This compilation of audio and visual artifacts has been created to document the transformation as a Teaching Artist through the Cantata Singer’s "Classroom Cantatas" program. The portfolio is presented in partial fulfillment of the "Guided Internship" requirements of the Music-In-Education concentration.
In this portfolio you will find:
My introduction to the classroom
How I approached classroom management
An overview of the three-phase project
Highlights and my thoughts on the April 11 concert
A self-critique for future projects
What is Classroom Cantatas?
The Classroom Cantatas program, hosted by the Boston CanTaTa singers, is a 12-week residence program granting students in Boston public and charter schools the opportunity to "Explore the language of rhythm and melody, giving shape to their individual voices while deepening their understanding of the core subject matter." The organization works diligently with school administration to give students this opportunity. Through collaboration with their peers, and under the guidance of a Teaching Artist, an original composition is produced by each small group at a school – using pre-selected poetry for the text – then consolidated, rehearsed, and performed at a city-wide concert at the conclusion of the program. Learn more about the Classroom Cantata program HERE.
What was my role?
At the start of this project in January the plan was to observe group sessions, support the staff, and occasionally lead a small group in the case of a TA absence. It was a trick! As soon as it began I found myself leading my own small group at Mather elementary while simultaneously learning how to do so through observation at Mendell Elementary. Through this new role I quickly learned to assume responsibility for a group of students, nurture their ideas, clarify their work and manage their presentation. The journey deepened when I was asked to conduct the students at the last minute. But still, two days before the event I was asked by the program coordinator to help realize the ground logistics regarding the Mather students. Within a short time my role had gone from supporting figure to "point man," as the coordinator called it, all while maintaining professionalism and (at least the illusion of) teaching and administrative mastery.
What comes next?
The immediate footprint of the Classroom Cantata singers is relatively small each year. With 13 performing students from Mather, 35+ from Mendell, and similar figures from the other two schools this cycle, a small percentage of Boston public school kids will have the privilege of participating. However, students were given the opportunity to explore music in a system where monetary support is fading, as is the traditional image of music. The skills they learned through this project such as word-association, goal-driven collaboration, working with new adult role models and even piano skills, can be transferred to other areas of their education. On the other side of the project, this has been the most rewarding and fruitful endeavor I have taken on as a developing music educator, and the skills I learned, mentioned in the portfolio, will be building blocks from success in the classroom.
On the first day of what I thought would be observation I felt like the students had more business being in the classroom than I had, despite my being a teacher figure. The first thing I noticed approaching both schools is that there are many ways of going about the same task, such as warming up the students, instructing them, and even introducing the new faces like me.
Ms. Carola, a TA, took the time to give me a warm verbal introduction to the students.
The pros of this:
- I did not have to breech any comfort barriers by talking to a class I had just met
- Students learn more about me
- Name is reiterated, so there is no confusion
The cons of something like this are:
- Lengthy – this takes away from precious work time
- Does not force me to breech comfort barriers by talking to a new classroom. There are two sides to this.
- Does not incorporate singing, the group’s purpose.
Mr. Kilian, a TA, too the time to introduce me through music, a method I thought was equally appropriate for the setting as Ms. Carola’s introduction.
The pros of this:
The cons of this method are:
- Brief and not informative
- Name not said a lot, possibly leading to confusion and informality among students. Later in the session I was answering to "Stephen" and "Mr. Steve."
I have a fear of spiders and heights (this coming from a grown man with a pilot’s license), but aspire to never fear a room of rugrats. Classroom management was a tremendous source of anxiety for me when a I began this project, but in turn the Classroom Cantata endeavor helped remedy this through practice.
Mr. Kilian managing 20 8-year-olds with ease!
One phenomenon I observed from all TAs, including myself, and homeroom teachers is "passive acceptance," when a behavior is (unintentionally) deemed acceptable because it is not corrected. The problem with correcting bad behavior is simply there is so much of it. This is said relative to the adult world we know as young professionals, paid employees, and role models. Through this entire project I cannot think of a single sentence said by a TA that was not followed or interrupted by a student, or a student physically drifting away from the group. It had to have been overwhelming for our teaching ARTISTS, but it did not ever show, as they exercised tremendous patience and control.
After this project I find myself wondering how I would nip this problem when I am placed in a new classroom. I think of this scene from Sister Act II (1993).
Just try to count the number of things Goldberg said there that could not be said in a classroom today! We Cantata Singer TAs had to be especially careful, using soft language over flat scolding because we were guests.
This audio clip is of the Mendell homeroom teacher assigning a task (sitting on the carpet), and the students carrying it out. Notice how the teacher…
- Clearly assigns a task ("Get to the rug")
- Emphasizes through tone of voice key requirements ("Quickly and safely")
- Turns it into a competition among the individual student and a collective class
Here is another clip, this time of Mr. Kilian regaining control of the room.
- Interrupted with a question
- Whispering (Singing not the main focus of the student at the moment)
- Animal noises (Blatant lack of interest in the task)
His solution was a group activity, an oath, with motivation at the end ("…go outside and have a ton of fun").
…In both these examples, group activities with embedded motivation seemed to be the solution.
The "Passive Acceptance" was especially noticeable during group practices at Mather Elementary. In this clip Kilian happened to be the leader – I say this as to not villainize him, as we both let poor behavior slip. Because the behavior had begun to affect other students I had to step in at the end of the segment, as he stepped in for me on many occasions.
This excerpt, taken from the end of the project, is of a form of correction I found comfortable and natural after using even softer language to achieve the same effect.
- Short – I am not worn out telling the student "I know you are excited to go outside but right now we need to…"
- Can be accompanied by looking at the student(s), who then ask themselves why they are being addressed, correcting the behavior.
I am most proud of this example, which reflects my elevated comfort level with the ensemble and their acknowledgement of my authority. Like the one-word correction above, the action I took in correcting this student’s behavior ("Why don’t you come sit next to me") felt like a natural solution by the end of the project.
Phase 1 – Writing a Melody
Each phase of the Classroom Cantata project aims to teach the students a musical skill (melodic composition, accompaniment, and rehearsing), with this one being the biggest and most educational. I had to keep in mind that these students are 8 years old, and in order to write their melody, someone (me) would need to glue it together, finding a balance between what is musical and what is their material.
The first few sessions were spent identifying my teaching style. I opted to focus on blatant forms of expression – matching melody and style with the text, like Bach or Berlioz writing program music.
This technique I employed most often to help give them musical direction.
Through the project one obstacle was getting them to make noise. When we write our melody, where and how do we start?
One major difference among we TAs was how we chose to edit the material thrown on the table, though I did notice veteran teachers straying more from the easy, singable melody, and one teaching artist incorporated literally everything her small group suggested. On the other hand I opted to use only material that they had come up with, but avoid too much repetition.
This highlights a personal goal of mine to loosen up and let the students lead the writing. In "Guiding Melodic Contour," it is as if I have an idea for what the song should sound like, swayed by my years of formal music study, and am almost dragging them to my idea. I did this to ensure melodic interest; the students loved small intervals between two notes, such as minor thirds. Here is another example of Ms. Carola’s style.
Carola is more comfortable incorporating all suggestions given to her, such as the multiple versions of the word "Magic." The benefit of this is that each student gets to have a direct input in the final version, while the drawback is that this takes time, and as we found in the rehearsal process, is difficult for the students AND the conductor to perform.
Phase 2 – Writing the Accompaniment
This phase was the shortest (we had one 45-minute session). The goal is to consider different settings for their now complete melody and collectively select what they feel works best. Like phase 1, this phase required major gluing on the TAs part. Because of severely limited time the goal was to give students a few conceptual options and have them decide on one.
Here I pitched the idea of single-note accompaniment. Clearly I am not going to ask them about the preferences regarding 7ths, doubling the third, etc., but it is a concept they can consider. Later in the same session we overheard another TAs group coming up with ideas and quite liked their accompaniment pattern better.
And hitting on a few key moments in the song, we agreed on some programmatic elements. After this session I spent a long time with Sibelius to turn these ideas into something that worked with the piece. Mr. Daniel, my colleague at Mather said it was like gluing the parts together. I thought the story of Christ feeding thousands with a few fish and breads was more appropriate. See the final audio and score under "Final Thoughts" to find out how they were used!
Phase 3 – Rehearsal
By now the students have worked closely with each other in the composition phase, and now we turn the focus on listening as an ensemble. They don’t know everybody’s songs, but in a few weeks they have to perform them from memory, so there is much work to be done!
During this phase there were times when I had to "glue" what my group had just composed on the fly to show the rest of the large class. This for me had two purposes:
- Solidify for my small group (and for me) what we had just done.
- Earn trust from the large group by looking like I knew exactly what I was doing
Thankfully, Kilian played along as well…
If this opportunity were to present itself again, this particular phase would be both a blessing and nightmare for me. The former because it is an opportunity to work on classroom management, and the latter because, well…classroom management. Kilian did most of the work during rehearsals, but two weeks before our concert he discovered he would have to miss out because of a prior commitment, and asked me to conduct the ensemble. The one 20 minute rehearsal I had with them was probably the most meaningful session as a teacher so far. Being seen at the front is very different than being heard from the back. Immediately I found myself devoting more time to behavior issues than usual.
In the months leading up to our concert my role has been a small group leader, and now conductor due to last minute plan changes. Then I got an email from Josh Taylor, the project coordinator…
"Would you be willing to ride the bus from Mather to the Children’s Museum, and act as the CC representative on the ground there? I can give you a CC friend if you need – but I’m trying to be conservative with my human resources, as I’m not sure how the logistics of the day will unfold once we arrive at the museum. If you are willing to be point-man on this trip, I will send you a logistics packet which will include directions to the venue from Mather, instructions on how/where to unload, etc, and your bus confirmation." (Sent on April 9).
Fine, no big deal. Sarah, another Mather TA and one with far more experience moving groups of children, had offered to ride the bus as well, so my commitment would be fairly light. Then, on my way to the school, with my logistics packet in hand, she called stuck in traffic, and I learned I would be on my own for this one. Then the real list of newly appointed tasks came to me:
- Bus driver: Meeting, directions, drop-off, pick-up
- Behavior control on the bus and in the museum
- Collecting students from class – School was not yet dismissed, and administration had little more knowledge than I of what was supposed to happen. Working with a very busy principal the permission forms were collected, attendance taken, and extra persons, such as parents riding with their student, were accounted for.
- This one made me nervous. A strange gentleman tried to load the bus with one female student. The student verified it was her father, and I took his name down, shook hands and welcomed him to ride along, but I was quite a bit nervous during the whole ride.
- Traveling on foot with the children (around the school, to the museum, etc)
- Getting students into the museum as their chaperone, and directing them on/off the stage.
This is where the performance aspect of teaching came into play, much like the summary presentations at the end of phase 1 and 2. I had no clue what I was doing during any of this, but I realized that it didn’t matter because I had no set instructions beyond getting the students to the school at a certain time. This was an opportunity to conquer an objective the way I wanted to, putting me in a real position of leadership for the first time.
After the above ordeal, conducting the students was nearly child’s play. Once again, I realized that it did not matter how I went about warming up the group (something I had never done), where I stood off stage before the show, whether I used a music stand, how I conducted, or how I acknowledged the students during the applause.
Nobody was holding me to their standards (except high standards of professionalism from the organization), giving me the freedom to perform the roles of teacher, leader, and explore the artistry in these collective tasks.
Through this entire afternoon I realized that very often small actions are more effective than trying to over control the group. Lay down guidelines verbally, like "Walk" while in the museum, and leading by non-verbal example helped keep the students under control, especially during moments when I was visible.
Meanwhile, Mr. Daniel realized that the Boston Children’s Museum has some pretty sweet toys.
Reflecting back on the project I can now sort through what I would explore further in the next session.
Challenging the Students
As mentioned before, there was some behind-the-scenes composition on the TAs’ sides, resulting in an ideal composition. But in my small group’s case not everything we hoped to incorporate into the song made it into the performance, and I suspect it is because of time and level of difficulty. The original score and the final performance score version are listed below
The differences are mainly extra effects (patting the legs in measure 16, the fermata in measures 5 and 6, and wind noise in measures 17-18). Were it up to me, these details would have been in the final performance, but I was absent for most of the rehearsals, having only 20 minutes during the final class to work with them. In future projects I would try to include something "cute" like this. Having heard the warm-up songs at Mendell sessions, these students can handle the challenge, and keeping them busy seems to be one solution to behavioral problems.
Flexibility and organization build each other. One occasion I caught myself showing a little organizational weakness was after Kilian taught one small group lesson for a week and was far more literal applying students’ melodic ideas – notice the 3-beat feel in measure 19 compared to the 4-beat feel of the preceding material, as well as the new key after the 6-measure piano interlude. The result was me scrambling in another behind-the-scenes patchwork session to make the changes fit.
On this note, however, I’m quite proud of the incorporation of the different metric feel and modulation into the overall work. I accomplished this by building a Dominant 7 chord in D major, the new key, in two bars preceding the new key. To get the 3-beat feel into the students’ ears well before they had to sing it, I wrote it into the piano interlude. This allowed them to recognize and store it for later in the song.
The second instance where mastery slipped was the consolidation of students and shuttling them to the event. The school principal at one point helped take attendance by offering verbal cues on how I should proceed with the head count. A list of students, perhaps getting to the school even earlier, and a clipboard to write on would have helped adapt to the suddenly new responsibilities.
Technology is changing, and while it can be daunting to adapt to every new change that emerges, it is quite easy to utilize it as a dictionary rather than a mandatory lexicon. There are apps out there that have no use in the project, like a tuner or virtual conductor. On the other hand, something like a piano app (I used Piano Infinity on my iPad Air) was very useful since a portable keyboard was not available for my small group.
They joy of using only an iPad app was that it limited me to one-handed piano usage. But rather than being content with my keyboarding skills, which worked for the purposes of the project, more skill would certainly be beneficial to the next group. In the background of this clip one can hear Kilian and Daniel working easily with their keyboards to enhance the composition process, whereas I could only reaffirm what was created.
Without further ado…