This summer, I participated in a professional learning experience with LUTE-STE(A)M at CUNY Lehman College. I learned a lot about frameworks of learning which promote computational thinking, student-driven success, and multimodal literacy.
There was a lot to think about and to consider how to apply this material in the music classroom, and in this letter I’d like to focus on Arthur Costa’s Habits of Mind because I believe that this model can be applied quite effectively in the music education.
So often in our field, it is unfortunately the case that creativity is taught at the expense of accurate and methodical interpretation. The well-trained jazz player, for example, often suffers in their ability to sight-read in a symphonic or concert setting. Classical musicians, on the other hand, are often not comfortable with improvisation, more personal interpretation or the assumption of creative musical risks. Self-taught musicians, as well as those who are limited to more popular forms of music, often suffer from both deficits.
Because the Habits of Mind system outlines a variety of metacognitive approaches and techniques useful for all types of learning, its implementation in ensemble playing has the potential to foster intentionality and systematic thought in application to any and every musical style. I found that the several of the ways of thinking presented in Costa’s work were habits that I had already started to develop in my years of playing in a multitude of professional musical situations. I think you might also find the same.
Although there are 16 Habits of Mind in total, I would like to propose that we do an activity that focuses on just one: “Thinking Interdependently.” We would first begin with a discussion on the main principles of this habit — 1.) Establish Roles, 2.) Test the Feasibility of Solutions, 3.) Listen Closely, 4.) Agree on Group Norms, 5.) Be Okay with Disagreements 5.) Learn how to Give up Your Idea When It Is Not Working.
We would then listen to a Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” (E blues/E minor) and attempt to play through it by ear. After the first play through, we would then systematically go through and discuss how each component of Thinking Interdependently can help us in playing the song more fluidly and interestingly. This would be followed by subsequent attempts at playing the song. Of course, I would modify and scaffold the content differently depending on whether we held it with 6th, 7th, or 8th grade, as they each have different levels of facility on their instruments.
To do this we won’t need the classroom to be set up any differently than it already is — drum set, electric guitar and amp, bass, several keyboards and acoustic guitars. For students who struggle with ensemble participation, it may actually be useful to allow them to take out their laptops and take responsible for researching information — i.e. sheet music, biographical facts, supplemental recordings, etc. Several free databases such as Musescore, GuitarPro, Wikipedia, YouTube and Spotify can be helpful for this purpose. Additionally, tools we already have available including GarageBand, Soundtrap and Music Speed Changer can be used to enrich the discussion process with recording, playback and audio manipulation. I would like to use the SmartBoard to lead the conversation and media presentation, if possible.
The students will be developing their own approach to learning a simple song. While I will support them by making available some time-tested resources including chord diagrams, scale notations and sheet music, the goal is to encourage them to be active participants in their own musical learning. Within this problem-solving context, I’d like to afford them some degree of freedom of choice with respect to the instruments and learning resources that they have available in the classroom, as well as on the World Wide Web.
When the students complete this activity they will have made progress on these standards from the National CORE Arts framework. Considering the values and culture of our school, I believe that these would be an appropriate focus.
- -MU:Cr2.1.7.a) Select, organize, develop and document personal musical ideas for arrangements , songs, and compositions within AB, ABA, or theme and variation forms that demonstrate unity and variety and convey expressive intent.
- -MU:Cr3.1.7.a) Evaluate their own work, applying selected criteria such as appropriate application of elements of music including style,
form, and use of sound sources. b) Describe the rationale for making revisions to the music based on evaluation criteria and feedback from others (teacher and peers).
- -MU:Pr6.1.7.a) Perform the music with technical accuracy and stylistic expression to convey the creator’s intent.
Here’s how I think we might introduce this activity. We could give these directions to the students:
- When you come to class, please take out your assigned instrument and warm by yourselves up for a few minutes while the teacher goes around the room to tune the instruments. Please review material that we have worked on in previous classes.
- When the teacher has finished tuning, we will listen to a new song. The first time you listen, put your instrument down and just focus on absorbing the feeling of the music and allowing your ears to wander throughout the sonic landscape. What are some things that you noticed?
- Do you have any ideas about how you could play this song on your instrument?
- We’ll then have a discussion about some basic group problem-solving techniques. During the discussion, ask yourself how is playing music together similar to any type of problem solving. How is it different?
- We will then listen to the song a second time. This time around, pick up your instrument and quietly play along. What things can you do on the instrument that might sound good with the recording? What things don’t sound so good? How can you apply this Habit of Mind to playing the song on your instrument by yourself? How can you use it in relation to playing together in a group?
- We’ll then divide the ensemble into sections and start trying out some strategies for playing the parts on our instruments.
I would also propose that the students give each other feedback on their work. They could use this checklist to self-assess and to give each other feedback:
I can …
- Find at least one thing I like about this song upon the first listen, and at least one thing I don’t like about this song.
I can …
- Think of at least one note or rhythm on my instrument which matches the feel, groove, key, scale or melody of the song. In other words, I can find at least one thing I can try to do on my instrument that I think sounds good with the music!
I can …
- Share at least one idea with the group for how we might play this song together.
I can …
- After discussion, play a part or all of the song in at least three new ways that I couldn’t before I came to class today.
This activity should take at least a period to complete, which should allow time for productive struggle. This activity could be conducted in the classroom with any middle school grade. To encourage persistence, I think we might ask students to think about things that they might take from this lesson that they will use the next time in class.
When they have finished the activity, I would be great if we could ask the students to share, talk and/or write about how they used at least one of the 5 components of this Habit of Mind.
If this activity is successful and becomes something we can do regularly, I would like incorporate the other Habits of Mind to give the students in both written and oral feedback while they are working and once the finish their work!
Thank you for taking the time to consider this proposal. I hope you see how valuable this activity could be for our students. Please let me know if you have any revisions that I might consider for this activity. I look forward to working with you on this.