Today on the blog we are pleased to feature the second in a two-part guest post from Elizabeth Green, a music educator in New York City and participant on the summer 2012 ThisWorldMusic Study in Ghana program.
“You’re so lucky you teach music! The kids love music!”
So said a colleague one day as he dropped some students off for my Music Therapy class.
Me? Lucky? I’m lucky I remembered my turkey sandwich for lunch! Wait…they truly love music? Probably. Did they love my Music Class? Probably not.
I certainly make an effort to get them to love my class. I’m energetic. I make them laugh. I feel I can relate well to strugglers as well as smarty-pants in the classroom. Most of all, I love music and I love working with kids.
But when things get scary, unpredictable and hard, I tend to go into “survival” mode, as many of us do, even if we aren’t aware of it. For teachers, especially younger ones without a lifetime of classroom experience, survival mode usually means yelling, short-sighted discipline strategies, empty threats and, regrettably, doctor’s appointments that always seem to occur on days with difficult classes. Innovation is thrown out the window and I rigidly revert to teaching exactly what I was taught in exactly the way I was taught it. If you can’t get it, it’s your problem.
The issue isn’t only my lack of decades of hard-earned classroom wisdom; it also stems from the fact that nothing in my own musical and educational history remotely resembles my current music classroom at an urban school in the Harlem Children’s Zone.
There is absolutely no way to express the human connection I felt in my gut the first time I watched — and then danced alongside! — the National Dance Company of Ghana at the National Theatre in the capital city of Accra. This pure excitement and bliss told me precisely what feeling I wanted my students to experience.”
What did I learn in my university training? How to teach, conduct and maintain ensembles similar to the ones I played in during my high-quality, public school music education. Are there many American schools I could have walked into and have been wonderfully prepared? Yes. However, there are countless other schools in major American cities that do not match the specific skills I learned in music education degree programs. And those are precisely the schools to which I want to bring my energy and understanding.
Getting out and being exposed to new experiences and ideas is one way I know I am on the right track: conferences and trips, ones that leave you excited to go back to work, with new ideas and experiences in hand. For me, the further the distance from home, the more renewed and rejuvenated I feel when I return. So when I traveled to Ghana to study traditional West African drumming and dance, it brought me far enough from home to get a clearer picture of how to revolutionize my teaching.
There is absolutely no way to express the human connection I felt in my gut the first time I watched — and then danced alongside! — the National Dance Company of Ghana at the National Theatre in the capital city of Accra. This pure excitement and bliss told me precisely what feeling I wanted my students to experience. The drum artisan that welcomed me and my fellow travelers into his private compound to witness the lengthy and impressive process of constructing a sogo (a type of regional drum) made my mind race with possibilities of teaching the physics of sound production by building an actual instrument with the shop teacher at my school, and explaining to my students how final, artistic choices impact the sound of the finished product, making each drum unique.
When I returned to the classroom and began the new journey of teaching my students the music and techniques I had learned in Ghana, the problems I had previously encountered with students’ lack of a comprehensive background musical training went out the window. This music is passed from generation to generation through aural comprehension rather than through a system of visual notation. Those who aspire to create complicated patterns and rhythms are not bogged down by having to write things down — a language that has never been a part of their musical experience. It is also from these very African musical roots that Soul, Rhythm & Blues and Hip Hop has emerged over the last century. The familiarity that many urban black and Latino students have with elements that are shared by these musical genres makes acceptance and interest of African musical study much stronger — and more personal.
Because you are not crouched over musical notation, you have nowhere to look but up and straight into the eyes of one another as you play and dance along to traditional Ghanaian music. This reliance on aural, intellectual and emotional data gave me the ability to take in the music in a different way, and feel confident with my ability to bring it back to my classroom. And I have indeed been able to take those same principles and leverage them to impact the dynamics of my classroom in the best, most rewarding way possible. Being able to learn firsthand from Ghanaian musicians gives a special credibility to my abilities as a music teacher, and taking that huge step away from home not only gave me needed clarity, but has led to a greater tolerance from my students for being led further into the complexities of this music – a place wholly new to them. READ PART I ››
Elizabeth Green is currently a music teacher at Promise Academy Charter School in The Harlem Children’s Zone. She holds a B.A. in Music Education, with honors, from SUNY Fredonia, where she was President of the collegiate chapter of the National Association for Music Education. She went on to earn an M.A. in Music Education from the Columbia Graduate School of Education.