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Relinquishing Control: A Student-Centered Approach to Modern Band

Stefanie Sagaro • April 2022Modern Band • April 20, 2022

I am a product of the Miami-Dade County School System in Miami, Florida. I say that with pride, enthusiasm, and a strong sense of loyalty. I attended schools that specialized in arts education. The kind of schools that received straight superiors in music performance assessments and first place banners at competitions. I thrived. I discovered a lifelong love of music. I was in the small, elite percentage of students who excelled in a competitive, structured, and highly prescribed musical environment. I was directed and I followed. I was told what “quality” music sounded like and aspired to recreate it. I was the top 1%. 

I am now a music teacher in Miami-Dade and I teach the other 99%. I love it. My entire perception of a quality music education program has been flipped on its head. I still strive for superiors at assessment and I still enter my students in competitions with the knowledge that this is merely a piece of our music education puzzle. The goal being to include the highest number of students and future music makers in our school music program. There is an evolution of innovative music education spreading far and wide across my hometown and it puts power in the hands of students. A student-centered approach that puts students in charge of their musical journey: Modern Band. 

Relinquishing control of being the “director” is surprisingly easy, even for self-proclaimed overachieving control freaks, like myself. Below are some of the ways my students have taken charge of their classroom experiences and elevated their learning to new heights while engaging a wider audience of young music makers. 

Instrumentation
At the start of the school year my students do an instrument rotation that includes learning the basics of guitar, electric bass, keyboard, and drum set. My students can experience instant success on these instruments, while having unlimited room to grow and develop as a musician. This results in most of them being proficient on multiple instruments, which is great for working in small and large groups where they can assist one another and have the flexibility of switching instruments from one song to the next. We also feature a variety of other instruments like traditional string orchestra instruments, voice, ukulele, and a variety of percussion. We’re open to include any instruments in our ensembles, so the program attracts a wide range of student musicians. Instrumentation is their decision. 

Repertoire
I have a vast knowledge of music that I think reaches across generations to inspire beautiful music making… and so do my students. The repertoire my students perform is chosen by them. It reflects them culturally, generationally, and it speaks to who they are as individuals. My students’ musical tastes are validated and valued in our classroom. They take ownership of the stories they share through music. Students also arrange the music they chose to fit their chosen instrumentation and musical tastes. You want to add a viola descant, go for it! You want to add a verse of rapping to a non-hip-hop tune, awesome! They are the experts, the producers; they hold the power. 

Student Section Leaders
Every one of my students has something to teach my class and is therefore a potential leader. As a teacher I love acknowledging students for their strengths and expertise. One of my favorite things to experience is when a student surpasses my ability on an instrument. It is both fulfilling for me, and it presents an opportunity for that student to take ownership of our program. One of the sayings my students hear on repeat is great leaders surround themselves with smarter people. I consider myself a pretty great teacher, but a lot of that success stems from making it known my students are all as smart, if not significantly smarter than I am. They are the true leaders in our classroom. 

Composing Music
I have a degree in music that hangs somewhere in my parent’s home and yet I never wrote an original song while I was in school. Composing is the culmination of all our musical knowledge, the epitome of being a music maker. Somewhere along the line we were taught the act of composing was for someone else, someone with a special talent and accolades. It was a lie. Everyone has a story to tell. I give my students the tools and skills to write a song and the confidence to tell their story through music. Composing has become the foundation of our entire program. Students can compose at any level. This has been the single most important tool in creating a student-centered classroom that emphasizes student creativity. 

There are teachers all over the world following this student-centered model of teaching to some degree or another. What I found is over time I started to lose my “music director” ego and gained an overwhelming pride and respect for my students. A very fair trade. My students come first. I relinquish control to their capable young minds. 

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