We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Anne Caton, an experienced musician and educator who has been teaching elementary music since 1976. She currently teaches in the Sherburne-Earlville Central School District in upstate New York. Read on as she offers advice on selecting repertoire and concert programming, maintaining passion in the midst of a busy music teacher’s life, and continuing to learn and grow throughout your career.
Tell us how you became a music teacher.
I became a music teacher in 1976, but I knew I wanted to be a music teacher long before that. As with many musicians, my initial influence was first and foremost in my home. My mother, a 1951 graduate of the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, was a music teacher for many years. She also was a director for our local community theater productions, so you could say that “life was a stage” for most of my life. My mother was also extraordinary by virtue of being the mother to seven children. It doesn’t stop there. My father, a dairy farmer, was known locally as the “singing farmer.” An Irish tenor, he performed locally, in particular at St. Patrick’s Day events and as the lead in the local Gilbert & Sullivan Society performances. Our family used to sing 4-part rounds in our station wagon on camping trips, and every Christmas Eve, we children donned our best (sometimes bed sheets to give the effect we were angels) and performed a Christmas concert for our parents in the living room. Growing up in this world made musicians of all of us.
Living in a time when there was little television and certainly no technology, music (along with books, an imagination, and an active farm life) provided hours of entertainment. I was the oldest daughter and my mother made it a point to take me to many local concerts. She also arranged to have me start piano lessons at age five. My first teacher was very strict. For some reason, that didn’t keep me from loving and playing piano. I do remember thinking at a very young age that I was never going to be a strict teacher like her, so obviously the idea of teaching was there from a very early time! At age 11, my mother knew that I needed to move on, and she found an extraordinary piano teacher for me. This was a point of discovery for me, and a breakthrough in my piano playing. I learned the importance of phrasing, touch, and musicality at the keyboard. This influential new instructor opened my eyes to a vast repertoire—everything from Bach to Bartok, Czerny to Kabelevsky. Having knowledge of the shape and form of music, going behind the notes, digging into the meaning and substance of a musical selection—it was as if I was given a secret that no one else knew. My mother also found a superb flute instructor for me, which took me to the next level of performance on that instrument as well. I started teaching private piano and flute to local children in my neighborhood during the summers, and I would replicate the instruction tactics that my private teachers used with me. I found that I loved teaching. I went on to receive my bachelor’s degree from the Crane School of Music and my master’s degree from Central Connecticut State University.
Describe a typical day in your music classroom.
My day in the classroom has changed over the years. I have taught in schools where the music classroom has been the stage, the gym floor, and the school’s boiler room. I also did the “music on a cart” tour of duty! But I have taught the same thing since 1976—primarily pre-K through sixth grade elementary music. It was my first job and I have never left it. My day is peppered with the different age groups coming in throughout the day. Our school district has over 600 elementary children, all receiving music twice a week. We are most fortunate! There are two elementary music teachers, and we both have busy and tight schedules. Preparation is key to managing a successful classroom. When one class is exiting your room and another class is entering, there is little time for setting the “musical stage” for that day’s lesson. At the end of the day, I direct a fourth and fifth grade chorus.
How do you select repertoire for your chorus?
I search out professional choral sites online. I also belong to several professional organizations. State music associations and ACDA are wonderful resources, and their online forums can be so helpful. I subscribe to newsletters from all of the publishers that interest me. I attend workshops—that keeps me abreast of the latest trends and new composers. I am thrilled with the creativity of the new music out there. The materials that are available and the access teachers have to them is phenomenal. I often think back to 1976, when I had only a handful of clever things to do with my elementary choruses.
I balance my repertoire with four or five selections in varying styles and contrasts. I like to open the students’ ears and eyes to things they may otherwise never know. And I search out selections that have vocal challenges, keeping a close eye on range. I like to “trick” my kids into singing in an upper register, higher than they think they can go. I always include a novelty number, which the students love from the beginning. I also program traditional folksongs, spirituals, and patriotic songs, including one foreign language piece in one of my concerts each year. And I usually include one soul-searching or sentimental piece that sends a heart-warming message. I enjoy seeing the kids transform between the moods of the songs. This goes right to the core of what is special about music.
What is your typical schedule of performances over the school year?
Our elementary choruses have two performances a year, one in December and one in May. We perform at night for the parents and during the school day for the other students and teachers. It’s important that the classroom teachers see their students perform music. They often discover something about their students that they didn’t see before. These performances also become our recruitment tools for band and chorus!
Personally, my most memorable performances were when I conducted all-county choruses. What a joy. Every music teacher should throw themselves into those kinds of opportunities. Other memorable times have been when we joined all of our singers together, grades 4 to 12, for a finale at one of our school concerts. The logistics of pulling this kind of performance together are difficult, but it is so worth it! And then we do plenty of musicals with our youngsters—you can only imagine what happens when live theater and children combine. Sometimes my colleagues and I think we do this for our own entertainment!
How have you grown as an educator over the years?
Over the years, the one thing that has changed the most is me. I have learned so much over the years. And the more successful I am in the classroom, the more confident I become, which results in better learning on the children’s part. It’s important to be inquisitive. Early on in my career, I immersed myself in Orff and Kodaly pedagogy. I took many music education workshops, and today that material forms the core of my teaching. My classroom is not a “sit in the chair” classroom. We move. I took an intensive folk dance workshop back in the 1980s, and my teaching hasn’t been the same since. Getting the child to feel, understand, and learn music through movement is a basic philosophy of mine. Dance is something that little children do innately when they hear music, and I like to keep that going as long as possible. All of these teaching methods speak to one thing—the whole child is making and learning about music in “real time.”
Do you have any advice for new music teachers who are just beginning their careers?
First and foremost, become the most well-rounded musician you can possibly be. But in terms of becoming an educator: learn more. Be inquisitive. Get every bit of experience you can. Watch the success of others and analyze their strengths. The bottom line is that college alone will not do this for you, and you will need to search it out for yourself. Become involved and participate in music associations on the local and national level. Get to know other music teachers and share, share, share! Commit yourself to learning something about music education that you could actually present as a workshop for other music teachers. Even after you have achieved your master’s degree, keep taking new music workshops to keep the “fire in your belly.” Teaching children is not easy; it is hard work. When I do these things for myself, it reminds me why I went into this amazing profession in the first place.
The other day I went to a meeting at the county level. We were a group of music teachers, just coming off a season of “end of the year” performances and reeling from events that were happening among music teachers in the area—cuts and so forth. As we chatted, we found ourselves talking about all of the wonderful (and hysterical) things that happened over the year with some of our kids. Everyone had a story. This wasn’t planned; it just happened. Here we were, tired, worn out and even a little burned out, but strangely enough, after about ten minutes or so of decompression, the little complaining there was about matters in music education turned to optimism and hopefulness. As I drove home from the meeting, I thought to myself, how cool is it that I get to teach music to kids? Now if I can hold on to that for the next two years until I retire . . . !