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.

16 responses
Hi Brian, Great post, lots of good thoughts. In regards to the blogosphere approach you and I are taking, wouldn't the appropriate solution to that be an actual forum page linked to the NCCAS draft review process? Rather than scattering our discussion around FB, Twitter, blogs, etc., they could have created a single, unifying strand of discussion. A survey is not the same as a discussion. It is like the school board saying they are "open to public comment" but never responding to any of those comments during the meeting.
This is ridiculous. How can the characterization be put on composition and improvisation, especially at the K-8 level, as the creation of music? This is teaching young students that musicians that: perform in a symphony orchestra, perform in a band, perform in musicals, record for radio or TV, among many other examples, are not creating music. Is music just a collection of dots on a page? If so, then I guess an argument could be made that the composer is the only part of the creative process. Go look at a piece of music. Do you hear anything? Since music needs to be heard to actually exist, the performance has to be included as part of the creative process. Joey Tartell Associate Professor of Music Jacobs School of Music Indiana University
Joey, I totally hear you, but I also know we general music teachers had to make the reverse argument before and after the 1994 standards to justify including composition and improvisation at all. At the time, there were ensemble teachers throwing a fit that they were even included.
Tim, acknowledging that performance is also creating doesn't change that reality for composition and improvisation. ~Brian Wis
I appreciate Brian's comments very much. In high school, Brian and another band director showed us how to make music together, in a creative atmosphere. The importance of playing together, creating music together is vitally important to add to the curriculum. There is a spontaneity that occurs when a musician has to think on the spot quickly, to respond to a fellow musician and change what their original musical idea was based on what someone else played, that cannot be "taught" in a classroom. This collaborative experience needs to be, well, experienced individually and as a whole through rehearsing and performing. Performing music that already exists is essential to any musician because it is new to the student or group. They have a huge learning curve with each new piece of music, whether it's a new rhythm, a new key, or a new beautiful phrase they are hearing and playing for their first time. I am proud to say that because of Brian and his efforts in my high school band, he has helped shape the musician that I have become. I am currently a horn player at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. The skills of listening, and responding to other musicians, as well as the singers (one can never know what they are going to do night to night!) was a skill that I learned in high school. We rarely play a brand new composition, and I can honestly say that I have played popular operas such as Madame Butterfly and Aida countless times, and each time has been a new and different experience. That is worth as much as learning how to compose a piece.
I love to hear this viewpoint! It is refreshing, because in the general music circles, I can blather on about the importance of composition and improvisation (all the while definitely teaching interpretive performance, but taking it for granted) and everyone nods their heads and agrees with me. As a creative musician, I see the danger in performance focus when I see performers with a masters degree who cannot follow a lead sheet, transpose a part, or jam. I think we need musicians who are both flexible AND well versed in good interpretation of standard repertoire. Bottom line for me, both performance (which to me automatically means good, interpretive, creative performance) and composition/improvisation are forms of ACTIVE music making. That's what I think we can all agree on K-12 and needs to be preserved in the face of well-meaning, disconnected types who envision students sitting around and pontificating about the meaning of pieces they will never play because they aren't being given skills.
"Bottom line for me, both performance (which to me automatically means good, interpretive, creative performance) and composition/improvisation are forms of ACTIVE music making. " Tim.....Yes, yes, and yes!
The interpretation of existing music, alone and with others, is absolutely a creative endeavor and I am specifically asking for its inclusion in the "Creating" document. The concept of interpreting music as a creative endeavor is definitely a very important one. While a performer might not be creating any new combinations of notes, their individual decoding of the notation and the composer's intent is the creation of a new experience. Bennett Reimer stated that "A useful and valid music curriculum, K-12, is comprehensive...and also embraces all the ways people think about and know about music." I'm hopeful that future revisions embrace that way of thinking.
Thank you for posting about this, Brian. I am adamantly opposed to national standards of any kind. The most important things we can teach students is how to listen and how to think. The more national standards we employ the less we can work with each student to meet their needs and get them to understand what it takes to listen and to think. By leaving performance out of the mix in a national (ahem) "standard," performance is being demeaned as is staging, presentation, recording, instrumentation, etc., all of which are frequently extremely creative. If any efforts that someone wants to lead to have these "standards" broadened become a reality, I'll be happy to jump on that bandwagon (pun intended).
(Oh boy...into the lion's den...) Brian asked me earlier to join the discussion here earlier this evening and as he and I go way, way back (both of us received our Bachelor Degrees in music education from Northern Illinois University many moons ago), I figured it'd be safe. To put things into context, I am both a professional composer and a pedagogue of composition, serving as the head of composition at SUNY Fredonia and on the composition faculty at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. I have also served as a member of the NYSSMA composition/improvisation committee for six years and am a founding member of the NAfME Composition Council. Finally, I have been serving as a member of the NCCAS Subcommittee for Composition and Theory this spring, working on the performance standards for the Composition/Theory Standards Grades 9-12. With that in mind, I won't get into the specifics of what those will entail because they're not public yet, but please know that the thoughts I espouse are solely my own. I understand where you're coming from, Brian, as I've actually conducted longer than I've composed, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with your conflation of "creating" and "being creative". "Being creative" is absolutely a necessary aspect of performing - one could argue that it may be the most important aspect, in fact. "Creating", however, is a different act than "Performing" - you are making something that did not exist before. Others may interpret that creation differently than the creator envisioned, but that is very different exercise. I often describe stuff like this with the gym metaphor - if you're lifting weights, you don't just work out one set of muscles. In the same way, these Standards are being set up to make sure that there is a broad range of pedagogy occurring in the classroom and that composition/improvisation is a part of that pedagogy (at least that's how I'm reading it). I feel it's very important that students get a chance to make something new in addition to perform, and these standards will (hopefully) encourage that to happen. There already is an "Interpretation" component to the Performing Standard, so I'm curious why there should be another one in "Creating"...the "Creating" Standard should be focused on just that - the act of creating a new artistic work - and by spreading the concept of performing overtop of the "Creating" standard, there is a very real risk of it completely blotting out any gains made towards incorporating "Creating" into the classroom. This, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Music educators are rarely proficient composers themselves (since it's never been a skill that college curricula have emphasized) and the double-whammy of being asked to carve out time from the already-crunched schedule to incorporate something new and having that new thing being a skill that the instructor is not comfortable or fluent in is problematic at best and will possibly upend more than one applecart in the process. That does not mean it's not the right thing to do. (One last thing - Barbara's comment makes my point: "We rarely play a brand new composition…" This from a performer at one of the most renowned musical organizations in the country…it should not be that way, and it doesn't have to be.)
"There already is an "Interpretation" component to the Performing Standard, so I'm curious why there should be another one in "Creating". Because that's what it is. There is room in this creative pool for everyone. The idea that interpretation is not creative is simply not reality. Placing it elsewhere accomplishes what? Let's call it what it is. Doing so does not diminish the other avenues. The fact that one must both create and respond in order to perform well highlights the issues with this model. Now we find ourselves pushing things into other categories and then saying "well it doesn't need to go there because we already covered it elsewhere." I mean...really? What are we doing?
Hello Brian and other distinguished colleagues. Many thanks for pointing out that performers contribute to the creation of music. To omit performance from the definition of the scope of creativity would be a huge oversight.
At the risk of commenting in haste, and needing to comment again to argue with myself in the morning.... I kind of feel it's semantics. Is Performing included as a required element in the standards? (Yep, it is.) It's not that performing isn't seen as being creative (surely everything in the arts is by definition 'creative') so much as the Standards writing teams have failed to find a more specific word for what they mean in this Creating section. But if we're going to critique this Creating section because of what it *doesn't* include - you're not going far enough!! Sure, performing is a creative entreprise (although a whole lot less creative than the process of creating a theatre performance, I have to say, and I have to say that on the basis of the very different rehearsal traditions of the theatre and the concert hall), but what about all the other creative ways of being musical that are completely ignored by these standards? Mixing, for instance. In the recording studio, in live performance, and in the DJ sense. Mixing is a massively creative musical experience, where the creator is not just selecting materials to highlight and materials to downplay, but is creating a spatial musical experience for those present (either at the performance/event, or listening to the recording). And programming. Being able to curate pre-exisiting musical materials into a larger musical statement is a vitally creative skill. It's composition on a much larger scale - it's building a musical experience for an audience that spans genre, history, instrumentation, and so on. Imagine if we were educating our students to think about how musical works work in juxtaposition? This is the kind of creative thinking that takes place in theatre as a matter of course. And our students are engaging in precisely this kind of creative thinking whenever they construct a playlist for their iPod... I think it's unfortunate to imply that Performing is not creative, but it's criminal to entirely eliminate so much contemporary musical experience from the purview of the music educator. :-)
And of course, that's before we get into the iniquity of saying that musical experience *can* (or should, for that matter) be divided into Creating, Performing and Responding categories. And that's before we get into the abuse of educational process that it would be to *teach* these skills in a way that would reflect such atomised thinking....
Here’s my take on the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS). For example, an arts educator already knows the fundamentals of their art form. Has anything changed with regard to principles and techniques that have been discovered that radically changes what kids should learn about a given art form? No. The challenge therefore is to teach these basic elements of arts practice in ways that conform to and meet the expectations of Common Core, not to study an entirely separate set of standards such as the NCCAS. Otherwise, arts education will continue to decline in America's public schools. Why? In the real world of education, administrators don’t really care whether or not arts specialists conform to the NCCAS as that framework is merely voluntary and the set of standards principals and superintendents really care about are the Common Core set of standards. Because student success on assessments based on Common Core will determine whether those administrators keep their jobs and play a significant role in all teachers’ evaluations, including eventually those of arts specialists. Then why not shift the focus of teaching practice to meet the expectations and developing the habits of mind required by this new paradigm for teaching and learning without violating the integrity of arts content? Juxtaposing the NCCAS with Common Core standards does not reveal an adequate alignment between the two. In the real world of the professional performing arts, the first things you think about when creating a production is what limitations do you have. Such as; how much time is available, where will it be performed, what personnel are involved, what resources are required, and how much money do you have to work with? Thus, when constructing a document such as the NCCAS, they should provide grade level models that delineate who is going to do it, with how many kids, over what span of time, in what venue, with what resources and how much it ought to cost. Otherwise, this is merely an aspirational document, not one rooted in reality. In other words, the working context that arts specialists contend with. The reality for an arts specialist, in most states, is that the cumulative amount of contact time (dosage) with a given cohort of students is a little over twenty….four…..hours! On average, 42 minutes a week times 36 weeks in the school year. If kids had to do all of what is outlined in the NCCAS, in any of the five art forms, they wouldn’t have time to learn anything else!
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