Using Your Voice

People often ask me which instrument I play when I first explain my interest in music cognition. Some may see my response, my voice, as a non-answer, but I believe singing or your voice is just a valid an instrument as a violin, piano, or oboe. There is still so much I need to learn about using my instrument, but I am convinced as I continue to read research from Daniel Levitin and, more recently, Cassandra Sheppard and Sophia Efthimiou, that it is a valid instrument for study and for teaching the benefits of music cognition.

Last year, researcher Cassandra Sheppard shared her thoughts and results from a study on singing: Singing for others creates a calm positive energy that seems to make negativity not so present. Singing in a group creates a bond, can synchronize heartbeats, and can harness the strength of the group rather than the weakness of individuals.

Sophia Efthimiou, a singer and music instructor, explains in her TED Talk, “Singing Ourselves Home” that our voice is the only instrument “that’s inside the body”. In one way, using our voice is unique, but in another, it’s an instrument that everyone can use if they engage in the activity. Efthimiou explains that there are very few speaking individuals that have a legitimate inability to sing – you can’t call yourself tone deaf if you are able recognize a song!

So the voice is an instrument, though, it doesn’t fall into any one category of instruments. At the same time, the voice requires many of the same skills that other instruments do. Efthimiou explains,

When we sing, we are consciously controlling our breath and our larynx to create and sustain certain pitches, and we blend that with rhythm and poetry to create songs.

Similar to Efthimiou’s statement that singing is unique as a corporal instrument, singing is also unique as one of the oldest forms of music. In Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, published in 2007, he writes,

In our hunter-gatherer or forager days, we had to band together in order to protect ourselves from predators or enemy tribes and one of the evolutionary forces behind that was singing together around a campfire. And people who sing together experience a release of the chemical oxytocin; and oxytocin causes feelings of trust to be increased and causes you to feel more socially bonded to the people you’re around.

I do have a goal of learning a SECOND instrument in 2018, but I’m finally feeling satisfied that I do already “play” one instrument.

Advocacy and Cognition (2017 National NAfME in-service Conference, Day 4), Part 1

This conference went faster than I thought. It’s already the last day, and I’m wishing their research conference (March 2018) was starting tomorrow! The National Association for Music Education has provided me so much information I can take home and implement into my short-term and long-term plans.

Today, I attended two sessions – one on advocacy and one on cognition. The seminar on cognition appeared to be the only one at this conference that dealt with music cognition.

Credit: Washington University in St Louis Magazine

While the World Class Minds workshop did provide a basic overall background of how music can be correlated with improved cognition, I was most impressed with Dr. Aurelia Hartenberger‘s emphasis on instilling and improving students’ creativity, which she explained through the individualist approach and sociocultural approach. The individualist approach, which includes Jean Piaget’s experimental cognitive psychology and Gordon Allport’s personality psychology, may be best beneficial to those outside of school, but the sociocultural approach can greatly improve k-12 music classes.

Hartenberger (2017) defines the sociocultural approach as one where “groups collectively generate innovation”. It is a study of “creative people working together in social and cultural systems”. Explaining how the creative process can take place in the classroom, Hartenberger (2017) offered these eight stages:

  1. Find and formulate the problem so that it is more likely to lead to a creative solution.
  2. Acquire knowledge relevant to the problem.
  3. Gather a broad range of potentially related information.
  4. Take time off for incubation.
  5. Generate a large variety of ideas.
  6. Combine ideas in unexpected ways.
  7. Select the best ideas, applying relevant criteria.
  8. Externalize the idea using materials using materials and representations.

One thing I appreciated in her presentation was that a process can’t be considered creativity unless it is expressed in some way.

So, how does a teacher ask creativity of music students? Hartenberger offered a few examples.

Credit: Wuhuiru55/Wikimedia Commons

In a music appreciation class, rather than just teach the students about classical music, she instructed them to develop an instrument and a composition. This is a huge ask for non-music students, but it required creativity as students worked together to learn about sounds, rhythms, instruments, and notation. In another instance, she offered asking students how can they best strategize for optimal rehearsal. The goal is giving the students autonomy to create and explain their music.

Wow, explaining this one seminar took a whole blog! Look to my next one to talk about the last things I learned about advocacy.

Advocacy and Littles (2017 National NAfME in-service Conference, Day 2)

Today, I participated in two sessions on advocacy and two sessions in music education and littles — littles being the youngest kids from birth to grade 3.

I loved the presentations on making music with young children.

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Missy Strong, who has worked in music education involving Pre-K through 8th grade, introduced me to the concept of proprioceptive sense. This was a new term for me. She defined it as “body awareness from signals sent by muscles and joints in the brain” and “the sense of body position, motion, and equilibrium in space and time”. By the time, she finished her talk on this one area, I almost felt that I was suffering from a lack of proprioceptive sense! However, the most important part of this discussion was how music, participation in music, from an early age can help develop the proprioceptive sense, which while an innate ability, sometimes does not develop normally in some children. For these young students, music can be an incredible resource to help them gain at least some proprioceptive mastery.

Dr. Strong added that music is instrumental (yes, pun intended) for developing a child’s fine and gross motor skills and the ability to self-regulate. She uses a combination of resources to incorporate into three simple steps for movement in music. Her inspiration is Dr. John Feierabend who developed the movement component of his First Steps in Music curriculum from the important work of Rudolf Laban. These three steps include movement exploration and warm up, movement for form and expression, and beat motions. At the end of the session, she provided links to  learn more about Dr. Feierabend’s work from the Feierabend Fundamentals Facebook page and a membership opportunity to join others who utilize this method.

While I have had some experience in advocacy, NAfME has educated me even more. Another influential seminar for me was about working with administration. While the seminar was directed at teachers, I still found it useful. Brian Bubach,

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the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Speech Committee Chair, instructed us to begin every negotiation with administrators the same way — present the number one reason for your program and list three things you already do to achieve that reason. Finally, name one thing that would improve your program. For me, reflecting on my goal of research of music cognition within education, I see my number one reason as “Music has application to every other academic area”. I realized that I haven’t taken as much action as I should be. For example, in addition to continuing research, I should be reaching out to schools that do and don’t currently have music programs; I should get active in all music associations; I should join my local PTAs; and I should network with local teachers. The thing I need is collaboration with my current network to create a proposal demonstrating the need for music education (for those schools that don’t have music programs) and advocating for the current needs of music teachers. Right now, that is my current short-term project.

Tomorrow, I will take additional courses focused on the variety available for children’s music classes and how PTAs (and me being a part of one) can best serve music programs.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend this conference.