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Music Educators

Journal
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Stepping Aside : Teaching in a Student-Centered Music Classroom


Deborah V. Blair
Music Educators Journal 2009 95: 42
DOI: 10.1177/0027432108330760
The online version of this article can be found at:
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by Deborah V. Blair

Stepping Aside: Teaching


in a Student-Centered
Music Classroom
ucational leadersboth researchers
and skilled practitionersaffirm the
importance of student-centered classrooms, where students are engaged
in collaborative hands-on activities and where
problem solving is a valued tool in curriculum
design. (The Some Works by Key Leaders
sidebar lists a few publications by educational
leaders who discuss this concept.)
Music education has a long-standing history of providing students with opportunities
for hands-on musical experiences: our students
play, sing, create, listen, and move to music.
However, there are many different kinds of
hands-on experiences that can be a part of music
learning situations. Two areas of consideration
are the mindful engagement of students within
that experience and the opportunity for students
to contribute to the musical experience. There
is a difference between doing activities that
only require students to join in and activities
that engage students in experiences that require
them to think musically, solving musical problems.1 There is a difference between activities
where the teacher makes all the musical decisions and those in which student collaborations
and contributions enable learner ownership of
the musical process and product. Many of the
practices that have found their way into general
music classrooms are activities where students
are doing things, and while that doing may
occur when music is happening, the ways in
which students are engaged in these experiences allow little space for thinking musically.

Music educators
have exceptional
opportunities to
teach students to
think independently
and solve problems
as they learn.

Copyright 2009 MENC: The National


Association for Music Education
DOI: 10.1177/0027432108330760
http://mej.sagepub.com

42

In addition, the process often fails to invite and


encourage student contributions to the process
of making music.
Consider this scenario. In a fourthgrade general music classroom, students are
engaged in creating their own arrangement
of the song Che Che Koolay.2 A series of
problem-solving lessons has enabled them to
reach a certain level of understanding about
the music, and they are now working to apply
that understanding by collaboratively creating their own arrangement of the music. The
students first learned the song through
an iconic representation of the melody.
After describing the call and response, they
performed the piece in class with singing,
hand drums, and African rattles, taking turns
as groups in leading the call and response.
Next, they listened to the recorded example
and, as a group, created a texture chart on the
board, visually representing the layers of the
music. Later, the studentsagain using the
iconic representation (or standard notation,
if able)figured out the note names and,
with partners, were able to play the call and
response on Orff instruments or recorders. As
a whole class, they regrouped and again performed Che Che Koolay. Finally, students
created their own classroom arrangement by
rearranging the order and combination of the
layers, determining the number of times each
part is to be played, and deciding if and when
singers join or when there might be an instrumental introduction, interlude, or coda. As

Deborah V. Blair is an assistant professor of music education in the Department of Music, Theatre and Dance, Oakland University,
Rochester, Michigan. She can be contacted at dvblair@oakland.edu.

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Music Educators Journal March 2009

the students have created texture charts


for other music, they now create a texture chart for their own arrangement
visually representing their musical ideas.

Informed Doing
In this scenario, students are engaged in
authentic musical experiencesactively
creating and performing music, making musical decisions, figuring out for
themselves how the piece works. The
students are the center of the action, interacting with the music in ways that result
in doing that informs their thinking and,
reciprocally, with thinking that informs
their doing.3 An example of a teachercentered experience might be a situation where the teacher tells each student
exactly what and how to play, explains for
the students how the piece works, and
designs the new arrangement for them,
creating a hands-on situation where the

students are doing music, but not functioning for themselves in musically creative
ways. When students are simply doing
thingsplaying or singing through mimicking a teacher or recording, participating in an ensemble without knowing or
realizing how their part fits within the
musical wholethey are acting without
understanding and are engaged in what I
call uninformed doing. Students may be
doing something, and it may be fun and
sound good, but if students participate
without constructing or expanding their
own musical understanding, the experience remains just something to do, without generating understanding that could
be applied to new musical situations.
Informed doing, on the other hand,
results when students are personally
engaged with music, solving musical
problems. Rather than merely following directions, students are being musicalgrowing as musicians. In learning
situations, what students do informs

their thinking, and what students think


about informs their doing. Because of
this important give-and-take relationship between doing and thinking, educators must find ways for our students
interaction with music to be meaningful and challenging, stimulating musical
growth. Instead of consistently being told
exactly how to perform a piece of music,
students need to be actively engaged
with the music, making performance
decisions that inform their understanding of the music. Rather than regularly
being told how or what to listen for in a
piece of music, students are challenged
to figure out musical listening problems
for themselves. When composing, students must be engaged in whole and
authentic composing projects, not limited
to creating music with a specific number of notes or measures. They must be
enabled to compose music by creating
and organizing musical sound with more
open-ended parameters. When stu-

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43

dents own the doing and thinkingthe


informing of self musicallythey are
enabled to further their own musical
understanding.

Rethinking Musical Ideas


In another scenario, older students are
creating a remix. Popular musicians frequently remix oldies with sounds from
current musical forms, leaving students to
wonder how their parents know all the
words to a top-40 hit! Students also hear
remixes of the released radio version of a
popular song, noting differences from the
video or concert rendition. This phenomenon represents an appropriate musical
problem for young musicians to solve
how do musicians take a song and remix
it to reflect new or personal musical ideas,
yet retain some of the musics original
character? Or, instead of rearranging an

Some Works by Key


Leaders in Education and
Music Education
Eunice Boardman, The Relationship of Musical Thinking and Learning to
Classroom Instruction, in Dimensions
of Musical Thinking and Learning, ed.
E. Boardman, 120 (Reston, VA: MENC:
The National Association for Music
Education, 2002).
Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G.
Brooks, In Search of Understanding:
The Case for Constructivist Classrooms
(Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
[ASCD], 1993/1999).
Catherine T. Fosnot, Constructivism:
Theory, Perspectives, and Practice, 2nd
ed. (New York: Teachers College Press,
2005).
Jackie Wiggins, Teaching for Musical
Understanding (Boston: McGraw-Hill,
2001).
Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels,
and Arthur Hyde, Best Practice: Todays
Standards for Teaching and Learning in
Americas Schools, 3rd ed. (Portsmouth,
NH: Heinemann, 2005).

44

entire piece, how do musicians vary or


develop a single musical idea or theme
and repeat it, yet make the repetitions
varied enough to make the music interesting and expressive?
To enable student success with such
a project, students might study examples of music with repeated melodies
that are varied. Students may listen to
In the Hall of the Mountain King and
figure out how Grieg varies each repetition of the theme to create tension and
suspense. In further exploration of how
composers vary a melodic theme to create interest, students might listen to a
piece by the Blue Man Group or to the
finale of Stravinskys Firebird. Another
example to consider might be the soundtrack version and the *NSYNC remix of
Trashing the Camp from Tarzan.4 A
problem-solving listening lesson might
include students working with partners
or in small groups to come up with a list
of ways to alter melodic material, then
sharing their ideas (after multiple listenings of each selection) with their peers
to create a master list of ways composers manipulate sound, creating variety
with repeated musical ideas. Once this
is accomplished, students may be better enabled to use this information,
constructed through solving musical
problems while listening, to create their
own remix of a tune.
The experience of listening to and describing musical examples with a specific
goal in mindfiguring out how to vary
themes or redesign a whole piece to
eventually accomplish this themselves
provides groundwork to enable student
success. By engaging in the processes of
listening and creating, students are working with all the musical elements, such
as tempo, timbre, dynamics, melody, and
articulation. Instead of being told about
how the elements are used in these examples or answering questions that have only
one correct answer, as is typical in a teacher-centered approach, students are actively
thinking and doing, figuring out how these
elements work together to create unique
musical wholes. Finally, as students choose
a tune that they are capable of playing and
singing, they apply these ideas to a new
musical situation, creating a set of varia-

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tions on a central theme or new arrangement of an entire piece.

Stepping Aside
While the teacher is still the coordinator and designer of classroom musical
experiences, the teacher does not need
to direct every activity every moment.
The teachers role is important, but
it changes to shift the focus of classroom instruction from what the teacher
will do to what the students will figure
out. This includes carefully crafting lessons that allow for andin order to be
successfulnecessitate that students be
creatively engaged with the music. Such
lesson design requires finding ways that
allow students to be composers, listeners,
or performersto express new musical
ideas through composing, to find broad
and specific musical ideas when listening, to interpret music when performing.
This allowing for is quite intentional,
and requires that the teacher step back
and no longer be the center of the musical experience, responsible for all the
thinking and doing and musical decision
making. It requires the teacher to trust
and enable the students budding musicianship, rather than requiring students
to mimic their teachers musicianship.
The role of the teacher, then, is to
design ways for students to be the center of classroom activity, interacting with
the music and with each other. A red flag
for guarding against a teacher-centered
approach might be to ask ourselves: to
whom/what are the students responding?
If students are primarily responding to the teacher, waiting and watching
for cues as to how to interact within an
activity, then something is amiss. However, when students are engaged with
the music, solving musical problems,
and interacting with others (including
the teacher as a member of the learning community), then we can trust that
these learners are interacting with the
music and, by doing so, informing their
own musical understanding. Uninformed
doing results when students respond to
teachers in musical ways that are directed
to them. The opposite, informed doing,
Music Educators Journal March 2009

becomes something even morea transformative musical experience enabling


students to be more fully musical and,
because of increased ownership in the
process, become more confident in their
developing musicianship.
It is common for us as teachers to
think that our role is to pass along our
knowledge of music or that being enthusiastic about music will inspire our students to share our love of music. But we
cannot do this for our students. To have
transformative musical experiences and
to value music and grow in their love for
it, students must engage with it in personal ways. It is only then that music will
become an important part of their lives. We
certainly do not want to create clones of
ourselves or to have our students depend
on us for every musical idea. What we
want for our students is what they want
for themselvesto be creative, imaginative, and independent musicians who are
responsible for the thinking and doing and

www.menc.org

musical decision making within a teachersupported learning environment.

John Dewey, The Child and the


Curriculum (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1902).
. Democracy and Education (New
York: McMillan, 1916).

NOTES
1.

2.

3.

For an extensive discussion of problem solving in musical contexts, see


Jackie Wiggins, Teaching for Musical
Understanding (Boston: McGraw-Hill,
2001).
Che Che Koolay is a Ghanaian
childrens song. It can be found in
numerous resources, including Silver
Burdetts Making Music (Glenview,
IL: Scott Foresman, Pearson Education,
2002) and as Kye Kye Kule in Let
Your Voice Be Heard! Songs from Ghana
and Zimbabwe by Abraham Adzenyah,
Dumisani Maraire, and Judith C. Tucker
(Danbury CT: World Music Press,
1986/1997).
The concept of reflection while engaged
in experiential learning through the solving of problems is central to the work of
John Dewey. See the following items:

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. Experience and Education: The


60th Anniversary Edition (West Lafayette,
IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1938/1998).
4.

Other remix examples include the


following:
Beatles remixes of Please, Mr.
Postman (Marvelettes, 1961) and You
Really Got a Hold on Me (Miracles,
1962)
Kenny Gs remix of Leroy Andersons
Sleigh Ride
Mannheim Steamrollers Faeries
remix of Tchaikovskys Dance of the
Sugarplum Fairy
For older students, consider the
two versions of Crazy by Gnarls
Barkley and Nelly Furtado, or
Linus and Lucy by Vince
Guaraldi compared with the Wynton
Marsalis arrangement.

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