Aesthetic / Praxial » Music Education

We are at a critical crossroad in the pedagogy and rationale of a diverse and praxial perspective for teaching and learning in the field of music education. It is difficult in this day and age to firmly root ourselves in one, singular philosophy of what music education is. I think that as both practitioners and philosophers we will learn to form a conceptual framework that views phenomenon through a variety of perspectives and theories. Having said that, we may very well need to have an understanding of the aesthetic concept of music education in order for other viewpoints and philosophies to emerge. For the most part, we have taught or been taught in the aesthetic perception, which results in an aesthetic reaction to cause an aesthetic experience (Reimer, 1970, p. 107).

In the August 2019 issue of the Journal of Research in Music Education researchers Kenneth Elpus and Carlos Abril compiled a demographic profile of high school music ensemble students. 24% of the class of 2013 were enrolled in at least one year of a course in band, choir or orchestra. Less than a quarter of an entire school population took a music class; nearly three quarters of that population did not. In that report, the ethnicities of those participating in music is problematic to say the least.

This study is an indication, not the sole indicator, that we simply cannot rationalize the notion of culturally biased, late 19th century/early 20th century aesthetic premise of arts education, that in the 21st century simply does not pique a sense of curiosity of the culturally diverse 21st-century learner. Although as a result of the Tanglewood Symposium we read the adoption of an aesthetic basis for music education resulted in a singular and cohesive philosophy for the profession, it could be argued that its focus was narrow and would ultimately not accommodate shifting social and cultural realities (Mccarthy M, Goble J, 2002, p. 25).

Ubiquitous Learning

“Today’s students will be a knowledge producer, drawing together a range of available knowledge resources – instead of a knowledge consumer, fed just one source, the old textbook. They will work effectively in pairs or groups on collaborative knowledge projects, creating knowledge to be shared with peers. They will continue to learn beyond the classroom, using the social media to learn anywhere and anytime – a phenomenon called ‘ubiquitous learning’.”¹

Here in the first quarter of the 21st century, Education must consider and wrestle with the notion of learning anywhere, at anytime and ask ourselves: how do I fit into my students learning experiences?

¹Kalantzis, Mary, and Bill Cope. “The Teacher as Designer: Pedagogy in the New Media Age.”E-Learning and Digital Media, vol. 7, no. 3, 2010, pp. 200–222.


The Music Festival

Since I began my tenure at St. Ignatius College Prep, I have taken the Chamber Singers to this festival for several reasons: the quality of Adjudication and the level of musicianship by the participating choirs. In the almost 10 years of it’s existence, it has become the Bay Area’s premier choral festivals. I particularly value this summative assessment for not only my students but for me as well. To my knowledge, it is one of the only assessments that evaluate students and their teacher simultaneously.

NVCC Comments and Ratings 20Mar2015 by czullinger

I was tremendously pleased with the students work the day of the festival. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly pleased with their level of preparation throughout the process. I gave several formative assessments before the festival and those results were somewhat mixed. In the future, I could use the scoring rubric for the festival as a template for their own evaluation in those assessments.

What was most interesting is that the piece the students intrinsically favor the most from the set is their weakest piece at this particular snapshot in the music’s evolution. All things considering, I knew going in the Esenvalds was a stretch for this particular ensemble, not because they can’t sing it, it’s just that the composition simply demands more than this choir is capable of producing. They are a High School chamber choir of 28 voices, and when I first was programming this festival set, I was captivated by my colleagues College choir of about 32 – undergraduate and graduate voice majors – sized ensemble.

Yet again, this piece won their hearts over and they love so much to sing this piece. Looking back, and looking forward, I don’t think I have found the right standing order so they can really hear each other adequately. Also, it is very difficult to tune the water glasses and achieve a consistent sense of intonation with the chimes and choir. At the retreat when we first learned the piece, I had 2 performers per pitch on the tuned water glasses; we performed with only 1 on a part at the performance. Our intonation (tuning) was not our strongest component that afternoon.

William Byrd’s Sing Joyfully, on the other hand, is a perfect selection for this choir. This music is difficult, mostly because singers in the 21st century can’t instantly recall the ‘sound’ of music over 400 years old in the same way they can differentiate between the subtleties of Hip Hop. It’s just not in their ears. In the learning process, this requires a lot of patience and vocal modeling. Over the years, I have observed Renaissance music for high school students has – to some degree – been motivating for them because they just want to figure it out, kind of like a puzzle. There is also a sense of satisfaction when these mostly linear phrases lock  into vertical sonorities at cadential points along the way.

I also have been very cognizant of what it is the students are really trying to attain: a Unanimous Superior plaque or authentic music making and sharing. I really believe in the format of this particular choir festival. After the performance, each ensemble receives a 20 minute clinic from one of the Adjudicators in front of other students from participating schools. The festival focus has always been: Educational from the country’s top, collegiate choral directors and sharing choral music from exemplary High School choirs in the Bay Area (it is an Invitational choir festival). And yes, the performance is rated/graded (fortunately it is not ranked).

The students had some interesting thoughts about the experience that can be found here:

Learning Space Makeover

My colleague and I inherited a teaching space with two primary purposes: a) Band rehearsal room, b) Music Appreciation classroom. This double wide classroom was used for this purpose for nearly two and a half decades before our arrival in 2008.

When my colleague and I arrived we continued to use the space for similar functions but soon realized the limitations of the space and began to conduct instrumental music rehearsals in larger, multi-purpose rooms, but the Band Room continued to be used for Music Appreciation classes. We cobbled together an old, gun-metal gray A/V cart with a used combo cassette, CD and AM/FM unit (with an AUX input) connected to a video projector that displayed content from our computers, complete with a pull-down screen! We used the space this way for a good 6 years before I attend my first ISTE conference last summer (2014 in Atlanta). During the conference, conversations with our Educational Technologist – whom I was traveling with – went something like this: if we had a space to “re-do” at school, what could it look like? Coincidentally, the Band Room and several other areas around campus had been scheduled for seismic retrofitting construction the same summer as the ISTE conference which was a perfect convergence, and opportunity to design and make this space into a 21st century learning environment.

Here is the room as it had been oriented since I had arrived at St. Ignatius College Prep. It was essentially a rehearsal room after school and a classroom during the regular school day.IMG_0145

Rehearsal spaceIMG_0158

Under construction June 20142014-05-29 14.01.11

Some sketchesBand Room_north wall

Architectural Plans for installation of itemsBand Room blue prints

Stuff beginning to appear. Jamie and I setting up the flat screen (after mounting to the wall)2014-10-09 11.06.53

Learning space beginning to resemble Skitch drawings. Had to keep the old A/V cart around for good measure! Sitting next to it is an 12-channel Berhinger mixer connected to a Crown 300w amplifier which will power the 12″ Berhinger speakers mounted on the wall just above white boards. Affixed to the mounting bracket for monitor is an Apple TV for wireless connectivity.2014-10-25 17.25.13

A few weeks ago I picked up a headphone preamp so we could start an iPad Band jam session. The space also has 5 iMacs around the perimeter of the room (seen here) for teams to use more robust versions of Garage Band and/or iMovie.IMG_1963

The next phase is to incorporate some furniture that encourages collaboration and creates group sectors or pod areas in the room. This would include chairs, tables and desks that are modular and mobile since the space is fairly large and could support a variety of classroom arrangements. I have some ideas from a company called Steelcase that I would love to outfit the room with sometime in the next 12-16 months. And finally, none of this is possible without sharing and the ideas from my colleagues Jamie Pruden and Eric Castro for their contributions in this project.


The following is the result when I asked myself and my students how we might change the school culture through music:

This Pep Band of the 2014-15 school year became the highlight of the Varsity football and basketball seasons. Our culminating performance was the halftime of the Bruce-Mahoney basketball game in January. The band got to have 3 minutes of playing time, center court, directly in front of about 300 cheering students.

What started out as a conversation with several of the Athletic department’s administrators turned into a group of guys that would ultimately rehearse and direct themselves for the entire school community. They practice on their own, order their own dinner and are some of the school’s most accomplished musicians. They simply have become bigger than anything I could have imagined.

It was only an idea with a heavy dose of encouragement, being there for everything at the beginning, communicating with the adults in the building, buying pizza, and setting an example about how to pour energy into a performance. I honestly feel like this maybe the first time I have truly felt successful as a teacher for a group of music students. It is the ever so delicate balance between teachers doing and allowing, particularly in the field of music education.

Give them a fish and you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.

And again, it is the result of these key ingredients: change, creating, and Eddie Van Halen.

Letter to SI Chamber Singers, Fall 2014

In the spirit of “Dear People” the book by Joseph A. Mussulman that compiled letters Robert Shaw wrote to his choirs, I wanted to share some thoughts I had about this particular piece with the 2014-15 Chamber Singers in November 2014. At the end, there is a video of us performing the piece at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, CA on Friday, December 19, 2014.

Hello gang,

I sat in a soprano and alto sectional a few weeks back and was struck at the very simple question Ms Hollow, one of our vocal coaches, asked the gals, “what does Resmiranda mean?”. I came in towards the end of the sectional and it was obvious that they learned what the phrase meant (wonderful circumstance and/or happening).

I have been personally drawn to this piece and text for quite some time now. This recording we have is by a high school group my wife sang in when she was a senior in high school (Vintage High School Chamber Singers ’94). Her teacher eventually became my graduate school mentor – this is a great story in itself, but back to the story at hand.

There is No Rose is an English carol that dates back to the Middle Ages c.1420. The text is written in two languages: Middle English and Latin. Most fascinating to me are the marriage of musical elements with the rich allegories infused in the text. This idea of “little space” which is Mary’s womb, where heaven and earth meet, and how it interweaves the Latin of the Church with the English of the common people — as if interweaving spiritual and secular themes, symbolically, through the use of two languages. And finally, the phrase Transeamus or let us cross over is set to just about one of the most amazing clips of choral music around. Let us cross over. Where is it that we begin and where do we move to? Is the choral ensemble a bridge for all that is human and all that is divine?

Honestly, I truly believe this is music. It is a vehicle, a bridge, for all that is divine and all that is human in the hopes that in the center we catch a glimpse in either direction. There are pieces of music out there that are simply transcendent for me. Occasionally, an ensemble emerges through days of interviews, hours of auditions and of course time spent with one another that are capable of not only re-producing what’s on the page – musically and vocally) – but are open enough to peek into all that is possible from the page: You are this ensemble.

You all have the potential to unlock the mystery of this piece and share with your audience. Having said that, it does require note/rhythm accuracy, attention to phrasing and all the musicality that is required by any piece of music, but it also requires a vulnerability, a clear picture of how this piece sounds and feels when it is right in you. There is No Rose is one of those pieces that helped me confirm that this guitarist wanted to stand in front of choirs and make music with one another. Those stories my wife shared with me my first years teaching, and this particular recording helped me conceive what is possible by a group of people who are drawn to a) the collective effort b) those in the world that think and feel.

What it means to be American

Eddie-Van-Halen.2.12.15On Friday, February 13 Edward Van Halen was honored as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History program “What it means to be American” that seeks to explore the American experience. I can honestly say that I would not have a career in music if it weren’t for the influence of Eddie Van Halen on me as a guitarist, musician and innovator. I’m glad to be alive and witness to his legacy that is being honored for what I’ve been saying for years now.

When I was eleven years old, one of the first albums I purchased was Van Halen’s 1984. I had heard songs Jump and Panama on the radio, but when I listened to the B side, I was drawn to the gems near the end of the record: Girl Gone Bad, House of Pain, etc. What I would later come to realize, but could not articulate at the time, this album would essentially encapsulate everything that Eddie had accomplished as a rock guitar icon and song writer to date: the clever pop hit Jump featuring his first instrument – the keyboard, the now infamous two-handed tapping technique in Hot for Teacher, sampled sounds such as his Harley Davidson as an intro on Hot for Teacher, or the Lamborghini engine revs in Panama, and finally a song writing that reflected his maturity coming into full bloom paving the way for the lyrical work yet to come in 5150.


In any conversation about the guitar, particularly in rock music, one cannot have this discussion without including Eddie Van Halen’s innovation and technique as it relates to the evolution of the instrument. After Jimi Hendrix, Eddie’s concept and approach to the guitar transformed the way we play the electric guitar. In 1978 listeners had no concept or explanation of what they were hearing from that now iconic second track from their debut, self titled album Van Halen in the composition Eruption. Below is a complete video of the interview at his induction ceremony:

After watching this, I’m reminded of the fact that Edward Van Halen is by no means a perfect human being. There are his quite public personal struggles with alcoholism, a failed marriage to actress Valerie Bertinelli and other well documented personality clashes with the singers of Van Halen. However, I think the real miracle here is that this man is still alive and growing more and more comfortable with terms “living deity”, icon, and innovator. How many of these artists have come and gone before leaving this world far too early: Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, John Lennon, Curt Cobain, etc.?

My hope is – and this is simply in his DNA or not – that Eddie Van Halen will use this opportunity to demystify his persona, use this status and notoriety to share his story with more audiences. While it is true – Edward Van Halen will undoubtedly be included in conversations hundreds of years from now and his name in the history books as one of the geniuses of the art form. The real gift is in the form of this new founded generosity and humility of becoming comfortable in this role as a genius living among us in the present.

Listen: SI Chamber Singers on iTunes

I’m actually quite pleased with this project which is a culmination of some very special years with my students from the St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers. The CD is a culmination of choirs that features songs recorded in venues from around the world! A majority of the tracks were recorded on the 2nd “In the Footsteps of St. Ignatius” European choir tour at the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa Maria in Tolosa, Spain.

St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers

Preview songs from Listen by the St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers on the iTunes Store

What I really do for a living

west-side-storyThis spring I am lucky enough to be music directing West Side Story. If I were to take away the pillars of American Musical Theater from this book: Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and an apprenticing Stephen Sondheim (if one can even imagine that), you’d have just another book musical. But as you know, there’s really no way to do that. One has to acknowledge that West Side Story is simply one of those shows that is a cornerstone of American Musical Theater. Show Boat introduces to the world what a book musical could be, Oklahoma establishes that choreography is as compelling as the music and acting, and then there is West Side Story. The sun sets on this chapter of the history of the book musical as the curtain opens for West Side Story, which is considered by some a culmination of the highest artistic achievement from each structural component of a musical…

And this spring, I get to conduct the damn thing…

I want to share my thoughts and experiences during the journey of this behemoth of a project. One observation I can begin with is that for the book’s sheer artistry the music is astonishingly straightforward and indeed doable. I am sharing with you at the point in the production after our sitzprobe, which on most accounts was a success. This music to me seems to fit or locks in a way other shows I have conducted in the past have not accomplished.

One final thought: maybe the ideal examples of this art form are the most simple in their construction and presentation. Don’t get me wrong; this book is not for the faint of heart! There are passages in this score that will continue to elude me for quite some time. However, in its complexity, there is a simple beauty that the authors must have foreseen in those first days when choreographer, composer, lyricist and playwright came together and decided to create this masterpiece. I think most of us can say, we are all better for it because of their ideas and the creative spirit.

WSS Directors
Creative Team of West Side Story. The ‘giants’: Harold Prince, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents

Again – this is the beginning, sort of. I decided to start this chronology at the point in the journey when instrumentalists and singers/actors came together. Tonight’s rehearsal adds the choreography with the show, which for some IS the sheer genius of this work. A colleague told me once – think of a musical as a wheel. There are several cogs in the wheel that enable the wheel to turn. Music is just one cog…

The Choice is Yours

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EVERY Educator AND Administrator should attend a Professional Development conference at the beginning of their school year. I was offered such an opportunity as integratED SF 2013 by the Organization for Educational Technology and Curriculum came to town. As you can imagine, I jumped at the chance to acquire more tools of the trade to toss into my bag of techniques and strategies as a teacher energized by educational technology. The Keynote speaker this year was Alfie Kohn.


Mr. Kohn was scheduled to to speak at the end of the first full day of the conference. Unfortunately, his plane was late from the East coast and the Keynote didn’t begin until well after 7p. Making the decision to wait it out after a day filled with discovery, rich conversation and fresh ideas, Alfie finally took the stage. After the first 5 minutes there was no doubt we were in store for a night of radical thinking that would challenge the very core beliefs of teachers – and administrators – about their assumptions of their craft and profession.

First statement/question: “What if we could actually generate, sustain and amplify kids desire to learn; an ongoing hunger to figure stuff out?”

Ok… you had me at ‘what if’. My brain had a few remaining cells for this next challenge and certainly my curiosity had shifted into a high gear as Kohn continued his ultra, critical assessment of our Education system in this country. Ready for some more?

The assault on the Educational establishment sent shock waves through the audience as an overtired and amped up crowd wandered aimlessly out into a warm, fall evening in San Francisco. Twitter traffic was a buzz throughout the keynote as #isf13 began to really trend in the blogosphere. Some went out to local eateries in small groups to disseminate what was just hurled at them and some, if not most, walked away alone to process what they had just experienced.


One thing is for certain, rarely do we have the opportunity to witness, listen and experience another human being speak so passionately and with an overwhelming sense of conviction about educational constructs that a great majority generally accept as Truth. For a majority of attendees at the IntegratED Keynote session this fall of 2013, their once thought accepted notions about tests (all flavors and varieties), grades and homework we’re obliterated by someone brave enough and has dedicated his life to exposing these elements that have systemically plagued Education in a post industrialized world.

Is this kind of chatter out of your comfort zone? Have your belief structures been disrupted?
Good. Now go take a look at the work that’s currently being done in this brave new world and join us on the path to change.

Alfie Kohn and Progressive Education Reference Links