As is the case for many music teachers, J.J. Wilder of Redding School District in Redding, CA, is doing what he can to provide music classes that suit the needs and strengths of the students in his district. On any given week, he’ll find himself traveling between several schools to teach recorders, guitar, drums, music technology, concert band, rock band, or jazz band. We recently spoke with J.J. to find out how he got started in music, how he balances it all, his advice for other teachers, and more.
What is your musical background?
My dad had an old guitar leaning in the corner of our hallway when I was growing up. Every time I walked past it I would strum the strings and listen to how they sounded. I thought to myself, “This is stupid, why don’t you actually learn how to play the thing?” So I started to teach myself how to play the guitar, and 26 years, a B.A. in Music Education, and two teaching credentials later, I am blessed to have a career doing what I love: teaching music.
What would you consider to be your primary focus?
My primary focus in school was the classical guitar. It’s not something that I get to use very often teaching in Elementary and Junior High, but has come in handy teaching at the collegiate level where I have taught guitar classes, ensembles, and private lessons.
What do you find most fulfilling about teaching music?
I absolutely love seeing my kids getting fired up about playing a piece of music, or finally figuring out that really difficult passage they have been working on. But I really enjoy learning from my students. They teach me so much more than I teach them. For example, last year when studying swing music in Jazz Band, students were assigned to research and listen to five new musicians they had not heard of before. One of them came back and reported about a whole underground movement of electronica/swing that I had never heard of before.
How did you end up teaching multiple ensembles/classes?
After I got my music credential, I went on the job hunt. I applied to many positions before applying for a position teaching strings in the Redding School District. I had very little experience with any of the string instruments, save for my pedagogy classes. But I didn’t lack confidence. After all, I played the guitar. How hard could it be to teach strings? Unfortunately, (or fortunately for the kids’ sake!) the position went to the State Fiddle Champion, who had also applied. However, I was offered a part-time job teaching a guitar class. And, like many positions, once my foot was in the door, I was able to move into a full-time position when it came available. At first, I was just teaching band classes and recorders at multiple schools. Over time and through trial and error, we have built music classes to suit the needs and strengths of the students at each site.
What does a typical week look like for you?
My typical week involves traveling between three schools, and teaching 3rd grade recorders, choir, guitar class, drum corp., music technology, multiple levels of concert band, rock band, and jazz band.
How do you balance the various curriculums and performances?
As far as curriculum goes, I try to use the same one as often as I can, supplementing it with various pieces and exercises, tailored to each class’ needs and dynamics. Being at three schools brings its own challenges with regards to performances. Everything comes in multiples: Winter performances, Spring performances, special holiday assemblies. So scheduling and communication are key! I keep a calendar of all of my scheduled performances so I can keep them straight. Plus, I keep a running log of all of the previous year’s performances so I can refer to them at the beginning of the year for scheduling with each school office.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced, and how did you solve it?
While scheduling is an on-going battle that must be faced every year, it is not the most significant challenge. The fact that I don’t get to see many of my students for more than 30 minutes a day, and sometimes only twice a week, means that I have to work extra hard to develop relationships with them. That to me is the most significant component of teaching. If I want them to trust me and be willing to learn from me, I have to invest in them personally. This means that before school, after school, during my lunch, my door is open for students to come and hang out, practice, or just talk. I find that this “free time” is where I get to see students for who they are. I also get to connect with them on a different level than just teacher-student.
What advice would you give other teachers in a similar situation?
I would advise them to read Alfred’s blog! It has tons of tips and helpful insights! Also, talk to other music teachers who have gone down this path before them. Find out what has been successful and what has not. No reason to reinvent the wheel! Take advantage, if you can, of conferences and other schools’ performances for inspiration and motivation. And don’t forget to communicate with your students. Ask them what they like and don’t like about the class. This can be humbling, but also very insightful. Then, don’t be afraid to step outside the box. Try something new. Be willing to try and fail and try again!
What advice would you give to others on avoiding burnout?
In music, there is always another score to arrange, a concert to prepare for, endless ways to improve rehearsals. I find that, like all teachers in any subject, I could devote every waking moment to this career. Setting and maintaining boundaries is key. For me, my priorities are: God, family, work, then everything else. I try to set aside time each day for my faith. I also try to keep evenings and weekends free for my family. This doesn’t always happen, but it is a goal that I strive for. Also, make sure to take care of yourself. Eating healthy, finding time to exercise, and getting enough rest will help you to stay at the top of your game!
How have you learned when or how to say “no” to additional commitments?
This is difficult for me as I love to showcase my students’ talents. However, considering what venues will spotlight my students the best, what is practical and feasible time-wise, and also knowing how far to push my students, are all things that I ponder when approached with a potential commitment.
What’s your favorite “hat” to wear and why?
My favorite “hat” to wear right now is the music/video producer hat. Another music teacher in my district and I recently started our own YouTube channel, showcasing various students in our district performing. YouTube is a one of the biggest “stages” in the world. To perform on this virtual stage is quite a bit different than on a live one. But it has created a whole new motivation to practice when students see their peers online, and want to be a part of it. We are also training students how to shoot and edit the videos and audio, which has them learning various apps and programs like Pro Tools and Adobe Premier. They are also composing background music for some of the videos using tools like Soundation and Noteflight. It has been quite the learning curve for them, and for me as well!
J.J. Wilder has been teaching Recorders, Choir, Guitar, Drum Corp., Music Technology, Band, Rock Band, and Jazz Band at various schools in the Redding School District for 10 years. He also has taught music classes at Simpson University. In addition, he has been running his own private studio for 18 years, focusing on teaching classical guitar. He received his BA in Music Education, as well as his music credential and multiple subject credential from Simpson University.