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Music lessons make you smarter! (Is hardly the point)

Posted on February 20, 2013 at 9:30 PM

Joseph Hollings wrote:

After a colleague (at whom none of the following diatribe is directed, I should stress, and to whom I am most grateful for making me think) recently shared the above article, one of many I’ve read about music and how the benefits of studying it or the piano have been proven by brain-based research, I felt a distant rumbling in my musical foundations or perhaps my artistic gut. I remember feeling a similar queasiness after reading the book on the (much-debated) “Mozart Effect.” Having initially indulged in the premise that by listening to a Mozart piano concerto, a student would score higher on a test than if he or she had sat in silence or listened to a (I’m making this up) Scarlatti sonata or Stan Butcher medley, I digested the book’s message, exhaled, and realized a number of unsavory ingredients had left an unpleasant aftertaste.

I do not wish to imply, nor care about implying any particular parallels between the work of the researchers at Concordia University and the Mozart Effect authors. What I do care about – and what makes me feel like I need to brush my teeth – is how too often such “brain-based research” draws attention to itself and away from music-making, placing the study of music in a draw with other mental-floss exercises like Sudoku puzzles or word-searches.

Actually, that’s a little unfair to many of the research papers I’ve read, as most make no such claim. To be honest, my frustration is usually always with the way everyone else talks about such papers – those who amp-up the importance of such findings and take them out of context. This would include media types as well as music educators who seem to think they need some bigger message to justify the teaching of their subject. And who can blame them when music programs [in the US] get cut because levies aren’t passed on Election Day? If “brain-based research” says taking piano lessons means you’ll be able to score 30 points higher on state tests, no superintendent in their right mind would cut music programs, right? Aside from the fact that no study I’ve read would get close to making that sort of claim (because the evidence isn’t there), arguments like this perpetuate the notion that test scores are more important than anything else in education. They’re not.

But before I skip merrily down a path and round a corner into the thick of a raging test-score mob, I will cartoon-tiptoe my way back to my point. And it is this: the study of a musical instrument (voice included), learning to listen to music, composing music, and the years of dedication, love, fun, social interaction and growth, dexterity development, frustration, anxiety before a concert, rapture at hearing your own work performed, cross-cultural appreciation, and moments of unswerving faith that humanity really can be better than we appear on TV, combine to create something greater than any brain-based research project can hope show or most people can readily appreciate. A study that shows kids who take piano lessons before the age of 7 have greater brain connectivity than those who don’t is fine, but I guess I just don’t care. I’d rather be absorbed in Beethoven 7, or fascinated with Hindustani ragas, or wrestling a Bach fugue to the ground, or counting furiously so Stravinsky doesn’t get the better of me, or writing the greatest song ever, or laughing hysterically that everyone else knew we were in G, how come I didn’t? You see? That’s something worth caring about…

Music should be at the center of 21st century education

Posted on November 26, 2011 at 11:25 PM

As a musician, I have taken for granted many things that appear to puzzle educational theorists and commentators. Many interesting books dealing with the need for the teaching of "21st century skills" inschools have appeared over the past few years. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Tony Wagner, Thomas Friedman, The Partnership For 21st Century Skills, and many others all refer to or discuss certain skills students need to develop for future success of the USA. The "4 Cs" (critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication), Tony Wagner's "Seven Survival Skills for Teens Today" (critical thinking & problem-solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility & adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination) and other similar lists, could, in my view, be summarized as "What Every Musician Knows." With a thorough musical education - the study of an instrument, performing in an ensemble, development of aural skills, study of theory and analysis of musical works, and, of course, composition - a student will not simply have had exposure to these "21st Century Skills" but rather have lived them. While I am not advocating for a non-musical utilitarian approach to music education, or in anyway trying to justify the need for music education by highlighting what may be misconstrued as a side-effect, I believe whole-heartedly that by placing this type of music education at the center of a school's curriculum, we would help raise creative, critical thinkers who can work well in a team, know what sort of time it takes to develop a talent or a deep understanding of a subject, and understand how they can contribute to the world around them.

Breathing, Vocal Ranges

Posted on September 11, 2011 at 3:10 PM

Teaching at a boys' school means I'm regularly dealing with voice changes. Having shown my 5th and 6th grade boys how singing is an immediate way to connect to music in the "real world" (whether singing in the shower, singing for fun with family, karaoke, at a religious institution, a community choir, the National Anthem at a ball game...) it is important to see the voice as an instrument. We started with breathing. An exercise I use is one a singing friend of mine shared with me - the boys lie on their back, knees bent, and breathe in by "inflating the balloon" of their stomachs - that helps them understand how the diaphragm is in charge, not the shoulders. I usually mention something about filling the lungs from the bottom first (like a jug under a running tap). We’ll then stand this up and make it part of our regular warm up.

I try and check voice ranges about three times a year – or whenever I hear a change – and have tried different, time-efficient ways to determine vocal ranges. As in years past, this year, I’ve had the boys say “hi, my name is [their name]”, then do it again in slow motion. This usually provides a fairly accurate placement of their low-end. In contrast to other years, I tried a similar thing for their upper range, but had them glissando up to a note they feel comfortable singing. When they reach that note, the say “hi my name is [their name]” at high speed. The boys seemed to find this entertaining enough. Some maneuvering was necessary, but it has proved a pretty reliable method. I also showed the boys where their voices “fit” (I use Treble, Cambiata 1, Cambiata 2 and Baritone). The range chart is available as a download on the “Assignments and Handouts” page.

Class Music Survey

Posted on August 28, 2011 at 5:55 PM

August 25

Having read Thomas Regelski's Teaching General Music in Grades 4-8 over the summer, my desire to put my students in control of as much of what they learn as possible was reaffirmed. I thought I would start the year with a survey, asking my sixth grade class about their musical experiences. Having received the results of the original survey, I decided to update it to include more aspirational questions, as I felt the initial questions looked back rather than forward (the new survey is avilable on the Assignments & Handouts page). Nonetheless, the results were interesting. The genres of music are overwhelmingly pop (I include rock, hiphop, pop etc instead of classical or jazz), most students enjoy singing and almost all enjoy playing (a range of) instruments. This range was largely due to the fifth grade instrument program in place at my school. Also, the students listen to music on their iPods, iPads, computers and various websites, as well as the more "traditional" formats of radio and CDs! A little surprising to me - in a good way - was the number of live (pop) performances the students had attended at local venues. The full results for the first survey are available on the Assignments & Handouts page.