RTRL.41: Connections Between Teacher Beliefs About Musical Ability, Teaching Practice, and Classroom Culture (Shouldice, 2019)

Source:

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:

  1. It is safe.
    • Students feel free to explore and make mistakes without fear of failure or pressure to be perfect.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

RTRL.07: “Teachers’ Beliefs Regarding Composition in Elementary General Music” (Shouldice, 2014)

Source:

Shouldice, H. N. (2014). Teachers’ beliefs regarding composition in elementary general music: Definitions, values, and impediments. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(2), 215-230.

What did the researcher want to know?

How do elementary music teachers define composition, what relationships exist between their beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition, why do they believe composing is valuable, and what prevents them from incorporating more composition in their classrooms?

What did the researcher do?

Shouldice surveyed 176 elementary general music teachers from across Michigan via an online questionnaire, which included items such as the following:

  • Please describe the characteristics of music composition. (e.g., What is composition? What does it entail?) 
  • Why do you feel composition is or isn’t important for elementary music students? 
  • What influences your decision to NOT incorporate composition in elementary general music? (OR what influences you to not incorporate composition more frequently?) 

What did the researcher find?

Definitions of Composition:

Many teachers agreed that composition involves creating, self-expression, and replication.  However, they differed in their beliefs about the complexity of composition and/or whether it requires notation.  While some teachers believed that composition involves the creation of a complete piece of music, others believed it could be as simple as creating a melody or an ostinato pattern.  Similarly, while some believed that composition by nature involves the notating of musical ideas, others believed it could be strictly aural/by ear.

Use and Importance/Value of Composition:

Teachers’ use of composition increased with grade level.


There was a positive correlation between teachers’ beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition.  Teachers who believed composition was more important were more likely to include it in their teaching and to do so more frequently than teachers who believed composition was less important.  Many teachers expressed beliefs that composition is valuable because it helps students develop, demonstrate, and apply their understanding of musical concepts and skills; develops creativity; allows self-expression; and lets students take ownership of their music-making.

Impediments to Composition:

When asked what keeps them from doing more composing with their students, many teachers mentioned time (amount of contact time with students and/or feeling that composition takes too long).  Another common struggle cited was logistics, including large class sizes and a lack of resources (e.g., instruments, technology).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elementary music teachers who don’t believe composition is important may be less likely to provide their students with composing experiences.  Therefore, helping teachers see the value of composing may increase the likelihood they will teach it!  Click below to view a presentation slide deck for this study, which includes direct quotes from teachers who participated about why they believe composition is important:

Teachers’ conceptions of composition likely influence whether, when, and/or how they teach it.  Given that more teachers in this study incorporated composing into later grade levels than early grade levels, it might be because many believe composition must be complex and/or notated, whereas teachers who incorporate composing in early grade levels may be more likely to do so in simple, aural/ear-based ways.

Broadening teachers’ conceptions of composition may help alleviate perceived impediments.  How might elementary music teachers incorporate composing in ways that are simple, quick, don’t involve notation, and don’t require instruments/technology? 

Ideas for Aural Composition:

Composing a Melody for a Familiar Chant:
  1. Review a familiar chant, such as “Engine, Engine” while moving to big/little beats.
  2. Choose and establish tonality and sing several tonal patterns for the class to echo. Then invite students to improvise a tonal pattern that is different from yours. Repeat several times to “get the musical juices flowing.”
  3. Invite students to improvise tonal patterns to use in the song, practicing each phrase as it is created. (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)
Sample class melody for the chant “Engine, Engine”
Composing a Melody for a Poem:
  1. Choose a simple poem (like “The Mule” below). Have the class try chanting the chosen poem in duple meter while moving to big/little beats. Then try chanting the poem in triple meter while moving to big/little beats. Invite the class to vote to choose meter.
  2. After deciding the meter, try chanting the poem while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in major tonality. Then try chanting while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in minor tonality. Invite the class to vote to choose tonality.
  3. Optional: Sing a few tonic/dominant tonal patterns in the chosen tonality for the class to echo. Then ask the class to sing back a few patterns that are different from yours. (I find that this step helps prepare the students to improvise melodically in the next step.)
  4. Invite the class to try improvising pitches for “Voice of the mule” as a group. Invite an individual student to share their idea, and have the class echo. Have class sing again and then add on a group improvisation for “bray.” Invite another individual student to share an idea, and have the class try echoing. Continue adding on new improvisations until you have an entire composed melody! (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)

SAMPLE POEM:

“The Mule” by Douglas Florian

Voice of the mule: bray.

Hue of the mule: bay.

Fuel of the mule: hay.

Rule of the mule: stay.

Melody for “The Mule” composed by one 3rd grade class
Another version of “The Mule” composed by a second 3rd grade class

Shout-out to Jennifer Bailey, music teacher in the Farmington (MI) Public Schools, for this idea! Visit Jennifer’s website (www.singtokids.com) for more great teaching ideas.

Any children’s poem can work for this composition project, but Jennifer shared with me the poems of Douglas Florian, featured in books such as Beast Feast, Mammalabilia (which includes “The Mule”), and Insectlopedia After composing a few as a class, I would then let the students work in small groups to choose a poem and create a melody for it using the same process. I would give the students this checklist I created as a guide:

Once each group decided on their poem, I highlighted the text using two colors to indicate a harmonic progression. One color represented tonic and the other represented dominant. The groups would use the color-coding to play chords (on a Q-chord, iPad in Garage Band, etc.) when choosing their tonality and composing their melody. Here is an example of a color-coded poem:

Because this project took several days to complete, the groups would record their progress with an audio-recording device (e.g., small digital audio recorder, voice memos, etc.) at the end of each class and then listen to their recording at the beginning of the next class to get their melodies back in their heads. When the groups were done, they recorded a final version of their melody, which I uploaded to our music program website and also burned onto CDs for each student, titling the album “John Doe Elementary School’s Carnival of the Animals.” Here is a video of one group practicing their composition:

Third grade students working on their small group composition

Here is their finished audio recording:

Here is another group’s version of the same poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Tiger”):

Poem (“The Tiger”) by Douglas Florian, Melody by 3rd grade students

And here is one more final version of another poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Whale”):

Poem (“The Whale”) by Douglas Florian, Melody by 3rd grade students
Other Simple Composing Ideas?
  • Have students create a four-beat rhythm (chant on “bah” or play on an unpitched percussion instrument) to perform as a rhythmic ostinato to accompany a song/chant. (For more challenge/extension, have students add rhythm syllables to their ostinato and/or notate it.)
  • Combine a created rhythm with the bassline/chord roots to a familiar song to create a harmonic accompaniment. (For more on basslines/chord roots and teaching them, see this post.)
  • Create a variation of a familiar song by improvising a new tonal pattern to replace a repeated pattern in a song.

For many more ideas as well as how to help better prepare your elementary students for composing, see my book chapter:

Shouldice, H. N. (2018). Audiation-based improvisation and composition in elementary general music. In S. Burton & A. Reynolds (Eds.), Engaging musical practices: A sourcebook for elementary general music (pp. 113-134). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.