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The first day of school is fast approaching for many of us. Many teachers have been getting very active on the Music Teachers’ Facebook page and trading for ideas on what to teach their students as the new school year gets off to a start. It’s exciting to see so many people who are eager about getting started. If you’re not a member of the Facebook group yet, please join.
So what are you going to be teaching your kids this year? What great plans do you have for them? I must admit I have very little clue about that right now, even though classes start in ten days. I know my curriculum and what we will achieve by the end of the year, but I don’t know yet quite how we will get there. To be honest, it’s not because I haven’t any ideas, or haven’t any desire to plan. I just haven’t met the kids yet. I haven’t seen any class rosters to see if I’m teaching any kids I already know. I don’t know whom I am teaching, and so I can’t choose my strategies and plan my content until I find out what makes them tick, and what makes them excited about learning music.
Music is an extraordinarily lateral subject. We can learn through singing, through playing instruments, through listening, through composing. We have many different pedagogies which have proven successful, including Kodaly, Orff, Gordon, and Dalcroze. We have cultures throughout the world who develop and enjoy music. We have a history of music that goes back almost two millennia, we have more current musical styles and tastes than at any point in music history, we have more ways for students to hear and appreciate music than ever before. Some might say that this makes our job harder, but I believe it makes it more fun. Music changes daily – your teaching should change as well, as new styles and methods are developed. At some point in your career, will you look back and realize that either you’ve taught for twenty years, or you’ve taught the same year twenty times? I hope it’s the former.
When you meet your students, find out what sort of music they like, how they like to learn, and how they like to make music. Then plan your teaching strategy accordingly. Importantly, the kids will understand that you value their tastes and their identity. Work outwards from here to introduce them to new music, making connections all the way with how a composer or performer creates their art. You may have a favorite music style, and a tried-and-true set of repertoire that helps you cover the curriculum, but let your teaching move into that area. It may mean at the start of the year that you are in unfamiliar territory musically speaking, but remember that you are the expert in the room, and you will be able to guide the students gently into expanding their musical palette and their comfort zone while they are enjoying unfamiliar music. You can not expect the students to be open-minded about your tastes in music (as that’s how they will see your curricular choices) if you are not open-minded about theirs. All music is valid for teaching (though the lyrics sometimes are not) so begin with an open mind. Find the teachable element in every piece of music you come across. I have yet to find a piece of music that I could not extract a valuable lesson from.
Use a survey at the start of the year to find out who and what the kids are listening to. Maybe have them write a short paragraph about their tastes, or create a class collage of pictures of their favorites. Then do your research by listening to what the kids are suggesting. Spotify and Youtube allow you access to music in ways hardly dreamed of a few years ago. Up until the last year or two, if you needed to listen to a new group or artists, you had to ask the student to bring in a CD, and that wasn’t always successful due to the lyrics problem noted earlier. Now you can search for new music at home on your computer, listen to it, and make some decisions about what direction you’re going to take your teaching.
My students will come to class all excited in about ten days. I’ll try to find out what they’re listening to. My guess right now is Daft Punk, Capital Cities, M Machine, amongst others, but it’s a lottery really. During my first week of school I’ll get to listen to some cool new music at home, and I’ll get excited about working out how I’m going to teach the kids. I know that during the year I’ll be introducing them to Brian Wilson, Sir George Martin, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Mike Oldfield, Kraftwerk, Imogen Heap, Herbie Hancock and other musicians whose work I’ve found extremely helpful in my teaching career, but that’s way down the pike right now. When we get there, they’ll enjoy learning about unfamiliar artists, because I will have linked to them from the music which they introduce to me at the start of the year, and they will understand the connection.
The fun begins next week. I’m ready.
Richard McCready is a composer, musician, and the Director of Music Technology at River Hill High School in Columbia, Maryland. He was born in Northern Ireland and studied tuba performance, piano, and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England. Since emigrating to the US in 1992, he has held teaching positions at The Park School of Baltimore, Towson University, and Mayfield Woods Middle School, Elkridge, MD; he has also played professionally with the Monumental Brass Quintet, the Lexington Brass Quintet, and the Denhard/McCready Duo. He has earned two Masters degrees from Towson University, one in tuba performance and one in vocal performance. He plays many musical instruments, but the focus of his teaching is Music Technology in which he is widely regarded as one of the outstanding innovators in the US. His book, Making Music with GarageBand and Mixcraft, was published in 2010. Richard was awarded the TI:ME 2013 Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year Award and also the Howard County 2013 Music Educator of the Year.