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Music education is on the move. I recently heard a radio commercial for a local music school which caught my attention. Students who enrolled could expect to learn performance skills, 16 styles of music, and how to write their own songs. And then came the clincher: all this instruction is made possible because computers and the latest software assist a quality staff of teachers. Yup, the face of music education is changing.

New expectations are being integrated into the performance curricula of bands, strings, and choirs because musicianship is now more than just technique. Students need and increasingly expect opportunities for critical evaluation and creative interpretation. A useful way to cultivate creativity is to guide students toward becoming conceptually acquainted with their music environment. Improvising, analyzing, arranging, and composing are essential skills that can be taught and mastered.

Scott Schuler, head of the Art Department for the Connecticut Department of Education, developed a three-fold process (CPR) for creating, performing and responding in the arts. At the other end of the country, the state of Washington has built their Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs) and Grade Level Expectations (GLEs) around these same three processes. Washington has also developed five assessments each for the elementary, middle and high school levels called Classroom Based Performance Assessments (CBPAs). In the assessments, students create, perform, or respond. Several of the CBPAs even focus on notation or composition. This information can be accessed through the OPSI Web site (www.k12.wa.us/CurriculumInstruct/Arts). What makes this statewide project so important is that their assessments are not conducted by standard paper and pencil tools, but rather through the kids’ musical compositions.

Let’s take a closer look at this excellent working model being implemented in the Bellevue (Wash.) School District under the direction of their supervisor of music, Ms. Pam Schroeder, who has directed the Classroom Performance Based Assessment Project for the Bellevue School District from its onset three years ago. It has two pure approaches to creating: composition and improvisation. Traditionally, the district’s larger ensembles focused solely on performance, for which Bellevue’s ensembles have become well known. Administrators were impressed with the work of folks like Scott Schuler and Maude Hickey and determined that they, too, could use notation exercises to help assess what students do or don’t know. Additionally, they implemented another tool to assess concepts such as melody, harmony and form. In their Beethoven Project, students write a four-measure melody. The teacher and students talk about what makes a good melody and the language of music expands as terms such as “stepwise motion,” “passing,” and “neighboring tones” are used. Their Mozart Project focuses on using theme and variation which again allows the teacher to take conversations in many directions – augmenting rhythms, changing keys, styles, et cetera. It can be as involved as the teacher makes it, for teachers, too, are being creative.

Meet the Bellevue School District
Pam Schroeder is understandably proud of her school district. In her own words: “We have five high schools, six middle schools and 16 elementary schools with around 45 music educators. Ten years ago, our then new superintendent, Mike Riley, put together a curriculum team with one curriculum developer in each subject area (math, science, English, world language, social studies, Phys. Ed./health, visual arts, music, and elementary reading). Their job, in part, was to bring teachers together so we develop our own curriculum. To see this body of work, visit:http://curriculum.bsd405.org/C18/Music/default.aspx and scroll down to ‘music.’

“What the public does not have access to on this site are the lessons, PowerPoint files, and assessments that music teachers have developed. This entire body of work is their common curriculum. For example, if you go to any of our 16 elementary schools, you should find all classes learning the same concepts and skills. At the secondary level, a little over 60 percent of our teachers have students notating or composing. Next year, that number will be 100 percent as it becomes imbedded in their curriculum.”

Who Makes the Project Work?
Even though Ms. Schroeder is the Music Supervisor and Curriculum Developer for the district, she also teaches one class because she believes that whenever changes are made in the curriculum, it is important for administrators to be in the classroom. “The first class I took to the computer lab to compose included two cellists, Brooke and Braden. Both were fine musicians, but you could tell that Brooke always deferred to Braden for solo work or when they worked on difficult passages. She felt a little less. The first day in the lab students each entered their melodies, then used their musician’s ear to make changes. Brooke left class floating. By midweek, her piece was coming together beautifully and she was becoming one of the ‘go-to’ people for technical help. Braden was one of those people asking her for help. The writing experience lifted her in ways you cannot measure, but could certainly see. At the start of this school year she said, ‘I want to learn more about how music is put together – chords and stuff.’”

Pam Schroeder feels it very important to maintain a realistic view of what she is asking teachers to do. She doesn’t want SBO readers to think kids are composing every day, or even every week. Most projects take a day or two to write the melody in class and then four days in the computer lab. For most, it is a short unit of study. The students may spend several days improvising a melody during warm up and then try to write it down. This becomes the melody they take to the lab. Others will write the melody directly to paper, then use it in the lab a few days later.

Teachers are very thoughtful about when to implement the composition unit. They usually work it into their schedule after a performance week that backs up to a holiday break. In this short span of time, teachers are not expecting masterworks. However, some students will take off with it.



 


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