The New Frontier: Secondary Project-Based General Music
“General music” often conjures up images of elementary school students singing, playing various instruments, and moving to music, all while learning music fundamentals, music history and developing musical literacy skills. As students transition to middle and high school, general music courses are typically replaced with performance ensembles like choir, band, and orchestra. Non-performance music courses are highly limited, if they exist at all. What about the other students who do not play a traditional “school” instrument or those who do not want to sing in the choir? Does this mean they should be deprived of musical opportunities?
In a survey of American secondary schools, Elpus and Abril (2011) found that only twenty-one percent of seniors participated in their school music programs. If we want to provide our entire student populations with the highest quality of music education, one that fits their needs, passions, and interests, shouldn’t we be striving for more ways to include all students? There should be multiple ways for students to showcase their successes and talents in music; we need to expand our music offerings beyond traditional performance ensembles.
Reconsidering General Music
Why not offer students the opportunity to study music in a project-based environment that has them learning by doing and placing creativity at its core?
I suggest that all secondary school music programs should include, in addition to their ensembles, non-performance project-based music classes that take advantage of the students’ personal musical experiences and interests. By widening the range of music courses and focusing the attention beyond the scope of traditional performance music, we can encourage the other eighty-percent of students to explore and learn about music in a general classroom atmosphere. Placing the emphasis on student individual growth, rather than collective performance objectives, can result in more student engagement and excitement. Lastly, the project-based secondary general classroom also helps create an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to take risks, collaborate, experiment, and be creative.
My own high school started offering two project-based classes in digital music in 2013, both of which were at maximum capacity with a wide range of students. Some had been or were currently enrolled in school performance ensembles like orchestra, choir, and band. Others were taking music for the first time since elementary school. More importantly, though, without the new digital music composition class, numerous students would have gone through their entire secondary education without music. These students now are able to study and make music during the school day, experiences that will hopefully impact their music making experiences and musical lives as adults. I have even had a few seniors share with me that they will be pursuing careers in the music industry after attending two and four-year colleges to study music business and audio recording technology.
Though you are only limited by your imagination when designing project-based units, I have had great success with composition projects. They are a great way for students to showcase their understanding of various music fundamentals. For example, you could have your students compose in a specific musical structure using GarageBand or any other type of digital audio workstation (DAW). I begin with rounded binary and verse chorus because those are the forms most commonly heard outside of school. In addition to learning about form and composing in a specific structure, students also continue to develop their abilities with the DAW by adding effects, adjusting equalization, and experimenting with individual track automation. These all enhance their high-quality compositions.
Facilitating These Classes
Teachers of project-based secondary general music courses often find themselves moving away from the traditional teacher role to the facilitator role, a “guide on the side rather than sage on the stage.” This student-centered approach allows the teacher to spend class periods listening to student work, answering questions, and providing specific and timely feedback on students’ compositions. While it might be challenging at first to step off the stage, the rewards will be well worth it. The facilitator role puts students more in control of their learning outcomes. You are then able to cater instruction, assignments, and cater to their individualized needs, the true definition of differentiated instruction.
If music education wishes to survive and move to a new age there has to be a change, a new movement, a new frontier. This frontier is project-based secondary general music, specialized music electives like digital music, class guitar, rock band, pop music history, and exploratory music. All classes will be able to reach a wider student population and teach music fundamentals through music making activities and projects.
If you would like to get started with project-based experiences for your students, consider integrating small class projects that allow them to showcase what they have learned by creating and studying music. Composition, listening, music technology, and creativity can help us make music education relevant to today’s youth and provide more opportunities to experience music. Let’s move beyond the twenty-percent statistic and ensure that all students continue to have opportunities to experience music as a part of their school day.
Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2011). High School Music Ensemble Students in the United States: A Demographic Profile. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(2), 128-145.
Kratus, J. (2007). Music education at the tipping point. Music Educators Journal, 94(2), 42-48.
Paynter, J. (1982). Music in the secondary school curriculum: Trends and developments in class music teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reimer, B. (2003). A philosophy of music education: Advancing the vision. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Reimer, B. (2009). Taking a new direction in general music. The Mountain Lake Reader, Spring 2009, 38-42.
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