Category Archives: research

Research: Communicating Diverse Viewpoints in US Music Education: Perspectives from a Participating Outsider

1-full viewLast week I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the MayDay Group’s Colloquium 29: Thinking Critically About Institutions & Individuals, hosted by Gettysburg College. Besides the privilege of getting to know many fascinating, kind, and thoughtful people, I shared a small slice of my experience as a music education graduate student in a presentation titled Communicating Diverse Viewpoints in US Music Education: Perspectives from a Participating Outsider.

The presentation was based on a reflective, autoethnographic analysis I’ve been working on regarding difficulties I’ve experienced understanding and being understood in an institution in which my underlying set of values and assumptions differs distinctly from the norm, and in which my apparent race and educational background contribute to further miscommunication.

To begin with, I introduced the roots of the project and the framework I used to conduct it- the Nexus Analysis approach proposed by Scollon and Scollon. View the introduction below:

Following the introduction, I introduced the prominent discourses threading through my experience as relate to the “major players;” the institution of music education, the faculty,


undergraduate students,


and myself.  I took a moment to consider the complex relationships between my white middle class upbringing, the disillusionment and debilitating performance anxiety that lead to my exit from the classical music field, and my subsequent transformation through an immersion in the culture surrounding Irish traditional music.

4-my upbringing

5-my ITM

As part of an investigation of the interactions between myself and the other participants, I examined the benefits I’ve received as a graduate student, particularly the stimulation of my intellectual development. I also considered my motivations for entering and remaining in the field,

6- my motivation

7- my motivations

and the various issues surrounding and contributing to my experience as an outsider.  The quote by Blommaert particularly resonated with the core of my challenges in communicating and my persistence in seeking a voice:

“Voice stands for the way in which people manage to make themselves understood or fail to do so. In doing so, they have to draw upon and deploy discursive means which they have at their disposal, and they have to use them in contexts that are specified as to conditions of use. Consequently, if these conditions are not met, people ‘don’t make sense’- they fail to make themselves understood – and the actual reasons for this are manifold… Voice is the issue that defines linguistic inequality (hence, many other forms of inequality) in societies. An analysis of voice is an analysis of power effects- (not) being understood in terms of the set of socio-cultural rules and norms specified – as well as of conditions for power – what it takes to make oneself understood.”  Blommaert, 2005, p. 4-5

These “outsider effects” I divided into three categories- those relating to the structure of the institution, those revolving around issues of communication, and the emotional effects I experienced.

8- outsider effects


I then briefly situated my experiences within some of the literature on in- and out-groups within universities, focusing on similarities and differences between my experiences and those of working class students as reported in several studies. I posited that while my Irish music roots inform my assumptions about music and music-making, my middle class roots contribute to sense of empowerment and valuing of education which has lead me to persist in the university setting.

10- outgroups

Finally, we descended into the core of the project, exploring three “scenes” from my time as a graduate student and graduate assistant which I felt allowed me to examine some of the issues underlying my experience. For each scene, I suggested a potential point of change- a way in which those in power in the institution of higher ed music ed might further benefit from and facilitate the growth of students with different values and assumptions. The first scene centered around my experience attempting to learn the 3rd mvt. of the Chichester Psalms the same way I learn an Irish fiddle tune, and the various ways in which my process was not reflected or legitimized in the assignment or assessment.

11- scene 1

12- scene 1b

In the second scene, I delved into ways in which my differing sense of what is important about music, particularly Irish music, created uncomfortable experiences for me as I attempted to complete assignments in which the richness of my music was reduced to those elements commonly focused on in Western formal music education practices.

13- scene 2

The third scene represented the multitudinous occasions on which I’ve misinterpreted instruction, and some of the emotional and educational ramifications they have had on me and others around me.

14- scene 3

Following a tour through these three memories, I closed with a brief consideration of pathways to change in the field of music education. It can be overwhelming and confusing to consider change in such a complex system, and one often wonders which should come first- the chicken or the egg? Perhaps “egg changes” could be seen as those in which we help nurture new ideas and values in students and developing organizations. “Chicken changes” might be when we seek to enact change in already mature individuals and institutions.

15- chicken egg

In all, I’d say my most important realization through this analysis was the importance of taking the TIME to understand each other, to go deep, and to recognize and suspend our assumptions about others and the ways in which we might make, value, and appreciate music.


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1-full view

Research: Current and Potential Roles of Aural Learning in K-12 General Music Classrooms

We’re off first thing in the morning to attend a conference I’ve heard a lot about over the years- the Mountain Lake Colloquium in Pembroke, Virginia.  I’ll be presenting some thoughts on the place of aural learning in the general music curriculum.

This project is a web of theoretical frameworks presented as a board game, inviting consideration of the complex relationships the value systems of teachers and students and the actions they take as a result have with practical outcomes in and out of the general music classroom.

Hildebrandt Aural Learning 2017 resize

The purpose of the game is for teachers to foster students’ aural learning skills and their accompanying benefits.  These benefits range from increased motivation and cultural inclusion facilitated by an aural-based curriculum to the ability to improvise or transpose. Coins are earned when strategies are implemented, perspectives are broadened, or teachers or students benefit from chance-based environmental or hereditary traits.  These coins can then be traded for benefit cards which must be collected before proceeding past two “Reflection Stations.”  Coins are lost when teachers fall prey to misconceptions such as “aural learning is only for students who can’t read music yet,” or to concerns that prevent them from focusing sufficiently on students’ aural learning development, such as “I don’t have the time to spend teaching something I’m not held accountable for.”

Ultimately, curricular decisions realized in the general music classroom and the extent to which they support students’ aural learning skill development depend on teachers’ perspectives and values, and the structures that surround them.  Actions ranging from teaching strategies implemented to the wording used to describe goals can affect students’ access to the powerful benefits of aural music learning

For more detailed description, follow this link to a google document.  Still a work in progress, this document contains descriptions of each element of the project, citations, and a full reference list.  Use the “Outline” in the left margin to navigate.


Research: Multimodal Imagery Used while Playing by Ear

Yo-Jung Han and I are pleased to present a poster of our recently completed research project, An Investigation of Multimodal Imagery Employed by Ear Players without Absolute Pitch, at the 14th International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition in San Francisco this week.  For this project, we delved deep into the minds and processes of six very generous and patient ear playing musicians of varying backgrounds, including musical theatre, jazz, Irish, and classical, to get a closer look at how they do what they do.

presented at the 14th International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition, July 5, 2016


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Research: Teaching Ear Playing in Formal Settings

While researchers have confirmed what some of us improvisers know through experience- that playing by ear is the skill that facilitates musically purposeful improvisation (and actually sight reading and the memorization of notated music as well), it has an uneasy fit in our notation-based music education system.  This may be because many of us use a different process to read notation than than we use to play by ear.

Playing by ear used to be even more common than it is now… and it is still very common!  Notated music got lodged in school music, though (another post for another time!), and just like how we may not be able to remember phone numbers anymore now that we just enter them into our cell phones, notation can change the way our minds work.  Using notation does two things for us (or to us!)- it tells us what individual notes to play, and it relieves our memory of some of its duties, since the whole song is on a piece of paper.  Let’s look at these two ideas as they relate to music reading and playing by ear…

  Individual notes

Ear Playing:  When we’re playing by ear, we hear a note and we have to know which note on our instrument is going to make the same sound.  So, we always know what the note we’re about to play is going to sound like, or at least we think we do!  That’s an aural-kinesthetic connection.

Notation:  When we learn to read notation, we are often taught which note on the staff corresponds to a particular finger on a particular string, or a certain key or fingering.  A lot of people don’t know what the note they’re about to play is going to sound like until they’ve played it, so we’ve got visual information triggering a kinesthetic (physical) reaction which we then hear (aural).  Since in music it’s pretty important to know how what you’re about to play is going to sound, the ideal order of operations is actually visual-aural-kinesthetic, in which case you can see how it would make a lot of sense to learn to play by ear and build that aural-kinesthetic connection first.


The whole song

Ear Playing:  When you learn something by ear- let’s say a friend plays you a lick she made up, you play it back, and then play it again, and then play it the next day- it’s also “memorized.”  There’s no other way to do it.  You could record her and then play it for yourself again and again, but since you probably wouldn’t be able to listen to it while you’re playing, you wouldn’t really be functional until you could remember it yourself.  There’s an interesting connection between remembering a song and a kind of musical “comprehension,” but suffice it to say for now that the better you “comprehend” the music, anticipate what’s going to happen next, hear its patterns, the easier you can remember it.

Notation: As mentioned, the marks on the page will always be there to tell you what to play- you can even look at it while you’re playing!  You do need to remember things like which notes/fingerings on your instrument correspond to each note on the staff and how the key signature affects the notation, but you don’t need to remember how the song goes in order to play it.

So you can see people who use the visual-kinesthetic-aural “order of operations” for reading notation may not develop the deep connection between the sound (aural) made by certain fingerings or keys on their instruments (kinesthetic) while using their musical memories in the same way ear players do.  And some music readers may be ok with that.  The problem may become more obvious when you want to improvise your own music, or play a favorite pop song with friends, and you don’t have the skill of playing by ear to make that happen.

Playing by ear in schools

Since there are so many fun things we can do with music that don’t require notation, or where we need quite a bit more than the notation to make it sound good (have you ever been all excited to get the songbook of your favorite popular album and cracked it open at the piano and been really disappointed it didn’t sound like the recording?), many school music teachers have included activities designed to students develop ear playing skills.  There are different approaches with different emphases- Edwin Gordon’s musical learning theory, for example, is heavy on the aural and the comprehension.  Some have experimented with rote imitation or singing while fingering instruments, hoping to help students develop that aural-kinesthetic connection.  In the UK, Lucy Green is heading up explorations into creating spaces in schools where kids can figure it out themselves or in peer groups, the way popular musicians traditionally do.

This project

As an Irish traditional musician as well as a researcher, I was moved to investigate how people are taught to play in aural traditions. Now sure, I’ve taken many lessons and classes myself while learning to play the guitar, fiddle, whistle, and other instruments within Irish and bluegrass traditions (and taught a few as well!), but looking at the process through a researcher’s lens has been unexpectedly revelatory and thought-provoking for me.  What I found were three intelligent, analytical, passionate teacher/instrumentalists, deeply rooted in aural traditions while living and teaching in the US, who are adapting the basically imitative teaching tradition for modern American students.  These teachers are focused on making music, on how it feels (physically and emotionally), sounds, and looks.  They’re guiding their students to notice patterns and form while perceiving and producing the melody and pulse through their bodies and instruments… towards true aural-kinesthetic comprehension.

Check out the poster I presented at a recent conference below.  I’ll be back with a video soon!

TEPFS poster

Research: The Secret Life of Gabe

Gabe Poster

Click on the picture above for a peek at the poster I’m presenting at the National Conference of the National Association for Music Educators this month.  As a musician practicing in many genres and collaborating with other musicians from a variety of backgrounds, the prevailing concern among music education professionals that every student receive music instruction in school has struck me as a little curious since joining academia.  This case study, of a musician who received minimal musical instruction in school, was part of my attempt to dig a little deeper into the function of school music.  I found that, while it’s surely not necessary for becoming a satisfied, ever-growing music maker, there really can be benefits to formal instruction!

For a brief overview of the project, read on…


Music educators are concerned with providing all children with opportunities for developing musical skills which can facilitate lifelong musical participation (Jellison, 1999), yet the bulk of our research focuses on the development of exceptional performers (Pitts, 2009) and the effectiveness of classroom teaching strategies.   A comparison of the percentage of students who enroll in school music classes with the percentage of adults who make music suggests that many more people could be interested in and fulfilled through musical participation than enroll in elective ensembles, and there could even be more if course offerings were able to appeal to more students (Clements, 2009; Jaffurs, 2004).  To design these courses, it is important to examine not only what musical activities people participate in outside of school, how they learn in such situations and what motivates them to do so (Green, 2002), but to better understand what this wall between music educators and so many students consists of.  As Small (1998) points out, we must not assume that they are not musical!

This case study is an effort to contribute to research on those who live active musical lives without having participated in elective school music.  A musically active American man named Gabe was purposively sampled as an example of such a person.  A quick glance at his musical life story reveals that, when presented with potential music-learning experiences, there were moments in which he chose to take advantage of them and others in which he did not.  Within this study, I seek to uncover how environmental and individual factors interacted to influence Gabe’s motivation to learn and participate in music making activities at various points in his life.



Much research has been done on what motivates students to build musical expertise (e.g. Hallam, 2001; McPherson, 2009; McPherson & Davidson, 2006; Pitts, Davidson & McPherson, 2009; .  Factors considered include self-efficacy, musical self-concept, expectations, values and beliefs, parental influence, feedback from teachers and peers, and the expectations related to gender, social class, and age.  Intrinsic motivation has been shown to produce more effective results than extrinsic motivation; Lacaille, Koestner, and Gaudreau (2007) found that musicians “responded especially well to intrinsic goals that focused on the enjoyment of the musical experience” (p. 247).  Deci and Ryan (2000) link motivation to an activity’s potential to fulfill three innate psychological needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

Many of these factors, including interaction with parents and teachers and the development of belief and value systems, are dependent on the environment. For example, those raised to understand that musical ability is innate and immutable will be less likely to pursue challenging musical experiences (Evans, 2015).  Parents who assume that music is not useful or practical may be less likely to support students in musical engagement (McPherson & O’Neill, 2010).


Indeed, no man is an island!  Literature focusing on ecological systems examines the influences various levels of the environment may have on factors including all of those listed above.  Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) model describes these levels as

1.  Microsystem- the immediate setting of a person in terms of place, time, and role, e.g. family, school, social group

2.  Mesosystem- a system of microsystems, e.g. interaction among families at a church

3.  Exosystem- major institutions of the society, e.g. government agencies, mass media

4.  Macrosystem- cultural and societal prototypes which “set the pattern for

the structures and activities occurring at the concrete level” (p. 515).


Literature may also shed some light on Gabe’s adolescent relationship with music, adolescence being the period in which Gabe chose not to enroll in school music and eventually began teaching himself the guitar.  Research shows that typical adolescents spend many hours a week listening to music, and that the type of music they choose to associate with and listen to helps form their identity, represents it to peers, and helps them connect with others with similar values, attitudes and goals (Hallam & MacDonald, 2013; North, Hargreaves & O’Neill, 2000).  The peer group has become the primary social environment for 15 to 17 year olds (Sanders, 2013), and that along with an increased concern with public image (Campbell, Connell & Beegle, 2007), makes it less likely for them to associate themselves with music they don’t identify with (Green, 2006).


This study was approached using an interpretive case study design (Merriam, 1998, p. 38-39).  In an effort to gather rich descriptions of Gabe’s music making experiences and the environmental and individual influences enabling them, preliminary data collection included seven observations of Gabe making music, a gathering of documents and other artifacts from Gabe’s learning path, six interviews with Gabe and interviews with Gabe’s parents, his brother, and a teacher who taught at Gabe’s junior high school while he attended.  After sending transcripts to participants for their review, the data was examined using an embedded analysis approach,  focusing on themes related to Gabe’s motivation to learn to make music (Yin, 1989).  Upon reviewing numerous theories of human development, learning, and motivation (Creswell, 1998, p. 87), the researcher interviewed Gabe twice more.  Another return to the literature resulted in the adoption of Bronfenbrenner’s model of ecological systems as an appropriate framework for addressing the wider elements of the research question, and an adaptation of the basic psychological needs theory foundational to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) towards understanding Gabe as an individual.  This combined framework was then applied to four different points in Gabe’s musical life- the point at which he did not enroll in elective school music, the point at which he began learning to play the guitar,  the period of time in which he considered becoming a professional musician, and his current state.  The theoretical analysis of the data was then returned to Gabe for his input and approval.  Efforts to maximize the rigor of the design included member checking, an audit trail, and the triangulation of sources and theories.


See the poster for a quick snapshot of some of the results.

Conclusions and Implications

We can learn lessons from Gabe.  On an individual level, we see an example of the power of autonomy as it relates to intrinsic motivation, and see that for kids who don’t have an environmental structure of peers, teachers, and family who highly value music, intrinsic motivation doesn’t provide just the best chance for successful music learning, it may provide the only chance.   Findings from Gabe’s adolescence illuminate the reality that adolescents are concrete thinkers who value music as a way to represent who they are.  If the music we have to offer does not represent them, they may lose the opportunity to learn in a formal setting, which is something adult Gabe considers valuable.  In fact, school music may be our students’ only opportunity to learn from a trained music teacher in a structured environment.  Since kids are concrete thinkers out of a developmental necessity, the onus is on music educators in the schools to assist them in making connections one way or another, lest we find ourselves only educating kids who identify with the music we offer at that point in their lives.   What can we do to empower students’ intrinsic motivations to make music, whatever kind of music that might be?

From an environmental perspective, we may be particularly situated within students’ micro- or mesosystem to offer a mitigating influence to the harmful perspectives inherent in our society and communicated through mass media, friends, family, governing agencies, school systems.  First we might ask what do students in and out of music classes believe and assume about music and music making? Do they know that, not only can they make music, but they can make their music?  What can we do to interact with and perhaps even mitigate some of the cultural messages that interfere with students’ conceptions of themselves as music makers and potentially lifelong music makers?  What can we do to allow students to discover the ways in which music making can be “useful” in human lives , that the potential for music achievement does not rely on innate talent, that music making can be enjoyable through various levels of achievement, and that music is not only made by professionals in studios and concert halls?

For generations, forces seeking to influence societal paradigms have turned to the schools.  We are already there.