NCCAS Music Standards Draft--Taking Pages From Ken Robinson And Our Other Arts Colleagues

Yo-Yo Ma - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008

I have been very concerned ever since the release of the K-8 draft for music, mainly due to the narrow definition of "creating" as composing or improvisation. As essential as those musical endeavors are (and they are essential), they are not the only ways of being musically creative. For example, making music through performance is absolutely a creative endeavor. We need a much more encompassing model of musical creativity. Much more. To quote the report from Ken Robinson's National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (emphasis mine):

"We therefore define creativity as imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value."

And this:

"Creativity can be expressed in collaborative and collective as well as individual activities, in teamwork and in organisations, in communities and in governments." 

And especially this:

"The creative processes of the arts centre on the shaping and refining of a work in which its aesthetic qualities are central to its meaning. The look, sound and feel of work in the arts is inseparable not only from what it means, but from how it means."

You can't listen to Yo-Yo Ma play a Bach cello suite and tell me he is not being creative, that he isn't creating something original and of value, or that he is not demonstrating how it means. The same is true for ensembles that undergo the learning, refining, and creation of a shared interpretation of a work...and its collaborative/interdependent nature adds another rich dimension. As we undergo the revision of our national standards for music, we must include the reality that performing (making!) music, alone and with others, is not simply an action, but an essential endeavor that requires and develops creativity.

Our colleagues on the theater side have an excellent grasp on this matter. The following are excerpts from their K-8 "Creating" draft (emphasis mine):

"Experiment with, research, and challenge collaboratively and independently, various perspectives and multiple solutions to problems through created roles, design elements, and improvised and/or scripted stories in drama- and theatre- based work."

"Communicate and differentiate artistic choices in new work, ideas, and perspectives made by self and others through problem- solving, taking risks, and experimenting with peers in devised, improvised and/or scripted drama- and theatre- based work."

Teaching young actors to experiment, make artistic choices, and work collaboratively in order to create a shared interpretation of existing ("scripted") works is clearly a creative process to the theater writers, and I would highly suggest we take a page from our colleagues in this regard. Their approach is actually much more reflective of what is going on in thousands of music rooms across the country than what is currently presented in our own K-8 draft. Clearly we need to teach a multitude of musical avenues in our education system (such as composition), but that does not mean we should downplay or ignore the creative process of bringing composers' works into the world for all to enjoy. Perhaps Roger Sessions said it best (emphasis mine):

"Here it is important only to envisage clearly that the differentiation of composer and performer represents already a second stage in the development of musical sophistication. The high degree of differentiation reached in the course of the development of music should not obscure the fact that in the last analysis composer and performer are not only collaborators in common experience but participants in an essentially single experience." 

Now consider this excerpt from the NCCAS Visual Arts draft:

Enduring Understanding: Creativity and innovative thinking are essential life skills that can be developed.

Essential Question(s): Can all people be artists? What conditions, attitudes and behaviors support creativity and innovative thinking? Does collaboration expand the creative process?

Do you notice how, rather than thinking about creating "something" (like say, a composition), they are thinking more broadly about creative thinking, the way creativity works in artistic collaboration, and ultimately how it is developed? That is what we need to be talking about in all forms of music making.

In short, the current draft of the music standards should give pause to anyone who teaches music-making in collaborative groups (which is just about every music teacher in the country, in one form or another). Performing, whether that be in rehearsal or public presentation, brings written music to life, and it does so uniquely for each performer, ensemble, and audience member. It becomes something new each time, something that completes the experience with the composer and the audience. How we can say that one act (composing or improvisation) is creative but not another (performing) is beyond comprehension. Performers are not merely worker bees carrying pollen from the flower, they are partners in the creation process, shaping and refining the work. Orchestras, wind ensembles, choirs, jazz ensembles, chamber groups...all of these require creativity in order to bring music to fruition (see the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice). If we wish to address the age-old criticism that students need to be more involved in (and ultimately be the owners of) the music making process in these settings, then this is not the time to reduce performing to merely obeying the composer or teacher. Every meaningful musical endeavor involves creativity, so let's broaden our thinking on this important process.

Finally, a word about public dialogue. While I was encouraged by some of the answers provided by Scott Shuler in his letter to Tim Purdum, I was discouraged by some of his language that gives the impression that disagreeing with aspects of the draft is a matter of "misunderstandings, based on incomplete information, that tend to inflame the blogosphere." The K-8 draft clearly reveals the philosophy and overall approach of the writing team, and that approach defines creating in a way that is too narrow and confined. Questioning that approach will result in an overall stronger set of standards, if the writers are willing to embrace the public dialogue that is currently underway. Being open to new ideas and refining existing ones is an essential component of being creative, so let's hold true to that as we hone our standards.

Understanding Assessment in Ensemble Land

Music time

At the end of each day, it all comes down to this:

1. What did you want each student to know/be able to do?

2. How do you know that each student knows it/can do it?

Ensemble directors are usually pretty clear on #1 (particularly the "doing"). But #2 is about being a teacher, not just a director. Assessment in simplest terms is finding out whether or not the teacher was understood by each student. The concept was not taught simply because it came out of your mouth, the concept was taught because the student understood you.

It is a perfectly reasonable expectation that a teacher (a) knows what each student does or does not understand and (b) modifies instruction accordingly. This is also the most challenging aspect of what great teaching demands.

And by the way, this expectation has always been the truth of the matter for ensemble directors...this is not news. It's just that these days we are being asked to "show our work" like our other colleagues in the building. This is a good thing.

~Brian Wis

Rehearsals: What is going on in there?

Santurtzi Music Band Final Rehearsal

One positive trend in band and orchestra classes is the increasing focus on authentic individual assessment. Band and orchestra teachers are doing a much better job at finding out what students know and can do in regards to individual technique, expression, and so on. Assessments, both formative and summative, are leading to refined instruction and grades that are more genuine. At the same time, this movement seems to have led to the unfortunate position that what the student demonstrates outside of rehearsal is the only measurable aspect of what students have learned. In fact, if we got into the nitty gritty of some ensemble syllabi we would find that students in many band and orchestra classes could skip all of the rehearsals and the concert, yet as long as they completed all of their individual performance assessments, they would pass...perhaps even with an A. Yet where do we spend most of our instructional minutes, and why? As we all know, what we value is borne out in our actions, so clearly music educators value the process of bringing printed music to life and sharing it with an audience. But if evidence of learning is required in order to justify how we spend our time (a fair expectation), and we have no evidence of ensemble learnings, then rehearsals (and performances) are by definition superfluous...right? How does that sit with you?

I find this trend disturbing on so many levels. I think most of us would agree that the processes and intricacies of students bringing ensemble music to fruition (and sharing it publicly) should comprise the core of any ensemble class. True, individual proficiency sets the stage (literally) for ensemble music rehearsing/performing, and is therefore essential. But once that stage is set, what are we teaching our students about ensemble musicianship, and how do we know they are learning it? I believe it is our inability to clearly address those questions that is leading to administrators telling teachers that they cannot require students to "participate" in concerts, or that a student who will not be a productive collaborator in rehearsal must be treated as a  "behavioral" matter. Yet if these same students do not turn in their assessments in their other classes, what happens? If a student is a member of a group project in social studies and does no work, what is the result, and why? Do you see the disconnect here? Now think about the importance that administrators place upon classroom observations in determining teacher effectiveness. They are typically observing our rehearsals...so clearly they believe there must be some learning taking place in that setting, right? And if so, there will be assessment (whether formative or summative), and there will be credit given. So...is there?

We have a lot of work to do on this issue. The fact is that we have been allowed to be mysterious about "what's going on in there" for too long, and now we are being told that rehearsals and performances have no place in our curricula. But we know that ensemble music is an authentic form of positive interdependence (perhaps the most authentic). We know that our students need concert performances (the presentation of the "group project") in order to complete their learning cycles and reap the most meaningful benefits of music performance. We need to articulate the aspects of being an ensemble musician, be more intentional about sharing the what/why/how of "ensemble technique" with our students, and devise authentic ways to measure it. Otherwise we might as well split our ensembles into "like" instruments, cancel the concerts, and treat our courses like class piano. If ensemble matters, it's time to articulate what we're really doing "in there."

Afterword:

Recently the Band Directors Group has been talking about what students should be doing in order to have productive rehearsals. This brainstorm list may be a starting point for creating lessons and other resources that will help students learn about the important aspects of becoming a great ensemble musician:

  • Eye Contact
  • Marking Parts
  • Correct Posture
  • Adjusting (Pitch) without being told
  • Asks clarifying/thoughtful questions
  • Helpful towards others (kindness)
  • Responsive to conducting gestures
  • Problem solver (musically and otherwise)
  • Productive with "downtime"
  • Initiates discussions about the music with others
  • Pleasant disposition
  • Does not give up
  • Has the pulse internalized
  • Takes creative interpretive/expressive risks with regularity
  • Holds peers accountable
  • Prepared musically (and equipment-wise) for rehearsals and performances
  • Interested in (and enjoys) the success of others, not just themselves, for the sake of the music being the best it can be
  • Takes instruction/criticism with a positive nature...understands its importance
  • Retains previous concepts and can apply them to new situations
  • Is thinking about solving musical problems rather than immediately asking for the answer
  • Can identify elements that are incorrect while they are happening (in themselves and across the ensemble)
  • Can provide effective evaluation of the piece at various points in the learning cycle
  • Is always on time and ready to collaborate
  • Can alter the shape of their sound to accomodate different blending situations and other requirements of the composition
Are these things that you specifically address/discuss, or do you hope they simply appear in your students?

The rise of "knowing why through knowing how."

I'll have more to say about this soon (I'm still getting my thoughts together) but I think that, even in the midst of high stakes testing, we are going to see a window of opportunity for educational endeavors like the arts and other "hands-on", interdependent learning experiences. 

You can Google the answer to many things, but you can't Google what it means to learn and perform Grainger...you have to experience it. And to be keenly aware that you arrived at the understanding through a shared journey with others....each student assisting the other in the creation of a work of art....this type of human endeavor is both irresistible and irreplaceable. I've been talking about "music for humanity's sake" but Yo-Yo Ma recently said it better...Art For Life's Sake. 

The larger the human knowledge base becomes, the more important it will be to know how to corporately express, how to serve a greater good together, and how to create shared meanings. Reimer and Elliott mash up? Possibly, much to their dismay. Those of us that are actually teaching ensembles everyday see the realities of this thing we call ensemble music making. 

More later.

On The Topic Of Honor Band Conductors

I feel the need to express concern regarding a trend in the hiring of guest conductors for "all-state" and other honor bands across the country. Specifically I am questioning the practice of hiring composer-conductors for this important experience without proper scrutiny towards their teaching, conducting, and programming history.

Don't get me wrong, current composers are vital to our shared art. And I support the programming of new music at these events when the composition is of the highest caliber. Furthermore I am supportive of composer-conductors for honor bands under the following guidelines:

  • Their teaching and conducting is comparable to our finest collegiate and military band conductors.
  • No more than one third of the musical minutes (not just titles) devoted to their own compositions.
  • The remaining two thirds of the minutes selected from the accepted masterworks for wind band.

This has rarely been the case in my view, and I suspect the same holds true for you. What I see are composers who use the majority of performance minutes (and therefore the majority of the rehearsal time) for their own compositions, and their teaching/conducting is not on par with our nation's best wind band conductors. And I have rarely seen a composer program our great masterworks alongside their own compositions. I'll leave it to you to decide why that might be.

It is time for school band directors to end this star-struck behavior of hiring composers for honor band events without proper scruitiny. Our students deserve the best teacher-conductors, period. And they especially deserve to perform the masterworks of the wind band canon. If you want to show appreciation to a living composer who is not a great teacher-conductor, commission a (short) piece specifically for the occassion! There are many ways to pay tribute to, support, and encourage living composers.

If you are on the voting committee for an honor group and you are considering a composer who cannot meet the bullet points above.... please move on. These experiences require the adults in the room to put the students' musical experiences first.

Afterword: Our college and military band conductors also need proper scrutiny, particularly in regards to their ability to relate to our students, choose realistic repertoire, and pace the experience properly. In short, we must do our due diligence, rather than assuming that anyone who has served as a guest conductor somewhere in the past will be a guaranteed fit for our students.

De-Mystifying Recording Setups for School Bands

Over the years I've seen many questions regarding simple and effective recording setups for band rehearsals, festival submissions, etc. I thought I would try to lay out some simple guidelines.

Understanding the Pieces of the Puzzle

I think a lot of teachers dive into this process without really understanding the chain of events that take you from sound to a final product (a CD, mp3 file, or what have you). This is sort of like teaching students by rote rather than making sure they understand each concept. Let's take a look at the puzzle:

Sound

Your band takes care of this :-)

Microphone(s)

Obviously we need to capture the sound. You will use one or more mics depending on your situation (more later on this).

Audio Interface Box

The microphone(s) will attach to a box with an analog to digital ("A to D") converter inside. The converter takes the analog sounds and converts the sound to (literally) ones and zeros which can then be transferred into a computer and stored on its drive. Most audio interfaces also include the necessary "pre-amp" that will allow you to set the proper gain level(s) for your microphone(s). Many interfaces also include the reverse process, a "D to A" converter so that you can listen back to your recordings through the box. For the purposes of this article we will assume this is the case. Most modern computers have an audio interface built in (of varying quality), so you could just use a traditional mixer to do the pre-amp stage, and then feed that analog output to the analog input of your computer (more on this later as well).

A Computer

The converter is going to take the analog sound, convert it to digital data, and send that via usb, firewire, or thunderbolt to your computer. You will use some software that will present that audio data to you and, if you desire, provide you with editing capabilities, the addition of effects, and ultimately allow you to export the sound file and/or burn a CD.

Powered Speakers (headphones) or Stereo System

You need to listen to what you have captured, right? For the purposes of this article I'm going to talk about powered (active) speakers, but you certainly could look at taking the D to A output of your converter to an amplifier (stereo system) which are connected to (passive) speakers.

Review

OK, so let's review what we have so far. We make sound, the mics hear it, the converter makes it digital, the computer stores it. We listen back to it, perhaps edit, add effects, and burn/export the sound file. Got it? Now, there are various ways to combine these puzzle pieces, depending on your budget, convenience factors, and ultimately the level of sound quality you desire. Let's take a look at the options.

All-In-One Solution

Many (and I mean many) musicians and teachers use hand-held digital recorders. Zoom is a very popular brand (so much so that it has almost become a ubiquitous name that describes the category, like Kleenex or Band-Aid). A hand-held is very convenient because it combines most of the puzzle pieces into one unit. If we took it apart we would find:

  • One or more mics
  • Pre-amp
  • Analog to Digital converter
  • A miniature computer to store the data and play it back
  • Digital to Analog converter for listening
  • Headphone port and/or even a little built in speaker

And to top it all off, these units can be very economical AND for many folks the quality of the recordings meets their needs. Additionally, many of these hand-helds allow you to connect the device to a computer and transfer the sound files for editing, sharing, etc. Have a look at these portable recorders.

USB Mic and Computer (iPad, etc.)

Now that you (hopefully) understand the puzzle pieces, what pieces are contained inside a USB mic?

  • One or more mics
  • Pre-amp
  • Analog to Digital converter

Make sense? Many teachers and podcasters use USB mics because it allows them to get a better quality (large diaphragm) mic into the situation and essentially brings the number of puzzle pieces down to a couple of items. You can use headphones to listen back, or attach the headphone jack on your computer to your stereo/powered speakers. For stereo recordings (which I recommend) check out the Yeti Pro from Blue. See lots of options at Sweetwater. In fact there is now a dedicated iOS section on their website for those of you who want to use a mobile device as your workstation.

Separate Components

Are you ready to step up to the full enchilada? Don't worry, it isn't as complicated as you might think. Let's walk through each piece of the puzzle with some recommendations.

Microphones

There are many directions you can go with mics, but the good news is that there are many budget-friendly options these days. And since I don't want this article to go on for years and years, I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on these mics. If you do some "googling" you will quickly see why these mics are popular and what plusses and minuses they have.

Stereo mics (makes life simple because the two mics are set up inside the housing at a good angle for stereo imagery). For example, take a look at the Shure VP88.

Matched pairs have been tweaked before shipping so that they are as equivalent as possible. Generally, you get what you pay for, and remember that the mics are the most critical piece of the puzzle. I would rather see people skimp on the computer than skimp on the mics! Ready to have a look at the choices? For good performance at a good price, I like Rode NT-1A and NT5.

If you go with a matched pair, you need a way to mount these mics in front of your group. I like to use one stand with this attachment from Shure.

Audio Interfaces

I think that for some reason this puzzle piece is the most daunting, but it doesn't have to be. This little box is the go-between for your mic(s), computer, and speakers (or stereo system). So the mics "hear" the sound, it travels down the mic cables into the interface. The interface allows you to set proper "gain" levels (so your recordings don't clip/distort). It then converts the sound to data and sends it to your computer. When you play it back, the data goes from the computer to the interface where it is converted back to sound and travels over audio cables to your speakers (or headphones). A few important points:

  • If you are recording in stereo, you need an interface with TWO mic inputs
  • If your mics require power (look for "phantom power" or "48 volts" on your mic requirements) then your audio interface must have phantom power for BOTH mic inputs.
  • While Apple has done a very good job of automatically accepting connections to the majority of big-name products, if you are a Windows user you may have to deal with some driver issues. Make sure you read the computer requirements carefully and/or ask your sales person for assistance.
  • Make sure you have the proper ports. Don't order a firewire interface if you don't have firewire ports on your computer!

Again, you don't want to skimp on this step. The pre-amps inside the interface are essential to capturing good sound, as is the conversion process. Recently Focusrite got into the consumer market, and though I have not tried their products yet, their mic pre-amps are legendary. Presonus is also a very popular brand, and I have used their interfaces. Ready to take a look at some audio interfaces?

Computers

I'm going to make this short and sweet: I'm a Mac guy, and Apple has made a real commitment to making recording "just work" on the mac platform. It really doesn't matter which mac you get, they'll all work beautifully for recording your band. You could get a mac mini and a cheap (non-apple) monitor and you are ready to go with whatever keyboard and mouse you have laying around. Garageband is built right in and works very well for stereo recordings. Most teachers don't want to hassle with more than that (and shouldn't have to). If you want more bells and whistles you can go with Pro Tools or Logic Pro. If you want something free check out Audacity. Make sure whatever software you choose is compatible with your audio interface (check the "Specifications" section or talk to a sales rep). Remember, the software does not really make a difference to the incoming sound quality... that is the job of the mics and audio interface. But it DOES have an impact on the quality of effects (if you decide to use them) and the various editing features, ease of use, etc. that you desire.

Other things to consider

  • Do you want/need the system to be mobile? A laptop might be essential.
  • Do you want to use the computer for other things? Maybe spending a little more is warranted.
  • If you want more ram, don't use Apple (overpriced). Try www.crucial.com

At our school the music teachers all have 13" Macbook Pros that we use for recording, as well as for metronome during rehearsals, tuning, etc. Solid, reliable, portable. Before that we had a 20" iMac in each rehearsal room, which also worked well.

    Also, years ago you really needed an external hard drive for recording. Today the internal drives are so large that you really don't need a seperate drive for simple stereo recordings. HOWEVER remember you need to back up your files, and sometimes an external drive can be nice in you need to take the project to another computer setup.

    Speakers

    The output of an audio interface is not amplified (well, the headphone jack is, but let's assume you want to hear the output on some nice speakers) so we need to take the output of the interface box to a stereo system or powered speakers. Powered studio monitors are a nice option if you are working on your recording in a studio, your office etc. There are many nice options these days. If I were in the market right now I would be interested to hear this new "Airmotiv" line from Emotiva because they are quickly gaining a reputation for great sounding products at a reasonable price. Same goes for this line from Audioengine.

    If you are looking for something to put in the rehearsal space I do not recommend using studio monitors. They are not designed to fill such a large space. If you want active monitors for that situation take a look at the QSC, JBL and Mackie powered monitors (15" speaker).

    Oh, and if you are going to soley use headphones, do NOT use little iPod headphones! You can get excellent studio headphones for around $99 (I like the Sony MDR 7506).

    One last thing

    For many of us, we also want a system that we can use for rehearsing. Recording a section and then immediately allowing the students to listen and analyze is a great rehearsal tool. But oftentimes the stereo system is not near the podium, and we need a way to get the output of the audio interface to the stereo without running a 30 foot cord across the room. I use a wireless audio product from Emu that is no longer in production, but recently I discovered this product from AudioEngine that looks like it will fit the bill (no guarantees since I have not tested it myself).