As school districts face another year of budget cuts, music programs and teacher positions continue to be in jeopardy. In addition to being a regular advocate for music to your administration and school board, one of the most important things you can do is integrate your program into daily school life. The arts should not relegated to separate classes that students go to as part of the “specials” cycle; but rather, artistic involvement should be a consistent, permeating aspect of life at school.
To begin with, remember that you are not alone! Even thought you may be the only music teacher in your building, there are bound to be teachers and staff members (don’t forget secretaries, guidance counselors, principals, etc.) who have some musical background and appreciation for the arts in general. Make this fact known! I used to start the school year by putting together a giant paper tree on the wall outside my room. On it were hung individual paper apples for every teacher and staff member, listing their name and musical experience, be that playing clarinet in fourth grade band, singing in collegiate ensembles, or spending time on the road as a sound technician for a rock band! (Yes, that last one is true.) Many musical conversations resulted from walking past that tree in the hallway.
Look for performance opportunities during the regular school day. That doesn’t mean adding extra concerts, but creating small opportunities to make performing a natural, enjoyable experience for your students, as well as showcase your program as a vibrant, living part of the school. Bring your “experienced” fifth and sixth graders into third grade to demonstrate band instruments. Teach your classes a funky version of “Happy Birthday” to sing for other students, teachers, and staff on their birthday. Does your school hold a regular school-wide morning program? Use that as often as possible for performance opportunities.
When designing large units, look for ways to connect your curriculum with that of classroom teachers. We often forget how interconnected our subject matter really is. When the second and third graders are heading outdoors to explore nature in the spring, teach them a few songs from Creepy Creatures, Weather the Weather!, or It’s Easy Being Green! Learn multicultural songs to coincide with the students’ geography units. When the fourth graders are studying a particular country, incorporate a song, dance, or instrument from that culture into music class at the same time. Alfred offers many collections with appropriately arranged music, including Ready to Sing … Folk Songs, A Small Part of the World, Children of the World, and Celebrations Around the World!
Consider collaborating with a classroom teacher on an instrument design project. I did a yearly cartoon composition project using regular classroom instruments, until a classroom teacher approached me with the idea of having his students design and build their own instruments as part of a physics unit in class. The level of student effort and interest in the entire project was astounding. The following year, this same classroom teacher had his students make their own silent films, which we then orchestrated in music class. This was truly organic music making!
You don’t have to give over your entire curriculum to this effort—just take the opportunity to make small connections when possible. Of course, once you get going, it’s hard to stop. Consider working with the other “specials” teachers to designate a theme for a full semester or even the entire school year. Focus on a specific culture, genre, time period, or event. Use your combined resources to bring in special performers or an artist-in-resident. By organizing student learning on such a large-scale, you will give your students a unique opportunity to explore important topics from many different angles.
An excellent opportunity for this kind of large-scale collaboration is approaching—the 2012 Summer Olympics. Put your students’ crazy end-of-the-year energy to good use! I’ve seen elementary schools that actually held their own mini-Olympics, complete with organized athletic demonstrations, cultural performances, and a school-wide art competition to design an Olympic banner. Assign each class a country and get their classroom teachers involved in promoting a patriotic spirit for the big event. The sky is really the limit here.
Use as many opportunities as possible to integrate your music program into daily school life. Don’t just tell your administrators how important music is; rather, demonstrate that fact by making your program irreplaceable.