By Joseph Robertia
Music is all around us. From the barely noticeable beats softly piped into the aisles of the grocery store, to the swell of a movie soundtrack or the faster, louder and harder-to-miss rock ’n‘ roll rhythms used to sell a multitude of products in commercials.
This concept can be even truer for the younger generation, who not only are exposed to the same daily, environmental outlets of music as adults, but who also tend to be more regularly plugged in to portable music devices, video games and other “noisy” technology.
Still, as omnipresent as music can be in today’s digital entertainment world, there is a venue in which music doesn’t always have the presence and prominence it should — in school.
“Often music is viewed as ‘the icing on the cake.’ Fluff, so to speak. Some view music time at school as merely a prep time for classroom teachers. Because it is not part of standardized testing, it is sometimes not taken seriously,” said Sue Biggs, music teacher at Redoubt Elementary School.
Crista Cady, president-elect of the Alaska Music Educator’s Association, says that this is a misconception that needs to be changed. Cady recently returned from a conference held in Portland, Ore., where division and national leaders of the National Association for Music Education participated in discussions about the ongoing need to advocate for the support of music in schools.
Part of that is ensuring local recognition of March as Music in Our Schools Month, a designation that has grown from a humble, daylong single-state event that began back in 1973.
“The purpose of MIOSM is to raise awareness of the importance of music education for all children, and to remind citizens that school is where all children should have access to music. MIOSM is an opportunity for music teachers to bring their music programs to the attention of the school and the community and to display the benefits school music brings to students of all ages,” Cady said.
For this year’s celebration, the National Association for Music Education has chosen the theme, “Music: Orchestrating Success” and Mountain View Elementary School music teacher Jonathan Dillon will present a choir concert with his third- through fifth-graders graders to mark the event.
The concert will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium. “I Hear America Singing” is the theme of the concert and will include patriotic, folk, jazz and early popular songs.
While school concerts may seem like a simple staple of childhood, Dillon said there is a tremendous amount of teaching and work involved to pull off a successful performance.
“Before you rehearse a single note with the students, there are hours of research — selecting appropriate repertoire, transposing keys to make the music accessible to young voices, developing lessons focused on student learning which address the standards of the KPBSD Music Curriculum while preparing students for a public performance, etc.,” Dillon said.
“The most important step, and my favorite, is the time spent making music with the students,” Dillon added. “Students at Mountain View receive 40 minutes of music instruction every three school days, and recently, most of that time has been spent exploring our concert selections through listening activities, whole-group discussions of song text, music notation learning activities tying our district standards to the repertoire, and, most importantly, practicing singing.”
A number of the students have taken this practice habit out of the classroom. They’ve told Dillon they sing on the bus, during their after-school programs, and they even sing to their little brothers and sisters at home, all of which Dillon said is — pun intended — music to his ears.
“I couldn’t be happier about it,” he said.
Biggs said that these are all examples of how music is equally important in the core curriculum.
“Music and the arts are not ‘versus’ academics, they are inclusive. The arts can bring relationship between the child and academics. The goal behind standardized testing is to show that all children are getting the academics, but it has been researched and documented that all do not learn in the same manner,” she said.
“Most importantly, one of the greatest arguments for music pedagogy in the schools, and surely one of the miracles of music, is the brain benefits it gives an individual. There is incredible evidence that the processes incurred while engaged in music reading and execution actually build strong connections in the brain. Research has shown those who have participated in active music learning achieve higher scores on standardized testing,” Biggs said.
Dillon said that Kenai Peninsula Borough School District curriculum designates standards for learning based upon the National Standards for Music Education and the Alaska Content Standards for the Arts. For example, the curriculum states that third-graders should “identify and use dynamics including ‘crescendo’ and ‘decrescendo.’”
“In preparing for this concert, as in each of our music classes, students experience music from the inside out. They learn to make music, but they also learn to notate music, to read music, to identify and compare musical qualities, to understand the significance of music as a cultural practice, etc.,” Dillon said.
But really, this is just the minimum Dillon is designated to teach. In reality, he is hoping to impart much more through music instruction.
“I hope the kids learn about creativity,” he said. “Our society is increasingly based upon consumption, and not creation. In preparing this concert, students applied their creativity in a number of ways — third-graders created their own dynamics in a small-group project, one class of fourth-graders created their own version of the lyrics to a traditional folk song, all students created their own understanding and interpretation of the music, and so on.
“Ask a child if they have ever made up a song before, the answer is often yes. More than anything, I hope this whole project serves students by reminding them of their own creative potential, teaching them a few avenues for that creativity, and inspiring them to apply their creativity in their own lives,” he said.