Cathy DePentu: Excited and Engaged in Teaching After 35 Years!

By Cathy DePentu

Thirty-five years ago a guidance counselor asked me, “Why should we schedule a student all four years in Orchestra? Aren’t students just repeating the same class?” I attempted to explain that students continue to grow musically and build greater facility and technique. He asked, “How do you know?” Hmmm.

Although I was able to describe the changes I saw and heard, and knew I was modifying the assignments for students at differing levels of experience, I had no way of producing concrete data. I can’t say I was too concerned about it at that stage of my life…I was a young, inexperienced teacher busy refining my classroom teaching skills, and as the kids were playing well. I thought I was all set.

Fast-forward twenty-five years. I met Ana Luisa Cardona and began my journey through formalized assessments and student directed learning. However it was not until I became a part of the MAEIA project that I began to see a transformation in both my teaching and my ability to assess and collect meaningful data. Over the past several years I have immersed myself in writing and editing assessments, field-testing and content review, demonstrating educator effectiveness/tracking student growth and am honored to be one of the Leadership Fellows. I look forward to delving into collaborative scoring next fall.

Many (okay, all) of these diverse roles have pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to reflect on my teaching. Starting with the basic—“what do I want them to know, how will I know when they have learned it, and how will I teach it”—I find myself moving more towards how can I measure an individual students growth and how will I teach them so that the material and the process of learning becomes “theirs”. I am trying to take myself out of the equation and empowering students to assume ownership for their individual and group process. The MAEIA tasks and events have helped guide my efforts, both as assessments and teaching tools.

Throughout this journey I have not seen a drop in performance quality, despite the fact that I do not direct the entire class period. Through sectionals and teacher assigned chamber ensembles, students are able to collaborate and contribute to their own rehearsal strategies and techniques. Many days I am a facilitator rather than a director, moving from room to room to observe rehearsals and occasionally offer a suggestion. It has been so exciting and rewarding to observe how a shift to seemingly “do less” has helped create empowered, independent musicians. As we debrief from these activities, students are surprised to realize they have created a learning process that can work in all areas of their life.

Using an assessment as a teaching tool: “Listen to our concert recording!”

We all remember hearing or giving those instructions. It usually resulted in a casual “hearing” of the piece while students chatted with their friends.

What was actually learned?

What was the directors’ implied goal for the activity?

Of course, the intent was to have everyone listen critically to the recording and objectively critique and analyze the performance. As teachers in the performing arts, this sort of listening and analysis is what we do every time we are on the podium, but have we taken the time to dissect what we are doing so that we can teach our students to successfully execute this multi-layered task?

So I asked myself, do students know how to listen? I know they can hear, but are they able to listen?

Can they accurately identify and evaluate the characteristics of tone, intonation and expression?

Can they construct and implement appropriate strategies to adjust and correct any problems they discover?

I have used M.T 421: Performance Critique for several years first in its newly written, untested form, subsequently as a field tester and beyond. I have modified it for use in grades 6-12 and use it as both a teaching tool and an assessment. For use as an assessment, I follow the directions as described in the teacher booklet. Modifications to the task to teach critical listening at all levels are described below.

Suggested Total Time:
This lesson can be completed in one 50-minute class period including time for discussion.

List of Materials Required:
-Recording of a short piece or excerpt of a longer piece from a recent performance and playback equipment

-The sheet music being performed

-Sufficient copies of the rubric/answer sheet for each student (I run two-sided copies, but you could project the rubric onto a white board).

-Pencils and a writing surface for each student.

Lesson Procedure:
All levels, lesson introduction: Direct students to listen to the recording and read the rubric. Play the recording.

Subsequently, have students listen to the piece and evaluate one element each time. You will listen a minimum of six times. (My students actually enjoy listening while they complete their evaluations, I just keep playing it as they write)

Modification for more advanced ensembles:
As students become comfortable with critical listening/analysis, they can be directed to evaluate two or more elements simultaneously and correspondingly, become more facile with appropriate music terminology. The number of “listenings” will also be reduced. (I explain to the classes that the goal is to listen/analyze while they play and apply these techniques to their role as an individual musician, member of their section and role in the ensemble)

Using this assessment has completely changed the way the ensembles listen to their performance recordings (even the 6th graders!) Most side conversations have stopped and students remain engaged and focused. Their developing ability to evaluate what they hear and create strategies and techniques to self-correct shifts the responsibility from the director (“Fix that!” “Too loud!” You’re sharp!”) to the students and empowers them to be independent musicians.
A Bonus Discovery! As I completed grading my three orchestras’ papers according to the teachers’ rubric, I wondered if the students were actually learning to hear/analyze to the same standard. I pulled a random sample from each ensemble and tallied responses.

All three ensembles used the top three categories…no one used the lowest standard (which made me happy, as this was a performance recording). The Middle School ensemble used all three of the remaining categories, fairly evenly spread. The Concert Orchestra also used the top three categories but clustered around ratings of 3 and 4. The Symphony (the most advanced ensemble) only used 2 and 3, demonstrating more developed critical listening skills. No one in the advanced ensemble was willing to give the top rating, while younger ensembles were less critical. This is VERY informal data collection, but it did lead to some interesting discussions in class.

I encourage all arts teachers to take a look at the MAEIA resources. Pick one or two and give them a try with one of your classes. Modify them as you see fit, share them with your colleagues and administrators. These amazing resources can provide so much to benefit our teaching and our students, take advantage of our work!


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