Local Teachers Redefine Music Education
Six years ago, Sacramento’s Bowling Green Charter School didn’t have much of a music program for its elementary students.
Visit the school today and you’ll find kids clustered around groups of electronic keyboards in several classrooms, their heads nodding in time as they bop through jazz and feisty blues standards or adaptations of more lyrical classical melodies by Bach and Beethoven. The kids enjoy the music and take pride in what they perform. This, in turn, builds a positive atmosphere that supports and enhances their overall academic achievement.It’s quite a turnaround, accomplished in spite of limited resources by several determined educators—none of whom were trained as keyboard teachers—who saw an opportunity to adapt a product created by a locally based music-education company for classroom use. Based on the success of that effort, they secured a donation of 100 keyboards from instrument maker Casio, as well as some grant money from the state, that has furthered the program.
Emily Saur, one of the teachers at Bowling Green, remembers that the teachers were determined to resist the widespread trend across California to phase out music education at the elementary level when Bowling Green changed from a regular elementary into a charter school in 1993. “We were charter school number 18—one of the first (in the state),” Saur recalled. “And in our planning, we were not going to let go of things like music and art.”
In the early days, the teachers at Bowling Green tried an old standard, which proved less than thrilling for all involved. “We did plastic recorders. That was not a great thing,” Saur said.
Then, in 2000, Saur saw an ad in a newspaper for Simply Music, a Sacramento-region company that was being launched by Australian-born Neil Moore.
“It was a home-study program,” Saur said. “I contacted Neil and went to see him that summer and told him I wanted to do it in the classroom. He said he’d never done it in that setting, but he was willing to give it a try. We bought a couple of keyboards per classroom and paid for those. And we bought some of the level-one books, and just started. He had one of his regular teachers in the program help us along. We played it by ear. And it took off. It was unbelievable.”
Saur teaches in Bowling Green’s multiage classroom program, which serves about 135 of the school’s enrollment of around 1,000 children. Saur had piano lessons as a child and can read music. She works with several other teachers who have varying degrees of musical skill. A few played in a high-school band or had piano lessons, others have no music education to speak of or are, in Saur’s words, “music phobic.” None of them, including Saur, would stake a claim on the title “professional music teacher.”
But now, Bowling Green’s students give two recitals a year, attended by adoring parents. “The students practice all the time,” according to Saur. “They want to practice all the time. They go to the keyboard. They don’t even ask. We have headphones (for the electronic keyboards),” so that the classroom isn’t compromised into cacophony by the sound of six or seven students simultaneously playing tunes, varying from folk tunes like “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” to “Greensleeves” to Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”
By wearing the headphones at the electronic keyboards, “the students can be there, each playing their own song, and the classroom is not disturbed,” Saur said.
And the response is eager. “I get here at 7:40 in the morning and the students walk in to practice at the keyboards. They just love it,” Saur said.
Saur adds that “there really are cases of kids who can’t do anything else (other than music)”—kids who struggle with core subjects like math and English and are annually evaluated in those subject areas by California’s rigid standardized-testing system.
“There’s a kid in one of our intermediate classes, brand new to the school this year, who is a sixth grader reading on a second-grade level,” Saur said. “This student can’t do math and is not an athlete. But he’s already learned five or six songs at the keyboard. It’s given him one thing that he can do well at school.”
Neil Moore is the founder and executive director of Simply Music, the company that created the curriculum that Saur and her fellow teachers at Bowling Green are using.
“What I found remarkable about Bowling Green is that none of the teachers there had a music-teaching background and they didn’t have teacher-training materials. They had our ‘learn at home’ program which non-musically trained teachers needed to facilitate, on their own. They had so much working against them. It was a difficult scenario.”
And yet they built a whole process around learn-at-home materials, training themselves as teachers and facilitating students. “It’s really a remarkable thing that they’ve done,” Moore said.
Saur acknowledges that “we are really facilitating the teachers. During the week, it’s the kids who are one or two songs ahead of the other kids that help with the teaching. That’s part of our multiage philosophy,” that combines kids from two or three grades in a single classroom and encourages older students to help younger students learn (a model also found in Montessori education). “I have two kids here today from the fourth grade working with little second graders,” Saur said. “The fourth graders are showing the younger kids how to play the songs because they’re further along. It’s all about the mentoring, and it’s exceptional to watch. They’re doing so much of the teaching.”
Several teachers work with students as they reach an intermediate level. Saur works with the more advanced students, working on the second and third books in the Simply Music curriculum.
Saur is also quite clear about what her students are—and are not—learning. She knows that it’s not a traditional method, nor does it focus on some of the skills that a traditional program cultivates early on. “They don’t learn to read music in our program,” she said. “They learn where to place their hands, they learn C, they learn five fingers over five notes. They’re using patterns, basics.” The printed curriculum provides some diagrams, augmented by illustrations on video, and also serves to train the students’ hands and ears.
“But the kids are playing songs, very soon, and not just playing scales. For example, Neil’s program will start with the Jackson blues, then move to the Bishop Street Blues, and then harder things.”
Many of the blues standards covered in the Simply Music program involve repeated patterns for the left hand, playing the lower notes on the keyboard, while the right hand provides the more complicated melody.
“The kids learn the pattern, and then learn harder blues tunes to go with it. That’s what I like,” Saur said.
This left hand-right hand dichotomy, and the progression of complexity, is nothing new for grown-ups who’ve studied the foundations of the 12-bar blues, laid down in New Orleans and other American cities about a hundred years ago.
But for many of Bowling Green’s ethnically diverse students—coming from lower income families on the city’s south side and living in homes where there are no keyboards to explore, the history of American jazz and blues is seldom discussed—it’s a discovery.
Most students also are surprised that within a few weeks, they can quickly learn a Bach minuet. Trevon Kirby, a fifth grader, said “(Playing ‘Fur Elise’) calms me down when I’m mad. I practice it at home.”
Nakia Takeuchi, a sixth grader, said she “practices every day for 30 minutes.”
The music program at Bowling Green helps students by providing electronic keyboards on loan, which can be taken home for the academic year.
So far, Bowling Green is apparently the only school that has tried implementing Moore’s Simply Music curriculum. Moore acknowledges that the company’s effort is “to build an international network of teachers (in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) … in a private enterprise environment.” The public school, including charter schools like Bowling Green, “is not an area we’ve developed, but it’s something we’ve got to consider,” Moore said. Currently, he’s working on refocusing the Simply Music materials from the old videotapes (which Saur uses in her classroom) to downloadable lessons in an iTunes format, or something similar.
“We’re still in very humble beginnings (as a company),” Moore said. “But the program is unique. There’s nothing like it. With this program, there’s immediate accessibility to musical self-expression. Not “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” but jazz and blues and classical. They’re playing sophisticated music immediately. Anybody and everybody can do it, even if they’re convinced they can’t. Bowling Green is an example of a circumstance where everybody said it couldn’t happen. But they demonstrated experientially that it could happen, and that kids could flourish at every level.”
“The thing that’s remarkable about Bowling Green is that the children were able to learn in this program—kids who were previously achieving nothing in music. And often it’s the kids who teach other kids and other adult teachers at school. That, for me, is a breakthrough,” Moore said.
(For information about Simply Music online, go to www.simplymusic.net)