Creating lifelong learners through musical opportunities: How the ukulele and a new educational paradigm increased participation in music classes
By Caitlin McGovern
During the spring of 2010, my fellow music teachers and I were faced with a significant challenge. Because of the financial strains that our district was experiencing at the time, we were asked to restructure our programs in order to serve a greater percentage of our district’s student body, thereby justifying the cost of our four full-time music employees. At that time, we had approximately 10% of the high school and middle school populations participating in band and choir. With the exception of a nine-week 5th grade general music class, students who were not in band or choir did not have music education built into their school day after 4th grade.
Although the task seemed overwhelming at the time, we had been presented with a great opportunity for growth. Our administration supported what we were doing for students, and wanted to see us do even more. They wanted us to find a way to get through to the other 90%. They supported us philosophically, but in order to in order to justify us financially, something was going to have to change.
After exploring several different options, we decided to add a nine-week general music class for all of our 6th through 8th graders. This meant that every student in the middle school would have a music class for at least a quarter of the school year. With that change, we went from reaching about 10% of the students in that 5th-8th Grade building to reaching 100% of them. After a few more changes that were made at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, our 8th grade general music curriculum was developed around the use of ukuleles to play and compose music.
This class of about 25 students meets within our school’s daily block schedule. I see them two to three times a week for about 75 minutes. The students play on ukuleles that were provided for them through both the district’s budget and parent fundraising. We meet in the choir room and sit in rows or in a circle, depending on if students will be reading materials from a projector or from handouts. We explore playing and creating music as a full group, in small groups and sometimes individually.
The participatory model that I chose to use for this curriculum is based on a few key ideas:
1. Music is not as much rehearsed as it is experienced. In other words, students are held to participation standards rather than performance standards.
2. Students are involved in selecting the music they play.
3. Students are given opportunities to create the music they play.
As I was preparing for this new experience, there were several questions that came to mind:
- How could I ensure that student-selected music would be of sufficient quality and include teachable material?
- How could I motivate students to learn music without the pressures of an upcoming performance?
- How could I teach students to read music notation well enough to learn the songs in such a short amount of time?
- What was the best way to give students creative opportunities in this classroom environment?
After a little over a semester of trying this experiment, I have made some progress in finding answers to these questions.
(Note: Before moving on, I should say that the philosophical underpinnings of this class come from a variety of sources. The “participatory framework” comes from the work of the ethnomusicologist, Tom Turino at the University of Illinois. You can read more about the framework in his book, Music as Social Life. The use of the ukulele and the format of the class came from interactions I had with Dr. Matthew Thibeault, a music education professor at the University of Illinois. Dr. Thibeault has a great article about his ukulele ensemble available here. Lastly, Nick Jaworski (Co-Editor of Leading Notes) and I have discussed the format of this class a couple of times and he shared with me an unpublished paper of his discussing how the ukulele could be used with Turino’s participatory framework as a guiding principal.)
Using Student-Selected Music
Giving students the chance to have input in the creation of their own curriculum seems to have some risks to it, especially in a music classroom. Because the curriculum for this class was going to be developed in part from and around the music they chose, selecting materials with teachable concepts was critical. However, it is important to be wary of devaluing student’s taste in music all in the name of choosing what we as trained musicians to be quality music.
That being said, there is also value in experiencing a wide variety of music. It is for this reason that I deliberately chose to weave student-selected pop music with folk and early rock n’ roll music in order to create a comprehensive curriculum. It quickly became apparent that all the student-selected music definitely contained teachable concepts. The basic elements of music can be taught using almost any song. In a scenario such as this one where the class is not an elective and it does not last for very long, students need to be reached as quickly as possible in order for the message to hit home and stick. In my experience, using music that they select is a very effective way to do that.
When I realized that I would be asking students to concentrate on learning songs without the deadline of a concert, I was worried about motivating them to learn it at all. They quickly proved that I was wrong to be concerned. When given the opportunity to choose what they were playing and studying, students became self-motivated almost instantly and seemed to remain more engaged in the material than expected.
The Use of Music Notation
Prior to teaching this course, all of the students I had were taking my classes because they had chosen them as electives. My 8th graders, however, do not choose to take my class – they have to. Because of this, I quickly learned that when teaching students who fall into this category, it is important to consider approaching the concept of music notation from another perspective.
Instead of using the lines and spaces on the staff, we used chord frames and a little rhythmic notation (especially bar lines and measures) in order to communicate. Everything else was done aurally.
It was difficult for me to get used to this strategy at first, but for the group of students I had, this is what ended up working most effectively. After all, many of them will go through life never reading another note of music beyond my class. Some of them may never even see music notation again. They will, however, hear plenty of music. In fact, they will almost certainly hear it everyday. They have proven to me that you do not need to read music to experience or understand it. That is not to say that there’s isn’t value in reading traditional Western notation- I use it everyday, as do my band students. But, when it came time to choose priorities given the short nine weeks I would have with my 8th graders, I decided to focus on what they would experience rather than whether or not they could find the “F-A-C-E” in the spaces of the staff.
Facilitating Creative Opportunities
Finding ways to promote creative opportunities has proven to be the most difficult part of this process. Creating a classroom environment that is both highly structured while making students feel safe enough to take creative risks has been challenging with this age level. Learning cannot take place in unintentional chaos, so it is important to clearly establish routines before deviating from them. In this case, I have had to adjust my goals for what students can accomplish during their time in the class in order to make everything more manageable.
In addition to the unexpected classroom management challenges, I was also surprised to see how fearful students were of their first experience with improvisation and songwriting as individuals. It took starting over with very detailed instructions, clarified expectations for performance quality and a little bit of time for them to be comfortable.
Eventually, they were ready for songwriting. They worked in small groups to come up with ideas for lyrics, chord progressions and motives, which we later put together and recorded as a class song. All this was done without traditional notation. Students communicated most of their ideas by rote.
As I continue to develop this curriculum, I will push for more student-driven collaborative songwriting where they are able to make more of the decisions themselves. I will also continue to focus the goal of every classroom activity on some form of student creativity in the hopes of getting them to feel comfortable taking the risk of being self-expressive.
Data as our Advocate
Although creating and implementing the curricula for 6th-8th grade general music has been a challenge, it has had a positive impact on our music program as a whole. Enrollment in our performance-based courses has benefitted from an increase in student interest in music. The middle school numbers have remained relatively steady and the high school numbers have increased by about 5% in the last year. Enrollment in the high school’s non-performance based music electives (beginning guitar and music theory) has increased as well, a trend that we expect will continue. Another indication of success is that some ukulele students – many of whom did not previously own or play an instrument – have acquired their own personal ukuleles and are now able to make music independently at home.
Most importantly, though, we are now able to provide a more in-depth musical education to every single child in our middle school building, regardless of what electives they choose. We are serving 100% of our students. That is not only financially responsible, but also philosophically sound. As music teachers, we often state that we believe that every child should experience music in school. I am also pleased to be able to say that this is actually true for our middle school kids. I believe that implementing these programs was a step in the right direction. And I encourage all music teachers to take advantage of any opportunity to develop curricula like this-allowing them to share music with as many students as possible.
Caitlin McGovern teaches band, music theory, guitar and general music at Pleasant Plains High School and Middle School in Pleasant Plains, IL. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She also currently blogs atwhatmattersinmusiced.blogspot.com. For more information about Ms. McGovern and her teaching, visit her website at caitlinmcgovern.com.