A New Language; Teaching Music in the Early Grades

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Music teacher Tracy Brown at Crozet Elementary and Red Hill Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Far from the days of sitting still in rows of folding chairs, staring at a staff of notes on the chalkboard, students in modern music classes experience collaboration, culture, and creativity, and they get up and move. “One reason I went into music education was that my memories were of teaching being regimented and non-explorative,” said 20-year veteran teacher Tracy Brown at Crozet Elementary. “That, to me, is the opposite of what music is.”

From her kindergarten classes onward, Brown keeps her class activities varied, as on a recent day when students first heard a story with a melodic element, Ten in the Bed, and then sang and played on xylophones to mimic the ideas musically. She includes at least four of the six basic music-teaching elements—sing, move, listen, play, create, read (notation)—in every class, and finds that doing so “makes their attention span and behavior issues dissolve, because the kids are so engaged.”

Ukuleles at the ready at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin

Faced with a rising tide of distracting technology, music teachers try to ground students in the tradition and history of the discipline. “What does a piece of music created by slaves in the 1600s, or a classical work from the 1800s, tell us about culture and society in those times?” Brown asks her classes. While teachers do use YouTube videos, SmartMusic, and digital music software in their instruction, the heart of music teaching lies in hands-on exploration and appreciation.

The profusion of tech in students’ lives has created some interesting modern imperatives for teachers. “I really focus on ways to build community among the students,” Brown said. “Kids sometimes struggle to talk to each other, and to interact with people who aren’t their best friends, so we do activities like folk dancing where they are constantly switching partners and interacting with every other student.” Even when introducing older students to the basics of musical notation and composition, she emphasizes playing together. “We all find joy through ensemble, and finding that joy and being lifelong musicians and appreciators of music is so important,” she said.

Linda Corradino, now in her fourteenth year teaching at Murray Elementary, agrees. “I want to give my students an elementary music experience that encompasses the whole musical world,” she said, and has found that having them work in groups and perform for each other and their parents are keys to the process. After having two sons of her own, she recognized the value of movement in music and incorporated much more of it into her curriculum, constantly striving to keep the content fresh.

Music teacher Linda Corradino and class at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“Unlike a lot of teachers, fine arts instructors are often the only person teaching that discipline at their school,” said Corradino, “which can be a little isolating, but also allows you a lot of freedom.” A recent second grade class learned an African folk song with accompanying dance movements, then broke into groups to design their own dances. Each group performed their creation for the rest of the class in a rollicking call-and-response format that delighted the students. “It was hard to remember the order [of the dances], but really fun getting up there to do it,” said second grader Hank.

For her older students, “I’ve definitely evolved from a more structured style to one that’s more open and project-oriented,” said Corradino. Instead of assigning a formal Broadway-type musical for the fifth grade end-of-year show, last year Corradino partnered with the art teacher to give them more creative control with a final fine arts project—a wide-open challenge which allowed students, in singles or groups, to pursue whatever excited them musically.

Linda Corradino’s class at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The students jumped at the new freedom. One group re-wrote and performed a scene from Annie, while another created an album of original music using the computer app Garage Band. Each student also chose a piece of art to describe and display in a hallway gallery, and the audience strolled through after the musical performances, enjoying refreshments as they browsed.

It can be nerve-wracking to give up control in the classroom, said Corradino, but the results are worth it. “We didn’t know what to expect as we gave them less guidance than we used to, but the performances were amazing. The students were so much more engaged and composed because it was driven by their ideas.” As a bonus, using Corradino’s suggestions on how to ask questions about each other’s projects, the students ended up learning from their peers.

Band director Jeff Melton at Henley Middle School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The step from elementary to middle school music programs can often be more of a leap, as students suddenly become members of a jazz or concert band, and are expected to focus on being part of a section and playing a “real” instrument. Can’t yet read music? “Not a problem,” said Jeff Melton, band director at Henley Middle School. “Most can’t, and we just figure it out as we go. I want my classroom to be available to everybody.” Toward that end, Melton gives each new band student a 30-minute time slot during the summer to come in with his or her parents, try out the various instruments, and choose which they’d like to play.

More than a dozen years of teaching experience have taught Melton what is important to middle school sensibilities. One priority: it’s got to be fun. “Reading music is like learning a new language,” he said, “so if it becomes no fun, you lose them.” Another key is to foster the spirit of teamwork and pride in the group, so that students are able to take risks—like trying out improvisation—without fear. “Social relationships are really important to these kids, and one thing that’s great about band is how it can build confidence.”

Judging by the numbers, Melton’s strategies are working. Now in his third year at Henley, the size of his concert band has already doubled, and he’s added an open-to-all jazz ensemble to supplement his audition-only jazz group because so many wanted to play. To maximize his availability for busy students, he hosts the jazz classes before school three mornings a week, and offers a ten-week percussion class on the other two mornings.

More interested in collaboration than competition, Melton gives the students lots of opportunities to perform. The bands play at festivals, fundraisers, and pep rallies, march in parades in town, and even jam with the WAHS bands whenever they can. Many of these activities wouldn’t be possible without the tremendous support of the parents and administration, Melton noted, for which he is deeply appreciative.

But the source of his joy and inspiration always circles back to the students. The best moment of his teaching career so far came last year when one of his seventh grade musicians, arriving at a festival and spotting the Henley jazz band in the crowd, turned to her mom and said, pointing, “There they are, that’s my family.” Melton smiled at the memory. “That’s the perfect example of what I want to build—something that belongs to them, and they’re a part of it.”

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