Teaching to a concert, or concerts as a way of teaching?

I have the wonderful charge as a Music teacher of putting on two concerts a year. After reading various literature regarding performance and educational purpose, I made a connection to a certain issue plaguing many other teachers today.

How much is concert preparation similar to teaching to a test?

Let’s back up first…

I read a quote last year in a comments section of a post on a music teachers Facebook page that stuck with me. The commenter said that performances should take place only if there was educational justification; students are not school spirit groups and their job is not to entertain an audience.

I’m sure that schools don’t think of music teachers as producers and students as entertainers. But in my experiences over the past 18 years as a student and then a teacher, I find that there is a certain expectation that the music presented will be recognizable or at least pleasant on a surface-level. This comes mainly from students, who want to sing songs they know from the radio and balk at the thought of learning something new because “they don’t know it.” Additionally, when I was a music student in concerts of my own, I knew that parents and family commented about how long the concert was, or how strange the music was. My own family members were some of them!

Length and relevance are things to consider as a music teacher programming a concert. But so is educational purpose, which I feel might only be readily apparent to the teacher and the students who have been working for months on the repertoire. They’ve had the time to dissect it, to mold it, to learn from it. But the only thing their parents see is the final result. By the nature of concert preparation and arts in general, it’s difficult to see progress with only that one performance. You see the final painting, not the time that went into it. You see the musical, not the scene-by-scene rehearsals. You read the novel, not the numerous drafts and revisions. It reminds me of that iceberg poster…

Still, I understand where this desire for familiarity and pleasure comes from. Sitting through a seemingly never-ending concert is tedious, especially when I don’t know the works. And I’m sure that from a parent’s perspective, they want to see their children having fun, participating, and being a positive member of a team. They’re not going to walk away commenting on improved intonation or breath control. But the solution is not for teachers to eliminate great composers and arrangers for the sake of others’ immediate enjoyment or appreciation or even to program a certain grade simply because they teach that grade.

In other words, music teachers shouldn’t construct concerts primarily around nonmusical justifications or expectations. Performances must be educationally justified. Every group performing must be able to demonstrate an age-appropriate yet skilled performance in a facet they’re working on in class, as long as it can translate to a concert setting. 

This means that if grade 3 has been working on rhythm for an entire unit, that’s something that should be programmed. It’s relevant, it’s skillful, and it’s fun for the performers and the audience. But if grade 5 is not doing a performance unit, they should not learn a song or a drum routine for the sake of being in the concert.

Still, I think with some creativity, there’s a lot that could translate to a concert setting, even if it’s not performance based, such as a short movie students created or a description of the instrument families or brief explanations of vocabulary

Music teachers shouldn’t be teaching to a concert, similar to how other subject area teachers shouldn’t be teaching to a test. When instructional time is spent preparing students for a finite performance rather than a learning experience with applications and opportunities for growth beyond the performance, it limits the time they can spend being creative, asking higher-level questions, realizing their full potential.

Concerts are ways of teaching- teaching about goal-setting and follow through, teaching about musical styles, about teamwork, about self-expression… I could go on and on. The things students learn from preparation and performance are vast and diverse.

Should most students get the opportunity to perform at a concert? Yes. Performing is one of the four artistic processes outlined in the National Standards. But the other four- Creating, Responding, and Connecting- may not be so readily translatable to a concert setting. Good curriculum mapping, teacher collaboration, and creativity can help foster a learning environment where a concert is a natural extension of what students are already learning.

The suggestions and details about ideal concerts in this post may already be a reality for a lot of music teachers, and that’s great! This post, like most of my others, is meant to encourage conversations about the value of arts in education and society.

I’m reminded of a platform of mine, which I still stand by. Music, though an aural art, is not always about performance. Performance is not at the top of the musical pyramid- it stands on equal footing with the other process that help performance come to fruition, and every one of those is just as valid as the others.


Favorites: Music education articles

I’m part of several professional teaching groups on Facebook, and they’ve been so helpful in exposing me to a variety of methods, activities, and resources that I have integrated into my classroom. When it’s hard to get out and observe colleagues, doing some research within these groups is another great option for finding new ideas and techniques (although observation gives you particular exposure that words and explanations cannot).

Also posted on these groups are numerous articles about our field. Thanks to the “save” feature Facebook introduced, I’ve collected and read so many articles even in the past few months. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites here for your reference!

Stop “Defending” Music Education, by Peter Greene.

Why I love it: He articulates how music is inherently valuable, not simply because it can help with test scores, an oft-used defense of music education.

Great quote: “Music does not need to make excuses for itself.” Agree!

What Percentage of Students are “Meant” to be Playing a Musical Instrument in School?, by Tony Mazzocchi 

Why I love it: He argues that schools create a dearth of desire by their lack of proper support structures for music, such as appropriate scheduling and beginning the Band program earlier than 5th grade.

Great quote: “Our communities must declare that creativity is as the heart of education.  Local school systems can have an open dialogue about how all students are born creative… Learning to be creative is not an extra-curricular or a “special” activity; education for creativity is about the whole curriculum, not just part of it.”

“Are We Really Teaching Students to be Creative When We Teach the Arts in Schools?”, by Tony Mazzocchi.

Why I love it: He reminded me that the arts, but performance in particular, are more than just reading what’s on the page.

Great quote: “Our education system is obsessed with preparing students for something that happens later in their lives; often overlooking our children’s needs and opportunities today… A broad curriculum rich in the arts increases the chance of our children experiencing an enriched life today in order for them to think creatively about life tomorrow.”

“The Difference Between Praise and Feedback,” by Anya Kamenetz

Why I love it: For a long time I’ve thought that the words we use around young people can have profound effects, perhaps greater that we realize. (Think about how often our default conversation starter with girls is a comment on their outfit, their hair… how they look. What do you think that instills in a young, impressionable mind? [Side note: fantastic article about that here.]) Teachers need to use appropriate praise and feedback to encourage a growth mindset, which encourages children to value effort and strategy over what they perceive as innate talent (fixed mindset).

Great quote: “… [R]einforcing effort contributes to children’s beliefs that they can get better at things if they try, the vaunted ‘growth mindset.’ But praising traits feeds the belief that talent is fixed, which makes kids less willing to take on new challenges that might expose them as less naturally able.”

“7 Easy Things Parents Can Do Right Now to Extend their Child’s Musical Life,” by Tony Mazzocchi

Why I love it: It’s a great article to share with parents or post on a teacher website- it’s not finger-wagging, it’s encouraging. Parents can’t help their kids with music if they don’t know how to help. This strengthens the relationships between school/teacher, student, and family.

Great quote: “A successful musical life is developed one day at a time with small successes.” (Replace ‘musical’ with whatever you want- it still works!)


What are some of your favorite articles? Feel free to comment with some of your own!

*Originally miscredited

That’s one major item off my bucket list!

This was the summer I finally did something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time.

I went to Europe for two weeks… by myself!

I’d been to Europe twice previously: once when I was 12, and once when I was 22. After that latter trip to Italy, I was really bitten by the travel bug. I would read all the travel columns in the paper, research off-the-beaten-path destinations, and have dreams of being abroad. So I told myself that once I got a job, I’d do a trip. I’m not sure if I’d always envisioned it as a solo journey, but as my planning got more intense and things began falling into place, it became an exclusively Sarah trip.

Besides my family, I have travel guru Rick Steves to thank most. I bought his books (for months, I could not get my nose out of Europe Through the Back Door 2014), I watched his videos, I read his columns… this is the guy to follow if you are planning anything Europe-related. In fact, I had almost as much fun planning my trip as I did actually traveling!

My trip included London, Paris, and Salzburg. Of these places, I’d only ever been to London, and that was 15 years ago; but I remember having such a ball in that city, I had to go back. (Plus they speak English and many of the museums and attractions are free, so it was a great place to start.) I speak embarrassingly little French and German for a music major, but I got along fine everywhere I went.

That isn’t to say it was a dream-come-true all the time. Being alone in big and new cities for two weeks was sometimes scary, lonely, and boring. There are so many pros to traveling solo, like following your own schedule and saving money, but so many things I saw I wished I could have shared with someone else.

Still, part of the reason I went was to embrace being alone and see what I would learn from it. Here’s what didn’t happen:

  1. I didn’t become much if any more assertive. There were several opportunities when I could have spoken up about it being my turn next in line, or about paying my dinner bill, or asking people to take my picture. Sometimes I did these things, sometimes I didn’t. Now I can get fed up with people just like anyone else. Once in Salzburg, I was getting so frustrated at my waitress for seemingly having forgotten about me that I almost just left some money and took off. But I wanted the other staff members to know that I was angry, so I walked into the restaurant (I had been eating outside) and asked a random waiter for my bill. My own waitress was sitting down eating lunch, and, with her mouth full and completely nonchalantly, she told him where I was sitting so he could collect it for me. (Turns out you do have to flag waiters down in Europe… but you aren’t expected to tip!) So, yes, when things start getting absurd, I speak up about them. But I’m still much more likely to exercise patience. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
  2. I didn’t really meet other travelers. Here and there I met a few people- I can think of five off the top of my head, and two of them didn’t even share their names. By and large, I seemed to be the only person around who was traveling alone. Now I know that was almost certainly not true. If I had been hosteling, I probably would have met dozens of people. But I wasn’t. I was airbnb-ing. I knew my hosts and that’s basically it. This probably also has something to do with me being a more reserved person. I wasn’t about to head to bars or restaurants late at night in any city. I wasn’t there for the social scene. But everything I read about how easy it was to find other people traveling didn’t seem to be true in my case.
  3. I didn’t feel fundamentally different after I came home. I did feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway for a few days, and I know that sounds ridiculous since our situations were nothing alike, but my trip seemed so, so long that coming back was such a shock- a good shock, but a shock. I remember ordering lunch at McDonald’s at South Station in Boston and being so relieved at not having to ask, “English?” My apartment seemed so normal, and I loved that. But I didn’t feel like a changed person. Maybe I should. Lots of people who knew I was going were so thrilled and impressed at my endeavor. I think that’s because my personality doesn’t scream Adventurer/Solo-Traveler/Backpacker. But I am the kind of person who knows deep down when something just has to be for me. And Europe had to be. And it was. I teared up upon seeing some of the sights I had been craving for years. I kept telling myself, “You’re here!” And I really did enjoy myself. But I don’t feel that different.

That’s what didn’t happen. Here’s what did happen:

  1. I traveled twice across the Atlantic alone. I don’t like flying. I wouldn’t say I hate it, but I’d rather not fly if I don’t have to.
  2. I spoke five different languages at some point: English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German. I also gave a few people the silent treatment, which is the universal language for “Leave me alone!”.
  3. I traveled with one backpack and a small drawstring Mount Holyoke day bag. My mother, who was in North Carolina while I was in Europe, was stressing about fitting all her stuff in one bag for a five day trip. I told her she could absolutely do it.
  4. I lost a bit of weight. That’s what happens when you walk miles and miles a day and eat grab-and-go food.
  5. I learned to care less about what I looked like. I guess that’s kind of a big deal, actually. In the mornings, it came down to, “Would you rather spend more time on your hair and makeup, or go see the Tower of London? Which are you going to care about more in the long run?”. I didn’t roam the cities looking like a slob, but I didn’t let other people’s expectations of me dictate how I spent my time.
  6. I tried escargot! Contrary to Mary-Kate Olsen in It Takes Two, it did not taste like a balloon. It was rather good.
  7. I went to concerts! I attended a string concert in London, an organ concert in Paris, and a piano concert in Salzburg. They were beautiful.
  8. I sang Feed the Birds on the steps of St. Paul’s and didn’t care if other people heard me.
  9. I stood in the room where Mozart was born and tried to inhale in genius.
  10. I also jumped around and sang like Fraulein Maria in Salzburg while a kind person took my picture. Who cares?!
  11. I hoisted myself onto a lion in Trafalgar Square and barely made it up, but I had to recreate a picture of my grandfather during the war and there was no way I was not getting up there.
  12. I navigated via bus, bike, and train with minimal confusion.
  13. I finished Harry Potter 7 and Memoirs of a Geisha, read A Great and Terrible Beauty, and began David and Goliath and Yes, Please. Good sensory memories!
  14. I also took a bunch of short videos of me with famous attractions in the manner of Forrest Gump.

I said I would do it, and I did it. I’m proud of myself and I’ve got a bunch of great memories and pictures (including selfies galore- no shame!).

That’s one major item off my bucket list!

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First year, done!

My first year of teaching is done! (Okay, after our two half days next week.)

I’ve had a fantastic year. I don’t know how often is it that new teachers say that (I hope it’s often), but my year has been amazing. What I find most interesting is that I had no idea that teaching was the job I’d been after all along.

Since getting my Master’s, I applied for countless jobs in arts administration, education, arts leadership, music management, and arts programming. Until last May, I couldn’t apply for public school teaching jobs because I wasn’t qualified. I didn’t have a teacher training program behind me and I didn’t have my certification. Getting post-baccalaureate certification through an alternate route in Connecticut was difficult enough; I can’t imagine having done it in other states that seemed to have more convoluted programs. But after graduating from my program last year, I had everything I needed to be qualified for music teaching jobs in Connecticut!

How funny to think there was a short period where I was considering not getting certified. Because before beginning my program, I actually had gotten a job offer- my first since graduating!- in my field at a place very well suited for a composer. But my family convinced me that certification was the smarter move at that time, even though the job was also a unique and wonderful opportunity. It seemed just the thing that would have happened to me: a year and a half of frustration, only to become almost more frustrated when things finally began to work out for me.

Once I began my job this year, it became clear very quickly that this was what I had been looking for all along, I just didn’t know it. Part of that is because this particular job I have has several advantages to it, based on how the school/district operates. Not all music teachers have as much authority because they’re not the only music teachers in their school. Since PK-2 music classes are classified as Early Childhood, General Music begins in grade 3, which is where my duties begin: I teach all activities in grades 3-8. (One of my colleagues like to greet me with “Hello, Music Department!”) And being the only one, I have a lot of (admittedly, sometimes intimidating) decision-making power.

This job also allows me to incorporate my diverse content knowledge. My students have composed, learned solfege, seen a musical, studied recorder and xylophone, done some theory, and done multi-media projects with children’s books and found sounds.

And I get to be a director! Since I was about 12, I’ve always wanted to be a director, as evidenced through my unfinished but still ambitious converting of the movie Boys Town into a all-girls movie script for my, my sister, and my cousins. I direct all concerts and programs for my students because I am their only teacher. I decide the pieces, order, format, and programs. It’s a lot of work, but my personality and work style are a great fit for such duties.

If I had made a list of all the things I wanted in my dream job, I would have shaken my head at it, thinking such a job was impossible to find. No job has all of those things! Take some, leave the rest. Or work your way up to something with more responsibility and diversity. But teaching has it all for me! Had I figured this out earlier, I might have saved my self a lot of grief and self-doubt. But having waited and worked at odd jobs until last fall for this first real-world job has made it all the more wonderful. I appreciate it more, and I work all the harder.

Now, we’re on to summer, where I have something else planned that I’ve been waiting for for years! …

Little things I’ve learned as a first year teacher

Happy 2015!

It’s been a long, long time since a post here. I’d like to chalk it up to being so busy at my job, moving out of my parents’ house, coordinating and directing my first concert, but other things got in the way too. (Speaking of… I smell a New Year’s Resolution in the air!)

As I move into the next part of the school year, I’ve found that there are a few things that have either worked really well or, eh, not so well for me as a first year music teacher. Here’s my list so far:

1. Plan, plan, and plan some more. You really can’t plan too much (overplanning is different. I’m talking about planning for the future). If you have even a very general idea of where you want your students to be in a month or at the end of the semester, that will guide your instruction and make it more focused and purposeful.

2. Use essential questions. I’ve found that when students have specific concepts to focus on, or specific questions to answer, they feel the material is more directed. Then they’re more likely to draw connections and link material to other subjects. Not to mention these provide good closure activities.

3. Make a behavior/discipline plan and stick to it. I used Harry and Rosemary Wong’s classroom management techniques discussed in The First Days of School. After reading through the most relevant chapters (there’s so much information, but I picked what seemed most applicable to a music classroom), I made a classroom policy for each of the grades I teach with clear expectations, sequential follow-up procedures, and a logical progression of consequences.

4. Language matters. The words you choose can contribute to a classroom where students have accountability and responsibility. For example, I like what the Wongs said about the word “choice.” Students choose to break rules, to do or not do work, or to put in effort. Nothing should undeserved or unfair- it should be the result of choices students make. I’ve also written about saying “thank you” to everyone. The attitude you project should be the one you expect from your students. Young people learn by example. Lastly, I’ve found that using phrases like “You will put your papers up here when you’re done” instead of “I want your papers here when you’re done” are more effective. They call directly on the student to do something specific, whereas the latter sentence doesn’t call for students to do anything.

5. Give students a visual representation of their behavior in the classroom. One of my colleagues suggested using a marble system for the younger grades. Starting class with 5 marbles on the board and then eliminating them when a rule is broken has been very effective for me. It gets students to recognize when not all students are on task or on their best behavior. It helps them get themselves back on task rather than have me stop class to do it. After they earn a certain number of them (say, 20), they get a special day.

What other things would you add to this list?

Signs: a great and necessary way to get your messages out

Let’s face it: part of the success of a music program relies on students remembering things. Remembering instruments, remembering when their lessons are, remembering to practice, remembering when things are due.

Besides frequent verbal reminders, signs are a great and necessary way to communicate things to students. And me having my music room at the end of a long hallway away from the main entrance and other classrooms, I need a sign system.

My main goal is to communicate things to students simply but effectively. Outside my door here I’ve got a small wipe off board and three paper signs.

Outside my room

The wipe off board is a bit risky. Kids leaning on the wall can erase the writing, and I’ve had some kids deliberately erase things. Overall, I still like it because it’s a quick way to communicate a message or announcement. I used sticky tack to adhere it to the wall and it’s held up since about the second week of school. Don’t leave any markers outside your room or you’ll end up with drawings! (Fortunately, I didn’t learn that the hard way.)

My red paper sign is one that goes outside my door on Fridays. I stick it on with masking tape so it comes off and stores easily until I put it up again. Since this message is only relevant once a week, it doesn’t need to be up all the time. I don’t think signage should be overwhelming, but it should be consistent. This sign is always in the same place so kids know to look for it.

The other paper signs are in page protectors I’ve taped to the wall. Each page protector has a few signs tucked it in which get rotated to the front depending on what day or week it is. The top page protector contains signs for each of my three ensembles. They’re color coded so kids can look down the hallway, see the color, and know which ensemble meets today. That saves them a trip down to my room. The bottom sign changes every week and indicates which band lesson schedule to follow. The font is big so, again, students can peek down the hall and see it from a distance. When I come into school in the morning, I change the signs right away since they’re the first thing I encounter.

This seems to do the trick, although any teacher will always have a few students who need extra reminding. And I always try my best to remind students about rehearsals, lessons, and due dates. Still, these signs are there because a) I don’t always remember, and b) I’m not always available. Many questions can be answered by looking outside my room, which helps kids learn the value of responsibility and saves me frustration.

What does your lesson plan template look like?

How many times have you written a detailed lesson plan only to find that during the lesson you suddenly realizes that something you needed prepared isn’t prepared. Or that something you thought was an arm’s reach away is really across the room? Or an instruction you need to communicate as soon as students walk in isn’t written on the board like you had wanted?

As a new teacher, I found that this happened more than I liked during my first week. I had written a good plan with all the instructions and steps I’d need to follow. I’d used a format I’d been using in school and for a few of my previous jobs. So I wasn’t sure what the problem was.

And then my “Organizer Extraordinaire” side kicked in. The lessons themselves were fine. The physical layouts of the plans (also called the templates) were not. And that, I realized, was what was throwing me off. Just like the physical layout of a space can be counterproductive to whatever needs to be happening in the space, the design of my templates was less than optimal for maximum effectiveness.

You might be thinking, How hard could this be?

The traditional lesson plan template looks something like this:

lesson plan 2 - use


True, not all lesson plans look exactly like this. Some of these labels are ordered differently, some are renamed. Google “lesson plan template” and you’ll find several different types organized in different ways, and depending on your subject, one may be better for you than for a colleague teaching a different subject. But I find that the majority of plans list their categories vertically like this, and that is what causes me to become disorganized very quickly.

It’s got all the categories a teacher needs to consider consolidated in one place. But when I thought about it, the order of some of these made no sense to me. For example, why would a Resource list be last when that’s probably one of the first things you need to know to set up a lesson? Why would your Assessment field be separated from the Objective when the two are inextricably linked? I thought, if certain fields naturally go together, why not list them a) together, and b) side by side?

So I redesigned my template to work for me based mainly on how think and what would make me most successful as the classroom leader.

my lesson plan template


At the top is a place for my Unit name, which I never see on traditional templates. Then to the right of that is a place for me to write which classes the plan is for, and when I see them. I see two sections of each grade, and sometimes I see them broken up between two weeks. I also want to know which lesson it is in the sequence of my unit, and that may not always be the same for each section. So this layout is better for me than simply putting a date or a grade. I want to build good habits starting now, which means labeling my plans as clearly as possible.

Then I have Objective, Assessment, and Standards all in one line. An objective by definition is measurable, so I want them side by side, not on opposite ends of the plan. Additionally, each objective should address certain standards (national and/or district). When I flip through these later, I want that information at the top for easy access, and I want to see it linked with how I met that standard.

This next part is the most helpful. I split Resources between Procedures, Differentiation, and Homework because I wanted to see exactly what I needed for each step in my plan and where it should be placed. I also added Prep because some resources, well, need to be prepared. And I need to know that before starting a lesson. An isolated uncontextualized list of resources was not beneficial. This lets me see what I need for each step and how I need to prepare it. I can check off items as they’re completed, which makes me feel even more secure about the plan’s execution.

The only thing I can think of that I might add is a place for notes on how well a lesson went or on student participation and behavior. For now, I just write it in any blank space on the page.


Here’s a pdf of my template: Lesson Plan_ADifferentMusician

But I encourage you to make your own. If your district has universal templates they want you to use, talk to them about the advantages of an individualized plan. After all, what you’re really asking is for them to differentiate, which is a cornerstone of teaching. No matter what your district’s decision, an honest conversation about differentiating for teachers might encourage everyone to see things from new points of view.