I’ve spent the majority of my career and training focused on elementary general music. Over these 10+ years, I’ve come up with a list of what makes the “ideal” program in my mind. This is what I would consider the perfect job:
1. 80-90 minutes per week: The MENC Opportunity to Learn Standards suggest 90 minutes per week. It is hard to get this in most school schedules. However, two 40 minute periods per week makes 80 minutes, and I find I can get a lot done in this time.
2. Space and Instruments: At a minimum, the music class needs it’s own room with space to dance in a circle AND space to leave set up a mallet percussion instrumentarium. There should be at least one barred instrument for every two students, hand drums for each child, and recorders available for the upper grades.
3. Class sizes: class sizes should always be no larger than the class sizes given to the core teachers. While large groups are great for certain musical experiences, such as singing with energy, this experience should occur during concert preparation. In the everyday music class, it is imperative to get to hear each child express herself musically (singing, playing, etc.). This is only possible when the class size is reasonable.
4. Focus on Creativity and Performance Skills for All Students: I believe that making music is an integral part of the human experience, and historical/anthropological data supports this theory. Therefore, my focus is never primarily on the talented student who takes outside music lessons, but rather on an approach that allows each child to create, learn, and grow as a musician. Improvisation and composition activities are an excellent vehicle for this, as they allow each child to self-select a level of difficulty to work on in his composition. Differentiated learning also works well when we create an arrangement of a simple song, with simple parts (bordun, steady beat, singing), and more complicated parts (ostinati, descants, recorder).
5. Integrated Movement: Throughout human history, music and dance have been completely intertwined in many cultures. The study of rhythm is incomplete and less effective if it does not involve the human body. Likewise, the creative spirit of modern dance can infuse the performance of music, and allow students to express themselves. Ideally, I would like to see a coordinated effort by music and PE teachers to integrate their classes to cover topics such as folk dance and creative movement, with a dual focus of physical exercise and artistic expression. Finally, folk dances create an ideal way to connect with families and community, through community folk dance nights.
6. Technology as a Tool of Learning, not the Objective: I am a big fan of using technology in my class, because I use it in my life, and it helps me be productive (blog post written on iPad – exhibit A). But I am strongly opposed to using technology for the sake of technology. I think that new technology must at the very least function as well as simpler alternatives, and ideally improve something about the learning experience (interaction, speed, documentation, etc.) if I spend a chunk of time “dealing with” the technology, then the net effect on learning is negative, and I drop it until I can work out the kinks.
7. Literacy introduced at the Right Time for the Right Reasons: Every teacher asks himself, “What is important for my students to learn?” This is the fundamental question underlying curriculum. For too many music teachers, I am afraid the answer is “They need to learn to read a write quarter notes, eighth notes, time signatures, etc.” rather than “They need to learn to love, communicate, and be fluent in music.” These goals are not mutually exclusive, in fact they can work well together, but they do signal a definite difference in focus and attitude. A child who knows how to count a rhythm, but does not consider herself a musician, will never apply the knowledge as an adult. A child who learns to love music, and desires to create music throughout his life, will learn the tools he needs to make this happen, including how to read notation, if that is indeed necessary.
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