Of Crossovers and Role Blending: How Professional Growth Has Shaped My Personal Life…and Vice Versa

Note: This post is an excerpt from an essay published in New Directions: A Journal of Scholarship, Creativity and Leadership in Music Education. The entire essay can be read here.

Maybe it started when I was teaching middle school. I had my persona of “Mr. Woody, Music Teacher” for students weekdays 9:00am to 3:30pm. But I considered myself just regular Bob evenings and weekends. During the week, my mind raced with concerns of curriculum and classroom management. As all teachers know, those thoughts could easily spill into my time away from school. I made a point to separate my work life from my personal life. I strived to “leave my briefcase at the door” literally and figuratively.

That’s when I remember first trying to compartmentalize my life, but in all likelihood, the practice began years before I was a working professional. Like everyone else, I grew up filling different roles with the different social groups I was a part of. As a teenager, I wasn’t exactly the same person around my parents and teachers as I was with my friends! Perhaps it’s because students tend to associate school with rules, I developed much different expectations for myself when in school versus when out of it. This included how I oriented to music as a teen. While at school, I did…well, “school music.” Primarily an instrumentalist, I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band. But outside of school, I listened to pop music, and lots of it.

Perhaps I’m dramatizing things a bit much here. I don’t presume that leading a musical double life is the kind of “breaking bad” that merits a television series. In fact, the “school music versus popular music” divide is pretty common among students and teachers alike. And there are other areas of life where we need to play multiple roles, some of which are difficult to juggle. Working mothers and fathers know this all too well. Now as a parent, I must admit that I’m not exactly the same person around my students and children as I am with my friends!

While multiple roles are a fact of modern life, I’ve come to believe that too much compartmentalization can be detrimental, at least for me as a music educator. In addition to doing this with my professional and personal lives, and with my alternate musical worlds, at times in my past I’ve also considered my role as teacher and researcher as independent responsibilities. In all of these instances, I’m now convinced that too much separation can be harmful to both sides of the divide.

I believe I’ve benefited over the last few years as I’ve allowed myself to blend roles and unify my worlds in certain ways. In this paper, I will reflect on how I’ve come to this realization, and share some of my favorite points in the process. By no means am I suggesting that I’ve got it all figured out. To be sure, this is just my outlook as I write this today. Not only do I expect it to change, I think I’d be pretty disappointed if it doesn’t. I hope, though, that some who read this will relate to what I share, and it will contribute to their own process.

Questioning the Value of Role Separation

The need to separate one’s personal life from their work life is well accepted these days. Can you imagine a media advice-giver like Dr. Oz saying we’d be happier and healthier if we just brought more of our work home with us? Not likely. The underlying assumption is that work means pressure, stress, and worry. Bring that home and it’ll strain marriages and relationships with one’s children. If you can’t unwind, relax and get a good night’s sleep, then your physical and mental health suffers and you can’t find fulfillment in your personal life. I’m literally feeling tension in my body just writing about it here.

As much as I joke with my friends about having a “cushy college professor job,” I would not say that my work life in music education has ever come easy to me. Many times over the years, I’ve scrambled to meet deadlines (missed a few, too) and had to deal with some difficult people along the way. I’m no stranger to stress from the job. Clearly there is nothing to be gained by bringing that home with me. But what if I didn’t characterize my job by its stressful times? I’ve wondered, is it possible to see my job differently? To not lose sight of the big picture? In my position, my primary task—that big picture—is to share music in ways that enrich the lives of others. I consider myself very fortunate in this way. Especially when I look for them, it’s not uncommon to experience moments of reward and joy in my job. Certainly it’d be alright to bring some of that home with me. Maybe I don’t need as much professional-personal separation as other people do. I am a music educator, after all, not a crime scene investigator.

Please read the rest of the essay here.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

 

 

School Music vs. Real Music

ImageWhen all the activities of the 2014 Super Bowl had concluded, many people agreed that the music around the NFL finale was much more interesting than the game itself. It included a wonderful breadth of style. The multitalented Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful, operatic superstar Renée Fleming performed the National Anthem, and we were treated to a lively halftime pairing of Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Following Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance, I tuned back in to Twitter and saw some tweets about her singing the anthem. Most praised her rendition, but a number of music-oriented tweeters said things to the effect of: “For once we got to hear the anthem sung by a real singer.” Maybe this sentiment is just the letting off of steam by formally-trained musicians, frustrated by their preferred styles being left out of the big-time media spotlight too often. But I did note that instead of referring to the anthem’s operatic stylings as “my kind of music” or even “good music,” some people suggested that we finally got to hear some “real music.” Not surprisingly, I was disappointed that in complimenting Ms. Fleming’s performance, some felt the need to put down the previous offerings of other non-classical singers (consider checking out “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship”).

Clearly many in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society. This includes the students that school music teachers are charged to educate. Research has confirmed that in the minds of many young people, there can be a significant disconnect between their conceptions of school music and what they consider to be real music (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont et al., 2003). For music educators, this disconnect is more than just a nuisance, or a mark of immaturity that must be overcome. Learning of any kind is greatly influenced by students’ intrinsic motivation for the subject matter and their beliefs about its relevance to their lives.

Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions. Keep in mind, of course, that this broad perspective does not represent only the kids who have found a home in the school band, choir, or orchestra, but the comparative majority who elect not to take any music at the secondary level. In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

As alluded to above, this disconnect between school music and real music can cause many students to avoid music learning opportunities altogether once these class offerings become elective for them. And for the students who do continue in school music, many carry on musical “double lives” that prevent them from getting the most out of their childhood music experiences. I was a prime example of this myself as a kid. I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band, but outside of school, I was a heavy consumer of popular music (as a child of the 80s, I’m sure you can guess what fills my iTunes library yet today!). What’s more, like so many other music students, my musical divide was not just a matter of stylistic genre. My musicianship in school was limited to playing just one instrument, almost always from notation, and in preparation for a public performance. My out-of-school musicality was also quite limited, but in very different ways. It revolved around listening and singing to recordings, either alone or with friends, but never for an audience. I’m sure many others can relate with me on this, including a lot of our best young music students of today.

In no way am I suggesting that we’re doing it all wrong in formal music education, or that we should try to reproduce exactly in music classrooms the informal learning experiences that so naturally happen outside of school. I would, however, urge music educators not to dismiss students’ preferred styles of popular music as somehow less real or worthy of consideration. Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction. These things are not only part of natural musicality, they also can contribute to efficient learning (Cassidy & Paisley, 2013).

I believe that we in music education could benefit more from looking at how people learn music in the real world and incorporating aspects into our teaching activities. Constructivist theory in education tells us that people learn much through active involvement with their environments. Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it (Campbell et al, 2007). When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.

References

Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(2), 103-118.

Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236.

Cassidy, G. G., & Paisley, A. M. (2013). Music-games: A case study of their impact. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(1), 119-138.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 5(3), 263-274.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229-241.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: MTSOfan on Flickr Creative Commons

Manufacturing Mozarts and Mannings

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

I enjoy finding parallels between music and sports. While these two domains are sometimes thought of as very different, research attests to some interesting commonalities (e.g., Martin, 2008; Nordin-Bates, 2012). There are important principles and processes that are illustrated well in both music and sports—principles and processes that are not just fundamental in the lives of performers, but in the lives of all people. These include teamwork, creativity, emotion and motivation, and anxiety, just to name a few. I’m so interested in these things that I created a course that I now teach at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln called “Music and Sports: Performance and Perception.” The topics listed above relate mostly to the performance part of the class. For the coverage of perception, we largely consider society’s adoration of musical or sporting events and players. Whether it’s an athlete on the field/court or a musician onstage, fans love to be drawn into the emotion of the scene before them and be dazzled by greatness.

Amazing child performers are particularly fascinating in music and sports. I recently watched the ESPN Films documentary “The Book of Manning,” which offered behind-the-scenes access to the development of two professional football quarterbacks, brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, whose father Archie was also a pro QB (see the trailer here). At one point in the film, the narrator calls Peyton a prodigy. The use of this term was just one parallel between the Manning boys’ development and that of exceptional young musical performers. In fact many of the characteristics of the Mannings’ childhood—including those presented in the film as most contributing to their success as adults—are often found in the biographies of professional musicians. Actually, as I heard Peyton and Eli talk about their father as their chief mentor and teacher, it reminded me a lot of how fellow New Orleans natives Branford and Wynton Marsalis speak of their father Ellis.

In my Music and Sports class, I have used a couple of YouTube videos that present two wonderful child prodigies. The videos are local news reports about kids in their communities. One is a budding pianist and composer, and the other a young basketball phenom. What I like about these videos is that they don’t just show the children performing, but they give insight into their backgrounds: their families, personalities, and home environments. Despite the news reporters presenting these children as unexplainable wonders of genetics or giftedness (and I get it…it makes for a better story), we can see how these kids have personal passion for what they do, and have had special opportunities to acquire their impressive skills.

The video of 6-year-old musician Emily Bear (she’s now 12) does much to advance the idea of giftedness. The title of the feature suggests that she is “the next Mozart” and the reporter begins by stating that she was “born to play the piano.” From those around her, she has come to believe that music simply comes from within her. Yet the report also points out that Emily grew up in a home filled with music, including a brother who plays classical guitar and sister who’s a pianist and harpist. The short video also reveals that one of her grandmothers is a “concert pianist who’s made a career of teaching musically gifted children,” and that Emily’s other teachers have included a piano faculty member at the Music Institute of Chicago and the principal keyboardist of the Chicago Symphony (she also has since been mentored by legendary music producer Quincy Jones). Personally, instead of attributing her superb musicianship to a giftedness she had no control over, I marvel at how well Emily has made the most of her opportunities, and how her own musical drives and joy have resulted in her becoming an accomplished concert pianist, jazz artist, and composer.

My sports parallel is young basketball player Jordan McCabe. Labeled a prodigy and a phenom, this kid can do some pretty spectacular things with a basketball (actually with two sometimes!). He has skills that very few other people on the planet can even approach, which would leave many to believe he’s been endowed with some kind of special athleticism. Yet this video report makes mention of the hours of practice that Jordan has put in, including with his father and grandfather; the reporter calls him “the classic gym rat.” His father recounts how Jordan got “hungrier for doing more and more” as his skills grew. In addition to this personal motivation to achieve, I’m struck by the enjoyment and reward this young man clearly gets from playing basketball.

These two videos, like the Manning documentary, illustrate a number of principles offered by the research on the acquisition of expert performance skills (e.g., Creech & Hallam, 2011; McPherson, Davidson & Faulkner, 2012). Before becoming a virtuoso musician or athlete, young people have significant exposure in the domain, and access to resources to quickly grow in it (e.g., mentors and teachers, time and places to practice). But more than this, they have an internal drive to grow and succeed in the domain. They are not manufactured by anyone else to become performers; they want to do it themselves.

There are several key contributors to this kind of motivation. First, the children manage to keep the fun in their activities, no matter how much structured practice or competition they are part of. They maintain a large sense of autonomy, being able to exercise choice in what they do and have opportunities to explore and be creative. Their parents contribute to this by simply being parents. That is, they don’t necessarily aspire to be their children’s primary teacher or mentor (even if they could be), or career manager. The “Book of Manning” documentary shares that father Archie did not let his boys play organized little league football too early. So the informal and social setting of backyard games was where they got their football fix as youngsters. Archie didn’t force football on his kids, rather he insisted that they made their own decisions and followed their own passions. He was happy to share his football expertise with his sons, but they had to come to him for it. As Peyton says in the film, “He was going to be a parent first, and kind of an ex-football player after that.”

I believe much can be gained from considering childhood biographical accounts of successful performers. That said, I recognize that these stories don’t offer much to settle the nature versus nurture debate. Musical parents tend to provide their children with musical environments from the earliest stages of life. But we need not know the exact value of nature to realize that nurture is the only part of the equation that we have any control over. Parents and teachers would do well to support their young musician’s personal interests, sense of autonomy, and enjoyment in the domain.

References

Creech, A., & Hallam, S. (2011). Learning a musical instrument: The influence of interpersonal interaction on outcomes for school-aged pupils. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 102-122.

Martin, A. J. (2008). Motivation and engagement in music and sport: Testing a multidimensional framework in diverse performance settings. Journal of Personality, 76(1), 135-170.

McPherson, G. E., Davidson, J. W., & Faulkner, R. (2012). Music in our lives: Rethinking musical ability, development, and identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nordin-Bates, S. M. (2012). Performance psychology in the performing arts. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 81-114). New York: Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

 

Source of images: wcfsymphony and Jeffrey Beall on Flickr Creative Commons

Stage Fright: What to Do When the Problem Is You

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

Musicians who struggle with performance anxiety would love to discover the secret to a stress free life onstage. Performers can do much to alleviate the symptoms of stage fright, yet unfortunately, it is rarely a simple problem to solve. There is no single solution or preventative measure that will work for everyone. That’s because there are many contrasting reasons for why a musician feels anxiety when taking the stage.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, treating performance anxiety can be most effective when first identifying the source of it. One popular model identifies three broad sources that can trigger stage fright: the task, when performing the music is over-challenging; the situation, when performance conditions cause stress; and the person, when a musician’s own personality or thought processes is the root of problems. When well-intentioned performers pass on their advice of “what worked for me,” the result can be a diagnostic mismatch: one person’s prescribed treatment does not fit the underlying cause of another person’s anxiety. For example, the common recommendation of doing extra practice performances in the recital hall (source = the situation) will not help if your anxiety really comes from attempting music that just too difficult for you (source = the task). Also, many recommended treatments do not address any source at all, but merely try to ease symptoms. I’m convinced that no amount of breathing exercises or relaxation techniques will erase symptoms that have been brought on by irrational worry and perfectionism (source = the person).

Many musicians’ stage fright is fundamentally caused by what’s going on inside them—their attitudes, beliefs, and thought patterns related to performance. I suspect that this source of the person is the least dealt with by musicians. We are quick to step up our situational and task-related performance preparations—more practice, greater dress rehearsal, mentally imagining performance conditions. Yet we are less inclined to enter the messier confines of ourselves to address our own thinking related to public music making.

Performance means different things to different musicians. Perhaps the best way to think of it is also the simplest: it’s an opportunity for musicians to express themselves, and usually to people who wish to hear it and are predisposed to enjoy it. Of course, it’s easy for performers to lose sight of this simple notion amid the extensive time and energy they devote to their music activities, and the real-life pressures and consequences attached to their performances. It seems that many musicians adopt an anxiety-related performance perspective early in their development, and it may be a product of more general personality traits (Thomas & Nettelbeck, 2013).

A 2011 research study in the journal Psychology of Music probed the performance anxiety of children and adolescents, and offered some interesting insights (Allen, 2011). This research considered the state anxiety of these young musicians, that is, their feelings of fear, worry, and unease around performance. Kids in the study were introduced to free improvisation as a performance activity, in contrast to only playing pieces of music from the solo repertoire. The results showed that the free improvisation experience reduced anxiety. In interviews with the researcher, the kids talked about worrying less about “hitting the right notes” and being more able to “expressive myself” (p. 84). Of course, free improvisation is not the only kind of music making that allows performers to truly express themselves through music. I believe the main takeaway of this research is how one’s conception of performance contributes to the amount of anxiety felt going into it. It matters whether you think of it as an opportunity to communicate expressively to others, or as some kind of test of performance correctness.

A more recent study showed that how you think about your musical instrument can affect your susceptibility to anxiety (Simoens & Tervaniemi, 2013). These researchers identified several attitudes that musicians may hold. They can feel united or “as one” with the instrument, they can see it as something to hide behind, or they can think of it as an obstacle to overcome between themselves and an audience. As might be expected, the research revealed that those with a united mindset had the lowest scores of performance anxiety. They also scored favorably in other measures of well-being, including confidence and the experience of positive feelings or boost during performance. The researchers suggest that those who feel united with their instruments can more freely express themselves and be less vulnerable to the opinions of others.

As musicians, the way we think about performance results from our past experiences and the musical cultures in which we’ve developed. It can be a difficult and unpleasant exercise to try to identify the attitudes and thought processes in ourselves that undermine our performance success. But I believe it’s well worth it. The wealth of past research on stage fright has indicated that the most damaging thoughts are those that are irrational and negative. One of my favorite terms from the performance anxiety research is catastrophizing, which refers to those vague but overblown feelings of gloom and potential disaster. While we just try to push these thoughts out of our mind…until the performance is imminent and they overwhelm us. What needs to happen, however, is to acknowledge these negative thoughts, expose them for their faulty “all or nothing” quality, and, most importantly, replace them with realistic and task-centered thoughts (see Hoffman & Hanrahan, 2012).

Effectively changing your own thinking—or cognitive restructuring, as psychologists call it—does not happen without some work. Fortunately, the work that is required is, in a way, familiar to musicians. It’s practice. If you’ve determined that the source of your performance anxiety is your own inner dialogue, then you can practice new thought patterns. Irrational and negative thinking will fade as you deliberately rehearse thoughts that are realistic and that focus on the true nature of music making.

References

Allen, R. (2011). Free improvisation and performance anxiety among piano students. Psychology of Music, 41(1), 75-88.

Hoffman, S. L., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2012). Mental skills for musicians: Managing music performance anxiety and enhancing performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(1), 17–28.

Simoens, V. L., & Tervaniemi, M. (2013). Musician–instrument relationship as a candidate index for professional well-being in musicians. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(2), 171-180.

Thomas, J. P., & Nettelbeck, T. (2013). Performance anxiety in adolescent musicians. Psychology of Music. Published online before print July 31, 2013.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

 

Source of image: Lisa Forget

Providing Vernacular Music Experiences to Formally Trained Music Educators

The term vernacular music refers to the musical styles and music making practices that are most widely used among people. I tend to use the terms vernacular music and popular music interchangeably. For decades now, leaders within music education have promoted the use of popular music in schools only to see little substantive change occur. I think, however, that the curricular landscape might be starting to change. Hopefully more schools are broadening the music learning opportunities they offer to become more inclusive of multiple types of musicianship.

A critical ingredient for carrying on this kind of curricular reform is equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to use popular music in authentic and educationally meaningful ways. I’ve had the opportunity to do this with the music education majors at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. For these students, I offer a course called “Popular Musicianship” with my colleague Dale Bazan. Most of these teachers-to-be have developed their musicianship exclusively through the formal settings of large ensembles in schools and private one-on-one lessons. In this course, they form small “rock bands” and learn how to play the instruments authentic to them. Almost entirely outside of class meetings, they collaborate to cover popular songs and create original works. They also do some songwriting individually.

Here’s a short video from last fall’s class in which I explain it some more:

When talking about the educational benefits of using popular music, one that is usually mentioned first is the motivation boost it can offer. I’ve certainly seen this played out with my students. They have such personal, emotional, and social connections to popular music that they seem willing to invest a lot of their free time—what little music education majors have!—on improving their vernacular musicianship. And their intrinsic motivation is surely enhanced by their being able to choose the music they work on, even composing some of it individually and collaboratively.

Using popular music, however, is much more than a “hook” to get kids into school music programs, only then to focus on other musical things they may not like as much. I seriously doubt that a bait-and-switch approach even works in the long run. The real power of popular music comes from the fact that it’s the native musical style of young people. It only makes sense to use a familiar musical context to most effectively engage students in creative activities like composing and improvising. As numerous music pedagogues have pointed out, people ideally learn music in the same sequence as they learn their native language. Much listening necessarily precedes imitation and personal expression. Here’s where popular music can offer an educational opportunity that other less familiar styles cannot.

As I said above, most of the music education students come into the Popular Musicianship course having logged much time listening to popular music, but having very little experience performing it or being creative with it. They seem to get a lot out of exploring the social music making and personal expressivity. They gain more confidence in ear playing and improvisation, and grow the artistic interpersonal skills involved in making creative group decisions. Through songwriting and performance of original music, many discover a new outlet to express intense feelings and stories from their personal lives. When they have these musical experiences, they quickly understand the merits of providing them to others, including their future students. In this short video, some of our students explain these things in their own words:

In addition to the experiences with the Popular Musicianship class, I’ve been following the growing body of research that supports the value of vernacular music experiences in the education of young people. Here are a few articles I’ve written in which I review some of this research:

  • Woody, R. H. (in press). Vernacular musicianship: Moving beyond teenage popular music. In E. Costa-Giomi & S. J. Morrison (Eds.), Research perspectives on the national standards. National Association for Music Education. [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by ear: Foundation or frill? Music Educators Journal, 99(2), 82-88. [abstract] [excerpt]
  • Woody, R. H. (2011). Willing and able: Equipping music educators to teach with popular music. The Orff Echo, 43(4), 14-17.
  • Woody, R. H. (2007). Popular music in school: Remixing the issues. Music Educators Journal, 93(4), 32-37. [excerpt]

And here are some of my favorite research studies addressing aspects of vernacular musicianship:

  • Allsup, R. E. (2003). Mutual learning and democratic action in instrumental music education. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 24-37. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S. (1995). Of garage bands and song-getting: The musical development of young rock musicians. Research Studies in Music Education, 4, 12-20. [abstract]
  • Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236. [abstract]
  • Davis, S. G. (2005). “That Thing You Do!” Compositional processes of a rock band. International Journal of Education & the Arts(6)16. Retrieved from http://www.ijea.org/v6n16/.
  • Davis, S. G., Blair, D. V. (2011). Popular music in American teacher education: A glimpse into a secondary methods course. International Journal of Music Education, 29(2), 124-140. [abstract]
  • Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. [publisher]
  • Jaffurs, S. E. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200. [abstract]
  • McGillen, C., & McMillan, R. (2005). Engaging with adolescent musicians: Lessons in song writing, cooperation and the power of original music. Research Studies in Music Education, 25, 36-54. [abstract]
  • Woody, R. H., & Lehmann, A. C. (2010). Student musicians’ ear playing ability as a function of vernacular music experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(2), 101-115. [abstract] [excerpt]

How Practicing Less Can Foster Musical Growth

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

As a teacher and a parent, I’ve had to remind (nag?) many young musicians about the need to practice. And I continue to advise other teachers and parents on strategies to encourage more of it. So I’m not of the belief that excessive practicing is some kind of epidemic among music students, and I’m not about to deliver the message that practice is not that important after all. I do, however, believe that most musicians can make their practicing more efficient. In doing so, they can give themselves a motivational boost, and free up time in their lives for other activities that also can advance their musicianship.

Although the amount of practice done on one’s musical instrument (including the voice, as for singers) is likely the single greatest contributor to performance success, it’s not just a matter of logging time on that instrument. Researchers who have studied music performance expertise have defined practice as an activity that is effortful, usually done in isolation, and specifically designed to improve skills (Lehmann & Jørgensen, 2012). To get the full benefits of practice, musicians must enter it with a well-developed plan and a focus on tackling the problems that stand between them and their performance goals.

So as important as practice is, how could less of it ever be a key to musical growth? First consider the motivational realities of practicing. Because it can be difficult solitary work focused on weaknesses, it’s usually extrinsically motivated. It’s like dieting or leaving your bed at 6:00am for a treadmill at the gym. Though practice is not an enjoyable task, musicians understand the value of it, and know it must be done. Some people who’ve made music their life’s work can come to feel an inner pressure to practice. Constantly thinking about all that they should be practicing—scales, fundamentals drills, ear playing, technical exercises, etudes, repertoire—they may believe that they’re never getting in enough time. An obsessive orientation toward practice has been linked to feelings of guilt and anger, and an overall dissatisfaction with one’s musical life (Bonneville-Roussy et al., 2011).

Even with the will to do it, large amounts of practice come with other risks as well. The physical toll may lead to overuse injuries to instrumentalists and vocal nodes in singers. These conditions will stunt the benefits of practice and can eventually force a stoppage of all music making so the body can recover. Also, early-bird and night-owl practicers should make sure that the schedules they keep are not interfering with the efficacy of their practice. A growing body of research has established that sleep is crucial for new musical psychomotor skills to become permanent (Duke & Davis, 2006; Simmons, 2012). From one day to the next, musicians can lose some of their newly acquired skill without the memory consolidation that happens with adequate sleep.

Instead of trying to carve out more time in the day, musicians can excel by making modest levels of practice more productive (see Jørgensen, 2004, for a review of strategies). Efficient practicing begins with thoughtful goal setting. Not only should musicians enter practice sessions with a plan for the sequence of activities (e.g., 1. warmup, 2. run scales, 3. work problem spots in concert pieces, etc.), they should target aspects of performance where improvement is sought. Broad goals like “I want to sound better” are not nearly as helpful as specific ones, such as “I want even rhythms on arpeggios in both fast and slow tempos.” Efficient practice also demands that potential distractions are eliminated. Of course this can be quite a challenge in our age of smart phones and iPads. While these devices do offer apps that can be used constructively in practice, they also can tempt with the diversions of social media and games, among other things.

Maintaining mental focus is critical as musicians allocate their attention among various tasks. Conscious effort is required to execute new skills, while simultaneously monitoring what is heard and felt during performance. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, they must choose strategies to address deficiencies. Error detection and correction is a special hallmark of expert practicers, as compared to novices (e.g., Duke, Simmons, & Cash, 2009). These are the processes during practice in which musicians serve as their own teachers. They must evaluate their music, diagnose performance problems, and prescribe solutions in real-time. None of these is an easy task by itself, let alone while doing them all concurrently.

Considering the mental energy required for effective practice, it’s no wonder that so many opt instead for the ineffective approach of mindless repetition! The most focused experts are subject to mental fatigue, especially when trying to power through a marathon practice session. This is why several shorter sessions spread throughout a day (i.e., distributed practice) is a better option than a single prolonged session (massed practice). Distributed practice is employed by many who go on to reach the highest levels of performance expertise. However, even among the most advanced musicians, who are careful to take breaks between sessions, about two hours per day is an optimal amount of practice; about four hours is the single day max. These figures are based on a landmark study by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993), who reported that the training practices of elite musicians were similar to those of professional athletes and chess masters.

Choosing to focus on practice quality over quantity can free up time for other music activities away from the instrument, which ultimately can make practice more effective. For example, score study is a useful exercise done by classical musicians to become familiar with compositions they are preparing for performance. And musicians can always benefit by increasing the amount of music listening they do. Listening is a primary means by which we encode into memory what “good music” sounds like. It is how we build the aural perceptual skills needed to accurately evaluate our own music production during practice. Especially when it comes to listening, time not practicing is not lost time in the pursuit to improve musicianship.

There are no shortcuts around practice on the path to musical expertise. But I encourage music teachers to not just tell their students to do it, but instruct them how to do it efficiently. And I implore more advanced musicians to not get caught up in an “arms race” of practicing, thinking that more is always better. The constant struggle to find practice time can cause stress, and excessive practice can take a toll physically and motivationally. By focusing on quality over quantity, musicians can avoid burnout, enjoy their musical lives more, and maximize their growth.

References

Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L., & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: The case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 123-138.

Duke, R. A., & Davis, C. M. (2006). Procedural memory consolidation in the performance of brief keyboard sequences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(2), 111-124.

Duke, R. A., Simmons, A. L., & Cash, C. D. (2009). It’s not how much; it’s how: Characteristics of practice behavior and retention of performance skills. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 310-321.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Jørgensen, H. (2004). Strategies for individual practice. In A. Williamon (ed.), Musical excellence: Strategies and techniques to enhance performance (pp. 85–104). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehmann, A. C., & Jørgensen, H. (2012). Practice. In G. E. McPherson & G. F. Welch (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music education, volume 1. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199730810.013.0041

Simmons, A. L. (2012). Distributed practice and procedural memory consolidation in musicians skill learning. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(4), 357-368.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: Photographer Zach Goldstein of www.ZachGoldsteinPhoto.com

Feedback in Music Teaching: Why “Good!” Is Not Good Enough

TeacherStudentAs a music teacher, I can get so preoccupied telling students what I’d like them to do, and trying to motivate them to do it, that I forget afterward to let them know how well they did. I may suppose that students don’t need me to spell it out for them. Won’t they hear it for themselves if their music sounds better? Or pick up on the grimace on my face if it doesn’t? Receiving feedback, though, is a critical part of the learning process. If we as teachers are not making a point to communicate it to them, we shouldn’t assume that our students are figuring it out on their own. And simply shouting “Good!” while student sing or play their instruments offers little in the long run.

Giving feedback is a hallmark of quality music instruction, but one that can be easily overlooked. Good teachers are keenly aware of the responsibility to manage how time is spent. Although hopefully the biggest proportion of lesson time is occupied by student music making, teachers must also take time to talk to students. In the throes of a well-paced lesson, teachers will want to be efficient with their verbalizations in giving directions and explaining musical concepts. (I also hope teacher allow for students themselves to talk about their music making, as this can provide insight into the cognitive strategies underlying performance.) Offering feedback to students is just as important as these other teacher roles.

Last month I came across two good sources online that took up the topic of feedback. The first was a Freakonomics podcast titled “When Is a Negative a Positive?” In this short episode, journalist Stephen Dubner shares some research from the field of business management. Tackling the question of whether positive or negative feedback is more motivating, the podcast offers the answer: it depends…on the recipients’ level of expertise. With people who are new to a particular endeavor, positive feedback seems essential to help them increase their dedication to it. But for those who are more expert in a field, negative feedback can be more efficient in producing growth.

This general idea has been found in music education also, as researchers have probed the value of positive versus negative feedback. For teachers who work with beginning musicians, one of the most important qualities they can have is a warmth dimension (Lehmann, Sloboda, & Woody, 2007, ch. 3). Most young students thrive under the tutelage of a teacher whose personality is friendly and encouraging, and who makes music learning a positive (even fun!) experience. This type of learning environment would necessarily include much positive reinforcement from teacher to students. However, as kids mature and increase in commitment to their music activities, they seem to be able to handle more critical feedback from teachers. In fact they may even welcome it, knowing that it can advance their skill level, which in turn makes music participation more rewarding. Research studies in high school band contexts have found that these older students are able to benefit from negative feedback and they seem to understand that taking criticism is a necessary step toward musical improvement (Duke & Henninger, 2002; Whitaker, 2011).

Another online source that recently took up the topic of feedback was author Annie Murphy Paul, who writes much about how people learn. She offered up a blog post on keys to giving good feedback. Drawing on the results of educational research, she points out that effective feedback goes beyond just praise or criticism. It is informative and instructive to learning goals. Ideally feedback shows students how to monitor and evaluate their own performing, in effect making them less dependent on the teacher and more in control of their own learning. “The ultimate goal of feedback,” says Paul, “should be to teach learners how to give feedback to themselves.”

Of course these ideas also have much application to music education, especially to student musicians who have grown beyond the beginner stage. As teachers, we can be so focused on helping students prepare the music they’re working on that we neglect our responsibility to prepare them as musicians. We do this best by empowering them with the musical knowledge and skills they need to be self-sufficient learners who are able to make musical decisions for themselves. This is one of the reasons that simply telling students “Good!” accomplishes little. Broad feedback like this does not give learners much to take with them into the future. In these “Good!” moments, students can too easily think “ah, my teacher is pleased” without understanding what they did to produce the musically pleasing result.

I think we should aspire to offer more specific feedback that’s primarily directed at what students our have done, as opposed to who they are. Don’t get me wrong…we should make sure our students know that we respect them as people, and we believe them to be capable musicians. But whether using praise to inspire greater investment in music, or criticism to produce performance improvement, the main object of the feedback should be students’ music making. Telling students “you guys are awesome” or “you’re fantastic musicians” may be well intentioned and seem important in building self-esteem and a musical identity. But the positive feeling students get from simple praise like this can be fleeting. Consider, however, specific feedback directed at students’ performance, such as, “You used excellent breath support on that phrase” or “When you focus on rhythm there, your solo comes to life.” This feedback is informative and gives learners something they can take with them into the future. It can reinforce the physical skills and cognitive strategies that allow them to perform at their best. It’s true that young people rely heavily on the appraisals of others in self-concept building, but they do so based on beliefs about what things they can do well. If you just tell a student she’s a great musician, she may dismiss it as nice teacher flattery; even if she really receives the compliment, the emotional impact may soon fade. But if you tell her, for example, that her piano playing has improved since she started using more dynamic contrast, then you’ve given her knowledge that can be very useful going forward.

Giving feedback is something most music teachers do naturally. But a reminder now and then can be helpful. Perhaps we should strive to be more mindful and adaptable. It seems the right amount of positive and negative feedback depends on where our students are in their individual musical development.

References

Duke, R. A., & Henninger, J. C. (2002). Effects of verbal corrections on student attitude and performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46, 482-495.

Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians: Understanding and acquiring the skills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Whitaker, J. A. (2011). High school band students’ and directors’ perceptions of verbal and nonverbal teaching behaviors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59, 290-309.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

 

Source of image: Jose Kevo on Flickr Creative Commons