Shared Fundamental Concepts

I’m very thankful for positive responses to my last blog post about Positive Psychology in Music Education. I’ve been utilizing the idea more often to good effect, both in my personal practice and in my teaching. Also since my last post, I began teaching horn at the All Newton Music School in Newton, MA! So far, it’s been a great place to teach. On January 10th, I’ll be performing with other brass and woodwind faculty at the school.

After pondering what I’ve left out of this blog over the past few years, it didn’t take very long to find a theme for this week’s post. The idea of “Shared Fundamental Concepts” was introduced to me once I started studying Music-in-Education at the New England Conservatory. The premise is quite simple: music shares fundamental concepts with a whole range of other disciplines, or abstracting musical concepts results in shared fundamental ideas with other disciplines. I’ve taken the following quote directly from a 2010 post by the Center for Music-in-Education and its project at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, which has since become an El Sistema influenced school here in Greater Boston: The description of shared concepts, shared strategies, shared context, shared representations, and shared assessment devices provide a good basic understanding of the idea.

…School adopts the Five Fundamental Processes (Listening, Creating, Performing, Inquiring, and Reflecting) intrinsic to fully engaged learning in music and any other subject area.  Interdisciplinary Lessons are designed to help students understand (1) fundamental concepts shared between music and language, math, science, history, movement, visual art, social-emotional development, and technology, and (2) key interdisciplinary features shared among all disciplines including:  Shared Concepts (proportion, sequence, part-whole relationships, symmetry), Shared Strategies (sorting, counting, collaboration, decoding, systems thinking), Shared Contexts (historical periods, cultural perspectives), Shared Representations (graphs, words, notations), and Shared Assessment Devices (performance assessment, tests, portfolios, rubrics).

What does all this mean in a practical context, or why am I bringing it up? Well, one reason is to combat the idea that being a musical artist means you have to have a pure talent for artistic, emotional expression. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I have a firm belief that being expressive and engaging an audience artistically is a cultivated skill (even though some may be more naturally adept than others at the start). Key tools for being expressive include understanding the world of the composer, having a deep grasp of music theory (in Europe and American music history, a complicated system of shared concepts and representations based on the harmonic series, a physical concept), and developing an ability to understand emotion and narrative. For classical musicians especially, technical skill on the instrument most be very deeply learned over countless hours in addition to the ability to engage artistically. Having a capacity to reflect and assess are also important.

If I could summarize: Artists aren’t born artists. There’s plenty of recent books that address the 10,000 rule and “learned talent.” While I feel terrible for advertising two books I haven’t yet read, I’ve heard good things about The Talent Code and Outliers

The other reason I’m writing about “Shared Fundamental Concepts” is to discuss good practices for training students. For the purpose of this post, I’ll address music notation as a way to explore learning. To start, I have to admit something: I hadn’t really thought of music notation as a graph before graduate school. But that’s what it is! Albeit, a slightly confusing graph with somewhat limited vertical visual support. You can see the movement in pitch based on the vertical placement of notes on the “staff,” the way a note looks depicts its duration, the bass cleff symbols at the left side of the example below tell valuable information about how to read it, and like in western writing, it is read left to right.

Excerpt from a piece by Thomas Lupo depicting three part counterpoint.

Excerpt from a piece by Thomas Lupo depicting three part counterpoint.

When I was first told, “we read music graphically” at NEC, I of course knew it to be true. But perhaps I’d never said it that way before. I just say “I read the music that I play,” which is true as long as I’m not improvising. But what if I’d learned about reading music differently? What if I’d been asked to create a method of reading music? More generally, are there effective ways to let learners explore musical concepts through their fundamentals shared with other disciplines? 

Many students are taught western notation through rote memorization and – perhaps overused – mnemonic devises (think “every good boy does fine” to learn the lines of the treble clef). I’d like to propose two other learning styles to help students create a deeper understanding of music notation at a younger age. The first is inquiry-based learning, and the second is learning through immersion. I’ll provide examples of each that relate to music notation.

The Montessori approach to music gets students to go through various well-controlled investigations, a very important part of inquiry-based learning. A key tool is the Montessori Bells,  a set of diatonic bells (bells that play a full scale) that are all visually identical. Students are set to the task of playing simple songs on the bells. Students experiment with bell placement, or how best to play each song. Eventually, students begin to put the bells in the order of the scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C). This deep understanding sets students up to with a great understanding of order and sequence in western music.

El Sistema relies to some extent on immersion learning, which you may have only heard of in relation to second-language learning. While immersion isn’t really mentioned, the “Nucleo,” or musical community for each El Sistema center, encourages young musicians to immerse themselves in musical learning for many, many hours each week. From the age of three, students are put into small ensembles with simple instruments. As they grow, they choose their main instrument and are constantly mentored by teachers and older students. Learning about music notation happens organically over a number of years of experimenting with rhythm, melody, and all the fundamentals of playing music. If you don’t know about El Sistema, you can find a document written by Eric Booth, an incredible arts educator and advocate, at this link:

I write about both the Montessori approach and the El Sistema approach with limited knowledge of both. I worked as an after-school enrichment teacher at a Montessori School, and I briefly worked coding the journals of El Sistema fellows through the Center for Music-in-Education. My preference has always been to personalize lesson plans and curriculum to help students explore the subject matter, but I find myself inspired by ideas from both programs. To me, the importance of inquiry based learning is that it lets students meet music on their own terms, exploring music’s connections to subjects about which they already know. Students who feel empowered to make music their own will grow naturally.


About Justin Stanley, Teaching-Artist
I'm a musician and educator based in Boston, MA.

One Response to Shared Fundamental Concepts

  1. Rita Stanley says:

    This makes perfect sense to me – and you know my lack of musical skills! Yes, read Gladwell’s Thee Outliers.

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