national core music standards: danger will robinson

R – The revised national music standards are about music teacher practice and delivery, not student skill development. I didn’t ask for anyone to tell me about my practice and delivery, thank you very much. I asked for a set of relevant, assessable, deliverable standards which are tiered and trackable by grade level. What the national standards revision does instead is impose NAfME’s values on us. “THIS is what you should be teaching and evaluating.” The origins of this can actually be traced back 20 years when MENC (Music Educators National Conference) changed its name to, “MENC: the national association for music education”. They passed it off as a benign change, helpful for mainly political and advocacy reasons. But the other shoe dropped at their renaming to, “National Association for Music Education”. The shift was made from supporting our needs in the field, to promoting and supporting music education the way they envision it. And if my vision doesn’t match theirs? Well, get on board then Westerberg, what’s the matter with you?!!

Here’s my vision: music is marginalized as an academic subject because we as a profession have marginalized it as an academic subject for decades. We have thousands of co-curricular programs in music cleverly disguised as academic subjects. Are our kids having fun? Are they finding connections to other subject areas? Are they personally growing as children and young adults? Are they experiencing an aesthetic education? THERE IS NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN THESE GOALS AND THOSE FOR CO-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES IN MUSIC WHATSOEVER. None. Does that mean I don’t value these things or strive for them every single moment I teach? OBVIOUSLY not… but I don’t receive a teacher’s salary to see to it that my students are having “fun” and making connections. And somehow we have generations of music educators who believe that last statement is sacrilegious. Maybe, just MAYBE, music programs have been marginalized since A Nation At Risk because of that very mindset? MAYBE we aren’t perceived as academic because we haven’t made the case clearly that the fun is the byproduct of amazing teaching, not because it’s one of our foundational goals? MAYBE we’ve focused so much on putting on concerts that our communities have ignored or are unaware of the academic skills that are on display in those concerts and that the development of those academic skills are the point, NOT the public display of them?

So how does the national standards revision support this work in the High School performing ensemble? Three artistic processes: Creating, Responding, Performing (OR presenting or producing… their terms, not mine). These were chosen out of convenience because you can trace all three through a PK-12 music program. However, creating eventually leads to re-creation at the secondary level… and this artistic process was ignored in the initial national standards, and it’s ignored in the revision as well. Ignored. The skills required to re-create. However, the national standards were kind enough to add another component: connecting. “Danger Will Robinson” was the catch phrase of the 1960’s television series, Lost in Space. I apply this to the national standards document because there is more than meets the eye here, and going into it blindly should not be a reasonable option. I’ll elaborate. Here are the Core Music Standards as they apply to the High School Ensemble. Ready, set, go!


  1. Imagine; Generate musical ideas for various purposes and contexts: Compose and improvise ideas for melodies, rhythmic passages, and arrangements for specific purposes that reflect characteristic(s) of music from a variety of historical periods studied in rehearsal. An objective of my general chorus should be to compose “and” improvise? Who died and made NAfME the determiner of that little decree?
  2. Plan and Make; Select and develop musical ideas for defined purposes and contexts: Select and develop draft melodies, rhythmic passages, and arrangements for specific purposes that demonstrate understanding of characteristic(s) of music from a variety of historical periods studied in rehearsal. Select draft melodies?
  3. Evaluate and Refine; Evaluate and refine selected musical ideas to create musical work that meets appropriate criteria: Evaluate and refine draft melodies, rhythmic passages, arrangements, and improvisations based on established criteria, including the extent to which they address identified purposes. This continues down an irrelevant road, though the concept of evaluate and refine has usefulness elsewhere.
  4. Present; Share creative musical work that conveys intent, demonstrates craftsmanship, and exhibits originality: Share personally developed melodies, rhythmic passages, and arrangements – individually or as an ensemble – that address identified purposes. “Sharing” is an academic expectation?


  1. Select; Select varied musical works to present based on interest, knowledge, technical skill, and context: Explain the criteria used to select a varied repertoire to study based on an understanding of theoretical and structural characteristics of the music, the technical skill of the individual or ensemble, and the purpose or context of the performance. I am in complete disbelief over this one. Where does anyone get off suggesting that students should be selecting their own text books for Algebra I, Biology, American Studies, French II or English Composition? But NAfME feels that students selecting their course material in music is a legitimate practice, much less an academic standard?? FOR PERFORMING??
  2. Analyze; Analyze the structure and context of varied musical works and their implications for performance: Demonstrate, using music reading skills where appropriate, how compositional devices employed and theoretical and structural aspects of musical works impact and inform prepared or improvised performances. Name one high school English teacher who would let someone get away with writing this for the purpose of… wait for it…… clarity.
  3. Interpret; Develop personal interpretations that consider creators’ intent: Demonstrate an understanding of context in a varied repertoire of music through prepared and improvised performances. If a student is able to do this at the sacrifice of being musically literate – I’m talking reading music – then shame on NAfME. If it can be done within the context of mandating music literacy, then game on.
  4. Rehearse, Evaluate and Refine; Evaluate and refine personal and ensemble performances, individually or in collaboration with others: Develop strategies to address expressive challenges in a varied repertoire of music, and evaluate their success using feedback from ensemble peers and other sources to refine performances. I took four years of music classes in college to even begin to THINK that I was qualified to do this. This is essential knowledge/skills for the average high school singer? I want – expect – my students to be able to articulate a ton of strategies, but they didn’t “develop” them, they learned them from me; the POINT to taking an ensemble to begin with.
  5. Present; Perform expressively, with appropriate interpretation and technical accuracy, and in a manner appropriate to the audience and context: Demonstrate attention to technical accuracy and expressive qualities in prepared and improvised performances of a varied repertoire of music representing diverse cultures, styles, and genres. BINGO!!!! Nailed it.
  6. (5.b)Demonstrate an understanding of expressive intent by connecting with an audience through prepared and improvised performances. This train just went off the track… since when is it our job – much less our students’ job – to “connect” with an audience? I thought that was the job of great literature, performed intelligently, musically and authentically? Robert Shaw made it VERY clear that the role of the performer is to stay out of the composer’s way and make sure the COMPOSER’S vision is brought back to life. My fear is that this performance indicator will encourage students and directors to do the exact opposite.


  1. Select; Choose music appropriate for specific purposes and contexts: Apply criteria to select music for specified purposes, supporting choices by citing characteristics found in the music and connections to interest, purpose, and context. “Interest, purpose and context?” How is this not subjective? This is a standard?
  2. Analyze; Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response: Explain how the analysis of passages and understanding the way the elements of music are manipulated inform the response to music. Again, how is this not subjective?
  3. Interpret; Support an interpretation of a musical work that reflects the creators’/performers’ expressive intent: Explain and support interpretations of the expressive intent and meaning of musical works, citing as evidence the treatment of the elements of music, contexts, (when appropriate) the setting of the text, and personal research. I can buy this, but again, not at the expense of taking class time away from literacy and re-creation.
  4. Evaluate Support personal evaluation of musical works and performance(s) based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria: Evaluate works and performances based on personally- or collaboratively-developed criteria, including analysis of the structure and context. Love it. Relevant, measurable and valid.


  1. Connect #10; Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make music: Demonstrate how interests, knowledge, and skills relate to personal choices and intent when creating, performing, and responding to music. Personal choices and intent – – – this is here to HELP us articulate academic connections?
  2. Connect #11 Relate musical ideas and works with varied context to deepen understanding: Demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and the other arts, other disciplines, varied contexts, and daily life. I can buy this as a secondary goal, but concerns again due to its subjective nature.

Here are some of the national standards’ “essential questions” with regard to high school performing ensembles: How do musicians generate creative ideas? How do performers select repertoire? How do performers interpret musical works? How do context and the manner in which musical work is presented influence audience response? How do individuals choose music to experience? How do musicians make meaningful connections to creating, performing, and responding? REALLY? These are “essential?” Please go ahead and tell me which undergraduate music education program in the United States finds these essential for their ensembles? And NAfME identifies these as essential questions for HIGH SCHOOL? Well, get on board Westerberg, what’s the matter with you?!!

My Holy Grail of assessment documents has been the North Carolina “I Can” statements. They connect student achievement with processes, skills and concepts that are bedrocks of what we do in this profession, and they do it via skill sets that are clearly articulated and sequential:

Screen shot 2015-10-17 at 8.08.21 AM

Compare this to the national standards above – proficient category – for high school performance ensembles. Which one of these is authentic? Overtly academic? Assessable? Relevant?

The Maine Learning Results revision from 2007 is a partner document. Not because it was designed that way, but because it addresses student expectations and outcomes as it pertains to music literacy and practice/application. It doesn’t go into the detail of the I Can statements, but does articulate the skills and expectations for students in our music ensembles:

Screen shot 2015-10-17 at 8.33.50 AM

The transition from CREATE to RE-CREATE is clearly articulated further into the document:

Screen shot 2015-10-17 at 8.34.51 AM

I could use dozens of other state documents to demonstrate the same outcomes, but these are two examples that dovetail each other marvelously.

Mike Blakeslee, Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of NAfME rolled out the national music standards by saying that they are, “a useful and assessable structure that will both provide a clear vision of what our children deserve… as well as the tools needed by those who need to drill down to address for themselves the burning questions of professional practice and instructional delivery.”

I was hoping for tools and I didn’t get them. I didn’t ask for the structure. I didn’t ask for them to weigh in on professional practice, at least not in this document. And I certainly didn’t ask them to tell me how to deliver instruction. I asked and expected national standards for student learning, tied directly to assessable, relevant academic outcomes. And the national standards fell short where state documents already excel.

This final paragraph is more important than any other I’ve written in this post, and I want to make it crystal clear what I’m about to add. The national music standards document is one of the most progressive, overarching and comprehensive I have ever seen. It is a treasure trove for music educators because it offers an aircraft carrier load of materials, ideas and information. There are programs and colleagues of mine around the country, including right here in Maine who have found it to be an astounding resource. But in a document that believes, “How do individuals choose music to experience?” is an essential question, but “What skills do students need to recreate a work of art” is not, I am begging the field to be careful in applying it. As I laid out in this blog post, where the performance standards for Creating are likely to be a boon to any middle school general music program for instance, they run the risk of diverting our limited instructional time for high school performance ensembles. It is through this critical lens I believe we need to view this document. There is nothing wrong with respectfully questioning. I believe the National Core Standards for music begs for us to do so.


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