Back To School Done Well

Back to school has always been a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, at this time of year I’ve had enough time off, and I’m glad to get back to school doing the work I enjoy, and to see my colleague friends once again. Similarly, the students are glad to see their friends again after having been separated from most of them all summer, and familiar teacher-faces standing in the doorways to classrooms—teachers they’ve had in the past, and the teacher or teachers they will have this year. All of that is part of the happy reunion that marks the beginning of school.

The other part of the mixed bag is realizing and managing all that the students have forgotten over the summer. Math teachers soon discover that students have forgotten any number of things, including how to divide, what a ratio is, and so forth. Music teachers must face how their ensembles sound after the summer. For instrumental ensembles, many students have not touched their instruments since the end of the last school year, and sound nothing like they did then. For singers, it’s not quite as severe, because most have done some type of singing outside of school; singing with friends, singing with recorded music, or maybe singing at church. But no matter what class or ensemble we consider, there is ground to be regained before progress on this year’s repertoire can begin. So to get our musicians back into shape, where does one begin? 

The three keys to remember is to keep it short, simple, and rhythmic. Short, because those attention spans haven’t gotten any longer over the summer. Simple, because you want everything you do with them to be sharply and clearly focused on just a few key areas. Rhythmic, because rhythms unite people, and draw them in. One of the first areas of focus is to renew those embouchures, (yes, singers have embouchures too; they are the shape of the lips to form the vowels), abdominal muscles for breath control, and ears for detailed discrimination of musical sounds. When the lips, abdominal muscles, and ears are all optimally utilized, your musicians will once again be ready to make music with excellence. 

I like to begin with a jazzy scale. 

Jazzy Scale

Singers can sing this scale pattern on any syllable. I like “bah bop” because it articulates the jazz rhythm well, and a well-articulated jazz rhythm such as this encourages careful listening to get it right. You can transpose the scale to any key you like, and players of transposing instruments can transpose to the unison concert key. The scale can be accompanied by a standard swing drum pattern, adding to the fun. From there, a second harmony part can be introduced for added ear training and intonation practice.

Harmonized Jazzy Scale

With the lower part added to form harmony, singers and instrumentalists will have a new experience with the scale as they audiate the chords. Adding a bass and keyboard to fill out the chords turns this into a fun warm-up, and gives the students a variety of things to listen to as they continue to sing or play their part. The two beats of rest in each measure can be left silent or filled in with two-beat improvisations. Using just two tones, E and F in this example, to improvise rhythm patterns is an easy way to work basic improvisation into any ensemble’s warm-up.

Once you have finished this scale warm-up, it’s a good idea to stick to rote songs for the formative class meetings. This keeps the class more focused on you, which is a good thing for them to get used to again. I’m all for student centered teaching, but when I’m talking to the class, I want their attention on me.

Because you’re still not ready to start repertoire yet, a good next step for the start of the year is to have students teach the group a song, or part of a song, that they enjoy singing or playing. I have found that students enjoy singing songs they know and like together, and sometimes enjoy bringing their classmates into the fun. Many students will not want to do this alone, but will enjoy doing it with one or two other friends. Be prepared to print lyrics for them to use, and also be prepared to not permit them to do a song if the lyrics are not appropriate.

If you teach a guitar class, this works well when a student knows a riff or song and can teach it to the class. It’s also a good idea to have one or two “cool songs” up your sleeve, so that you can teach the class how to sing or play it if student volunteers are hard to come by. This activity has two major benefits. It gets the year off with a student centered activity, and it gives you the opportunity to show an interest in the music they are listening to when they’re not in school. It’s very important for a music educator to be well versed in the musical culture of their students, and to connect with it as often as possible. By the way, it’s also good to let the students “catch” you playing music you enjoy playing or singing when you’re not in school. I made it a habit to play music on piano, electric guitar, or clarinet most mornings before school as the students were coming into the building. With my door open and students going by, they often popped in to see what I was up to, and usually thought what I was doing was cool. Sometimes, if they had music class that day, they’d ask me to teach it to them when they got to class.

Pretty early on in the school year, often by the second week, once we’d started to find our playing or singing “chops,” I would share my vision for that year. For performing ensembles, I’d play recordings of major pieces I intended to teach them, including one challenging piece. Often that selection seemed out of reach to them, which gave me the opportunity to hype them up and assure them they were up to the challenge. Then, after they’d performed it well, I’d remind them that they had said they couldn’t do it, and they’d have a lot to be proud of for having proven themselves wrong. Vision casting at the beginning of the school year is important. It gives teacher and students alike something motivating and interesting to work toward.

Music classrooms, perhaps more than most, must be filled with students who work well together. Music making is something people do in groups, in community. Though written assignments are appropriate at times, the norm should be active music making activities in groups if to the whole class. Although most students above first years will know each other, they still are developing their skills at socializing, collaboration, cooperation and related skills. Activities that afford them practice and experience at these are especially appropriate at the beginning of the year. One of my favorite activities is what I call the matching mixer. I make pairs of index cards up ahead of time. One card in the pair completes the other. For example, one card might have the antecedent phrase of a familiar tune notated, and the other card would have the consequent phrase. Or one card has a musical term and the other has the definition. For younger children, I might draw a picture of something musical over both cards, so that put together they form the entire picture, like a two-piece puzzle. Students each get one card distributed randomly, and then have to walk around the room in search of the person that has the match. As students find their match, they sit at a drum circle and begin playing a previously taught, or drum pattern, or a new one I teach just then, to accompany the others still searching. As more students arrive at the drum circle, the students teach the new comers the pattern. Eventually, everyone is seated with an instrument or a partner sharing an instrument, playing the drum p pattern. From there I can go into an improvisation lesson, or segue into another activity. The drum circle is yet another tool that students enjoy that gets them working together and cooperating with each other.

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