How we can make music education ‘beautiful’
Monday, November 13, 2017
GRAPEVINE, Texas — Beautiful. That adjective is prevalent in our culture, but it's not spoken often in music education.
And perhaps we should be saying it more often, Bob Duke said. Duke is the head of music and human learning at the University of Texas at Austin, and he delivered the keynote address Nov. 13 at the National Association for Music Education's (NAfME) National In-Service Conference.
It's easy to forget about the wondrousness of the things teachers can help children create, said Duke, a recipient of the NAfME Senior Researcher Award for his research on the brain and human learning.
"I look at a lot of curricular plans in different states, and I don't ever see wondrousness there," he said. "I see a lot of counting and key signatures, but that's missing. The people who have to put it there is us."
Educators should start by gaining a clear vision of students as accomplished learners — not who they are before we've taught them anything, but what they're going to be like when we're finished with them, Duke said.
To do that, it helps to understand a bit about the human brain. The brain encompasses 86 billion neurons — an unimaginably large number — which means there are a lot of circuits in there. As a result, the brain is constantly looking for patterns in any environment.
"Brains are so good at recognizing patterns that they see patterns where there aren't actually patterns," Duke said. "The other thing that brains do is form associations based on temporal proximity. When something in our memory is activated with some of our environment, that is activated in our brain."
Duke noted that all students come into the classroom with different memories encoded into their brains, so even though we teach the same material to every child, they all process it differently.
"We don't just see and hear with our eyes and ears," he said. "We see and hear with our brains because what we see and experience has to be translated in some way to make it storable in our memory."
This impacts how we retrieve memories in the future.
"Just putting stuff into a memory has no promise whatsoever that you can get it in the form in which you need it," Duke said. "The situation in which you need it is often not the same as that in which you learned it."
Speaking of learning, when middle school students sign up for beginning band, that's exactly what they're expecting to do: learn how to become a musician.
But what really happens first? Instrument care, breathing and other aspects of music fundamentals, Duke said. Rarely do students start out making music.
"How long does it take to get from zero to music? The answer is not nearly as long as we make it," Duke said. "Once you have a spine of these fundamentals of music making, you build onto that with these capacities of music making."
It may even mean music teachers need to slow down the pace of the class for a while.
"In doing that, you're teaching students to work harder at more challenging tasks, because they have the habit of making something beautiful happen," he said.
And if you don’t find yourself saying the words, "that is beautiful," often enough, Duke has a simple suggestion: "Make it happen more."
Now go make something beautiful happen.
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