Category Archives: Participatory Music Involvement

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]

Taking A Deep Musical Breath: Feeling What I Know

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing musical experience. As someone who studies music and music-making for a living, it was the kind of experience that has refreshed my outlook and ramped up my excitement. The name of my site here, “Being Musical Being Human,” reflects a deep value of mine, but I don’t actually feel it as much as I’d like. Well, a few weeks ago, I felt it, and it was quite profound.

Enough suspense…I attended my first Dave Matthews Band concert. It was intensely rewarding, and I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since then. If you’ve been to one of their shows, then you know how compelling they can be. And if DMB isn’t your cup of tea, I’d still urge you to continue reading here. It’s taken me a few weeks to process the event for myself, and try to discover why it was so powerful. I believe that what I experienced can be of great value to musicians of all kinds.

First a little background. My good friend Mike is a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band. A while back he told me that he was taking me to a DMB concert…July 2012 at the Alpine Valley amphitheater in East Troy, WI. The drive from Nebraska to Wisconsin wouldn’t be too bad, he assured me, and it would be totally worth it to see this great live band do an outdoor concert. I was somewhat familiar with DMB, but I wouldn’t say I really knew them. It was more like I knew of  them. I knew they were made up of good musicians and were known for live performing. So I figured it’d be good for me to go.

Before I left for the road trip with Mike, I resolved that I would not approach it like a music scholar. I would do my best to exit that part of my self. I was traveling away from home—and not for a conference this time!—and was confident that I wouldn’t run into anyone who’d greet me with a “Hey Dr. Woody.” So I decided to try to experience it like a regular person, if only for Mike’s sake…seriously, who’d want to hit a concert with me prattling on about cognitive translation of imagery-based music instruction, or some such thing?

It was a beautiful 75 degrees the night that Mike and I were joined by 30-some thousand of our closest friends on the concert grounds. I think the whole scene allowed me to take in the show like a normal person.  Well, kind of. I did a good job of behaving like the throngs of concertgoers who packed into the amphitheater. Honestly I had a blast. I cheered, clapped, danced and sang along. But as I’ve reflected on the show since then, I realize I was able to experience—really feel—some of the wonderful things about music that I often teach, research, and advocate to others. It’s difficult to pick exact adjectives to describe it, but the words personal, emotional, and soulful are in the ballpark. In a deeply meaningful way, it reinforced a number of things that define the heart of music as I understand it.

First, the musical breadth of the Dave Matthews Band is inspiring to me. Not many rock bands include a violinist, trumpeter, and saxophone player, to go along with their guitars, bass, and drums. All of the DMB musicians have impressive credentials spanning the styles of jazz, classical, and a broad range of vernacular music styles (e.g., funk, hiphop, country, bluegrass). That July evening, it meant a lot to me as a trumpeter, to hear Rashawn Ross’s extended Harmon-muted solo on the song “Loving Wings” early in the concert. When he quoted the jazz standard “St. Thomas”—one of my favorites in my younger days—I felt like he was playing to me personally! (You can hear it at the 4:24 point in this recording.) Also at the concert, a surprise special guest was guitarist Stanley Jordan. He is known for his innovative guitar techniques and the mixing and blurring of musical genres. In fact on his website, he speaks passionately about his “belief in the integrationist spirit of music.” As impressed as I am with musicians who specialize and become excellent in one style of music, I’m flat amazed at those who explore more of the entire world of music and grow from it.

At the concert I was also reminded how many things go into the powerful experience of live music. I’m talking about everything from the visual aspects of performance and the musicians’ physical interactions onstage, to the open-air venue of the concert and the almost palpable adoration of the crowd. I call these kinds of things para-musical factors (rather than extra-musical) because I believe they are necessarily part of live music making and just as affecting as the musical sounds heard. As I’ve come to find out, live performance is what the Dave Matthews Band is all about. Having been together since the early 90s, the group has released a mere seven studio albums; only a handful of their songs have entered the top 20 of any Billboard US chart. In contrast, they’ve recorded nearly 50 live albums and have remained one of the most popular and prolific touring bands over the last two decades. Unlike many other musicians whose natural environment seems to be a practice room or recording studio, the DMB guys are in their element when playing live. Their collaboration is so much more than the combining of their individual parts. Their spontaneous communication with each other onstage is also enhanced by their interaction with the audience. Those in the crowd also become music-makers, constantly dancing, clapping, and singing along. This appeals to me incredibly. It’s one thing to appreciate great performance by musical experts, but when so-called “non-musicians” freely sing and make music together…well, that really fires me up!

The final moments of the concert for me were by far the most special to me. It was so evident that the musicians in the Dave Matthews Band really enjoy making music together. These guys were not obligated to play for nearly four hours that night, but they did. And in the final encore, they carried out a joy-filled cover of  “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” (an old Sly and the Family Stone song with an intentional mondegreen title). As you can see for yourself in the video below, they had a lot of fun doing it. My favorite part was when Dave was practically overcome by the need to dance. He shed his guitar—which Stanley Jordan grabbed for himself—in order to better twist and strut around the stage! And perhaps this is my biggest take-home lesson from the DMB concert that I felt so deeply: from the audience perspective, there is nothing better than taking in a live performance of musicians who unmistakably love what they’re doing.

Image sources: Fire dancer image from DMB album Stand Up. Rashawn Ross pic from The Saratogian (photo by Ed Burke).

Beyond the Performance of Conducting

I recently was interviewed by Susan Poliniak for an article she’s writing on conducting for Teaching Music magazine. I contributed some quotes about psychological aspects of musical leadership, and what the research says about teaching effectiveness in an ensemble setting. Susan’s excellent questions, along with my long-winded answers :), resulted in much more discussion than she could use in her article (which will appear in the November issue). To me, the most interesting issues relate to the relationship between a conductor/teacher and the musicians/students. This is largely determined by the group leader’s beliefs about the fundamental role of a conductor.

A new conductor may envision taking the podium, and looking out across the ensemble before him or her like an organist would sit at the grand instrument, ready to work all the keys, stops, and pedals. Becoming a conductor is virtually always preceded by many years of studying a musical instrument. So in this way it makes sense for young conductors to see their role on the podium in this way–as a technical and expressive type of performance. But I think it’s a mistake to approach conducting an ensemble like a musician playing an instrument. Merely making the right gestures, showing emotion, and knowing the score are not enough. As important as these things are in conducting–and they are important–they don’t ensure effectiveness as a communicator and leader of people.

Let’s face it…most professional ensembles would sound good even without a conductor. The advanced musicianship of a group of professionals can go a long way. Clearly the job of a professional conductor is quite different than that of a school ensemble teacher, whose students are developing performers in need of much musical guidance and instruction. A productive relationship between conductor and ensemble can take various shapes but must include two-way respect. Student musicians will not make much progress if they look at their leader with any suspicion, apathy, or contempt. Learners’ attitude and motivation greatly affect how they take in instruction, and how readily they apply it to their own performing. If they believe that their conductor genuinely cares about their musical growth and the reward they will get from performance, then they will be tuned in to the message from the podium.

Especially with student musicians, a conductor’s communication can be ineffective if ensemble members come to believe their job is merely to take orders. It may be counterintuitive, but many times the best way to communicate is not necessarily the most direct way. Music students are not voice-activated robots. Simply telling them to do something does not always result in them receiving the message, let alone retaining it beyond the initial instruction. A conductor’s message may be more effectively received if musicians are involved in the decision making, and even in the voicing of instruction. For example, instead of just telling the ensemble to perform a phrase more legato, a conductor could sing it in that style and ask students to identify what sounded different. In general, questioning is a simple verbal strategy that can increase the ensemble’s overall attentiveness, and make the musicians feel more contributive in the rehearsal process.

Motivating students through the difficult work of a rehearsal is critical. Good leaders are realistic in their expectations for a group, in terms of attention span and the technical difficulty of a piece of music. It’s good to push performers’ ability level–that’s how growth happens–but over-challenging students can be counterproductive if it only serves to induce anxiety…for them and the conductor!

What’s tricky is that an ensemble includes many different motivational patterns related to music and performance. Some students, when faced with a difficult passage in a piece, will be sustained through rehearsal because of the simple enjoyment they feel when making music in any way. Others will need to be motivated with extrinsic rewards (e.g., conductor: “give me 15 minutes of focused work and we’ll take the last few minutes of class to watch a YouTube video of an amazing professional musician’s live concert”). Still other students, driven by a need-to-achieve mentality developed in their musicianship, will take on the passage if it’s been presented as formidable challenge to be conquered.

Ultimately, conductors must be responsive to their ensemble members, and be willing to adapt their approach accordingly. Of course, it’s easier to think “I’ve got my way of doing things” and expect the ensemble to adapt to you. But to me, that sounds like the attitude of someone who considers leadership a position of privilege, instead of a position of responsibility. Effective musical leaders are able to change up their modus operandi, even if it means reducing their own prominence in rehearsal. After all, it is not a teacher’s instruction that yields musical improvement, but the learners’ application of it. The more the message from the podium is effectively received (not just delivered), the more musicians have opportunity to grow their performance skills, and in the process feel more influential in the progress of the entire ensemble.

A Case Study in Musical Motivation

In the summer of 1947, two parents living in a small Southern town had to choose a birthday present for their 11 year old son. He was a pretty typical boy so the gift ideas were, well, pretty typical. The parents had their options narrowed down to a bicycle or a guitar. It surely wasn’t the only factor in their decision, but there was a considerable price difference between the two. The more expensive bike was passed over and the boy received his first guitar on his birthday.

The boy as a teenager

Source

A musical instrument seemed the perfect gift for a boy who had shown great fondness for music all of his childhood, mainly by singing every chance he got. He did much of his singing in and around church, but he also found opportunities at family gatherings, at school, and while playing in the backyard with friends. He was probably the kind of kid who sang about every spoonful of cereal at breakfast. But people enjoyed his singing and he constantly fielded song requests from teachers and friends. He eventually entered a talent show at the local fairgrounds, where he won second prize. So when his parents presented him with his first guitar, it made sense. It would help him further develop his singing.

After getting his guitar, the boy received some tutoring from a couple of his uncles who played. Armed with a few chords and recordings of his favorite music, he labored to reproduce the sounds loved. His singing likely benefited from this practice but not enough to keep pace with the increase in musical expectations that come when a singing child becomes a singing teenager. His eighth-grade music teacher saw no special potential in him and did not invite him to perform in the school’s top vocal group. He began to identify the musical settings in which his skills were best suited. He jumped at certain performance opportunities–he especially enjoyed making music for and with his friends–and avoided others with equal enthusiasm.

His love for music was never shaken and his involvement in it never stopped. In high school he participated in sports and other school clubs, but there were also many times when he sacrificed leisure activities in order to work on his music. Because his family struggled financially, he also had to take part-time jobs. As a teen he worked at a downtown theater, then later at a metal products factory. Upon graduating from high school he took a full-time job driving a delivery truck for a tool factory. But music was still his passion.

On many of his deliveries, our singing guitar-playing truck driver passed a small recording studio. It offered a make-your-own-recording service to anybody willing to pay the studio costs. The young man’s first recorded song impressed the studio’s office manager, who then shared a copy with the record producer who owned the studio. The producer was only moderately interested and waited nearly a year before approaching the aspiring singer. Now under the tutelage of the producer, the young musician still struggled. The producer eventually matched him up with some more experienced musicians in hopes of developing his skills. What followed were many more months of hard work.

But by now, young Elvis Presley was fully committed to a career in music.

It deserves mentioned that once Elvis did get his “big break” and performed for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry radio program in Nashville, he was no instant success. In fact the head of the Opry talent office, after hearing Elvis’s performance, told him that he should go back to driving a truck!

Although certain parts of Elvis’s biography are very unusual–especially after achieving stardom–some aspects of his development are common to many musicians: an unceasing love of music, the support of others, the maximizing of available resources, and perseverance through adversity. As described above, it was a combination of environmental factors and experiences that allowed a young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, to become “The King.” But identifying a common storyline just scratches the surface in understanding musical motivation. Where did Elvis’s deep connection to music come from? How did he sustain it through distraction and hardship? Why didn’t his musical failures cause him to give up? These kinds of questions, which I won’t try to answer here, capture the curiosity of many performing artists, educators, and psychologists. Count me among them! And it seems the more I learn about motivation, the more I realize how complex and fascinating it is.

Blurring the Lines

I consider myself to be a real appreciator of clarity. Among my big messages to musicians, I emphasize how important it is to clearly define goals and strategies to attain them. For many of us, it’s almost second nature to break down tasks into smaller pieces, stages, and responsibilities. This is common in the formal approach to teaching and learning, including in music education. We often think of a future performance as a goal, and then outline what needs to happen for that performance to be a success. The teacher will provide instruction on how to perform effectively. Each musician will practice individually. If it’s a group venture, then the ensemble will rehearse behind closed doors in order to coordinate their music making. All this leads up to the performance…when the results of our efforts and improved musicianship are presented to an audience.

Pat MethenyThis approach works. A coming public performance is an effective motivator to many musicians–in some cases, the only thing that’ll get them to practice! And obviously for any large-scale production, advanced planning, organization, and division of labor is a must. But is it possible that other musical benefits may come with less clarity in some ways? I propose that there can be some real advantages to blurring the lines between practicing, teaching, and performing.

What might this blurring looking like? Let’s first consider what defines practice (and I’m including in this group practice, a.k.a. rehearsal). Practice is when musicians are in learning mode. They feel a freedom to work on skills they want to improve. They receive instruction from teachers and interact with other musicians. They’re focused on music making, and why it’s important to them. In contrast, performance can be seen as a finished product, and one that is presented for the evaluation of an audience. The spirit of growth and exploration can be suspended. Sometimes the specialness of performance comes with a certain pressure–at best a “one shining moment” experience, but at worst a “do or die” mentality.

I’m convinced that performance can remain a meaningful and culminating experience for young musicians without losing the learning orientation associated with practice. I recently came across an interview with guitarist Pat Metheny, in which he recounts growing up in then-rural Lee’s Summit, Missouri. His music learning really took off when he started playing gigs in the Kansas City area. “That changed my life and gave me an incredible head start,” he says, describing how he learned so much while performing, especially by observing a particular piano player he gigged with often. “Watching him play was probably the best instruction I could get.” Metheny goes on to share how these early performances were key in his development. They were a virtual testing ground for the musicianship that later made him great.

When I read Metheny’s description of these gigs, it struck me: they sound like practice, teaching, and performance…all rolled into one! I wonder what’s really in play here. What allowed these experiences to be so multi-functional for him? And most importantly, how can we apply these things to traditional music teaching to reap the benefits? Here are some considerations that I think are important:

  1. Performance as presentation vs. sharing – A presentational performance style is defined by a considerable psychological separation between musicians and audience members. Music students may benefit from a more relaxed setting, or even a participatory style with greater interaction between performers and audience. Many music teachers have had great success using “informances,” in which they and their students explain the processes behind their music as they share it. They can even involve the audience members in making music along with them (blurring the line between performer and audience).
  2. The occasion as special vs. customary – Having been a part of some great concerts and musical productions, I’ve felt the buzz of a big performance. But it may not be ideal if the specialness mainly comes from performance being rare and “fancy” (i.e., so different from practice). When young people see performance as a frequent and regular part of being musicians, then they may be able to get more out of the experiences. They may then have the necessary mental wherewithal during performance to observe and learn from co-performers, and to push their own skill development.
  3. The goal as being error-free vs. expressive – This can be tricky, especially when the performance is of composed music learned from notation. The development of technique is critical, since a certain facility on a musical instrument is required in order to be expressive on it. But too often, young musicians come to believe that the main goal of performance is simply to “not mess up.” To convince our students otherwise, we must first believe it ourselves! Perhaps there’s an alternative to the common approach of waiting until all pitches and rhythms are learned before adding in expressive elements. Can these things be addressed concurrently while working on a piece? Is it even possible to give expressive aspects higher priority than technical ones?

Above I’ve mainly addressed blurring the line between practice and performance. I’m sure there are other lines that could be blurred as well, to the additional benefit of developing musicians. What about the line between practice and teaching? There are music cultures in the world–Balinese gamelan, for one–in which individual practice is unheard of (instead, music learners develop exclusively in group settings under the supervision of experienced musicians). What about challenging specialized roles of musicians, and encouraging students to simultaneously develop as performers and composers? And what about delineations between styles of music, like classical, jazz, and popular music? I welcome your comments below, perhaps to share ways that you blur the lines in your performing and teaching.