- High School
I represent the specialist teachers in our building on our Instructional Leadership Team. As an avid reader, a lover of math, and a believer in their benefit in education, I generally have helpful input as we discuss our most recent ELA and math test results, the trajectory of our students’ progress, and the host of other academic data that ebbs and flows through our attention. Being the music teacher, though, I rarely have much to share about my subject area and our progress through my curriculum. Is there a place for my corner of student education in this era of academic assessment? I intend to prove that there is here, and should be everywhere.
I am not aware of any school district in this state that does not mandate music education for every single elementary student. (Side rant: I am aware of school districts that do not offer visual arts education for elementary students. How are they supposed to find out if they are artists if we don’t let them try? Art is a viable career path for those with the passion. It is even a ticket to college, with universities offering scholarships, hoping to lure talented artists to a variety of programs. In my district, it’s frowned upon to even let the students draw - they would be considered “off task”, curriculum-wise. I daresay that if there were a tradition of troupes of artists entertaining people during football half-time, visual arts education would be flourishing. End of side rant.)
As I was saying, every single child gets music education. Why? What are the benefits of this? Let’s consider all of the different things we do in music class.
According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
In sum, this (study) establishes human musicality as a special form of social cognition and provides the first direct support for the hypothesis that music evolved as a tool of social living. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(5), 777-798.)
Singing together is therefore part of the ancient glue that connects us. I open class by singing the name of each student present with the class echoing back, allowing everyone to hear their name sung by the whole group. We sing folk songs from many cultures, opening windows onto other languages and peoples. We sing our school’s core expectations, singing being a tried and true aid in memorization (cf. the history of Western music and the function of Gregorian Chant as the means by which the monks could remember all of those prayers). Further, as we sing, we breathe. Deep breathing is a necessity in relaxation. Singing is therefore good for the whole body, the whole spirit, the whole student.
Kids have a natural affinity for dancing. My Kindergarteners need to be asked to sit still when they hear music, while Fifth Graders can need more coaxing to move. The healthful benefits are obvious: great exercise, improved coordination, increased heart rate, and on and on. In the music room, we dance by ourselves, following musical cues. We also dance with partners and in groups, providing ample opportunity for positive experiences with each other as we negotiate who is with whom, choose new partners and work together. We engage in folk dances from around the world, literally stepping into other cultures. We also acknowledge pop music and indulge in some new steps - just try and get these kids to stop doing Fortnite dances.
WE PLAY INSTRUMENTS
Parents know how fascinated kids are with things that rattle, beep and whirr. I have a rule in my room of not playing instruments without permission yet still often hear furtive pats on drums as kids are naturally driven to experiment with sounds. The urge to tap things, rub them together, or shake them to see what’s inside, is a deep-seated human trait. Playing instruments also aids in developing manual dexterity. We engage in body percussion, using our snaps, claps, pats and stomps as varied percussion sounds. Kindergarteners playing different instruments at the same time take their first step toward engaging in harmony, hearing their part against others. Fifth graders engage in drum ensembles from around the world, working as a team to not only keep the beat, but dress it up in exciting, infectious energy. My challenge is to hold them back and keep the beat steady - they want to surge forward, speed up and go! Music engages and excites us, to say the least!
Creativity in music class comes in many forms. Second Grade improvises notes and rhythms on the xylophones, making up musical answers to my musical questions. Sometimes I “sing attendance” where I sing “hello (your name)” and they respond with “helloMr. Fischer” using their own notes. Kindergarteners create their own dance steps as they take turns leading the group. Fifth Grade composes and performs their own short percussion pieces as we complete Washington State’s Classroom-Based Performance Assessment. It can take a lot of precious class time to hand out materials, explain what I want and give them time to let the creativity process happen. It’s time well-spent, but that half hour goes by quickly.
Music class is full of opportunities for cross-curricular connection:
MATH- Music is frequently about counting, adding and subdividing. How many beats do we hold this note for? How many 8th notes can I get out of whole note? Where is measure 37?
SOCIAL STUDIES- Every culture has music. It ties us together and helps define us.
SCIENCE- Physics is in every part of music making. Sound waves are building blocks. Both the thing making the vibration and our brain’s perceiving it present opportunities for rich discussion.
VISUAL ART- Both art forms have many of the same describing words: color, rhythm, Impressionism, mood...
SOCIAL/EMOTIONAL LEARNING- Kids are looking for connection and belonging. They can find it in singing and playing together. Also, in music we practice “grit”, not giving up in the face of making mistakes, peeling the onion as we ask ourselves the question, “What can make this better?” Also, science backs the idea that music can alter our mood for the better.
CONNECTING TO SECONDARY EDUCATION- Secondary is a time to specialize and focus in on specific areas. The students join choir, play in band, take dance, etc. Some participate in the school musical where they get to act, sing and dance. The ties that can develop between students in these activities can be profound and lasting. Further, many students find their calling in these deep dives into the arts, pursuing college degrees as they explore their passion.
WE GROW AND SUCCEED
Finally, research shows that Music Education can improve brain function and academic performance. According to a study lead by Nina Kraus at Northwestern University, “music education was able to change the physical makeup of a child’s brain, making them better at processing sound, something which may lead to better reading and writing skills.” The study also found:
While musical instruction is bound to help any child, ...the results of her study suggest it may be even more important in disadvantaged children because of its ability to give them “the extra “boost” they need.” She is referring to the gap between academic achievement of affluent and low-income students, a gap which has been shown to have grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, The New York Times reported.
Has music given you a sense of accomplishment? Like me, did it send you to college and aid in your career? Where did you succeed in music? Teachers, how do you use music in your classroom? I know of some who play soft classical instrumental music in the background as kids are doing quiet work or testing. I also know some who use a soft musical tone as an attention getter.
You know, now that I think about it, all teacher meetings need to mostly be about music. Principals need to study dance and hold the attention of the students - and their teachers! - through pirouettes. All academic content should be rendered in iambic tetrameter and sung full-throatedly, breathing from the diaphragm. Kinders need to learn Morse code along with their ABCs so that the science curriculum can be drummed. There... glad we cleared that up. ;-)
- Cultural Competency
- Student Engagement