Note: The UbD and the Ensemble series is a sort of guided tour through the book Understanding by Design by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. In this series, I attempt to connect the work they have done to vocal and instrumental ensembles and the challenges of designing rehearsals with student understanding in mind. Please feel free to comment with your own experience in teaching music for understanding!
Essential Questions: How do I know students understand the music we play? What does it mean to understand a piece of music? what does it mean to understand a musical concept? What understandings do I take for granted when teaching novice students?
Syncopation Without Understanding?
During my student teaching experience, I designed a 5th grade general music lesson on syncopation to teach for one of my supervisor site visits. I identified the enduring understandings and skills I wanted students to take away, I made sure to emphasize sound before sight, and I designed assessments to make sure that each students truly understood syncopation!
I prepped everything, greeted my supervisor, and welcomed the students into the room! We started by practicing some syncopated patterns. The students did great! But when I tried to link that performance to the symbols of music, I received a lot of blank stares. I tried to pull them along for a while, but eventually had to apologize to the students. I hadn’t assessed their understanding before hand. They had been looking at rhythmic patterns for years of classroom music. They knew what a quarter note was. They knew what an eighth note was! They could perform chants that related to rhythmic figures.
But when asked to write a short phrase using these figures in a different format (moving things around to create syncopation), they couldn’t do it! My supervisor was gracious and said I handled the situation well, but I was really bothered by this! How could my carefully constructed lesson plan fail so miserably? I even used UbD principles to guide my design process!
Though the students could perform rhythmic patterns and even identify them, they lacked a meaningful and transferable understanding of rhythm and rhythmic patterns. What’s the deal?
What does it mean to understand?
My mistake with the syncopation lesson is a great example of what McTighe and Wiggins call the Expert Blind Spot. The Expert Blind Spot describes how teachers often gloss over hard-won understandings and unconventional ideas that are assumed to be easy to understand when in fact they are core ideas that need to be uncovered in order for novices to understand them. I assumed that students understood rhythmic patterns because they could perform them (when in fact they were merely mimicking them), I didn’t account for the blind spot in my own understanding! I probably gained a real understanding of rhythmic patterns sometime in middle school or high school and have operated with the expert blind spot ever since.
Understandings represent the core principles of a field. In ensemble study, things like rhythm, communication, dynamics, and even music notation, are all deep understandings that students need to be successful! Unfortunately, we rarely design learning experiences that emphasize transfer of these concepts. Instead, we teach the discreet skills and hope students will begin to apply them to the next exercise in the method book.
Musical understanding must mean more than successfully performing a piece of music. Musical understanding is the constructed whole concept that organizes and guides the use of skills and strategies when confronted with a foreign piece of music or knowledge. When we teach for musical understandings, we encourage students to consider the skills they have learned and make truly musical decisions, just as professional musicians would, and apply those to new music.
I don’t mean to suggest that the performance should not be the end goal. Music educators have been doing the performance task part of UbD since we started teaching others how to make music! But repetition of discrete pieces of music (especially when they are taken from a march through the method book) does not mean that students know what to do when they encounter new musical material!
What concepts do I have to reteach with every new piece?
One way to define understandings is to identify common misunderstandings that students have. What skills aren’t being transferred? What underlying process needs to be understood for students to use their musical skills intelligently? What musical decisions do students need to encounter?
I believe that the musical ensemble is a truly unique opportunity for our students. It is one of the only places where they are allowed to make something beautiful with their peers as part of a whole! If we are to defend this art form in schools, shouldn’t we ensure that students are getting the most out of the opportunities for creativity in every moment of rehearsal? When every interpretation of the notation on the page is defined by the conductor, how can students be creative? By teaching for musical understanding, students are given the cognitive tools to make creative decisions and raise the standard of artistic performance. That might only mean choosing what kind of forte to use, but that is still a musical decision that requires understanding of the musical concept!
Understandings cannot, however, be taught independently from the musical process of performing! They must struggle with the understandings while continuing to play the instrument! The musical decisions and understandings musicians use are executed live in every performance they make. Music educators teaching for understanding will provide opportunities for students to reflect on their performance and identify the musical choices they made.
Syncopation With Understanding!
What would I do differently? First, I would assess students progress towards understanding of rhythm as a whole. To what extent can the students use, identify, and create new music using rhythm? To what extent do students understand the way length of notes relate to each other, to measures of music, and to whole phrases?
If I had simply done that work, I would have known that the students needed deeper understanding of rhythm as a whole before embarking on the exciting new world of syncopation!
How has the Expert Blind Spot showed up in your own teaching? How do you ensure that students truly understand the musical concepts presented in your curriculum? In what ways do you encourage students to reflect on their musical decision making?