Trouble With Your General Music Curriculum

·      Did you come out of your undergraduate music education experience with a body of lessons that are engaging to the students?

·      Are you a first or second year General Music Teacher?

·      Do you find yourself or your students frustrated with your music lessons?

·      Has lesson planning taken over your life?

·      Are you constantly mired in lesson planning, unsure of how to proceed, feeling you’re trying to reinvent the wheel?

·      Are you a band director, choir director, or string specialist who has general music classes, but don’t know where to start?


I haven’t met many music teachers who can answer yes to the first question, and if they do, most of the time those teachers came from Oakland University. If you answered yes to any of the following questions, this will be the first of a series of blog posts on the General Music curriculum that is currently in place at Holly Academy (HA). I will try to outline how the curriculum at HA evolved to solve problems I faced as a music educator.

When I first began teaching at HA, the music curriculum was based on learning to sing songs and play games. It involved very little in the way of instrumental experiences. The curriculum I was taught to teach as an undergraduate music education consisted primarily of a song-based curriculum that added simple instrumental borduns as accompaniments to songs. These were usually I-V, or simple diatonic fragments. I wasn’t crazy about the repertoire I learned in education classes. I struggled to find songs that were engaging for the students, and consistently went back to the drawing board to create more meaningful lessons. It seemed as though I was in an unending spiral of lesson planning, each day trying to make the next day’s music classes better than today’s. Classroom management was always a struggle.

Looking back I can see that behavior problems were a result of student boredom. When I run into students from those first five years, I often apologize, wishing they had the more meaningful experience I feel students have now. It wasn’t until I enrolled in graduate courses at Oakland University that I began to think differently about what I was teaching. Thanks to the professors at OU (Jackie Wiggins Ph.D, Joe Shively Ph.D, and Deborah Vanderlinde Ph.D), I began to shape the musical experiences of my students based on my own musical experiences and goals as a professional musician.


Struggling to Create a General Music Curriculum


As I endeavored to learn the jazz vocabulary and body of standard jazz repertoire, I began to include more improvisational and compositional experiences in the classroom.  I continually reinvented the curriculum hoping to bring more meaningful and authentic musical experiences to my students. The graduate courses at OU focused on Teaching For Music Understanding (TMU). The premise is that the General Music curriculum is one of learning about the elements or dimensions of music through authentic musical experiences such as composition, improvisation, performance, and analysis. By authentic, I mean as close to real life musical experiences as possible. 

While I was working out what this curriculum looked like I was spending a considerable amount of time trying to develop my own abilities as a musician. I found that the more I developed as a musician, the more I had to share as an educator. This continues to be the case years later. In those early years of teaching I often struggled with finding meaningful ways to assess what was going on in the classroom. I began a dialogue with my administrator about assessment, but there were no easy answers. I didn’t get the answers I was looking for from professors, either.

As music teachers, we are at a distinct disadvantage compared to other disciplines, as assessment in other fields is much more straightforward. Every other subject is concerned with or at least aware of what the assessment looks like from the beginning. Often times, their curriculum already has the assessments created. Assessment is a key element in any educational experience. One I feel is all too often lacking in the music classroom. I don’t recall having many discussions about assessment during my musical education. How do we now if our students are truly learning, without meaningful assessment?

I am embarrassed to say that those first five years of teaching, grades were based almost entirely on participation. Now I can see how unfair this was for students. I failed to provide engaging lessons for the students, yet held them responsible when they were bored and failed to act in a manner I saw fit. Eventually I would see that the key to authentic assessment would arise naturally with the construction of a more authentic music curriculum. Creating authentic musical experiences became of paramount importance as the curriculum at HA was being constructed. I found that as the music curriculum focused more on instrumental experiences, rather than just singing song after song (none of which I was really crazy about), students became more engaged and I was able to begin creating assessments that were indicative of the music learning that was occurring. As music educator, when building a curriculum you need to figure out the following things:

1)    What authentic musical experiences are centrally important to be taught in the music classroom?

2)    How can you create problems for the students to solve, revolving around these authentic musical experiences?

3)    Once the students have addressed these problems, how will you know whether the students have truly met the learning goals?

4)    How are the students going to demonstrate this?

5)    How are you as an educator going to evaluate this?


In the next blog post I will share how I began to create a curriculum that addresses these concepts and how I began to implement it. Begin to ponder the previous questions.  Even if you have a curriculum in place, think about whether or not the experiences you give the students are authentic musical experiences. Are the students demonstrating an understanding of these concepts? How do you know whether they have learned what you want them to know? Are they demonstrating these experiences in an authentic musical way?