Habits of the Mind Reflective Essay – Wonderment and Awe
Nancy Shotts
Models of Teaching in Secondary Schools – Fall 2011
October 20, 2011
The Poteet High School auditorium is packed with parents, teachers, alumni,
administrators, judges, and students in March of 2007. All in attendance are eager to hear the
Pre-UIL performance of the choirs that will be competing at the Region III UIL competition in
two weeks. Questions such as, “Do you think they are ready for UIL?”; “What pieces are they
performing this year?”; “How does the bass section sound?” and “Do you think they will get
sweepstakes this year?” are rustling through the auditorium. At last the lights are dimmed, the
choir walks to the stage in a dignified manner, and a hush falls on the audience as 50 high school
students in formal concert black attire stand erect before them. Anticipation of the continuum of
musical experience that is about to occur is felt throughout the room among the performers on
stage as well as the ones who will be listening. Surely, this journey of travel from” sound, tone,
melody, harmony, rhythm, composition, performance, listening, understanding – and finally to
ecstasy” (Jourdain, 1998, pp. xiv, xv, xvi) involves a fascinating process in training the mind to
experience wonderment and awe.
In my study of the habits of the mind outlined in the Habits of the Mind by Costa and
Kallick I have concluded that of the 16 habits the one that is truly the pinnacle of training in a
choral classroom is this intelligent behavior of wonderment and awe. The authors describe it as”
letting my students’ imaginations take flight!” (Costa and Kallick, 2000, p.91) From the
moment I greet my students at the door the first day of each school year to the moment we say
our goodbyes as summer vacation begins I am meticulously and methodically guiding them
along each step of the journey to experience the “awe moments” in music! I have also
concluded that although I proceed through these steps of instruction in a generalized, scientific
and concrete manner, the end result is a uniquely personal, abstract, and indescribable
experience. For example, clearly posted in my classroom is a “performance pyramid” (see
diagram #1) in which the concrete foundational tools are at the base and the subsequent layers
build upon this foundation, ultimately leading to the top of the pyramid where wonderment and
awe occur. My belief is that without the base of accuracy and attention to detail at each layer the
wonderment and awe is not possible. Therefore, as a choir teacher I have a challenging job in
training my students to think like an architect, a scientist, a mathematician, a poet, an historian,
an acoustician, an actor, a composer, and finally, a performer who is capable of giving his
audience the magical moments of ecstasy through music as well as himself the powerful
experience of wonderment and awe. The musical experiences in my classroom reach the height
of musical expression in those moments referred to by Costa and Kallick (2000) as times of
“enjoyment, enthusiasm, and fascination” (p.91) experienced during their performance on stage.
The tedious process begins with the establishment of daily consistent routines. For
example, I train my students in the necessary disciplines of proper posture, correct breathing
techniques, healthy vocal production, and rhythmic and pitch precision and accuracy. I also
incorporate listening exercises in my daily lesson plan in order to train and develop their ears to
become critical listeners of themselves as well as their fellow choir members. For example, many
times after singing through a portion of a piece I ask for their input on what they did well and
what needs to be improved on in the music. In addition, throughout each class period, whether
we are putting the finishing touches on music for performance or competition, or just beginning
to work on new music, I weave music theory instruction into the lesson. My goal throughout
each of these steps is to give my students the necessary tools in order to read music and have the
strong foundation at the base of the performance pyramid. Without this base of consistent
training and the incorporation of a cluster of other habits of mind such as managing impulsivity,
striving for accuracy and precision, persistence, and learning continuously, wonderment and awe
is not likely to occur. In their book, Habits of Mind, Costa and Kallick (2000) refer to this
training as an “infusion of the habits of mind” and compare them to a “smorgasbord” (p.59) in
which the teacher has an array of habits to choose from, but selects those that will satisfy her
students’ hunger most effectively. And ultimately, in my choir classroom, I choose those which
most efficiently bring about the final habit of response with wonderment and awe.
After the foundation of correct notes and rhythms is laid my next challenge is to begin to
impress upon my students’ minds the meaning and interpretation of the text they are singing.
Many times this involves a reference to poetry, folklore, ancient literature, or an historical event.
Sometimes it even involves translating a text from another language and introducing them to new
vocabulary and styles of writing. Even at this step of the journey to musical wonderment and
awe, they are able to take ownership and begin to seek out a personal connection and response to
the music. I give them opportunities to articulate this as they write a brief reflection in their
journals the last few minutes of each class period. I also incorporate other techniques for
internalizing the text such as writing the words on colored paper in a creative and artistic manner
which I then use to decorate the room with. This assignment also helps them memorize as they
actually write out of the words. Some of my students are particularly talented in this way and
have created amazing “word pictures” of the texts of our songs. (Diagram #2) Again, as a step in
the process of that final “awe moment” at a concert, learning to experience a connection with the
lyrics in a personal way is crucial to the training of my choir as a whole to have the habit of
wonderment and awe.
With the first two layers of the performance pyramid firmly in place I now instruct my
students to move to the third level which is the addition of musical details such as dynamics,
phrasing, stylistic interpretation, tempo variances, and overall musical expression. I describe
these details to my students as the “sprinkles on the cake”. They are able to relate to the
delectable experience of enjoying a piece of cake with the extra flavor and color that these
sprinkles provide. An important part of this layer is the solid memory of the music as I have
them rehearse without their music in front of them and they are able to focus on me as their
conductor learning to follow every gesture and movement that I give them to bring about the
wonderment and awe in their own minds as they perform, and also in the minds of their
audience. At this point, an accompanist plays the piano accompaniment which adds another
dimension to the music and supports the style and musical expression of the piece. If additional
instruments are called for in the score, these are added at this time. Sometimes I also add other
elements to enhance the music, such as a piece one of my choirs recently performed at our fall
concert. The text describes a world where there is no poverty, no hatred, no war, and there is
instead, hope for all children. One of my students is taking American Sign Language, and I
asked her to sign this at the concert as the choir sang it. She came to rehearse with us in our last
class period, and the result was astonishing as the choir moved up to the level of adding music
expression and details as she was signing the song with them! The singers began to feel the
emotion of the song in a more personal and unique way. This is also a crucial step in leading to
wonderment and awe.
At this stage of the journey I am often tempted to settle for where my students are in the
process and to be content with achieving this level of wonderment and awe. However, I realize
that there is still one final layer in the process at the pinnacle of the pyramid. It takes a great
amount of discipline and persistence to be willing to identify, analyze, and correct any details at
this point that are not accurately and precisely executed in order to accomplish the final product
of wonderment and awe. It involves focus and concentration on my part and from my students
as well, but according to Costa and Kallick (2000), “students must come to see that striving for
accuracy is of great value not only in the classroom but in the world as well.” (p.83) Working
toward this pinnacle of perfection with complete accuracy in every note, rhythm, and word is
excellent training for my students in relation to other areas of life. And in addition, when I take
the time to train them in this final “dissecting” of the music and then put it all back together
again I have discovered that wonderment and awe is inevitable.
Another aspect of this habit of mind is the profound effect that music has on human
beings in general, whether the individual is performing music at the height of perfection, or
participating as a listener. In his book, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, the author states that
music “lifts us from our frozen mental habits and makes our minds move in ways they ordinarily
cannot.” (Jourdain, 1998, p.303) He goes on to say that “when we are embraced by well- written
music, we experience understanding that outstrip those of our mundane existence …” (p.304)
Training my students in this level of wonderment and awe is truly what I desire for my students,
and is one of the reasons I chose to teach music. The study of the arts gives students the
opportunity to be well grounded in practical skills and the obvious benefits of self-discipline and
critical thinking. Also, specifically, as noted in an example in Costa and Kallick’s book,
implementing the habits of mind into an 8th grade choral class resulted in a noticeable
improvement in students’ behavior and ultimately, their performance, which then resulted in
their capacity to experience wonderment and awe. (p.125)
The date is now April 2, 2007. The setting is the West Mesquite High School Auditorium
where the Region III UIL competition is taking place. The last choir performing is the Poteet
High School Varsity Mixed Chorale. Their final selection is an acappella piece by a leader in
contemporary choral composition, Eric Whitacre. One of many similar works, this particular
piece, “A Boy and a Girl” is based on a poem by Octavio Paz. Whitacre himself describes his
process of composing as simply trying to quiet himself “as much as possible and find the music
hidden with the words.” (Shadow Water Music Pub., “A Boy and a Girl”) The breathtaking
effect of Whitacre’s lush harmonies as well as Chorale’s meticulous execution of each nuance
mesmerized the panel of judges that day. Needless to say the layers of tedious training in habits
of the mind at every level of the performance pyramid resulted in the students on the stage that
day experiencing wonderment and awe, and even the fact that they proudly brought a trophy
back to their school that day was not as profound as the “awe moment” they experienced as the
conductor’s hands gestured the final cut – off and hung for just a few seconds before returning
them to her side. In that moment each student realized that this indescribable experience of
wonderment and awe had taken them beyond the notes on a page through a long journey of
training and finally, to a fascinating experience of musical ecstasy.
Costa, Arthur and Kallick, Bena. Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
Curriculum, 2000. 167 pp.
Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. New York: Avon Books, 1998. 377 pp.