Monday, May 2, 2011

Discipline as the Reason for Music? Where we Went Wrong...

“Building Discipline, Motivation and Socialisation”


This article, which appeared in Orbit: OISE/UT’s Magazine for Schools (Chasins, 2000: 19-21) discusses the disciplinary benefits of music instruction. According to Chasins, the discipline that students acquire through private music lessons leads to future successes in various other dimensions, during that student’s life, and is a valuable skill. Specifically, the benefits have been noted from the students’ participation in private music classes or ensembles. These situations are important learning experiences that teach individuals social and personal disciplinary skills.

Discipline, in the case of this discourse, is not a behavioural consequence such as in the punitive sense, but rather a type of mental of physical training. It can be imposed from an external source, such as a teacher, conductor, or private-lesson instructor or it can be internal. Internal discipline is referred to as self-discipline, and it is the most productive, as it involves the subject making a choice to do something, as opposed to an outside disciplinarian forcing the action. Although external forces of discipline are required at times to correct problems or reinforce certain behaviours, they are best to be kept at minimum; excessive external discipline can reduce one’s development of self-discipline.

Chasins argues that music promotes the acquisition of students’ self-discipline and motivation for four main reasons:

    1. music, as a form of communication, evokes an emotional response in individuals of a variety of ages;
    2. music is made of logical structures of sound;
    3. music requires participation in an active way; and,
    4. music incorporates a plethora of potential group activities.

The melodic and rhythmic structure of music is always in motion, allowing it to captures and contain one’s attention, engaging the listener, actively. The engaging action of music is the element that facilitates a students’ development of discipline. Based on music’s ability to easily educe and hold one’s attention, it is more effective at teaching these skills, as compared to other subjects, and it requires little attention to rules or other contributing elements. As well, music can be understood across many cultures, making it a “universal language” (2000:19) that appeals to all ages and diversities. It is often possible to hear a story or narrative that is ‘told’ by a piece of music, making it attractive and interesting to many individuals, and promoting an intense focus. Many of the communicative properties of music build discipline.

The logical structures of sound that characterise music are: the finite length, which presents a clear goal to a student, and, the internal, musical structure of any song.

There are a variety of unique musical elements that combine to create any given musical work, which are suited to fit a multitude of learning styles, and allow a song to be deconstructed and learned in shorter components. These aspects of music provide many ways of teaching, creating a thorough learning experience for any student, and facilitate the development of disciplinary skills.

Throughout the remained of the article, Chasins describes the implications of music-learning on other subjects. Emphasis is placed on the disciplinary skills that are then used and applied, by students, in other areas of their educational career, and lives. Essentially, learning music requires one to tackle material of an appropriate technical difficulty, and then selecting the best method possible to learn the piece. Learning typically occurs through mastery of small sections of the music, which requires one’s application of self-discipline. With a students’ mastery over a section or piece of music comes a feeling of success and achievement, thus motivating the student to continue to learn and work. Skills of self-discipline are then transferrable to other scholarly subjects and daily situations, and optimally, the same form of success will result.

Music’s importance in its facilitating of disciplinary learning justify the inclusion of music instruction within a school-wide curriculum. Chasins notes: “on the basis of music’s capacity to enrich life through its intrinsic beauty, and on the beneficial effects on brain fuctions” (2000: 21), our schools and families should remain committed to the study of music, especially due to the recent evidence of its additional disciplinary benefits.


Although Chasins’ article contained several valid assessments of the benefits of music, I am disheartened to read yet another item which is dedicated to justifying the benefit of music based on its ability to teach another skill. While music does help to enhance the development of one’s self-discipline, I do not wish to have this be the only reason for its inclusion in our school curriculum. Rather, I argue that music should be taught in schools and in other extra-curricular settings for the benefit of learning music, and not for its ability to enhance another skill. As a music educator who is highly concerned with maintaining, and even increasing, the interest and importance of a strong school music program, I argue that the support towards music education is being misdirected. Our advocacy must be redirected and revised.

In a three-page article, Chasins referred to the “instrinsic beauty” (Ibid) of music, implying its teaching as a means to an end, only in the closing paragraph. Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow is referenced on the second page, briefly, but, it is done so to explain how one accomplishes goals. The rest of the article was spent pleading with readers over music’s potential to build discipline in students. This is not the original reason why people enjoy music and why music was created. Music was developed as a way to communicate, and to express human emotion through a means that is not possible in any other way. Such can be said for dance or art. These two artistic domains do not require justification over-and-above their intrinsic nature, yet often, we feel that music needs to be explained, and continue to do so to facilitate its inclusion in our schools.

As schools continue to make cutbacks within their music curriculum, it is apparent that these methods are proving unsuccessful. It is necessary that educators and advocates of music, alike, recognize music’s inherent potential and allow it to speak for itself: music for the sake of music should be the new direction in our rationale for the indispensability of school music.

Works Cited:

Chasins, Margaret. “Building Discipline, Motivation, and Socialisation.” Orbit: OISE/UT’s Magazine for Schools, Vol. 31 (1), 2000. 19-21.

Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights from Young Musicians

“Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights From Young Musicians”


The debilitating condition of music performance anxiety (MPA) is a severe condition that affects musicians at both amateur and professional levels. Many investigations surrounding the anxiety levels of adult and college level musicians, have been conducted, however, few studies have involved children. Kenny and Osborne, in their 2006 publication “Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights from Young Musicians” (2006: 103-112), summarized their recent research involving young performers’ anxiety, and compare this to the experiences of adults. In their report, they address many similarities in that exist between children and adults’ perceptions of MPA, and suggest reasons to address this problem earlier on, to prevent the condition from worsening over the course of the subjects’ career.

The authors reference Barlow’s (2000) three-dimensional model of anxiety to facilitate an understanding of performance anxiety. He proposes that the development of anxiety has three main components:

    1. biological component
    2. psychological component resulting from past experiences and life histories
    3. specific psychological component as a result of various environmental stimuli associated with behavioural conditioning.

Although Barlow emphasizes that genetics and lived experiences could account for general anxious conditions, the third component has shown evidence of specific phobias or anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder. Study results show that social evaluative situations can trigger emotions that are associated with danger or threat. Performers who have experienced environments of high expectations but low support, are more likely to experience MPA. Once the emotion is triggered, a subject will enter into a state of negative self-perception that leads to a disruption of concentration. These behaviours are symptomatic of MPA, and similar to those of social anxiety and social phobia. The severity of anxiety felt by the performer will be directly related to the subjects’ perceived level of threat.

To compensate for the lack of empirical research which addresses MPA in adolescents, Osborne & Kenny developed the Music Performance Anxiety Inventory for Adolescents (MPAI-A) (Osborne & Kenny, 2005: 725-751). Using this scale, data was obtained from 381 young musicians in an evaluation of their perceived MPA. This Likert-style questionnaire contained 15 questions which measured the factor structure, internal reliability, construct and divergent validity of the MPAI-A.

Results showed that girls possessed higher levels of MPA, despite the boys’ increased display of anxious behaviours before and during a performance. A relationship was also seen between the development of formal operational thought (Piaget, 1970) that occurs in the shift from childhood to adolescence and the trends in MPA.

Obsorne & Kenny (2006: 107-108) reported that American adolescents with less advanced musical training perceived lower levels of MPA than adolescents from Sydney, Australia, whose musical skills were more highly developed. Those students who performed less technical works had reduced MPA, compared with students who performed more technically demanding music. This suggests the possibility that as one’s level of experience increases, as does the expectation of one’s success. Additionally, students who answered “No” to the inquiry of becoming a professional musician also displayed heightened MPA. Based on this data, it can be assumed that high anxiety levels could be responsible for a subjects’ rejection of a career in performance. Both hypotheses highlight the need for the development of preventative and anxiety-management strategies for young musicians.

Reflection/ Implications for Music Education:

As a performer who has always felt significant musical performance anxiety (MPA), I found this article to be one of interest and importance. I spend my teaching hours working with young children, between the ages of 6-12, in our private piano lessons, and often see symptoms of anxiety displayed by my students. Through my years, I have made a point to become more conscious and aware of the behaviours of my students within a musical context, as well as in their academic, personal, and social environments. Having a thorough understanding of the responses and the external stimuli that my students are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, helps me to assess their musical responses and learning styles.

As indicated in the article by Kenny 7 Osborne (2006: 103-112), I have often paid little attention to the possibility of MPA in children. In my approach to my young students, I expect to witness eager musicians unafraid of making mistakes and unencumbered by fear of performance or anxiety. I assume that these feelings develop in adolescence, as students become conscious of their peers and social pressures become more dominant and controlling. However, reflecting on my own teaching experiences, citing the behaviours of students who I assumed ‘just didn’t want to play’, I can see the anxiety that exists in a musical environment, and is mirrored in various other contexts. This awareness has proven to be much more successful in developing a relationship with my students, and I have witnessed greater achievements within the lessons.

I have and am continuing to adjusting my teaching style to be more supportive and non-judging, and to encourage and create a safer learning environment for these students. My standards and expectations remain high, but there is less emphasis on mistakes and errors, and more emphasis placed on the proficiencies in students’ playing. Opportunities for performance by supportive others and peers are becoming more frequent, to prepare and acclimatize musicians to these situations, and to make them appear more natural, and thus, less of a threat to the students. Correspondingly, I see my young musicians becoming more comfortable with playing in front of others, they are taking more musical risks during their lessons, and they are in turn, enjoying the music making opportunities, playing for fun more often.

Educating ourselves on MPA in children and adolescents is a necessary step in the development of strategies that will prevent and reduce this condition in young musicians. If this anxiety disorder can be lessened at an earlier age, the severity of MPA in adulthood will be correspondingly reduced. Moreover, by incorporating teaching practices that minimize symptoms of MPA, there is great potential for fewer students’ abandoning music as they shift from childhood to adolescence, and then into adulthood.

Works Cited:

Kenny, D. T., & Osborne, M. S. “Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights From Young Musicians.” Advances in Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 2 (3). 2006. 103-112.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Summary: What Are Musical Identities, And Why Are They Important

In the collaborative work entitled, What Are Musical Identities, and Why Are They Important, written by Hargreaves, Miell, and MacDonald, the primary discussion is based on the idea of music as a fundamental means of communication. The authors state that music provides the ability to communicate, even though there no spoken language shared; and it also provides the necessary lifeline to human interaction for those with special needs.

As a young student in elementary school, I often volunteered my musical abilities by performing the piano for local senior recreational centres. On the surface, the music provided entertainment, but on a deeper level, the music was a catalyst for communication. Through sharing music, I was permitted the opportunity to interact and converse with the participants on a much deeper level; the music destroyed in potential barriers due to culture or age.

Another identity, in which music is described, is that of a tool to create experiences. Due to the advancement in technology, these experiences have become more diverse than any time in the past. In the area of consumer marketing, music is utilized to create a mood to increase sales in shopping venues. As an example, a trendy clothing store will attempt to make a quick sale by making an insecure shopper feel young, alive and vivacious by creating the ambience with the latest playlist by Lady Gaga at high volume. There is much psychology in music.

Hargreaves, Miell and MacDonald report that the objective of the music psychologist is to investigate the multifaceted ways in which we engage with music-creating, performing, listening and appraising- and try to explain the mechanisms underlying its powerful influence on behavior. Music in the context of social psychology is to investigate the effects of particular listening and performing/composing situations as well as cultural standards and norm.

From my experiences, I am able to view music as a multi-layered entity with diverse applications and identities in society. I have had the opportunities to apply music in the following manners in my practice as a music therapist:

• As a tool induce and deepen the state of relaxation
• To create an atmosphere which is conducive for memory stimulation
• Music as an instrument for teaching basic learning objectives

What I have been able to grasp from this reading is that music has the capabilities to function as a means to alter mood, as well as to create an environment; however, it is unable to determine the experience of the listener.

A keen supporter of music research and psychology, I believe that with further comprehension and acceptance as to the true powers of music, music will once again obtain the credibility which it once possessed long ago.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Teamwork in the Music Room – Ellen Criss, MENC Sept. 2010


The article opens with an example of school athletic culture and a band director who is wistfully dreaming of a similar one in their classroom. In both aspects of teamwork, there is an emphasis of the team over the individual, and the article further sites practical applications for this type of team work in the business world.

When comparing the two activities (athletics and music) the author finds many similarities. One is that in both cases students tend to score higher on achievement tests and have higher GPA’s. This is due to the individual’s commitment to the group through the specific role they play. Both groups need to play or perform their abilities for others and produce a product out of a common goal. But the author also notes that teachers need to encourage and foster this behaviour as student performers need to be taught how to work together for this goal.

Teenagers long to be part of a group and music educators need to be aware that many of them with join band or choir to feel like part of the group rather then for musical experiences. Students are intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, and socially nurtured when they join a performing ensemble because of the formation of subcultures within the group.

The article offers ideas that can be used to build these effective musical teams. One is creation of a shared experience between all members, regardless of their reasons for joining the group initially, by letting members have a save in the group decisions. Another is the emphasis of collaborative effort and the presence of a sense of community. This can be achieved by treating each member of the group with fairness and accurate assessment through mentoring or team leaders.

If the ensemble has an honest and constructive atmosphere then students can begin the emotionally support one another with positive peer pressure about commitment to rehearsals. The connection between the individual members leads to the overall team identity. Team identity involves many facets, such as loyalty, team activities, motivation, and transmission of tradition. The article encourages team interaction outside of the rehearsal time to help create the unique identity of the ensemble.


I enjoyed reading this article because I find many students do not see the immediate connections between sports and band. As an educator I fully believe in both and therefore always try to organize my rehearsal time around the sports’ schedule at my school. I do not want to have students choose between band and sports and if the conflict ever arises, I want them to be able to approach both their conductor and their coach to work out a solution. We need to model the interdepartmental relationships between sports and band by talking to our colleagues and working out a solution that benefits the students.

The values of teamwork are so apparent in sports because you can visually recognize the common goal. If the goal is to get the ball, we can see players running for it and achieving that goal. Unfortunately in band, we often do not see the perfect articulation within the phrase or the level of concentration from all the students who are working on that goal. It’s not as easily accessible to spectators. So I liked when the author wrote about setting common goals in band because it gives the students ownership and pride in achieving them, even if the audience does not always understand when they have been reached.

I like that the article emphasized the importance of identity building within the ensemble and that it needs to be created by the students themselves. As a band conductor, I find there is a delicate balance between allowing students room to experiment and make decisions with support and encouraging them to push beyond their current abilities.

Commitment is a large problem at my school (not just in band) as students seem to just “forget” about rehearsals or practices despite reminders. It is a lot more beneficial if students use the author’s idea of “positive peer pressure” to create the culture of commitment within the ensemble rather then the teacher reprimanding the students’ for their absences.

I think this is also why festivals and performances outside of school is so important as it makes students accountable for their actions within the ensemble. It also, as the article points out, further creates the culture within the ensemble where students can trust each other and have fun. Teamwork is a valuable life skill this article has shown that it can be taught in school, whether in sports or band.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

“Sharing Musical Instruments Not Always Healthy for Kids” March 16th, 2011 – Andrea Gordon, Toronto Star


Oklahoma State University researchers examined 13 brass and woodwind instruments shared by school students and discovered micro-organisms linked to asthma, skin infections, and other illnesses and allergies. Their results were published in the journal “General Dentistry”.
Researchers took swabs from 117 sites on mouthpieces, internal chambers and cases. They found 442 different bacteria, including species of staphylococcus, 58 types of mould and 19 yeasts, similar to what’s commonly found on dentures, athletic mouthguards and toothbrushes.
According to anecdotal reports from the teacher, half the band students at any given time had experienced respiratory ailments like asthma or bronchitis. The music staff at the Toronto District School Board were not available to comment, but a St. John’s Music retailer emphasized the importance of keeping the mouthpiece clean and disinfecting the instruments in between uses. They also encouraged parents to purchase their own mouthpieces.


I think parents and music educators alike need to look at this article in context and with a little perspective. Firstly, this article is lacking a severe amount of information to make this a credible source. Where is this school? Is it an elementary or secondary school? How often do the students play the instruments? How many students per instrument? Do they already have a method for cleaning the instruments in place? And if so, what is their current practice?
Why is it that music practices are attacked but not other subjects? Why are there no studies comparing the amount of bacteria found on music instrument mouthpieces to other areas in the school, say the student desks where they eat their lunch or the sports equipment used in the gym?
Reading this critically, I find myself questioning the motives of this article. Firstly, why write it at all? Ideally we would think it is to inform the public of possible hazards in the music room, but if this is the real agenda, then why don’t they explain what precautions are being used by music educators to prevent further problems in this field, other than encouraging students to purchase their own mouthpieces?
Also, who benefits from this article? We would like to think the students would, considering the article expresses the need for music education, yet the article does not include the students’ voices. They do not present a view from someone who is experiencing what goes on in the music room but they do include a statement from St. John’s Music retailer encouraging parents to purchase students their own mouthpieces.
So finally we need to ask the most important question, and that is who is the intended audience of this article? It is presented in a public forum and needs to be written in a form that is accessible to most readers. So the article is directed of parents/guardians of students in music classes and ultimately it is encouraging parents to take an active role in supporting music education in their schools by using scare tactics and unsupported statistics.
What does this article mean for music educators? I think the teachers in the Toronto District School Board made the right choice by not commenting for the article. Some may read that as fear or lack of ability to argue against the topic, but I think it demonstrates the lack of validity in this article if they are not even going to bother to respond to the questions. Music educators should be prepared though. This article could prompt more parents/guardians to phone the music teachers with questions about the sterilization practice in the music classroom. Hopefully this will not adversely affect the students’ musical experiences in and out of the classroom and educators will be able to continue teaching without unnecessary interruption.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Implications for Enhancing Creativity (T. Amabile)


Creativity is often regarded as a skill, and often misleads many to believe they “lack” or “entail” this component. Teresa Amabile’s chapter on enhancing creative suggests that every human “entails” the creativity component, it is the stage that is provided for them that causes one to believe whether or not he/she has the ability. A simple task such as “brainstorming” is one of the most popular and widely known methods, which in fact has proven to enhance creativity in a human mind. Amabile examines creative-training programs, describing the benefits that these programs can provide for young learners when they interact with one another. Composed of two portions – generation of idea and evaluating the idea, brainstorming suggests an opportunity for individuals to find their ideas. Moreover, brainstorming as described in the article is one of the few methods that allow for everyone’s opinion to count, to matter and not allow for criticism in the moment. It is through the process of brainstorming, that good ideas form, and furthermore, are put into account for. It is after completing the process that will deduce a product. Thus, Amabile argues for Alex Osborn’s brainstorming theory, suggesting that brainstorming allows quantity to stir up quality in the end. Though brainstorming may not always produce the best solutions, it is definitely analyzed as one of the most strategic solution applicable to stimulating creativity in a subject area.

A group process known as synectics developed by William Gordon provides an opportunity for ideas to be thought through, make happen, tested, re-thought, re-made and re-tested. In this process, the creative component is more noticeable, as individuals require careful thought towards the subject discussed. Furthermore, it is necessary for the individuals to comprise their own ideas towards the subject matter in order to provide different point of views. Amabile analyzes and suggests that this procedure not only allows for more emotions to be incorporated, but also stimulates greater directions in the end. Using four stages of personal, direct, symbolic and fantasy analogy, synectics allows for one to be placed in different perspectives of the subject, stimulating more creative elements throughout the process. Yet to be researched on the level of effectiveness, synectics suggested by Amabile can be a useful method applicable in the classroom.

Amabile provides a further analysis of studying creativity via experimental groups that were tested. The two groups analyzed studied the same material; however one was controlled while the other was not. Results not only proved that uncontrolled participants showed significant increase in their level of originality as well as flexibility.

Issues raised in Amabile’s article hint that creativity requires a suitable space for individuals to train and develop on. For instance, many creative programs put emphasis on cognitive procedures, where the focus falls on methods and rules that lead towards generating new ideas. In this case, creativity from a social psychological perspective becomes more limiting. Given the option of “choosing” plays a huge role in a child’s level of creativity, those that had a choice have showcased elements of higher creativity, while those who had no choice, produced less. As well, the concept of “modeling” also has shown through certain particular studies that will improve creativity in individuals. The question then becomes, which methods are most affective for teachers in the classroom?

A section on implications and music education provided by the author, suggests many applications teachers can select from. The first and basic factor is to provide the appropriate atmosphere and environment for creativity to occur, having special programs and/or materials handy for those who showcase special “talents”, can provide a leeway for creativity to be developed even further. Setting aside time in the classroom for “discovering” and identifying is a crucial step, hence Amabile’s suggestion on “quantity” over “quality”. Allowing students the opportunity to explore and find their ideas and answers should be allotted into lessons in order for creativity to develop. Allowing interaction and providing encouragement in the “field of” creativity should be consistent throughout the classroom, so that all students have equal amount of chances to develop their creative mind.


In the later portion of Amabile’s chapter on creativity, the author stimulates many interesting points towards how to teach, rather than what to teach. From an educator’s standpoint, this is an important aspect, and technically speaking, a component of creativity – in which quantity should be applied in the classroom from time to time, instead of focusing on quality. In order to avoid children’s creativity steering in the wrong direction, Amabile provides several reminders, including focusing on intrinsic elements, rather than the extrinsic motive. Students (and parents) are often misguided and simply read final grades in report cards and assessments, comments and the process always seem to be neglected. Through the lens of Amabile’s perspective on creativity, I see the consequences if quality were put as the main focus.

Amabile suggests the more control framed on creativity, the less effective it will be in the end. I definitely see truth in this statement, because creativity is one of the most difficult components to frame a ‘grade’ on. Often, it is purely up to the individual’s mind set, as well as what he/she may be thinking throughout the process of brainstorming and developing their final thought. Similarly speaking, music’s field of ‘improvisation’ seems to fall under the same roof in which it is often very challenging to judge whether or not a piece of improvised music is ‘creative or not’? Yet, improvisation allows for an individual to explore, apply brainstorming ideas to, and ‘evaluate’ from different perspectives whether or not his/her ideas followed through. In this situation, the idea of quantity is applied first, rather than looking at the final product itself.

I think this is an element that requires a lot of balancing in the classroom, for a classroom still requires a structural framework. However, once a teacher neglects the idea of creativity, quality has fully taken over quantity. I say this because creativity is a component that eats up time and requires planning on the teacher’s behalf. In many situations, it may be disregarded in order to keep up with scheduling and curriculum demands. Thus I say it requires strong classroom management and proper balancing techniques. Amabile suggests however, the consequences in the long run should creativity be neglected. This can close up doors to many individuals, especially those who show lack of confidence to begin with. In other words, teachers should be more considerate when planning around their lessons, in order to accommodate all different learners in their classroom, fitting creativity as an “essential element” into their lessons.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Summary: Music, Talent and Performance, A Conservatory Cultural System

In the book by Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System, I have chosen to focus on the chapter, The Parables of Talent.

The chapter opens with the phrase, "The linking of esteem between the person attributed with talent and the person or persons making the attribution leads to an observation that bears on the positive value placed on being "talented", the notion that talent is a "gift" to be envied or coveted." Kingsbury continues to elaborate on this idea, by insisting the moral obligations of musical development. The young person's talent is an attribution which demands development which benefits not only himself, but the community in which he is affiliated.

What does this statement mean? How does one relate the aforementioned information to one's personal experience and talent?

I see these comments as the introduction to my own personal realization of the "burden" of living with the label TALENT. Along with my ability to gracefully interpret great works on my major instrument, the piano, I soon also realized that with great "talent" came much responsibility. The ability of my younger self to confidently perform the works of Chopin was environmental, I was born into a musical family; however, my skills were reinforced by my long hours of practice. Once my true ability was realized by my family, the constant pressure to perform before random visitors to our home or at church increased; I received threats that God would take away my talent IF I refused to perform. Kingsbury states that from the Western biblical perspective, a musician's "talent" can be seen more as a property which belongs to a "cultural ideology" than as a property or characteristic of the individual.

Kingsbury writes that the manifesting and assessing of musical talent are greatly influenced by social powers and authority. He provides the examples of the college-aged student who has the opportunity to audition before the "critical ears" of teachers or who participates in a recital with highly competitive peers; these are considered, resources for the situation. These resources include the support and encouragement from the student's teacher, the student's general social maturity, and the music-technical and emotional preparation for the performance. Kingsbury concludes that the student may perceive this situation as adverse, nevertheless, that student has access to resources for dealing with these situations.

Drawing from my own experiences, I too see talent to be influenced by social powers. When I began to study piano, "formerly", at the age of 6 years, my music course commenced as the other first-graders in my teacher's home-studio; however, what distinguished my progress greatly from my colleagues was the fact that my family, who too were musically trained, were heavily involved in my music studies. These social powers, as referred to by Kingsbury, my family/community, provided the resources for further development as a musician, to eventually surpass the skills of my peers.

The other spectrum of talent, according to Kingsbury, comes from the numerous accounts of adults who experienced negative encounters with music as children. Due to the lack of support, these "untalented" adults, report themselves as "unmusical". However, Kingsbury believes that everyone has the capability to make music; the creation of music can be as simple as humming, while waiting for a bus.

Those granted permission to "participate" in music making is extremely subjective and selective. Society decides what music is and who can participate, creating parameters of what is considered, as appropriate for "human consumption". I, as a piano instructor, observe various levels of abilities; however, I also understand that ALL students need encouragement to help them reach their own potential, independent of the skills possessed by other students.

In short, the label of "talent" is an ideology ascribed by society, without the acknowledgment of a student's background, sufficient access to quality music instruction, a supportive environment, and finances. These resources, in my opinion, are factors which assist in shaping and directing the young mind and ability for future success.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

“Reaching and Teaching all Instrumental Music Students” – Kevin Mixon

(Published in Partnership with MENC)


This book addresses the needs of “less than ideal” teaching and learning situations in real classrooms. Mixon addresses the variety of learners, lack of equipment, and a host of other topics that other textbooks may overlook.

The book begins with the four components of recruiting: skills assessment, instrument demonstration, information letter, and tone production assessment. These methods all serve to make the students and parents aware of the individual musical needs of the students. Mixon gives tips on making recruiting accessible to students, like using previous students to demonstrate instruments and using musical instrument games to quickly assess their levels of ability.

There are specific relevant sections that go beyond pedagogy though, such as what to in economically disadvantaged schools where the school owns all the instruments and it is not safe for the students to take them home to practice. The author stresses the importance of relationship building with the students in order to recruit them to the program and maintain their interest.

There are sections about teacher demeanor, avoiding boredom for the players, parents, and performance. Here Mixon writes about the culture of music in your school and how we as educators need to show our enthusiasm about our subject matter to be an agent of change. He gives many tips on how to deal with colleagues and parents and how to perform successfully through public venues.

One important issue he addresses is the consideration of students living in poverty and diverse cultures. Revolving enrollment and cultural learning styles are key factors when teaching in a less than ideal situation as well as using cultural relevancy to foster meaning in music making. He suggests phasing in new students and even simplifying the parts to ensure they can participate as soon as possible.

Mixon dedicates a whole chapter to parents and the interpersonal skills required when interacting with them. He stresses the importance to maintaining a positive relationship with parents where students and their needs are the main focus. He even includes part of a research script where students talk about their teacher calling home and how it improved their marks. The author broadens the scope of parental influence to administrators and community awareness to include all people who have an influence on the students’ experience in musical education.

There is a brief section on pedagogy used to maximize rehearsal time and minimize disruption, such as lesson planning and the rehearsal space itself. Mixon uses a system of coloured cards to monitor individual behaviour and a cup of marbles to maintain group behaviour and remind the educator when to call home for certain students.

The chapter about teaching for different learning styles encourages the music educator to move away from traditional lecture-style teaching to incorporate all types of learners, such as audio and visual, in the lessons. Mixon gives strategies for specific concepts, such as tuning, and ways we can correct or teach them for different learning styles.

The chapter on exceptional learners contains a condensed version of the pervious chapters but through a lens that focuses on these specific students. He encourages educators to consider what would benefit the students most when it comes to instrument selection and modifications of the curriculum, such as colour coding notation or using visual aids.

Mixon gives step-by-step instructions on how to introduce musical notation to students depending on their instrument. He advocates singing in solfege syllables and “air playing” to get students used to breathing in time with the beat. Similar to these instructions, he also offers a guide to teaching improvisation and composition beginning with rhythms and progressing to melodies.


I enjoyed reading Mixon’s book and found most of it relevant to my own teaching position. I particularly liked his chapters on recruiting and maintaining interest in band, as I am currently in the first year of a band program at my school. I think his disclaimer in the introduction about how these ideas are for “less than ideal” teaching situations and not “urban” school is extremely poignant, as all of these concepts can be applied to teaching in any music classroom. Every school has its share of exceptional learners and economically disadvantaged students and every music teacher should consider these factors when beginning or building on an existing music program.

There were a few issues I noticed as perhaps underdeveloped or requiring further explanation. One is the letter home to parents. Mixon offers a template letter to send home that I find rather difficult to read, as a majority of my students’ parents/guardians are English Language Learners themselves and struggle with reading for meaning.

He also says that he gives out his home number to parents in case they can’t reach him at school or do not have email access. Even though he states that you have to determine your own comfort level with this, I can’t advocate this practice for anyone. Aside from the possible issues with students and/or parents abusing the connection, I think it is important for teachers to maintain a certain level of separation between school and home. I think that if you blur the lines between these two spheres of influence it could lead to a higher burn-out rate of teachers. I think there needs to be “down-time” where teachers do not think about school and can take care of their own mental health.

Another method in the book that I questioned was his approach to classroom management. He uses these systems of cards and marbles in a jar and when you “lose your marbles” out of the jar for misbehaviour he calls home. I haven’t tried this strategy in my classroom, but I think the more mature students would be offended that I was using a more junior strategy to cope with classroom behavious and the more immature students will find it funny that I am trying to manipulate their behaviour with marbles. Then again, it does serve as a nice visual for behaviour students who have a difficult time determining what is appropriate in a school setting. When you have a class with several behaviour individual education plans or safety plans I think you need to tailor your strategies more to their needs and try as many different ones as you can until you find something that works.

Although I have questioned a few of Mixon’s strategies, I think it is fair to point out that they have worked for him for the last few decades and could possibly work for other teachers too. Perhaps one year I will have a class that will respond positively to these ideas and the strategies presented in this book will become more relevant. I think what is important here is that he is creating and re-inventing positive ideas that he has used in the classroom and he is sharing them with the music educator community. I believe it is important to work together to ensure our students have an authentic musical experience in the classroom and the only way we can attempt that is by collectively sharing our thoughts and strategies as Mixon does in this book.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Focusing on Music Pedagogic Culture (L. Bartel)


Our changing and shifting cultural patterns has created a great impact in school culture. Through the eyes of Deal and Peterson, both authors strongly believe the changing effects of society’s beliefs, values and traditions are key essential to the structure of school culture. Bartel’s article on the culture of music pedagogy helps educators think and re-think whether or not ‘culture’ is defined the same way in each school system. Furthermore, does the culture defined in school help shape pedagogies that teachers follow in their daily practice. To better understand the concept of ‘pedagogical practices in a school culture’, one must first understand the idea and definition of ‘culture’. For the purpose of the article, Edgar Schein’s definition is applied, stating that culture of a group is “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (Bartel, 1). While the term may seem lengthy, Schein’s perspective targets the ‘evolution’ of culture, indicating that if humans are not aware of the culture they live in, culture will end up directing them.

In order for music educators to be fully aware of the culture they teach in, Schein raises several factors that can serve as a guide in the school system, including observing behavior, the ‘norms’, values, and philosophy. Bartel analyses Schein’s theory furthermore, by providing a set of ‘lenses’ for teachers to use when applying pedagogy to culture. The first (important) lens is the Role of the Teacher, meaning the role that the teacher plays in the classroom is the initial starting point for shaping culture amongst the student body. These can be as simple as taking attendance, and can be as large as goal setting for the entire semester. Depending on the school system and school environment the teacher is in, his/her role may differ, however it is up to the teacher to take the first step in diagnosing what is required to create a good cultural system in the music classroom.

Lens 2 naturally would be the role of the student, or more specifically Expectation of the Student, because a classroom entails a two way street, where students need to play their part in responding to the goals established by/with the teacher. These tasks include meeting the curriculum requirements and developing skills to be able to make music on their own. Naturally these two tasks will include sub-factors such as practicing skills, motivation, leadership skills and much more. This not only will create more rehearsal and learning experiences during class, but will also help induce more positive communication amongst peers, teachers and parents.

Lens 3 and 4 involve Teacher-Student Relationship as well as Preferred Repertoire. A teacher-student relationship must be healthy in the classroom in order for a positive learning environment to be created. Once a teacher understands his/her student body, and as students get to know the teaching style and atmosphere of their teacher, a positive relationship is formed. Knowing so, lens 4 will start to shape as the music teacher and students create together become a task both parties enjoy. Therefore, when lens 5 appears, Evaluation and Assessment, teachers will be able to accommodate and modify their system of evaluation in order to prove student success as well as leave room for improvement, allowing students to strive towards the next goal. Lens 5 as described by Bartel is a key turning point that can steer in the wrong direction should teachers make assumptions or have preconceptions about their classroom and the abilities of their students. Thus, lens 6 and 7 reminds educators to evaluate carefully the Value and Purpose of Music as well as The Appropriate Response to Music. Depending on the culture that the school is set in, values towards music, and the purpose of music making will alter. Not allowing culture to take over the system is important, yet keeping in mind the demographics of the school culture can be useful for teachers when designing and planning their curriculum.

The final and 8th lens described by Bartel is Musical Knowledge and Skill, which is a concept that teachers should be aware of, yet probably one of the hardest to tackle. The term ‘music’ becomes a big key word, whether or not teachers acknowledge it, without doubt, not every student will become the 'world stage performer’. Having said so, each student does have the ability to make music, therefore teachers should avoid jumping into the pool of pushing their students towards the big performing venues across the world. Using these 8 lenses (beliefs), teachers will be able to use them in their particular cultural zone. There is no ‘specific’ way to teach music, however there are similar factors that will influence how teachers teach music. These are the cultures that shape students, and should be constantly revisited in order for culture to be a part of the classroom, rather be the controlling affect of the classroom.


I really enjoyed reading this article because of the wide range of perspectives it showed. After reflecting on the 8 lenses, I realized however it does have its restrictions – essentially restricting educators to think about the purpose of teaching, and how to teach it without letting cultural effects take over their classroom. I think it is a hard task to sustain and manage, simply because there are so many influencing factors that come from culture today. More so at a younger age, when children are exposed to so many media impacts, they can very well come to class the following day with a new trend that can spread amongst the student body within seconds. Standing the grounds from the teacher’s perspective becomes such an important task, yet at the same time it can’t create an even bigger barrier between student and teacher, cutting off positive communication and damaging the classroom atmosphere.

I paid attention especially to lens 5, in which the discussion on Evaluation and Assessment was raised. Even though a standard grading system is implemented in many school boards, there are too many individual cases that I have seen where students don’t quite fit exactly into the rubric of a level 3 or level 4. What happens to the grade of these students then? How is there overall average affected? More importantly, how does this affect their self-esteem level in the long run? Specifically speaking towards the music grade, I think it is one of the subjects that are hard to achieve in the first few years, simply because it requires a certain amount of time in order to achieve a good sound, play the average repertoire, etc. Students will easily feel ‘bummed out’ when their violin still doesn’t sound in-tune, or their fingers can’t move as fast to play the pop-tune they chose. How do we grade these students then? Standard evaluation perhaps focuses too much on the end product of the task, instead of looking at the progression and the procedure it takes in order to work towards the final product.

Lens 8 also brought me to think more critically about the purpose of teaching music. 8 out of 10 children begin music lessons because to their parents, it is almost a ‘norm’ to do so. Moreover, another ‘norm’ that has become popular in the last decade is ‘examination’. Parents send their children to lessons, with an undermining idea that they will go test for such and such grade by such and such time. Teaching at home privately and at music studios have brought my attention to how parents seek out new music teachers nowadays. Besides looking at the qualifications of the teacher, they will also ask through inquiry when their child can prepare for such grade, or how long does the teacher think their child will need before they go for the next exam? Should this be the fundamental to teaching? Personally I think this an example proving Schien’s theory when culture has managed humans. In order to avoid it in the future, standardized testing shouldn’t be the only thing that is brought up in conversation between teacher, student and parents. Rather, encouraging music making in and outside the classroom, for learning, for practice, for leisure can be a task teachers should consider more and more when communicating with students and parents.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Shankar Mahadevan Launches Online Music Academy (Article Reflection)

Shankar Mahadevan launches online music academy

Press Trust of India

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 (Houston)


I read an interesting article that announced the establishment of an online academy of music education. Indian composer and musician Shankar Mahadevan will be launching the Shankar Mahadevan Academy with the hopes of changing the music education of non-resident Indian residents living in the United States. His goal is to provide the NRIs "closer to their roots and impart structured education in Indian classical music simply from the convenience of their homes." The online academy will provide its students with the two items that Mahadevan deems as essential to any learning environment: a textbook and access to a teacher. The site will act as the text, and the online teachers will be available during specific, scheduled times throughout the day. According to Mahadevan, customarily within the culture of traditional Indian music, students are taught in a very informal and unstructured manner; his online academy is now imparting “structure” and “form” to classical Indian music, and filling this existing gaps, which separate this music from that which is learned in other institutes of music education, such as Berklee College or Juilliard School of Music. Additionally, the online music academy will also incorporate methods of using technology to make the act of acquiring a “high-quality music education” through a way that makes it “fun”, and available to NRIs worldwide. Courses offered through the Shankar Mahadevan community will unfold over a 12 week duration, and will be taught through a combination of the online music textbook OM (Online Music), interactive music lessons with a qualified music teacher, and assessments. Upon successful completion of these courses, students will receive a certificate in their area of study, including: Carnatic and Hindustani vocal courses or in one of the other individual courses in Bollywood, folk, religious chanting, and other styles of music instruction.


Through my first reading of the article describing Shankar Mahadevan’s online music education academy it sounds like the perfect solution, to a common, cultural musical problem. It’s eloquent wording and ease of global access that provides a “high quality Indian Music education” to learners, almost effortlessly, seems to be too good to be true. However, a closer review of this capitalistic venture highlights some of the shortcomings and contradictory aspects to this approach at providing a culturally-rich context of music education. For instance, Mahadevan emphasizes the “unstructured”, informal, yet culturally specific way in which Indian classical music is taught. In my eyes, I see this very mode of Indian classical music education as being one of its defining features, and one which should be preserved in order to fully engage in a meaningful, music experience, as per Indian cultural tradition. I see the very practice of music acquisition in a culture, be it Indian, North American, or any one of the global plethora of others, as being a crucial element of the music itself. This online academy has ignored this informally-learned aspect of the rich Indian musical culture, and has instead, transformed it into an economic commodity in order to generate a profit, in a musical style that is not Indian, but is instead, very much North American, in nature. When music stops being taught, learned, and experienced for its very sake, but is instead produced and sold as a consumer “good”, we have lost the essence of music. Mahadevan’s academy is one such case. Moreover, by reducing traditional Indian classical music from a musical experience that is learned by doing, observing, and participating in shared musical moments to that which is learned through reading, and practicing by oneself, it also shows a clear divergence from the music itself. When the purpose of music-making is no longer the experience and activity itself but it is the receipt of a certificate declaring one’s musicality, we must reevaluate. Traditional Indian classical music is lost in this online academy.

In my approach to music teaching, I try to hold the musical genre and the learner in close proximation. Thus, I attempt to keep the music within its most appropriate context, and try to ensure that the teaching and learning process is carried out in a way that remains true to the specific music that is being taught. All genres cannot be approached in a one-dimensional teaching model, nor do all musics fit all learners or audiences. I will emphasize musical understanding and technical proficiency, as, and to the degree that it applies to the music itself, but I will also try to ensure that the student does not lose sight of the larger musical experience; this happens when music becomes a joint experience between not only myself and my student(s), but with an audience of listeners to share in this musical event. While the pursuit of musical excellence and proficiency provides feelings of self-worth, and self-accomplishment, I see the act of music making as one that needs to be enjoyed in a social context, as opposed to isolation. This article reminds me how important the social aspect of music truly is, and makes me anxious to continue to seek out opportunities for both myself and my students to both listen to the music created and shared by those around us, and also, to share and participate in collective experiences of music.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Music as Therapy: A Bio-Cultural Problem (A Review)

Music as Therapy: A Bio-Cultural Problem by Carol E. Robertson-DeCarbo discusses the application of music as a healing tool from a cultural perspective. The article also presents various views of mental illness, symptomotology and physiology, from social anthropology with the intention of validating the significance of cultural cognition as demonstrated by the role of music in psychotherapy. For the purpose of this article discussion, I will primarily centre the summary on the segments which discuss the diverse cultural approaches to music as a tool of therapy.

Robertson-DeCarbo writes that one may find difficulty in defining mental illness, (symptoms, treatment, and hospitalization) on a cross-cultural level. What may be viewed as acceptable behaviour in one society may have a different significance in another.

As we are living in a multi-cultural society, I, as a practitioner of music therapy, see the value and importance of validating the cultural beliefs of the client and then working with that client to deliver a program which is conducive to healing. This can be achieved by prescribing music therapy which utilizes musical elements with cultural relevance to the client.

Robertson-DeCarbo (1974) states that in order to relate music as therapy and its relevance to ethnomusicology and anthropology, the following criteria should first be considered:

a) Culture as the provider of series (or sets) of communication.

b) A system of neurological mediating schemata through which the individual selects appropriate behavioural patterns condoned by his society.

c) Culture as the provider of an “environment” or context for mental illness.

d) Culture as therapy through possible re-association and re-ordering of communication sets.

e) Methods (in this case, music) by which a series of communications can be restated for the reinforcement of the behavioural values set by the social context.

The brain is a powerful instrument; within the cortex of the temporal lobe, the knowledge of ‘how to respond’ is stored, says Robertson-DeCarbo (1974). She explains that extensive research has been performed on how information is filtered through the complex system of schemata in a constant flow of signals. Most psychopathic cases, according to Robertson-DeCarbo, not resulting from chemical alterations, point to a breakdown in communication, indicating that ‘traffic directions’ have been confused. She proposes the idea of the ability of music to help re-establish this lost communication.

Western therapists, as stated by Robertson-DeCarbo, are beginning to note that music is often the only effective stimulus for many psychotic patients, in particular those in a catatonic stage. She writes that a person who often refuses to eat, sit in more than one position, speak, or even open his/hers eyes will often respond to sound stimulus.

When I was a music therapy intern at a psychiatric hospital, I had the opportunity to work with a patient with similar “inhibitions” as described above. The patient was a young Haitian woman (between 17-19 yrs of age) who refused to eat the food provided by the hospital. The young woman complained several times that she was not familiar with the food.

During one of our weekly music therapy sessions, I paired music from her native Haiti with her dinner time. The music, as stated by Robertson-DeCarbo, created an environment which was familiar as well as safe for the young woman. The result was 4 spoons of mashed potatoes eaten.

While at the same internship facility, I had another enlightening encounter with a patient, an older woman from Korea with a pre-diagnosed psychosis, who refused to speak. She would often wander the halls, seemingly disconnected from her environment. Following some discussion with the music therapy supervisors, I took the initiative to create a music listening activity where Korean gospel music would be played for the music therapy group. The immediate response from the Korean patient was a smile of acknowledgment to me, followed by singing, as she recognized the music. Music is a powerful tool which can be effective in evoking verbal response.

Robertson-DeCarbo states that the music approach in therapy has been used in folk psychiatry for centuries. She says that the aim of music therapists in Western culture is to bring about changes in behaviour through music. The goal of the non-Western curing specialist is also to bring about change through external stimuli, one of which is music. In both cases, the music serves as the bridge to re-establish and reinforce the patient’s past social background and context to the world she/he has been disconnected.

This article has provided useful information as to the importance of music in therapy. It has also validated the application of music, when utilized in a cultural context, to create an atmosphere which promotes communication and participation. In short, the use of music as an intervention tool can be a great compliment to any helping profession.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs and classical music

Article: mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs and classical music (Blair Tindall)


An article that describes the “dark side” of musical training to many young students, Blair Tindall addresses many issues that students may encounter throughout the course of taking private musical lessons – in which these issues may not be exposed nearly as much to the world, nor are many people in society even aware of the consequences.

Behind closed doors to a music studio, students have suffered consequences of being asked or told to do tasks they may feel uncomfortable in, or possibly what is regarded as harassment. Because teaching music involves physical contact, the thin line draws between whether or not the teacher is still teaching the pupil, or he/she may be possessing thoughts of action that can bring harm to the pupil’s personal space and rights.

Spatial awareness becomes a very important key concept as young pupils are thrown into competitive situations in school, orchestra and amongst their own age group. Playing for the first time in a large orchestral situation not only can be nerve-racking but stimulate a sense of fear and worry. In these situations, the look and attitude of an authoritative figure becomes a key turning point. One smile can bring more relaxation to the pupil’s fingers and emotion, one frown can also steer the course in a total different direction. As the authoritative figure – conductor, teacher, colleague, etc – has the power to assist or fail the student, what choice should he/she make when these students are put up for the task of playing a solo or demonstrating what everyone considers to be virtuosic?

Blair describes her first orchestral playing experience, in which she was expected to play a solo passage in front of the orchestra. Naturally, stage freight kicked in as her heart pounded faster and louder. Harsanyi’s, her conductor at the time, choice of attitude to approach her first “stage appearance” most certainly did not help at all, including rough comments, frowns, as well as direct criticism in front of the entire orchestra. Verbal abuse tore Blair apart as she finished her passage trembling with fear. Without doubt, her level of confidence was immediately smashed, and would most certainly require large periods of time to overcome.

As a freshmen entering a music program, Blair fell into the traps of sex, drugs and alcohol. After her first failed rehearsal, comforting words and caring faces welcomed her into a totally different world, in which she felt a sense of home, a fallback, people she could turn to. Jose, a senior violinist who introduced her to all these “wonderful” aspects of college. It didn’t last long before Blair realized what she experienced was all short term. Nevertheless, her “social” life at school effected her love towards music deeply, as she began to doubt her own skills, question her future and re-think whether or not she would even want to continue a musical path?

Blair’s musical journey continued to be a roller coaster as she fell even further down into the affects of drugs, sex and alcohol. She soon resorted to “Phil” (a woodwinds teacher) after Jose dumped her, in which Phil was able to provide her with all of what Jose had, with the addition of money. Her story stretched from the United States all the way to Europe as she had the opportunity to tour with the student orchestra – naturally Phil was by her side.

As if the roller coaster ride came to an end, Blair returned to her “regular” dorm life, attempting to finish her senior year, turning to drugs for comfort when needed. An opportunity to visit New York city allowed her to fantasize what it would be like to be a musician in a big city? Mingling with other artists in fields of drama and dance, Blair heard similar stories from students that experienced what she went through. Dancers struggled especially when they (re)considered their sexual identity as well as their physical appearance. What does this all mean for musicians of the future? Blair questioned and re-questioned. As commencement approached, and she had successfully completed her music program, Blair could not bring herself to feeling proud. What lies ahead for her now? Is this what she really wants or has experienced? She did not have an answer.


The ‘ugly truth’ of music education was showcased through Blair’s story, revealing the dark side to music making and learning. Though her story was American based, numerous “Blair’s” can be found across the world, for it is almost a “human” trait to behave in certain ways. I was always aware of Blair’s stories, however never knowing that it would be this extreme. Naturally, different demographics in the world may have different variations of Blair’s story, yet the fundamentals that cause these stories will most likely be the same.

Music in my mind shouldn’t be this ‘hard’ to learn, nor should it become a weapon for human interaction to become such a harmful experience. The positive notes and lessons taught to teachers in teacher training programs are only there for good measures, what lies beneath the table and behind closed doors should be a bigger issue for parents, students and teachers to be aware of. If all musicians experienced Blair’s story, what does this say about our future generation? How is music being portrayed?

Music has always been recognized as a method to be expressive, and allow humans to indulge in their own emotions while sharing (or not) it with the world. I think educators need to constantly think about this concept, and possibly re-think their philosophies to teaching, allowing them to “stay on track” even after years of teaching music. A pupil is like a young tree, in which it is up to the grower to nurture it, water it, and shape it. Many teachers neglect the fact that the “shaping” process is often the most difficult and most easiest to drive off-course. Blair’s story was a great example of her initial contact with her teacher(s) turning out to be a negative start, causing her to go downhill from there and on. Using her story as a reminder, I think teachers need to remember and look upon the consequences before they begin “shaping” a student in the wrong direction.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Behalf of the Ugly in Music (A Review)

Richard Marsella, in his writing "On Behalf of the Ugly in Music" (Marsella, 2004), raises the idea of employing "wild" sounds which we often consider to be "noise" into our musical practices. Broadening our creative visions of what constitutes music, allowing it to include the sounds by which we are constantly surrounded, in our daily lives, inspires our imaginations and entices young learners as it holds such unlimited potential. He challenges all music teachers to question what they define as the "good", "beautiful" music, and instead, work towards expanding their musical curriculum to include various unusual sources and practices of music production. Marsella's end goal is much more diverse musical smorgasbord.

Humans tend to dwell on the "beautiful" musics, which, according to Marsella, stifles our imaginations. Our view of how music must sound is one that is shaped by our society. It becomes glaringly obvious to the youngest of music students, just what sounds are "ugly", and which we instead, are taught and reminded to always aspire to produce. It is not generally accepted, as music educators, that we encourage our learners to hear various everyday sounds as potential elements of music, but rather to aim to replicate a sound that is familiar, and has been done, many times over. However, limiting our musical palates and failing to seek out new ways of hearing these sounds, is a step in the wrong direction. Instead, to reflect the constant transformation of our society, our music should be evolving to encompass new sounds and methods of musical production, in conjunction with our existing notions of traditional music. For instance, applying classical structure to newly created, "found" instruments, would shed light on a tradition that is becoming dated, and give it a more innovate, modern sound. Marsella suggests that we must not be afraid to explore the "darker sides of art". He goes on to say:
It has been important for me to approach music from every angle, from the recording of incredibly angry and sometimes destructive music, to the calming side of my solo classical guitar playing. I love these extremes in my musical personality, and embrace each side as viable commuicative forms. (p.138)

He also examines our fear of "chaos in music", and presents a strong argument to support its inclusion in our teaching practices. By removing some of the confines of musical structure, children are more apt to be excited to cultivating their own musical styles and tastes, and in turn, act as catalysts for our changing musical tastes. He continues on to highlight some of these noisy examples of music.

One such instance of the success that ensue from a lack of musical structure are the Nihilist Spasm Band, a group from London, Ontario, to which Marsella belongs. This collection of men, who are without any formalized musical training, relies upon their love for chaos and improvisation in their art of music-making. For 35 years, fuelled by their genuine love for music, alone, and relying upon only their homemade musical instruments, these men have established their reputation as a "pioneering [musical] group" (p.139). Despite their lack of formal structure and musical instruction, these men are united in their musical efforts, and continue to pursue these musical acts. Such leads Marsella to question our approach to music education.

The article continues on to discuss our desire to maintain a bland musical taste. Marsella compares the way we struggle to reproduce a musical copy of sounds that have been heard before, to that of a "fast-food diet" (p.140). Just as chefs are fearless in their flavourful experimentation, we as musicians must be brave in our search for new sounds, instruments, and in turn, musical creations. To do so, he encourages us to think differently about these new, formerly ugly sounds. Rather than working tirelessly at "polishing" (p. 144) our musical repertoire, without giving consideration to new possibilities or methods of interpretation and improvisation, we should follow the advice of Miles Davis and respect our musical mistakes. Such an idea would lead to challenge, and creative input, and give musical ownership to the performer. It is this very creative zest, and imagination, according to Marsella, that our current generation of young learners, our youth of today, is desperately lacking. He cautions that we must be careful not to allow the influence of our mass media to control and dictate the musical tastes of our children, as it causes them to blindly accept the musical trends which are easily accessible and driven by the mass media (p. 141). In doing so, our children lose their personal sense of identity and musical tastes, and simply subscribing to that of the majority.

Marsella's insights into what we have socially-constructed as comprising what is beautiful in music, causes me to reevaluate my own musical practices, dramatically. I will be the first to admit my guilt in this one-dimensional approach to music. A perfectionist by nature, I have always tended to stick to the established patterns of doing, especially when it comes to the music that I play and teach to my students. I have held the belief that in order for music to be the most correct and the most beautiful, one had to adhere to the strict musical structures and traditional methods. I did not consider myself to be musically successful until my own music bore perfect likeness to that of a recording; any unplanned uniqueness or creativity was reason to start again, or abandon the repertoire altogether. Musical genius was that which was predictable and premeditated. That was how I had been taught, how I viewed my musicianship, and how I approached my students. Reflecting on the idiocy of this vision, it is only now that I am losing my sense of guilt for being different, and in fact, proud to be so.

I struggled for many years following my undergraduate career in music. In my first year of study, I suffered a tremendous blow to my musical ego, and in turn, lost most of the confidence which I had in my musicianship; it seemed that my teacher felt I lacked any skill required to produce music as was necessary for my success as a performer. Taking his views to heart, I stopped playing for many years following my degree, and only recently, have regained the nerve to return to my passion for making music. I have finally realized that the measure of my musicianship is not my ability to copy and reproduce that which has been done before. Rather, it is in my freedom of approach and creative prowess where the best music is made. I do not have to hear my shaking fingers, shallow tone or uneven rhythms. Instead, I hear my interpretation, and my creative passion at work, and that is what fuels my love for music. Whether I am sitting at my piano, humming a familiar or improvised tune or simply walking with a rhythm and jingling my key chain, music is in the ears of the beholders. Marsella has made me realize that the more we allow ourselves to listen and hear different sounds, opening our minds to new musical possibilities, the greater the musical potential that we unleash. As musical educators, we hold the keys to unlocking our regimented, societal definition of beauty in music: as soon as we teach our students to be creative listeners, we, as a society will allow our musical tastes to become more diverse, and from there, the possibilities are endless!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic Turn Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ Into A Classical Battle -


The video opens with up-close shots of the cellos that fade in and out. Soon we are thrown into a story of images set in a bar: a woman exhaling the smoke of a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine, and laughing. We see a man in obvious discomfort, with his head down and running his fingers through his hair. As a wine glass falls off the table, the man gets up and runs towards the woman, who is sitting with another man. We see the brief beginnings of a fight as the two men meet and start pushing while the underpinnings of staccato cellos crescendo to accompany the transition into the next scene.

The scene changes to a concert hall and the physical battle becomes a musical one. The two men sit in the centre of the hall, with red chairs strewn around them in a rough circle and face off using their weapon of choice: the cello. What’s interesting is how this is supposed to be a battle, a competition, but these two musicians use similar body positions and movements, including bowing patterns. More importantly, their musical lines are dependent upon one another, making this a seamless dance between the two parties rather than the aggressive battle it is presented as.

As the camera moves from up-close shots of their faces and hands to circling them from a distance, the two performers bring the dynamic of their playing down in unison, only to further emphasize the songs chours played in harmony between the two cellos. We see this connectivity even more as the melody lines begin to overlap one another. Instead of an echo, the repetition of the line encroaches on the previous phrase in an aural representation of the decreasing physical space between the fighters.

The players become more aggressive with the hairs from their bows flying around and their heads bent over the cellos, but the one performer pauses to spin his cello around before continuing, suggesting an element of dance and theatrics. Finally the chorus is repeated in a higher octave, with more intensity, and ends with the performers releasing the tension from the phrase.

The video returns to the bar scene where the performers are physically fighting. Only now the music underscoring their fighting is subdued: an anti-climactic pizzicato, as if the musical performance representing the fight was more interesting then the real fight. When the main theme returns, the performers are back in the hall with one playing the melody and the other a descant over top. The video finally ends at the bar where the woman intervenes and the fights ceases. The woman leaves the bar on her own, not interested in either men due to their behaviour.


So what implications does this type of video have for us as music educators? I think it takes out the idea of “genre” in music; that classical instruments can play non-traditional or pop tunes. Students may see what they do in music class and not make the connection to the music they experience in their own lives. Music that blurs the line of distinction can help educators create meaningful lessons that encourage students to see the value of music appreciation outside of the classroom.

I also think it shows how music can be more than a passive concept of “notes on a page”. Here music, along with pictures, tells a story, and that story can be understood without the limitations of language. This video can open up a whole idea of concepts for music as well as cross-curricular subjects like Media Literacy and Character Education. There are many relationships in this video, between the performers, the woman, and the music itself. It would be interesting to see how students observe, interpret, and connect to these relationships. I think anything we can do as educators to facilitate those connections for our students helps to create enriching, meaningful experiences in our music classrooms.