Today, I was discussing with my colleague our classroom experiences in aural skills—she is currently instructing the third course in the sequence, while I am instructing the first. She mentioned that is was just difficult to have students who seemed so bored in the class when other students are so clearly struggling. In reference to one student, she noted that she’d almost rather excuse him from class than make him attend because he seemed to not need the class and she worried about his engagement and needs.
I shared that, in contrast, I, too, had students of varying levels in my class (from students who probably could stand to skip to the course ahead to those that require consistent tutoring and help during class) and that I loved the challenge. For her, the students who required less of her were the problem, but I saw it a different way. What the conversation ended with was this thought from my experiences: “What I find more difficult is the students who are not practicing enough to be at the appropriate level; for advanced students, the teacher can always add to the activity, increasing the difficulty for the individual student. It is nearly impossible to ‘take away’ skills and help the student advance.” And thus, I was left with an interesting thought to mull over for the remainder of the afternoon.
At my university, we are fortunate to have a strong music production and recording arts program, which generates many majors and much interest from non-majors across campus. We additionally have performance, music education, and a degree called “Music in the Liberal Arts” meant to pair easily with a double major. Because of our varied program offerings, though, the students that are recruited to the program have a varying degree of strength and experience reading and playing from a score, understanding musical notation, and sometimes even playing a primary instrument. However, over the course of my career at this university, I have come to be aware of what an advantage it is for me as a pedagogue to have to improvise for the benefit of my students with those varying experience ranges: it forces me to critically assess in the moment what the imperative skills are for these students to be taking away from the activities. What is it that I need them to know, and how might I plan ahead so different students are accommodated?
An example from class is pertinent. I am fortunate to host one aural skills class a week in the Music Department’s keyboard lab—this affords me opportunities to give the non-singers a rest from exercising their voices, especially because those students are often somewhat bashful about their singing quality. It also gives the students an opportunity to practice at a keyboard, exercising different strategies for playing, imitating, improvising, and group performing that are sometimes less successful when students must rely on weaker or bashful singing. More to the point, though, the use of the pianos in the classroom gives me an opportunity to engage with activities that are scalable in terms of content: often play-and-sings, rhythm duets, or improvisations can be made easier or much more difficult through the addition of other elements.
On this particular day, I was having students work with quadruple subdivision rhythm duets in meters other than 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 (they had shown some difficulty with changing beat values on the midterm). While I’ll often have the students tap the two lines between hands (one side with a pen, one side flat on their desk), I am aware that this style of performance engages potentially only kinesthetic learners—the students do not have to intone Kodaly, Takadimi, counting, or Gordon syllables in order to succeed. Additionally, students with piano or percussion background are often unchallenged by these exercises because of the nature of their instrumental background. That being the case, at the pianos, the students can engage in tapping in the hands, counting with their mouths—this tends to be more difficult as it’s engaging two different parts of the brain (speech and motor regions), making the experience multimodal in nature. The advantage here is that the connections for the students as they perform will be strengthened because of the association networks being activated between more parts of the brain. Students that find this activity challenging when it’s just two hands find it equivalently challenging in this iteration, and it has been scaled for difficulty for those instrumentalists who need the multimodal variation.
However, as the students, particularly those who were pianists, got comfortable with the activity, I noticed that they engaged less. While the students who found the activity challenging continuously expressed a parallel level of continued engagement, those who acclimated to the difficulty of the activity began to practice less or more lazily. For those students, I introduced one more level of difficulty: add conducting in the hand that is not playing the piano. For each of the students who had been resting/disengaging with the activity, this was a sufficient challenge to help them continue to practice. One student even found himself growing frustrated because the activity became too difficult for him, and decided he had not practiced enough at the second stage of difficulty—this to me was a very satisfying moment, because the student was demonstrating a high level of metacognitive awareness about his abilities and strengths.
I also use these scalable techniques with play-and-sing piano exercises, wherein advanced students may be encouraged to add conducting, add figuration patterns, improvise a countermelody, or add a percussive element with a pen or pencil against the melody/accompaniment pairing. For those students without piano background, a simple example like that shown below can be made even easier: they might choose to only play the bassline notes, or play block chords instead of the accompanimental pattern. They may also choose to simply tap the rhythm against their vocal part if piano proves to be overly difficult for them.
These examples show how helpful being forced to think ahead about the larger objective of the lesson is: in the end, the students needed to be gearing toward tracking two parts at once. If they could only do simple tracking of two parts (where they only play one note against a moving vocal line, or tap a rhythm against it) or are able to integrate three separate tasks at once (conducting, tapping, and intoning syllables), each student in these scenarios is satisfying the objective. Being prepared either with multiple iterations of material or having the ability to improvise harder or easier material around that which I have planned has become an invaluable tool for me, as I hope it will be for other teachers who struggle with varying experience levels in the classroom.