This Fall I signed Cora up for classes with Music Together. Of course I’m learning a lot too. And, as usual, I’m wondering how I can translate all that I am seeing, hearing, and doing in these classes into lessons for myself and my students in the field of visual art education. Here are 5 things I’ve learned, or been reminded of, so far.
1. For-profit art education franchises need not be evil.
Based on my familiarity* with for-profit visual art education franchises, I was skeptical of Music Together. Even though it came highly recommended by friends I respect on educational issues, I was concerned the class would feel superficial and contrived. From the first session, however, I was convinced that this program was well-researched and delivered in an authentic manner.
All of which I will explicate further in my next few points. . .
2. Teacher enthusiasm for the subject she is teaching is a key ingredient to successful instruction.
As I wrote about the music teacher at my step-daughter’s school last week, being in the classroom with a teacher who demonstrates genuine, personal enthusiasm for what they are teaching permeates the learning space with an energy that is palpable and models a love for the discipline to students. In our classes, Leigh plays her guitar and sings with passion. She is 100% present throughout the entire 45 minutes of the class. She dances during the free dance song with gratitude for those few minutes to move her body to the music with us.
Reggio Emilia credits a trifecta of teachers with student learning – parents, teachers, and classroom environments. What the concrete block classroom where we meet in lacks in style, Leigh more than makes up for with her personality.
But a winning personality isn’t all it takes to make a great teacher. . .
3. Arts education advocacy demands parent education and involvement.
Leigh is not just a music educator, she is an advocate for music education. She infuses each class with parent-directed commentary about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how to extend the activities at home. This is generally done at the beginning and end of class, as she strums her guitar, and at other relevant moments during the lesson.
I never feel I am being pandered to or spoonfed factoids. So often Leigh’s advice comes at exactly the right moment, as if she is reading my mind. Like the week she encouraged us to indulge the kids when they ask to hear the same song over and over and over and over again. (More on this later). Suddenly I felt like a Super Mom for listening to “Ram Sam Sam” 13 times in one car ride. And this teaching helped me practice patience the next time I found myself in the same situation.
Unlike the storytimes at the library Cora and I attend, there are no side conversations between parents at Music Together. We all sing. We all play instruments. We all move to the music. Like today when we were in groups each making the sounds and enacting the play of different instruments – drums, trumpets, voices, and fiddles – as Leigh conducted us like an orchestra. Our active involvement might be attributed in part to the fact that we are paying for the program, unlike at the library. But I’m pretty confident that it is mostly because Leigh, and the literature from Music Together**, have convinced us that our participation is important to our children’s development.
Of course its easier to get involved when the content is engaging. . .
4. Introduce artistic exemplars that speak to learner on various levels.
I admit I was a bit nervous that the music in these classes would be lame and I would feel bored and irritated by it. It seems so many programs with music for young children rely on the old standards – The Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Wheels on the Bus. Thankfully, Music Together’s song collections come across as “research-based and artistically conceived and produced.”
Music Together employs nine song collections which they rotate, nationally, through 10-week class cycles. In other words, this fall, all children enrolled in Music Together classes across the country are working with the Fiddle collection. Fiddle includes is a wide variety of musical genres – American folks soungs and international rhythms, most with lyrics but some without, most with instruments others acapella. It is not hard to imagine how songs could be reused, following a spiral curriculum concept, to introduce basic concepts to younger children and more advanced concepts to older students. I know I’m picking up different things from the music than Cora.
Which brings me back to listening to the collection over and over and over and over again for ten weeks.
5. Repetition can open doors to deeper understandings.
To be fair, Leigh warned us on day one that we would grow tired of the songs in the song collection before the class was over. However, she also taught us that as we were growing weary, our kids’ would just be starting to master the lyrics and rhythms. “Your children will learn through repetition, repetition, repetition, and, repetition, and then more repetition, repetition, and repetition,” she advised. She distributed a growth chart with benchmarks for our children’s musical development and has encouraged us to look at them periodically to see how our children are growing.
This all got me thinking about the conversations I have had with people over the years about notable differences between music and visual arts education. Unlike in music education where repetition and practice are guiding principles, we tend not to repeat ourselves that much in the visual arts. We complete a project and move onto something new. Of course most visual artists don’t work this way, they work in series. They work with a theme. Is there some place for repetition in the visual arts afterall?
I don’t mean for this to read as an advertisement for Music Together, although I am satisfied with the program and plan to reenroll for another term. I realize that different instructors enact curricula differently and we may have just gotten really lucky with Leigh. Regardless of the larger picture, in this particular setting, with this particular teacher, Cora and I are both learning a lot.