why solfege worked


R – This is lengthy even for me, but please stay with me on this. I have spent over 25 years trying to put this into words, so this is not going to be brief. Many times when I have told colleagues that I don’t teach solfege to my students and that I use numbers instead, I have often been met with Baby Ruth Bar In The Swimming Pool Expression. I want to spend some time discussing my choice and why I believe it works.

Bruce Bower is a behavioral scientist who reflected on a study which is profoundly relevant to our work as teachers of musical literacy in general, and sight reading in particular. As he wrote in the Science News, June, 2010, excerpts:

Sight-reading is the ability to play sheet music on an instrument with little or no preparation. Any piano player who practices sight-reading for thousands of hours will get pretty good at it, say study coauthors Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing. But having a strong ability to keep different pieces of relevant information in mind while performing a task — known as working memory capacity — aids sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced, the psychologists report in a paper published online June 9 in Psychological Science. In the researchers’ investigation, the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of piano practice over several decades. Working memory appears to be a capacity that gels early in life and can’t be improved much by learning. When sight-reading, a piano player’s working memory capacity may determine the extent to which he or she can prepare for upcoming moves on the keyboard by looking ahead in a music score, Meinz and Hambrick speculate. Psychologist Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto Mississauga agrees. Schellenberg sees the new findings as a challenge to the influential view, championed by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University in Tallahassee, that expertise in sight-reading or anything else depends on skills acquired through extensive practice. Novices at a particular activity rely on general mental faculties, such as working memory, Ericsson argues. But after roughly 10 years of practice at a task such as sight-reading, he suggests, specific mental mechanisms for getting the job done emerge and general-purpose faculties are jettisoned.

In other words, working memory capacity, the multitasking component of the brain when performing a single task which requires compound synthesis, generally cannot be developed any further than what a student already possesses when they walk into your classroom, though after TEN YEARS a difference can be seen. I have been fascinated by this phenomenon for years, long before this study was published. I can work on tone for example, for an extended time in warmups and really cement it. But the moment I switch to an exercise where dexterity or diction or sight reading is concerned, tone goes back out the window because the focus and brain function transfers to a different set of skills or focus. The only way I have found to work around this is to reinforce tone so much and so incessantly that the outstanding tone becomes my singers’ default tone. In other words, my singers have transitioned tone from a “must focus on it to get it right” concept to a default, “it happens without even thinking about it” concept. When this finally occurs, it is called bypassing working memory. I have had colleagues and college professors walk into my rehearsals and comment on my choir’s tone. They often think it’s because my singers are talented or because they are well trained. Neither is true. I do the same thing each one of them do, probably not even as well. The difference is that I have transitioned their tone from the realm of working memory so that it is always in place no matter what. I have presented workshops for years on how to reimagine choral warmups as a way to entrench foundational skills, training our singers to bypass working memory in as many musical elements as possible. I’ve never been able to really articulate the need for this very well, this article does so brilliantly.

Let’s transfer this concept now to sight reading on an instrument. There is a physical dexterity required to manipulate a physical instrument into pitch. It pretty much lies there dormant until a person walks up to it and does something to it. There are four domains required to for an instrumentalist to sight read. The first is the accurate recognition of a pitch on paper. The second is the accurate recognition of the length of that note. The third is the physical manipulation of the instrument, the fourth is to do so for the successful generation of that tone. We know that intonation, phrasing, et al are the ensuing desired simultaneous steps, but for working purposes here let’s just stick with those four. So, these four steps must occur simultaneously. With our understanding of working memory, the stated fact is that doing all this at the same time – while ALSO analyzing HOW to do each of them simultaneously – cannot happen and is in fact virtually impossible for any average person. In other words: doing something while also figuring out how to do that something does not happen simultaneously. It can not. How do we overcome this impossibility? Simple: transfer the first three domains over to automatic pilot. I go back to the researcher’s findings above: the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of practice. That’s why we insist that there is no alternative to practicing in general, and sight reading in particular. I am familiar with the saying and so are you, that you learn to sight read by doing it. This is why. The prerequisite to success is a mastery of those first three domains. If you have to think about what the note is, or you have to think about how to play that low D with the first and third valves in order to do it, you can’t get there from here. The first two domains are music theory skills that must be developed regardless of instrument. The third domain is the application of the instrument. Let’s focus on that now as it relates to the human voice.

I have had 21 student teachers in my career. To varying degrees, they each had one thing in common: their biggest challenge was hearing multiple voice parts independently when performing simultaneously. The mere act of “hearing” a written note is complex. It gets even more complex when determining issues of intonation. Not whether or not something is in tune or not, but the degree to which it is out of tune. Throw in the qualifier of understanding and being able to articulate WHY something is out of tune, and you have on your hands a very complex working memory issue on your hands. Running a rehearsal is that difficult. Why is this relevant to the discussion around solfege? Because if accurately hearing a written pitch is a difficult skill, I would argue that the actualization of transferring a visual cue to a specific frequency of sound coming from your own mouth, and analyzing its accuracy for the purpose of constantly adjusting that pitch, is one of the most complex acts a human brain can facilitate. It is akin to rubbing your belly while tapping your head on command…. aaaaaaaaand you’re an octopus. Tap dancing.

How then do we get our students to learn how to do this most complex of functions? Simple. I didn’t say “easy”, I said simple: remove every possible domain from working memory. It’s as simple as it is for an instrumentalist, even though just as difficult. But it’s crystal clear that this is how to accomplish it. And guess what? The person who realized this first did so over 1,000 years ago.

Now we’re getting to get to the heart of the matter. Solfege used to work. As a matter of fact, there was a time when it ut queantworked brilliantly. Here’s how. Guido di Arezzo (ca. 995-1050) was a monk from a monastery in Arezzo, Toscana. In 992, Guido noticed that the chant, Ut Queant Laxis  contained  sequential rising pitches to begin each phrase. He began pointing out this fact to his fellow monks and soon the syllables UT RE MI FA SOL LA were used on a regular basis to indicate specific sounds. With the help of this system he could notate all of the churches melodies. Henricus Glareanus in his landmark music treatise Dodecachordon (1547) expanded the standing system of church modes to accommodate the increasingly common major and minor modes, and this system known as solfege was applied to what we now know as the Major Scale.

Here’s why it worked: Guido D’Arezzo applied syllables from a musical selection THE MONKS ALREADY KNEW. It required NO working memory whatsoever. NONE. There is absolutely no scientific proof that “Do, Re, Mi Fa” works better than “Ho Yu Do In”. None at all. The REASON it worked for Guido was simple: because the chant was already familiar to his fellow singers who used it, which meant that,

it did not require working memory capacity to recreate pitches.

Got it? Guido D’Arezzo’s contribution to sight reading was not solfege, it was the discovery that bypassing working capacity memory allowed singers to recreate pitch with accuracy. Do, Re, Mi wasn’t the great, grand discovery, it was his culture-relevant application of it. But my concern is that this is egregiously misunderstood even to this day. Want proof?

If you have taken so much as a rudimentary ear training course in college, you are familiar with the concept of utilizing familiar tunes to accurately hear specific intervals. Tri-tone = the opening notes to Bernstein’s Maria, right?  Here are a few more as they relate to the major scale: 2nd scale degree = happy birthday, 3rd = mor-ning has broken, 4th = A-ma-zing grace, 5th = Twinkle, twinkle, 6th = Dash-ing through the snow, 7th = Take On Me (if you are a child of the 80’s…). In other words, you were taught that if you can HEAR the note in one context, you can apply that sound in a different context automatically (starting to connect the dots here yet??). In other words, if you already know the initial context, the application is a snap. Well, Guido applied this application in a way appropriate for his day. Let’s apply mine based on what a person already knows from the songs above: Ha, Buh, Ni, May, Twink, Ing, On. But that would be crazy, right?

How is this crazier than Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti???

Answer: It’s not. It’s just that solfege has been so ingrained in us over ten hundred years that this has become the “correct” way to learn to sight read. We don’t question it. It’s been defended as being more pure to sing. Well, no kidding Sherlock, it’s from a latin text which has all pure vowels – – – which in no way whatsoever translates to the demands of texts which we sing today. Solfege has names for the chromatic variations as well, “ee” for raised, “ah” for lowered. But this is a Kodály-method intended for that specific approach. Nothing wrong with that, but it demands instruction from childhood age in it. And if that training didn’t occur?? Uhhh…..

So let’s go back to our accepted goal in developing sight reading skills: to remove as many domains from working memory capacity as possible. Today, we do not have a song which everybody knows, save for Julie Andrews singing “Do, a deer…” which, trust me, everybody does NOT know. So we must take a different approach than Guido who, after all, was only working with Monks (I can use flowery descriptors to describe my wonderful students, but “Monks” is not one of them). Instead, my hypothesis is that we are best served by using a different symbol to identify the 3rd note of a scale. Or the 6th note or the 2nd note. My solution is to use terminology that is both transparently obvious and deeply entrenched in the part of the brain which stores memorized items so working memory is not required. It’s called… wait for it…. numbers. It may be a leap for some to think that the 4th scale degree is better identified by “4” than by “Fa”, but I have five case studies to support my convictions about this.

1. When I student taught at Keene High School in the Fall of 1987, I watched Jean Nelson utilize numbers, not solfege, to teach sight reading. The results were astounding. The state of New Hampshire had to limit how many students were allowed to audition for All State each year because at Keene High School, the acceptance rate was 100%. Why? Their sight reading was better than that of a typical college. But there as an essential detail at work in making this happen. Jean constantly – and I mean constantly – referred to the notes in the students’ music by number. She referred to them as letter names too, but she called them what they were by scale degree. When a note was raised or lowered, students sung them for what they were: sharp 4, flat 3, and so on. They applied this technique and could read with a proficiency I have never seen surpassed at the High School level.

2. My overt goal in coming to York High School in 2000 was to create a culture of musical literacy at the High School. In June of 2004 the school board unanimously approved a graduation requirement specifically for music and it was first applied to the graduating class of 2008. In the 8 years since, an average of 71% of all graduates have performed in concert as a member of one of my choirs. This is relevant only in that my chorus is a semester class with the vast majority singing in High School for the first time, most of whom did not sing in 7th or 8th grade either. Many know the note names for one clef or the other, virtually none for both. Their pitch matching skills are all over the place. By the end of the first day of class, 100% (not 92%, not 47%, 100%) are accurately sight reading melodies on the first three scale degrees. On the second day they are all accurately sight reading melodies on the first five scale degrees. How? They do not need to access working memory to know what a note two above the first one is called. They do not need to access working memory to know what a note four above the first one is called. Literacy. I do have students who sang solfege in Middle School, many quite successfully. When they ask if we can sing solfege I always do this test, and it has never deviated in its result. I say, “Please raise your hand the milisecond that you know the correct answer to these next two questions, ready?”. They nod. First question: “What solfege symbol comes before la”? It takes them a moment. Some take a quick yet thoughtful glance up at the ceiling looking for their answer. Hands slowly go up. A few right away, but most after a few seconds. Some longer than that. Then it’s time for my second question: “What number comes before 6”?

If it REQUIRES YOU TO THINK to get the answer, you’re making my point for me; if it takes time for you to to come up with the answer, you cannot POSSIBLY simultaneously utilize that information to sight read a line of music. It isn’t possible. Try asking those same two questions to your choirs – not just your honors kids but ESPECIALLY your foundational entry level choirs, the ones we are purportedly “training” to become better musicians – and watch what happens. See if I’m wrong about this.

3. My Portland Community Chorus. A remarkable thing happens each Monday night. As we are learning music, invariably we come across difficult intervals (I’ll talk more about that in a minute but I have always said that there is no such thing as “Difficult Notes”, just difficult intervals and harmonies…) which a section has difficulty getting. I routinely have the section stop, sight read my fingers (hold up 2, then 6, then 4), and they have successfully sung the difficult passage, write in the numbers, and they cease to have the issue again. Once they know what they are hearing, then they can accurately match the pitch. This is a choir I am extraordinarily proud of, but they are largely not classically trained. They generally show up on my doorstep not knowing solfege (they are auditioned). If they were required to learn that language as well, the gears would start grinding in rehearsal quickly. The numbers would also drop. Instead they are functionally literate in numbers: they have a system of reading music which they can apply successfully to help them perform their music.

4. One of the bravest things I have ever seen was Jarika at her first concert as a music teacher actually teaching the audience to sight read. But she did. I was there and the effect on that audience was astounding. They actually sight read music. I replicated this a year and a half ago when I went onstage 10 minutes prior to the concert. The audience had a sight reading example in their programs and I went through the steps to teach them how to read it (hearing the numbers, identifying them on my fingers, transferring that skill to a staff). At the end of the 10 minutes the audience sight read the selection together. When they finished, a lady in the second row literally let out a yell – I’m not making this up. And she said, “I just read music!” Trust me on this: unless that audience already knows solfege, they can’t learn to sight read in less than 10 minutes. People already “hear” what a 3 sounds like in our culture. If you don’t believe me, watch this video at 42 seconds into it. We already KNOW the third scale degree. Are we going to confuse the matter for our entry level students by giving it a random name like “Mi”?

5. A few years ago I came up with a warmup that trains students to hear and accurately sing difficult intervals. We all know the pattern on 8th note/quarter note, “1, 1 – 1, 2 – 1, 3 – 1, 4, etc where the reference number is “1”, or Do. What I do is then change it up and make “2” the reference number (2, 1 – 2, 2 – 2, 3 – 2, 4 etc) and so on. Up and down the scale, making different scale degrees the reference number along the way. It happens pretty rapid fire so there’s no time for thinking, you actually automatically sing what you already hear. It works well I believe, exposing the intervals my students have the most difficult time hearing and allowing me to train them. But I have always done this on numbers. I have had some teachers try it themselves on solfege instead and you know what happens? It’s more difficult to sing the correct solfege symbol. This is teachers we’re talking about now. Hmm. I wonder why singing on solfege makes this more difficult?

For students who are high achieving, those who have taken private lessons, those who are highly motivated to learn these skills on their own outside of class, solfege rocks their world. They are ones who don’t look up at the ceiling to figure out what symbol comes before La. They are the ones who get amazing sight reading scores. I can hear teachers involved in NATS screaming at me right now through their computer screens, “Of COURSE solfege works you stupid man! What are you talking about? I’m not saying that solfege doesn’t or can’t “work”. But I am asking what we are doing in our schools that provides literacy to the greatest degree. The answer for some IS solfege. A few years ago I spent a day shadowing a valued colleague of mine at Goffstown High School in New Hampshire, Josh Desrochers. I worked with his choirs a bit and I observed him working with them. One of his choirs did their usual morning routine sight reading, and they did so on solfege. Brilliantly. And it wasn’t the typical case of a few strong singers in each section carrying the rest of the weak readers along. Every member of that ensemble sight read brilliantly. But as Jean Nelson did on numbers in Keene, the students at Goffstown learn all their music on solfege before they are even allowed to sing on text. Is it a wonder that they read so well? And Josh has worked to see to it that his students recognize notes by solfege as a normal function. Ask those students which solfege symbol comes before La, and their hands go straight up. Cathy Murray at Thornton Academy is another brilliant example of a teacher who has made a commitment to solfege and her students and alumni are functionally literate and tremendous sight readers. I could easily name more.

I do not buy for a moment however that solfege needs to be learned for the benefit of future music majors. I have very successful alumni of my own who have gone on to teach music and become very accomplished singers. There are two common threads between all of them as they have reported out to me, progressing through their undergraduate training. The first is that they all had a difficult time learning to sight read on solfege. It was a new language for them and they immediately fell behind the 8 ball. But here’s the second: virtually without fail they also arrived as being among the best sight readers in their classes. Got that? Their college professors weren’t terribly concerned with whether or not my kiddos could sight read well, only that they “knew” how to do so on solfege. I will save my rail against higher ed music education programs for another day, but for now I will simply say that MY priority remains developing foundational sight reading skills in all my students. Contrary to the belief of many in higher ed, style points do not count. My alumni who did have to learn solfege? They did it. Do they report being better sight readers for using it when they were already trained how to identify pitch without accessing working memory? Take a guess.

So what is my point in writing this blog post? Embedding effective musical literacy in our students must be our A-1 priority as educators. It is irrelevant how we do it, so long as we actually and authentically do it. Research and Guido D’Arezzo make the case that removing more working memory components equates to greater success. I have yet to have anyone make the case that learning the language of solfege itself accomplishes this to a greater degree NOW than a system which incorporates terminology our students have memorized and utilized every day of their lives since the age of two. Solfege was not sent down as the 11th Commandment. It is not, in any way whatsoever, scientifically superior to any other system of reading music. Every study – and I mean every study – that has been published on sight reading has discussed variables that positively and negatively impact abilities and success. The specific use of solfege has yet to be reported as one of them. The biggest factor is finding a process and sticking to it, not whether a student sings “Mi” or “3”. I have heard the effective argument that solfege, especially movable Do as Kodaly envisions it, has unique benefits that assist the development of musicianship in any student. I buy that. But what population are we talking about? Do YOU work in a school district in which every student receives music instruction in every grade including High School? In which you never have students transfer in with a gap in their music knowledge? In which students are given enough time in the semester to master these skills to the point of properly applying them? That’s the population Kodaly is referring to, how about yours? Let’s stop kidding ourselves, buying into the collegiate myth that if you don’t know solfege you’re not musically literate. It’s merely my suggestion that we individually reflect on, and do some deep digging into, our literacy strategies to see if they are in fact attaining our most desired outcomes for all our students. I am convinced that of all people, Guido D’Arezzo would have wanted it that way.


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R – If I give you a boat kit, and you build it incorrectly and it sinks first time out, was it a bad boat kit or did you construct it poorly? I’m losing patience with schools who have improperly (tragically?) applied the work of standards to their schools, watched it fail, and then say, “See, I told you standards are bogus!”


If teachers of all disciplines (not just music) have decided to spend an inordinate amount of time “assessing” because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do, and not because it’s a natural extension of what they already do and value… but then whine that assessment and standards are doing them in, HOW in the world is one supposed to respond to that????

I’m frustrated. At no one in particular, and I don’t even necessarily place blame anywhere. But I feel like the state movement towards standards and assessment has taken on characteristics of the telephone game. It starts off as a request to adopt a reflective practice which informs teachers and students both with regard to instruction and curriculum, and by the time it reaches the classroom it ends up being “more that I have to do”. How did we get here?

State: we have a local control state, but also have state statutes that require communities to meet requirements. Consequently, it’s up to the communities to come up with plans and strategies to meet the state requirements. However, communities often want it both ways. While they are saying defiantly, “You can’t tell me what to do, we’re a local control state!”, they are simultaneously asking, “Where’s the guidance you’re supposed to be providing to help us meet your mandate?!?” That puts the state on an awkward tightrope, one which attempts to give both autonomy and guidelines. This hasn’t always proven to be very effective. So there is frustration at the state level because they are trying to straddle a fine line and it just doesn’t seem to connect to the needs of the schools.

Schools: to one extreme, there are schools that have determined that their adoption of standards and proficiency reporting is going to be organic and sequential in process. This is an awesome way to proceed, but also takes time and can be frustrating to some. The other extreme is to implement the latest and greatest model and plunk it on teachers’ laps and say, “Here, do it.” And if that model doesn’t work for them? “Hey, the state’s telling us to do it – suck it up, man!”

Gee, I wonder why transitioning to standards and proficiency is eliciting so much resentment……

Teachers: without understanding the principle (the why behind the what) of proficiency, this feels and acts like busy work that takes up time that COULD have been spent on instruction and learning (please refer to “Assessments, Common Local” ca. 2007 for a sense of that frustration). The irony of course is that standards based learning in actual practice puts instruction and learning on steroids. So where to begin? Music teachers: I created a website a year and a half ago JUST FOR THIS PURPOSE: maineartsassessment.com. I know many have seen it… but how many have spent professional development time with it so they can see what resources are there to help them make the transition smooth and authentic, painless and relevant?

As most of us begin a week of February break, I think we all need to take a deep breath right about now, take stock in our professional successes in this area, take a step back to analyze specifically where our frustrations lie, and then move forward again with a renewed sense of purpose and focus on the why we’re doing it and why it’s good for kids. I am presenting a round-table session on our proficiency work in Maine at the state MMEA Conference in May. Though I’m looking forward to it, it’s a bummer that the session is occurring three months or so later than it’s really needed.



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ESSA: no ambiguity left behind

Public school music teachers, the game has changed. You can decide for yourself if that’s a good or bad thing, but I’m not happy.

If you’ve read anything in this blog for the past four years now, you know my mantra: Music is either academic or it is not. If it is, it belongs in the school day and it holds students accountable to a rigorous curriculum through which every INDIVIDUAL student is assessed, along side the practices of every other academic subject. If it is not, it doesn’t belong in the school day and it shouldn’t be taught by full time teachers under a continuing contract, but rather outside of the school day as a co-curricular activity. This is a black and white issue. For over a decade, No Child Left Behind listed Visual and Performing arts as “core“. We have used this over and over again to support our belief (if not always practice…) that music is academic. The states in no way have had the authority to override this federal support for Visual and Performing Arts, and when they’ve tried, they have been called out on it and have had to retreat (Maine Legislature, 2009 for instance).

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, has just been passed into law. Why is this significant?

1) It removed the language of what is core; there is no more “core”.

2) It give states the authority to interpret what a “WELL ROUNDED EDUCATION” looks like in practice and implementation.

3) Students now only need “access” to the individual subjects listed in ESSA… and this includes increased implementation of after school “enrichment”.

So, instead of Visual and Performing Arts being listed as core academic subjects, music SPECIFICALLY (thanks NAfME…) is now listed as something all students must merely have “access” to, during the school day OR OTHERWISE. States are now free to interpret this as they wish. We went from protected by federal legislation to being completely left hung out to dry.

No Child Left Behind Core subjects:

  • Elementary
  • English
  • Reading/Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Foreign Languages
  • Visual and Performing Arts
  • Social Science

ESSA “courses, activities, and programming in subjects such as”:

  • English
  • Reading or language arts
  • Writing
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Foreign languages
  • Civics and government
  • Economics
  • Arts
  • History
  • Geography
  • Computer science
  • Music
  • Career and technical education
  • Health
  • Physical education
  • Any other subject, as determined by the State or local educational agency, with the purpose of providing all students access to an enriched curriculum and educational experience

NAfME interprets this as providing a greater support for Music. Anyone else here read it the same way? Anyone? AnyoneBeuller?

President Obama also said that the law would give states more “flexibility” in raising student achievement (in what… everything listed above??!?! ME DON’T THINK SOOOO!) while maintaining a federal role for ensuring that all students have the opportunity to get a “quality education”.

Want more good news? The legislation has now removed a great deal of language about what defines a “highly qualified teacher,” clearing the path for hiring teachers who do not have the proper training or credentials. CURRENTLY: our neighbors to the west have listed music as an area of “critical shortage” for teachers, and consequently anyone with a college education can apply for a New Hampshire “Statement Of Eligibility” to teach music in public schools. Wanna hear what the requirements are to teach music in New Hampshire right now?

  • Documentation of passing two college courses in music, OR…
  • Documentation of experience as a musician or other related experiences in music, OR…
  • Documentation of fluency in reading music and competence in playing at least one musical instrument

And now federal legislation has loosened the reigns of what constitutes adequate training. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education put out this statement this week, “ESSA does not include minimum entry standards for the teaching profession, leaving this determination up to each state. With multiple provisions in the bill encouraging expansion of alternate routes to the classroom and the use of teachers-in-training as teachers of record, ESSA tempts states to lower standards for the profession, which would have an adverse impact on the students who are most in need of highly skilled, well-prepared teachers.”

Get a load of this: Cecil Wilder, executive director of the Georgia Music Educators Association, was quoted in a widely circulated article this week: “We’re not so much committed to every child being required to study music, because not every child has the same abilities and interests, but we are committed to the prospect of every child having access to a good, quality, sequential music program.”

WHAAAA? We don’t believe we’re essential for every child?? But we should be considered “essential”?? How does THAT work! Now that the NCLB mandate that music is was core is gone, we’re going to allow ANYONE to utter the words, “We’re not so much committed to every child being required to study music, because not every child has the same abilities and interests???” And we think we’re not being set up to be undermined in a monumental way? What do every other subject listed in the new legislation above have in common? Answer: EVERY LAST, STINKIN’ ONE OF THEM BELIEVE THEY SHOULD BE REQUIRED FOR EVERY CHILD! Do WE? If programming is going to be moved outside of the school day or minimized during it, which do you think they’re going to diminish: programs that are essential for EVERY student, or ones who believe they are not because, “not every child has the same abilities or interests?” And before you go thinking this is just one rogue music educator speaking, I’ve seen three High School music program websites right here in Maine this week which state that their music courses are open to students who are “interested” in or have a “love” for music. How many Math departments include that criteria? That’s really how we promote our subject? Through THAT filter? Think we can afford to do that NOW?

Do students get pulled from your music classes in order to receive “interventions” in math and reading? The new law says this shouldn’t happen. From NAfME: removal of students from the regular classroom during regular school hours (music, arts) for instruction provided under this part, must be minimized. Under NCLB, this language proved helpful in protecting music programs in multiple states. (pg. 171) Here’s what NAfME didn’t say: do you currently have music students who are pulled out of other classes for lessons or sectionals? How long under this provision do you think that’s going to last?

It gets even better. Again from NAfME (Expanded Learning Time): Includes activities and instruction for enrichment as part of a WELL-ROUNDED education (music, arts).(pg. 783). AND music is listed in this section as a stand-alone subject for the first time ever. How long is it going to take before administrators and state legislators start putting THOSE two pieces together?

Two days ago an editorial in the Los Angeles Times summed up ESSA’s biggest shortfall best: “…a new law should be more than a repudiation of the old; it should provide a blueprint for improving educational outcomes.” It certainly doesn’t for the Arts, whether music is listed specifically or not.

This legislation changes music from being a core academic subject to something all students should merely have access to. I began this post with my belief that music, especially at the high school level, is either academic or co-curricular. Now we have federal legislation that no longer has an opinion on that, and it simultaneously lists music as a stand alone entity. Are we prepared for the scrutiny? I’ll let you answer for yourself… but before you do, consider this: every other listed subject area above meets with 100% of the student population. Up until a few days ago when we were an essential component of Visual and Performing Arts, so did we. How ’bout now? It’s a “new day” alright…



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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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a different place

R- When Jarika and I started this blog 4 years ago, I was a year into a standards based model for my music classes. I wanted to pretty much shout out to the world how crazy I was about it… how it was helping me be a better teacher, a more transparent teacher, how it was helping my students (their words, not mine) and how it was putting music into the same conversations as the other academic subject areas for once. It’s been an interesting journey since then. What I anticipated was that I would grow stronger in my convictions. I have. What I didn’t anticipate is that, certainly in Maine, the entire state would shift radically towards a proficiency model steeped in standards and that music teachers would do that shifting as well. Didn’t see that coming. The Maine Arts Leadership Initiative changed it’s name from Maine Arts Assessment Initiative to better reflect how we have morphed in that direction as well, but also to reflect that the need for the Assessment initiative has been displaced by the state movement. We’ve moved from, “Hey, get a load of how assessment practices can open amazing doors for us!” to, “How can we better lead the way in Maine toward the proficiency model our own schools are pursuing?”

It’s been a radical shift.

Assessment is no longer the dirty word. But it is still a messy one. Thanks to living in a local control state, the Maine DOE has left it to each school district to not only “implement” proficiency, it’s actually allowed each school district to determine for itself what proficiency actually means! Ugh. Certainly there’s pros and cons to that. We do get to do the deep thinking ourselves as a result that leads to exceptional practices. Unfortunately, I’ve observed precious little “deep thinking” going on. Instead I see a whole lot of school districts trying to figure out how to meet a mandate and what hoops it has to jump through. There may be better recipes for mediocrity, but I don’t know of ’em. We’ve gone from figuring out if standards and assessment practices are good or not to merely trying to implement something our schools will accept. But not only is the state to blame, our individual school districts are to blame. I have lost track of how many colleagues have told me that their administrators approached them with, “you may only have ‘x’ standards”, or “you need to make this fit our model” or “you need to have your standards aligned with visual art” (are the math standards aligned with social studies? Phys ed with science?). As a result, a golden opportunity for us as a state to do powerful introspective work has largely been transformed into bureaucratic b.s. that at best feels like yet another state initiative, at worst feels like the biggest waste of our time, trying to manipulate or contrive our work to jump through required work. It has also completely undermined the innate value of standards and proficiency in the process.

The losers in this however is not us, it’s our kids.

As we move deeper in the move toward proficiency, it really is time to remind our administrators – where needed – that schools are here to serve the needs of our kids and not the other way around; we cannot manipulate how we serve our kids to meet state mandates. We must manipulate what we do and how we practice it to meet the needs of our students. My challenge to my friends and colleagues in the field this year: make THAT the lens you view your work through this year. Our biennial state conference is this coming Friday and the primary focus is precisely that. The title is called Arts Education: the Measure Of Success, because that’s what our focus has to be. We are in a different place than we were 4 years ago. But let’s make very sure that place is a step or two forward and not just a random place to one side or the other – or backwards – just to meet another external state or local expectation. Our kids deserve better than that, and honestly, so do we.

YHS Choral Standards 2011-2012

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R- My YHS Spring concert was last night. As is usually the case after these concerts, I’m waking up this morning physically and emotionally “spent”. It’s a curious thing to me how my emotions are all over the place. I feel as if they have all been through a Dairy Queen Blizzard machine. But it is a rare morning after a concert that I feel any joy. Instead the overwhelming feeling is one of helplessness. I’ve always been unsuccessful in articulating to others, and maybe even to myself, why that is. This morning I guess I’m using a blog post to cathartically try to do so. I hope it resonates with colleagues who choose to read this, because I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling this way.

I think in visual art, there is a point with one’s work where something feels completed. Where a work of art becomes what it was meant to be and then you display it for the world to see. It represents the artist’s vision, it reflects the artist’s skill, it elevates the medium which was utilized to create it. I wish I was a visual artist because that process is so organic and it also allows for closure. There’s a finality to it. The struggle I have always felt is that my medium is people. It is a joining of musicians who are brought together to share their skills. But it is also the composer in absentia. It is the vision and dreams and ideas and musical beliefs of every composer of every song that choir sings or that band plays. Because they are not in rehearsals or the performances, the conductor has an ethical and moral obligation to represent them. And the performers do to. Robert Shaw once alluded to his belief that singing in a choir is the most moral of all the arts… this is what he meant. In an ever greater illumination from Shaw,

All of music is an attempt at communication between human hearts and minds; at the very minimum the creator reaches out to and through the performer, and both of them reach out to the listener. Music is great not because certain self-appointed Custodians of Arts with a capital A have decreed it so, but because it calls out to something deep and persistent in the human thing. Music is great because it carries something so native and true to the human spirit that not even sophisticated intellectuality can deny or destroy its miracle.

As a result, I have long since come to a point in my life that for my non-school performances I have taken great pride and received great joy in being a choral director and putting on concerts. But this is rarely so for the concerts I do with my kids. Here is why that may be.

When you get together as a group of musicians, your focus is the music and you all share your talents and skills and artistic process to elevate it. This is much closer to the process of a visual artist. But in public school music, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is not about the music, it’s about the kids. It’s about the community. It’s about the school. It’s about the curriculum and how the concert is an expression of it. It’s about developed and still developing skills that are on public display. Yet the requirements of being a musician and being an artist don’t go away. And these two extremes are incompatible. You cannot adequately do both in such ridiculously limited face time with students.

And I feel completely helpless as a result.

Now, that’s how I would feel if there was NEVER a public concert at the end of each term. But throw that into the mix?

Musically I hear all the things that aren’t the way I want them to be yet, and perhaps we could never reach, and it authentically bothers me. But I am simultaneously elated at the ability of my kids to pull off elements of wonderful musicality that any composer would be proud of. These two emotions are incompatible. I see the students who have a solo and are happy to the point of tears when they are done that they “did it” and are so proud, and I see the students who have a solo and are self critical enough to be depressed and sad with how they did. The emotions I feel toward both are incompatible. I know for Ticheli’s “There Will Be Rest” last night there were audience members who were transformed by that beautiful music. I also know there were those who were probably looking at their watch and yawning. I will never know how to reconcile my feelings around that.

Take that same song for a moment. For that selection, I know most if not all my chamber singers were disappointed with the performance. I could see it on their faces when they were done and while they were singing it. This was due to an intonation problem they developed right around page 8: they went sharp. We haven’t rehearsed since Monday, and when we ran it then, the group – for the first time ever – went a whole step flat. It was due to a lot of non musical factors, and belied the fact that intonation on that advanced selection had long ceased to be an issue for us. So I implored them on Monday to think sharp as they performed it in concert. Well, they actually did. It caused some intonation problems for a page and a half, and then they adjusted to the new key and brought it home safe and sound. Really, in many respects, a remarkable performance by 30 teenagers who are still learning and developing their craft. They were working, analytical artists who created a magnificent representation for our audience. The emotions I have around all this? Where do I begin? Pride over their display of musicianship. Elation over their demonstration of applied listening skills under duress. Disappointment in my myself for having instructed them on Monday to think sharp. Guilt over not having made the right choice in doing so. Sadness that they didn’t feel good about the performance. Frustration over their not understanding how good they should be feeling about it. Upset that the focus was not transferred over enough to the text. Doubting my skills – did I do enough for them? Helplessness.

Go back to my premise that there is a basic incompatibility between developing people through music (music the means to the end) and developing demonstrated musicianship in every student (academic accountability where music IS the end). I felt this too when I directed musicals. I did the directing and music directing both at all three schools I taught at. I loved every moment of it. And I hated every moment of it. It was the endless attempt to reconcile the two extremes. The difference is that in a co-curricular activity such as drama, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The legacy is the show. In music education, the legacy is the skills. If it was the other way around, music would no longer be a curricular subject and that’s why I always rail about it being so. You can’t have it both ways: music belongs in the school day as an academic subject but, gee, it’s about the “experience”. Which way do you you want it? That however doesn’t stop every music teacher out there from moving heaven and earth to provide both. And there’s the helplessness. No parent ever left a concert saying to their son or daughter, “Wow, I loved the crescendo on page 8 when you simultaneously added ring to your tone and kept the consonants the same dynamics as your vowels”! They leave noting how happy their child was, and how moving it is to see them onstage creating art. But as educators we need to have one foot in both places. The problem is that I don’t believe it can humanly be done. One is invariably going to have to take precedence over the other. That however would be completely unsatisfactory. It would also be wrong. So the disconnect remains. Our schools require us to place our emphasis on the academic. They would be irresponsible to do otherwise, and I wouldn’t ever work for a school district ignorant enough NOT to place that expectation on me. On the other hand, I have a moral and ethical responsibility to bring to life the music of composers and utilize the developed and still developing skills of my students to do so. On yet one more hand, my highest priority – and I will quit teaching the day it isn’t – is to develop young adults, to foster their social, intellectual and emotional growth. To love every one of ’em, to take them where they are and elevate them, to challenge them ceaselessly while simultaneously keeping my chorus room a safety net for them.

As was the case in every High School in Maine this Spring, tons of kids missed regular classes as they were pulled to do statewide testing. They missed so much class time in their other subject areas, it was astounding. Simultaneously, I found out that the last spot in York capable of holding our concerts, St Christopher’s Church, was unable to host us this Spring. We had to hold our concert last night at Portsmouth High School and their auditorium. It was a Godsend that we were able to do so. But it also meant that if I was going to bus students to the performance hall for rehearsals like I normally do multiple times in the weeks prior to our concerts, I’d have to pull students out of other classes for the extended trip to New Hampshire. Because of all the Spring testing, I finally decided that I couldn’t do that to the kids or to my colleagues. I wasn’t being magnanimous in this decision, it simply was the right thing to do. So all three choirs showed up early last night for 20 minute rehearsals/run throughs in the new space to “get used to it”. They sing in a custom built, acoustically magnificent environment each day, and now they were in a 930 seat auditorium where they have little reflective sound. Chamber Singers couldn’t hear each other at the start of the run-through so we sang mixed. And that’s how we performed “There Will Be Rest”. For the first time in that hall. For the first time in public in a mixed setting. For the seniors final concert. And they went sharp and weren’t happy with the performance. After spending FIVE MONTHS preparing it. And my highest priority is to foster their growth and happiness as people?


I am so grateful to be in this profession. But I often think, this morning for instance, that I do not possess the emotional stability to be a music educator and to also take on the responsibility for between 100 and 200 teenagers each term how they are each individually doing as people. I worry about the kids I didn’t get to high five or hug last night, are they doing okay? I worry about some of those kids I did high five and hug. I worry about my senior who wasn’t there last night in part because his mom passed away last week. I worry about the parents who wanted their sons or daughters to have opportunities for solos which I couldn’t provide. I worry about the kids who are going through difficult times in their life and am I doing enough for them? Am I even adequately aware of what they are going through. I worry about the seniors I said goodbye to last night and are they going to be okay after High School.

There were enough joys galore to write an equally lengthy blog post about. All the groups did a beautiful job. There were many moments of musical clarity that were emotionally powerful and artistically enlightening. Honestly. My Block 6 “Welcome Back Kotter” kids who I love dearly were sensational and showcased two marathons worth of work and growth since they first arrived on my doorstep the last week of January. A teacher could not be more proud or happy. My Chambers seniors made a presentation in the middle of the concert and we had a group hug with very, very real smiles and tears. The community of York made the trip to Portsmouth, on a gorgeous Friday night in June, in numbers and enthusiasm I simply didn’t even see coming. Their happiness over the concert and how the students did was palpable. And yet I lost sleep last night over Chamber singers going sharp on page 8?

Yup. Sure did.


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cry uncle

R – What if I told you I was about ready to cry “uncle” and give in? What if I told you that our 5 year efforts of the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative have been for naught? What if I told you that I am bowing to the scattered belief that proficiency based learning in music is a fad that’s just going to fade away? What if I told you that I’ve finally just gotten too weary listening to too many music and art teachers saying that the arts are “unique” and we can’t be expected to do the same things as the other content areas due our uniqueness? What if I told you that I’m about to give up on the whole battle of fighting for standards based learning and grading? What if I told you that my degree should not have been in “music education”, but rather in “music creativity” or “student expression” or “aesthetics”?

Okay, I’ll bite. Here it goes:

The arts are unique and shouldn’t be expected to hold students to individual academic standards, much less ones that are assessed and reported. It’s okay that we can’t actually articulate what our kids are graded on. Assigning the same grade to every member of the ensemble holds academic integrity because, well, it’s an ensemble class. What we “do” in music is significantly more important than what our students learn. We aren’t teachers, we’re coaches. It’s okay to program whatever we want for our concerts just as long as our kids like it. It’s okay to not program masterful compositions by the dead composers because… well, they’re dead. It’s okay to piss and moan when we are referred to as “specials” when all we do is piss and moan about how special we are and can’t be expected to grade the same way as other subject areas. It’s okay to program what kids like and it’s even okay to have the kids select the literature for us; after all they are at least as qualified as we are with our many years of college education and experience in such matters… English and Social Studies teachers should be allowing students to choose their textbooks, right? It’s okay for our kids to sing and perform with whatever tone they want because it is about individual expression anyway. It’s okay to grade our students on participation. It’s okay to grade kids on whether or not they showed up to class and put the correct end of the trumpet to their face. As long as all the notes are played right and the audience likes what we did and we show up to the parades and town functions, our jobs are safe. It’s okay to pass out programs at our concerts that say absolutely nothing about why we are essential or why we are performing the songs listed. It’s okay that we teach with a chip on our shoulder due to the fact that nobody understands us. It’s okay that we are more concerned about creativity than developing the skills which allow students to display it. It’s okay that we are more concerned about creativity than academic accountability. It’s okay that we are more concerned about creativity than keeping the arts in our schools. We can just remove music from the curriculum completely, help the other subject areas to teach creativity, and then call it a day anyway, right? It’s okay that we run ensembles the same way they were run during the Clinton administration. It’s okay that we run ensembles the same way they were run during the Reagan administration. It’s okay that we run ensembles the same way they were run during the Nixon administration. It’s okay that my online grade book has assignments, not skills, listed horizontally across the top. It’s okay that we run co-curricular activities cleverly disguised as academic content. And get paid accordingly. It’s okay to differentiate between talent and skills. It’s okay that we focus on the kids “who want to be there”. It’s okay that we grade “intuitively”.

There’s only one problem in all this: I refuse to allow Maine’s students to live in that world. I want music education to be as academically essential as I believe it is, and my actions need to speak as loudly as my words. So I guess I’m not going to cry “uncle” just yet. As a matter of fact, I’m going to keep moving toward proficiency, academic standards and individual student accountability toward specific, measurable learning targets for as long as my administration allows me. State mandates? Don’t care. To either extreme. Giving “grades” doesn’t make music academically essential, making those grades MEAN something ACADEMICALLY does. I believe in fostering creativity and giving students an aesthetic experience. But music education is not co-curricular, and it’s essential to do those things – and more – in context. I know what work I’m going to continue doing both now and for years to come, because I couldn’t imagine doing anything less.

YHS Choral Standards 2011-2012

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creativity through music composition

R – There is a disconnect that exists in music education between creativity and assessment. I have said for many years that not all that is important can be assessed, but all that is academic can be… and all that is academically essential must be. I say it because I believe it. But where does creativity fit in? I’ve wrestled with that for years. Professionally, I have control issues. I need to dot every “i”, cross every “t” and hold every student accountable. Creativity reaches into too subjective a realm for me. However, an MAAI colleague of mine, Samantha Davis, posted a TED video on facebook a few weeks ago. She tagged me and some others and said everyone should view it. The video is entitled: Teaching art or teaching to think like an artist? | Cindy Foley. I watched and she was right. I felt myself authentically challenged to incorporate authentic creativity into my classroom.

In thinking through how to try this, I immediately came across the quandary of the large group ensemble situation where the point is to be completely subservient to the needs and requirements of each song and composer. To quote Robert Shaw, “it is the performer’s business to get out of the way of music.” He’s not incorrect. If I have 50 kids being “creative” about the song they’re singing as a choir, the results will resemble a chance meeting of the Titanic and a rogue iceberg.

But if the performance of someone else’s music requires subservience, the composition of music screams for creativity. I decided to have my Music Theory II class (composition) watch the TED video. But before I did, I gave them their next assignment: tell me in advance a self determined mood, storyline or concept of their choosing. Then they are to compose original music that reflects or depicts what they chose. They would incorporate tangible elements of knowledge they have learned to this point, but there would be no pre-determined instructions or criteria of what to use or how to use it. No parameters. I got a mild case of hives just thinking about it. Then after watching the video, I asked them if they saw the connection between the video and their next assignment. They did. I told them that my biggest fear is that my scoring criteria for it may be far too subjective, and I’d need their help. They were okay with that.

It took them several classes to complete on Finale. Tuesday morning last week we listened to the compositions. For each student we first listened without any introduction. Then we went around the room and had the others guess what they thought the maxresdefaultcomposition reflected/told. Everyone had to justify their response… factors of instrumentation, tempo, dissonance, consonance, rhythmic components, etc all played roles. Then the student who wrote the composition told the class their mood or storyline they were trying to portray. Their own justifications for choices they made initiated some amazing conversations. It was a rich dialogue. Imagery created by musical choices. Emotions created by using specific combinations of instruments. Instrument ranges. Moods created by certain tempo choices. Form and structure in music (one student in particular who brilliantly utilized simple rondo form to portray someone sleeping, being abducted by aliens, waking up and realizing it was just a dream and then falling peacefully back to sleep – think Sorcerer’s Apprentice in miniature).

Then we had the capstone conversation: did this assignment “work”; was this an effective assignment to foster creativity and was it valuable to them? Well, from the mouths of babes… they talked about how school rarely allows them to be creative. Trusting them to come up with their own parameters actually allowed them to be creative as opposed to looking at firmly placed learning targets. It was in many ways for them more difficult than one of their normal projects because they had to do all the thinking behind it(!). One of my students at the end stated that schools want students to be creative but they aren’t given the chance to be, and that this assignment required them to utilize accumulated knowledge and apply it in new, original ways (her words) that were completely unique, but which required them to make choices and decisions too. Wow.

Cindy Foley is on to something and it was a great eye opener for me. What I am morphing towards is maintaining my role as a teacher who will continue to hold students academically accountable in my music classes (sorry, “participation” is not an academically accountable indicator) and assess them formatively and summatively to inform both their learning and my teaching. However, I must also find ways to follow that up with opportunities that allow students to synthesize things; follow up in ways that promote and allow for creativity. Music Theory/Composition is an outstanding platform for this type of learning. The challenge will continue to be how to apply this to large group ensembles and to other general music courses. But if we are going to authentically be training “21st century learners and thinkers”, we’re going to have to continue to find ways to incorporate creativity into our regular curriculum. I believe it’s a challenge well worth taking on.

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shifting sands

R – When Jarika and I started this blog a few years ago, the landscape as it applied to music assessment in Maine was still a pretty static entity. A few teachers here and there were invested in it, but it was something most people wanted to find out more about (the 2011 Arts Assessment Conference had well in excess of 200 attendees). Yet it was still in infant stages of “how do we do this and why?” Now in 2015, the state has implemented its proficiency law and we are all in the throes of “assessment” and standards and proficiency.

It’s been an amazing shift. But where does it leave us? No one is utilizing the same standards (national? MLR? hybrid?). No one is reporting out the same way (standards? 108558973grades? hybrid?). No one is invested the same way (“I do it because I value it”, “I do it because my administrator told me I have to”, “I’m seeing the value even though I don’t fully believe in it”). No one does it the same way (paper/pencil tests, performance assessments, one time shots, multiple opportunities). No one reports it the same way (power school, infinite campus, mastery connect, who knows what else).

MAAI held its annual Winter Retreat for the assembled Teacher Leaders from across the state a couple of weeks ago. We collected feedback and data and it is flat out overwhelming what we have in front of us for needs. We know we want to link up with other organizations to further assessment in the arts. We know we want to further advocacy efforts and utilization of Teaching Artists. We know we want to offer professional development opportunities for every teacher in Maine, but that the needs of each are very, very unique.

Where is this all going and where does it end?

Well, I don’t know the answer to those two questions, but I do know for a fact that we’re moving and progressing and developing and morphing. And shifting. MAAI’s mission has been a simple one: Creating an environment in Maine where quality assessment in arts education is an integral part of the work all arts educators do to deepen student learning in the arts. The goal has NEVER been to utilize the same standards, report out the same way, invest the same way, do it the same way or report it all out the same way. It HAS been about deepening student learning in the arts.

As we individually and collectively continue our work, I’m imploring all of us to keep our eyes on the target. Get through whatever filters are in front of us – or imposed brick walls  – etc. etc, and keep making our work more meaningful and integral for our students. If we make our work authentic and see to it that it furthers the cause, let’s keep moving. The alternative to movement is standing still. And even though we’re in the middle of a morass of assessment soup right now, I’ll take this every day of the week as opposed to standing still. The sands are shifting and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

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getting off islands

R – Visual and performing Arts educators are in an extraordinarily unique situation in Maine. True for all arts educators, but especially so for PK – 8 and dance and theater of all grade levels. The situation is one of isolation. Physical and educational. It’s too easy to overlook this as a fundamental concern, due to the fact that it’s always been like this. At the conclusion of the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative’s Summit for Arts Education this past Summer, about 80 educators and teaching artists spent three and a half hours presenting closing action plans and professional development workshop proposals based on their work during the week. I left the experience inspired in many ways.

Individuals are furthering their work based on deeper understandings and discussions. For many, this took the form of changing how they will be delivering instruction. For others it ties into the logistical bear of reporting out progress towards proficiency of standards and indicators. Others still are tying in assessment strategies for the first time or redesigning their assessment practices. This has staggering ramifications for Maine’s arts classrooms and our students. Where there is a transformation of thinking, or reporting, or managing, or assessing, or delivering, there is a furthering of the Arts in Maine.

Professional Development will continue to be offered. The growth opportunities that will be available to everyone in Maine via regional workshops are tremendous, both in number and in scope of subject matter. We used to have a state that does annual “one shot deals” at state conferences for Professional Development via organizations such as NAfME or the Maine Art Education Association. Many of these workshops had little to do with assessment or standards or proficiency. Today however, that is not the case. As a matter of fact, you have to work really hard to avoid opportunities year-round to further professional growth as arts educators, particularly in standards, assessment and proficiency. The Maine Arts assessment initiative has organized and announced its Mega-Regional workshop schedule for the 2014-2015 school year. You can see what is being offered and register online here. The afternoon sessions at each of these is being devoted entirely to music educators talking to music educators about how they are doing in their transition to proficiency based assessment; visual art teachers and even drama and dance teachers doing the same. The morning sessions allow you to plug into workshops that focuses your thinking on a specific topic or strategy. Our hope is that the combination of the morning sessions coupled with the afternoon roundtables will result in attendees leaving charged and filled with practical new ideas and approaches that can immediately be applied and implemented in meaningful ways in their own journey with their own students.

But what in the meantime? Technology. Google Hangout, Skype, and my favorite: Zoom… among others to choose from. My colleagues at the high School? I talk to them all the time already, but that’s because we’re on the island together (YHS). My choral colleague at York Middle School? We google hangout twice a week. Minimum. And it is almost always random too. “I wonder if Jen’s in her planning block right now…” *Rob clicks on the video icon next to her name in gmail* She often does the same. We quickly bounce ideas off of each other or ask quick questions. Sometimes we start one at 2:30 and by 3:10 we realize we’ve been talking for 40 minutes and we are still bringing up things we want to discuss. The point is that Jen and I are no longer on our islands. We never will be again. We’ve actually had our choirs digitally perform for each other, do warmups for each other, it’s been great and we don’t even do it all as often as we want. But we make it work within our own unique confines of time. The leadership and teacher leaders of MAAI have also enjoyed great success with Zoom meetings. How great is it to be in a meeting, IMG_0907talking about the “good stuff’ while sitting in your favorite chair at home and drinking hot cider with your feet propped up on the coffee table? Let me fill you in: it’s really great!!!

I don’t mean to bore anyone to tears in the above paragraph talking about technology that I know most everyone already uses. But 2014 is the 100 year anniversary of the start of a war in which its Generals at the outset made it clear that the airplane was neat but served no strategic purpose (bonus literary points on my part for comparing google hangout to a world war). We need to be looking at strategic purpose. Why aren’t we skyping with our colleagues from the other schools in our district once a week? “I don’t have time”. Really?? You don’t eat lunch? Why aren’t we skyping every two weeks with a colleague from a similar grade level schools as ours in another town? You already know who they are, I moved to Maine in large part because of the District structure for music educators. We know our neighbors, why aren’t we talking with them more? How about skyping once a month with a colleague in a different county or part of the state. How about skyping once a quarter with a colleague from out of state??? “I don’t know anyone well enough to ask.” Don’t even go there. Are you telling me that if a music teacher from Connecticut e-mailed you and said they’d like to meet you and talk for 15 minutes about what is going on in Maine, your school and your classroom as it relates to music education you’d say “no”? Guess what – neither would they. Reach out!! Do it!! Don’t be that World War 1 General!!!

Get off your Island and keep furthering your thinking and your craft. A great reminder this past week from Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin who said that his coach told him throughout his career, “Either you are always working to get better, or you are automatically getting worse.” Not bad advice. Get off the island and access your colleagues in person – physically or digitally – routinely to keep furthering your growth.

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