On the way to musicianship in public school programs: Exploring the turf

Mike Lawson • Commentary • May 12, 2017

Share This:

This essay discusses introduction of Terry Riley’s “In C” to urban middle school students as a vehicle for collaborative music-making.

With emphasis on peer learning and improvising, students show the ability of autonomous musical thinking in previously unfamiliar to them style of minimalism.

Introduction and Themes

The turbulent character of music education is firmly placed in the psyche of the music teacher. While philosophers argue about the appropriate direction in which to define the values of music education, the music field soldiers find themselves in a situation that is different from many of their educational colleagues. Whereas other school disciplines are designed to prepare students for making lifelong decisions relevant to their career and practicality, music educators have come to associate the results of their work with the vague and ineffable (Colwell, 2000, p.30).

As a classically trained musician, I belong, perhaps, to the most common ilk of school music teachers, striving to situate my own position between aesthetics and the engaging essence of music education. As a performer, I grew up in an atmosphere of reverence towards the inherent nature of music. On the other hand, by the virtue of my own experience, I share the view that music is what we do, physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally. In this essay, I aim to show that compulsory school students benefit from being exposed to music through a combination of formal and informal teaching-learning practices to develop their creative thinking and musicianship. Using the example of minimalist music Terry Riley’s in C (1964), I am going to demonstrate the rise of students’ understanding of musical concepts, the ability to make autonomous decisions, and the enjoyment of playing, bringing them a step closer to the full experience of music making.

Project in C

The project was conceived as an idea to expose and engage students in a musical style which was unusual to their ears. Such project, however, evolved over time into a different musical task, thus becoming a learning-in-action experience for the teacher as well as for the children. Overall, it involved fifty-two students from fourth through 12th grade in an urban school district, 38 of whom I worked with during a summer program and sixteen of whom were my school year middle school students. The project was separated into five stages.

1. The students listened to Terry Riley’s “In C.” Their original reactions ranged from “scary” through “awesome” but they were intrigued rather than displeased and expressed their willingness to start working on the piece.

2. The second stage involved learning one through 20 of Riley’s 53 patterns for the summer program students, and three arranged sequences of a different length and difficulty chosen accordingly to the group’s ability at the middle school. Some of the students could read the notation while the others learned it by ear with the help from more advanced students. After getting to know some of the patterns, the students put them together, playing each section conducted by teacher for the agreed number of times.

3. The third stage consisted of the students playing all the parts under teacher direction. Each motif was added one by one until all the students joined together. At this point, the students followed some of Riley’s original commentaries. For example, the students changed the dynamics and then dropped out. The total length of a performance would take five to eight minutes. The school’s concert coincided with this work phase, and the piece was performed in front of an audience.

4. At this juncture, more of Riley’s annotations were in place and the piece started to shape in authentic fashion. The students were free to begin playing, choose the order of who would be next in line, shift the patterns and change the dynamics at will. The only teacher involvement consisted of stopping the train. Another performance took place at that time accompanied by an abstract art slide show.

At the final stage, the project extended the student’s musical imagination. They were not constrained by “In C’s” patterns anymore. The students created their own patterns and improvised ideas without teacher participation whatsoever.

Recap and Coda

The work process during the realization of this project represented a combination of various teaching techniques as well as a wide range of student responses. During stage 1, while the music choice was initiated by the teacher, the students voiced their readiness to participate and explore minimalist style democratically. Likewise, the transition to the final stage of the project, improvisation, though it came about with the teacher’s suggestion, was met by the students with enthusiasm and confidence.

In early stage 2, students were encouraged to work on their own, choose their stand partners and use each other’s help. Teacher involvement was limited to assisting students in figuring out some of the more complicated patterns, in some instances correcting students’ technique, and extending their knowledge of musical terminology, specifically in relation to minimalist style. As students familiarized themselves with the material, teacher engagement in stage 2 and 3 increased since putting together all the patterns in consecutive order as well as regulating the starting time for each section and dynamics required more structuring imposed on the students.

Also during stage 2, Riley’s direction to play high c’ostinato on the piano was added, although at times students and a volunteer percussionist were more interested in using whatever was available to keep the beat. For instance, a broken music stand appeared to serve well as a mallet instrument. It is important to note that the students’ submersion in the “trance” character of in C started at stage II since many students were leaving the classroom humming the patterns or imitating the rhythmic pulse. Also at that point, students’ references like “It sounds scary;” “It reminds me of the movie Jaws;” “This is African;” “Are we going to do it again tomorrow?” began to emerge.

From the fourth step of the project students were given full autonomy in making musical decisions. Thus, the very idea of performing in students’ understanding transformed into operating without rules and free realization of creative thinking.

Such a new concept to students, combined with their apparent enjoyment of being able to act at will and the social aspect of playing together in the group, moved students’ experience into the realm of “flow” in the process of music making.

The “In C” project was conducted in the spirit of music-making. I intend to engage my students in music, in all its forms and levels. By my experience, I know what it takes to become a professional musician. I have no fear in having my students play or listen imperfectly. After all, those who choose a professional music career will have all the hours in the world to “sharpen” their bows. Being a musician is what keeps them loving it and my pragmatic goal, along with that of my fellow music educators, is to keep the fire burning by challenging students to grow.

References: Colwell, R. (2000). Music Education in 2050. Arts Education Policy Review, 102 (2), 29-30.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!