School Music Teachers: Mischief, Mayhem and Magic

Violin face

Violin face

Schoolteachers mold each new generation—what a responsibility. But when it comes to how we value educators who tops the list—the math or science teacher, the reading instructor or the basketball coach? In my book, music teachers are the heroes.

Imagine the cacophony—a roomful of teenagers just released from the internment of a desk in geography class, honking on a hodgepodge of different sized musical instruments.

While the music teacher tries to focus the students, he or she devises strategies to improve bow holds, intonation, vibrato, embouchures, sound production, and practice techniques. They search for inexpensive but playable instruments, interesting and fun literature, and approaches that include everyone—the talented, or those challenged by an injury or disability. But there is often backtalk: ‘Ms. Fine you never let us do what we want to do. Ms. Fine you are too strict. Ms. Fine can’t we play songs from Wicked instead of Tchaikovsky?’ (But you love March Slave!” Parents complain too: ‘Ms. Fine why can’t Joey wear jeans and sneakers to the performance? He doesn’t want to wear a tux jacket. Ms. Fine, Susie can’t make the rehearsals for the Christmas concert.

Someone stepped on it

Someone stepped on it

It’s only a matter of time—music students and mayhem go together. They are known for wreaking havoc and especially mischievous pranks. What bassist? Violin faces… Music teachers desperately try to convey the fragility of musical instruments. Warned to never leave their instrument in a cold or hot car, and to make sure cases are sealed enough that they don’t leak, many a young person in a moment of anger, or due to an accidental fall, smashes their instrument. “Mr. Wood, I accidentally stepped on my violin but my brother fixed it.” The teacher will spend every break trying to repair instruments. Otherwise the cost is prohibitive to already stretched budgets.

Music or band rooms are crammed with risers, music stands, chairs, equipment and miscellaneous storage items. In fact, some music classes are housed in trailers, with low ceilings and cramped quarters. There is barely enough room to play. Band rooms are notorious for their cement block walls, blackboards, tiled floors, and other hard surfaces, which increases the sound levels in the space causing headaches, and the very real risk of hearing injury to teachers and students.

Today, politically correct language must be used. What to do when musical jargon is interpreted inappropriately? Phrases such as, “slide your finger towards the nut,” “go to P” (not pee, not pea, rehearsal letter P) or “the f-hole’ is the opening on the top of a stringed instrument,” are sure to cause trouble. I am reminded of the novice substitute teacher who attempted to shush a class. “Keep your eyes on your own parts.” This eliciting fits of giggles and graphic gestures from the boys. Flushing deeply, the teacher then said, “Ok let’s play the overture: The Battered Bride.” I mean The Bartered Broad.” I mean The Bartered Bride…”

What bassistMusic teachers are an extremely resourceful bunch. Playing is hard work. The instructor will reach out to find interesting literature, rhythm and note-reading games, quizzes and other online resources to help their pupils. They use every trick in the book to encourage and reward their students, which include citations, stickers, or awards for reaching various levels of success similar to Karate belts.

Nonetheless music teachers have to advocate for their subject. Parents have to be convinced of the importance of playing an instrument, and the benefits of private lessons. Private instruction opens the doors to youth orchestras or ensembles, and competitions, and these activities are attractive when applying for entry to a college. If a student is exceptionally talented, the pace of the group may hold them back. The analogy of seeking a “specialist” or private coach in order to make faster progress sometimes works.

Students or parents question orchestra directors. They ask, “How can you teach the trumpet if you don’t play the trumpet? The conductor’s job is to inspire and lead the group to play in a unified way and to explain musical interpretation. Fixing a problem, playing with good ensemble, practicing effectively, achieving a nice sound, good intonation and rhythm, are the same on any instrument.

Studies show that music study enhances other learning. Music teaches discipline, coordination, concentration, dexterity, empathy and creativity, increases attention, releases tension, and builds a sense of community.

Throughout civilization every culture has had musical traditions. It is an activity that brings people together regardless of age, gender, culture, ethnicity, or social status. It arouses, yet offers peace, joy and insight, and sometimes resolution. Music can console when words cannot.

Unsung heroes, school music teachers create magic every day. They deserve our undying gratitude.

March Slave Tchaikovsky, youth orchestra of Caracas (great playing and filming too!)

Marsalis talks about his practice methods.

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  1. As a retired Band Director for 31 years, our groups have a wide variety of: skilled and unskilled players, mature and less mature musicians, multiple races, religions, multiple economic issues, a wide range of beginning and professional level instruments, along with budgetary concerns, and yet MOST parents are pleased with their children’s development and interest.
    The parents are more understanding that most of their children are NOT going to be professional musicians unlike kids who play sports!!! Those parents need a reality check.
    We are constantly asked to perform for many: parades, Grand Openings, Thanksgiving and or Christmas events, political rallies. etc.
    Sometimes the groups are told they must participate even though there are conflicts. concerns, transportation, weather issues. etc and we get hammered what ever decision we make.
    Most music teachers try to challenge, enlighten, and raise the level of musicianship and better the ensemble or group they are in charge of.
    Overall I ENJOYED more days than not.
    I hope many readers will be more aware of the many factors associated with being a Public or Private school Music Director

  2. As a Gen Ed educator with music endorsements on my certificate, my principal tapped me for music education and the like.
    As a parent of multiple children-Suzuki through college musicians and all the choir and marching band (12 years with Bimm at Marian Catholic) parenting in between those years… I’ve clocked a lot of hours with music ring in my ears. Music is our one “go to” that has been the “tie that binds”.through generations. Great article. Thanks for posting!!

  3. If it wasn’t for teachers the next generation wouldn’t have any direction to go and the music would die. Music is therapeutic and keeps the children grounded by showing that there is more to the world than games, computers, etc. I didn’t take music in school, but one of my son’s music teacher in High school inspired me to go back to school to get my degree in Music.

  4. Marsha, Thank you for thinking of us. We have to love our students and music in order to have the joy of teaching music. I loved working in high school, junior high school, and 30 years in elementary school in
    Creswell, Oregon. In addition, I was able to be with wonderful private students. Now I am having the pleasure of conducting an adult community choir. I feel blessed in every way. Frequently, I have the happiness of seeing former students, and I love to reconnect. Thanks, again, Marsha, for helping me remember all the great times as a music teacher. Sometimes it was challenging, but the good out weighs any problems. Keep on singing everyone , and playing your instrument. 🎶
    Mary Ellen Yost

  5. 38 years of music education at all levels was not work but a joy in my life. I still play in a community dance band and find great community in still creating music for other’s enjoyment. Life has been great as I enjoy retirement and other hobbies of my youth. Music has always touched my soul and will until I sing with the angels.

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