Classroom Cantatas at Mather and Mendell Elementary (Post #1)

Shadowing two small groups at Mendell Elementary and leading my own small group at Mather Elementary has begun! The idea of this project is that, in collaboration with teaching artists from Cantata Singers, I go in and lead a group of 4-5 second graders at these schools (though I am only observing at Mendell). The first few weeks are spent creating a melody for the given poem, while the next few weeks are spent creating an accompaniment, and the final few weeks are spent rehearsing their self-composed song, and a final performance is given at the Children’s Museum on April 11.

I noticed that each of the two group leaders I have observed at Mendell have unique teaching styles. One is very melodically oriented and is always trying to spark the student’s creative minds by singing what they have written and asking them to finish the line – thus creating the next part of the melody – or asking them “Now what should come after that?” When two students have two different ideas, they vote. This method gets him very far in the composition process. The second leader that I observe takes a different approach. She finds the important words in her text and asks how to bring them out in the melody, though no context has been given (melody surrounding these words has not yet been written as she does this). Because the students seem to have trouble staying in one key – they start on a random note when creating a new line – the resulting melody is so far in different “keys.” If two students have an idea she will often incorporate both ideas. Energy levels at these schools seem to have lacked the past two weeks, likely because it is the end of the day and lunch was a long time ago.

At the Mather I have led my own small group for one session (approx 25 minutes). This. Was. So. Much. Fun. I first established the one and only rule that we listen when someone else is speaking or singing. I encouraged them to raise their hand (though there are only 3 students in the group) when they want to share a great idea, and emphasized that they ALL have great ideas and we want to hear them. As a result, one girl always has her hand raised…. How do I tone that down while not ignoring her or making her feel like not everything she says is important?

Keyboards are used by the TAs for harmonic support or so the students can hear their melody (especially useful as I am not a singer), but since I have no keyboard to use at Mather I have downloaded a piano app for my iPad and yes, I did bring the iPad to a public elem school in Dorchester. The kids loved it! At first I used the device to play their small melody and told them that it was a “grown up tool.” One boy wanted to hold the poster of words but I thought this would keep him from composing with the rest so I insisted that I hold it where he could also see it. But the boy thought the activity was stupid if he couldn’t hold the poster, turned away from the group, buried his face in a chair and would not participate with us. I then asked if he would help with the piano by teaching the other two girls the melody (I quickly taught him how to play it – just two notes). He like playing on the iPad and taught the melody to the girl next to him, who then taught her friend next to her.

My question is: How safe is it to bring an expensive tool into the classroom in this context. The iPad is a great solution to not having a portable keyboard. Obviously they will want to play on the piano all the time, so am I at risk for losing their respect if I, a temporary teacher to them, don’t let them play with the keyboard when they want?

~Stephen G

The MusicLaunch Mosaic – Entry #3

This week was even better than last week and the week before! I can tell that there’s a real connection being built with the kids and there’s a nice dynamic starting to develop where we’re all learning from one another.

I introduced the concept of teaching one another as well as me teaching them and them teaching me, creating an El Sistema type thing where we are a community. The kids really liked that idea because it empowered them to take ownership of what they’re learning so that they can help teach one another. The brothers and sisters certainly didn’t mind bossing each other around – haha!

The kids all remembered the guidelines from last week when I asked them to remind me. I taught them the whole C major scale and got them to compose their own piece with the information that they learnt.

I taught about conducting and then we played the conducting game where they needed to follow one another in order for the game to succeed. It was good to see them grasp the concept clearly and have a stack of fun in the process.

Looking back now I realise that there was some decent vocabulary being built up between the kids and I. I would use words like “groove” and “time” and they knew exactly what I was talking about.

There were also moments when I used “chunking” to teach them the next section of their own compositions. This was effective in watching them pick up the patterns of the piece and figure out how to play the sequences. Lastly, there was a lot of “GPS” encouragement going on. Both “chunking” and “GSP-style teaching” are Daniel Coyle concepts.

It’s really interesting for me going back an analysing what I’m doing in the classroom. In all of my experience, I’ve never had to dissect and analyse my interactions with students or the methods I use to convey a concept to people. It’s encouraging for me to finally put a label on all of the instinctive methods of teaching that I use.

Lastly, I brought in gold stars for the kids as rewards and they LOVED them!! I made sure that I told them at the beginning of the class that if they focus and zone in with me for the lesson, there’ll be a reward. These kids really respond to incentives and it certainly makes my job so much easier!

The MusicLaunch Mosaic – Entry #2

It was so much better than last week. We agreed to divide the children up. Yen took the 3 younger ones and I took the 4 older ones. It was easier because I started to bring in some guidelines and boundaries for the kids to operate in. Now that I knew what the room, what the kids and the material that I had to teach was like.

Progress was made with the little details, like telling the kids to put their bells sticks down on the table and that they couldn’t play unless they were directed to play by the conductor. They responded well to my clear instructions and seemed to really love the order and structure of the lesson. I also taught them a few rehearsal etiquettes like not making noise while someone is talking and listening to one another really carefully.

I had to be careful with my accent to slow my speaking down so that the kids could understand what I was saying. I actually asked them to tell me if they couldn’t understand and a few times they put their hands up and asked me to repeat myself. That interaction was a good thing because it showed me that they were engaged and invested in the lesson.

I felt like the kids were trusting me a little bit more and I can sense that its going to get better each week from now on. I feel as if these kids really flourish within clear boundaries, and it makes it so much easier for me to teach them.

So yeah, we’re getting there. There was much more of an improvement than last week and the vibe in the room was a whole lot more positive!



The MusicLaunch Mosaic – Entry #1

Well it’s the beginning of my Music Launch internship and I’m curious to see how things with develop over the next semester as I get to know the kids better and they become more comfortable with me. This week was a tough week as it was a new setting and a new dynamic for everyone.

Coming into the classroom we needed to get accustomed with the vibe of the room immediately. The kids introduced themselves to us and we to them.

It’s always hard to gain the trust of students in a brand new setting.  The kids wanted to check us out to know that we were teaching the right material, but they were also were shy and didn’t want to be singled out at any point. This made for an interesting classroom dynamic.

Yen and I struggled having 7 or 8 kids of different ages, varying from 4 years old right up to 8 or 9 years old. The age gap was too much and put restraints on the type of things we could teach and how effective we could be at communicating. In the end, we divided it up and Yen taught one thing while I assisted with the younger children, then we switched places.

Yen has a real gift of coming along side kids who don’t quite know what they are doing and nurturing them into learning a new the concept.

It was difficult to hold the concentration of the class due to their age differences, but also because some of the kids were related to one another (brothers and sisters) and they all knew each other previous to the class beginning, This meant that Yen and I had to define some strong boundaries and parameters for the kids to operate in. I tend to frame the boundaries in “releasing statements” like: “You can hold the bell sets this way” and “It would be great if we didn’t talk now.” The positive statements help create a happy vibe in the room, whilst giving the students the comfort of well defined expectations and objectives.

All in all that was a tough week and I think in future we should divide the kids up and get possibly two different groups going.  It will be interesting to watch how this thing develops.

Breakthroughs at MusicLaunch

We are nearing the end of the year at MusicLaunch. There are many things I could mention here and I will give a more all-encompassing report after the final class.

Today I would like to talk about something very positive! In the past few class meetings, I have finally begun to come closer to my original goals of getting students to use their ears and not rely on the page. Although this has come about in some ways that I didn’t expect, I’m so excited that I can finally report this. When I first began at MusicLaunch, my plan to help students develop their ears had to be shelved for a little bit so that I could help them develop more fundamental skills on their instruments and on playing in time.

About half way through the semester, I periodically asked them to do a simple 4/4 call and response with clapping (while stomping out the 4/4 with their feet). This originally served the purpose of helping their time, but I realize that it helps their ears as well! Also around this time, I was given the opportunity to create a melody with Solfege blocks in our large ensemble and I introduced the students to the song “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers. Finally, last week while I was in charge of running the large groups, I gave students some rhythms to clap that were a little more challenging. This lead to me writing some of these rhythms out on the board, but from there, something else happened: I had them create their own 4/4 rhythms on the board. While this is not directly ear-related, it is still a chance for them to create their own little piece of music, which is a huge win in my book!

I wasn’t immediately able to categorize this stuff as creative success or ear-training success right away, but after thinking about it for a little bit, I definitely see it that way now. Besides giving me some encouragement, this definitely gives me some great ideas for the future.

Stay tuned for a complete report about my MusicLaunch experience in the next few days! It will cover tackling music fundamentals, maximizing productivity, dealing with behavior problems, and keeping students engaged, to name a few topics. Thanks for reading!


Music Outreach at Susan Bailis

One of the activities that has given me the greatest satisfaction in this busy few months are the weekly classes and sing-alongs at Susan Bailis Assisted Living.  I am working with them as part of my Schweitzer Fellowship, which has spanned the last academic year. I entered the project a bit blind, having had to find a new site and reconfigure my project after the initial site fell through. I had not had experience working with seniors before and I was a little nervous about it. I soon realized that my original project plan– chorus work and individual music lessons– weren’t a good fit for the population. The choral singing was difficult because of the wide disparity in musical ability and training–people who could read music got bored, people who could barely match pitch were frustrated.  Music lessons were difficult to organize because the few interested individuals tended to cancel or forget. I came up with another plan to offer more passive activities including a weekly music appreciation discussion and a weekly “sing along.” Once a week I bring in a CD or music with some kind of theme; for example, we did a month of opera history and each week focused on one or two composers or a certain style. As a group we listen and discuss interesting characteristics of the music including form and style. On another day I bring in old songs ranging from the 20’s to the 60’s and peck away at the piano while participants read from song sheets. Some sing, some just listen, but it usually ends up to be a fun and relaxed hour.

After some setbacks I feel we finally settled into a routine with these two activities around mid-February. The same clients tend to come to each respective activity and I feel I have developed a rapport with several of them. I think one big lesson I have learned so far, and this may seem obvious, is the value of just showing up. I admit I was discouraged at one point when the project wasn’t going as planned, but I’m glad I continued to try new activities until we found something that was good for the residents. I also am constantly reminded of the value of preparation and organization. In discussions that have not gone as well I always feel that I could have prepared more thoroughly beforehand. Finally, I think I’ve realized how much I can learn as a musician in any kind of educational setting. I’ve been able to explore musical works more in depth this semester as a result of offering these classes, and in the discussions themselves clients often have an unexpected question or insight that I can learn from.

In my next post I will share some video and anecdotes about the residents with whom I’ve worked and some thoughts about my experience with the Schweitzer Fellowship.

Susan Bailis Music Outreach

My guided internship this semester is with Susan Bailis Assisted Living. I am working with the residents there for a year-long service project through the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. My project involves one weekly music appreciation class and one weekly “sing-along.” The project took most of last semester to really get off the ground, but I feel this semester we found a combination of activities that seems to work well for the residents in terms of their interests and needs. The outcomes for this project are focused less on the acquisition of specific musical skills and more on improving the overall well-being and quality of life for seniors. My later blog posts will focus on the progress of the classes and sing-alongs.