Kenley Kristofferson


Tag: music education

Music Ed Mondays – The Music Lesson (Part 1)

In our course, “The Fundamentals of Music,” we teach a novel called The Music Lesson by world-renowned bassist, Victor Wooten.

There  are two provocative parts to that opening:

1) Fundamentals of Music? Yes, they take place in both Grade 11 and 12, split into Fundamentals I and II.  While they started as a theory and performance course (as a buffer to the performing ensembles), we’ve geared it more towards musical philosophy, ear training, responding to music… and yes, theory and harmony.  It is, probably, the strongest course in our Music program because really teaches students how all of the spokes of the Music wheel go together  – not just theoretically and not just in regards to performance, but in the cognitive and emotional elements as well.  If you want to talk about it, contact me and I can send you everything we have to make it run – I’m happy to share the love 🙂

2) Yes, novel study in Music.  Every program builds literacy: If it’s translating a word problem in Math, studying maps and legends in Geography or connecting with text in Music, literacy needs to be built from every angle because words (and their power to change the world)  are never, ever going away.   That’s a whole post in itself.

Anyway, The Music Lesson is about Victor learning the bass as he is just starting out in Nashville, where a mysterious man enters his apartment and challenges his views on all things music.  Each chapter is set as a musical element (i.e. Tone, Space, Key, Dynamics, etc.) and focuses on one thing for the reader to think about.  The text is very accessible and challenges some of the thoughts that we, as musicians and life-long learners of music, think about each element, which makes a great critical thinking resource for students.

While Michael Brandon teaches the Grade 11 section (where the book is taught), we’ve been building and constantly re-imagining the course for three years.  The final assessment is a reading response to the work, but one of the prompts is this: “If you were to personify music, what would your relationship to he/she be? Explore and describe that.”

I’ll upload a sample from one of our Grade 11 students, but for this week, let’s think about what you would write.  What is your relationship to Music” Remember: Music is a person!

Explore and good luck!

Music Ed Mondays – The Gorilla Story

Isn’t that just a wonderful picture? He’s smiling away, having a great time 🙂

As humans, we are so good at routine, I would even go so far as to say that we excel at routine.  We wake with the sun, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat some more, read our book or follow our shows, then sleep with the moon in the sky, all ready to do it again the next day.

Some of us are even more routine-based, only eating certain things for every meal, having particular combinations of outfits for work or going out, showering or getting ready for the day in a particular order or sequence… the list goes on.

As teachers, we do this too because the day is structured in a particular way for everyone in the building.  Furthermore, we have routines and structures in our respective subject areas.  When a new person comes into the area (or a particularly astute student), they may ask something like: “Why do we do ‘x‘ this way?” to which another replies “that’s just the way that it’s done.”

And we’ve all been in situations like this, right? Where you come to a new place and find something terribly inefficient that’s out of your control to fix?

Now, can you think about a time when you were the person saying “that’s just the way it’s done?”


If so, I’d like to share this story with you.  I’ve definitely been on both sides and when I heard this story last year, it’s message really resonated with me and I’ve always tried be cognitive of both positive and negative routines since then:

This story starts with a cage containing five gorillas and a large bunch of bananas hanging above some stairs in the center of the cage. Before long, a gorilla goes to the stairs and starts to climb toward the bananas. As soon as he touches the stairs, all the gorillas are sprayed with cold water. After a while, another gorilla makes an attempt and gets the same result—all the gorillas are sprayed with cold water.  Every time a gorilla attempts to retrieve the bananas, the others are sprayed.

Eventually, they quit trying and leave the bananas alone.  One of the original gorillas is removed from the cage and replaced with a new one.  The new gorilla sees the bananas and starts to climb the stairs. To his horror, all the other gorillas attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted. Next, the second of the original five gorillas is replaced with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Next, the third original gorilla is replaced with a new one. The new one goes for the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four gorillas that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest gorilla.

After the fourth and fifth original gorillas have been replaced, all the gorillas that were sprayed with cold water are gone. Nevertheless, no gorilla will ever again approach the stairs. Why not?

“Because that’s the way it has always been done.”

(If you would like it in handout form, it can be downloaded here)

Can you think of a scenario where you have been one of the gorillas never sprayed with water? If so, it may be time to rethink some personal or professional routines.

One routine that I challenged was scale testing in Grade 12.  It’s just what you do, right? But in mid-June at the end of a student’s grade 12 year, why the hell do I care if they can play 12 or 15 or 24 or 30 scales? Is that what I want them to leave with? The last thing I did in that Band Room was play Gb harmonic minor?

What does that say about my program? Or about what I value? Or about what they’re leaving with?

What we do instead are projects focussing on reflection, music as a part of their lives and their future as music makers.  Some examples as such include:

“The Soundtrack of My Life:”


“Musical Autobiography”

No pressure to use those two (I don’t think I do anymore, I’ve tweaked them enough so that it better reflects the value of my program), but if you want to, the resources are there.

While I’m certainly not the poster child for this, it’s something that I’m working on and I just want to share my experience with you.  For example, we’ve revamped our rules on the lending of instruments – we have a contract, but now also a sign-out sheet, making it more accessible for kids to learn new instruments by playing them at home.

Anyway, it’s always good to challenge and tweak our ways of doing things.  If you keep the wheel of a car straight, the curvature of the Earth will send you into the ditch, but if you course correct as you drive, you’ll stay cruising on the road 🙂

Have a great week!

Music Ed Mondays – Being Together

Being together, not just doing together.”

– Bill Kristjanson
Music Educator 

There really is something magical about the music room, isn’t there? It’s not just a classroom (though, it definitely is that as well), kind of the same way that the gym isn’t just a classroom, there’s something special that happens there too, albeit in a different way.

We don’t play music to hash out notes, crunch rhythms or work repertoire – those things happen and are sometimes necessary, depending on the piece or the skills/concepts being learned – but again, it’s really more than that.

The music room is a place of expression and in order to really make it authentic, an enormous degree of vulnerability, trust and risk-taking needs to be present in each and every student.   If there is one thing that seems impossible to ask from a juniour high or high school student, it’s vulnerability.  But the strangest thing happens inside that room: It happens and it happens repeatedly only if we foster it.

Yet, it happens in music rooms all over the world demonstrated through both testimony and performance – think about all of the vulnerability going into every piece of music that we hear in a concert.  For these emotional responses to be felt in performance, they must be nurtured in rehearsal in the ensemble and not just in one or two students, but in the vast majority of them.

My mentor in fourth-year Music Education and pillar of Manitoba’s music education community, Bill Kristjanson, said it best when describing the culture of music: “[it’s about] being together, not just doing together.”

Now, as teachers of these mixed bags of students, how do we foster students to become willing to wear their heart on their sleeve? There’s no silver bullet here, folks, but here are some thoughts and questions that I’ve had on how to start.

  • What is your relationship like with your students? Are you genuinely and authentically interested in their well-being? (this is a  whole post in itself)
  • How are you demonstrating what you’re asking of them while you’re on the podium? (As a teacher? As a conductor? As an adult role-model?)
  • How often do you ask them to journal/reflect about their own emotional experiences? (either in relationship to music or on their own)

And perhaps a final thought…

  • How often do you imagine other classes ask them to do the same thing?

I hope that other classes ask them to do it all the time, but that may not be the case (power be to the Pre-Calculus teacher who asks their students to reflect on their relationship to math 🙂 * )

Our subject matter is innately emotional and while I make no promises in giving magic formulas or silver bullets in solving all of music education’s issues, I really want Music Ed Mondays to trigger thoughts about why it is we do what we do (as teachers and mentors) and how we can make our music rooms better places for both kids and music.  Let’s end with another Kristjanson-ism:

“Find something good and make it grow.”
– Bill Kristjanson
Music Educator

Until next time,

PS: Happy Halloween!
PPS: The garden illustration is from “The Doodle Girl,” found here.

* = There probably are math teachers who get their kids to emotionally reflect, I’m just picking on them because I love them 🙂

Music Ed Mondays – Educating the Heart

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”

– Aristotle

It goes without saying, but sometimes we (not only as teachers, but as a culture) really get caught up in our day-to-day, be it curriculum, routine, meetings, or whatever.  It’s not necessarily our fault because that’s just the pace of our world, but when we get reminded about the why of what we do (again, whatever that may be), it becomes our fault if we choose to ignore that reminder.

I don’t mean that negatively or critically, but let’s not forget about what got us into this job in the first place.

For me as a teacher, I got in it to teach kids, aid them in a positive development of their sense of self and improve the world by having more globally- and socially-minded human beings.  Now, does teaching F major or running rhythm worksheets assist in that? Directly, no; indirectly, yes without question.

Skill development always needs to be taught with the end in mind.  It’s SO easy to get caught up in scale tests, prep for the provincial or state exam, or the big essay coming up, but sometimes we have to pull ourselves from our routine and ask “now, why am I doing this again?”

If you don’t have an answer, it may be time to shift your thinking.

I justify F major to myself as having facility in a key better allows the student access to a piece of music that may move them, or at the very least, deliver an idea.  If the student keeps playing Eb instead of E-natural, the integrity of the idea and cohesion of the music is compromised.

The same argument can be made for spelling and punctuation in English: If integrity is lost through misplaced commas, apostrophes or wrong spelling, the very idea that you’re trying to communicate is compromised.  Or, to be transferred to literacy: If the student cannot translate the vocabulary or read the words, the ideas taken from literature that change the world are lost – odds are that you won’t take messages of social justice, innocence, equality and integrity from To Kill a Mockingbird if you’re inhibited by the level of the text.  It’s a round peg in a square hole; a shiny key for the wrong lock.

So, will F major change the world? On its own: No.  BUT, in the context of a piece evoking beauty to students who feel like the Music Room is the only place where they feel safe, confident and can express themselves freely without persecution? Absolutely.  So, why are we doing this again? Oh yeah, that’s right.

It must always be with the end in mind, which (for me) is to make a positive change in the student’s life and for them to take that change out into the world and improve it themselves.

For them, it will not be “will I make a difference?” But rather, “what difference will I make?” 🙂

Thanks for reading!