What I Learned from My Music Students

How one music teacher learned to measure the validity of music programs in more than merely technical terms. Instead she sees the power that music has to enrich students’ lives.

Four years ago, I started teaching K-8 music full time at a public school in Newark, New Jersey. I had two simple goals: 1) teach children to be proficient little Mozarts and 2) convince Hollywood to make a Mr. Holland’s Opus type film about me.

I dove in headfirst, tirelessly reciting mnemonic devices for the treble clef and preaching the benefits of playing recorder with correct posture. I thought the best way I could serve these kids was by instructing them to read, interpret, and play music. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t just teaching the fundamentals of music. I was offering children another way to love school and be successful.

In this economic climate, music programs are in constant jeopardy. We’ve reached a point where some very excellent schools have decided to forgo music education. While this might mean there is more time for reading, math, and test preparation, it robs children of an important expressive outlet. After hours of traditional instruction, of listening and taking notes, putting aside textbooks and practicing with a violin ensemble provides relief for children. What amazed me as I handed out instruments to children who had never touched them before was that the quality of what they were playing wasn’t the point. It was the fact that they were playing at all, flexing their brains in a way they hadn’t before. I was shocked that even the most ragged, torturous version of “Hot Cross Buns” could elicit feelings of pride and accomplishment. My first grade students, armed with hand bells, would produce the most lopsided rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and be absolutely beaming.

Now that I’ve survived a number of holiday concerts, Black History Month programs, and a perhaps slightly too-ambitious version of “Cinderella” with no fewer than 43 children cast as mice, I can honestly say I’ve seen my students produce excellence. I have seen hundreds of kids with a love for music class turn into kids who love being musicians.

Watching my students become independent, sensitive, accomplished musicians has been truly rewarding, and I hope from the bottom of my heart that all of them will always continue to make music. However, I believe that developing a passion for music spreads far beyond music class: it can lead to a better attitude toward school itself.

So what have I learned from my students? I’ve learned to measure the validity of music programs in more than merely technical terms: now I see that the power that music has to enrich students’ lives is likely to have a far greater lasting influence. In fact, the skills we teach are means to that end. As Mr. Holland says to Vice Principal Walters, “Well, I guess you can cut the arts all you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

Karen Trindle teaches K-8 Music at the Ridge Street School in Newark, NJ. She received her BA in Music Performance from Bard College and her MA in Music Education from Hunter College. She also plays the harp and performs in and around NYC.

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