The Empowering Art of Music
Teaching students who have allowed the art of music to deepen their sense of humanity has been a privilege. They shared the common bond of music and learned to celebrate their uniqueness while respecting the differences of others.
If I could go back in time and talk to myself before I embarked on my 37 years of teaching, I would be kind. I would gently omit the pain of carrying too much of the student’s world home with me. I would subtly sidestep the bureaucratic framework that often made teaching a challenge. I would not want to discourage anyone from the vastly underrated but magical career of teaching. Teaching students who have allowed the art of music to deepen their sense of humanity has been a privilege. This parade of students who still march through my mind in colorful colliding recollections learned how to live peaceably with each other. They shared the common bond of music and learned to celebrate their uniqueness while respecting the differences of others.
My first school position was at Hugo Junior High School in Hugo, Oklahoma. My assignment was to teach general music to all seventh and eighth graders. I jumped in and taught each class as if it were the most important course of their lives. Music theory, singing, choreography, classical solos, ensemble competitions, musical theater—these talented students responded to the energetic call for musical excellence. One of these students went on to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music. I forgot to mention that at that time, we had no air conditioning in our building and our county had the highest welfare rate in the state of Oklahoma. I visited one student in a home that had no running water. When my principal helped us find money in the budget to assist some students with purchasing choir uniforms, it was a beautiful day.
My next position was at Valliant High School in Valliant, Oklahoma. In a rural school community whose lumber plant funneled tax dollars back into the school district, the school’s facilities were extremely new and luxurious. I not only had AC, but my own office, a music library, classroom risers, and a new performing arts center with excellent lighting and sound. What a contrast in public school equity and access. The students were unlike the suburban kids I grew up with. These rural students really only liked country music. I knew that in order to influence them to develop their musical skills, I would have to find some common ground. My strategy was to perform songs that they liked, and then present them with more traditional choral repertoire. We did a spring concert of all country music and the auditorium was packed. After that, they would sing anything (including classical music) that I put in front of them. They saw that I was willing to accept their cultural norms and meet them halfway. I learned from my students that square dancing was fun and that country music is a soul-stirring form of music.
One afternoon, we were gathering donations of farm implements for an upcoming concert’s set design. While visiting the barn of the grandpa of one of my students, he showed me his working bootleg whiskey still! The lumber company donated material for our set. The community took great pride in supporting the students and the school music program. I witnessed music bring out a new confidence in some of the introverted students. One of my students had been physically abused as a child. The shadow of this haunting past disappeared when he sang beautifully with others. He, along with other students, discovered musical gifts that they did not know they possessed.
While living in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, I taught at Wilson Elementary School. Some 420 elementary students from kindergarten through fifth grade marched in and out of my classroom weekly. The principal was very supportive and backed many creative initiatives. The principal even allowed me to purchase 30 small keyboards and set up a piano lab. It was a creative outlet for the students and their musical skills grew.
The fifth graders wrote a rap called “We All Need to Read” which won a competition to inspire literacy. It was performed at the State Capitol with choreography. The video was played on our city television station as a public service announcement. The students were champions of literacy through this original composition.
In addition, our school presented a dramatic interpretation of the book Aida, the opera by Verdi as told by Leontyne Price (1997) and even our janitor, Robby, gallantly portrayed a character (in costume) so that the story would come to life for the students. One of my favorite exploits was the kindergarten presentation of The Nutcracker, for which students made glamorous masks for each character out of the Enfamil baby formula boxes that I had saved from home. At Wilson Elementary I also team taught a multi-handicapped class with the physical education teacher. Some students who struggled with the inability to talk or walk learned to keep steady rhythms on large drums. Students who had limited forms of communication learned to imitate rhythmic patterns on the hand drums. Their joy was contagious!
I was so excited to teach secondary music in my next position as high school choral director at North Lamar High School in Paris, Texas. There was one small problem. Only twelve students enrolled in the mixed chorus of this newly consolidated rural school district. They were very talented, just few in number. Four years later, we were 43 members strong and the sweepstakes winners of the Texas UIL choir and sight-reading competition. These young singers learned varied choral repertoire in German, French, Italian, and Latin. We started a yearly tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah with other schools in our city accompanied by the Northeast Texas Symphony. These students learned so much about teamwork, unity, and support for each other, as well as discipline, focus, and hard work. Several of these young men are now community leaders in the Dallas area. The soprano All-State winner became a high school choral director. One young man returned to this same school many years later to become the theater instructor. What an inspiring example of giving back to the community by investing your life as a teacher of the arts in your own hometown.
Next in my professional music timeline, I began a doctoral program in music education in the Dallas metroplex. In addition to the course work, I began my next assignment at the much-beloved Dallas elementary school, Walnut Hill Elementary. Our class was in the basement directly below the stage. It sounds pretty spooky, but thankfully a large bank of windows lined the outer wall. The stairs were very steep, so I taught the students to hold onto the rail and chant, “Stay to the right and hold on tight….” The classroom was decorated with instruments from all over the world. The Hispanic English-language learners were especially emboldened in music class. Learning English with the help of elongated speech or singing was so beneficial to their phonemic awareness and language development. I observed a stark contrast in these jubilant faces and voices in music class when compared to the stressed and intense demeanor they had in their regular academic classrooms. The music class was their oasis; in our classroom, they were treated equally by all of the other students in the school. We learned songs from all different countries and performed them with costuming and colorful props… celebrating the many kinds of “us”. That year our school was awarded the “National Blue Ribbon School” status.
On the recommendation of a Fine Arts Coordinator, my next position was in an inner city middle school that was struggling to regain the music program. This very diverse school population was 82% at risk of dropping out before high school graduation, and in most instances, their home lives were very fragile. After establishing a sense of order and routine, the students embraced the creativity and joy of our music classes. For a Martin Luther King program, I asked students to write a short piece of prose on what freedom meant to them. It was so powerful to hear the strong verbiage that came from these 7th and 8th grade students. Hardship was no stranger to them. They shared these readings in a performance of songs honoring Dr. King. It was unusual to hear that such young students had such fierce understandings of freedom. They sang strong that day of peace and liberty for all.
The fifth hour class was challenging. The majority of the boys had spent time in the juvenile detention center. The ugliness of life emanated from them through their speech, their body language, and their tough demeanors. The most musical thing they did was to beat on their desks throughout the day with their pencils. I decided that this was a starting point. I brought in every kind of drum I could find and a culturally responsive pedagogy evolved. We learned how to notate rhythm, how to create new rhythms, and before I knew it, the boys were putting prose with their rhythms. They were writing songs, chanting and rapping. The context of the lyrics they chose were phrases describing their world as they knew it. They were composing in groups of three and four. They were performing in class. They added choreography. With much practice, they began performing at a very high level.
I asked the students to perform one of their best raps on the spring concert. They knew that the rules of only “G rated” lyrics were required. They honored this requirement and after performing at the concert not only had they validated their journey, but their peers observed that music was a form of release from their angst. The second year our girls’ choir won the Texas University Interscholastic League Choral Sweepstakes in sight reading. I continued the strategy of allowing students to share their favorite popular music. Every Friday we watched Beyoncé or some other pop star as a reward for the week’s hard work of singing, sight reading, and music theory lessons. One of my girl’s uncles taught salsa dancing at Gloria’s Restaurant in Arlington. After school we all learned to salsa and performed this while singing “Maria” by Santana. The cultures intermingled in harmony in our classroom. They learned to respect each other through the words of Martin Luther King, Latin chant, and through the choreography of the salsa. It was a melting pot. What had started out as chaotic was not perfect, but it was a rich, mesmerizing mix of 64 different native languages that lived together in the Irving Independent School District. Music was a bridge to cultural competence and communication. This is the experience that served as the catalyst for my dissertation topic, “Elementary music teachers instructing Hispanic English language learners: Reflection on practice” (2005).
My music teaching led me next to a large public suburban high school in Grapevine, Texas, just minutes from the Dallas International Airport. One morning as I led the 50-member varsity choir in warmups, there was a break for announcements before our rehearsal began. I needed to check with the band director next door about the instrumental students who would be accompanying us on the upcoming concert. As I walked into the band room, I noticed that several students were gathered around a television set and an eerie sight was on screen. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I discussed with the band directors that surely this was just a poorly trained pilot who had mistakenly crashed into the building. As the next few minutes unfolded and the second tower was hit, an unsettling fear hovered over us. I returned to the choir room and announced the tragic scene. Several of our students had parents who were pilots or who worked for American Airlines, which headquarters in nearby Fort Worth. We were in shock. We were all broken. After a few minutes of wild speculation and discussion, I decided we would watch the news on our classroom television as well. As the gruesome scene came to life, I could sense the fear and anxiety in our choir. After the facts were made known, I decided that a choral piece we had just learned was just the medicine needed to calm our fears and help us make it through the next hours. Lutkin’s arrangement of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” was the selection I asked the students to perform.
After the first run through, I had an idea. “Students, follow me down the hall in single file order.” So they followed me down the long hallway past the office and the auditorium. We exited out the front door and circled around the tall flagpole where the cold wind was whipping the American flag. Our school was in the flight path of DFW Airport. All of the normal air traffic had stilled in the sky above us. Even the birds were flying erratically. I stated, “Students before we sing this song, let’s have a moment of silence, reflection, and prayer for all of those people who have been affected by today’s events in our country.” At this moment a small white pickup careened into the adjacent parking lot and a man hurriedly got out of his vehicle and walked urgently over to our circle. “Do you mind if I join you?” he said. “Of course,” I said. And we joined with this total stranger in singing these strong and meaningful words:
“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace. Amen.”
Many lessons were learned that day in music class. Mostly love.
As I reflect on these and other teaching experiences, I count it as a blessing to live in a free country with public school for all students. During this economic season, many public schools are considering cutting funding for music and other arts. I hope that reading these accounts of music in public school has shown the many positive ways that music serves to inspire students to respectfully engage in a global world. Reflecting on these music education experiences reminds me that music has brought comfort and joy to a great many students. Our schools should be academically rigorous and support creative, critical thinkers. It is the right of all students to express themselves creatively. I consider it a great privilege to teach the empowering art of music.