Today, fill your cup of life with sunshine and laughter.

04 April 2010

For the Love of Music

Quote of the Day:

Get up from that piano. You hurtin' its feelings.

~Jelly Roll Morton~

I am a music teacher. It's more than what I do. It's my identity, my heart and soul. I am celebrating my 20th year doing what I love and it STILL gives me a rush to come to work most days.

I have always felt that music teachers are a breed apart. Whereas most teachers require a quiet and orderly classroom in which to teach their respective subjects, music teachers must thrive in an atmosphere of controlled chaos. They need to dig deep at times to compliment a child who has produced their first tortured note on a musical instrument. They need to turn a deaf ear to sonar emanations that would bring a lesser being to their knees. They need to develop appreciation for the musical experience, rather than for the music itself. And they need to display tolerance regarding the disparaging comments of their colleagues, who don't hear with the same set of aural skills or understanding as the music teacher.

In return, students enter the classroom with a sense of anticipation and a wide smile on their faces. Classroom management takes care of itself in an active music class. The kids want to be there and, for some, it's the highlight of their academic week. Students spend extra time at noon and after school in the places where they feel most connected and accepted. It is no surprise to me that the music room is one of the most popular hangouts at so many schools.

At my school, I've developped a middle school music program which allows students to explore more than one musical instrument. I have divided the school calendar into four units and the students may choose to switch to a new instrument at the beginning of each new unit. They may also choose to remain with an instrument for more than one unit, if they enjoy what they are doing and, by grade 8, they are expected to have chosen their principal instrument of study for the intensive music program offered in grades 9 - 10. It's a bit of a juggling act for me, but the appreciation and elevated interest in music here makes it worth every effort. A full 10% of this year's graduating class, whose interest was founded in their middle school experiences, have made concrete plans to continue their music studies at post-secondary institutions.

This week, my middle school classes did their turn-around. Many chose to remain with the same instrument but this year, there has been a surge in popularity of brass and woodwind instruments. Two girls in my class yesterday decided to take a session with the alto sax. For those of you who don't know, the sultry tones of the saxophone are the result of a great deal of time (maturity) and practice (experience), and in the hands of a beginner sounds more like a garbage truck at 4 am than a musical instrument. Much to my delight, the two girls picked up on the basic skills right away and soon were wending their shaky, squawking way through "Hot Cross Buns" and "Au Clair de la Lune". Oh my, they were loud. (heh) No one else in the music room could hear themselves and, accustomed to the situation, the rest of the students just sat back to ride out the storm. There was a lot of good-humoured joking about sound quality but an equal amount of positive feedback. Their songs were actually recognizable! But loud. Quite painfully so, in fact. And most people can only listen to "Hot Cross Buns" a dozen times or so before reaching their mental limits. It helps to have a sense of humour at moments like that.

Eventually, my budding sax players felt secure enough to be closeted in a "sound-proof" practice room while the rest of the class went about their business. The saxes were still clearly audible, though muffled. There were 5 trumpet players in the larger session room and 2 trombone players in the cubicle, none of which could be heard. In the main room, I had guitarists and keyboardists and in the adjoining room, there were 4 vocalists working on warm-ups and the pronunciation for an Italian folksong "Santa Lucia". It was lovely, productive and a happy time for everyone.

At the end of the class, after the students had left, the art teacher dropped by and, with a good-natured chuckle, she jokingly asked me what we had hacked to death during the early part of class. As she stepped out into the hall, she glanced over her shoulder and beckoned me over. As I approached the door, I could hear the shrill voice of a colleague complaining to another about the noise coming from my classroom and wondering loudly why, given how easy it is to teach music, I wasn't better at keeping my class under control, with all my years of teaching experience.

No matter what other people may say about me or my methods, I am confident of the results coming out of my classroom and of the contentment level of my students. Innocently, I strolled down the hall and joined the pair. Smile firmly in place, I invited that teacher to visit my classroom the following day during her preparation period to observe my discipline methods and to enjoy an "easy" afternoon of teaching. She hemmed and hawed but, as she had an audience, she grudgingly accepted.

This afternoon, she entered my lively classroom and was surrounded by the controlled chaos of the musical world in which I live. In class, I never stop circulating, pausing here and there to correct posture, hand position, comment, praise, listen or assist. There was peer-teaching, collaboration, earnest discussion and debate, theoretic exercises, technical discovery, fine and gross motor particip-action, reading, movement, listening and music of varying levels happening all at once. Every single student was positively engaged in a music-related task. At the end of class, there was a sharing session. There was no "quiet learning environment" but there were smiles, laughter, concentration, feedback and positive criticism flowing between the kids. Special needs students flourish in my classroom under the tutelage of their peers without the need of a teaching assistant. In any class of 25 students, there are 25 different levels of ability but in music, the course is tailor-made to each one and geared completely toward the success of the individual.

We teachers sometimes speak of the "sound of learning". For many, that may be the library-like hush of a quiet classroom but for me, the call of "Ms. M, listen to this!" followed by the jarring honk of an overblown horn defines active, positive learning unlike anything else. We want our students to be "lifelong learners" but whatever the subject, they need to connect to it in order to pursue it beyond our sphere of influence. We can teach, but students only learn what they are convinced will matter in their own personal lives. Everything else is trivial.

Music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul. ~Anonymous~


Travis said...

I am going to direct a good blog friend of mine to this post. She is also a music teacher. You may have visited her blog in the past at

Your articulation of what it means to teach music sounds so much like the way I hear my friend Mimi describe it.

Mimi Lenox said...

Oh my. We must talk. Oh my, oh my, oh my....

Bond said...

What I want to know is the reaction the invited teacher had once she sat though your 'easy' class

AND PLEASE talk to MIMI..I am amazed your paths have not crossed sooner

Coco said...

You know what Vinny? Her reaction didn't and doesn't matter to me. Her perception will always be uniquely hers and I can't fault her for that. Once upon a time, it might have but the naked truth is, she cannot ignore the evidence that the music program is motivating and engaging the kids at our school. That's all that matters, Vinny.

Bond said...

Very true Coco...very true...

Meribah said...

Twenty years. Wow. Congratulations on twenty years doing what you love. Hugs! :)

Dana said...

Sounds like you're a good teacher just by making the students interested and learning!