The following is a response that I originally typed up to a question on an application form for a well-known and well-respected training orchestra. The question was “Describe an instance where your involvement in music helped your community and discuss how you would continue this work if offered a position in the New World Symphony,” and I didn’t realize until too late that the length limit was 2000 characters and not 2000 words. Live and learn, right?
I never fully answered the question, since what I wrote has been adopted into a blog post, with the point of responding to those people who look at me with an air of judgement when I tell them I’m a music teacher. After all, why would you waste your life teaching kids how to do an art form no one cares about anymore? Here’s why I do it.
On Monday I woke up at 7 AM, hopped in the shower with my toothbrush in hand, gobbled my breakfast while I was still standing in the bathroom drying my hair and walked out the door before 8. I was scheduled to start work at Swansfield Elementary School at 8:15. My assignment: elementary school band, specifically 5 sectionals of 4th grade beginners and one sectional of advanced 5th graders, 30 minutes long apiece, scattered throughout the day.
This is my normal job as a substitute teacher for Howard County Public Schools, the place where I grew up, and the place I’ve come back to as an adult looking for a way to stay involved. Although I’ve spent time in U.S. government, English and history classrooms, most often I get calls from music teachers. They call me to cover for everything from elementary general music to conducting and rehearsing with high school bands and orchestras, and wherever they teach, at whichever level, I accept the job if it’s music.
I’d been to Swansfield before, in October, back when the kids were just getting a grasp on reading music and putting their instruments together in one piece. As the teacher put it in the lesson plan, “the ranks [had] thinned out some.” Students gradually quit as their initial enthusiasm died down and my stomach sank a little to see how many fewer students there were in each sectional I taught.
It’s a big personal belief of mine that every student can achieve something on an instrument, and that learning music can give them a sense of purpose in their lives, if given the right learning atmosphere and encouragement, so see how many kids quit within a few months was a little disheartening. The reality, however, is harsh- teachers in Howard County only get 30 minutes a week to work with a group of 5 or 6 kids in a sectional. It is easy for struggling students to be overlooked this way; 30 minutes is simply not enough time to coach each child individually on the things they don’t understand. I’ve found in my few months on the job that many kids who don’t pick up the basic concepts right away are frustrated, disappointed, and in sore need of a little encouragement.
This is exactly what happened in the flute sectional on this particular day. I had mostly gotten the kids through the warm up and a pitch identification quiz with no problems. The next “to do” on my lesson plan was to get them through Hot Cross Buns by rote. We were halfway through a play-through of the first few measures when I noticed one girl all the way to the far left side of the room just holding her flute up without playing it.
“Nyah,” I asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m just so confused about what’s going on! What did you mean by ‘start at the first measure’?”
“Just at the beginning of the piece, that’s all! The place before the first bar line, right here,” I said, as I pointed to her music.
We began playing again, but her expression hadn’t changed.
“Miss Kate, I know the notes, and I know the fingerings of the notes, but I just can’t get them as fast as everyone else.”
Here is a feeling every musician knows well, whether they experience it in elementary school, or starting their secondary education, when they suddenly become small fish in big ponds of students who can play higher, clearer and faster than they can. It is the familiar feeling of paddling furiously upstream and being left behind.
I worked with her briefly for a minute, just so she could identify the pitches in the piece on her own, while the other kids where getting more antsy by the second. As I returned to the front of the classroom I couldn’t help but wonder if I really did help Nyah at all, or whether her normal teacher would really check up on her during the next sectional.
The rest of the lesson continued mostly without incident, until it was time for them to pack up their instruments and head out to recess. As I was escorting the kids out to the blacktop, Nyah wandered around to the back of the group until she had me alone.
“Miss Kate, you’re a flute specialist, right?”
“Is it really going to be okay?”
I paused. “Is what going to be okay?”
“My playing. Everyone else is better than me.”
Without thinking about it, I dropped down on one knee, so she could look at me face-to-face. “You need a little help, Nyah, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it, I promise. It’s just a little practice.” She looked so relieved that she gave me a great big hug on the spot.
This, without fail, is how I see myself truly helping my community. I can’t claim to be a part of any organization that gives free lessons to children in need, nor can I claim to be at the forefront of any initiatives to reach out to larger audiences in and outside of concert halls, but I can try to make small differences in the lives of young children.
Many of the schools I teach at are incredibly diverse, with children from a range of economic and social backgrounds, many of who have learned English as a second language. These students, whether they realize it or not, may be fighting an uphill battle for equal education and opportunities because of their race or their families’ economic backgrounds. These are, of course, all complex social issues that I can’t change by being a substitute music teacher for a public school system. But what I CAN change on a day-to-day basis is whether these students get the encouragement and affirmation they need, from a young age, through music.
Even being just a substitute is hard; I can really only check up on students’ progress if a teacher calls me back a few months later to cover for their classes again. I can only offer encouragement on the few days I’m at a particular school. But Nyah’s reaction on Monday, which was that of utter relief that she wasn’t going to fall behind with a little practice, made me think that every once in a while I actually can make a difference.
I don’t know what will happen to Nyah in the future, but I wanted, in that moment, to let her know that with a little hard work she would catch right up. I often feel that these messages are what some students miss the most. “Don’t lose hope. You can achieve what you want with a helping hand and a little elbow grease.” Maybe that will eventually translate into her other classes in schools, and eventually into the community at large. Achieving at music, or even just believing that they could, might give purpose to a lot of students who otherwise might feel a bit lost. Maybe it’s arrogant and too hopeful to really believe that I made that much difference on that day, but it’s my small way of helping the world.