Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom

Computational Thinking and the Orchestra Classroom.
I recently had a incredibly interesting conversation with NCSSM's Instructor of Computational Chemistry. He is a dear friend and a long-standing member of the NCSSM faculty. He introduced this concept to me as part of a conversation regarding the direction of our school's greater program and I have thought about it a great deal over the past several months. I believe that we will hear more and more about this concept, especially in the areas of STEM education in coming years. Computational thinking, when defined, is easily related to the music and orchestra classroom. I believe that I have been engrossed in computational thinking for virtually my entire life as a musician; from the time I was a student, to young teacher, to now as a veteran teacher. We use computational thinking when we are playing instruments, when we are practicing, when we are playing in or conducting an ensemble, and when we are planning and creating pedagogy and instrumental lessons. So, let's dive deeper into the concept of computational thinking as it applies to the orchestra class.

"Computational Thinking (CT) is a problem solving process that includes a number of characteristics and dispositions. It is essential to the development of computer applications, but it can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including the humanities, math, and science." ~Wikipedia

In this essay, we will focus specifically on music.

Students who learn computational thinking across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between academic subjects, as well as between life inside and outside of the classroom.  This is, obviously, a goal of arts and humanities programs in all school settings. I believe it is additionally a strong goal of music education and ensemble performance classes. We continually seek to facilitate interdisciplinary ideas, learning, and expression on a daily basis.

Computational thinking involves a number of specific components. Let's begin to look at them here.

1. Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts. 

I would hope that every music educator who reads this is thinking, "This is what I do every day." The goal of all strong pedagogy would be to facilitate success with complex musical ideas and tasks by breaking those tasks into smaller, more palatable increments. We do this throughout every rehearsal cycle in an ensemble. We also do this in music lessons on a daily and weekly basis. I often say that the most important music lesson a student ever has is the first one they have. That first lesson is when a strong foundation of " setup " is established. This is the beginning of success in much more complex techniques. Think about how one might approach teaching a student the technique of vibrato. It is not haphazard. There are many individual steps towards developing that complex technique. One might argue that we are never finished with the process. I believe that the most successful music educators are those who take the time to fully decompose the most advanced of musical techniques and articulate the process clearly.

2. Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data.

Any student who has learned to play an instrument through the Suzuki method, understands the importance of pattern recognition. To this day I still hear and see the pattern of four eighth notes and two quarter notes as "caught a little bun-ny." That pattern was drilled over and over to me at the very beginning of my music instruction. We seek patterns all the time in music. Rhythmic recognition is truly pattern recognition. Jazz musicians understand this as learning figures. Key recognition is truly pattern recognition. Modal recognition is truly pattern recognition. Shifting is pattern recognition. I could go on and on. The best musicians are recognizing patterns all over the place. It is truly one of the strongest skills that a musician develops. The more we recognize and repeat patterns, the less we have to really think about fixed ideas during a rehearsal or a performance. I often say to my ensembles, "solve the equation once." What I am really saying is to find the patterns, recognize them, and repeat them. This will free your mind up to think about other things in that same moment.

3. Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns

This may be my most favorite element of preparing a score for rehearsal. I am continuously seeking abstractions that I can use to articulate concepts for my students. In the NCSSM orchestra, we just completed a performance of Beethoven's 6th Symphony. In the second movement, there are a series of 16th note patterns. As I lived with the score and studied it, I noted that the 16th notes really serve two purposes in that movement. In some cases, I identify the 16th note patterns as "the engine." The function of engine passages in Beethoven, in my opinion, is to establish rhythmic drive as well as a harmonic underpinning. Think of this as the rhythm guitar of the orchestra, playing chords and a driving regular rhythmic pattern. My students have grown to be able to truly identify "engine" passages whenever we perform Beethoven. The other type of 16th note passage in this movement is more of a "melodic" function. Beethoven embeds the melody within the 16th note undulation in these passages. So, during the course of rehearsal, I would have my students identify "engine" passages versus "melodic" passages of 16th notes. This type of abstraction should be prevalent in the work we do as music educators. And, ultimately, we want our students to be able to do this type of work as well. It is not easy. This requires us as music educators to step back from the fixed notion of notes and rhythm on a page. We need to see the score in a more functional manner. I have spent a great deal of time in recent years considering the functionality of every passage in the scores I conduct. What is the purpose of every single note and passage in any given score? When we can answer this question of functionality, we have truly begun to embrace the notion of abstraction within the score. When we help our students to think about a score in this way, we have offered them this notion of abstraction.

4. Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems.

This is sequential pedagogy in its most pure and basic form. Have you ever seen a video on YouTube of someone trying to explain a musical concept or technique who really hasn't developed a step-by-step process for solving the problem? I have! In the end, algorithm design is pedagogical design. We, as music educators, do it every single day. And, if it's not in the front of your mind when you are planning for teaching, I recommend that you begin to focus on this. I do not believe there is any one specific answer to algorithm design for music educators. But, this notion of creating step by step instructions is critical to the success of our students. Clarity always wins in the end. Many years ago, I had a friend and mentor encourage me to think in this manner. He cautioned me that folks to whom high level musical performance comes relatively easily, can have difficulties with this when explaining concepts to their students. I happened to be one of those musicians. Many advanced techniques came relatively easily to me for some reason. So, as a young teacher, I committed to decomposition and algorithm design in a significant way. It has paid huge dividends for me in the classroom over the years. I am so appreciative of that mentor's advice!

"The characteristics that define computational thinking are decomposition, pattern recognition/data representation, generalization/abstraction, and algorithms.  By decomposing a problem, identifying the variables involved using data representation, and creating algorithms, a generic solution results. The generic solution is a generalization or abstraction that can be used to solve a multitude of variations of the initial problem." ~Wikipedia

Another characterization of computational thinking is the "three A's" iterative process based on three stages:

Abstraction: Problem formulation;
Automation: Solution expression;
Analyses: Solution execution and evaluation.

These can also be easily linked to the process of ensemble rehearsal or instrumental music instruction. As conductors, we must first identify the problem through abstraction. Next, we express a solution which equates to automation. And then finally we execute a plan for solution and ultimately evaluate the success of that plan. This is what music educators do every single day.

"Some say that the four Cs of 21st century learning are communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. The fifth C could be computational thinking which entails the capability to resolve problems algorithmically and logically." ~Wikipedia

As music educators, we commit to this on a daily basis. Our students should be observing the computational thinking process in our work every day. And, by extension, we must be encouraging students to think computationally in everything that they experience as a musician. This is yet another justification for music programs within the context of a stem education. The way we can encourage students to think when in the ensemble classroom has undeniable links to the science, math, and engineering classroom.

I would love to hear your reaction to these thoughts. I also encourage you to consider some of these ideas when advocating for your program. These are important facets of the work that we do as music educators and the work that our students do when they are in our classroom. But, if we are unable to articulate these outcomes, the greater concept is often overlooked. 

I wish you all the best as you continue your work in the music ensemble classroom.