13 March 2008

Relevance of Research in Music Education


Written for MU 765
Boston University (Dr. Hebert)

As music teachers we are frequently surviving the moment. Regardless of how detailed our intellectual understanding of singing or musicianship may be, our primary focus necessarily needs to be on keeping the maximum number of students engaged.

Though I became certified as an undergraduate, I did not pursue classroom music teaching for another 13 years — beginning the transition from being solely a private instrumental teacher through work as a day camp song leader. My initial focus became, "What songs will children most enjoy singing?" While this involved a study of repertoire, consultation with children's entertainers and findings arrived at through trial and error, empirical research in vocal pedagogy was not on my radar. This remained the case through my first K-8 school positions; however much students got from their experi- ences with me, they were not being offered a foundation based in methodological study. While I was aware of the work of the Big Three (Kodaly, Dalcroze, Orff) I rationalized that I didn't have the time with the students or the resources (such as a Music Room) to deliver anything but a dilution of their methods.
I sense that many other music educators find themselves in a similar position, with more of an eye out for tools that will get them through the day, or through the next school concert, than a long-term strategy for raising standards significantly. We may read arti- cles based in research and think, "That's all well and good, but too esoteric for what I have to deal with." If we think of music education research as being relevant or of interest primarily to academics, we miss the opportunity not only to benefit from the thinking of others but to feel accompanied on a path many of us find isolating. It is likely that more researchers have come from — or may even be in — the "trenches" than we imagine, and have set out to solve problems experienced first-hand. Some of these problems may not be unlike ones we experience.

The program I now teach through (The Metropolitan Opera Guild's Urban Voices) seeks to involve homeroom teachers in instructional partnerships with the Choral Artist (who visits weekly). I don't actually know what research has been done to arrive at this model, but there are certainly challenges in achieving this partnering that I would like to see studied. Also, considering that we usually do not see the same students more than one school year, I would like to see research that is geared towards maximizing effective- ness in a "non-feeder" scenario.

I would like to see studies on how to best integrate the growing immigrant population into our lessons: which students benefit from learning (or teaching) songs in their own language; which students need to focused exclusively on their acquisition of English or even perhaps find it painful to be reminded of their own culture. In fact (“had I world enough and time”) there is potential for a great variety of research (or research to be located) on specific cultural characteristics that would bear directly on our behavior as music teachers. To cite one example: While a Masters student at New England Conservatory, I had many Asian classmates who, though brilliant musicians, spoke almost not at all in theory classes. I conferred with one professor, “Are they not confident enough conversing in English?” to which he replied, “No. I believe it goes against their culture to present and debate ideas.” I couldn’t imagine putting up with this year after year — developing a stimulating curriculum based on oral exchange of ideas only to have it bomb over conflict with instinctually rooted cultural behaviors. And so it is not just us urban grade-school music teachers who can and should benefit from meaningful research pertaining to those currently crossing our thresholds. Creative solutions to such problems, through curricular adaptation, would ideally be the result.

The integration of Music History (particularly Popular) with the development of musical skills would also be of particular interest to me. While I may not author a book titled All I Really Need to Know About Music I Learned from the Beatles, there certainly are, I have found, an unlimited number of potential “units” relating to the Fab Four. But then, as a Latino principal I worked with in Holyoke put it to me: “You cannot interest them in history when they feel they have no future.” This leads me to wonder if a research study could prove or disprove this postulate or at least direct those of us excited about music history to tailor our teaching of it to the present needs of those who have not had the space or encouragement in their lives to ponder past genius.

A warning about musings such as the preceding, however. was issued by Heller and O’Connor when they wrote: “Researchers should be cautious. . . to weigh carefully the merit of suggestions for further research.”

In his well-respected book, Teaching Kids to Sing, Kenneth Phillips presents an empirically researched method whose purpose "is to lead young people through a develop- mental program of psychomotor skills that will result in confident and expressive singing."2 While his Directing the Choral Music Program3, which came out twelve years later, might well appear to be an expansion and update of the earlier book, it is con- cerned more with older voices, is less detailed about psychomotor skills and devotes space instead to historical and practical matters specific to the choir director. Teaching Kids to Sing also features many charming photographs of children demonstrating the exercises.

Dr. Phillips doctoral dissertation4 documents that he was already on the psychomotor path as of 1983. This 239-page work was condensed for a 1985 article in Journal of Research in Music Education5 — both pieces being summarized by nearly identical abstracts. In this study he sought to prove that training in diaphragmatic breathing im- proved the singing — measured in terms of vocal range, vocal intensity, tonal duration and pitch accuracy — over a control group who was not dissuaded from clavicular breathing. In analyzing his findings, he came to realize that vocal intensity and tonal du- ration could not be separated from each other6 — rendering some of his data inconse- quential. He got back on the horse in 1995 with a related study7 that suggests a more pragmatic approach. Instead of the 18 weeks of his 1983 study, these students were observed over a full year, using older students (grades 4-6 rather than 2-4) in greater number (269 as opposed to 44). He also accounted for additional factors that could af- fect the data, such as gender and “reluctance.” Heller and O’Connor discuss the impor- tance of narrowing the “purpose” of a study so that all its questions can be answered satisfactorily.

The person evaluating the research needs to determine whether the subject is too broad for all relevant questions to be answered or, conversely, whether it is too narrow, failing to account for certain relevant questions.8

To judge from the progression between his 1985 and 1995 studies, Dr. Phillips appears to have made refinements as prescribed in the preceding quote — “reluctance” being a good example of something perhaps not factored into the second study at the outset, but, once encountered, subsequently accounted for. In Teaching Kids to Sing, the latter criteria is reflected in his reference to Elizabeth Simpson’s seven “sets” — one of which includes the “Emotional [sub]set: readiness in terms of a favorable attitude”.9 Easily measured for statistical analysis? Hardly. Relevant to the research? I’m afraid so.

Kenneth Phillips comes across (as I have seen first-hand) as a missionary for the cause of quality singing and the joy it can bring both singer and listener. His contributions to the field, as professor and clinician, go far beyond the studies he has authored. Evidence that he has learned from and improved his research methods suggests that he does likewise in other facets of his mission, inspiring confidence in both his students and his readers.

Heller, J.J. and O’Connor, E.J.P. Maintaining Quality in Research and Reporting, printed in (2006) MENC Handbook of Research Methodologies. Oxford University Press, p. 53
Phillips, K H. (1992). Teaching kids to sing. New York: Schirmer Books.Phillips, K H. (2004). Directing the Choral Music Program. New York: Oxford University Press.

4 Phillips, K H. (1983). The effects of group breath control training on selected vocal measures related to the singing ability of elementary students in grades two, three and four (Doctoral Dissertation, Kent State University), DAI, 37, 1447-A
5 Phillips, K. H. (1985). The effects of group breath control training on selected vocal measures related to the singing abil- ity of elementary students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 33, 179-191.
6 Phillips, K. H. (2008). Exploring Research in Music Education & Music Therapy. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 25. 7 Phillips, K. H.; Aitchison, R. E. (1997) Effects of Psychomotor Instruction on Elementary General Music Students' Sing-
ing Performance Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 45, No. 2. (Summer, 1997), pp. 185-196. 8 ibid, p. 55
9 Phillips, K H. (1992). Teaching kids to sing, p. 24