A Student-Centered Approach to Planning

Mike Lawson • • April 10, 2019

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Most music educators have a strong handle on both the music they participated in as students and the skills they acquired through their music education courses.

However, this can leave them unprepared to reach their modern band students. Finding ways to utilize appropriate repertoire that best represents the students’ out-of-school lives can be challenging. For Lauren Schwartz at Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, student choice is everything, and letting the students drive the instruction is the key to success.

This student-centered approach starts on the first day. “I have them bring in their own song selections,” she says. But that alone would often lead to some choices that are inappropriate for school. “I just have to remind them that their grandma might be at the concert.” The next step is choosing repertoire as a group. They spend a couple classes listening together, each showing their interests to the rest of the class. This immediately gets them feeling like the class is a place where they can express themselves. “They could be home saying ‘I wish we did this in music class’ and then bring it in. Then they share it and vote. Not everyone gets their song, but they are all together on it.” It’s not about her opinion as a teacher.

“If I picked the songs we’d just do Barry Manilow and Carole King. It’s my job to take what they love and make a great lesson out of it.” The next step is to actually learn the music, which can be the most taxing job for the teacher. There are resources all over but modifying the music material so it’s at an appropriate level for her students takes her professional skills as a trained musician. Since she is often unfamiliar with the songs, she spends a lot of time listening, but notes, “I make sure the kids spend a lot of time listening as well, and we discuss together: How will this sound good? What needs to be there? What are they hearing?” Then she will try to make it work for their instrumentation and skill level. For instance, on a recent song they were working on, Chance the Rapper’s “Sunday Candy,” she wrote out the piano chords in inversions that are easiest to play, and then gave students options, first having some kids play just the right hand, some just the left. “I have to go beyond the melody, try to listen for features like a walking bass, or just try to find comping patterns that fit the style,” she says. Like an orchestral or concert band piece, modern band songs don’t always need to have every instrument playing at all times, so students are learning about texture and adapting.

There has been a lot of trial and error over the years. “Sometimes what I plan doesn’t work, so I’ll just fix it,” Schwartz adds. If a chord progression is too hard for the guitar alone, maybe it can be split between keyboard and bass. Perhaps a riff that might be tricky on keyboard might be easier on the guitar. Vocals can be the most challenging, and Schwartz has learned that it is the one area where there can’t be compromise: “When we choose material, I look for volunteers to sing the song, and if no one will sing a song, we won’t do it.”

Finding vocalists can often be challenging in general in instrumental classes, so she encourages risk taking. “I wanted to give the students option of learning all of the instruments, so we started giving out the Full Circle Award,” Schwartz explains. Students that perform a song on drums, electric guitar, bass, keyboard, and vocals receive an award at graduation. “Not only does this encourage them to sing, it helps with some of the kids who are shy but are driven by accolades.” It also gives students who are some of the bigger behavior problems in the school a way to find success in something that is really meaningful to them. “It gives them incentive to try things, even coming in after school and getting a good feel for all the instruments. These are often the students getting kicked out of other classes, and for me they are excited to play the songs they love and perform them onstage,” she says.

To make this all work, the key is taking a risk and trusting each other, and this is driven home from the first day of repertoire selection to getting onstage and performing. The students work together in smaller groups and decide who is going to play which instrument and which part: “They spend a lot of time teaching each other since I will be working with one group while they are on task progressing on their songs.” Most importantly, Schwartz says, “the elements of being in front of each other and taking risks is built in every day, and when everyone is in it together, we all strive for success.”

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