Half of all employers in northern Illinois plan to hire more bilingual or multilingual college…
Jeremy Little, director of choirs at Vernon Hills High School, steps to the front of the spacious rehearsal room.
Class is beginning, but it’s not time to sing yet.
First, Little talks to his students about vowel sounds and their corresponding motions. “EH,” for example, pairs with “inner clown smile.” The “EE” sound? Ice cream cone. “OH” and “OO” sounds? “Circle finger” and “straw,” respectively.
His students then vocalize the vowels, starting on the fifth of the chord and descending the major scale, moving their hands and arms as instructed.
Then, he has questions: “What vowel do you think you need to change the most from your speaking voice?” “Is your vowel unified with your neighbor’s?”
And those Ghirardelli chocolates Little distributed a few moments ago, with a caveat of not to eat them? They remain on the black metal music stands, mysteriously tantalizing the students – none of whom is a teenager.
Little is working this July morning with 80 music teachers who came to NIU for a four-day workshop in “Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance.”
Taught by 14 master music teachers (all subjects, all levels) from the IL-CMP Committee, the workshop encourages and explains a different way of instruction. Teaching with intention, its T-shirts proclaim, begets performing with understanding.
Put simply, the CMP model believes that student-musicians will deliver much-richer performances when they comprehend why and how the music placed before them was written and how those pieces of music connect with other works and their own lives.
“We believe that when we’re teaching in music settings that our teaching should be as comprehensive as possible so that we’re teaching kids the technical skills that they need to play or sing really beautifully.”
But that “is only a piece of what we want to do in the classroom,” adds Doherty, a founding member of the IL-CMP Committee.
“We want to really open our students’ minds to all of the elements of music, and teach the piece from the perspective of composer intent or its historical significance,” she says, “while we’re also getting the students to have a really deeper understanding of the rehearsal process and what goes into creating a beautiful performance of a piece of music.”
Participants at the workshop, held the week of July 6, included a first-year teacher and a 36-year veteran with two semesters left before retirement.
All came with one goal, says Little, president of IL-CMP.
“We want to get better at our craft, and we want to get better for our students,” he says. “Sharing all this together – across disciplines, across age levels, across regional boundaries – is a really great way to grow as a community and to learn how to teach this thing we call ‘music’ better.”
* * *
Although the sign on the door clearly indicates Room 171 of the NIU Music Building, Little’s lesson takes place inside the walls of Vernon Hills High School.
He wishes a “good morning” to his “11th- and 12th-graders” several times, designating that it’s a new day, but not necessarily the next day: “Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about the vowel sounds?”
He makes jokes about tornado drills and pep assemblies that are shortening the class that day.
And there is singing, beautiful passages from Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus Natus Est” that coax stunningly gorgeous vocals from an unrehearsed group that also includes instrumental band and orchestra teachers.
But Little’s creative approach transports his lesson from lecture to demonstration. This isn’t dry theory; this is exactly how he does it.
Instead of recommending the use of small mirrors so choir students can watch themselves sing, Little leads the workshoppers through that very exercise. Later, the “students” count off into two groups like teams in P.E. class; now the “ones” can sing while the “twos” listen, and vice versa.
To quickly test whether the class understood his lesson on the musical “textures” of monophony, polyphony and homophony, he plays CDs and tells students to hold up color-coded cards when they hear the corresponding textures.
“We sing by sight. We sing by ear,” Little says. “We sing by feel.”
* * *
Developed nearly 45 years ago in Wisconsin, the Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance model urges teachers to select and analyze high-quality music for their students.
Combining those five things, Little says, generates “power.”
“We’re at this point in music education where we need to be more accountable for what our students learn in class,” says Margaret Jenks, a leader of the Wisconsin-CMP group who attended the first two days of the workshop at NIU.
As educators are “bombarded by initiatives” that turn the direction of teaching every few years and then fade away, Jenks credits the model’s flexibility and roots in “best practice” for its endurance.
It also presents “a language that administrators understand” during faculty meetings on curriculum. “For too long,” says Jenks, who teaches in Madison, “music teachers have been ignored in this whole process.”
While “no one of us is a perfect example of this teaching model,” she adds, it has proven to engage students and to energize teachers and shield them from burnout.
Some who learn the CMP model will undergo “an instant shift, like a seismic shift,” Little says, while others will travel a gradual road of change.
“When you can get teachers in a mode of thinking where they become self-reflective, where they have this ideal about what good teaching is and what good learning is,” he says, “they become a learner themselves, and they want to get better.”
CMP teachers are motivated, Doherty says, and motivational.
“The students are going to see their teacher inspired and that inspiration, we know, transfers to every aspect of our teaching, from when we’re up on the podium conducting, to when we’re meeting one-on-one with a student to help them play or sing better, even to when we’re just advocating for our program,” she says. “If we feel inspired, it’s easier to inspire others.”
Proof? Drayton Eggleson, choral director at Sycamore High School, has attended the CMP workshop twice.
“It helps me how to learn to pick quality music for my students,” says Eggleson, an NIU School of Music alum. “It gives you resources on how to think about what they’re performing and why they’re performing it, why certain composers choose to do some things.”
* * *
Matt Temple raises his arms and, with a wave of his baton, begins to conduct a piece of music with its title and the name of its composer removed from the page.
The director of bands at New Trier High School wants his freshmen – well, make that the CMP workshop participants – to ponder “the storyline” of the music from its sound alone.
Prodded by the mystery tune’s Middle Eastern accents, the instrumentalists mention words such as “Aladdin,” “cobras” and “camels.”
During a livelier section featuring multiple melody lines, one player says it conjures thoughts of “a party in the desert.” During a drowsy movement, where the trombones are sliding woozily and producing noises of “some unnatural inducement,” the ideas include heat stroke, snake bites and snake charmers. (Good guess! It’s “Snake Charmer” by Randall D. Standridge.)
Temple’s lesson goes beyond the discussion on Standridge’s compositional intent. He also assigns students to write and perform their own exotic scales, and plays bits of rock songs by the Black Eyed Peas, the Cure, Led Zeppelin and the Offspring that employ similar scales.
Jeremy Little is all smiles in the back of Room 171.
“Whenever I watch another one of our teachers teach,” he says, “I always think like, ‘Oh, can I move to whatever town they’re in?’ because I want my kids to be in their program. I want my kids to experience that broad, comprehensive education.”
* * *
Students, of course, are the prime focus of the CMP model.
“The CMP model really encourages a lot of deep reflection and engagement on the part of the kids to join in the music decision-making process,” Doherty says.
“Rather than a very teacher-centered setting – which can be a traditional view of a music classroom, where you’ve got a conductor on a podium, and that conductor makes the musical decisions – a CMP teacher works really hard to get the kids to be detectives about the music,” she adds, “to find things in the music that might not be initially obvious and to interpret and discover what might be the purpose behind a composer’s decision.”
Such engagement pushes students to realize that they are becoming experts at deciphering music, she says, “which is wonderful.”
“Music is another language, and sometimes when kids haven’t been exposed to it, they don’t always feel it’s accessible. This model really makes it accessible and also just very participatory on the part of the kids,” Doherty says.
“Besides just playing and singing, they’re being asked to analyze the music and discover compositional techniques and interpret what might be the different layers of meaning in the music,” she adds.
It fosters “a stronger classroom climate for many of the teachers because the kids are really going to feel in partnership with their conductor. That gets rid of a little bit of that hierarchy that you sometimes have in a classroom setting.”
“Kids are incredibly invested in this. Their voice is heard,” Little says. “They perform the music better. They think about music. They become better citizens and thinkers and noticers about the world around them through this thing we call music.”
* * *
Little provided them, and quickly banned them, to build anticipation.
Eventually, the musicians were asked to think about chocolate, about what awaited their taste buds within the foil. Then they were allowed to unwrap the chocolates, sniff them and, finally, nibble away.
The exercise illustrated how some composers structure the “tension” in their works – setting the stage, whispering musical hints of what’s to come, delaying the satisfaction and, at last, delivering the goods.
During the debriefing after the lesson, when Jenks asked the workshop participants to discuss what they’d just experienced, she described Little’s chocolates as “props” to support his multiple teaching strategies.
Naturally, she told the group, “everything pointed to one of his outcomes.” And when music teachers ably communicate why they select their musical repertoire and how to play it, she went on, “the kids are going to be able to articulate that.”
Clearly defined outcomes that pinpoint what student-musicians can perform, and what they should know about music, unleash what Little calls “the affective dimension.”
It’s “what kids can understand about their lives or greater humanity,” Little says. It’s when they can “make connections between the arts, or make connections between themselves and the music, or within groups,” he adds, “which is actually pretty unique in the world of music education.”
* * *
Members of the IL-CMP committee chose NIU as the site of their workshop because of its prime location and outstanding facilities.
Several university units, including the School of Music, Outreach Conference Services and Housing and Dining, collaborated to ensure a successful event – the first of its kind for the school housed inside the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
For the workshoppers, coming to NIU meant more than giving up a week of summer: The teachers were working in the Music Building classrooms from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. each of the four days.
But the rewards of “learning by doing” – and there’s another opportunity next summer from July 18 through July 22 – extend beyond the transformation of their teaching.
The practical, of course, are the professional development hours.
On the less-tangible side of the ledger are the accommodations – most stayed in the nearby and recently renovated Gilbert Hall – and the Wednesday night reception featuring the music of the Patische Steel Ensemble and its lineup of current and former students of NIU’s steel pan program.
Greatest of all, though, is the camaraderie. The participants are “some of the finest music teachers in the state,” Doherty says.
“They were drawn to (CMP) because the model has an over-40-year history in Wisconsin of creating thoughtful, reflective, highly successful music educators,” she says. “We’re building up on that by starting our own group here in Illinois.”
Sycamore’s Eggleson, who’s about to begin his fifth year in the classroom, treasures the opportunity to bounce ideas off cohorts from other schools, take their advice and perhaps pass it on.
Such opportunities are not as common for teachers in the arts.
“We kind of exist as islands at our schools. There’s maybe one band teacher or one choir teacher at our schools,” Little says. “To do all of this in a community is pretty special.”