They were quiet. Again. For the second time in a week. I stood there wondering, "Where did those spunky kids go? The ones who were singing folk tunes with gusto just 8 or 9 days ago? What has happened?"
The last time we'd been in class together I'd tried everything - we had talked about the necessity of actually making noise to be effective in making music. We'd discussed the fact that there was nothing to fear in the music room, that mistakes were ok, that we were a community and that communities could sing together. We'd attempted to play their favorite games - games that usually cause them to come right out of their shells.
I went through the mental check list - and could think of nothing.
I looked over my shoulder at the lesson plan on my music stand. Rhythmic dictation, 6 or 7 games, part singing, historical information . . . . I knew what I was about to do and only felt bad about it for a few seconds. I ditched it.
They didn't need me to yell at them - "Sing louder!" or "I'm disappointed in you!"
They didn't need a lecture about how music class is a real class.
My students needed to remember why they have a love for dancing and singing. They needed to do the remembering without a lecture. They needed to answer the question themselves. And although I really did want to get through my lesson, practicing the 4th scale degree, preparing syncopated rhythms, and so much else . . . what I wanted more was a class full of children who knew why they were learning those things.
They were standing in a circle staring at me as all of this swirled around in my head.
It probably only took 2 seconds for me to decide what I was going to do, but it felt like a long time. I asked them to sit down. And I sat down with them.
Pause here, music teachers (and all other teachers of young children) - We should all sit on the floor with our kids at least some of the time. We should all humble ourselves and show we're human and sit with them where they are.
Ok. So, as I was saying, we all sat down in a big circle. They were still looking at me like they expected an unpleasant lecture about effort and expectations. It really seemed to shock them when I opened my mouth and said, "Why should we sing at all? What is the reason for human beings singing anything? What do you all think? I care about what you think. There aren't right or wrong answers. Let's talk about this."
It was slow at first.
A few kids timidly raised hands and shared some ideas.
"It makes people have fun." and "People like to hear it."
"Ok," I said, "Those things are true. But why do people like to actually sing themselves? Why do you like to sing?"
"Do you all know any songs that make you so happy you can't stop smiling if you hear it? And it doesn't have to be a song I taught you. I don't care what song it is! Any song - just as long as it really makes your heart happy when you hear it - know any songs like that?"
Every hand in the room was waving in the air.
One by one they started telling me about their favorite songs. Why they loved their favorite songs. What their favorite songs made them feel like.
"So, let me ask again - why do you think we should sing at all?"
An unexpected hand went up. I didn't know what to expect by way of an answer, but I invited the answer anyhow.
My student said, "People sing to their family - like to their kids - and it gets to be a tradition. They sing some songs because the songs mean something or tell something about what their life has been like, and then their kids know it and can understand about their life. And then their kids sing it to the next kids. And it just keeps going."
Then another kid said, "Yeah - and sometimes when we sing stuff we can give other people a feeling for the kind of stuff the song has in it - like maybe about a story or something that really happened to somebody."
It went on from there.
Eventually I interjected - "Are you all telling me that music and the songs we choose to sing to each other forms our culture? It helps us pass information to other people and helps us tell our stories better? That music IS a way of communicating truth?"
They looked around at each other. A hand went up. "It's like maybe later when we're older somebody might ask us if we can help with some music or do some music for them to help with something. And we should be able to do it. We should know how. Because it might be important."
I said, "Totally. Yes. You guys - I wanted to teach music because I wanted to spend my days singing songs I cared about with people I cared about. Not just any people . . . YOU people. I teach music to you because I care about you and I know for sure that you will have times later on in your life when music will say what you want to say better than regular words. And your'e such amazing singers. Such smart people. I want our music classes to be something you never forget - something that helps your life. And because I love to hear you sing so much, I will always be asking you to sing again or sing more or sing better. It's my job, sure. But it's also the thing I most want to do in my life: help YOU find the music that makes you happy. In my own life outside of school music is just a way for me to sing songs with my family and help other people the best way I know how. It makes my life happier."
A hand went up. "Mrs. T. . . . could we sing that Hungry song?"
Me - "You mean, the canon from Hungary?"
kid - "Yes."
Me - "Sure."
We did sing it. It was sort of quiet, but better than the way we'd started. When it was over another hand went up.
Kid - "Mrs. T. . . . could we sing that song about the wind?"
Me - "Who Has Seen the Wind?"
kid - "yeah."
Me - "Sure."
We did sing it. It was louder than the song from Hungary. We stood up. I reviewed the rules of a favorite aural skills/solfege pattern game. We played. They laughed. They sang loudly. Almost too loudly! We sat back down. They did another song. They lined up and walked out the door.
I stood there in my classroom for a few minutes, my heart beating noticeably. And I thought, "That was real teaching."
My lesson plans are real teaching, don't get me wrong. They're based on research. Not only am I a "music specialist" in the public school system - I'm a highly specialized "music specialist." I have some special certifications and some extra accreditations. But at a certain point, all of that is background noise. At some point I have to stop thinking about what other adults are going to think of me and I have to look at the students in front of me and think, instead, "What do these children need me to do right now? I only get one chance to be their 2016-17 music teacher. I only get one life. What do they need me to do so that they can actually inherit a LOVE of LEARNING and MUSIC from me?"
That 5th grade class can sight read better than most college freshman music majors, by the way. They get the academic part of music making. But I'm not interested in raising a bunch of sight reading machines. I want to educate children in such a way that they have skill backed by joy - understanding fueled by passion and inborn curiosity. That's my dream. That was the calling when I first recognized it.
Don't be afraid to ditch the plan, teachers.
Pay attention to your children. I'll try to pay attention to mine. We only get so much time with them - we have to make it count. They need us.