The Concert Starts With Conversation

When I was teaching MYP music in Berne, Switzerland, the curriculum was built on units based on key concepts, global contexts, etc. We introduced these units by framing them around questions – questions that give direction and focus to the learning outcomes.

I always love the first day of a new unit. I once did a unit on protest music for an 8th grade class. As I presented it, we took time to consider the guiding questions, encouraging students to share what they already know about the key concept (or what they think they know.) 

It’s what we call ‘establishing prior knowledge’  – starting a new learning experience by affirming some kind of baseline.

The conversation was spirited and democratic. Students love to share their opinion, assert themselves, and argue with each other. Starting a new learning experience this way gets students involved right out of the gate. They’ve contributed their two-cents, took risks, worked out disagreements, and are invested in the project before you even talk about assessments. 

The same process works for an ensemble class. When introducing a new piece, it’s good to place it in some context. Why this piece? Why this composer? How are we going to become better guitarists for playing it? For that matter, how will we define what ‘better’ means in this project? What skills or techniques will we learn in the process? What symbols does the music include and what do they mean? 

What music vocabulary must we review or learn in order to understand the instructions? 

The concert experience starts with conversation. Look up the history of the word, and you’ll find it’s all about ‘bringing into agreement, to contend with zealously, dispute, debate, strive, but always in accord and harmony.”

There are lots of ways to imagine this process. It can be as tame as unpacking an IKEA kit – taking an inventory of all the parts.

Or more aspirational, like an obsessive team of WWII code crackers trying to interpret a complex language.

Or even a cadre of Sorcerer’s apprentices intent on breathing life to a page full of ink.

For example, you might ask a beginning class to scan the music and jointly make a pitch collection of all the notes, then arrange them from low to high, with note names, and string and fret numbers. They might be surprised at how few notes actually occur and their ability to find them on the fretboard.

Have the players of each part talk together about their voice in the score. Are they playing melodies? Countermelodies? Are they driving the rhythm? Providing a groove? Where are the most challenging sections? Why? Then allow all parts share what they’ve learned with the class.

Identify and discuss any musical symbols in the piece (repeat signs with multiple endings, Codas, fermatas, crescendos, etc.), and let students offer their best effort to define them – refining where necessary. Resources like this could be incorporated into class work on a regular basis.

Do the same for performance terms, and review or teach their meaning. Address the culture that these words come from, maybe even a little etymology where it’s helpful, and ask students of various mother tongues how those terms translate for them. Develop a shared music vocabulary, and incorporate it in future lessons. Prior knowledge in mother tongue matters. And if shared, it enriches the learning of all.

Depending on the genre and nature of the score, musical directions may not be in English. But there’s no reason that Italians should be the gatekeepers of the musical glossary. 

If a passage is adagio, it could just as well be ‘despacio’ (Spanish) or ‘bbt’ (Arabic), or ‘yukkuri’ (Japanese). Students who struggle to understand instructions because they struggle to understand English will appreciate it if the voice of musical authority is one that’s familiar.

Further, taking a look at how other voices describe musical concepts offers a richer way of understanding those concepts and voices.

For example, in Spanish, ‘accidental’ translates to alteración (literally – a disturbance). A clef is a ‘clave’ – meaning ‘key code.’

Some terms are remarkably similar.

The Spanish word for forte is fuerte.

Your English speakers may not know what ‘tremolo’ means. But a Spanish speaker may recognize the term as trémolo. Ask him/her to explain it, or better yet, give a demonstration.

And some Spanish terms are familiar but imply something different for English speakers. If a passage is soft (piano), the Spanish term is ‘suave.’

The Italian term for ‘little’ is poco. But it’s the same in Spanish.

In fact, Italian and Spanish are two of the prominent Romance languages. And as both are derived from Latin, they are remarkably similar. It’s worth addressing in class.

I’ve had students in my class whose mother tongue is Somali, Japanese, Arabic, Dakota… Imagine a lesson in which students collaborate on a score, coming up with multi-lingual instructions on how to repeat, slow down, increase volume, pause, return to the beginning. It would be a different kind of ensemble project – one in which students become teachers, vocabulary becomes a challenge for all, and all cultures claim authority. 

It’s a clever way of making sure everyone is ‘tuned up’ or… afinado.

Because who among us wants to be called out as ‘desafinado.’ 


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