I’m a believer in Project Based Learning (PBL). I’ve seen it work quite effectively in my classroom as students are motivated to learn through overcoming the obstacles and challenges posed by the projects that they choose or that have practical application to their professional careers as educators. There are numerous studies that support the effectiveness of Project Based Learning as a compelling model for curricular design. However, I struggle to understand why so many students struggle to be successful with what I consider to be the ultimate PBL activity – applied music study.
Studying an instrument or voice engages the student in the fundamental tenets of PBL:
- Student-centered approach to learning – CHECK!
Student instruction is highly individualized based on a student's ability level and learning needs. Each student is unique. Applied instructors are diligent to differentiate instruction to meet individual student needs.
- Teacher as facilitator/guide – CHECK!
Because performance is skill based and, to a much lesser extent, information based, applied music instructors are not mere disseminators of information, but rather work carefully with each student, guiding skill development toward characteristic and appropriate performance practice.
- Metacognition plays a significant role in learning – CHECK!
Successful applied students must be intimately involved with metacognitive activities each time they sit down to practice. Applied students continuously evaluate their performance during a practice session, implement solutions to performance problems, then evaluate the success of their interventions. In short, applied study requires learning how to learn. Teachers help to guide students thinking about the learning process, but ultimately students must find this path for themselves through their independent practice.
- Open ended problems serve as the motivation and framework for learning – CHECK!
Assigned literature for performance is open to an infinite number of interpretations. There is no one way to perform any piece of music. In fact, skilled performers explore multiple performance approaches before deciding on one that suits his/her musical concept.
- Contextual factors influence learning – CHECK!
An understanding of the context of the music being performed plays a critical role in characteristic performance practice. Knowing the performance context – large ensemble, chamber, solo, band v. orchestra –historical style period, composer, collaborative performers tendencies, audience, expected outcomes, etc. all play a role in how a piece of music is performed.
- Problems reflect real world or professional practice – CHECK!
Developing performance skills has a direct application to all music fields. Most obviously as a performer who must perform in a group or as a soloist, but also to the music educator who will be asking for the same performance skills from his/her students, or the composer who must understand performance characteristics and limitations, the historian who learns the unique performance characteristics of each historical period through applied study, or as a therapist whose performance skills may influence the application of a specific therapeutic practice.
- Group work to promote collaboration and independence – CHECK!
Most performances take place in a collaborative ensemble setting where each performer is responsible for the independent preparation of his/her part. All ensemble members work together to create a musically cohesive whole.
Everything I know, everything I believe about PBL should have students highly motivated to work diligently to achieve in applied music study. But, practice rooms remain empty, little progress is made in performance skill development, and the lack of achievement is demonstrated in rehearsal and concert performances. What’s going on here?
Having taught in multiple states with distinctly different and diverse student populations across many years, the lack of motivation for learning and achievement in applied music study cannot be attributed merely to the “laziness” of today’s students. Nor can it be attributed simply to the quality, instructional approach, or experience of the teacher, as colleagues from within and outside my institution with varied instructional philosophies, backgrounds, and techniques have complained for years about the lack of student motivation and success in applied music study. Even with the “stick” of an upcoming recital, students cite fear of embarrassment in front of family and friends as the principle motivating factor for the “last minute” achievement that typically occurs immediately before a recital, rather than some intrinsic desire to overcome the challenges of performing the music itself.
For all of the PBL “buttons pushed,” why doesn’t PBL work in applied music study?