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TI:ME Teacher of the Year: Anne Fennell

Mike Lawson • Features • July 15, 2020

Anne Fennell’s music education got off to a rocky start. “I wanted to play the flute, but the band director at my elementary school told me no,” she recalls. “She handed me some drumsticks, but I was so bad at the drums and I wasn’t motivated. My mother still has the dresser that I threw my drumsticks against because I hated it so much.”

“My teacher didn’t understand that I didn’t understand,” she explains. “I didn’t understand the notes, their differences, why they looked the way they looked. She pulled me out of the large group and said, ‘Let’s try small group lessons,’ but that didn’t work, and eventually she told me, ‘I don’t think music is for you.’”

However, Fennell’s family later moved from Iowa to Colorado, where she was able to take up the flute in her new school. She struggled at first, but some force of nature made her keep trying until she had cracked the musical code. Private lessons helped her blossom, and by eighth grade, she already knew she wanted to teach.

When Fennell was in high school, her private flute teacher, Barbara Grenoble, suggested that the teenager audit a graduate course in Orff Schulwerk at the University of Colorado, Denver. At the age of 15, Fennell’s mind was blown by the suggestion of teaching that would encourage creative play in every sense of the word.

“In the late ’70s, I’m not sure we knew how to teach to the child,” she observes. “Now, we know too much about the brain to not teach correctly.”

Fennell now holds a bachelor’s degree in music education, a master’s in leadership studies, and Orff Schulwerk certification for levels I-III. Throughout a 30-plus-year career, this open-hearted and inspiring educator has taught and conducted ensembles of all sorts, from steel drum to orchestras and marching bands. Her students have grown to be composers and musicians, and all have benefited from important life lessons learned in music class: to think creatively, to persevere, to use the right tool for the job, and to collaborate and listen.

Fennell recently was promoted to K-12 music program manager for San Diego Unified School District. TI:ME’s (Technology in Music Education) Teacher of the Year award celebrates her success using the latest digital tools to help students realize their creative ideas.

It sounds like your flute teacher knew that you wanted to be a music teacher from a young age. Were you with her a long time?

Yes. And here’s the coolest thing: My private flute teacher, Barbara Grenoble, who taught me sixth grade through high school, is still my mentor. She was one of the first people to bring Orff Schulwerk to the United States and she was a fantastic flutist. She attended Eastman School of Music and taught Orff Schulwerk. I never heard her say the word “no,” ever. It was always, “Yes, and…” She was the one who said, “Why don’t you audit these classes at the University of Denver?” I was 15 at the time.

I’ll never forget sitting in the class with all the graduate students; the professor said, “What comes first in music?” and I blurted out, “Silence.” The whole room looked at me like, “who are you and what are you doing here?” And the professor said, “Yes, she gets it.” That was a turning point in my life, where I thought, “Maybe I understand this on a level that’s really important.”

Can you explain what Orff Schulwerk is about, and why that training was formative for you?

Orff Schulwerk is a methodology of elemental music through which all children are composers, and through creative play, movement, discovery of sound, improvisation, and composition, while using body percussion and the Orff ensemble, students construct their knowledge.

When I audited Level I at 15 and then took level II at 16, I was still a music learner. I was a child still, but I was getting an understanding and a viewpoint of what an educator does. It taught me that music is to be created, music is not to be told what to do, and that carved a whole new space in my brain. That stayed with me, and when I decided to move into composition and teach through technology later in my career—my last 10 years of teaching—I came from that premise: Music is in all of us and we’re all capable of creating beautiful sound.

What were your college years like, and your early years teaching?

I was still very much into marching band in college. In fact, I was the first female drum major at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After college, I got my first job teaching music in middle school and high school in Colorado, and I was horrible. I should have paid them the first year! [Laughs] No one taught me how to build rapport with kids. The middle school kids ate me up and spat me out.

Eventually, I quit my job in Colorado and came out to California and found a K-6 job. At that time, I realized I needed to finish my Orff Schulwerk Levels to really teach well. Then I got this fantastic job in north San Diego County at the Vista Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, a public K-8 magnet school, where I taught Orff Schulwerk [for more than 15 years]—everything from percussion ensembles to choirs of 140 students. I connected with Will Schmid World Music Drumming, and I was one of the first pilot teachers in the country, and then my students began composing for their percussion ensembles. The group was so unique that we were asked to play the NAMM show several times.

We would do crazy things like play basketball or paint to live music and we would create compositions that were similar to Stomp, and even play with black lights. We just composed all the time.

What experiences have you had in terms of getting resources for your students?

In every single public school that I went to, there were no resources. I was the resource. I own so much percussion, because I just kept buying it—on a teacher’s salary. I made hand drums out of painters tape and wood, nailing and sawing. I spent the weekends building drums!

Speaking of drums, you have put together a lot of steel drum ensembles. Given your early dislike of drumming, how did all that happen?

I’ve always loved music of the world, and when my two children were young, I found a fantastic person to give them steel drum lessons. They loved it because it was immediate success. Meanwhile, the principal of Vista Academy had left the school in 2008 to create a magnet school, Mission Vista High School, and he asked me to apply for the music position. I thought about it and I said, “I will apply if we can do the following two things: One, I would like to buy a classroom set of MacBook Pros.” He says, “Done.” Second, I pointed out, we’re not going to have football [at Mission Vista], so the kids who wanted marching band would go to the other high schools; I wanted to start a music program and make it available not only to our kids but also to all the kids who were not in music at the feeder schools.

I said, “We could potentially pull hundreds of kids who have never been in music. I want steel drums and I know the guy who can build them.” He said, “Let’s do it.”

We started with enough instruments for 13 students, but eventually we had 70 pans. By the time I left, I was running three ensembles of steel drums with over 150 students and I was teaching 165 students a year in music composition, thanks to the computer technology.

In the steel drum ensembles, we use [Roland] 808 basses live underneath. I encouraged them to think broadly and play what they wanted. For example, I had a group that wanted to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and they learned how to play the beautiful melodic lines, and halfway through, one of the guys who loves rap suggested putting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” over the piece. So we played the first half of Moonlight Sonata traditionally, and then the drummer flipped to a hip-hop rhythm underneath it, while “The Raven,” was rapped over it. I was rocked to tears. I think Beethoven would have been cheering.

In light of your recent award as TI:ME’s Teacher of the Year, can you talk a little more about the role of technology in K-12 music education?

Because of technology, I was so fortunate to create a four-year, articulated music composition program at the high school. Students were leaving high school with over 450 hours of composition, but most importantly, leaving their public school education with an understanding of who they are as creative musicians and composers. Their knowledge of how to write and read music—and write, read, and speak about music— was unsurpassed. We currently have composers at many universities now, and many who have already graduated. I also know I have hundreds of students who continue to compose though they graduated years ago, and might have taken other pathways in their education.

As a musician’s tool or a composer’s tool, technology makes everything so fluid between the thinking and the creation process. It opens up a world where no one can be rejected from music because they can’t play it. There’s no boundary. It’s an opportunity for all to share and express themselves without boundaries or hindrance of a lack of instruments. To me, that’s where free education lives. It’s true open-source education, and anyone can create.

Some people are challenged by this because of how composition used to be taught, or was reserved for a special gifted student. I’ve heard people say, “These computer programs make everyone think they’re a composer.” To me, it’s like saying, “Oh great, now that you know numbers, you’ll think you’re a mathematician?” I look at that and I think “yes!” Every human is a composer, and that’s my job to pull that out of each person and let students find themselves in the creative process.

What if we treat all students like they are composers? Imagine the freedom of that, and imagine what the music the world will get to hear! We’re at an incredible time in education where technology can open and connect everyone to create and be a part of a world just waiting for each person to be seen and heard. It’s going to be magnificent, and as educators we can say, ‘Yes, and….’ for all to be a part of music education.

Photo Credit: Ethan Morgan

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