Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What Works

I feel pained that I have neither the skills nor the means to stop this epidemic of hate and violence in this country. But I do know some things about teaching music to kids that actually work. An 8th grader shared an essay he wrote in his high school application, his answer to the question, “Please write about a time, experience or person that has shaped or changed your life.” Here’s how he began:

I’ve always loved the performing arts; singing, acting, writing and even poetry once or twice. But the one thing I never got excited about was learning to play an instrument. In 4th grade we were offered the chance to learn a musical instrument at school. I chose the violin, which I hated. It was difficult for me to learn how to play and made terrible screeching sounds no matter what I did. I spent the year ‘forgetting’ to bring my violin to school and refusing to practice. My Mom allowed me to retire the violin on the condition that I choose an instrument I was more excited to learn. This time I chose the guitar.

I soon found out that I hated learning to play guitar only slightly less than the violin. Practicing felt like a punishment issued directly from the ancient Greek gods themselves. It was hard, but not hard in a way that made me feel I was improving. It was like pushing Sisyphus’ boulder: Painful repetition without success. ‘This is music?’ I thought to myself. ‘This is awful!’

Anything in this story sound familiar to you? Choosing an instrument (violin) that brings no pleasure and doesn’t fit the way you’re wired? Then trying something (guitar) you’re more excited about, but the process of learning a torture without enough positive musical feedback that you’re inspired to push through the hard spots? He goes on:

Nothing worked until I graduated from elementary school and headed off to The San Francisco School. There I met the trio who would change my life; my music teachers Doug Goodkin, James Harding and Sofía López-Ibor. From the second I stepped into their classroom I felt different I felt safe and relaxed. Their style of teaching Orff music and their presence were astounding. They gave me a xylophone, played some chords and then taught me a song! It was magically simple to me. Doug’s motto was “Teach all the parts to all the kids all the time.” It was accessible in a way that learning to play musical instruments had never been. They weren’t teaching me how to play an instrument, but instead were teaching me how to play a song and each time I played the song, I gained more information about the instrument, notes, melody and rhythm.

‘Everything is an instrument’ Sofia told me. Once I’d succeeded with the xylophone, I went on to play many other instruments—piano, glockenspiel, guiro, dumbek, drum set and even my own body through hambone. I was also learning about geography, society and culture.

How satisfying that one’s students not only get the benefit of effective teaching, but can so eloquently articulate it. He made three vital points that every music teacher should consider:

1)   Safe and relaxed: Any kind of danger or stress—worrying about hitting the right note, about being embarrassed in front of one’s classmates, about whether the teacher will be mad if you don’t play well the first time—kills the sense of music as fun and something everyone can do and enjoy. When the teacher and students feel safe and relaxed, the music flows.

2)   Everything an instrument: Musical learning always begins in the body and voice and then flows out to an instrument—any instrument.

3)   Teach a song: Focus on the song first rather than instrumental technique or music theory and all the other necessary learnings will flower out of each song.

Music teachers, pay attention to these simple things and pushing the boulder up the mountain will be a fun group venture that will actually get it to the top. And to finish the story, the author of this piece brought down the house in the San Diego Orff Conference with his singing, played a hot snare drum solo in the Spring Concert and ended up learning a little guitar! Listen to his conclusion:

Over three years, three people had given me the confidence to play music, which has shaped my life in an enormous way. I even pulled out my dusty guitar one day and taught myself ‘American Pie.’ I practiced for hours until I could play it through. My Mom was so happy she got out her banjo and we did a duet. She says now we just need a school bus and a manager named Ruben Kincaid. I have no idea what she meant, but we had so much fun that I smiled anyway.”

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