Music Literacy – Why it’s declining and how to improve your reading skills

Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.

Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:

I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.

I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.

Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.

High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.

For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.

Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.

What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.

  1. Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
  2. Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
  3. Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
  4. Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
  5. Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.

There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.

Learning a Musical Instrument as an Adult

My wife has recently become seriously interested in learning to play music after not really having any musical education prior. While she’s dabbled a bit in the past, she needed to find an instrument and genre of music she was particularly excited about to get to the point of where she decided to take the plunge. For her, it’s Celtic harp.

She enjoys being able to ask me for help. Even though I don’t have a background in either Celtic music or harp, I’m still able to answer basic questions and even more complex ones involving music theory or ear training. I’ve been on the lookout lately for things that she might find useful and came across 7 tips for adults taking up a musical instrument. Honestly, the advice that’s in there is good for anyone, regardless of how old you are or even whether you’re just starting out with music or have been playing for decades.

  1. Dedicate a small amount of time every day to practice.
  2. Find some new music to play.
  3. Get your instrument serviced.
  4. Give yourself something to work for.
  5. Remember why you’re doing it.
  6. Persevere.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

Frankly, the above suggestions (and you should read through the short article for extra thoughts on each piece of advice) are solid for learning anything new. OK, maybe “get your instrument serviced” won’t apply to something like creative writing, for example, but the gist of the article does an excellent job of getting started on creative projects.

Arguing For Science Based Brass Pedagogy

Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.

This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.

Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do,  you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.

I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.

The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.

Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.

Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.

However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.

Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.

There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.

Another Upstream Brass Embouchure Rant

The following rant was inspired by a Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group thread started by a teacher who was wondering how to help a young student who was playing with his lower lip predominant. The teacher was asking for advice on how to correct this embouchure. My rant below is in response to many of the ensuing comments. I will be paraphrasing instead of directly quoting, in part because these responses are so common and don’t really need an attribution for context.

First, a little background on what an upstream embouchure is. All brass musicians, regardless of what they might think they are doing or should be doing, play in such a way that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When the upper lip is predominant, most common, the air stream passes the lips in a downward direction.

Most brass players have an embouchure that is similar, although the amount of upper to lower lip may be different. A minority of brass musicians, however, do the opposite. These players place the mouthpiece closer to the chin and because of the predominance of lower lip the air stream gets directed upwards.

With that basic understanding out of the way, I will get into addressing some of these typical comments.

Change the mouthpiece placement. That student will thank you for it later.

While it does happen that students will adopt an upstream embouchure when they should be playing downstream, it’s much more common for these “low placement embouchure type” players to be playing that way because it is the most efficient embouchure type for their anatomical features. Before you change the mouthpiece placement you need to address issues with embouchure form, breathing, tonguing, posture, etc. Usually if you correct those other playing characteristics the embouchure will function better.

Sometimes you can disguise those other issues by changing the mouthpiece placement, but that’s only covering up the real problems the student is having. Before the embouchure form is developed properly, for example, you just can’t tell where the best mouthpiece placement is for a particular student.

That student should try another instrument instead. Has he/she considered a woodwind instrument or vocals?

I tend to avoid encouraging a student to change to a different instrument if they’ve expressed an interest in their brass instrument. Sure, maybe some folks will take to another instrument and never look back, but that’s a solution in search of a problem. If you need more bass clarinetists in your band be honest about why you are encouraging the change. If you’re suggesting the change because you don’t know how to help that student, then do some homework and learn. This is your responsibility as a teacher (or even as someone giving advice on the internet). Ask questions. That’s what the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group is for!

Upstream players are players who have a protruded lower jaw or an underbite. That’s what makes them upstream.

Players with an underbite almost always play better with an upstream embouchure, but that alone isn’t going to make their embouchure upstream. There must be more lower lip inside the mouthpiece in order for their embouchure to function upstream (Caveat – Sometimes lip texture comes into play. It’s rare, but you might look at an embouchure from the outside and think it’s one direction but when you look on a transparent mouthpiece the lip position seem flipped. My feeling is that moving the mouthpiece placement to a more appropriate placement can often help).

I don’t have a way to post the video clip (nor have I obtained permission), but my teacher, Doug Elliott, made a film in the 1980s called The Brass Player’s Embouchure. In this film he shows a trombonist with an underbite, but with a mouthpiece placement that was close to the nose and it function downstream. Moving this player’s mouthpiece placement so that it had more lower lip inside worked better.

And not all upstream players will have a protruded jaw position anyway.

Look again at the downstream embouchure example I posted above and note his jaw position. Jaw position while playing will be an influence, but doesn’t actually make a player upstream or downstream.

Also worth considering are Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure types. While I prefer to teach and communicate using different terminology, he did make note of players with particular jaw positions while at rest compared to playing. For example, he classified players with a natural, even bite.

Such brass musicians will almost always need to place the mouthpiece either very high (close to the nose, downstream) or very low (close to the chin, upstream). It might go either way, and for players like this it is sometimes quite difficult to tell which way it might go. Even if that is a very accomplished brass musician (read through what Brad Goode has written about figuring out his embouchure type).

That’s an [insert one brass instrument type here] thing. Those of us who play [insert other brass instrument type here] can’t/shouldn’t play upstream.

After 20 years of studying brass embouchures on all instruments intensively, I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are some differences that the size of the mouthpiece causes, it’s only a matter of scale and that the same embouchure characteristics are found on all the brass instruments.

Now it’s easier to find examples with trumpet players for a couple of reasons. Consider that the larger the mouthpiece, the more likely that the chin or nose will get in the way of placing very high or very low. A trumpet mouthpiece, on the other hand, allows much more leeway for getting the most efficient ratio of upper to lower lip for the particular player. That said, horn players are much less varied, which I believe is due to the adherence of a particular pedagogue’s advice as well as a comparative lack of players who are self taught and simply do what works instead of what is commonly taught.

That’s an [insert musical style] thing. It won’t work for [insert another musical style].

It’s only good for [high or low register playing]. It won’t work for [low or high register playing].

Like the brass instrument argument, I hear this all the time and from opposite sides of the spectrum. There are upstream brass musicians known for their upper register. There are also upstream brass players known for the lower register. They can be found playing in all styles of music successfully.

Embouchure type is influenced by the musician’s anatomical features, not playing style, instrument choice, or musical genre.

When you place the mouthpiece with so much rim contact on the upper lip, it isn’t free to vibrate and causes problems.

Both lips do vibrate in conjunction, but they do not vibrate with equal intensity. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece vibrates with greater intensity. Brass embouchures appear to be sort of between a double reed phenomenon, where both reeds vibrate with equal intensity, and a clarinet reed, where the reed vibrates against the surface of the mouthpiece. For a brass embouchure to function efficiently the lip that has more rim contact (the upper lip in the case of the upstream brass musician) will function somewhat like the clarinet mouthpiece while the other lip (lower lip for upstream embouchures) is more like the reed.

This isn’t arm chair speculation. You can see it in Lloyd Leno’s film quite easily. Here’s part 1 of 3, but the link is to the entire playlist.

If you watch the entire film you’ll also be able to note some downstream trombonists in the film who place the mouthpiece with a great deal of rim contact on the lower lip. For some reason this isn’t as widely discouraged, even by the same players who make this argument when it concerns an upstream embouchure.

I am an experienced teacher and performer and I have never come across a successful upstream player.

My first response to this is that you’re probably not qualified (yet!) to identify one when you see it. Furthermore, if you don’t consider embouchure types to be a useful pedagogical tool, then you’re simply not going to look for them – even if you know what to look for. So many teachers seem to think that by watching a player blow air, free buzz, mouthpiece buzz, talk, whatever, that you’re going to be able to determine a player’s embouchure type. You can’t. Or at least I can’t and I doubt you can.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need a transparent mouthpiece to type most players’ embouchures, but I know the limitations of this and will grab a transparent mouthpiece when needed. Simply put, the most accurate method of typing a brass musician’s embouchure is to look at how they play while playing the instrument into a transparent mouthpiece. Rim visualizers can give you important clues, but the lack of resistance and the reflection of the standing wave back to the lips (as well as other factors) come into play and make a rim visualizer less accurate.

To my knowledge, no one has yet conducted a robust enough study to determine the percentage of upstream players, but by my best guess I would say around 10%-15%. That’s a sizable enough minority that anyone who takes the time to actually look for upstream players among your students and performing colleagues will find them. If you’re not seeing them, you’re probably not looking.

That said, an awful lot of teachers who should know better make a big deal about “correcting” an upstream embouchure when they see one. I get emails and private messages all the time from folks describing this situation. Particularly for teachers who work with older students you’re going to find fewer upstream students because they get “weeded out” by well-intentioned, but ignorant teachers. Either those students quit brass out of frustration or they play with less success than they could because they had their embouchure changed to a less efficient one. I’m a good example of the later, although I was never changed to downstream. I was instructed from the get go to play downstream. Which leads to:

We should teach what’s most common because that will have the best chance of success.

There is some logic to this, but in the case of mouthpiece placement I don’t even think we should talk about it with beginners. Teach embouchure form, not mouthpiece placement, and most of the time I’ve found the student will naturally gravitate to the best embouchure type for his or her anatomy. When it doesn’t, then it’s time to intervene, but this correction needs to be an educated choice that eliminates difficulties in embouchure form (or breathing, tonguing, whatever is influencing the student’s embouchure in a negative way) first.

I am an experienced teacher and never have to consider a brass embouchure type. It’s unnecessary and even makes things worse!

It does take some effort to learn how to type a brass student’s embouchure and use it to make embouchure corrections and design a course of study and practice that will work best for the individual student, but it’s not rocket science. If you found studying music history and music theory to inform your brass playing in a positive way then you already understand how taking the time to learn about different related topics is useful. If embouchure analysis is making things worse it’s because the analysis is faulty in the first place. Learn how brass embouchures actually function and apply what you learn, adjusting as you need to. And if the student is analyzing their embouchure technique at the wrong time, help your student learn to focus on one thing at a time while practicing for a bit each day and focus on the musical expression the rest of the time.

And if you throw out that tired phrase, “paralysis by analysis” I say you’ve lost credibility and the argument.

/rant

Not Yet – Practicing to Improve

Here is another TED talk, this time by Carol Dweck.

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.

Dweck discusses research looking at how different students react to challenge. When given tasks that were just slightly too difficult for them to do, some students reacted positively to the challenge, while others had more negative reactions. Students who have the “growth mindset” understand that they have a chance to learn. They may not be able to perform that task, but they understand that it’s only temporary. Not yet.

Teachers can help encourage the growth mindset. Dweck advises encouragement through praise and to reward the process of learning in addition to performing well. Help them to understand that when the move out of their comfort zone is a good path to learning and getting better.

While the research Dweck cites are mainly geared towards younger students, I think that the growth mindset is the proper attitude for even adult music students. It’s challenging even for older students to want to spend time out of their comfort zone. This ties in nicely with last week’s post from another TED talk about practicing.

As a teacher, there are two big takeaways I get from Dweck’s video. First, there’s the advice she offers to how to encourage a growth mindset in your students, but there’s also a deeper pedagogy lesson in there too. Changing up your approach to teaching, particularly if you feel it’s already successful, is hard. You have to move outside your comfort zone in order to become a better teacher.

My challenge to students this week is to explore practicing out of your comfort level. Don’t simply practice things you can already do well. Teachers have a similar challenge. Find a new bit of pedagogy and find ways to use it in your teaching, even if you don’t find it particularly relevant to that situation. Explore with your students the difference it makes in their results and mindset.

On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Learning Styles – How Can Teachers Best Help Students Learn

The idea of students having a “learning style” refers to a concept that that individuals differ on how the best learn, develop, and retain information. For example, someone who is considered to be a “visual” learner needs to see the information in some way, while an “aural” learner will want to hear it explained. On its surface this seems like a good thing, since we are all individuals and experienced teachers develop strategies to help students with different needs and backgrounds learn better. Unfortunately, the idea of catering lessons to a particular student’s learning style doesn’t show that it actually helps. In fact, it can even leave some students behind when proven methods of instruction are avoided in favor of what essentially amounts to a preference on the student’s part. Teachers end up working with a student’s strengths and not addressing the weaknesses.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the learning styles theory, this is a pervasive myth among educators, students, and the general public. Companies that want to sell lesson plans and other educational support materials to schools and teachers are, in part, to blame for the continued belief in this myth. Here’s one example that purports to tell you your learning style by asking you 20 questions. I tried it out and learned that I was an “auditory” learner.

Auditory

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

As an auditory learner, you probably hum or talk to yourself or others if you become bored. People may think you are not paying attention, even though you may be hearing and understanding everything being said.

Here are some things that auditory learners like you can do to learn better.

  • Sit where you can hear.
  • Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
  • Use flashcards to learn new words; read them out loud.
  • Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
  • Record yourself spelling words and then listen to the recording.
  • Have test questions read to you out loud.
  • Study new material by reading it out loud.

Remember that you need to hear things, not just see things, in order to learn well.

The problem with assessing a student’s learning style with questions like this survey is that it doesn’t actually address learning. Asking someone the “best way to study for a test” doesn’t offer information on how a student best learns because it doesn’t assess whether the student did well on the test! The only way to assess whether learning styles are helpful is how well they learned the material, not what someone prefers to do for fun or what strategies they want to try.

Another online “test” (I won’t link because it wants you to register before it gives you results) is a bit more thorough one that has some more nuance to the questions and asks more, but again, I find many of the questions odd (“You have a good sense of color” “You hear small things that others don’t” – can a so-called visual learner be color blind or can someone with some hearing loss still be a so-called aural learner?) and none of the questions assess learning.

A good summary of why learning styles is a myth can be found in this Wired article.

Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Here is another one.

Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.

Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

What about all that literature that supposedly supports learning styles? Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork wrote a review of the literature.

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al- though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Searching online for evidence that both supports and refutes the theory of learning styles shows a general difference between those supporting and those debunking. Sites and “articles” that support learning styles tend to lack citations and when they do have them, the studies listed either are from companies that want to sell their materials to teachers, are poorly done, or even state the exact opposite of what that source is claiming. On the other hand, criticisms of learning styles tend to be well researched with peer reviewed articles from reputable authors and journals and provide a much more nuanced view of teaching and learning.

The bottom line for teachers is that while we can and should use every tool available when necessary, it’s important to look at the bigger picture – whether learning is taking place and whether the results we’re getting from our students is what they are truly capable of. By all means, reinforce the students’ strengths, but address their weaknesses too.

NCMEA 2015

This Sunday and Monday (November 8-9, 2015) I will be performing and presenting at the North Carolina Music Educators Conference at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, NC. While the conference does have a fee to enter, if you’re a member of MENC you get a discount. If you are a member, there’s a chance you’re already planning on attending. If so, please come to one of the events I’m presenting at.

On Sunday, November 8, 2015 at 3:30 PM the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing one set for the music students and educators present. We’ll do a mix of my original compositions and some others by bands like Count Basie, Buddy Rich, or others. I haven’t finalized the set list quite yet. We will be in the South Main Hall 3 at the convention center.

The next day at 3:30 PM, Monday November 9, 2015, I’m joining Chris Nigrelli, Matt Buckmaster, and Wes Parker in a big band trombone section workshop. We will be performing some trombone solis from standard big band rep and talking a bit about how to get the best sound and style from younger trombone students.

I will also have a wee bit of downtime on Sunday evening and Monday morning. While I plan to spend it at the convention checking out other performances and clinics, I can also break away for a bit in case anyone is looking for a lesson or cup of coffee. Please feel free to contact me.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday. Here are some random music-related links for you to peruse this weekend.

Did you know that there is a brass band in New Zealand that since 1895 performs on bicycles?

 How about a bicycle brass band from Holland?

When directing an ensemble in rehearsal I often use an analogy that isolating individual musicians playing, as if we were recording everyone, would sound different than when you hear the same part played in the context with the whole ensemble. For example, a single big band trumpet part isolated might sound too short, but when the whole brass section plays that way together it comes out just right. Here’s a similar idea, listen to the vocal tracks from the Beatles isolated out of context from the rest of the parts.

An older discussion about teacher tenure and why it’s not the firing itself that is the issue, it’s how the threat of firing teachers allows other people (often not qualified or informed enough about the teacher’s job and situation) to control the teacher’s day to day work.

And lastly, something a little lighter. Here are 27 jokes only classical music nerds will understand.

Music Competitions: Art or Sport?

Marching BandThis weekend I hear there’s a big sporting event happening in the U.S. I have a gig that night, so I won’t be hanging out at a viewing party like many folks here do, but it did get me thinking a bit about music competitions.

At least in the U.S., competitive music festivals are regular and popular events for music students to participate in. In North Carolina, where I live and teach, there are several different types of festivals with different levels of competitiveness involved. For example, there are All-County, All-District, and All-State ensembles for middle school and high school music students. A student needs to audition to be placed in these ensembles, so in essence these groups are similar to how a professional ensemble might select its performers. Each student competes against other students and the best student musicians are chosen.

There are also music festivals where schools will bring students to perform as ensembles or even solos. Some of these festivals will be non-competitive. When I coordinated college jazz festivals I always insisted that they be non-competitive. The students will sometimes perform for a rating (sort of a grade) or even just perform for clinicians who will then work with the students to help them improve. These are my favorite sort of music education festivals for reasons I’ll go into in a bit.

Then there are the competitive festivals, which have been around in the United States as early as 1923. Each school ensemble will perform for a set of judges who at the end of the festival rank each school. Sometimes there are “playoffs” where a certain number of ensembles will perform a second time. Prizes for these festivals can range from bragging rights to trophies to performing on a featured concert.

These competitions are a double edged sword. There are pros and cons to participating in them, but often times the motivations directors and administrators have for them miss the point of music education, in my opinion.

Pros

  1. Generates interest in the music program.
  2. Promotes high musical standards.
  3. Provides an effective motivator for middle school and high school students.
  4. Provides extra incentive to directors and students to prepare better than for a standard concert.

Cons

  1. Undermines balance of music programs by overemphasizing certain specialized aspects towards winning.
  2. Conceptually leads to what Alfie Kohn calls a “mutually exclusive goal attainment.” One person or group succeeds while the rest do not.
  3. Emphasizes an extrinsic goal, rather than the intrinsic enjoyment of music for its own sake.
  4. Leads to student and director burnout.

Over-scheduling for competitions is a serious issue that I think deserves a bit more attention here. Lynn G. Cooper notes in his fine text, Teaching Band & Orchestra: Methods and Materials, that the grueling schedule of marching band competitions results in beginning to prepare music for each season in March or April, starting the drill design in March or April, and beginning rehearsals in July. Add after school rehearsals in the fall semester, weekend commitments at football games, and then 6 to 8 Saturday competitions are a monster that once begun is expected by parents, students, administrators, and the community at large. This leads to a high level of burn-out.

Every bit as important as the concern for teacher burnout is the problem of student burnout. Many students drop out of programs that over-emphasize competition (with its attendant 0ver-commitment) at the expense of music education. College band directors find that many students who come from such programs do not continue to play their instruments in college or later in life – they are tired of all the activity and lack the intrinsic motivation needed to continue to play. But students who know about music, listen to fine music, love music, and possess the skills, techniques and understandings to be mature, independent musicians will continue to participate in music even after they graduate from their school music program, because music has become important to them.

Remember balance. It is important in the ensemble, and it is important in life.

– Lynn G. Cooper