If the many desperate posts to online music education forums and groups are any indication, the push to incorporate more math and language arts standards into other classes is one of the biggest stresses facing music educators today. Many administrators give vague directions to teachers that don’t help them come up with effective lessons. Some instead hand the teachers pre-made lessons that have nothing to do with the teachers’ subject areas, and expect them to devote much-needed rehearsal time to teaching those lessons instead. Some even give time requirements, expecting teachers to spend 15 minutes per week of their music class teaching English or Math. This is wrong! 100% of the time in music classes should be used to teach music standards, and music education advocates must demand this. That being said, we can incorporate reading, writing, and math concepts into our curricula in ways that meet both music standards andstandards in other academic areas at the same time. Incorporating those other standards can actually make us even more effective at teaching music.
I am lucky enough to work for a principal who gives specific directions to his staff about how we can do this. My colleagues and I come up with creative ways to incorporate reading and writing in all academic areas, and we use consistent school-wide and district-wide methods to take a consistent approach to addressing high-priority standards in every classroom. Thanks to great leadership from my principal, I came up with the following lessons which meet high priority music standards while simultaneously meeting my school’s high priority standards in other academic areas. What I have found most interesting from doing these lessons is that asking the students to read, research, and write about topics related to the music we are preparing has significantly increased their musical achievement.
My biggest goal for my high school choir this year was to perform more expressively and increase engagement of the audience. When we analyzed the lyrics of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” for literary devices and researched their biblical allusions, it brought a deeper meaning to every word in the song. We were no longer singing notes. We were telling a story with a lesson that applies to all of us: that using dishonest and immoral means to an end is building your castle “on pillars of salt and pillars of sand.”
My biggest goal for my junior high band was to improve their ability to adjust their intonation independently in any performance situation. Teaching tuning in a way that met 7th grade math standards for integers made it easier for them to grasp pulling out vs. pushing in. Understanding Hertz and the numerical relationships between pitches in a way that met 8th grade standards explained why we have to do things like flatten the 3rd of a major triad to disperse the air pockets that make equally tempered intervals sound out of tune. Writing in response to technical texts, such as excerpts from W. Francis McBeth’s Effective Performance of Band Literature, helped students take ownership over other factors that affect intonation, like blend and balance. Now they play with better blend, balance, and intonation, even when those things are being affected by environmental factors like temperature or playing an instrument in need of repair.
Finally, more and more standardized tests are being taken on computers. Computerized tests may include “technology-enhanced questions” such as drop down menus, multiple-correct response questions (using checkboxes), grid responses, and more. I have started assessing my students’ understanding of symbols, terms, and technical concepts using these kinds of questions in short Google Forms assessments for my band and choir classes.
I hope that the lessons below will help other teachers have these successes with their ensembles.