Category Archives: School Music

Teachers Hall of Fame

Today is World Teachers’ Day. I was just wondering: do you have a personal Teachers Hall of Fame – with teachers who you are grateful of having met or been able to study with? What teachers are in your personal Teachers Hall of Fame? What traits do these teachers have in common?

Here are some thoughts about some of the best teachers I have had. These teachers:

  • Mastered their content and were enthusiastic and passionate about it.
  • Provided me with guidance and tools that suited my way of learning and helped me understand the content.
  • Thought outside of the box and created new ways of explaining things.
  • Never stopped learning themselves.
  • Created successful and positive learning environments.
  • Contributed to my personal growth in a profound way.
  • Inspired me because of their contributions to the community I lived in.

There is another thing that these teachers have in common. I believe these teachers were / are in what Sir Ken Robinson calls “The Element”:

“…the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.”

Every time I have met a teacher who is in their Element they have helped me find out something about my own Element.

What do you think makes a good teacher? And if we narrow it down to the areas of specialism this blog is about: what do you think makes a good music teacher? A good singing teacher? What teachers do you think belong in a “Music Educators Hall of Fame”? Why?

By Katja Maria Slotte

Flutes are for girls and percussion is for boys?

This is a chapter of my master thesis ‘Women in Salsa’ (2009). Are gendered instruments still a fact, and what are we music educators doing in order to break with this cliché?

Gendered instruments

First, there is an extensive range of studies analyzing the gender-stereotypes of musical instruments. Hallam (2008) conducted a research among British school children aged between five and nineteen years, where she studied which instruments are the most gendered, and illustrates some of the possible reasons for those differentiations. According to her findings, girls’ (and women’s too) choice for an instrument depends on such factors as the shape or size of an instrument, its pitch and sound quality, and the physical characteristics necessary to play the particular instrument (Hallam, 2008: 7). In accordance with her results, girls are more probable to play small and higher pitched instruments, as example the flute, which is one of the most gendered musical instruments.

As Gourse writes in her study about the jazz scene, female horn players experienced insults, or were even occasional physically attacked. It was unacceptable for men to see a woman blowing an instrument, which let to comments such as “I hate to see a woman do that” (Gourse, 1995: 8 ).

While today brass and woodwinds instruments are still extremely gendered, the saxophone is gender neutral. Amongst the various percussion instruments, there is a clear dominance of boys playing the Kit drums, whereas African drums are gender neutral.

Those numbers are conforming to traditional views on gender and practice of music instruments. Nicholas Cook wrote that practically all of Jane Austen’s female characters played the piano (1998: 106). This female preference for the piano, or keyboard is still ongoing today, as the research of Hallam (2008) proves. Eklund Koza (1991) is noticing a comparable fact while examining the role of women in music as described in Godey’s Lady’s Book, popular in the nineteenth century. At that period, keyboard instruments were the most prominent among women, while men preferred instruments of the orchestral woodwind and string families such as violin and flute. The book does not mention any female musicians in connection with percussion or woodwind instruments (1991: 107).

As Zervoudakes and Tanur (1994, cited in Hallam, 2008: 9) remarked, a change in girls’ choice for instruments between 1959 and 1990 can be noticed, and one realizes that girls are gradually opting for both, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ instruments.

It is important for girls or women to have role models. As Bruce & Kemp (1993, cited in Hallam, 29008: 9) found out, girls are more probable to choose a ‘masculine’ instrument if there are other female musicians playing that same musical instrument. This phenomenon has also been confirmed by Maite Hontelé, a Dutch trumpet player:

Well, girls find it in general nice to see that there is a woman who gives the lesson. Then they see that it is possible for a girl to play the trumpet. What I do while teaching is to support the girls in their choice to play the trumpet. (Interview on July 6th 2009)

She had two role models herself, from whom she could receive the confirmation that it is possible for women to play the trumpet successfully (interview on July 6th 2009).

May Peters, while teaching at the Puerto Rican conservatory was interestingly not only a role model for girls but also for her male students.

They [the male students] also tell me: wow, I think you are so great, Maestra! They even tell me that they would enjoy having a mother like me. This is for me the reason to be there; being a role model. (Interview on August 3rd 2009)

A further influence is the social environment. Especially during the adolescence, peers have an enormous influence and one runs the risk of standing under enormous pressure if one is opting for ‘the wrong’ instrument (Hallam, 2008: 14). Again, the same occurred in the case of Maite Hontelé who found it extremely important in the early stages of her musical experience that female friends of hers played the trumpet as well (interview on July 6th 2009).

If, on the one side female musicians are slowly accepted playing ‘masculine’ instruments, on the other side one is still making differentiations in performance practices of women. The most apparent example is the one of female percussion players. Waxer states that, while men are playing the congas or bongos (both Afro-Caribbean percussion instruments used in Salsa, next to the timbales) mainly being seated, women are expected to play them standing up, since it is considered “unlady-like for a woman to be seated with her legs spread around a percussion instrument” (2001: 242). She further mentions the female keyboardists, who also play standing up. The reason for this, according to Waxer, is the expectation that women show legs and dance while performing (2001: 242).

By Jeanne Schmartz

Thoughts for an Educator

Image: Daniel St. Pierre /

1. Your personality is your most important tool.

2. Make your views come true.

3. Always respect people.

4. Recognize your own limitations.

5. Be consistent and reliable.

6. Develop a sensitivity to experience things from the point of view of whom you educate.

7. Be ready for self-criticism, yet without abandoning yourself.

8. Leave space for whom you educate – also for making mistakes.

9. Do not break the agreements and promises that you have made.

10. Cherish your inner freedom, which is your most precious asset.

By Martti Lindqvist

Translated from Finnish by Katja Maria Slotte

The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

“Pentatony is an introduction to world literature: it is the key to many foreign musical literatures, from the ancient Gregorian chant, through China to Debussy.” – Zoltan Kodály

Any music educator who has taught songs or musician who has improvised melodies using the pentatonic scale knows the power of the five tones. The five-tone pentatonic scale has been called the most universal of scales, because of its substantial use in music cultures around the world, including West African music, Sami joik singing, Hungarian folk music, Indonesian music, Appalachian folk music, Celtic folk music, Chinese music, and Andean music, to only mention a few. The pentatonic major and minor scales are commonly used in jazz, blues and rock music, and the blues scale predominantly derived from the minor pentatonic scale. In classical music, the pentatonic scale was used by Western impressionistic composers including Claude Debussy.

In this interesting video from the World Science Festival 2009 Bobby McFerrin uses audience participation and the pentatonic scale to demonstrate neural programming, as part of the event “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus”. At the end of his “pentatonic brain hacking” McFerrin mentions that regardless of where he is, anywhere, every audience gets it. Aside from the fact that the pentatonic scale seems to be used in music cultures around the world, interesting questions arise. Why does it seem that the pentatonic scale is universal? Is our brain programmed to “think pentatonic”?

Perhaps it is. A Belgian research found the pentatonic scale could be heard in the vocal interaction between babies and their mothers. And whoever has listened to children on a playground, can recognize the so-mi / la-so-mi patterns in their chants. This natural use of the pentatonic scale by children lead music educators including Zoltan Kodály and Carl Orff to largely use the pentatonic scale for pitch-matching and improvisation in their music education approaches. Not only babies and children seem to gravitate towards pentatony though: military cadences, used to keep soldiers in step while marching or running, also typically use pentatonic scales.

So where did the pentatonic scale come from? Doug Goodkin writes in Play, Sing, & Dance – an Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (2002):

“Some people (Leonard Bernstein among them) have theorized that the universal quality of the pentatonic scale comes from a subconscious sounding of the overtone series. A string produces a sound based not only on the vibration of the whole string, but also on vibrations of that string in halves, thirds, etc. Each division produces a soft, but audible tone called the overtone that becomes a part of the texture of the fundamental tone. This is not only true of strings, but any vibrating body, be it a tube of air or metal gong or drumskin.”

I find it interesting to theorize about the universal quality of the pentatonic scale or about our brains being wired for music, but what counts for me in the end is that it actually works. No matter what age, no matter what cultural background, be it with people who are completely new to music/singing or with music professionals…the pentatonic scale can always be used.  In my singing workshops I often use pentatonic songs from various cultures and music styles, and base a lot of my vocal improvisation and ear training exercises exercises on the pentatonic scale or pentatonic modes – often combined with accompanying drones or ostinato melodies.

Some musicians and music educators dismiss the pentatonic scale as sounding one-dimensional. Before you dismiss these powerful five notes, try exploring beyond the major pentatonic scale. Also, in my opinion, whether a scale sounds one-dimensional or not does not only have to do with the scale itself. It also has to do with how we use our instrument (in my case, the voice). A pentatonic improvisation can either sound like a “somewhat boring children’s song” or “sound like magic” depending on how the singer uses  rhythm/timing, sound color, volume, etc. and on how the accompanying vocals are built up. Perhaps more about that another time. For now, let yourself be inspired by Bobby McFerrin and his “pentatonic brain hacking”!

By Katja Maria Slotte

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