Student-Oriented Music Education: One Teacher’s Experience
Countless papers and articles have been written on the benefits of progressive, student-oriented music education. However, most of these focus on pedagogy and hypothetical examples instead of first-hand experiences. I would like to share what this kind of curriculum looked like on one specific day in my classroom and what the results were.
Recently, I began a very interesting new undertaking: teaching elementary music to students who have experienced pre- or post-lingual hearing loss and, thanks to surgical procedures, have recently recovered their hearing abilities. Because some students lost their hearing before developing their lingual skills and others lost their hearing after, their capabilities vary tremendously. Sharing music with students who are just hearing for some of the first times in their lives has proven to become one of the most challenging, tremendous experiences of my life.
The first few sessions of our weekly music class, looked very much like the traditional music classroom. Students would memorize information that I gave them, and participate in group performances. Creativity was very low and student involvement and control was very limited. Students rose to the occasion and performed exceptionally well while others started to trail behind their peers. In particular, one student who I will refer to as “Josh” was struggling far more than the other students. Josh had pre-lingual hearing loss and his communication skills were limited to his personal aide using cards to communicate with him. Throughout the first sessions of the class, Josh struggled daily and was removed from class for personal therapy with his aide after about 5-10 minutes. For weeks, it was a struggle to engage Josh and at times seemed as though it may be impossible.
It was clear that something needed to change.
After going through progressive music education literature, I decided it was time to incorporate creative, student-oriented tasks. One particular class included students taking a trip to the “zoo”. Students, after discussing the expressive abilities of music and musical textures, selected an animal and then applied their knowledge by taking turns musically narrating an animal of their choice. Josh’s eyes immediately lit up and he became engaged for one of the first times in the class. He turned to his aide and communicated that he would be narrating a monkey. Students all picked their animal and then picked the instrument(s) that they would be using. I watched in awe as Josh grabbed two hand cymbals and rehearsed his part. Josh patiently sat with his cymbals on the floor while other students performed. This was a far cry from the almost-constant tantrums that I had become accustomed to from Josh. And when his turn arrived, he performed his brief musical narration with a giant smile on his face.
We played the “Thunder Game” in another class. In this particular game, students perform choreographed movements to the sounds of rain and thunder. Both rain and thunder occur sporadically and students must do the corresponding movements when they hear them. The sounds of rain and thunder are simulated through different instruments in the classroom. On this particular day, a piccolo was supplying the sounds of rain and a trombone was performing the sound of thunder. When the sound of thunder rang through the classroom, Josh was immediately intrigued. He ran to the trombone and placed his hands on the bell to feel the vibrations. He did this for a few minutes, eventually placing his head in the bell of the horn to help him hear and feel the vibrations and even changed the pitches through using the slide. Josh had performed an almost complete turnaround from where he was the week before.
This type of behavior persisted with Josh throughout the rest of the sessions. The child who once sat on the ground throwing tantrums became one of the most engaged and interested students in the room. His musical skills and understanding developed very quickly and he was able to readily apply them in composition and improvisation throughout the semester, too!
If I had persisted with the typical performance-based music classroom, who knows if this type of breakthrough could have ever happened. Without increased engagement and creative control for the students, Josh may have continued to spend the majority of his time in the individual therapy rooms and never engaged with the class materials and his peers. For reasons like these, we all must consider the true potential of alternative and progressive music education. Our students will reap the benefits.
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