The Beginning: Freelance Teaching in Boston

To make things clear off the bat – this internship was originally going to take place at the EKS Music School in Quincy where I am faculty.   Because I have yet to teach any brass students at the school, I will be focusing on the teaching adventures with my own private students and the strange way that I acquired them:  TakeLessons.com.

Strange, because I never thought I would be the kind of person to “buy into” this kind of thing.  It seemed too convenient, too easy, yet after only two months of making a (minimal) online account, I acquired my first piano student.  Fast forward three months and many MIE 501 readings later, and I have acquired some very interesting and life-changing perspectives regarding music and music-in-education.  But that’s for later – for now, we must set the scene of the beginning of true freelance teaching in the Boston area.

I had freelanced my first year in Boston as a horn player and a collaborative pianist specializing in the Suzuki Method, but never had I had any students.  Late summer going into my second year of my master’s, my friend told me that he had acquired a piano student via this website.  Intrigued, I began an account and filled in all the appropriate information.  I had never really written down or contemplated my own unique, logical teaching philosophy before, and when I saw this requirement on the website, I simply wrote what I had always thought:

Through all these experiences, I can safely say that my theory of teaching and learning music is that it’s all about connections. To learn music is to learn a completely new way of looking at the world. It is an inward journey of strength and discovery as much as it is an outwards one, learning to successfully and compassionately communicate with fellow musicians and anyone else who might cross your path. I have collaborated with individuals in both the instrumental and vocal realms – trumpet, trombone, tuba, (French) horn, clarinet, flute, violin, viola, bass, sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, baritones, and have taught piano, horn, and beginning/intermediate wind instruments in both private and group settings. I love music, and even more, I love teaching music!

For areas that I taught, I put (using their categories) Accompaniment, Accordion, Audition Prep, Classical Piano, Ear Training, French Horn, Music Performance, Music Theory, and Piano.  Fair enough, I thought.  I had played accordion all through high school and undergrad, busking on the streets of my beloved college town, but never had I thought that I would teach the instrument (little did I know).

The account sat there for awhile, being added to with various pictures and videos, when all of sudden, I received a notification from TakeLessons saying that someone from Milton has signed up for piano lessons.  TakeLessons in a way is more reliable than the old-fashioned show-up-and-pay-as-you-go method.  People must pre-pay for lessons, specifically five to start out with, and then can only withdraw from lessons if they seriously dislike their teacher.  The teacher is paid either way, whether or not the student shows up, by direct deposit.  The only catch is (and I know you’ve been waiting) is that for the first fifteen lessons, trust must be established, and that trust comes in the form of 25% of your lesson going to the website that so conveniently hooked you up.  You set your own rate of pay, however, and after fifteen lessons, you can earn 90% of what you charge.  It’s just a switch of convenience – either have the student, that either you or a friend has recommended to you, hopefully pay you after the lesson has taken place (and not give you a check that bounces or not show up and you’re out that time unless you have a no-show plan), or have the money from the student who chose you amongst a list of individuals on a conveniently accessible website go straight into your bank account with a slight cut for the middle man.  Personally, I’m enjoying the latter option very much as it is very convenient and everything you could ever need to access regarding the financial state of these lessons is stored in an online account.

So, I had my new student.  Awesome!  How did that happen?  Why did she choose me?  I’ve honestly thought quite a bit about this, comparing myself to the other profiles of piano teachers in my zip code.  One thing I am sure sticks out, and this is not in any way facetious:  I’m a friendly looking, 20-something female who doesn’t have any particular instrument in the picture with her to alienate those who aren’t looking for that particular kind of lesson.  I would look up people who were listed as horn teachers, and when they had a trumpet in the photo with them, I would be taken aback and shake my head.  What are these people thinking?  You can’t claim to teach violin and have a harp in the picture.  Silly, silly.  So, common sense aside, what else set me apart?  For the piano side of things, I teach all piano, not just classical piano.  Most people (and I used to be one of them) seemed to be in the classical rut.  I wanted to teach only classical because that’s the best rep and you can collaborate and blah blah blah. . . Look, some people just want to play an awesome song they heard once, and to me, that’s so much more genuine than sticking to a canon because of archaic constraints of “classical music” and the days when ladies were “bred well” because of their literal “parlor tricks.”  Nah.  Done with that.  If that’s your thing, though, of course I’ll teach you the parlor tricks.  Hell, I’ll teach you ALL the tricks.  But if you just happen to really like that Yann Tiersen song or that one song by that techno band that for some reason decided to compose a beautiful piano piece, that desire is so beautifully genuine, and I will more than help you learn it.

It turns out that this student was one of the “Classical Piano” students, which is great, because that’s my forte (pun completely intended).  And, because she’s fourteen years old and her mother enrolled her in piano lessons, she is one of those modern incarnations of the well-bred individual.  In modern society, girls of the middle class are still taking music lessons not to be married off as acceptable stock, but ALL children are as a part of this new over-satiated-with-activities generation.  I am so incredibly grateful that I was able to be the multi-faceted artistic individual that I was throughout my childhood and young adulthood in a specialized sense.  I loved creative writing, I loved language, and I loved music.  Done.  Sports, nah.  Acting, not so much.  Visual arts, yeah maybe.  I took ballet.  I took vocal lessons.  I took violin lessons then switched over to viola because duh C-strings are awesome.  But these things were all eventually sloughed off of my extracurricular epidermis.  I wasn’t shoved into French club, Greek school, baseball practice, basketball practice, CCD class (aka “Catholic Church Detention” because we were clever) – my mother rode that line of respecting me and my right to choose as an individual while guiding me because I was not yet an adult, but when I decided on something, boy, did she crack down.  (We could open the whole can of worms on parenting and discipline, but the energy required into writing that would manifest in the form of an entire article – not now, but perhaps stay tuned!)

To elucidate, I am not one to belittle the act of taking music lessons, much less exploring the world around you; but exactly that, exploring the world around you, doesn’t always come in the structured form of a lesson.  Exploration and curiosity are things to be bred, for sure, but to satiate our kids so that they have no room to breathe, no room to feel like they can explore, no opportunities for them to discover how they learn, how they can explore, is more of a disservice than a leg-up on life.  Trying to reschedule with this particular student is a nightmare.  This time, inconveniently placed for the traveling music teacher at the peak of rush hour, is the only time she can receive lessons.  And to what end?  To show that she practices?  That there is that spark of intrinsic, volitional learning?  Why take music lessons at all if you’re not one to take time to develop a craft and through this craft realize these subtle truths?  of your nature?  of life internal and external?  of these connections that hang, suspended in this vast network of life, just out of reach until some sort of realization hoists you up, and at last you realize the awe-some depth of existence, and that everything connects to everything else, and at this same moment you paradoxically admit to knowing nothing?  (That escalated quickly. . .)  But in all seriousness, why continue skimming all these surfaces hoping to find hidden treasure just bobbing at the top?

One can probably tell by now that I am a teacher who lives in the fractal paradox (don’t worry, I don’t usually tell people that).  By that I mean the lesson is a constant ebbing and flowing of specialization, via technique, music theory, and broad application, playing through a piece to see where we are, discussing general musical ideas.  This in addition to personalized Socratic methodology, in which I guide the students to the answer based off what they know and their way of learning and discovering.  This has been a heavy-hitter for a first of three articles, so I shall divulge more information regarding my teaching methodology throughout the next couple of articles.

10/22/08 Folk Communities

We began this session by learning a few folk rounds. The first was a bluesy MoonDog tune that reads as follows:

Nero’s expedition up the Nile
Failed
Because the water hyacinths
Had clogged the river
Denying Nero’s vessel’s passage
Through the Sud of Nubia

(I found a transcription online if anyone is interested in joining along!)

The second was a curious tune that compared a frog to a strange form of bird. This piece reminded me of a showtune more than a folk melody. Its text read:

What a queer bird a frog are
When he sit he stand almost
When he jump he fly almost
When he sing he cry almost
And he ain’t got no tail
Hardly he ain’t got no tail
And he sit on what he ain’t got almost…
What a queer bird a frog are!

When we broke into canon (I believe at one point we were in 4 or 5 parts) I began to get so excited that I couldn’t help but sing at the top of my lungs and by the end I had definitly broken a sweat. At times I stopped (just briefly) in order to experience the composite harmonies and rhythms as they flew by. This is the music that shaped me into the man (and musician) that I am today. My mother sang folk songs from her youth to me when I was an infant (and in fact even before I was born). When I was older she bestowed unto me her collection of LPs that contained her favored renditions of these tunes (they are still in frequent rotation on my record player). There is a strange sense of community that is lost when these songs and their traditions are ignored and undermined.

Later that night, after our class, Joanna and I took a couple friends up onto a friend’s rooftop deck. We taught them the songs that we had learned, and while a number of intoxicated college students stumbled home on the streets below, we rounded off the roof above them. This type of community is profoundly valuable. The sense of sharing is so unique and there is such a strong energy of liberation from all things ego. It is as though the music soaks into your skin and you feel such ecstasy from its internal resonance. These moments are rare (and increasingly so). We speculated in class on what life might be like if the price of gas escalated to an unreasonable and unaffordable height. Luxury as we now know it would cease to be an option. Touring musicians and ensembles would become rare and would force our community into a tighter knit microcosm. I believe that our scope of perception would narrow and we would begin to look inwards for entertainment. It is likely that our culture would return to an orally driven tradition with a focus on sharing, trading, familial communities, and the immediate experience of being. It is possible to speculate that within our current global community these things become insignificant and tend to disappear.

I would also like the mention the great attention devoted within our current cultural machine to the standardized process of test taking. This continues a conversation we began in class that Jenny also spoke of in her previous blog. As Jenny mentioned, learning to take a test, such as the SAT, targets strengths that you might use when balancing a check book. The strategies you learn when training for these exams in no way helps one to develop into a better artist, writer, musician, or creative thinker. Much of the way that high school English classes are conducted reflects this. Conversations surrounding literature and higher art are more often than not guided towards a specific end result or “correct answer” as defined by a teacher’s handbook. These so called ‘guided conversations’ are not real conversations and do not express anything but a prescribed formula and its subsequently derived answer. It leaves little room for creative thinking and no room for a student to learn freely. In tighter knit societies, we want people to sing with, to talk to, to be part of a community with.

We discussed in depth how much of what we learned as students was not what our teacher had been attempting to teach. For many of us, we learn in a variety of free-associative ways. We make connections and draw conclusions based upon previous experiences and our current understandings. It seems obvious, with this in mind, that our system of education can many times create a barrier for the minds of learners. In my view, education is something that cannot be prescribed. It is something that, when most effective, is coordinated with the specific needs and current situations of each student group (and in the most ideal situations, for each student individually). We have a long way to go in fulfilling the needs of our students, but I believe that in-depth speculation on the unique qualities of folk based communities will yield positive and provocative results.

The Scholarship of Teaching Artists

While helping New England Conservatory’s Music-in-Education students to prepare and propose Guided Internships, I have begun to realize the extent of complexity —but also, opportunity— involved in teacher education and the creation of teaching artists programs that serve schools and other learning communities. As MIE Program Coordinator, I am faced with the challenge of ensuring that student-proposed Guided Internships be productive experiences for both the interns involved (usually as teaching artists) and for the host organization (i.e, a community program or school) they are conducting their internship at.

Students who propose internship ideas come with a wide variety of prior teaching experiences, and the goals/expectations they set for their internships vary just as much. Most students, even freshmen, have some cursory teaching experience from high school; for example, being a mentor for younger high school peers. Others have already taught college-level courses, led summer programs, or consider themselves lifelong teachers. The MIE Guided Internship Program is designed, however, as a set of individualized/independent projects, and it is usually the approach to pre-planning and documenting the internship (and not the actual teaching component) that poses the most challenges. It is during these phases (internship pre-planning and documentation) that Guided Interns receive hefty doses of mentorship from MIE faculty and MIE Research Center staff.

To what extent can a research center, like the MIE Research Center, play in the planning of guided internships?

Respected educational policy researcher and teacher education advocate Gail Burnaford, of Florida Atlantic University (and formerly, Northwestern University), suggests that by taking a stance in “teacher action research,” teachers can reach new levels of understanding student learning, as well as reform their own understandings of personal learning processes. [Note: Incidentally, I’ve found Burnaford’s article to be very useful, and refer to it often, throughout my own work.] Burnaford writes,

Professional development [Guided Internships] that assumes an action research stance . . . means taking small slices of music, small slices of classroom episodes or video vignettes, and with teachers and artists, asking, ‘What’s going on here? What is happening? What do we see?’ The process involves interviewing children and young people about the experience . . . Developing research questions that are valuable to both teachers and artists can promote dialogue and enrich the actual teaching that occurs when artists visit classrooms.

One of the initial steps we encourage students to take, when planning their Guided Internships, is the formulation of overarching inquiry or research questions. Even questions that seem simple at first (i.e., “What’s going on here? What do we see?”) may actually require quite a bit of planning to answer thoughtfully. Because the answers to these questions, and the questions themselves, are at the forefront of determining what kinds of artifacts are collected for the intern’s portfolio, it is important for interns to be very thorough as they plan the collection of said documentation.

Burnaford outlines some of the more common approaches to documentation:

The methods of teacher action research provide a number of ways to do this: collecting field notes, looking at video, doing a lot of listening to recordings—not of performances, but of student thinking, of children talking with each other about their art. These reflective methods (Wolf & Pistone, 1991) are intended to improve children’s performance and achievement; they are valuable as tools to contribute to evaluation of arts initiatives; they are also effective approaches to professional development for adults in schools.

Some interns, but not all, are able to see the immediate value of having these various artifact types in their internship portfolios, and are able to structure them into their lessons; for example, through class assignments, private lessons, conversations with mentor teachers or school/community center administrators, personal reflections, and MIE seminar work. For other interns (such as those less familiar with the portfolio process, or with less teaching experience), I direct them to the following passage from Burnaford’s article:

Gardner’s four roles for students who are engaged in the arts (Gardner, 1973) are useful frameworks for professional development of teaching artists, music teachers, and classroom teachers. The four roles, composer, audience member, critic, and performer give artists and teachers a frame or empty outline to use in order to ask the inquiry questions, ‘Why is the child doing this? What is she learning? What is he expressing? What did I as the teacher or artist do to help? What can I be doing next?’ . . . Teacher learning is the way in to student learning; teachers need to experience all four of those roles too.

I find Burnaford’s reminder (that Gardner’s four roles are also applicable to professional artists and educators) to be a refreshing and welcoming statement germane to the emergent workforce of artist-teacher-scholars: that the personae that result from the triangulation of Artistry, Teaching, and Scholarship truly incorporate all four of Gardner’s roles.

-Randy

Quotations used in this post are from “Crossing Boundaries: The Role of Higher Education in Professional Development with Arts Partnerships,” written by Gail Burnaford for the Journal for Learning Through Music (Summer 2003). Guided interns of all experience levels can benefit from readings found in the Journal for Music-in-Education and its previous incarnation, the Journal for Learning Through Music. Both journals are available for free, online at the MIE National Consortium‘s website, www.music-in-education.org

Randy Wong is Program Coordinator for the Center for Music-in-Education and Information Architect for the Music-in-Education National Consortium.

The Enterprise of Music and Learning

From the Journal for Music-in-Education:

This first section of the Journal for Music-in-Education tells the stories of several musical artists at different points in their careers: a promising young composer, a celebrated concert pianist, an extensively recorded improvisation artist, and a recent conservatory graduate embarking on a career in world music.

These portraits are not intended to foreground the impressive trajectory of their musical accomplishments, but rather to draw out a clearer understanding of how a life in music can be defined by the deep yearning to learn, teach, serve, and connect with others. These portraits show—in the words of the artists themselves and in commentary from their mentors and peers—that musical endeavors take on greater depth through a broad range of social encounters, role modeling, reflective thinking, and community involvement, all of which are becoming better understood as essential to the successful education of the performing artist in society today.

Thus, the enterprise of learning music for the highly trained artist, as represented in these chapters, takes on a particular significance as a “transformative”model for public school education. Time-lapse documentation of Julia Carey’s childhood notations presents an intriguing mosaic of how children’s understanding of music evolves over time. Yet her simultaneously expanding interests in academic excellence and role modeling through community engagement provide the larger picture of a musician preparing herself for rich and mutually satisfying connections to people and thus for meaningful contributions to society itself. Lorin Hollander’s precocious sense of music’s interdisciplinary association with physics,literature,and psychology and his depiction of personal transformation through mentorship can help educators appreciate the potential contributions of musical understanding to young children’s cognitive, aesthetic, and social-emotional wellness and to the solution of systemic social problems, such as the disillusionment ofour youth,cultural intolerance, or violence in our schools and among nations.

The divergent roles musicians play in society is also emphasized in the reflections by Michael Cain and Randy Wong. Both provide extensive detail of their experiences sidestepping their early classical training and choosing to “take delight”in exploring other forms of musical genre and culture. Here again, the evolving models of musicians and music in education are seen from the perspective of how engagement in ensemble improvisation and world music outside the conventions of classical traditions can support our youth, who yearn to connect contemporary modes and media of self-expression to our changing society,as Mr.Cainputs it,“around the world and around the block.”

MIE Guided Internships: Groundwork for MIE Professional Development

The MIE Guided Internship Program at New England Conservatory is more than a resume-furthering, experience-garnering entry point into teaching. Through the MIE Research Center’s process for planning and evaluating student-initiated Guided Internships, Conservatory students find opportunities to explore the merits of action research, curriculum planning, data collection, and administrative responsibility.

In her article, “Crossing Boundaries: The Role of Higher Education in Professional Development with Arts Partnerships,” MIENC Site Director and educator Dr. Gail Burnaford writes:

We have found that Gardner’s four roles for students who are engaged in the arts (Gardner, 1973) are useful frameworks for professional development of teaching artists, music teachers, and classrooms teachers. The four roles, composer, audience member, critic, and performer give artists and teachers a frame or empty outline to use in order to ask the inquiry questions, “Why is the child doing this? What is she learning? What is he expressing? What did I as the teacher or artist do to help? What can I be doing next?” (Burnaford, 2003)

I would like to suggest that what Burnaford is describing is at the heart of MIE Guided Internships: that at any given point in time, Conservatory students conducting internships can pause from their work, and choose one of Gardner’s perspectives from which to analyze their work. That it’s in the synthesis of these types of roles, such as in the Artist-Teacher-Scholar model, from which the MIE Guided Internship takes form.

In my work (as MIE Program Coordinator) with current MIE students and recent alumni, I find myself explaining the merits of the Guided Internship Program from this very perspective. Even after students have completed their Internships, they can find ways of understanding their experience from x different role or persona, despite having focused their documentation (most often a process-portfolio) from the perspective of y. (This take-away is yet another reason why we, as MIE Faculty & Staff, are explicit about the importance of rich documentation in student work).

Burnaford goes on to write:

Teacher learning is the way in to student learning; teachers need to experience all four of those roles too. In a professional development context, teachers need to compose; teachers need to practice those roles — even music teachers, because they haven’t done that in the professiona setting all of the time.

Again, I wholeheartedly agree with Gail; and in fact, our MIE Guided Internship Program helps to support the point she is making. Larry Scripp sometimes refers to the Artist-Teacher-Scholar framework as being an entry-point into entrepreneurship, and the proof of this is in the Guided Internships that our students initiate. Some of our students’ more ambitious projects have included: Teaching Solfege via hip-hop beats; coaching (and arranging for) quartets of violin/viola/2 cellos; exploring connections between poetry and rhythms with kindergartens; and a whole host of students conducting various research projects in the MIE Research Center.

–Randy

  • Download Gail Burnaford’s Crossing Boundaries: The Role of Higher Education in Professional Development with Arts Partnerships as a PDF