a music performance class. Evernote will also host video, so in the future I’ll also be able to include video of student work, concert recordings, screen casts of student presentations, etc.

If you’re creating student portfolios with Evernote, or if you’ve already done so, please let me know and share your comments below.

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: technovore via Compfight

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New Musicianship Rubric for Band

PreviewScreenSnapz001A few months ago I wrote about changing my performance class rubrics that I use with my three performance classes. this post was put up on my class blog and since that post I’ve been thinking about how to change my rubrics to fit better with the in-Tone, in-Time, in-Tune and in-Touch concept. I really like the idea of the four step “in” rubric as it’s easy for students to remember and it just makes sense. I also like the order of the ideas as it fits perfectly with another mind map that I created to teach the elements of music and the principles of performance – exemplary tone comes first, followed by good time and a steady beat. Once those basic concepts are somewhat mastered the student can focus on using proper intonation and finally they can focus on using dynamics and expressiveness in their playing.  While other teachers will argue to switch the order of these, I like the way they build upon one another.

I finally got around to creating a new rubric that I’ll also be able to utilize with SmartMusic. I wanted one rubric that I could use with all three of my performance classes, Band I, Band II and Band III. I also wanted students to have clear descriptors for each criteria and descriptive levels of achievement. I am forced to utilize grades in my school, so each descriptor will eventually have a range of number grades attached to it, but those grades will be different for each level of performance.

I decided to use Beginning, Developing, Advancing, and Accomplished for my achievement levels as I like the way they describe each level of achievement. A Band III student who receives a grade of Developing for tone quality will receive a much lower actual number grade than a student who is in Band I. This way, with a curved grade level on the rubric, I can honestly assess each student in my entire ensemble, but grade them according to the performance expectations at their class level.

Seems complicated, but simple to me. I teach my Symphonic Band during the school day across three different class periods of 40 minutes each. With this system I can have one rubric for all three classes rather than a different rubric for each one.

Finally, since my advanced Band III class is basically our Jazz Ensemble, I also added a fifth criteria for performance – improvise. Not sure if I like this – thinking I should treat improvisation as a separate entity from performance – but for now it’s on the chart. As i start to use this rubric I’m sure I’ll make some changes. I’m also uploading it to SmartMusic to use with online assessments.

Please download and check out my new and improved Musicianship Rubric and please feel free use it in your class and send me feedback in the comments below.

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Revising our Music Curriculum

curriculum wordleI’m in the process of revising and editing our Music Curriculum that was put together last year. Only one or two teachers from our district actually had any feedback concerning the curriculum last year. I’m hoping with the advent of new SGO’s and new teacher assessments that more people will offer their comments and suggestions.

This year’s revisions basically include more details in the resources and repertoire for elementary general music. I’ll also be creating a staff curriculum handbook that will cover the what students will know and do topics from the curriculum on a one-sheet format that will include references and online resources. Finally I’m trimming the fat on some of the strands and combining them at some grade levels.

Please take a look at the new revised curriculum and the first handbook one-page reference and please remember that you’re looking at documents that are in the process of being edited and are still under construction. Through the miracle of DropBox you can follow the updates and developments as they happen if you like.

Please submit your comments below or send me an email. I’d really like some feedback from my fellow teachers here in Bayonne and from teachers across the net – thanks!

New Elementary Curriculum Units (Revised 2013)

Pre-K One-Sheet

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SmartMusic at BHS

smartmusic-icon-200x200My school ensembles have been using SmartMusic for the past several months. The students and I are both learning how to use SmartMusic simultaneously, and while the students have an overwhelmingly positive attitude about this new tool, as I do myself, there have been some small problems and glitches. I like SmartMusic, I think it’s has the potential to be a great tool, but so far it has not been easy going. It hasn’t been horrible, but not smooth sailing either.

Here was my rollout plan:

  • Marking Period 1 – September-November – intro SmartMusic in the classroom and to parents; start using it with students; send home info for student subscriptions – create classes and grade books, use it in class for student assessments.
  • Marking Period 2 – November-January – intro to more student homework assignments – bi-weekly rhythm assignments and one or two assignments for repertoire.
  • Marking Period 3 – February-March – push for complete enrollment at home, increase to weekly assignments if feasible.
  • Marking period 4 – April-June – full integration – reflect on process and plan for incoming freshman rollout for immediate use in September.

The Good

The students seem to like SmartMusic – it makes practicing fun and it’s a great too, I’m still not sure, however, how to best implement this new tool. Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • Assessments – for the first marking period quarterly I used SmartMusic for part of the performance exam. Students had to complete several exercises including sight reading examples.
  • Recordings – I’m trying to choose repertoire that’s available on SmartMusic. The recordings are excellent and a valuable resource.
  • Rhythms – for the second marking period I started assigning bi-weekly rhythm exercises. I allowed SmartMusic to “auto-schedule” them – an easy way to go – but in the future I’ll probably pick and choose the exact exercises I want so that they align with our repertoire and are better aligned to the rhythmic figures I need them to learn.
  • Scales – scale tests are easy to assign, and no longer take time out from our rehearsals.

The Bad

There are a few issues I’m starting to find as we use SmartMusic:

  • SmartMusc is too expensive – the $40 subscription is too expensive for many of our families. I definitely need to focus fundraising efforts so we can purchase accounts for every student. I think it would be much easier to start using this if I knew that every kid had this at home.
  • SmartMusic is Classroom oriented – I cannot have students create and submit their own assessments which is a big problem and one of my biggest pet peeves about SmartMusic. With 20-30 students in a class, all performing at different levels, I’d like students to be able to use SmartMusic for their own personal practice at their own level. Unfortunately SmartMusic does not work this way. The only way SmartMusic will put a grade into my grade book is if I assign it myself. I’d really like for students to be able to create their own lessons and exercises and submit them to me – creating a more personalized digital portfolio of their work. ( I have some ideas about this I’ll address in future posts!)
  • Repertoire – While SmartMusic has extensive repertoire for Concert Band and Big Band, it is lack-luster as far as small combo music, Jazz improv resources, and vocal music. Chamber Music? What’s Chamber music? SmartMusic has NONE. Which is very upsetting as I could very easily see a small chamber group utilizing SmartMusic in a practice room together, but SmartMusic has no chamber music for any instrument combination at all.
  • Guitar & Percussion – The percussion and guitar parts for the charts are not always supported for assessment or the “my part” option where students can hear their part performed – this was especially a problem for the sight reading exercises – no parts for guitarist.


The Tools and The Future

Now that I’ve got my foundation for SmartMusic down, I’m going to start blogging about how I’m using it in my classes each week. I’m also going to start looking for other resources and directors who may be blogging and sharing their experiences with the software. It really is a valuable tool, but it’s still just a tool – only useful if you understand how and when to use it.

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