Thinking About Standards

I just got back from an excellent conversation about education with a colleague and friend, and I want to capture my thoughts both "on paper" and "out there" in the world. A lot of our conversation comes from the experiences we have been having teaching this year. Personally, it is a lot of different things coming to a head for me. Whether it is leaving next here, missing out on the curriculum review process, and thinking about my legacy at Centennial, or the professional learning we are doing as a staff and district, or the new beginnings I will have in Charlottesville and as a DMA student in music education at Boston University. I guess you could call this a more evolved version of my "philosophy of music education." Here goes:

As I think about what I want my students to know and be able to do in my class, I think I can boil it down to four broad standards:

Tonal Literacy Rhythmic Literacy Instrument Literacy Ensemble Literacy

Part of this belief comes from our own power standards developed in 2012-2013. The team that went through that curriculum review process categorized their standards under similar headings: Rhythm/Beat/Meter Competency, Tonal Literacy, Expression, and Ensemble. We have further prioritized those headings and their power standards for each grade level from 6-12.

Part of this believe also comes as a reaction to the National Core Arts Standards for Traditional and Emerging Ensembles. If you aren't familiar with the National Core Arts Standards, you can read my summary blog post or visit their website. In my opinion, I believe the National Core Arts Standards try to make each of our courses the be all-end all of music education. I do not think the NCAS reflect all of the skills necessary to use those courses as a vehicle to teach music.

I'm going to describe each of my four broad standards in the order of importance that I find them and through the vehicle that I know best: band.

Instrument Literacy

I start with Instrument Literacy because of the "sound before sight" theory of teaching music. I believe that if our students understand fundamentals of how their instrument works, they will better understand the other literacies I have identified as standards. And these will have some broad generalities from the family of instruments, as well as specifics as we get down into each individual instrument.

Let's take brass instruments as an example. What fundamental principles do brass players need to understand? Breathing is a broad concept that would apply to every instrument. Producing a sound through buzzing applies solely to brass instruments (and is a controversial topic amongst brass players, I know). Manipulating the embouchure to control pitch includes the buzz, oral cavity, tongue position, and air speed, and again applies across the brass family. Using the tongue to control articulation and using air to control dynamics applies across multiple families as well. At the highest levels, the synthesis of these skills would encompass our current Expression standard: Identify, label, define, and perform dynamics, articulations, and tempo markings and Make expressive decisions based on historical context, genre, and style.

Then we get into some instrument specifics. What if we taught our students the chromatic pattern on their brass instrument before we showed them what that mess of notes looks like? Remember when you first figured out how to produce a sound on your instrument? Didn't you want to see what all those buttons/slide positions did? I believe students should understand that by making the instrument longer (position 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 or valves 0-2-1-12-23-13-123), they can make the pitch go lower. Add in an understanding of shelves (register), and they can use their ears to hear how this pattern works across their whole instrument. You can even include learning around pitch tendencies for valve combinations or certain registers. Then when we add the complexity of a fourth valve, double horn, or F attachment, students understand how the instrument works and don't have to "relearn" a fingering system.

Tangent about pitch tendencies. I remember being so frustrated as a student when my directors talked about pitch tendencies. Even in college methods courses. How do they know that 4th line D on trumpet always tends flat? What if our students understood how the harmonic series worked and that all notes on certain partials will have similar tuning tendencies? What if we taught them to hear those tendencies? That is an excellent segue into the next standard of

Tonal Literacy

Our K-12 music PLC did an excellent job of designing on a system for teaching tonality and rhythm to all of our students whether they be in general music, band, or choir (we don't have orchestra in our district). For tonality, we agreed to teach using solfege with movable do and la-based minor. While I like the system we use (except for some complications in music theory with la-based minor), I do not think you necessarily have to use that system. What matters is that there IS a system that gets supported throughout all of your music programs.

So what do I think students should be able to do with tonality? I think all of our students should understand how the musical alphabet works across the grand staff regardless of instrument. This would also include the concepts of flats lower the pitch and fingeringsharps raise the pitch and fingering, and naturals cancel out a flat/sharp. They should be able to use key signature to find do. Tricks that we currently use to help them: the farthest flat is fa, the second-to-last flat is do, sharp Sally sat on a ti, or BEADGCF. They should tie the key signature to their understanding of fingerings to know how key signature affects fingers, extending to "new" flats and sharps being on fa and ti, respectively. As they get older, they should be able to identify tonal center, specifically if a selection is in major or minor, but could extend to modes at higher levels as well. Here are some resources I made for my classrooms as a result of this thinking:

If we do a good job of training their ears at a younger level, do you think they would hear when they play te instead of ti? It would at least be a start to them hearing it later down the road. Perhaps, too, if we haven't drilled in the key of just Concert Bb before moving on to Concert Eb or F, we won't get so many of those mistakes. Ok, moving to a different soapbox...

Rhythmic Literacy

Our K-12 music PLC agreed to teach rhythm using takadimi. I LOVE IT, but just like with our tonal system, the important piece is that you have a system supported throughout all your music programs. Reinforce one another.

Students should understand simple meter (divides into two) and compound meter (divides into three) as a concept. In takadimithe beat is called ta, regardless of the meter. Students should also understand the difference between beatdivision, and subdivision and how they relate to the syllables used in takadimi:

  Simple Meter Compound Meter
Beat ta ta
Division ta di ta ki da
Subdivision ta ka di mi ta va ki di da ma

All of these concepts should occur before seeing rhythms. Then we can show students the rhythm tree. As I dug through an image search looking for a rhythm tree, I really struggled to find one I liked, so I mocked up my own:


This graphic does an excellent job of showing some of the groupings of 8th- and 16th-notes. How many students do you know that confuse four beamed 8th-notes with four beamed 16th-notes? Or that mess up an 8th-rest followed by three 8th-notes because the three 8ths are beamed together? To sandwich this paragraph in positivity, I also like how the rows of this graphic could be layered against my table above of beatdivision, and subdivision to demonstrate time signatures outside of the realm where the quarter note gets the pulse.

What other rhythm concepts do students need? Augmentation dot means three divisions. "But I learned it as an augmentation dot adds half of the value of the note to which it is attached," you say? I agree with you, proper grammarian, but how many kids can transfer that concept across dotted half-, quarter-, 8th-, and 16th-notes? My definition transfers across simple and compound meter. A dotted half-note always equals three quarter-notes, regardless of time signature. A dotted 8th-note always equals three 16th-notes, regardless of time signature.

Students also need to. understand the possible permutations. Here are some mockups I did to help them see that in the most commonly occurring time signatures:

Ensemble Literacy

Here is where I need to do more learning. I have some vague beliefs, but I do not (yet) have them solidified with sources to back them up. Right now, our ensemble standard reads: Apply learned musical performance, literacy, and critical thinking skills to the music making process with various sizes of ensembles. I think that is a good synthesis of what we want our student musicians to ultimately be able to do, but how do you even begin to assess that statement?

This year, I did a few small ensemble projects using flex band pieces (post forthcoming) to help my students work on performing in chamber ensembles and develop rehearsal strategies. Together, we took our Wind and Percussion Rubric (first image below) and developed what we thought each category would look like at the ensemble level.

While I agree with some of the choices they made, I don't really yet know how to measure their ability to demonstrate those skills. I believe the places I need to look next are how state music associations and music publishers determine levels of difficulty for published literature. For example, what makes a Grade 3 piece different from a Grade 4 piece? What Instrument Skills and Ensemble Skills are necessary to perform an Advanced piece compared to a Medium Advanced? I also believe that at the highest levels, students need to be able to determine these skills with little to no guidance from the director.


This post feels like a bit of a ramble from my soapbox, but I wanted to capture my thoughts from the previous few days conversations. Hopefully I can use this as a conversation starter and a catalyst for further inquiry into how these philosophies could work. I definitely invite your input!


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.