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Thomas J. West Music

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The Next Level: Breaking Young Musicians Through The Intermediate Ceiling

Posted on October 7, 2011 at 7:40 AM

In a successful performing music curriculum at an American public school, students move successfully from their first experiences in singing, instrument mechanics, tone production, ensemble techniques, and so on and upon graduation have acquired a skill set for performance in the intermediate to lower advanced range. Their exiting proficiency depends on many factors: their aptitude level, the music learning environments K-12, the goals of the secondary music program and so on. It is common for many graduating seniors to reach upper intermediate proficiency in actual music performance, but lower proficiency in areas such as rhythm reading, and advanced basic in areas such as music theory, ear training, improvisation, and composition.

There are many teaching philosophies that come into play here. What is the goal for every student of a K-12 public music program? In so many places, the goal is to produce the highest quality high school performing ensemble possible, thereby enriching the lives of the participants in multiple ways and if nothing else making them intellectually aware of quality music-making as they enter the work force. This is an admirable goal and certainly has its place. It is my belief, however, that all music curricula, regardless of its mode of learning (band, chorus, orchestra, theory, electronic music, etc.) should be providing students with enough training in all aspects of music-making with the goal of nurturing them into adults who can create their own art rather than producing a musical "has-been" that has a dust-collecting instrument case in their attic.

For music performance, students need enough training in sight-reading, theory, scale study, and improvisation to be able to know and understand "the next level" of musicianship - the one that requires complete profeciency in all twelve major and natural minor scales on their primary instrument. It's the level that allows singers to successfully sight-read vocal music without having to have the part played for them first. It's the level where students understand the rehearsal process and what it means to move their performance into the mastery stage, where spontaneous sub-conscious recall has been drilled into place.

For non-traditional music students taking electronic music, music theory, or composition classes, they need to develop proficiency on a primary instrument of some kind, whether that instrument is their voice, a guitar, a piano, or the computer itself. To create music, they need a medium that can be transferrable, which is either traditional music notation, music sequencing, or both.

The goal is to give them the skills to be life-long participants in music, whether that means performing in community groups, writing and sharing their own music, or at the very least supporting quality music-making that advances our collective culture rather than devalues it. That means giving them the training to get them out of the beginner level into the intermediate level in all aspects of music making, not just music performance.

So, as the title of this article applies, is "breaking through the intermediate ceiling" into advanced levels of performance, improvisation, and composition even a valid pursuit for public school programs? The answer is a qualified "yes."

The next generation of music teachers, performers, and composers comes from within the ranks of our performing ensembles and electronic music classes. In many states, opportunities for further enrichment in performance music exist in the form of honors ensembles, all-state ensembles, and state adjudications. But where are the opportunities for composition? NAfME sponsors programs for student music composition as well as electronic music, as do some states, but it is a slowly developing field.

Our culture suffers from the delusion that to compose music, you have to be a genius like Mozart, an innovator like Beethoven or Paul McCartney, or a trend-setter like John Williams. It is certainly true that composition requires the composer to have a depth of knowledge in more than just performance, however, which  is why the traditional performance-centric public school program doesn't give students the skills necessary to compose at even the most basic levels.

We as a music education profession have bought into the notion the commercial music is a bunch of fluff and we are "fighting the good fight" to keep our band in the stands on Friday night, our orchestras attempting to play Tchaik 5, and our choral programs singing whatever Eric Whitacre writes next. There are commerical musicians who come from a traditional background, such as Cake and Ben Folds, but until we as a profession begin to embrace the idea that there is more to learning music than having the most professional high school performing ensemble possible, the music industry will continue to be populated by a small pool of "the selected" who do all the creating in the name of profit with little connection to the depth and aesthetic beauty of our cultural musical roots. That, quite simply, is why commercial music is rife with quarter-inch deep content, why 80% of our students can't relate to our music programs, and we are constantly fighting to maintain our legitimacy and our jobs. 

This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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Categories: Music Education, 21st Century Artistry, Editorial

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Reply Brandt Schneider
8:21 AM on October 7, 2011 
I'm less and less sure of the point of these discussions.

1. A large percentage of directors in quality programs "teach to the test".
2. Almost all of them would offer more classes/opportunities if they had the money/time.
3. Until there is a common core assessment for music, for all students, at a 10-11th grade level, I'm not sure this will change.
Reply ★ Owner
8:41 AM on October 7, 2011 
1. If by "teach to the test" you mean "teach to the contest", I agree.

2. They do have the time, they just don't use it. It doesn't take much money to buy a pad of manuscript paper. One classroom computer and student internet access at home can provide what is needed for most blended learning curricula.

3. There is philosophical resistance to common core assessments because of the aesthetic nature of the arts. You and I have had that discussion before.

I believe that schools need to have great performing ensembles, but they need to do more than just play at contest and support their local community by performing. A well-designed curriculum that includes improvisation and composition sequentially from the beginning can make this happen. Directors have to be willing to put their egos in check and invest class time and their own prep time (both creating lessons and then "gasp" grading them).
Reply Brandt Schneider
8:44 AM on October 7, 2011 
My 12th grade objectives:
1. Can dance at a variety of functions.
2. Can choose songs for their wedding.
3. Sings in tune.
4. Can have an intelligent conversation about music.
5. Doesn't say "I quit band in 5th grade".
Reply Brandt Schneider
8:48 AM on October 7, 2011 
Right, I agree that ensembles curriculum can be much different. I wrote an article for you about that and we completely agree.

Connecticut is piloting composition and improvisation tasks that I think would be very beneficial. I think some sort of test needs to drive this as principals currently do not monitor benchmark goals. Neither do directors (as a rule).

I meant that directors dont have time or money to implement additional classes (music appreciation, rock and roll, etc...). Times are tough every where.
Reply ★ Owner
10:16 AM on October 7, 2011 
A lot of directors I know would not want to have anything to do with an appreciation or rock 'n' roll class. Let someone else teach that stuff.

My composition goals are simple - seniors will leave the program able to compose simple pieces for their primary instrument in four parts. Easily measurable, especially if they record each part and we multi-track them.