What Are The Essentials For Teaching Music?

2011Symposium_1_2The longer I teach, the more I value simplicity and careful thought. There was a time when I chased after every piece of equipment I could get my hands on. I absolutely had to have more computers, software, instruments, books, microphones, and on and on. Now all of these things are useful, and all of them add value to the music education I or any other music teacher gives students. But they are not the game changers I once thought they were. There is no substitute for good teaching, and teachers, not equipment or technology, provide it. Having clearly established goals, being attentive and responsive to the progress each child is making, and guiding students to completing them are hallmarks of good teaching.

Having said that, there is a short list of things that I would be hard pressed to do without. These include my phone and an amplifier and speakers to plug it into on which I play music for my class, provide a metronome, utilize a tuner and find reference pitches. I also need a white board; preferably with permanent staff lines printed on, or if not a staff liner tool, and dry erase markers. I need chairs for the students to sit in, space for them to move in, printed music for them to sight sing from, some kind of pitched instruments for them to play—preferably Orff barred instruments, recorders, and boom whackers—and rhythm instruments that include African drums, guiros, woodblocks, claves, maracas, agogo bells, cow bells, and Lummi sticks. I also need to be teaching in a room where other adults aren’t meeting, talking, or otherwise distracting my students or me. With these things, I can teach musicianship anywhere—in my own classroom, or with a cart in someone else’s classroom.

Beyond these essentials, there is a clear desire for a well-tuned piano or electric piano, a keyboard lab,  and digital recording equipment for use in classroomassessing students and creating audio portfolios. One caution about pianos: they are easy to over use. They are horrible for training young voices because matching pitch with one is often more difficult than with another human voice, and the tempered scale trains singers to sing out of tune if they are learning their tuning from the piano. My middle school students would love a piano lab. It seems most of those students want to learn the piano, and would derive great benefit from having the opportunity to have their music class in a keyboard lab.

While these things beyond the essentials are great and fine to have, there is one investment that tops them all, and that is to invest in you. I live by the belief that I must be a better teacher this year than I was last year, no matter how good I was then. I can always improve, learn new methods, new strategies, new materials. I can always learn more about my students; how they learn, how they don’t learn, and what motivates them. When I learn a better way of teaching something, that is better than getting a new piece of equipment, because my new learning is plug and play, and more customizable than a xylophone, or sound system. Doing the basics better keeps me true to my valuing of simplicity. Teaching and students are already complicated enough. Anything I can do to simplify is always helpful, and I can more effectively give careful thought to the simple than to the complicated. This is a strategy we all can count on.

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