“Cooking Tips” for the Music Educator

woman dancing in a crowd
Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

I love to cook. For me, it is so satisfying to create something for the people I love to be able to enjoy and savor. When I cook, I tend to follow a recipe, so I can get just the right flavors and consistency.

In looking at this upcoming school year, I have come to realize I follow a few tried and true recipes for teaching music as well. For example, I know just the right combination for a solid ISSMA contest lineup: one Spiritual, one Festival Piece (probably something by Leck or Papoulis), and one Foreign Language.

Another crowd pleaser that I have learned to perfect over 11 years of teaching middle school choir is the recipe for my incoming 6th graders. In case you were wondering—it calls for a lot of spice. I have found they need a few of what my college professors used to refer to as “fluff pieces” (pop music) and some great choreography to start the year off well and keep them engaged. If I were to describe it in cooking terms, it’s as though I let them eat their dessert first before we get to the fruits and vegetables because if I don’t—they either won’t eat at all (refuse to participate) or leave dinner early (drop the class).

However, this year is new in so many ways due to the pandemic and the restrictions and limitations that have come along with it. As a result, I have challenged myself to throw those recipes out and create my own from scratch. I have decided to choose music for the year that I love to teach, without an agenda.

I tell my students often that if they sing with expression and look like they are enjoying themselves on stage, the audience will reciprocate and enjoy the performance so much more. Teaching music I enjoy personally should be no different. I learned early on in my teaching career that students reciprocate the attitude and body language of their teachers—for better or for worse.

Have you ever had that one friend who can’t wait to have you listen to a new song they discovered or stream a great show they just finished binge-watching? They are almost always enthusiastic and excited for you to experience the connections they made to the song or show. I want to be that for my students this year.

 I have challenged myself to throw those recipes out and create my own from scratch.

When I was a first year teacher, I poured quite a bit of time into preparing my classroom before the school year began. One day, another teacher stopped by my classroom to see the new decor. They took one look around and told me my efforts were a waste of time. They assured me that when I had been teaching as long as they had, I would realize how useless decorating a middle school choir room was.

I was disheartened by the response to my hard work and later shared it with my mentor teacher. Her response was unforgettable. She affirmed my efforts and told me that as an educator, you spend the majority of your day in your classroom. If anyone should be comfortable in it, it should be you. You are there for six or more hours, Monday through Friday, and occasionally on weekends. Students often transition from class to class after 45 minutes. In her mind, creating a space that I felt good in was not a waste of time or a selfish ambition but a priority for my well being. I have always held on to her words, and in my approach to this year, I am challenged to apply that concept to music.

I am intentionally going back to pieces I know the students will love, and I will enjoy teaching. Does that include a larger amount of pop and jazz in comparison to years past? Yes, it most certainly does. After the year and a half we have had, I’m okay with that. September by Earth, Wind, and Fire—here’s looking at you.

While I am currently in the process of digging through my music filing cabinets to choose some great, “feel-good” pieces, I realize for new teachers just starting out on this journey, you might be wondering how to even begin the process of choosing the right pieces for this year. I suggest reflecting on your own educational experiences in the performing arts. Was there a song that made you fall in love with performing? Something that invoked emotions in you that you didn’t know you had? Start “cooking” with that.

In getting to know other music educators over the years, I have found many of us started our journeys in education because of a former choir, band, or orchestra teacher who had a profound impact on our lives. If you were really fortunate, it was a combination of an amazing teacher and excellent music to perform. That in and of itself is an award-winning recipe.

Maybe the future of this school year in the performing arts is looking a little bleak and uncertain for you. I have those feelings as well. Taking a moment to pause and reflect on why I love teaching music is what gives me the energy and enthusiasm to put a great “dish” together for my students and be a bit more creative. When boiled down, teaching music consists of two main ingredients: a love for children and a love for music. If you forget either—you’ll ruin the dish.

If we take a look at our Indiana State Standard 1.0, it challenges us as educators to find ways for our students to connect to music by exploring the relationships between music and their lives. Why not use that standard for ourselves this year? Choose music that connects to you as an educator, so that you will be able to enjoy and savor this year with your students. Bon Appetit!

Choose music that connects to you as an educator, so that you will be able to enjoy and savor this year with your students.

If we take a look at our Indiana State Standard 1.0, it challenges us as educators to find ways for our students to connect to music by exploring the relationships between music and their lives. Why not use that standard for ourselves this year? Choose music that connects to you as an educator, so that you will be able to enjoy and savor this year with your students. Bon Appetit!

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