Musician’s Workshop – Student Conferences

I received an email from a friend after my first Musician’s Workshop post. He sent me a quote that framed his thinking, and now mine, for how teacher feedback plays a role in the workshop model.

Lucy Calkins (1994) shares “[o]ur decisions must be guided by “what might help this writer” rather than “what might help this writing.” If the piece of writing gets better but the writer has learned nothing that will help him or her another day on another piece, then the conference was a waste of everyones time. It may even have done more harm than good, for such conferences teach students not to trust their own reactions” (p. 228)


Conferences in Musician’s Workshop have many similarities to other workshop models. When I am conferencing with a learner/musician, or a small group of musicians creating together, this is the process:

  1. Ask the learner/musician or group of musicians to perform what they have so far. (Assessing the learner/musician’s performance as they play or sing)
  2. Ask the the learner(s) what their contribution is as a musician to the piece.
  3. Ask the learner/musicians where they feel they need support.
  4. Specifically scaffold one musical dimension (element) at a time, either something the learner/musician contributed, or what you had heard during the initial performance.
  5. Scaffold their playing if needed.
  6. Ask them to describe the ways in which they will use the strategy they just practiced.

The conferences usually take anywhere from 8-10 min depending on how much support is needed or the size of the group. You may only get to 2 or 3 groups in one class period (I see each class for 30 min.) and that is okay. The other learner/musicians need that time to practice independently.

Ask the learner/musician or group of musicians to perform what they have so far. (Assessing the musician’s performance as they play or sing)

As you listen to the piece being performed, try to identify where the learner/musicians are in their process. At what stage are they in composing their piece? For example, if the they are creating a binary piece, are they creating the A, or B, or transitioning between both?

To identify the area of struggle, you may also ask an open ended question. For example, you may ask “How will the listener know when the music has moved to the next section?” The learner/musicians will explain their thinking and may uncover a misconception. If they answer something way off, you may ask a follow up question such as “What makes you say that?” This clarifying question will help guide you in helping the learner/musician move closer toward understanding. Their performance coupled with the learner/musician’s answers and explinations will help you assess the depth of their understanding.

Specifically scaffold one musical dimension (element) at a time, either something the learner/musician contributed, or something you had heard during the initial performance.

To continue with the binary example, If the learner/musician is having difficulty maintaining a steady beat and also composing contrasting sections, choose one and focus on that. I would start with the steady beat first to solidify the groups simultaneity and come back for the contrasting section. Keeping a steady beat and the group together is more important than composing a contrasting section.

Ask them to describe the ways in which they will use the strategy they just practiced.

This is their time to synthesize their plan. Understanding how to implement a new strategy into their process is an important step. I will confer with them about the strategy and through our dialogue, create a plan. The learner/musician makes a plan and begins to put they plan into action. These are intrinsic goals that the learner/musician decides on to make them a better musician, which in turn supports their contribution to the music.

I ask the learner/musicians to reflect upon their experience using tablets and student response systems. This allows me to gather their thinking in one place. The next time they visit my classroom, I have their individual goals on my iPad to better support our conferences.

There have been many teachers and administrators writing about the need to establish relationships before learning may occur. Musician’s Workshop enables relationships to form through individual conferences, open ended questions, valuing the learner/musician’s prior experiences, and focusing on the process. This is a growth mindset model that is differentiated for each musician.

Are you facilitating a Musician’s Workshop in your classroom, yet?

Calkins, L. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Musician’s Workshop

I am a middle school music teacher. Well, let me rephrase that, I teach middle school musicians. More and more, I am being asked to describe the “nontraditional” approach to learning music that happens in my room.  I don’t think it is “nontraditional” but I will agree it is not what most music teachers learn in their pre-service experiences.

I have spent a lot of time discussing different workshop models with my colleagues. For three years, I have even taught a summer school reading and writing program where I was able to explore reader’s and writer’s workshop with third grade readers and writers. This experience provided the groundwork I needed to frame the musical experiences learner/musicians are asked to navigate in my classroom. It is Musician’s Workshop.

Musician’s Workshop is what I will describe as a constructivist approach to learning music through problem solving. Not necessarily reading and writing music, but focused more on self-expression, creating and performing, and connecting music to cultural and historical contexts.  This way of experiencing music supports both being musically literate (reading and writing music) and musically competent (creating,  improvising, and playing music by ear). Musicians will critically and analytically listen to music, perform original music, recreate others’ music, and create composed, improvised, or arranged music. There is inherently a performance facet of being a musician, however, Musician’s Workshop focuses on other authentic processes of being a musician.

Structure of Musician’s Workshop:

  • Piece of anchor music
  • Groundwork that enables (musician’s previous experience that supports, or mini-lesson and launch)
  • Musician’s time to solve the musical problem
  • Share
  • Reflect/Revise
  • Share with a broader audience

I will do my best to open a window into my classroom.

I teach in an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme Middle School where the 5th grade learners are preparing for Exhibition. This year’s overarching idea is How can we positively effect our community?  In the music room, we are considering How do we express ourselves?,  an inquiry into recreating someone else’s music.

Anchor Music :

The melody of the chorus was our connection to this song. We used melody as the doorway in (Wiggins, 2009) to the process of recreating another musician’s music. The key of C lends itself well to the xylophones we play as well.

Groundwork That Enables:

For this problem solving experience to be successful, musicians needed to have had groundwork provided in previous years or class experiences. This should not be the first time they are being asked to play a melody by ear. Focusing on melodic contour and notes moving by steps, skips and leaps will support musicians problem solving the melody.

Problem Solving:

This is the time that seems loud and chaotic. It is loud and chaotic. The volume and cacophony is structured. Each musician is problem solving pitch, rhythm, direction, and melody at the same time. It will get loud. It has to. Sound is our medium. The video below is what my classroom looks and sounds like when musicians are problem solving. Please listen closely to the individual musicians as I zoom in to their playing. There are many different approaches to peer scaffolding. Some play and echo, some play at the same time, some provide vocal support, and some play hand-over-hand. Whatever the support may be, it is what is best for that learner. Time to problem solve is crucial to the growth of the individual musicians. This is their time to experiment, iterate, be scaffolded, learn, and scaffold others. The gradual release to independence is where the learning happens. This is where the individual musician grows toward independent musicianship within a large ensemble.


We have an in-class performance of Home by Phillip Phillips. We then use this recording as a critical listening experience.


We used an app called Skitch, a free, lightweight screen capturing and annotation app for iPad, to support an analytical listening experience. The musicians listened to the anchor music again while annotating over the lyrics. They show the form of the song while adding “what else do you hear?” to each section. This informs the next steps in the process of our class cover. (The video is of another song we did. I didn’t capture a video of the Skitch for Home, but wanted to invite you into the process.)

We then cycle the Musician’s Workshop process again and add the instruments that we added to the Skitch.

Share With a Broader Audience:

This is most exciting part! We share our music on social media platforms such as Twitter (@MrM_MusicRoom) and FaceBook. Growing our PLN broadens our audience and creates a bigger authentic network of learner/musicians who perform and learn from each other.


Creating a network of connected musicians broadens our thinking as we become more globally minded. We are going to perform Home by Phillip Phillips and Care by Kid Rock, ft. Angeleena Presley and T.I. for 5th grade Exhibition. The extension of the whole class cover is for the musicians to split into smaller bands and iterate the process of self expression through recreating another musician’s music. I’m looking forward to watching the process unfold and watching their performances.

Wiggins, J. (2009). Teaching for musical understanding (2nd ed.). Rochester, MI: CARMU.

Musician’s Statements

Fifth grade learners are beginning to plan their Primary Years Program (PYP) Exhibition. The overarching theme is “How are you positively effecting your community?” I have been thinking about how I can connect the musical experiences we are having in my room to other ways of knowing.

Chalk Talk

Outside music room at West Hills Middle School, Michigan

Outside music room at West Hills Middle School, Michigan

Chalk Talk is a Visible Thinking Routine developed by Ron Ritchhart. This particular routine is designed as a written conversation used to uncover prior knowledge and questions. It is an open-ended discussion on paper. This routine ensures all voices are heard and allows individual thinking time. Originally designed as a silent written conversation, I have altered the use for our unique situation. I posted the question “How does music play a role in community?”  outside of my classroom on a large bulletin board. The chalk talk is open to everyone in the school and is attracting students that are not in my classes. We are discussing the effects of music on culture in class and using the chalk talk as a springboard into these conversations.

Musician’s Statements and Technology

Thank you Tricia Fuglestad (@fuglefun)

Thank you Tricia Fuglestad (@fuglefun)

Each musician is going to make a Musician’s Statement, then create and share them using the apps CamWow and Pic Collage. These two apps are free and work in tandem to create the image above. Musicians will make these next week



Step 1: Open CamWow and select the effect you would like to use. I chose the fuzzy b&w to keep the focus on the statement and name of the musician.

Step 2: Take the picture and share the picture to Photo Album.

Taken with CamWow

Taken with CamWow

Step 3: Open PicCollage and Tap to create a new collage



Step 4: Add your photo from Camera Roll and double-tap to edit

Step 5: Choose Clip Photo and draw around your face with your finger and click Done. This step will allow you to clip out the CamWow watermark.

Step 6: Drag your clipped background to the garbage can in the upper right hand corner.

Step 7: Pinch the clipped picture to size and rotate. Be sure to leave room for the statement text and musician’s name.

Step 8: Tap the Layout button on the lower left of the screen and Change Background. I set the background to black to keep the focus on the statement and musician’s name.

Step 9: Tap the Plus button on the bottom of the screen to add text. Type the musician’s statement and name in separate text boxes to ensure separate movement and sizing. I put my statement on top and name on the bottom, but I would suggest to stage the test where it fits best with the picture. In the app, the capital “T” allows you to change the font, the pen changes the text color, the paint bucket changes the background color of the font, and the three dots adjusts the justification and text outline.

Step 10: Tap the share button on the lower right of the screen. I do not post to PicCollage. Save your PicCollage to Library.

Step 11: To collect the images, I have created a DropBox folder. Open DropBox, select your folder, and tap the three dots on the upper right corner of the screen. Choose your image and Upload.

I saw my friend Brandy Carlson, elementary art teacher in Walled Lake, Michigan, today and talked through this statement project. We made her image in 5 min. on the couch.

Brandy Carlson (@carlson_brandy) check her out at

Brandy Carlson (@carlson_brandy) check her out at

We are creating cover songs, green screen videos, and musician’s statements to prepare for Exhibition. On April 30th, the 5th grade learners will present their PYP projects and I can’t wait to see what they will contribute to their community.