Welcome to: Flat or Sharp?

Welcome to my blog.  I will be discussing topics related to music education, the saxophone, jazz, music in general, and probably meditation at some point.  I recently graduated from Oakland University where I received a Master's degree in Music Education, while also spending quite a lot of time studying jazz with some of Detroit's great jazz musicians who are on faculty there.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a graduate student at OU, including the process of writing a thesis. After spending the better part of two years writing the thesis and then defending it, the process is finished and I have graduated.  My time has freed up somewhat with graduate school completed.  I am just in the daily grind of teaching, practicing, and playing gigs.  I spent nearly two years working on my thesis, Teaching Toward Learner Agency in Instrumental Ensemble Settings (A PDF version is available in the Education section of this website).  The topics covered are important to me and I have learned a lot since I first began writing it.  The awareness that comes from any deeply reflective process shines a light on habits and biases.  These habit energies may not even necessarily be bad, but they do have consequences.  I noticed that my own biases, strengths and inadequacies, often worked to counter some of my loftier goals as an educator.  You are welcome to read the thesis itself, but it is quite long, as I am unfortunately long-winded (as my students will surely attest).  Over time I will try to cover some of the more salient topics from my thesis in this blog, along with other ideas I have about music education.  My thesis was a qualitative analysis, meaning I had to go where the data from the class videotapes took me.  There were other subjects I thought may have been covered, but the data was just not there or, as my professors told me, "eventually you have to put a period at the end and be done."  This is just as well, as the thesis was long enough as it is.  I hope this process proves somehow useful to someone besides myself.   This process certainly gave me a lens to view how my successes and tensions affected my students as I implemented a curriculum meant to foster student ownership over the learning process.  The following passage gives some background to the study itself and will be the first section I would like to share.

Entering Into the Study

"I entered into this study nine years into my career as an educator, and four years after I began graduate study at Oakland University. In this document I offer my thoughts (at the point when this was written) on what I feel is an approach to music education that is more comprehensive than practices prevalent at the time. I have included a description of the curriculum I was still trying to implement at the time and subsequently continued to develop.

As I began to experience the power of learner agency in the classroom, I endeavored to incorporate more processes that fostered agency in learners in these two emerging ensembles. These processes included balancing the interpretive-based nature of music ensemble study with creation-based approaches such as improvisation, composition, and personal expression through the development of musical vocabulary. It is my position that creation-based practices inherently hold more possibilities for students to have agency over their musicianship, while also helping to inform other musical concepts under study, such as reading notated music, aural skills, developing rhythmic integrity and harmonic understanding, and overall technical proficiency on one’s instrument. Azzara (2002) offers his thoughts on the efficacy of creation-based musical practices and the resulting effect on personal expression.

The research suggests that students should be provided with opportunities to make music spontaneously in a meaningful way through improvisation. Improvisation allows students to express themselves individually, to develop higher order thinking skills, and to develop a more comprehensive and intimate relationship with music, performing with or without notation. (p. 182)

Musical ideas generated during improvisation and composition practices come from the students. This is quite different from musical ideas in traditional interpretive- based practices, particularly in a large ensemble setting, where the music has already been composed by another and is subsequently interpreted by a conductor for the students in the ensemble. This is also true when students are covering music. The students in the Creative Arts Ensemble generally stayed close to the original version of the pop or rock music they were playing. Azarra (2002), citing Hummel, offered the following statement comparing interpretive practices and improvisation:

Even if a person plays with inspiration, but always from a written score, he or she will be much less nourished, broadened, and educated than through the frequent offering of all of his or her powers in a free fantasy practiced in the full awareness of certain guidelines and directions, even if their improvisation is only moderately successful (Hummel, 1828/1829. (Azarra, 2002, p. 176)

This study also gives a glimpse into the nature of other processes employed in my classroom to foster learner agency, such as student-conducting and greater student input into literature selection.

As I have tried to create a more balanced approach to the curriculum in the instrumental music settings in which I teach, I have experienced both success and tension. This study will explore how my ongoing musicianship practices inform the curriculum I have put forth. I set out on this study hoping to learn more about how the musical concepts I explore in the classroom promote or negatively affect the students ability to have agency over their own learning and learning environment. It is my hope that this study will lead toward a path of instruction that better understands and strives to meet the needs of today’s student-musician." (Dufresne, 2015, p.6-8)

That is the end of the first excerpt I will share.  As I reflect back, a couple years removed from when the first data was taken, I can summarize some of the more successful ways in which I foster agency in the classroom; they Include:

  • Teaching students to conduct, while giving them regular opportunities to conduct in rehearsals and concerts.  We have an annual conducting competition in the spring.  The winner conducts a selection in the final concert.  Letting the students conduct also frees me up to sit in any section in the band.  This is useful as a classroom management tool, as well as being able to understand exactly what is happening from every vantage point, and ultimately providing individual instruction amidst a group rehearsal.
  • Balancing interpretive music practices with regular experiences improvising and composing.  I firmly believe that improvisation and composition are the purest ways to foster agency in the music learning environment, as everything a student improvises or composes is their own.
  • Allowing students to choose their own band-mates in chamber group settings.  In our improvisatory-based ensemble (AAE), we have small combos.  This allows for shared musical experiences among friends.  I think the greatest gift in music is when we as musicians have a long-term musical relationship with friends who are dear to us and share similar interests and goals.
  • Not discriminating based on instrument, medium, or genre.  Each music student has a different background and set of interests.  This is often at odds with the experience of the teacher.  For example, I am trying to learn and teach the skill set of the jazz musician.  For some of my students, jazz just does not resonate with them.  While these skills are very much a part of my curriculum, because I let them choose whatever music they would like to play in the concert (as long as it is school-appropriate) a balance is struck.  The students are able to express themselves in the way they see fit, and my curricular goals are still met.
  • Allowing students to play the instrument of their choice, including, piano, electric guitar or bass, drum set, steel drums, DJ controller, violin, cello, voice, ukelele, etc.  All too often as music educators, we sacrifice the learning of individuals for the benefit of the ensemble.  This is a phenomenon that doesn't occur so much in other disciplines.  The math teacher doesn't ask her student to focus on decimal addition and subtraction because it benefits the math class while others are free to explore more advanced concepts.  Music educators, though, routinely ask someone to play 2nd trombone or 3rd horn because the part needs to be covered, regardless of whether or not that student will ever actually get to play a melody.
  • Allowing students to provide input regarding repertoire selection.  I cannot overestimate how important it is for the students to be passionate about the music they are playing.  It is the difference between endless complaining and having to force people to stop practicing after class, so they can get to where they are supposed to be.  I am not saying that you let the students dictate the curriculum, just that they are given a voice in the process.
  • Making the acquisition and creation of musical vocabulary a central part of the music curriculum.  The development of a personal musical vocabularyprovides a unique and authentic avenue of self-expression in much the same way creation-based practices such as improvisation and composition do.

That is the end of the first blog post.  Thank you for reading.  Check back regularly for new posts.  and please search around the sight.  There are free PDF's of exercises for band I have composed, jazz transcriptions of solos by I have done by my heroes, as well as Teaching Toward Learner Agency in Instrumental Ensemble Settings. 


Matt Dufresne