Musical understanding

I am currently reading Teaching for Music Understanding by Jackie Wiggins, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s written in a highly readable, direct, sympathetic, no-nonsense style, with lots of practical suggestions and explanations. I am finding that much of what she suggests holds true for my own preferred approach to music education, and it is wonderful to read such clearly articulated descriptions of education values and strategies that I hold dear, but sometimes struggle to label.

For example, she acknowledges the wealth of information that has been written for music educators about teaching the musical elements, but suggests that musical principles – such as simultaneity and ensemble, balance, tension and release – are also an incredibly important part of musical understanding. She writes,

These principles are broader than the specific elements as they seem to connect to more than one of the elements. Simultaneity and ensemble are related to rhythm and texture but also to pitch in terms of intonation. Balance is also related to ensemble. Tension and release are an important part of harmony but are also linked to rhythm, dynamics, tempo and even form.

Wiggins, J. (2001). Teaching for Musical Understanding. New York: McGraw-Hill (p. 69)

I never give much explicit attention to the musical elements in my music teaching. It seems to me that if you take a compositional or creative approach in your teaching – when the students are engaged in creating their own musical work – all the elements will be present, and the students’  learning and understanding will grow through the manipulation of these, through the creative process. They are elements after all. They are all present, all the time. And they can learned very effectively through implicit teaching, and rigorous musical environments.

Jackie Wiggins presented at the ASME [Australian Society of Music Education] conference I attended in Launceston in July, and another approach she talked about was the use of dimensions, or metadimensions. Metadimensions might be genres or styles or other affective qualities, that can prove a powerful “doorway in” to creative work. I started to see that the sort of broad starting points of compositional language that I use in the projects I lead with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble to take this approach.

She talks about “creative probelm-solving” as being the broad descriptor for the kinds of composition tasks her students engage in – “problem-solving” in that the tasks that are set require the students to undertake their own investigation and develop their own solutions. The tasks are authentic, and very open-ended. The questions the students ask are the same questions an adult, or a profssional musician would need to ask if tackling the same problem. This too, is true of the way I like to work with students. I’ve essentially adapted my own group-devising processes I would use with peers and other professionals, for the work that I do in primary/elementary schools. The questions that need to be asked in order to solve the problem are essentially the same.

I realise too, that in a project-based context, I try to give participants a range of experiences, and then a musical problem to solve. The ‘experiences’ might be new concepts or techniques, or particular musical strategies that I think will be useful in the creative problem-solving task that follows. I wonder if, when mapping out my pedagogy, and how it varies in the different environments in which I work (from orchestras to refugee/minimal schooling backgrounds) I could build my workshop plans around the two strands of Experiences and Problem-solving?

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3 comments so far

  1. bobbiejane on

    Will give this book a read!
    Have a 6000 word essay to write on music ed, I am sooo out of practice, this could save my bacon!

    B 🙂

  2. […] which is just out in its second edition from McGraw-Hill. The book is discussed favorably on the Music Work blog. (Unfortunately, it’s hard to find in city libraries and few used copies are available […]

  3. Doorways in « music work on

    […] music educator Jackie Wiggins (author of Teaching for Musical Understanding) talks about ‘doorways in’ in creative music work – the initial points of entry for young […]


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