I was on a walk with my five-year-old daughter the other day and it was lovely outside. The sun was finally shining and the snow was all gone. Yes, you read that correctly...snow. It has been snowing in Central New York through the end of April. Quarantine in the cold and snow with two kids has been...interesting…
So, on this sunny stroll she explored her thoughts and articulated something tremendously profound to me. She said “Mommy, when I have an idea in my head, my brain makes me think it. Then, I feel like I need to share and say it to someone. So if I think something and then share it with you...then you get to have it. And then, you can share it with someone else. It’s yours now. Like, something from me is now a part of you, and can be a part of someone else, and then someone else and someone else. So like, this thought I’m having about this stuff...it’s now inside of your brain and a part of you.” And after a long pause “That’s pretty great, huh?”
Yes. Yes it is pretty great. And when I got home I got to thinking about the things I share, and about the things I receive; the things I let “inside of my brain,” and the things I express to the world to put in their brains.
Thanks to my incredibly insightful daughter, I decided two things:
So what the heck does this have to do with teaching? Well...you share with me.
What does your dream classroom look like? What materials do you wish you had, but can't afford? Your student's deserve the best musical experience you have to offer them, so it's up to you to get what you need. School budgets sometimes don't allow for materials you want, however there are many ways to get funding.
This is not as daunting as it sounds. The trick is to make sure your request aligns with the vision of the grant. Be meticulous in your writing and emphasize the impact the funding will have on your students. Don’t forget to proofread!
If you have a relationship with teachers in a neighboring district, ask to share equipment. This is not a long term solution, however when we help each other out, we start to establish a united professional network. We are all in this together. Sharing with other teachers can lead to a great conversation about lessons and teaching practices - perhaps even result in a collaboration with the students.
Make sure you know your district’s fundraising policy before you begin a fundraiser. The students will definitely feel a sense of ownership and pride if they help raise money for the equipment they use in class.
When I first got in my classroom I had ten classical guitars without cases in the back of the room. My students desperately wanted to learn how to play, so I immediately sent out a email to the district staff asking for old or abandoned guitars. I posted on Facebook, and reached out to everyone I knew about my need for guitars. It’s amazing how many people buy a guitar with good intentions, then let it sit in an attic for years. Through my efforts, I had enough to get me through that first year!
Donorschoose.org has been a fantastic resource. It’s easy to set up, and gives you an opportunity to dabble in grant writing. Before you set up an account, check with your administration so you can have their support.
You know what your dream classroom looks like. You have the power to make your classroom incredibly inspiring. Go get what you need!
When I was a kid, my mom used to play the piano a lot. In fact, she took piano lessons with my teacher and had the lesson right after me. I remember her playing the Moonlight Sonata while my sister and I would dance to the beautiful music. It’s still one of my favorite pieces. But, over the years, mom stopped playing. In fact, when she sold her house, I inherited her piano.
Last week she decided she wanted to play again. “I need a keyboard.” She announced. A piano was too much of a commitment for her...even though they are very easy to come by nowadays. She couldn’t imagine having such a large piece of furniture somewhere, so she thought a keyboard would suffice. And she also decided that she wanted one with “all the sounds” 😂... a synthesizer, mom.
Sure enough, I found one quickly (thank you Facebook Marketplace!) When I picked it up the young woman, Kelly, explained that she had bought it a few years ago and it was way harder than she expected. She handed me some piano books while she explained how difficult it had been to play with two hands. “I just don’t have the time to learn this.”
Now, while I was happy she was giving up the keyboard for my mom, I couldn’t help but feel like she was missing out on something. I watch my five year old sit at my piano and make up pretty awesome songs. She just plays...and has a great time. She doesn’t know enough (or care enough) about right or wrong. It’s music — she just plays what sounds right and what feels good. Also, the piano doesn’t know (or care) if you are playing Beethoven or figuring out a cool new tune that pops into your head. Musicians are NOT binary...there is no “can” and “cannot.” EVERYONE has music inside of them. And lifelong learning is about discovery...and everyone is also certainly capable of that.
I thought of this as an unusual case of lost and found. Kelly lost her music and mom seemed to have found it again. ...and what does that mean for me as a music teacher….? Not sure yet...What do you think?
Today I went for a walk with my son to the 7-11 to get a bottle of ketchup. We had just run out, and he won’t eat much if there isn’t ketchup on it. Our home is in a cute part of town that is walking distance to really anything we need. I live in the community where I work so I often see students and parents while I am doing my regular-life things. I’ll be honest - it used to stress me out. I always felt like someone might be watching me. Perhaps, at the grocery store buying toilet paper, or something even more embarrassing…
I don’t know what changed, but now I am not stressed about it anymore. In fact, I actually enjoy seeing familiar faces at the park with my kids, at the bank, and even at the supermarket. Today was no exception. On our short stroll to the store, I ran into two of my former students.
The first one, Doug, shouted from across the street, “Hey! Mrs. Rafferty!!” He came right over and wanted to tell me about his new year at school. He told me how much he loved playing the guitar in my class. “I’m really good still, you know.” He went on about all the songs he practiced and was proud to say that he learned a few things since he took my class two years ago. It was good to see him, and I was glad he was still playing. He struggled socially in school - constantly finding himself in the middle of the junior high drama. I was glad to know that he still had a connection to the guitar, especially now that he is in high school.
We continued on our walk and saw another student, Karter, who graduated a few years ago. He told me about college and his training for the National Guard and how he still finds time to take out his guitar to play. It brings him joy in his very busy life. Even writing this makes feel overwhelmed with emotion.
Teaching is hard stuff. There are many challenges that we face everyday, but through it all, at its core, teaching is the most important work that anyone can do. We lay the foundation for every other career and can affect the lives of so many people. As I go into my second full week of school, today’s encounters were a timely reminder about why I do what I do. I teach music to help people discover the music that exists inside of them. Today was validation that yes, I am making a difference. All of this...on the way to buy some ketchup.
My daughter learned how to ride her bike without training wheels this weekend. (It was pretty awesome!) So today, after dinner, we went for the last ride of the summer on our usual route, around the block and through the park. There are many places with bumpy sidewalks, little inclines and today, lots of puddles. All summer with her training wheels, she was nervous on the unsteady ground. She’d often get off of her bike and walk over the places where she felt unsure. But, today, on two wheels, she rode right over all of the bumps, pedalled through the inclines, and sped right through the puddles. In fact, she sought them out. “I LOVE those bumps!” she squealed.
As I watched her joyfully ride through the neighborhood with her new found confidence, my feelings were bittersweet. The summer is over, but tomorrow on the first day of school, there is a brand new beginning. Just like my daughter with her training wheels, many students start school feeling nervous, unsure, and insecure. (Let’s be honest, a lot of teachers do too!) However, as their teachers, we get to help them navigate through their challenges so they will eventually discover that they sometimes need to feel nervous, unsure, and insecure in order to learn and grow. Maybe then, they can start to seek out the things that are just outside of our comfort zone, and gain confidence with something new (even if its just getting through the first day of school!) In other words, LOVE the bumps.
Lifelong learning is the thing that makes this all worth it right? I mean, if we aren’t fostering skills that will serve our students beyond high school, then we aren’t really doing our job are we? But what does lifelong learning look like?
A few years ago I was invited back to my high school for a chorale reunion to honor our beloved chorus teacher. Of the 150 alumni that came, there was only a small fraction of people actively engaged in music making. Five, maybe six of us kept making music a part of our lives in one way or another. Five or six! That’s it! While I’m sure all of them are active music consumers, is this the type of engagement that we expect when we hear the term “lifelong learning?” I started to get curious.
I asked around and it seemed that one of the main reasons why people were not engaging in music was because of the limited (or perceived) limited opportunities to make music after high school. Now this was interesting. Limitations on making music? Hmmm….
Schools provide the opportunity to serve as an incubator for the greater community. This is super cool! But, we need to know how (and if) the community serves our graduates in providing them with adequate opportunities after they leave high school. Are there community ensembles? Are there other musical activities for people to actively participate after high school? Are they accessible?
On one hand, we need to be mindful of creating opportunities in school that prepares them for music making outside of school. We must teach them skills that are accessible and relevant. Yes, we teach them expression, creativity, time management, perseverance and team work. These are lifelong skills without a doubt. But, don’t we also want them to keep making music? What about focusing on independent musicianship, accessible repertoire, improvisation and the skill set to sing or play with a friend at an informal venue (like a living room perhaps…)
On the other hand, if there aren’t adequate opportunities for people to make music after high school in your community, then you may need to create one (or better yet, get lots of folks involved in creating this!) A school district that values music is one thing, but a community that values music is quite another. When the community has a very concrete need for musicians, the school music program will always have a place to thrive.
Take a close look at the musical opportunities that exist in your area. Reach out the directors and patrons of the arts and look for ways to collaborate with your school program. Discover ways in which your program will benefit the community music scene. Can your students perform in tandem in community events? Is there an opportunity for students to work with regional bands or performers who play at the local venues? Is there a possibility for a master class?
Get creative and talk with lots of people in your community. Lifelong learning is not just a buzz word if you can create relevant learning in the classroom with accessible musical opportunities in the community.
**Do your graduates continue to make music? In what capacity? Share your stories with me!
Improvisation used to be such a scary word for me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. If someone asked me to prepare something to sing...I was happy to do it. If someone asked me to make something up on the spot... Are you kidding me? No freaking way. Where could I get the music? I needed something to look at. I didn’t think I could be that vulnerable!! There was no protection for me if it wasn't provided by that piece of paper with all the black notes on it!
And then my next thought, almost immediately, was, "this is ridiculous!" I have a two degrees in music education, two decades of teaching experience in a variety of capacities and singing is something that I absolutely LOVE to do. What was wrong with me?
I didn’t figure this out until recently...Growing up, the word “improv” was always associated with jazz singing. The scat-too-doo-loo-dats were foreign to me, even after spending hours rehearsing with jazz choir in high school. It felt contrived to me - unnatural almost. I never felt connected to it enough that I could express myself the way that scat singing is supposed to be. So improv? It just wasn’t for me...I didn’t know how to use those syllables to express what I wanted to say. It was easier (and safer) to use someone else’s music and add my own emotional intention. I could be pretty expressive, but I don’t know how to be creative.
Years ago, during in the beginning of Modern Band at my school, some of the high school kids asked if I could play bass with them in their jam session because their bass player was out that day. For a second, I froze. It was completely out of my comfort zone, and yet, I realized that I ask this of my students every day. I tell them (actually...require them) to do something new and different and be okay with making mistakes because THAT’s where the learning happens - right??? Sooooooo I took a breath and said yes.
This was a game changer for me. Not only did I let go of my hesitations, I fell into a flow that allowed my ears to take control of my fingers...instead of my brain worrying where my fingers were “supposed” to go on the bass, they just travelled naturally. Now, I’ve said this before... I am a proud type A personality and never in a million years did I think I would be jamming with a band on a bass (man, I felt cool!) But when I let go of trying to control my sound, I was able to trust myself and actually ENJOY the process. It was liberating.
While I can play bass, my voice is my instrument of choice. I immediately wanted sing and use my newly discovered skill. I felt like I was on fire - that something that was once hidden was finally uncovered: A newly found voice to express myself and actually be creative with the notes, rhythms, phrases (and sometimes words).
I now find myself seeking out opportunities to sing in this capacity. I am lucky that I have some terrifically talented friends who are in bands themselves that let me sing with them once in a while. And of course, my students...they gave me the courage to rediscover my voice even when I thought I already knew it so well. I am so grateful for them. Take the leap - put yourself out of your comfort zone. Improvise - you’ll be great - and you'll improve!!
Why is a powerful question. I often ask myself this regarding my professional decisions. If I don’t understand the why, it makes everything a little unsteady for me. I have found over the years that action with intention can move mountains. You can’t accomplish much if you just have intention without action, and action without intention is meaningless. When I am crystal clear about my purpose, I am able to focus my energy a with clearly defined objective.
Sometimes asking why is difficult because it forces us to be reflective...that can be hard. But, when we question our decisions and practices it may lead us to some pretty cool new directions. It can also validate some of our choices as well. For example, each time the vocal teachers sit down to talk about curriculum we always ask “Why do we use solfege? Is it useful?” We don’t ask this because we don’t think it’s useful or extremely important. We ask this because it is absolutely necessary to check in with the reason why we are teaching it. Asking “Why do we use solfege” opens up a conversation about why it’s valuable and why we use it in our curriculum. These discussions are always rich in educational philosophy and gets us thinking deeply as to why we do things the way we do. It also provides an opportunity for change if we discover our why is a little cloudy.
I have found that people often do things because that’s the way it has always been done. It’s easy to just keep doing what you’re doing citing, “That’s just how things are done around here.” But, this is the absolute WORST reason to do something, and reminds me of this tale:
A woman was preparing pot roast for dinner one evening and her husband walked into the kitchen. He saw her cut off the top and bottom end of the roast before she put it in the pan.
“Why do you do that?” He asked.
“You know,” she responded, “my mom always prepared it this way, but I’m not sure why. I’ll give her a call.”
The woman called her mom.
“Hi mom.” She said. “Listen, I am making pot roast for dinner, and I cut off the top and the bottom of it like you always used to do. Why do you need to do that?”
“Huh…” said her mom as she thought “I always did it that way because that’s how I was taught by grandma. I would ask her!”
So she did.
“Grandma,” the woman asked over the phone. “Why did you always cut off the top and the bottom of the pot roast?”
“Oh honey,” she responded “We didn’t have a big enough pan!”
Question everything. Find your why.
I just finished reading Laura Vanderkam’s latest book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities. Her other books and her TED talks are pretty inspiring (check out the link!). In a nutshell, her message is that whenever we say “I don’t have time” for something, what we really mean is “this is not a priority.” We have 168 in each week. That’s a lot of hours! Her books serve as an extremely important reminder that we have to constantly be mindful about how we spend our time. How do you spend your time? Are you longing to do things that would inspire you, yet you can’t seem to find the time?
For teachers, summer is great for some serious rest, relaxation and fun. I am fortunate to live where there are many gorges, u-pick farms, and beautiful hiking trails. A short drive from my house lands me in a place with luscious green trees, little streams and big waterfalls. I truly value the time spent outdoors with my family. Whatever stress I might feel before always seems to disappear into the wind and the songs of the birds fill my head.
Since becoming more aware of how I spend my time, each fall when school starts again I make sure that I have time for being with my family outdoors, no matter how busy I am. Why? Because it is a priority for me. We get to CHOOSE how we fill our time and how we spend those 168 hours. We are human - we can’t do everything and we shouldn’t try… because then we can’t do anything well! So use this time during summer to figure out the things that fill you up! Notice the things that make you smile and feel restorative. Pay close attention. When you decide what is important to you, your actions should start to align with those values. You are never too busy for the things you want to do. You just need to prioritize.
Monday was the first Intergenerational Choir rehearsal of the summer. I have directed this choir for ten years and every year I get so excited that I always get jitters leading up to the first day. The group has been around for the past 23 years and was the brainchild of an incredible woman named Jody.
Jody had a strong tradition of music in her family and felt that her community needed more opportunities to make music over the summer, particularly for her children. So she created the Dryden Intergenerational Band and Choir. What started out as a small group of people, turned into a big part of the community for over two decades. Through the years the band and choir has always stayed true to its values - no auditions, open to all ages and abilities, and completely free. Amazing, right? It gets better.
Over the last ten years I have had groups of singers ranging from ages nine to ninety one. Often times intergenerational families come to spend their evening singing together. Many return year after year as this summer choir is their only musical outlet. Some adorably describe it as “music camp.” Others shared with me that they have not been in a choir in over forty years and wanted to return to making music. Some are able to read music, most cannot. A few admit that they have never sung at all, yet they end up finding their voice over the course of the summer. It’s truly empowering and extraordinarily special. It is a spectacular music making experience and I feel honored to be their choir director.
I have to choose my repertoire in advance and have NO IDEA who is going to show up! This is sometimes very daunting going into the first rehearsal, but I was just SO excited on Monday that I didn’t feel the nerves as I usually do. Sixty people showed up to rehearse (a much larger group than usual)! We dabbled in each of the six songs and the sound was tremendous. We learned some notes and rhythms, but more importantly learned how to be brave when we sightread. It is always okay to make big loud mistakes. We worked with phrasing and dynamics and felt the movement and intention of the phrases. We made funny noises during warm ups, practiced tall vowels, and we laughed and smiled a lot.
But even besides all of that good stuff, I LOVE this choir because for me it is the missing piece in my teaching job throughout the year. I preach lifelong learning all the time, however this choir is the perfect example of lifelong learning. These people come to rehearsal week after week, year after year because of their commitment to themselves to keep music as a part of their lives. I have a huge responsibility to deliver a musical experience that is inclusive, accessible, educationally sound and of course super fun.
Our first rehearsal was so joyful and I can’t wait to make music with them all summer. We have six two hour rehearsals and two concerts on the horizon - so stay tuned! I'm looking forward to sharing our stories!