Reflection and self-assessment—two basic, ancient, essential human processes. Do you think of them as essential to all musicians and composers? Some would argue that they are the most important learning skills in music, more important than raw talent. Think about it. No matter how gifted you are, can you learn to play a passage well without a clear sense of how it sounds and what you need to do to improve it? I don’t care how Mozartian your gifts may be—how can you compose a movement without the habit of noticing how it is going, and sensing better and worse choices, a thousand times along the way? Good musicians work those skills deep in their bones—so deep that the actions of reflection and self-assessment are not separated from musical action at all; they blend into the acts performance and creation so intimately, they suffuse. Yet fundamental as they may be, reflection and self-assessment are the two most overlooked essentials of arts instruction. Let’s hope that won’t be the case in your teaching after you read this article.
Teaching artists need to infuse their work with reflection and self-assessment practices in all their teaching opportunities—private lessons, workshops, classrooms, master classes, even conversations with colleagues and in performances. They need to use the two main ways we have to teach these essentials: modeling them and weaving them into our instruction. Utilizing both approaches boosts your impact and also develops the inner climate learners need for successful lifelong learning—this may be the greatest legacy our time with learners can leave.
The philosopher John Dewey told us that we do not learn from our experiences unless we reflect on them—that simple. Human experience is so dense with information that we require periodic pauses to scan across our experiences and precipitate out those few things that are important for us to keep, to hold a bit longer, to give identity to with a little extra noticing. These grains of personal relevance become the pearls of our learning when we work them over in our minds and hearts. Music experiences are particularly dense and subtle. The abstract and ephemeral nature of music as a language intensifies the need for reflective pauses for learners (and listeners) to retain that which was of value, so they can keep it. The etymology of the word reflect means to bend back toward, which exactly describes the reflective learning impulse—to take that vague body of an experience and bend it back toward our view to identify key bits that matter to us.
For example, there is so much going on in listening to a chunk of complex music, say a Ligeti wind quintet, that we need to reflect back on the experience to glean that feeling, this idea, those features in the work, in order to retain them inside for further use. There is so much going on in learning to make music, that we need to bend the process back toward our awareness so we can make note of key learning—how we just did that, what was different than before, how it felt in the body, etc—as a platform upon which to keep building. Most teaching either “pours stuff in” or asks students to “put work out”; reflection balances that demand with learner-centered ballast, inviting them to grasp that which matters to them.
We live in a belligerently anti-reflective culture. Because it sells action and stimulation so widely and well, young people are not in the habit of reflecting on those often-subtle internal blips of curiosity, feeling, discovery and uncertainty they feel in complex experiences. They are conditioned to want and demand more input. Reflection attends to the subtle messages and cues from our authentic selves; it provides the raw materials from which creating and personal voice are made. It’s not just mainstream culture that suppresses reflection—American schooling ignores the skills of reflection. School days offer few occasions for student to consider how they feel, think and value all the information that is presented; the acts of reflection are private acts, fitful, unsupported, and not honored with the hardest currency of schooling—time. Arts courses can be a haven in which students are guided to notice their own personal processes and responses; that is, if the arts teachers prioritize the actions of reflection and self-assessment. The sports locker room could be seen as the most reflective place on campus, more than the music room—only there is the study of and reflection on videotapes of performance a regular and essential practice. Do we record and listen and study our music rehearsals?
Including reflective opportunities, consistently and creatively, is remedial work to provide essential habits of mind our students need throughout their lives. We cannot stint these occasions. We cannot leave reflection to be a group discussion in the last six minutes of the class—for which we usually run out of time. We cannot exclude reflection from our performances and hope for the best. We cannot assume the private student is good at observing her own performance and progress, able to identify the elements of consequence. We must provide reflective pauses throughout our teaching opportunities, at junctures, whenever the learner would benefit from a scan of the experience to grab hold of the few key pieces to retain. We must model reflective capacity overtly, showing our learners how we reflect and learn from what we see and hear. Do you take a moment to reflect on your work as a teacher in front of students and share your sense of how you did that day?
Reflecting does not mean navel staring. It is an active internal state in which we accomplish many personally-crucial goals. Think about the ways you reflect in your own life: you sit and think, go for walks, write in a journal, talk to friends, swim, jog, sketch—I have even heard skydiving claimed as a reflective activity. Think about the reasons you naturally reflect, what you rely on reflection to accomplish—perhaps to solve a problem, figure out something that is bothering you, make a decision, clarify a confusion, more deeply enjoy something wonderful, learn from mistakes and successes. In modeling reflection for learners, you model the habit of mind—you pause and consider what just happened and share the process and observation. You speak the internal questions aloud, so the learner gets the feel for that inner work: “I never noticed before that Bartok did that in this piece”; “I wonder what the right image is for the phrase?”; “When I get stuck like this, here’s what I ask myself…”
It is the same in guiding the learning of others. We must invite learners to reflect in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. Here a list of reflective tools I and other teaching artists use, and some of the purposes for which you might use them. The third column is an example of what the combination might look like. The following is certainly not a comprehensive list; it is just a smattering of examples, and different tools might easily be used for different goals than suggested below. Please use these suggestions to spark your own ideas for the reflective goals and tools that best suit your teaching goals, situations and style.
|Reflective Tool||Possible Goal||Might Look Like|
|Guided thinking||Deepen Musicality||teacher poses a great question to think about, e.g. “some fresh life-ways we can bring to this passage?”|
|Dialogue||dig into a problem area||teacher asks illuminating questions and follow-up questions; “talk me through your thinking steps when you work on this part of the piece”|
|Journal writing--free||clarify response or feeling||“For the next 2 minutes write about one mystery you find in this section, and why it matters to you.”|
|Journal writing--guided||capture expectations||“Find at least three expectations you had before you listened/performed, where did they come from and how they were met or surprised?”|
|Guided group discussion||group takes ownership of a key idea||"What about this piece makes it sound American?”|
|Unguided group discussion||uncover subsurface issues of importance||“What’s the point of listening to a piece like this? Are the reasons important?”|
|Peer interview||illuminate personal process||“Interview your partner about…the things she did while listening to that movement” or “interview your partner about the learning journey she has had in playing that passage.”|
|Write a review||focus critical attention||“write a 100 word review of our performance of that piece”|
|Cross-discipline||clarify complex ideas||“make two sketches; one of the way you played [or heard] that piece the first time, and one of the way you play [or hear] it now”|
|Storyboard||document process||“create a five cell storyboard that captures the key moments of the process we just went through this week”|
|Improvise||switch perspectives||“describe the performance, from the point of view of the music we just played” or “write a singles ad for this piece and the kind of listeners it wants to pick up.”|
|Self-assessment||embed habit of self -assessment||take a minute to jot some notes in your notes process journal|
Here are three guidelines for teaching artists about including reflective activities.
Regularity. Model the way artists work at their best—asking reflective questions throughout the process. Hit the reflective pause button in your teaching at junctures between one exercise and another, at the beginning and end, any time a significant moment or part of a project holds information your learners need to grasp. Do it often, and do it with eager interest to see what you get; the attitude of curiosity about what you will discover is the healthiest soil in which to nurture the growth of these skills. The reflective activities do not need to be long (although when you hit a juicy exploration, let it roll), but they do need to be consistent, always interesting and rewarding to pursue.
And remember, as teaching artists we invite learners into the acts of reflection, trying to build a rewarding habit in them. Don’t critique the quality or the results of their reflection, or learners won’t take ownership of the practice, which is how they get better over time. Don’t respond, “the piece has other, more significant, elements than those you noticed, “ or, “I think you are missing some key weaknesses in your playing”—such critique undermines the reflective habit. Accept reflective observations as true for the person, perhaps contrast it with your view on occasion, perhaps use it diagnostically to see where their understandings lie, but support their reflective effort.
Creativity. Many teaching artists are creative in their invitations into activities, but perfunctory in their reflective invitations. About the third time most kids hear “take out your journal and …,” they turn off. About the third time they are asked to think about how they just did that process, and then you move on without really discussing processes, they are going to think about something more engaging than aspects of their process. Be as imaginative and fun with the reflective invitations as you are with the activities. “If that piece of music had a My Space profile, how would it read?” “You are your emerging composition, what would it say to a neighbor composition about how the process is going?” Or even, “you are a reporter for Creative Youth Radio; using your pen as a microphone, would you interview your neighbor about her process of mastering that piece of music.” It is amazing how smart you become when the reporter brings the imaginary microphone to your mouth. To develop the habit of reflection in learners, it must feel good to do, and must produce discoveries that consistently interest the learner.
Various modalities. Don’t over-rely on the same reflective tools—group discussion or personal journal—vary the reflective invitations to include learners with differing kinds of strengths. Not everyone reflects best in writing or by talking. “Now that you can perform that piece well, please sketch a five cell storyboard that captures your key moments along the way in mastering that piece.” “If you were going to write a piece of music that captures your process of learning that piece, what would the piece be like and have in it?” “Show me with your hand in the air, the shapes you find in that passage.”
You may have noticed that in the second paragraph I mentioned the performance setting as a place to include reflective activities. The idea is not to appear different by being weird in performance, but to find clever and effective ways to support the audience in reflecting on what they hear, because it deepens the impact of the music and the take-away experience they have and remember. I have a friend who distinguishes art from entertainment by the kind of impact that is left after the encounter. He contends that experiences that linger and continue to exert an influence on us are artistic experiences, no matter what the music is. If we can inveigle a little reflective experience into a performance occasion, we support our audiences capacity to get more of the artistic goodies we are working so hard to provide.
I urge ensembles to include reflective invitations in their adult programs as well as the youth and family occasions, where they are more common. Have you ever asked adults to turn to a neighbor and share things that really struck them in the piece you just played? Have you ever asked them to consider something about the piece you just played, and/or set up a particular lens for listening to the next. For example, “As we have rehearsed this Shostakovich string quartet in recent weeks, we have felt it was about various aspects of grief he experienced after her death. What are some of the different kinds of experiences you or people you know have had during a period of grief? Let’s see if you find them in the piece as we have; and we will check in with you afterwards.”
All ensembles speak during young people’s concerts, but I urge you to add reflective questions and challenges to the usual mix of introduction, information and engagement. “Think for a moment…what are you expecting to hear in the piece we are about to play?”; and then after, “What surprised you in that piece?” “If you knew another student was going to hear us perform this piece tomorrow, what would you tell him or her today about what to expect in the music?”
Do people leave your concerts talking about the music or about parking and other aspects of their day? Can you encourage them to engage in dialogue about the music on their way home—“we are so interested in your response to that new work we just played, we ask you to pull your thoughts together and share them with us on your way out, either on the notecards we provided in the lobby or directly to us, and we will get to the lobby as fast as we can.”
Laurence Tamburri, former, President & CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony was troubled when he overheard concert goers leaving Heinz Hall not talking about the music they heard. He focused on the natural reflective impulse of talking about the music as a barometer of engagement with the music—which is the goal of any performance. So the Pittsburgh Symphony is seeking to enrich the performance atmosphere, to deepen the encounter, and they are keeping an eye on the natural reflective expression of dialogue immediately following the encounter. If people are talking piano instead of parking, Tan Dun instead of tan lines, good things happened in the hall.
A habit teaching artists build beside reflection is documentation—setting down some of that reflection in a way that enables it to stay there so you can come back to it. Documentation supports self-assessment, and self assessment is the focus of our next Edifications. We will look at natural ways that artists document their reflection, and how those natural processes can enrich our learning, and help others know how our learning is going. Reflection, documentation, assessment—certainly not the three most exciting words in the musical lexicon, but three practices among the most important.