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The National Standards of Arts Education – Part 6

Music is everywhere. We hear it on television, in the car, in the elevator, and as part of the general ambiance at stores and restaurants. In fact, our society has become so accustomed to having some sort of constant background noise– this is mostly music, but only some of it is good– that we are more apt to notice when we walk into a room where music is not playing than we are to stop and listen to what is being piped in through the loudspeakers. And although we as a society may no longer be able to fall asleep without the television on or walk down the street without our ear buds in and our MP-3 players humming, we rarely listen to the noise that is generated. In fact, we tend to tune out soon after we turn the music on to focus on other tasks (which we feel compelled to do simultaneously), and this has become such a prevalent phenomenon that listening is quickly becoming a lost art. Standard Number Six, listening to, analyzing, and describing music, strives to bring the joy of listening back to music lovers, eliminate outside distractions, and demonstrate how important it is for musicians to develop good listening skills.

Listening sessions can be set up in a number of different ways. Some directors may want to devote the last five minutes of class to listening two or three times a week, while others may want to devote an entire class period to the activity every other Friday or perhaps set aside a couple of days after a concert to listen to recordings. While some may be content to play only an excerpt or a movement of a piece, others may be compelled to play the complete work. The most important element of any listening session is the absence of any sort of outside distraction. Regardless of whether the director chooses to play a three-minute aria or an entire symphony, students should have already put their instruments away, closed their books, and stopped talking. The focus needs to be entirely on listening.

To help students develop this skill, directors can tell students to listen for something specific, ask a thought-provoking question before playing the piece to spark creative or emotional observations, or tie the listening exercise into another activity. For example, playing different recordings of jazz charts with extended solo sections (or even comparing the same chart with several different soloists) can excite and inspire students to try improvisation, another key component in these National Standards. To better understand musical form and structure, directors can play different examples of, say, marches or movements in rondo form, teaching students to aurally identify transitions, modulations, and recapitulations, using proper terminology for each. Ideally, directors will also be able to tie this lesson into the performance aspect of the class, perhaps by programming and rehearsing a piece in rondo form for an upcoming concert. Another possible lesson plan could highlight a common thread in a number of seemingly different compositions. For example, teach students the haunting and foreboding melody of the Dies Irae, then ask them to identify this melody in pieces such as Symphonie Fantastique, Rite of Spring, or even Saint Saen’s Danse Macabre. Or if the band played a Minuet and Trio on a recent concert, engage students in an updated version of the drop-the-needle game, and play excerpts from different types of dance music, asking students to raise their hand every time they hear a minuet.

Music that evokes vivid images or a specific emotion works well for an abbreviated listening session. The tone poems of Richard Strauss, programmatic works such as Symphonie Fantastique or Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, or even the series of compositions named after colors by contemporary composer Michael Torke are all excellent places to start, and are sure to evoke strong and impassioned responses from imaginative listeners in even a short amount of time.

Listening logs are an excellent way to track student involvement and understanding of these listening assignments. Writing about music helps students to identify and describe what they hear and makes them strive to identify the musical devices and events that distinguish one piece of music from the next. This type of analyzation needn’t be too complex, although students should eventually be able to hear and identify basic genres (Classical, Baroque) and compositional techniques such as a fugue, cadence, meter change, or melodic inversion. Teachers may be surprised at how astute students can be when they are given the proper tools and the connections they are able to make between pieces heard outside the classroom. Just last week, a student remarked while listening to the soundtrack from Rent that she remembered hearing a very similar song on the soundtrack to Chicago. Without even knowing the titles of the pieces, the connection she made was between the “Cell-Block Tango” and the “Tango Maureen”. She used her discriminative listening skills to recognize the characteristic ostinato rhythm and sultry harmonies of a tango.

The sheer amount of varied and high-quality recordings available gives teachers today a definite advantage over teachers from previous generations. These recordings need not– and should not– be limited to classical or instrumental music. While there is definitely some value in playing the great symphonies or even several different recordings of the same piece, by interspersing these with examples of African drumming, shape-note singing, or a concerto for prepared piano, students are exposed to cultures, styles, and genres that they may never get the chance to hear otherwise. As a result of studying and discussing these types of pieces, students tend to be more open-minded toward unconventional music, and more willing to listen to an abstract or avant-garde work before forming an opinion. Some may even find that they enjoy a particular style of music that they would normally have dismissed. This new-found tolerance and appreciative-listening skills are crucial to the future of new music.

Teachers may also want to consider including a concert-attendance requirement to their course syllabus. Many universities now require music students to attend a minimum number of concerts over the course of a semester, because they recognize how important the listening component is to a complete music education. Encourage students to attend at least a couple of area concerts, and perhaps even write a paragraph on their experience and their reactions to the music that was performed. By giving students the skills and tools needed for effective listening, they will not only get more out of their time spent playing in a school ensemble, but they will also be more likely to develop an affinity for hearing live music that they will carry with them for the rest of their life.

Parts of this article were taken from National Standards for Arts Education. Copyright 1994 by Music Educators National Conference (MENC). Used by permission. The complete National Arts Standards and additional materials relating to the Standards are available from MENC — The National Association for Music Education, 1806 Robert Fulton Drive, Reston, VA 20191.