Essential Questions: Do our current models of rehearsal planning really accomplish what we want for our students? Are my students learning what I’m teaching? Am I making the best use of each minute of rehearsal?
My First Experience with UbD
Day after day I sat through Dr. U’s class, racking my brain for ways to apply countless vocabulary, comprehension, and literacy techniques into my future music class. Honestly, I wasn’t seeing much. Sure, students need to know what piano means. They definitely need to be able to perform a sforzando. But that comes with practice, right? They learn the word by practicing the technique! I thought that was a pretty decent vocabulary strategy! (and to some extent, I still do!)
And then we started UbD.
“Dear teachers,” she said, with her characteristic tone and carefully chosen words, “Today we will begin looking at Understanding by Design.” Now, I don’t remember if that’s how she started the class (I sincerely doubt it), but it got my attention. For a few years I’d been unsatisfied with two things about my education classes and music education classes. The education classes didn’t seem to have a lot to say about how to teach traditional large ensembles and music education classes didn’t have a lot to say about how to use education concepts, research, and psychology to bolster the rehearsal strategies learned in methods courses.
As Dr. Uffelman introduced Understanding by Design (UbD) it seemed promising. The old way of thinking about lesson plans never seemed logical to me for use in the music classroom. Each rehearsal plan was too similar to necessitate all of that writing! Often, I resorted to writing lesson plans about music appreciation or music history so I didn’t have to work with that format in rehearsal settings. But Understanding by Design seemed different. It made sense to me that students should understand the big concepts behind their disparate pieces of knowledge or skills in order to better apply them in different contexts. That made sense for an ensemble! Finally!
And so, I set out to write my lesson plan for my capstone project.
That short unit wasn’t particularly successful. Now, I think I know why, and it has to deal with a really fascinating part of UbD that I’ll discuss in a blog post later in this series: the UbD Design Standards. Even though I used the format to structure my unit, I didn’t make sure that everything was aligned throughout.
Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins offer this working definition of understanding:
to understand is to make connections and bind together our knowledge into something that makes sense of things … to be able to wisely and effectively use-transfer-what we know, in context … we have a fluent and fluid grasp, not a rigid, formulaic grasp based only on recall and “plugging in” (McTighe and Wiggins 7).
Learning is about making connections! That’s as true in history, english, and math class as it is in the music room. When students encounter new material they need an established framework of understandings through which to process the literature. I wonder if our approach to ensemble rehearsal always produces such understanding of musical concepts?
A Few Scenes
Mrs. S comes into the room. The students are in their chairs ready to play. She announces the first piece and students shuffle through large folders full of music. She lifts her baton and begins the piece. The playing is… less than perfect. They have played this piece before, but it’s been a few weeks. Mrs. S keeps conducting, making comments to sections as they continue to play.
“Watch your F#’s, clarinets!” “Trombones! Make sure you get all the way out to sixth position!” “Keep the breath moving flutes!”
At the end of the piece, Mrs. S selects another score from her stack and repeats the process.
* * *
Mr. V sits at the piano as students stare intently at their score. “Everyone be quiet so the Tenors can learn their part!” He plunks out the line and asks them to sing along. They do with mixed success. He repeats the process and moves on to the next section.
* * *
Miss K has been working with her marching band a lot for the last few weeks! She made sure that the group bonded at camp in August, had a barbecue for all the parents in September, and even scheduled an extra morning rehearsal to make sure they were ready for the first football half-time show of the season!
Each of these scenes might have a place. There are valid reasons why a music educator would find themselves in these situations at some point in their career! But I think they highlight the way the twin sins of curriculum design show up in ensemble rehearsal planning.
The Twin Sins of Design
McTighe and Wiggins identify the twin sins of design as activity-focused teaching and coverage-focused teaching. In the traditional school music ensembles, I have seen a lot of coverage-focused teaching whereas activity-focused teaching tends to show up more in elementary music classrooms and general music classrooms. In either case, I believe that music educators need to be more attentive to the learning needs of their students in planning musical experiences. It is not enough to merely prepare a concert of discrete pieces. There needs to be musical understanding that will prepare them for every concert thereafter! Likewise, it isn’t enough to teach elementary students a few fun songs to perform at a concert for their families, they need to have musical understandings and skills to take to their next musical experience!
UbD is an attempt to organize the design process to avoid the twin sins of design, and I think they have a lot to offer music educators as we attempt to best organize our classrooms for musical understanding.
UbD in the Music Ensemble
This post is the first in a series of blogs about using UbD in the music classroom. They will reflect my growing understanding of the UbD design process and music ensemble instruction. I hope to engage some readers with their thoughts about these topics! Especially if you’ve used UbD in your own rehearsal planning! Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Essential Understanding: Teaching for understanding in an ensemble builds transferability of musical concepts and enables students to perform music authentically at a high level in varying contexts.
- From the Stage to the Classroom: Reflection on Patty Oeste’s MEJ Article (jamespatrickjensen.com)
- Marketing music education (kathleenheuer.com)