Beware High-Stakes Centralized Testing in Music Education

"Dogma" turns creative, artistic, esoteric, and experimental work into rules, laws, and codexes, and results in more passive, less critical, less inventive participants. "Theory" remains more open, more fluid, more critical, more accepting of new and alternative perspectives, ideas, and explanations. Dogma tells us the way things are. Theory suggests interpretations of the way things might be.

Music Theory in its best form is an open-minded attempt to describe what happens or happened and why. It is part science, part art, part wisdom, part interpretation, and part guesswork. It is widely participatory and decentralized, with new ideas and perspectives popping up all over the world. It allows variation and endless anomalies and exceptions and things that don't fit or make sense. It evolves, it re-evaluates, it seeks, and it engages the whole music profession. It inspires, it ignites people to think and rethink and think better.

Music Theory in its worst form is right and wrong answers on a test. It's an attempt to nail things down and remove difference of opinion and room for error. Testing promotes and reinforces dogma. Testing puts things in boxes, even when they don't fit, and forces square pegs into round holes. Testing tells us whether our thoughts and ideas are right or wrong. It defines what's important and decides what's not worth spending time on. It nitpicks. It is authoritative, it offers rewards for thinking correctly and consequences for thinking differently. It is managed by a few, and followed by many. It consolidates power and can disengage potential innovators.

The increasing pervasiveness of testing in our music profession entrenches rule-based, authoritarian, and more narrow outlooks in music and performing arts education. It stifles creativity among the creative. It rewards students for complying rather than for experimenting, for pretending to know rather than actually to know. It encourages students to seek experts rather than to become authors of expertise. It disenfranchises and widens opportunity gaps and inequities. Unwittingly, testing and the associated reward systems nurture a more competitive culture that will include cheating and corruption (already widespread throughout academia at the University level). Testing will weaken innovation in teaching methods and materials and pedagogy because teachers will become obliged to teach to the test. Textbook companies will take over and their overpriced products will become essential. Education costs will increase but the money won't be going to teachers. Teachers will make poor curriculum, lesson planning, sequencing-of-instruction, and repertoire decisions and choices in order to accommodate the tests and test schedules.

In all of education, where dogma and testing increase, so do complacency, the necessity of and insistence on student compliance, and quitting. Creativity, analysis, collaboration, and thoughtful learning decrease. We as a profession should learn from the negative effects of high-stakes, centralized testing on general education. As in general education, more and more emphasis and reliance on this type of centralized testing will not have a long-term net positive impact on music education, including piano instruction, nor on music-making in general.

It's Humanity's Music

As music educators, let’s drop the terms, “Western Music” and "World Music."

Today, Western Music and World Music have become code words, and their meanings are unclear at best, hegemonic and othering at worst. They are virtually impossible to define, yet their use potentially has alienating and even noxious effects in the music classroom.

Let’s try to define the terms.

What is Western Music? Is it music in the West? (Western music is performed and composed all over the world.) Is it music that originated in the West? (There are/were peoples in the West that are considered not to be a part of Western music culture and tradition.) Does it have something to do with music notation? (Western music notation has evolved over the centuries and has had many very different variations, including such representations as Gregorian chant notation, shape notes, guitar tablature, lead sheets, and graphic scores. What defines Western music notation? And, some World music uses variations of Western music notation.) Is it music played on certain instruments? (World music can be found composed or performed on virtually every known instrument.)

What about World Music? Is it non-Western music? (In order to answer this we need to define Western Music.) Is it music from other countries besides North America and Europe? (There is non-Western music in North America and Europe. People in countries of the East compose Western music. And aren't Western countries part of the world?) Is it music that sounds different from what we're used to? (First of all, who’s “We”? And, doesn’t some Western music also sound different from what we’re used to?) Is it music that is not notated? (Cadenzas in classical music are often not notated. Jazz improvisation is not notated. And, some World music is notated.) Is it music that uses certain instruments? (Bongo Drums? Sitar? Steel Drums? These are used in Western music.) Music with unusual rhythms? (Western music frequently introduces new and unusual rhythms.) Music with unusual scales or modes? (Western music frequently introduces new and unusual scales and modes.)

Let’s keep trying.

Some might say it's about sound, or rhythm. Does World music have a particular sound? For example, do we expect lots of drumming? If so, then, is the high school band drum line World music? Is the elementary school bucket drumming ensemble World music? Does it change anything if students are bucket drumming to Top 40 songs or reading music notation while bucket drumming?

Some might say it’s about location, perhaps East versus West? But there are few places on Earth that don't have citizens learning Bach and Chopin and Scott Joplin on the piano, and composing in both classical and contemporary styles, including orchestral music, choral music, jazz, avant-garde, music for TV, film, concert halls, church, etc. And writing and performing popular music in near infinite variety with all kinds of instrumentation and vocalism, including acoustic and electronic with amplification. Is the pop music of India, Korea, The Philippines, Mozambique, Iran, Jamaica, or Brazil considered World music? (The designation of each of these countries as Western or non-Western seems unclear.)

Some might say World music has certain features, such as chant. Perhaps chanting with few or no instruments is an attribute of world music? Tibetan chant is considered World music? Yet, Gregorian chant is considered Western music. There is a capella in Western music and World music. Is beat boxing World music?

Some might say World music is from a particular period. Like older folk music. Perhaps Native American folk music written in the 1700's is World music? In that case, is colonial American folk music written in that same time period also World music? Why is folk music written on the prairie by Native Americans World music, but folk music written on the prairie by European Americans Western music? Is Hungarian folk music of that period World music? Does World music have something to do with ancestry?

So, when we try to define Western music and World music, we can’t. And, we run into problems. We use “We” a lot. But who’s “We”? And who's not “We”?

Western Music is glorious, genius, and greatness. World Music is… well, complicated.

And this brings us to the next part of the problem: Hegemony. Hegemony involves the perspective that there is an Us and a Them, a We and a They, and that We are what’s normal or standard, and They are what’s different or unusual. We measure and define Them by Our standards and interpretations. When we talk about Western music, we use hegemonic terms, such as “common practice,” “standard repertoire,” and “the Canon.” We then lump everything else into World music: the “Other.” When we teach the history of Western music, we get excited about how much there is to be proud of: creative geniuses, talented superstars, great works, great masters, important eras, and connections to significant cultural and political events and milestones. When we teach World music, there are lots of unknowns, and perhaps we’re even a little scared to talk about it. We don’t really know their geniuses, their great works, or their important eras. We’re unsure about lots of things, we lump things together, and it’s a very broad topic (a whole World of music.) It’s interesting, yes, and exotic, adventurous, imaginative, and different.

We can’t define the two categories of music, but we know viscerally that it’s “Ours” and “Theirs.” (Have we defined “We” yet?)

The term "Urban" used in education is often a code word. As in "urban school." There's an element of "city" in there, but more importantly, what many hear is: Inner city, low income, high crime, depressed and devalued, less-literate and hard-to-educate students with behavior problems and absentee parents, and probably, not-white. (“Urban school” probably doesn’t invoke an image of a wealthy private mostly-white college prep school in downtown Beverly Hills.) In a similar way, has "World music" become for many unofficial code for less-sophisticated, less-civilized, indigenous, unwritten, less-literate/less-educated, more-improvisatory, lower-income, and probably, non-white?

When we teachers, with good intentions, decide to program (to perform, compose, arrange, orchestrate, etc.) World music, we think of peoples or places, and we likely unwittingly begin boxing in and stereotyping them. Native Americans have loved music in the style of, say, Johnny Cash, for example, with elements of bluegrass and R&B and country/Western and rock and other popular styles for decades, and their musical artists have been composing and songwriting in these and other styles for as long as not-Native Americans have. In fact, they have been writing "Western style" music since the 1500s. They composed, arranged, and performed music in North American churches, for example, since colonial times. And they had their unique folk music and chants as well. Yet when we see an example of Native American music in a music class, concert, or piano book, that's none of what we usually hear. We are more likely to hear instead trite and simplistic musical inventions by Western composers based on the imaginations and prejudices of Western Hollywood filmmakers and scorers.

And this is true of many other peoples and places: so-called Asian music, or worse, "Oriental" music, Egyptian music, Arabian music, Island music, and the derogatory "Gypsy" music. When we as music educators program World music, we're too-likely programming music sounds in repertoire arranged by Westerners imagining the music of "exotic" peoples and places based on, or at least influenced by, a century of Hollywood make-believe and often negative and demeaning stereotypes.

The term "Western" is problematic for more than music. The whole concept of Western Civilization (as in textbooks that might read, "The Rise of Western Civilization") is problematic. There is not really any such thing as Western Civilization. The rise of global Civilization since the dawn of man has been collaborative over wide swaths of Earth, in every place and in every age. Peoples of the Eastern parts of the world were intricately and cooperatively involved in developing the Western parts of the world and vice versa. What differentiates East from West, really? If it’s not geography, or even culture, then it's more likely physical features including skin tone. I think, if we take a hard look, we’ll see that what is meant by Western Civilization, really, is White Civilization. I can’t figure out any other way to characterize or define Western vs Eastern. Without consideration of physical characteristics and skin tone, West and East are too integrated, too overlapping, and too collaborative. (We should end the concept of Western Civilization in all textbooks, too.)

So back to the hard question in music education: Who is “We,” and who is “not We,” who is “Other?” Who is Western, and who is World? The hard answer, perhaps the true answer, is: We means White, and Other means non-White. Western music means white people music, or music highly valued by white people, and non-Western music, or World music, means non-white people music, or music not highly valued by white people. Does any other attribute or set of attributes work as well in defining the difference in these two music categories? (If one thinks there is, let’s walk through it.)

So, "World Music" is a masked way of saying "Other Music," which is the way We make Our music at the center of the universe and Their music elsewhere. Hegemony. Our music is normal, the standard, and highly valued, and Other music is different-- interesting, perhaps, but different, non-standard, and not as highly valued. Our instruments, music, and notation are common practice, part of the tradition, part of the standard repertoire, the Canon; their instruments and notation are non-traditional, non-standard, outside the Canon. All this reinforces the feeling of the superiority of white traditions, inventions, culture, creativity, and example-setting.

We want to teach our students about their world, we want them to experience other people and cultures, we want them to be accepting of other people and cultures, but in all this lies the rub: why do we consider them and their music “Other” to begin with? If we’re in the USA, for example, why are the people of England or France considered fundamentally the same as us but the people of Nigeria or India fundamentally different? How is teaching about Gregorian chant Western music, and teaching about Tibetan chant World music? Why does teaching tabla or steel drum or snare drum or bongo drum or bass drum or bucket drum or any other drum, including discussing their origin and traditions, require any distinction between Western music and World music?

The participation in and ongoing evolution of Western music is no longer white-only. People all over the world, including non-whites, perform Western music, compose Western music, mix and combine Western music with non-Western music, and contribute to Western music’s evolution. "We" can no longer claim ownership of this music. It would make no sense to try. But, "We" still claim ownership of the Canon and the Practice: its invention, its origin, its history, and its evolution up to recent times, and its corresponding perceived greatness, and we still place it at the center of the universe, and teach students that everything else is Other: World music.

In truth, there’s no logic in what we consider Western music. Western music evolved over centuries with input from many cultures, sometimes in very unexpected, different, and even much-hated varieties. Consider the introduction of serial or 12-tone music. Would that compositional style have been accepted into the Western Canon if it were developed by composers in India or Thailand? No, it would be World music. What if the sitar had been invented by entrepreneurs in London or Los Angeles? Might it now be a familiar instrument in Western country music? Western music theory includes a variety of non-diatonic scales, including pentatonic, blues, whole tone, and octatonic. Why can’t we add other scales to the list? Why do some scales have to be considered Western music scales and others World music scales?

So, as we can’t define Western music versus World music in any other way than white music history and tradition versus non-white music history and tradition, then I think it's time we reevaluate the concepts of Western music and World music altogether. As teachers especially, we should avoid othering, and we should avoid reinforcing a white-centric status quo, hegemony, and egoism. Instead, we should be inclusive of all peoples and their music traditions and cultures, not as a very interesting Them, but as a valuable and important part of Us. There is no center of the universe, and even if there were, no one culture should claim it, especially white culture.

Western music, in truth, is just one contributing part of an evolving World music, just as each and every other music culture is a contributing part. All the world's music should be seen as important influences on the entire body of humanity's music.

Goal-Driven Music Education

I see this question posed frequently by elementary, early-childhood, and general music teachers, in different forms: "How do I fill up the time?" I think this question comes from thinking about music education as a series of activities. Activities in the music classroom seem to be a model favored by our profession, lots of the curriculum, lots of lesson plans, encouraged in music teacher preparation programs, etc. Many teachers and curriculum designers strive to develop activities that touch on music concepts or ideas or standards, in an introductory or exploratory way. And so we need activities to fill up the time.

If we're struggling to figure out how to fill up the time, I think a goal-oriented or goal-driven approach can help. One where we set learning objectives and strive to ensure each student achieves those learning objectives. Where we're not simply touching on topics but practicing them and learning more deeply so that students actually develop real musical knowledge and skills, that can then be put into practice in performance. If we sit down and make a list of all the things we wished we could teach a grade level in a year, so that each student became proficient in a grade-level of musicianship, we would quickly see that there is no where near enough time to accomplish this, in whatever time we had -- even if we had two 90-minute weekly classes, for example. But doing this also will demonstrate how easy it is to fill up time: with teaching and developing real usable, presentable skills. There won't be enough of it to accomplish all we want to accomplish.

If we move away from the introductory, exploratory, activity-based model (which often feels more like entertaining kids rather than teaching music to students) and strive to teach real musicianship with the goal to develop real musical skills in all students, we definitely will have the problem of not having enough time! But we won't have the problem of trying to figure out how to fill up the time!

Approaches to Music Note Reading

There are a variety of approaches to teaching note reading. Probably any approach can be made to work by a skilled and devoted teacher and capable students. But with so many frustrated students and teachers that I encounter, and students that have studied for years but still cannot read notes on the staff, I think it’s important we all discover an approach that works well for us. I’m going to briefly mention a few of them, and then discuss my personal preferences.

There is the mnemonic approach. I don’t like this approach because the memorization is random and haphazard. There’s no inherent logic, there’s little or no student understanding of underlying structure, purpose, or intent, and there’s no recognition of useful patterns. Many students rely on the mnemonic for years and never truly memorize the grand staff notes or benefit from understanding their patterns.

There is the one-note-at-a-time approach. This week we learn C. We play songs with note C. Then next week we learn note D or G or some other note, one at a time, week after week. This approach is common in band and other instrumental ensemble methods, as well as some piano methods. It’s unnecessarily slow, tedious, (tortuous?), doesn’t take advantage of the powerful intelligence and capabilities of learners (that I see), and still doesn’t help students recognize patterns (except perhaps over a long period of time, eventually, when looking back and striving to make sense out of what was learned).

There are pattern-based approaches. These are the approaches I prefer. In many of the pattern-based approaches, students learn guide notes, and then learn patterns based off those guide notes. The most basic pattern is the music alphabet: A,B,C,D,E,F,G, going up, and G,F,E,D,C,B,A, going down. The clef signs point to one guide note each (treble clef = G, bass clef = F, alto clef = C, etc.). From these guide notes, students can quickly learn and memorize simple patterns: the note just above the guide note, the note just below the guide note; the scale going up and down, based on the music alphabet; intervals, triads, and more. Other guide notes, and other patterns, such as the pattern of C’s on the grand staff, can be useful and fun (for example, five C’s can be shown in an interesting mirror-image pattern that can be a useful memory aid for note reading).

When working with students, I use guide notes and then drill just a few notes related to the guide notes at a time. For example, treble clef G, A, and F; bass clef F, G, and E, Middle C, D, and B, etc. In a very short time students can learn 9 notes, and then 15, and sooner than you might expect, the whole grand staff including several ledger lines in each direction. If one note is memorized, then the note above and note below can be instantly recognized also – if students understand the pattern. It also help if students learn a little bit about the history and development of the staff, lines and spaces, pitch direction, clefs, etc., so they understand the underlying structure of the staff, its logic and its relationships.

Flash cards and online note identification apps can be useful, but not too early, because they are likely random and haphazard. If using flash cards or apps, limit the notes to just a few at a time, as discussed above, until those few notes are learned solid. Then add more notes, and build from there. Don’t teach just one note a week, but also, don’t simply jump into the whole deck and have students frustrated and guessing, or worse, trying to use the dreaded mnemonics crutch!

I like paper and pencil, along with other modes of learning (playing, gaming, speaking, audiating, online apps, visual aids, flash cards, and internal memory). I don’t skip paper and pencil; I think the work students do on paper helps to speed up and strengthen the memory.

If you’d like some FREE note identification worksheets that guide students through guide note and pattern-based learning and memorization process, visit the page linked below. There’s everything you need (and I am adding more worksheets regularly, including other topics)! You’re students will be reading the full grand staff in weeks or months, not years!

(Free means truly free. I do not ask for email nor collect any information. Simply download the pdf files and they are yours to print, photocopy, and use in your studio, school, or private teaching practice.)

The Beat of a Different Drummer

The reason we should strive to eliminate stereotypical, inauthentic “Native American” music from the teaching repertoire is because these pieces tend to portray Native Americans as “primitive” – past and present. In doing this, we continue to oppress a people even in our contemporary, striving-to-be-more-enlightened world. Native American culture today is modern and contemporary. Native American people participate in the arts, sciences, education, medicine, engineering, technology, fashion, and pop music.

(Check out the website for the Native American Music Awards:

When we educate students about Native American culture, we should actually start here!

Now, Native Americans have older traditions, yes, just as other cultures have older traditions. When we teach older traditions, those traditions should be presented as authentically as possible; they should be honest, they should portray the cultures mostly in a positive light, and they should not contain stereotypes. For example, it is both dishonest and unfair consistently to portray traditional white European and American men as forward-thinking, capable, inventive, happy, modern, winning in battle (with all the songs that go with these presentations), and then too-consistently to portray traditional Native American and other minority people as primitive, on the losing side, child-like, being taught by missionaries, ponderous, weak and sad, even mistreated, sidelined, separatist, old-fashioned, uninterested in the modern world.

I love folk music, and I believe we should teach students all kinds of folk music. But, real folk music! Not trite stereotypical music invented by dominant-society composers for the purpose of educating dominant-society students, ignoring the real culture and people, then and now. So when we include Native American folk music, it should be as authentic as possible and not derived from “Hollywood-inspired” misrepresentations. And we should credit the Native American culture, and thank them for the music they passed down, and acknowledge their ongoing contributions to contemporary and popular music.

One more thing: Want to have open-fifth drum beats in a song? Almost every culture uses drums! Let’s use some of those other cultures and not uncouthly stereotype one group!

Here are a few pieces that strive to be more authentic of Native American tradition, for beginners (could be late beginner, could be taught partly by rote, or full reading, and they have some technical things that could be worked on with students).

Also, here’s a song with a drum beat that is Scottish!

Bebi Notsa (Baby Sleep) (Creek), Song of Happiness (Navajo), Macochi Pitentzin (Aztec), Aiken Drum (Scottish). Here are links to my website and also to Sheet Music Plus.

Order from Presto! It’s Music Magic Publishing website:

Order from Sheet Music Plus website:

Bebi Notsa (Baby Sleep) (Creek)

Song of Happiness (Navajo)

Macochi Pitentzin (Aztec)

Aiken Drum (Scottish)

Confidence, Not Fear!

One of the most important states of mind that we can help instill in our students is confidence. When a child or adult begins piano or other music lessons, they are often filled with excitement and anticipation, but too frequently also, fear. Fear of making mistakes, fear of looking bad, fear of feeling inadequate, fear of being perceived as having no talent... The worst thing we can do as teachers is to confirm or worsen those fears. We should help to alleviate those fears, to mitigate them, and ultimately to develop and restore confidence.

As a piano teacher, one way I strive to instill confidence at the piano is by introducing songs that encourage big, free movements of the hands and arms while playing at the keyboard, early on. Too many methods start students out with narrow, cramped finger positions, where the student's fingers seem glued to the keys, and students learn to feel afraid to move out of position or else lose their place. This results not only in timid playing but also introduces tension and teaches bad habits such as finger wiggling and crawling.

The best methods, including my own (Presto! It's Piano Magic), introduce students to songs that encourage freedom of movement, graceful swinging motions led by the wrist, hand movements flowing from the shoulders and arms, and allow students to play up and down the piano keyboard, getting comfortable and confident right from the start. It's fun, and young students feel really big doing it! Students avoid developing bad habits that will have to be corrected later, and learn tension-free playing technique. And, so importantly, we begin to cultivate confidence, poise, and self-assurance in our students' practicing and playing. No fear! :)

Guided Practice in Teaching

I hear many teachers lament that if a student doesn't practice (adequately), they will make no progress, and the same lesson will be repeated over and over, and lessons will be no fun for the student or the teacher.

I have to wonder, then, what is being taught at the lesson? If a student has weekly lessons, they should learn new things every week, regardless of how much they practice. And if they learn new things every week, by definition they are making progress, and are not getting the same lesson repeated each week. And, the learning and teaching of new things should be fun, challenging, and rewarding for both student and teacher, always!

In my education and career I have experienced many teachers, observed many teachers, and coached a few teachers. I have noticed that a large number of teachers follow (basically) a "perform, critique, assign" process in the lesson. Student performs. Teacher critiques the performance and works with student on a few things related to the performance. This could repeat for multiple pieces or exercises. If student's progress is satisfactory, teacher assigns new material. Otherwise, no new material. (So, progress or no progress is essentially a consequence of satisfactory performance.) If there is something within the material a student is unfamiliar with, teacher will explain/teach. (So, teaching is often coincidental, fleeting, possibly of secondary importance, or may not occur at all.)

Consider an alternative process that might be called, "teach, practice," that can work very well for all students, but especially for students who don't practice enough at home and for students with anxiety or other challenges and struggles where the conventional strategies don't work as well or result in disappointment and frustration (and too often animosity toward students and parents).

Lessons begin with learning something new. A planned lesson. This can include review of prior knowledge, reinforcement, scaffolding of concepts and skills, etc. But always something new. Then, practice. Drills, repetition, playing small exercises, off-instrument work, ear training, listening and analysis, practicing small sections of repertoire. The practice can be all about getting better at things already known, or also about learning new things, but it's real practice, not performance. Then, the assignments flow from this practice in the lesson: essentially, to do more of what we've been doing together, on your own. But, whether they do or not, the student has learned new things and gotten better at some things in the lesson. They never, ever, walk away empty handed. The parent never, ever, wastes their money.

Performance grows out of the practice in the lessons when students are ready. They may be eager to perform at some point. Teacher may want to challenge them at some point. The performance for the teacher should result in positive feedback, and then the teacher will know what to practice with the student (this is formative assessment). No need for critique, per se. No need for disappointment and frustration and animosity.

Teacher teaches and gives much guided practice with student. That's the lesson. Student may or may not practice independently at home. But they will make progress. And the chance that they will grow to love music and practice more on their own down the road remains. And we're really teaching, not simply assigning students to go learn on their own, and get consequences of "no new assignment/no learning" if they don't do what they were previously assigned well enough, or don't perform adequately for the teacher.

Try this and I can virtually guarantee every student will make progress. Even more progress if you're teaching them things they really want to learn and in ways they can relate to and find relevant. And let's never say negative things to colleagues about students, even if they don't practice. It's our job to reach them, to teach them, to help them grow... every lesson!

Making Music Begins with Joy!

The root of learning music, of making music, including at the piano, should be joy. Once joy is firmly established, and, well, enjoyed by the student, then it's time to layer on challenge, and complexity, and the rewards that come from struggle and hard work. If we begin with complexity, right and wrong, errors and mistakes, struggle and hard work, we run the risk of removing the joy from music-making early on, and possibly for life.

In our society many (most!) enjoy listening to music, but too few enjoy making music. As a music teacher, I've decided to own that. Almost every day it seems I hear someone lament that they are "not musical." Often they tell me it's a teacher that told them so, a teacher that gave up on them, or that they gave up themselves because it was too hard.

How is it possible that anyone is not musical? It's not! How is it possible that making music is too hard? It shouldn't be! Our primary function as teachers should be to help our students experience joy in making music from the start. Everything else, including getting better at making music, seems secondary and conditional. If not, it's putting the cart before the horse, and of course both horse and cart get hurt.

So how do we help all students find joy in making music from the very start? We meet students where they are, we learn what our students' goals are, we help them achieve their goals, we help them make music they love, we offer challenges when they are ready to accept challenges, but we move at a pace that keeps the joy alive!