Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Grade Blues Musicians and 6th Grade Activists

While teaching at an inner-city public school in Los Angeles County about 10 years ago, I developed a piano keyboard program in my first-grade classroom. This project came about after I received a grant of 20 electric pianos from the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. With great support of my principal and my three-teacher team, I was able to give 60 first-graders daily music instruction. In 2003, I was honored with the BRAVO Award from the Los Angeles County Performing Arts Center for my integration of music into the curriculum of my general education elementary students. (BTW, the Los Angeles Times article shown to the left did NOT appear on the front page).

To get a feel for what my students were able to do by the end of the year, here is a short video of our performance for parents. Every student in the class could play any of the four parts (drums, bass, chords, improviser), and we often mixed bands up at random.

The program utilizes a set of electric piano keyboards wired through a central teacher console. Each keyboard is fitted with a headphone and microphone. The central console, positioned adjacent to the teacher’s piano keyboard, allows me to monitor any student, speak with any students one-on-one, combine students so that any one student can be ‘connected’ to another student. When so connected, the students hear one another’s voices and keyboards. The console allows for all students to be paired with the student across from them, or to be grouped in any combination of keyboards at my discretion. The console allows me, with the push of a button, to have individual students or selected groups of students immediately hear my voice and keyboard, or the voice and/or keyboard of any other student. In this way, I can instruct from my piano while not distracting other students who are practicing, and am also able to have any individual student or group of students demonstrate things on their keyboard to all the other students through their headphones.

A distinguishing feature of my music education program on electric keyboards involved my emphasis on improvisation and group performance. In my program, effective improvisation was a principal goal of students’ hands-on work. Much of traditional music education teaches students music theory, sight reading, ear training, and technical development. All of this is important. What can be problematic is if these skills are taught as ends in themselves with no larger purpose in mind. Early on in my program, students were able to experience the excitement and wonder of extemporaneously creating music (improvising) within a set harmonic framework. In this way, the were more readily able to appreciate the role of ear training, scale theory, and technique, as these figure into learning to improvise competently. In fact, students were highly motivated to work on these more rote and conceptual musical training areas, as they understood these to be the necessary means to a greater end: that of becoming effective improvisers and group performers. My methodology, which was centered in part on two key pedagogical techniques of renowned musician and educator Lennie Tristano, focuses on developing students’ sense of time, and in helping students to allow their voice to propel the hand in keyboard playing. In my view, improvised music (as well as composed music) originates as a vocalized expression translated to fingerings on an instrument (or in the case of composition, to notation on manuscript paper). My students learned to sing along with everything they played, from scales, to rhythms, to simple melodic patterns and songs. In so doing, they developed the important improvising skill of translating vocal expressions to their instrument. In addition, students practiced predominantly with a metronome or in pairs. In this way, they developed their sense of time (constant pulse), which is a requisite to performing well with other musicians. Together with improvising, group performance was a central component of my music program. A goal of many of the musical exercises I taught was to help students develop competence in playing ensemble parts to accompany an improviser. All students learned to play and create various rhythmic patterns (using a ‘drum voice’ setting on the keyboard). They also learned to play and create bass patterns within a given harmonic range, and they learned to improvise within a scale or a particular mode (e.g. dorian). Students practiced these parts with metronomes (built into the pianos), and then practiced in pairs and quartets. During practice sessions, students frequently rotated instrumental roles, giving each other the opportunity to both improvise and to accompany. I found that students were highly motivated to play in groups. In my own experience playing in small improvising groups as a professional jazz pianist, I have found that the music that is created, the ‘whole’ so to speak, always seems to be greater than the ‘sum of the parts.’ What is created together therefore, feels greater than the individual parts simply being played simultaneously. For me, this is a significant ingredient in the ‘magic’ of music. Students seemed to experience this too, and were usually very eager to learn their parts in order to play and perform as part of a duo, trio, or quartet. Both improvising and playing together with other musicians requires development of difficult skills. I have found that students, even as young as first graders, are highly motivated and capable of meeting these challenges.

Working in groups, students composed ensemble pieces that they performed together for other students or other classes. In addition, during my 5 years teaching 6th grade at a more affluent public school, students recorded their music and produced CDs of original songs. My students sold these CDs to raise money for a number of global causes which they had identified and studied at length. You can read about their efforts at:

Here is a video from one of those recording sessions:

A wonderful quality of this keyboard program, in addition to the sense of accomplishment and joy students experience through music, is the many interpersonal strengths that it builds in students. Young people who learn to compose, practice, and perform in musical groups, develop deep listening skills, great cooperative abilities, an array problem solving competencies, a broad understanding of team-work, and a heightened sense of accountability for what they must bring to a competent musical group. The keyboard lab and music program become a workshop for building interpersonal strengths and sense of teamwork. These skills grow out of the motivation students feel when they are called upon to improvise and accompany on keyboards.

The photo below was sent from an organization in India which frees children from slavery in the carpet weaving industry and provides them with recovery counseling, schooling, and reintegration into their home villages. Students from my 6th grade class donated $5200 to this organization in April 2008 through sales of their CD entitled "Beyond Common Thought."

During the 2007-2008 school year, children supported an organization in Ghana, Africa which freed children from bonded servitude, sending $3800 though sales of their CD "The Third Arrow."

The very first fundraising project of my 6th-grade students was during the 2004-2005 school year and immediately following the South-Asian tsunami which claimed over 140,000 lives. Through our research, we discovered an organization in southern India which was working with children in fishing villages which had been devastated by the tsunami. They felt that children needed to have healthy ways to play and recover from the trauma of the death and destruction they had experienced. Through a grant of $3800 raised from sales of their CD "Starting from Scratch," a playground was built in the village of Shanmuga Nagar, India.

In Spring of 2006, my 6th grade class produced their CD "Through Eyes of Hope," selling it to raise over $5600 to support both a local cause and an international issue. They donated over $1400 to a local animal rescue organization "The Nature of Wildworks," as well as giving over $4000 to Darfur Peace and Development Organization to help support a United Nations run school in a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan.

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