Sunday, January 18, 2009

The art of teaching, the science of teaching and the luck of teaching.

Watching all the high school bands in the Inaugural Parade makes me think of all those band teachers, parents, bus drivers and members of the community that got them there.  No science involved but a lot of hard work by all.  Pretty impressive.

The high school band from the State of Washington was from Longview and is three hundred strong--a multi award winning band.  Nice going.  But how do you get that many kids playing instruments--and all  together!  Just getting uniforms for them all that fit must be a feat.  Much of all this starts in the grade school mostly around the fourth grade.

As soon as classes are settled, the elementary school music teacher goes to each fourth grade and gives the children a music aptitude test.  I don't know how good these tests are but at least it gives the music teacher some idea of what some kids might do.  Then letters go home to the parents telling them of  "band night," to explain how kids can start learning a musical instrument.  Before that night the teacher needs to contact local music stores that will sell, rent, or somehow provide instruments.  For the moment, I cannot remember an elementary school having instruments to loan to their students.  It is mostly a "buy" or "rent" situation.

The evening arrives and the parents and the music stores all show up in the gym or multipurpose room.  Some parents bring an instrument from home....."It was my grandmothers.." or "Dad played this in the war!"  Even though the letter stated clearly that this would be for a band, not an orchestra, some parents brought violins and the spare guitar.  I suspect after all these years there would be more guitars now and indeed, some schools have guitar bands.

Anyway, as a music teacher you sort out the parents that want to buy and those that want to rent.  You've told the group that you really would like some trombones for the larger kids and "we need some French horns."  But trumpets, clarinets, and flutes are normally the instrument of choice.  Actually the really nifty thing is that many of the parents have gone through this as children themselves.  Some of them actually bring their old instruments that generally are in pretty good shape.  It is a long evening......

Generally a week or two later the big day arrives.  The music stores deliver the instruments to the school and the teacher, bless her/his heart gets to sort them out to the right kid.  "Don't open the cases yet!"  The kids are excited and really don't hear you.  It is total confusion and if the principal ever showed up at that moment would probably think the music teacher was devoid of discipline and organization.  But truthfully, we do get organized, the horns are passed out with new beginner level music books.  The band is taught how to get chairs and where to sit and where the music stands are.  And now it is time for instruction...on how to play your instrument.  Quite a feat.

After a few weeks the band has settle down into a routine and simple songs are starting to come together.  As a music teacher when we finished our first song, even I was amazed.  Totally surprised.  I'll be damned.  The kids are smiling and you are smiling.  The weeks go by--band meets two or three times a week--and you are making progress.  "Don't forget to practice!"

It was about this time when I was a elementary band teacher that I was prowling around the high school band storage room probably looking for some old unused French horns.  Among the old cases was one particularly beaten up case that contained a bassoon--not in bad shape.  I asked Bill, the high school teacher if I could loan it out to a student and he agreed.  The high school band hadn't a bassoonist in quite some time.

Now to find a fourth grade student who would like to play this instrument.  Our district was pretty much a middle class bedroom district close to a major city.  But one of our schools had more parents that were struggling then the others.  I decided to start at that school.  First I talked to the secretary (school secretaries always know everything) and she gave me some leads.  I was looking educationaleese,  a smart social isolate--someone who was not popular but smart.  I talked to the two third grade teachers and then to the two fourth grade teachers.  

Everyone agreed that this one child was a problem.  Very smart, an only child, but who lacked social skills.  She always wanted to help others but didn't do it very well.  Didn't stay in her seat much and didn't always follow directions although to be fair she quite often seemed bored.  

So that afternoon I called her mother.  I said something like your child has music talent (I lied, I didn't know), and I would like to loan her a bassoon and give her free lessons on how to play it (I never played a bassoon in my life).  My other condition was that they had to buy the reeds which were expensive, around five dollars a reed.  Mom told me she'd talk to her daughter and to her husband and they would get back to me.  They did with alacrity almost the next morning.  It was a go!  

So that afternoon my new student and I opened the case, put the parts together, the strap around her neck and I showed her how to hold the instrument.  Some beginning attempts and finally a sound of a bassoon.  It was a beginning.  I explained notation in the book and then told her what I expected for some homework and the next two pages which she was to practice for me.  We would have another session in a three or four days and I would review what she had done.  OKay?  You have any questions?   She was ready to start.

I went back to that school a few days later and she stopped me on the playground.  "Could I have book 2 please?"  "I'm sorry, what did you say?"  "Could I have book 2?"  We made a date for after school so she could show me what she had done--I was positive that she could not have finished book one in two days.  Positive!  

Well, she got the bassoon out of the case (which had been beautifully repaired by her dad) and she proceeded to blow me off my chair and through the book.  She had learned everything in the book--about twenty to thirty pages of drills, different fingerings and simple songs.  "Could I now have book 2?"   That evening, I went into the city and bought books 2, 3, and 4.  And the next day even though that school wasn't on my agenda, I stopped off and gave her the books. She was already beyond me in playing the bassoon.  I could help her music wise but she was now on her own.  Before I left the school I dropped in to the teachers room to say hi.  The two fourth grade teachers grabbed me and asked, "What have you done with Jane?  Totally a different girl.  Hasn't been a problem since you started giving her lessons.  A pure delight."  My stock in the teachers' room went up immensely that day.  Hot damn.

In about two weeks, Jane had proceeded to improve with such great leaps and bounds that I asked her to come to band practice.  You never saw such a proud, confident little girl come into the band and open up her case and get her bassoon put together.  The other kids watched with open mouths--really.  She never said a word to any of them even though several asked her what she was playing.  I introduced her to the band and said something like, "Jane is our new bassoonist." "Jane, play some notes for the group, please."  She ripped off a scale or two and did a simple song from memory and proceeded to wow the rest of the kids.  She instantly became their hero.  I will never forget that moment.  It is how teachers get paid.

She went on to junior high and then high school all the time playing the bassoon and becoming an outstanding student....some say a leader.  Her parents called me one evening and asked how they could buy her a new bassoon.  I told them they could use the one she had all the way through school if they wanted but no, they wanted to buy a new bassoon.  They were so pleased with her progress.  I talked to one music store whose owner also played with the major symphony in the city.  He said something about the new plastic bassoons and he would talk to the first bassoonist in the symphony about which one to buy.  Jane did get her new bassoon and also lessons from the first bassoonist.  And word got back to me many years later that she would occasionally be asked to be the fourth bassoonist in the symphony when there was a need for one.  I lost track of Jane but trust me, I'd do it all again.  

Sometimes it is not the science of teaching or even the art of teaching.  Sometimes it is just pure luck.  


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful stories, inspiring and real. I like your line, "It is how teachers get paid." So much of the discussion on teacher incentives today rely on some kind of business or corporate model. Give teachers more pay and they will perform better. Of course, teachers should get more pay. But all teachers deserve a decent wage for what they do. Teachers are not going to be more motivated because they earn more than the teachers down the hall. What inspires teachers' work is the support they receive, the respect they have earned, the opportunities to learn more from each other in released time, the collegiality with their colleagues in purposeful dialogue and goal setting, and the autonomy as a profession to engage in the decision-making of the meaningful changes that will bring about real achievements for their children. How can we get this kind of understanding out into the public debate? Keep telling your stories, Les. It is the most real look at education and schools in the public debate today.