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Developing Curriculum

As we approach the new school year, I’m bumping up my efforts to acquire some private students for studio instruction. This necessitates that I at least have a rough idea of what sort of curriculum I’m going to pursue. Obviously, since I’m not going to be teaching this private lessons out of a dedicated Royal Conservatory institution or college, I don’t have a prescribed curriculum, but being the teacher I am, I feel the need to at least think about it.

For reference, I’m using a couple of things to help sketch out my goals. The first is the current RCM syllabus – it may not be the best guideline (after all, RCM levels are awarded based on the performance of a couple of repertoire pieces and some scales, hardly an exhaustive examination of all the necessary musical skills), but it certainly shows me what a large number of institutions are looking towards for examinations. Secondly, I have the current Music curriculum used in Alberta’s schools (although this, too, is not definitive, what with it being twenty-plus years old at this time), since in my experience many students will also participate in their school’s music program in addition to their private activities.

What I find the most daunting is the aspect of decision-making that comes with developing curriculum. What do you cut? Where do you focus your efforts, and at the expense of what else? Intellectually, of course, I know that there will be a very organic flow to the sequence of lessons – all musicians develop differently, different students will have different goals, and most importantly, no government will come breathing down your neck if it takes 6 extra months to internalize a set of concepts for whatever reason.

I remember opening the Google Doc that I’m using to collect my thoughts on what sort of things I’d like to put an emphasis on in my lessons, writing the words ‘Technique’ and ‘Musicianship’, and then just sort of staring at the page blankly for a bit. I don’t realize until I really have to try and sum it up how much sheer volume of knowledge and experience I have collected over my playing career. The scale of it stumps me.

At the summer camp I regularly work at as a supervisor, we had a Q&A session after a recital that all the supervisors gave for the students. One student’s question was the typical ‘How long have you all been playing?’ To realize as I considered the answer that I have been playing the trombone almost as long or longer than many of them had been alive, and certainly taking music lessons longer than any of them had been alive was a very weird moment for me.

In any case, trying to filter out the various condensed pieces of ‘how to play brass’ from my brain is a time-consuming, painstaking process. A lot of it, you see, is bundled up in experiential learning. I have no idea how to explain the correct ‘feeling’ of a lip slur, but I can certainly tell you when it sounds wrong. ‘How do you get such a fast double-tongue accurately?’ ‘Practice, o student mine.’ ‘How should it feel when it’s correct?’ ‘Uh, well, it’s sort of like… but it could be different… here’s what NOT to feel, okay?’

It occurs to me that this is probably the reason it takes so damn long to actually get a new curriculum of any kind off the ground. Talk to any teacher of any kind, and they will have a slightly different conception of, one, what is important to teach, and two, how to actually teach said stuff in a way that is helpful to students. Then you have to somehow assimilate the collected opinions regarding said important knowledge into a rough consensus, package it in a form that everyone can at least understand, and then deliver it without causing so many headaches on behalf of teachers, students, and parents that you have to go back to the drawing board (if you’re a math teacher in Alberta, you feel the true pain of that statement right now).

Finally, I also should confront the spectre of the fact that, in all likelihood, I will settle on a rough curriculum that I’d like to impart, discover with my first two students that I’ve missed crucial bits, and by the way, they have goals that aren’t entirely compatible with said curriculum, and I’ll go back to teaching one experiential step at a time, and hope they turn out to be decent musicians in spite of their teacher’s over-preparedness. Still, I am enough of a type-A person to feel comforted by the mere act of trying to think all this out.

It makes me wonder how we ever got an education system to work in the first place, much less have a world-class one like we do where I live. And also, thank heavens I wasn’t one of the people who had to wrestle it into place like so many wet cats in a burlap sack. Although I have definitely been in groups of teachers that feel like that.


Bloom’s Taxonomy

Fantastic chart here. Great way to boil down the essence of each level of the taxonomy. Put this next to your flipbook of questioning words for each level and you are golden.

New Music (NOT the John Cage kind)

So, I found something cool this morning. A really neat examination both of the mathematical complexity that is even our relatively limited 12-tone system (as opposed to the Eastern systems that give quarter tones) and the relatively rigid pathways that our brains tend to want to force music into.

I would love to be better educated about Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and other cultural music styles to start understanding how much, if any, of this is common. Training and experience has a great deal to do with music appreciation. I’ve had personal experience with this many times throughout my training and afterwards. For example, I would never ever have considered Edgard Varèse’s ‘Hyperprism’ a masterpiece prior to my education in 20th century music, but I love it now.

I think it’s fascinating that that is the case. I’ll also freely admit to not being able to fully enjoy all the kinds of music I could before my training. There are certain types and specific examples of popular music that I can’t totally immerse myself in, not because they’re necessarily awful (some of them are, of course), but more often because the way I’ve been trained to listen for structure, motif, and ideas lets me see the truly commercial and banal ones for what they are. You know the kind, the absolutely bland, cotton candy type of music that was mixed mostly digitally for the express purpose of getting a few dollars out of people who don’t know why they buy it, but it hooks onto their brain so that they do. Sort of like the way I don’t drink pop very often anymore – after you’ve been without the sugar- and otherwise-bad-stuff-loaded-beverage for a few years, going back to it once in a while is okay, but reminds you why you don’t drink it very much in the first place.

I was telling a good friend recently that I’m less likely now to find a band as a whole amazing, and much more likely to gravitate to individual works, which I think is another effect of that experience. I don’t generally like rap as a rule, but there are some things I appreciate individually from the music of Eminem or Macklemore; country generally makes me feel blah, but my word if Carrie Underwood doesn’t have a HELL of a set of pipes.

Anyways, regardless of what music you prefer, remember that there’s a lot of music out there (in fact, so much space for new music that we’ll never run out!), so give something you didn’t really think you’d like a try, and see what ends up surprising you. I’ll even pitch in some recommendations on the ‘classical’ (ugh, that word is inelegant for what I really mean) side for those readers who might not have as much experience with it.

Recommendations for various types of fans:

– if you are a fan of folk music, please check out Bela Bartok, who basically made a living out of finding folk tunes and trying to get them out to a wider audience.

– if you like metal, check out the original shredder himself, J.S. Bach. No I am not joking. Seriously, my grade 6 students who were into dubstep absolutely loved Bach because of the nuts organ improvising he’s capable of. Just look up any of his solo works for organ (Toccata & Fugue in D Minor is as always a great one to start with).

– if you are more into the power ballad/romantic pop type of thing, Beethoven, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky might be more your style. Everyone knows Beethoven’s 5th and 9th Symphonies, but I’m a big proponent of String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor Op. 132, as well as pretty much anything by Debussy. Clair de lune is my favourite solo piano piece of all time (my mother performed that one regularly, and beautifully).

– finally, an off-beat one. If you are a fan of things like Weird Al, or parody cover groups, please check out Franz Joseph Haydn. Sounds a little weird, I know, since he’s High Classical, but I have trouble thinking of another composer who liked to mess with his audience than Haydn. He does these things where he knows you expect a waltz to have a strong beat on one. ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three, etc… So what he does is completely blanks out beat one in one of his string quartets. Completely abandons the convention, just to mess with you. The Surprise Symphony (look it up, it’s amazing) is another classic example of ‘heh, gotcha!’.

Happy listening!


My wife and I love to read. This applies to not only the delightful experience of well-loved books (seriously, the smell of a secondhand bookstore is so relaxing), but to the vast abyss of variable quality that is the Internet. There are particular things that catch each of our attention that we don’t bother the other with: she doesn’t spend a lot of time regaling me with… um… whatever it is she reads I’m not into (I’m not psychic, okay?), and I don’t devote energy to explaining to her why Starcraft 2 is super cool and Protoss is overpowered as heck. This is the pause where I wait for the people I’ve caused to zone out already to find a new page to browse.

However, since we both work in education, enjoy similar mass media interests, and delight in amusing pictures of animals, a lot of stuff gets shared. Quite often, this also leads to the sort of delightful discussion and/or bickering that is the spice of married life.

One of the topics that hit a button with us a few days ago was a post written by a teacher that my wife came across in her browsing. This teacher was trying to explain what the deepest struggle was of many teachers’ careers. This struggle was not dealing with defiant children, incompetent administrators, or parents who actively sabotage your efforts. No, this struggle was a more crippling and internal one. The struggle of triage.

The kind of triage that we do as teachers is of course not nearly as terrifying and immediately horrible as the kind of triage for which the word was invented. I have never been asked, and hopefully will never be asked, to decide who lives and who dies, or who is treated first while others are forced to wait. That decision is best left to the many incalculably dedicated and giving people who devote themselves to helping people in those situations.

However, the concept of triage is definitely something that teachers in general, and certainly myself in specific, have our battles with. The idea of triage began as a way to help those who were wounded in battle, more specifically, to make sure that those treating them applied their efforts in such a way so as to save the most lives possible. Ergo, the man who is inevitably dying of radiation poisoning receives only palliative care, whereas the surgical care is directed towards those with amputated limbs.

Most often, we as teachers perform triage on the classroom experience. Regardless of what public opinion, media, or the government might say, here in Alberta, at least, teachers are very well-trained in terms of how to deliver the right content and skills to a given group of students. Accordingly, we know, almost to a rule, the exact methods and procedures to generate an engaging, informative, and disciplined classroom experience. However, these are all constructed theoretically in an ideal, hypothetical environment. As the students change and we are forced to deal with circumstance and real life, invariably, the amount of time and effort to maintain the perfect classroom experience hits untenable levels. This is a reality: there is simply not enough time, energy, or resources for the teacher to do everything that they desire to or should do.

The question then becomes not “What cool extra things can I do?”, but “What do I have to let slide for this time?”

Is it the cool activity that takes too much time to set up/take down? How about the extra help I was planning on doing – we got started on a really neat side-topic, but I need to make sure everyone gets a clarification on this skill. Students want to discuss this at length, and I’m going to let them because that’s learning – however, now I have to come up with a new and fair scheme to assess the learning being done here, and I also may not have time later to do the demonstration we were planning. Questions like this are not just occasional – this happens every single time a really good question gets asked, or students take longer to internalize a topic than was planned for.

Now, this is of course, part of the job. Anyone who goes into teaching assuming that things will be perfect and planning will always turn out did not have a good teacher prep program and will not last long in the industry. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause stress and the occasional bit of pain.

What this doesn’t even begin to cover is the painful educational triage we have to perform when it comes to the students directly. One of my favourite books has a discussion on triage given by a surgeon to a man who is insisting that his son be treated instead of him. The guidelines he gives run something like:

– if harm is equal, treat the youngest first

– if harm is not equal, treat the most threatening

– know when someone is beyond one’s capacity to save

It’s that last one that really cuts at me. Not because I believe that anyone is beyond aid. I firmly believe that all people are capable of learning, and it’s a matter of choice, will, and effort in determining how much learning will get done. However, the ‘capacity’ hitch is the kicker.

We see a multitude of situations and people in our classrooms. We try to give our best aid to everyone. Some people are more damaged than others, and they require extraordinary care, which we do our best to provide. Ultimately, however, a teacher, like a surgeon, must recognize that point where someone has moved beyond their individual capacity to help. There are certain situations where you have to recognize that without some other form of help, you can do nothing more for this person. Fortunately, those situations are few, but they do exist. And when they do crop up, absolutely the worst thing you can do is throw yourself into it too far, into a situation beyond your abilities, and end up doing harm to both yourself and the student.

It doesn’t stop it from being painful, of course, but it does keep you sane. And the sooner you can recognize those few scenarios, the better you get at both being able to move that student to someone who can help, and you are saved some energy which you can redirect into the ongoing triage that you’re doing as part of your day-to-day class routine. That, to me, is a win.

Even if I’m still going to be marking that essay I collected late because the discussion was too good. Thank goodness I have my good friends Valpolicello, Pinot Grigio, and chocolate to help with that.

That Went Better Than Expected

As my wife will no doubt tell anyone who cares to listen, I’m always trying to break down the music I listen to. Not in terms of intentionally looking for huge flaws or amazing brilliances, but just applying my brain to it and commenting on said flaws/brilliances when they arise. It’s a side effect of my training – you spend several years learning how the nuts-and-bolts of music actually works in terms of structure and what said structural elements sound like, it’s inevitable to listen pretty deeply to most things you hear.

Now, when I happen to be listening to most of the pop radio stations, say, in the car, I tend to veer more towards the flaws side of the equation. The mass produced, 90% synthesized stuff that gets a lot of airtime tends to give me lots of fodder for that. It’s like asking a chef to comment on McDonald’s food. Of course the aural equivalent of cotton candy and greasy burgers supplies slightly more ammunition than a string orchestra. But I want to hear good stuff, and so when I do, it’s really exciting for me (for an example, the track ‘Same Love’ that Macklemore released not long ago was one of my favourite things – and I believe, one of the most important things – produced in music the past few years).

As a prelude to the main thrust of this post, anyone who reads this from Canada should remember the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. And if you watched literally any of it on TV, you heard that ‘I Believe’ song a number of times that is roughly equivalent to the lifetime of the dinosaurs (seriously, every time you cut to commercials, they played this thing – it got obnoxious really fast). The singer who performed it was the Canadian musician Nikki Yanofsky. She was 16 at the time, hails from Montreal, Quebec, and has done in general the kind of disgustingly young solo work that means she has earned more as a musician before she could vote than I will probably earn as a musician before I retire.

The generally-pervasive nature of that ‘I Believe’ single plus the hype that was run around how young and talented this singer was, plus the middling musical merit of the tune itself sort of made me go “Oh, okay, I guess that’s pretty cool. Good luck, and try not to be Bieber 2.0”.

I have never been more pleased to be wrong in my expectations.

She just released a new album (“Little Secret”), and it is killer. This women has the goods.

First off, not only was this gem produced by Quincy Jones (QUINCY JONES) in a fantastic studio, it covers a wide range of jazz stylings with the kind of vocal power that I absolutely love in a jazz performer. There’s some excellent heavy swing here, sharing airtime equally with funk-influenced tracks, a couple of great ballads, and a cute little electronically enhanced cover of the old standard ‘Jeepers Creepers’.

There are three big standout tracks of this album that you need to check out if you are at all into jazz music.

First is ‘Little Secret’, the title track. This is a kicking swing track, feature a low key, groovy opening that pretty soon punches up the intensity and gives her a great deal of room to flex the impressive range of vocal strength she has without covering the all-important swing feel. A cool tenor sax adds little dashes of colour to the choruses in classic style.

Second, ‘You Mean The World To Me’, a ballad in the tradition of Ella and Sarah Vaughan. In particularly, I adore the descending sequence pattern of the chorus, which flips through a very standard chord progression which nonetheless is not seen often nowadays in pop music and finds just the right mixture between sappy and playful to avoid being saccharine. She navigates the melody with dexterity and always feels that right amount of laid-back to make this a joy to listen to.

Lastly, don’t miss ‘Enough Of You’. It’s the kind of angry break-up song that is nonetheless a deal of fun to listen to. It doesn’t quite match the best break-up song in jazz/pop of the last few years (for that, please go listen to and have a laugh at the subversively joyful track ‘It’s A Beautiful Day’ by Michael Bublé; seriously, go do that now – you won’t regret it), but has precisely the right growl and grit in the right places. Mix that with a very heavy funk influence in the drums and baseline, and you have a kicking groove that doesn’t stop.

If you, like me, sometimes bemoan the one-dimensional pop recordings that flood the airwaves nowadays, please check out this performer – Nikki Yanofsky is the real deal who writes her own stuff, does homage to the greats of jazz, and has all the pipes necessary to suck you in and have a great time listening to her.

Smartest People

So, this is a thing that’s happening now. As you might guess, I have mixed feelings on this one.

On the one hand, the possibility of a more widespread knowledge of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences pleases me – daily I see students who claim they ‘aren’t smart’ because they can’t get above a 65% on a mathematics test or only achieve average grades (which have very little to do with actual intelligence for the most part). On the other hand, the idea of a reality TV contest program to find the ‘smartest person’ in Canada gives me the heebie jeebies (and yes, that is the most technically appropriate term for my feeling, why do you ask?).

A couple of things that I find myself anxious about with this concept: first, the idea of competitively determining ‘intelligence’, and second, the narrowness that the format imposes on these definitions of ‘smart’. Let’s take them one at a time.

Competing to be ‘the smartest’ is something that many children do, and many parents encourage, I think to the detriment of both the competing person and those around them. We have, at least in Canada, this idea that it is not enough to be ‘smart’, you should try to be ‘the smartest’. You can see this philosophy in concepts like a ‘valedictorian’, where only the person with the highest marks (what many people still see as intelligence) gets the reward of being held up as a model to follow. Spend any time in a classroom, and you will also see this – little Billy gets upset because he only got 18 out of 20 on his very hard math quiz whereas Jane got 19 out of 20. A proud accomplishment (90% mastery!) is held as worthless because someone else who has a different set of natural abilities and doubtless prepared differently attained a slightly higher level of accomplishment. Of course the kicker is that Jane’s mark of 19/20 has absolutely no effect on Billy’s mark of 18/20, and in the long run, has almost as little to say which of them has really mastered it in the long term! In the present, meanwhile, Billy is upset because he isn’t ‘the smartest’ (so he says), and Jane feels bad because she wants to be proud of her achievement but every time it is mentioned she sees that it hurts Billy. Furthermore, their mutual friends are less happy because they are supposed to empathize with Billy while congratulating Jane, and the tension there causing everyone to get grumpier! Meanwhile the teacher takes another Tylenol for the headache that is developing due to this little spat.

Not every scenario of being competitive with others to demonstrate intelligence ends in this way, of course, but there is a fundamental futility in trying to become the ‘smartest person’ or even just to ‘prove’ your intelligence in the first place. Basically, there is always someone who is better at certain tasks than you in certain contexts, and any attempt to prove your superiority is in reality refusing to learn that someone else can do something better than you. By attempting to prove yourself smart, you are in fact demonstrating a trait that is detrimental to learning and intelligence – intransigence.

My second quibble with the program is that you can only fit so much stuff onto the screen at once. If you’re going to claim to try and find the ‘smartest person’ in the country, you’d need, in reality, a massive battery of tasks run over a large-scale time period with a method of assessment that somehow manages to weigh it all appropriately. And of course, since it’s a TV show, it needs to be done in a way that interests the audience.

My fear is that instead of a bunch of cool tests for intelligence, you end up with 20 variations on the ‘build what you can with 10 pieces of spaghetti, 30 cm of string, and 1 marshmellow’ activity that gets used a lot for corporate team-building and collaborative exercises. Which is probably lots of fun to watch, but as a teacher, leaves me with a feeling of ‘you could do so much more’.

Of course, although it makes me anxious, there is one really good thing that comes out of this, and I hope it’s the actual goal of the concept (the website suggests it may be). You cannot help but talk about this thing, what with the provocative title, doubtless entertaining activities, and citing of some excellent research into intelligence. My hope is that people see this show and actually talk to each other, and especially to their kids, about what it actually means to be smart.

Because I have to be honest with you, I’m getting tired of having to tell students that getting 60% doesn’t mean you are stupid and have them not believe it.

Here’s to more and more smart people! As soon as I can figure out what that word means and I can actually find them.

New Math, Old Music

My wife is also a teacher, although she is of the math/science variety as opposed to my music/social studies focus. In the past couple of years there’s been quite a bit of angst where we are in Alberta about the ‘New Math’, and so I get quite a bit of information on that subject.

A quick aside for those of you that are either not aware of or just hazy on what ‘New Math’ is. The math curriculum in Alberta (and many of the curricula across Canada, as well) was revamped in the past few years to explicitly downplay ‘basic skills’ (this would be like those times-tables worksheet many of my and earlier generations did) and try to emphasize ‘discovery learning’ or ‘progressive education’ (letting student find their own personal approach to something like long division – also can involve teaching 5-6 different methods and letting students pick the one they favour). This wave is commonly referred to as the ‘New Math’ and is widely debated amongst education professionals and parents alike.

Okay, back on track. I’ve written before about the downwards trend in Canada’s international math scores rankings. The occasion that prompted this entry was a great article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (I am a shameful sucker for a real print newspaper – I just love the feeling of reading a paper with a big cup of coffee). It talked in great depth about the ‘problem’ of math in Canadian education systems today, and examined both sides of the ‘New Math’ versus ‘old math’ debate.

I, of course, showed it to my wife, since she is intimately familiar with the material. She read it over, chuckled at a few lines, and tossed out a few ones that she really thought hit the mark. She only asked me one question throughout the entire reading, near the end, but it crystallized for me exactly what I felt about this debate.

The question she asked dealt with the following passage:

“Both sides like to use a music analogy to make their case. The ‘basic skills’ camp asks: Can someone become [sic] proficient musician without learning the scales and where the notes sit on the staff? The ‘progressive education’ side counters: What’s the point of drilling young musicians on scales, if they want to give up the instrument as soon as their parents will allow?”

After reading that, she turned to me with a bemused smile and asked: “You’re a musician; what do you think of that comparison?”

My reaction was instantaneous and obvious – it’s a ludicrous question. I would never ever spend all of my instructional time drilling only scales or only note names. That, as astutely noted above, leads inevitably to frustration and boredom, especially with younger, less-disciplined students.

However, neither will I ever spend all of my instructional time allowing students to ‘discover’ for themselves what the note names are. You’re not going to ‘discover’ that A440 is A440 by intuition and problem-solving, because it’s an arbitrary label. That’s something you just have to memorize. Stuff that falls into this category also might include getting students to ‘feel’ and ‘listen’ their way towards playing a familiar tune. You can do some of that, but more complex songs are out of their reach without at least some guidance on where to start (which you can’t have without basic knowledge such as note names, key signatures, etc.).

It’s worth noting that most teachers I have met and talked to feel similarly about this whole ‘New Math’ thing – there are some really good ideas in there, but it can be confusing and the de-emphasis of basic skills does not do much to ease anyone’s passage through the higher levels of math in particular.

I think that you don’t need to be all-or-nothing on this issue. There’s no sense in completely disregarding some things that we know work. We know that memorizing times-tables and such really does have effects on your ability to perform more complex calculations. However, we also know that merely having students sit in rows and recite mindless lists does nothing for their engagement or problem-solving skills.

So, as it turns out, the healthy balance is necessary. Just as I cannot produce an Alain Trudel or Wynton Marsalis without some basic scales and drill work, neither will I stifle that burgeoning mastery by forbidding them to play something that speaks to them until an arbitrary line of 12 memorized scales and reading in multiple clefs is crossed.

A final thought, again mostly from my wife: she mentioned as she finished the article that most teachers agree that you need a well-rounded math curriculum that doesn’t simply forget about basic skills. She also concluded that this is what happens when you have an education system being run by people who have no background or experience in education. Just as you don’t want a math teacher who actually has no math training (which is whole other can of worms, by the way; it is scary how many teachers get thrown subjects that they have no previous training in because of lack of funding), it’s mind-boggling when you look down a list of the ministries of education in Canada and realize how few of the major officials have any experience in a classroom.

Let’s stop worrying about doing things one way or another, but designing a system that allows the people in it to take all the best elements and use them effectively for the good of those that really matter – the students.

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