Musical Literacy in the Large Ensemble
It’s a Saturday afternoon in late October. The air is crisp, clean, and filled with the beautiful chaos of high school marching bands preparing to perform; drumlines run check patterns, wind players warm-up using lips slurs, and flag corps count and drill. Parents and community members wait expectantly in the stands for their favorite group to finally take the field. The drum major salutes, turns, and gives that long awaited downbeat. Months of planning, countless hours of rehearsal, thousands of dollars, and gallons of sweat have been spent to make the next ten minutes happen. It’s a beautiful thing. Anyone who has ever been part of a marching band knows how wonderful it can feel to have that hard work pay off in one glorious performance where the individual recedes and the group emerges as a well-oiled machine.
There is another side to that coin, though. It’s the one with a face, the student that receded into the background. She joined band in 5th grade to learn an instrument and to play music. She loves everything about band; marching, concerts, chamber music, yet she feels like something is missing. When she gets home from rehearsal her dad asks to hear what she learned in band today so she plays him the second clarinet part to the marching band arrangement of “Claire de Lune”. “Oh, that’s nice”, he remarks with a forced smile, “How does the melody go for that piece?” She frowns, thinks for a moment, and tries unsuccessfully to play it for him. “I’ll guess I can ask my section leader for a copy of the music and maybe I can learn it and show you.” Her parents are proud of how well she has done in band and they feel that band is helping her become a more creative individual. Yet the truth is that, after six years in band, she can’t play a melody by ear. She has never written a piece of music, never improvised, never arranged an ensemble, and doesn’t know the joy of creating something musically unique. But, man, can she play those scales!
Music Advocacy and… Music.
There is no question that high school bands, choirs, and orchestras in their current form provide some wonderful opportunities for our students. Through participation in these ensembles, students develop leadership skills, learn how to function as a part of a group, become disciplined individuals, and realize the benefits of hard work. In fact, this is how we often market our programs to our parents, administrators, communities, and future students. What is missing from that list of worthy benefits? What do so many of our advocacy efforts forget to mention? Music. School arts programs have gotten very good at justifying their existence and advocating for themselves by extra-musical means. I am as guilty as any in this. The issue? We are first and foremost music teachers.
Our job should be to foster musical creativity and literacy in our students. If our students resemble the clarinet player above then we have work to do. Students entering band want to interact with music in a way that connects them meaningfully to the past while validating what they love in the present. This means opening them up to a wider musical world. We do a nice job of teaching our students to be consumers and performers of music of the past. Where we fail is teaching them to be literate, fluent creators of music. If we are going to meet students where they are, give them a comprehensive musical education, and foster musical literacy, then we need to find a way to incorporate improvisation and composition into our programs.
Musical Literacy: Reading, Writing, Improvising.
In my own teaching, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, I use the concept of musical literacy as my reason for requiring my students to be able to read traditional notation. “We read the music and don’t play by ear in this band room. We will be literate musicians!” Lately, though, I’ve realized that line of reasoning falls short. In English class, we read great literature and, in the process, we learn something. Ideally, the same thing happens in our large ensembles.
Upon closer inspection, however, the analogy made between English class and our large ensembles falls apart. The problem is that students in English classes go one step further than most bands, choirs, and orchestras do. In English class, we are expected to write about our experiences – we try our hand at the craft, staring at the same blank page that sat on Hemingway’s desk and assert our will over it. Through the process we learn more of ourselves, how to communicate with humanity, and, at an even deeper level, we learn exactly what makes great writers so great. This crucial step is often ignored in our large ensembles. If we want students to be literate musicians, in addition to reading skills, we need to give them the chance to compose. Is that it, though?Almost. There is one more point that needs to be addressed: the spoken word. The ability to communicate in real time with those around us is one of the things that make us human. Most of our music making happens by recitation. The material already exists and we interpret it from the notation. This is valuable, but it is only part of the story. When we are fluent in a language we have the ability to both converse freely and express original ideas at will. One way to establish such fluency is through improvisation. Musicians throughout history have embraced improvisation: Bach as part of his compositional process, variations and call-response patterns in non-western traditions, jazz music, classical cadenzas, etc.
All of this points to a definition of musical literacy as containing three components: reading, composing, and improvisational skills.
When Simply Touching on the National Standards Isn’t Enough
We all have professional music standards to deal with, regardless of where we live. Here is a list of standards compiled by state. They are all pretty similar. Back in 1994 a group of educators came up with a whole set of national standards for music education. If your teaching experience is anything like mine, then you have turned in many lesson plans that cite how you have accommodated the standards in your teaching. This is wonderful, but how often are the standards covered in a meaningful way? Having one trumpet player create the lip-slur pattern for one day’s warm-up is not sufficient to cover the composition standard for the whole class, yet I have done it and I’m sure I’m not alone. We can hardly be blamed for overlooking improvisation and composition in our classrooms. For a variety of reasons our profession has found itself in a position where public performance is the primary, or in extreme cases the only, measure of success for individual programs.
A few things will need to change if we want our large ensemble students to be musically literate. First of all, we might to cut back on how much we perform (gasp!). This might mean that we perform fewer pieces on the holiday concert, we might only play in one extra marching competition, or we skip out on that downtown dog parade (not making that up). We can still entertain and educate our community through public performance of the best possible music, we will just have to be more selective about where, when, and what we play. Secondly, we as teachers need to learn how to improvise and compose and stop being afraid. How? Just do it. Go sit down at a piano, grab a guitar, or simply sing a line and see what happens. Write things down, play for your family or friends. You don’t have to be Charlie Parker or Bach, just get familiar with the process so that you will be able to guide your students. Lastly, you need to give kids space and permission to be less than perfect. Military precision is great on the marching field but creativity thrives in play, it takes time, and can be gloriously chaotic.
One Idea to Get You Started
At this point, you might be thinking, “This is all well and good, Brian, but how can I accomplish this in my classroom?!” For starters, you can check out this PDF with a unit idea that encourages creativity in the large ensemble. While the unit is specifically designed around a concert march, I believe the guiding principals are good for use in the orchestra room as well. After you’re done checking out the lesson, you can visit my blog, Creating Spaces in Band. If you’re a like-minded individual, interested in creating spaces for creativity in the band room, drop me a line and become a collaborator!
Time, commitments, fear, tradition, lack of resources – these are all excuses that have crowded out creativity in my own teaching.. It is my job to overcome those excuses, as valid as they may be at times. The first step is to acknowledge that our music programs have become unbalanced. Yes, performance should be a major part of what we do, yet we cannot allow it to continually push creative practices out of the classroom. The student from the beginning of this article loves to perform but realizes that something is missing from her musical experience. The thing that is missing, whether she realizes it or not, is that she is not musically literate. She can read and reproduce the music of others but she cannot speak the language fluently or express her own original ideas. Many of us, myself included, came up in the same way and have the same shortcomings. By recreating what we were taught, we continue the cycle. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can change. Teach music, foster creativity, work towards musical literacy, and the rest will fall into place.
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