Shouldice, H. N. (2019). ‘Everybody has something’: One teacher’s beliefs about musical ability and their connection to teaching practice and classroom culture. Research Studies in Music Education, 41(2), 189-205.
What did the researcher want to know?
How does one elementary music teacher’s beliefs about musical ability…
- manifest in her actions and decision-making in the classroom?
- manifest in her interactions with students and the classroom culture she creates?
- relate to her beliefs about the purpose of music education?
What did the researcher do?
In contrast to the belief that musical talent is “innate” and possessed by only some, Shouldice studied one elementary music teacher (“Deena”) who believes that all students have musical potential. She observed in Deena’s classroom twice weekly (each for one entire school day) during a two-month period. Data consisted of field notes from observations, regular semi-structured interviews with Deena, teacher journal entries, and various teaching artifacts (e.g., classroom website, written correspondence to parents). These data were analyzed to identify the ways in which Deena’s actions in the classroom, interactions with students, and beliefs about the purpose of music education seemed to connect to her beliefs about musical ability.
What did the researcher find?
Shouldice identified three main themes:
I. Enabling Success for All
Deena believes “everybody has something” in terms of musical potential but that students’ current level of musical ability is affected by factors like varying prior musical experiences, effort, and musical self-esteem. For this reason, Deena attempts to communicate to her students that, just as in other subjects, “everybody is at different places,” normalizing differences among students’ abilities and sending a message that all can be successful with varying amounts of effort and time.
Because Deena believes students are all in “different places”, what qualifies as musical “success” looks different for each child, and thus they each need something different from her in order to be successful. She enables individualized opportunities for success in two main ways: (1) by providing all students with differentiated learning experiences at varying levels of difficulty according to their needs, and (2) by helping each student tap into their musical strengths through incorporating a variety of activities.
II. Power of the Learning Environment
In order to nurture each child’s musical potential, Deena creates a positive learning environment with three salient characteristics:
- It is safe.
- Students feel free to explore and make mistakes without fear of failure or pressure to be perfect.
- It is supportive.
- Students’ musical confidence is built by focusing on what they CAN do rather than what they can’t. In addition, the teacher communicates to students a persistent belief that they all will succeed eventually, and the students encourage and celebrate one another.
- It is empowering.
- Enabling students to feel musically empowered helps develop their musical identities, thus increasing their motivation to continue engaging with music.
III. Encouraging Lifelong Musical Engagement
“Because Deena believes that all of her students have musical potential, she sees it as her duty to ensure that each and every one of them develops musical skills and understanding and, in doing so, hopes to achieve her ultimate goal of enabling all students to continue on to a lifetime of participation and engagement with music” (p. 198). In order to achieve this goal, Deena works to help her students develop musical independence[ Ways she does this—here or in applications?] (so they can continue to make music on their own) and have positive musical experiences (so they want to continue to make music in the future).
What does this mean for my classroom?
A music teacher’s conscious or unconscious beliefs have an inevitable impact on what goes on in their classroom, whether the teacher is aware of it or not. A teacher who believes all students can be successful in music may be more likely to persist in helping all students achieve, while a teacher who believes in innate talent may be more likely to give up on students they don’t perceive as being “talented.” It is worth reflecting on one’s own beliefs about musical ability and the ways these beliefs might be manifesting in one’s classroom.
Rather than expecting all students to achieve at the same level at all times, the teacher might work to make sure each student is appropriately challenged and can feel successful. Specific strategies include the following:
- Varying the difficulty levels of activities within a class period, including a mix of challenging and more basic activities, and varying the kids of activities so that each student can feel successful with something.
- Providing multiple parts of varying difficulty within an activity and giving students an opportunity to choose the part that is appropriately challenging for them. (Just be sure to communicate to students that all parts are important, and it’s not bad if a student chooses an easy part.)
- Differentiating instruction by adapting content difficulty for each student within an activity. For example, if you are having students engage in tonal/melodic pattern echo-singing, you might differentiate instruction so that each student echoes a pattern that is appropriately challenging for them. I described one such example in my dissertation (on which this article was based), in which Deena would sing a short tonal pattern with solfege for each student to echo in solo. I describe on page 95, “For Mari, a girl who struggled with using her singing voice, Deena sang a simple descending tonic pattern. For Gordon, a boy who had consistently been using his singing voice to accurately echo tonic and dominant patterns, Deena sang a subdominant pattern comprised of leaps. After hearing Priya accurately echo a tonic pattern on her first turn, Deena later returned to her for a second turn in which she gave her a more difficult subdominant pattern.”
Although many teachers like to stress the importance of perfection in music, this can have the detrimental effect of leading students to be afraid of making mistakes, causing them to be less likely to take risks or to keep trying when they are unsuccessful for fear of embarrassment. Instead, music teachers can work to establish a classroom culture in which it is safe (and expected!) to make mistakes so that they will persist through challenges. In addition, empowering students to feel like musicians can help them persist.
Finally, we might equip students to continue engaging with music beyond our classroom by helping them develop musical independence. Some ways to do this include the following:
- Don’t always sing/play with your students or conduct for them, so they can’t use you as a crutch.
- Use small group activities to encourage students to take greater responsibility for and ownership of their music-making and learning.
- Find ways of eliciting individual student response in your classroom, such as prompting students to sing/play short patterns in solo. Start this as early as possible and incorporate as frequently as possible so that students come to see individual response as a “normal” part of music class.
For more examples, see the entire dissertation on which this article was based.