Feature Article – Your Teaching Voice in the Classroom: Take It Easy!
Keith Koster is Director of Music Education Studies at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in music education, and works with students completing their student teaching. Dr. Koster is the faculty advisor of the NAfME Collegiate chapter at Nazareth College.
The voice is one of our most important classroom tools. Whether demonstrating how a melodic or rhythmic passage should be performed, completing the day-to-day classroom business procedures, getting the students’ attention, or announcing reminders about an upcoming festival, is it possible to maximize our teaching effectiveness by using our voices less?
Take Care of Your Voice
On average, women and men speak some 16,000 words daily. We could assume that teachers talk 25% to 50% more than the average person, so that would put us somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000 words per day — close to six million words per year. New teachers often lose their voices by the end of the first week of school. It’s important to keep the vocal cords moist by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day. Water still works best. Also, use the breathing strategies associated with singing or playing a wind instrument, such as seeking a relaxed deep inhalation and exhalation. The hoarseness usually subsides once the beginning-of-the-school-year jitters start to ease, so tension may have a great deal to do with how we use our voices in the classroom.
Silence Is Essential
We may know teachers who seem fearful of silence, especially in their own classrooms. Outside of class, their voices can be heard as they make their way into the building from the parking lot, main office, teacher’s lounge, on their way out to the parking lot after school, and then at that weekly rehearsal later in the evening.
Perhaps these folks represent the Heldentenors or Wagnerian Sopranos of music educators. However, when we follow these teachers into their classrooms, more talking than learning may be taking place. Some say that those who talk incessantly do so as a way to maintain a sense of control or to ease tension or fear. Besides, the thought of prolonged silence in an ensemble classroom could mean that we’re not getting anything accomplished — therefore, we panic. Some teachers may avoid talking less in their classrooms because behavioral problems increase.
Silence is an essential part of music making. We should foster more of it in our classrooms. Increase the use of silence by incorporating music into a performance that depends on it. In ensembles, choose a few selections that are slow in tempo, and take extra time between phrases, releases, breath marks, and lifts to capture a moment of silence. There is no starker contrast than the contrast between sound and silence.
At the elementary level, a simple yet expressive reading of Eric Carle’s The Very Quiet Cricket can be a great place to start. Silence is an essential element of this wonderful story. Reading to children will allow them to experience the value of silence as you quietly turn each page. What children experience from the telling of this story can easily transfer to learning about how silence functions in music. Move to a few pieces that incorporate the use of silence by starting with Haydn’s Surprise Symphony or endings of any of Beethoven’s overtures and symphonies. Silence is an integral part of the drama in most any opera aria.
Silence will be difficult to arrange in a classroom that is in disarray, especially when there are low behavioral expectations. We, as teachers, should never have to raise our voices above the sounds of inattentive students. Therefore, students must be taught how to behave and participate in our classrooms. It’s never too late for our music students to learn what we expect of them both academically and behaviorally.
Some strategies for getting behavioral expectations in order can be found in the following texts:
- Building Classroom Discipline by C.M. Charles
- Classroom Instruction that Works by R. Marzano, D. Pickering, and J. Pollack
Before attempting to use your voice less in the classroom, make sure to revisit and reteach behavioral expectations as needed. Arlisa Powell, a master teacher and general music specialist at Nelson Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, regularly reminds her students that “music begins in silence and ends in silence.” Prior to performing a piece of music, students in her classroom are conditioned to begin in silence. After the music has been performed, there is silence. An extension of Arlisa’s approach might be “music class begins in silence and ends in silence.”
Use the Orff-Schulwerk, Kodály, and Dalcroze Approaches
Consider the following ideas for incorporating nonverbal experiences in the classroom.
- Without talking to students, consider beginning class with soft clapping of an important rhythm that will be sung later in the lesson.
- Use the Curwen hand signs to silently introduce a melody that will be sung during a warm-up.
- Have students conduct a four-beat pattern as they enter your classroom by simply showing students a flashcard with the number “4″ as they walk through the door.
- Assess which students are rhythmically compliant as they walk silently into your classroom conducting a beat pattern with each step that they take.
- Before beginning to sing or perform a piece of music, why not have students quietly sing it with their air only by inhaling and exhaling the way the music sounds? Students can conduct or quietly pat the tempo of the piece as well.
- To make sure that students have grasped the concept of phrasing, draw a horizontal arc with open hands extended outward. Begin the phrase with your left hand on top of your open right hand. Next, draw the arc in the air with your left hand. Have students show you the phrases as they sing.
Because our schools are filled with an overabundance of sounds, most of which aren’t given much attention by students, it can be difficult for music teachers to ensure that students
- pay attention to specific sounds during class, and
- are willing to respond to what they hear when prompted to do so.
Beginning class with an aural or visual signal may be a great way to get students to focus their listening and visual skills. Typical in the Dalcroze classroom is the prompting of a musical signal for the students to find their places either in a circle, on the risers, or at their seats. Rather than using our voices to remind students that class has begun, simply condition students that since this is music class, you will be expected to use your hearing and seeing skills in order to get started. “When you hear this sound, class begins and you must be ___________.”
Resist the Urge to Sing Along
When students are singing or playing instruments in an ensemble, we must avoid singing along with them. This can be a tough habit to break because it’s not easy to turn off our voices and just listen.
Singing along with our ensembles impairs the quality of instruction needed to identify problems, much less solve them. How can we compliment students when they perform a passage superbly when we can’t hear them over our own singing? Who knows how often a passage has been performed well but was ignored because the teacher didn’t hear it over his or her own voice?
Use Conducting Gestures
Since conducting is essentially a series of nonverbal expressions, we can learn a lot from good conductors. Rather than leave the all-city children’s choir rehearsal to hang out with colleagues, spend some time observing the guest conductor. How does that person get the ensemble quiet? Ask what nonverbal skills you can incorporate into your own classroom.
To get students to listen, gently grab one of your ears with thumb and forefinger, gently moving the earlobe back and forth while making sure that you can see the eyes of all students. We expect the eyes of all of our ensemble members on us before we begin a performance. In the classroom, students need to know when to stop an activity and focus their attention on the teacher, so it’s important to develop and teach students how this will be accomplished. Whether it be both hands raised, just one, or silently tapping the top of your head, make sure that students know when to stop what they are doing and give their attention to you.
Getting students to think can simply involve pointing to your forehead with an index finger. When it’s important to see all of the eyes of students, use the index and middle finger as if making a “peace” sign and point them to your students and then to your own eyes. This is a great signal for getting students to look. Incorporate the use of brightly displayed behavioral signs such as Silence, Discuss, Think, Reflect, Prepare, and Read. Many of these activities can be adapted to the music classroom: Sing silently, Sing quietly, Ready position, Rest position, Stand, or With bow.
Speak with Care
What about all of the “ums,” “uhs,” “you guys,” and “listen to me” phrases that we often say each day? When speaking these words, we need to realize that they could have an impact on how well our students pay attention or comprehend what we say to them. One solution might be to have someone observe your teaching and tally how often you speak these words during the lesson.
Another solution might be to videotape our own teaching and keep track ourselves. In addition to keeping track, we can observe firsthand how students respond to what we say.
I have music education majors transcribe their videotaped teaching episodes. Usually one videotaped transcription sends the message because my students quickly realize how much of what they said in class had nothing to do with what they intended to teach. Besides, it can take a considerable amount of time to write down all that was said in a 30-minute teaching episode. Especially, as mentioned before, we typically speak some 16,000 words each day.
More Ways to Use Your Voice Less
The following nonverbal strategies encourage student participation and nonverbal communication.
- Rather than have students shout out the answer, insist that they make eye contact with you if they know the right answer. Or, have students make eye contact with you if they are having difficulty with an assignment.
- During a presentation, create ways to check if students understand by simply showing your thumbs up with a “do you understand?” facial expression. Children can simply show a thumbs-up if they get it, thumbs-down if they don’t, or thumbs-sideways if they are unsure.
- Make sure that important classroom information appears on the chalkboard, marker board, bulletin board, handouts, etc. Get the students’ attention, and then point to the information and follow up with a thumbs up, etc.
Here are some closing thoughts to consider:
- Students often reach our level of expectation of them regardless of how high or low our expectations are.
- Students often model the volume level that is spoken by the teacher.
- Never raise your voice over the sounds of students. Speaking softly can actually improve classroom management skills because students will need to hear what is being said. In addition, students may begin to speak softer in your classroom.
- When using any multimedia in class, keep the volume a level lower so that students will need to be quiet to participate. Model the lower volume using a quieter voice or nonverbal cues.
- Remember, whenever we expect students to listen attentively to a recording, they will model our level of interest or disinterest. Be an active and interested listener, and students will generally model what they see.
- Make it a habit to just say what needs to be said and no more. Avoid all other words that can get in the way of teaching and learning.
Anderson, W. M. & Lawrence, J. E. (2004). Integrating music into the elementary classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning.
Carle, E. (1990). The very quiet cricket. New York: Philomel Books.
Charles, C. M. (2008). Building classroom discipline. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works, research based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Curriculum and Development.
Moore, K. D. (2005). Effective instructional strategies from theory to practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Announcing – The NAfME Collegiate Chapter of Excellence Award winners for 2013!
Thank you to all chapters who submitted your professional development activities, service projects, music programs, and recruitment activities for consideration for the Collegiate Chapter of Excellence Awards. All projects were well-thought out, well-executed, and were a benefit to their surrounding musical communities.
The winners are –
University of Alaska- Fairbanks Advisor, Vincent Cee
University of Colorado-Boulder Advisor, David Rickels
University of Oklahoma Advisor, Michael Raiber
University of Alaska-Fairbanks Advisor, Vincent Cee
University of Colorado-Boulder Advisor, David Rickels
University of Maryland-College Park Advisor, Kenneth Elpus
Hofstra University Advisor, Cindy Bell
University of Maryland-College Park Advisor, Kenneth Elpus
Montclair State University Advisor, Marissa Silverman
Queens College Advisor, Sandra Babb
University of Delaware Advisor, Suzanne Burton
Congratulations to these chapters and their advisors!
MARCH is Music In Our Schools Month
March is the time to show your support for school music programs by hosting concerts and events, inviting state and local school officials and legislators to witness firsthand the importance of Music In Our Schools!
Start by viewing the Concert for Music In Our Schools Month. Schools from across the country submit their performances of the Concert music which is generously provided by Hal Leonard Corp. This year, student Sodasia Thompson’s song “The Power of Music” was selected for inclusion in the program. Be sure to check these inspirational performances out before March ends!
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