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Why Less is Sometimes More in the Music Classroom

When we self-evaluate our teaching it is very easy to feel like we aren’t doing enough. There are endless possibilities and activities that we could implement in our classrooms that would actually do our students good, but there just isn’t enough time in the day to use them. With endless possibilities and limited time it is easy to spread ourselves too thin and not be effective at any one thing. Here is why, sometimes, less is more in the music classroom.

Less Creates Focus

Imagine a show on a stage. Imagine that there are several acts happening on different parts of the stage, each with it’s own spotlight. You could have a juggler stage left, a singer stage right, and a snare drum solo in the middle. There could be seven or eight other acts around that are equally clamoring for attention. Sounds like a headache, right? This is what happens when we try to make every element of teaching music the focus instead of prioritizing and scaffolding our lessons strategically.

Each lesson that we teach should have a specific focal point, an objective that we are trying to help our students achieve that we make clear to them. When we create a focal point it is like having one act on a stage with a spotlight shining down on it; we know exactly what to focus on. It is important to have this focal point or objective written down for you and your students to see, because otherwise it is possible to end up like the overloaded show described earlier.

Here’s an example of using less to create focus in an ensemble setting. Let’s say you have a group of 20 students singers and you want to help them improve their singing. You notice that there are problems with pitch, timing, and musical style. While it’s tempting to try to address and fix all three of these at once, I’ve heard it said before that: “If you try to teach younger students more than one concept at a time, then you are wasting your time.”

By breaking the issues down and addressing them one at a time you create a scenario where the students can start to gain understanding of how to correct each issue.

You can start with rhythm and have the students say the lyrics of the song and then once they are proficient move to pitch. After rhythm and pitch have been mastered then you can move on to musical style and expression. By breaking down each of these elements and working on less at one time, you can get more and better results in the long run.

Focus Breeds Results

Focusing on one for a few outcomes and not trying to cover a large amount of content at one time creates results. An example of this is teaching students to play different kinds of instruments. When students are younger and less developmentally progressed it is a good idea for students to learn how to play unpitched percussion instruments. This allows students to develop a foundation in rhythm without having to worry about pitch. As students get older and develop more, they can move to pitched percussion like Xylophones and include pitch into their skill set. Because it takes elementary aged students time to develop the coordination and fine motor skills to be able to effectively play different kinds of instruments, the best approach is to isolate each individual skill.

For younger elementary students this may be having them touch each bar on a xylophone that they will have to play to isolate the pitches and then having them tap the rhythm on their mallets to isolate the rhythms they will play. For recorder players it may be having them say the notes first, then say the notes while practicing the finger positions, and then eventually playing the passage. This is referred to in secondary and post secondary circles as “practicing away from the horn”. Also because students master different skills on different kinds of instruments over the years they learn how to play each instrument before moving to the next giving them less types of motor skill movements to have to juggle.

Minimalism is Not The Goal

While reducing complex musical skill to their elements is an effective way to help students learn, it is not the end goal. We want our students to be able to perform complex skills like playing an instrument correctly, or singing a song while simultaneously doing movements.

How To Make The Most of It

It can also be difficult to teach differing content elements such as the age old struggle of teaching how to sing and play instruments vs. written content, music history, and composers. With limited time it is important to make the most of the time we have. One way to bridge that gap is to use what I like to call “Compound Content”.

Compound content is using the content of one element to teach the content of another. An example would be teaching steady beat to Bach’s Ode To Joy with a picture and a little bit of info about Bach posted on the board.

“But wait!” you might think, “didn’t you just tell me that less is more!? How can you now tell me to combine content?”

You can teach more than one thing if you set the tasks correctly. The Key is to, again, have a focal point. This allows you to help your students build a skill in one content area (steady beat) while unconsciously absorbing the content of another area (music history). This means that your students will be better at keeping a steady beat but will also recognize Ode to Joy because they had to listen to it to keep a steady beat to it. The steady beat is the focal point and Ode To Joy is the compounded content. There are many pieces of content that you can compound, just make sure that one of the pieces of content requires focus and the other does not.

Teaching students skills and content can be a difficult task, however by using strategies like making less more, and compounding content can help you get the most out of your teaching and out of your students.

Leave a comment below and tell me how you get more results with less complications.

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