Now that the school year has ended and summer school teaching has wound down for me, I finally have a chance to reflect on my first year as an elementary music teacher. My first three years in the field were spent at the middle school level – what a change it has been! I was so used to the attitudes, the resistance to learning, and an overall negative aura in classes (these were general music classes – where students got dumped if they were not in a performance group), that I was taken aback when I began teaching my new students last September!
I have learned so much from this year that I wanted to get some of it down to remember. Of course, this year has taught me so much more than I can fit in this post, but these were definitely some of the highlights (in no particular order):
- Keep a stockpile of tissues and hand sanitizer at all times! As cute as they are, elementary kids are a walking pile of germs! In one year alone, I’ve seen enough nose-picking and pants-digging to make a grown man cry!
- Never underestimate what elementary kids can do. Coming from the middle school level, where I was able to make wonderful music with the choirs, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to accomplish much with younger kids. I was happily mistaken! These kids LOVE to be challenged! The musical ability of students as young as 1st grade astonished me and I realized that elementary is incredible because of just that – I am the one that gets to foster these abilities and instill a passion for music in these students before they get to MS.
- Communication is key! Even though this applies to every level of teaching, I found that I made more phone calls and wrote more emails this past year than I did in the last two years of teaching combined! Parents WANT to be involved at this age, something that differs slightly from the MS level. Once they leave elementary, I have found that a lot of parents dismiss music as “not a real class.” I found that elementary parents want to know how their children are doing and how they can improve when they are in my room. It’s actually quite refreshing and has gotten me over my dislike for making phone calls.
- Homemade is always better. I never expect to receive anything from my students, so I am always grateful when they think of me for special occasions. I have come to learn that while store bought cards are very sweet, I really love the homemade cards and gifts that I’ve received. I love how many different ways children spell my name and the crooked letters make them so much more endearing! I make sure to keep a file of things I’ve received for one of those not-so-happy days….they are sure to make me smile!
- Celebrate the little things. Elementary school children are small, but they have such huge hearts. They have taught me that even the smallest triumphs and successes can and SHOULD be celebrated!
I am a musician and I am a music educator.
These are two of my favorite ways to describe myself and what I am passionate about. I also believe that being good at one makes you better at the other. When people hear that I am a musician, I usually get one of two responses:
- Wow, that’s awesome! Can you sing something/play something/write something for me?
- Wow, that’s awesome! We should totally jam sometime!
While I could write an entirely separate post on the first response, the second one is the one that frightens me the most. Why, you might ask? Well, I am what I like to call a “paper trained”musician.
I may not be the first to coin the term, but to me, being paper trained means that you can only play when you have a piece of music in front of you. In my case, I feel comfortable sight-reading pieces (piano, flute, vocal) up to a fairly high level of difficulty. Ask me to play from memory or to improvise something and I will shrivel into a tiny, musical blob.
Ok, you might say, just make sure you have music in front of you at all times and it won’t be an issue. To me, it still is. I don’t want to be the music teacher that has to say no when students ask me to perform something for them. I don’t want to be the person that just wants to sit and play the piano, but has to first fish out a book or two to find the right piece. I was always jealous of the jazz kids in undergrad – they always looked like they were having so much fun and were so relaxed! While I loved studying classical music, I was always worried about getting each note perfect, something that I believe added to my reliance on physical music.
I didn’t realize how being paper trained really made a difference until I got into the classroom – specifically, my final semester of student teaching. I was matched with an incredible cooperating teacher who was the complete opposite of me – no paper training there! In fact, putting music in front of him (think Bach or Handel) would slow him down. He would often solely look at the guitar chords of a piece and improv the piano part from them. He never played the same accompaniment twice, and I believe the students benefited from it. They, in turn, were less reliant on the piano and more self-sufficient.
Now that I have my own program and my very own students, I want to become less paper trained and more free with my playing and musicianship. Thankfully, I am still in the same district as my cooperating teacher (we were sharing a room up until this year), and we often joke that when put together, we make one complete piano player! I don’t want to pass my stiffness or my fear of not reading the music off of a sheet to my students – instead, I want them to feel confident with improvisation, playing by ear, and creating accompaniments within given boundaries.
But how can I do that?
It starts by bettering myself and my musical abilities. In the past few years, I have:
- Taken jazz courses
- Taken theory courses (to become more familiar with chord voicings)
- Begun listening to more jazz music
- Practiced creating accompaniments from guitar chords
- Continued to practice playing different styles of music (I tend to want to play the pretty, flowing stuff all the time)
In the end, our responsibility as music educators is to better ourselves so that we can then better our students. Don’t settle for what you know; always strive to learn more. NEVER stop learning! My hope is to look back in 35 years and know that I put in the effort to learn and achieve new things, and that my students were better because of it.
Are you “paper trained?” How do you deal with it, both in your personal and professional life? Are you at the other end of the spectrum? I would love to hear your comments and thoughts!
Photo courtesy of http://www.layoutsparks.com/1/215745/piano-music-notes-keys.html