Monday, April 20, 2009

Hello again,

The "new and improved" Music Education for All blog has moved to


Monday, April 28, 2008

Free Improvisation

I attended a lecture-recital on free improvisation by Concordia faculty Dr. Nat Dickey and student Adam Hochstatter '09. I can freely admit that improvisation is not one of my strongest suits as a performer, so the topic itself piqued my interest as I continue to develop my non-strength areas as an educator.

Dr. Dickey performed on trombone, and Adam on piano (their own primary instruments, respectively). The first thing I noticed was the intimate communication between both performers. Each performer quickly picked up on motific material established by the other player, often repeating thematic ideas, or complementing with accompanimental material. In the lecture (which was interspersed between improvisations), Dr. Dickey explained how they use three common responses as they interact with each other:

1. A performer may agree with the statement of the other performer, and acknowledge it by repeating or imitating the material.
2. A performer may disagree with the statement of the other performer, and create a contrasting or disjunct response.
3. A performer may encourage the other performer to continue a melodic idea by introducing an accompanimental figure (or vice versa).

Both Adam and Dr. Dickey emphasized that there are "no wrong answers" in free improvisation. Responses can be agreed or disagreed upon, but it is ultimately this interactive conversation that lies at the heart of this medium. Adam reflected on how his study of free improvisation played a role in his own life decisions. "Even the simple things like deciding whether or not to watch tv, or deciding what to watch on tv can be affected by the process of improvisation." The performers used a variety of techniques to focus on the freedom of the music, one of which was meditation. They also utilized multiple inspirations for their improvisations, three of which were shared at the performance:

  • A photograph of a painting was chosen by a member of the audience. The picture was revealed to the performers at the performance, and they had thirty seconds to reflect and internalize the painting before the improvisation. In this instance the painting (which was abstract) held a very different meaning for both performers which was heard during the performance (and in their comments afterwards).
  • A noun, verb, adverb, and location were drawn from a pile of audience-submitted words. In this case "Eyes destroy quickly fields," was the basis of the improvisation. Both players interpreted this as a deeper meaning for examining memories of the past and their present destruction. The words "destroy" and "fields" elicited strong mental images.
  • Strictly "free-improvisation" based off of the emotions and interactions of the performers.

One student asked if Dr. Dickey and Adam thought that truly free improvisation could occur, since we naturally create constructs and forms based on previous ideas. Dr. Dickey answered that this is like asking if there is any "original thought," a question which is also frequently debated. Both performers admitted that there were elements of form and structure but that ultimately, they were free to express their own ideas. Another student asked if this music should ever be performed for mass audiences. Both performers agreed that the music was really for themselves and that most people who understand the medium are part of a small intellectual community within the music realm. Dr. Dickey cited examples in the 1960s when there was a following of people intrigued by the free-improvisation performers, but that ultimately, a broad-based free-improvisation would inhibit the performers philosophically as they would try to perform for an audience rather than themselves.

Dr. Dickey recommended Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (Stephen Nachmanovitch) to further explore the issue in musical and nonmusical contexts.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Thoughts on Assessment

The word assessment can bring a myriad of thoughts to mind as we consider its context in current affairs in education. Assessment often brings about stressful thoughts regarding testing, grading, and pressures of national standards such as NCLB. On the other hand, as educators, we often obsess with the positives of assessment as it is linked to the evaluation of student learning.

In any case, we can make the assumption that assessment is undoubtedly linked to our instructional practices and planing. In every teaching objective there should ultimately be the goal of evaluating students for their understanding and accomplishment of each objective.

In a presentation by a representative from the Perpich Center for Arts Education, we discussed how the best teachers (and best assessors, mind you) were able to individually assess students performance abilities, by integrating individual performance into the instrumental or choral ensemble classroom. As an aspiring band director, I understand the implications of crunch-time during concert season, but I also know that it is our responsibility as educators to be fully aware of what our students are accomplishing and understanding.

If a parent approaches me at conferences to inquire about their student, I want to be able to provide them with more knowledge and satisfaction than to merely show them a grade book which indicates little more than attendance at concerts and rehearsals. In order to preserve the future of music education in public schools, we need to be able to identify individual learning in the music classroom environment. We have the rich opportunity as educators to be involved in assessing student learning, rather than leaving that responsibility to policy-makers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Intelligent Music Teaching

As a college student and music educator, I crave feedback from master teachers and experts in the field of music education. I have long wished for a forum which will bring masterful mentors and beginning teachers together in an online community not bound by regional boundaries. I am excited for the development of the "blog age," as more and more qualified teachers become part of this digital revolution in feedback and mentorship.

I invite you all to read Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction by Robert A. Duke. We recently read and discussed this collection of essays as part of a music educators forum at Concordia College-Moorhead.

Robert Duke is a Professor in Music and Human Learning and the Director of the Center for Music Learning at the University of Texas at Austin. His clear and concise writing describes the processes by which successful teachers teach- including his thoughts on assessment, sequencing instruction, feedback, and transfer. Professor Duke's straight-forward writing coupled with scientific research regarding human learning stimulated my own thoughts regarding the processes by which we teach and more importantly, how we learn. This is a must read for all educators- while the content is often music-specific, it has powerful implications for all human learning.