One Note at a Time

A Teaching Artist's Perspective

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Brazil – Day 1

Well, we can’t talk the talk (yet), but we can certainly drink the drink.

When you travel for 28 hours straight, two days start becoming one. After multiple flights, Chrissie and I have finally convened in the same country, the same city, and the same hotel room. We are nestled in a humble, albeit clean and safe, abode in a hotel about 10 minutes away from the conference center in Porte Alegre, which my (of course gorgeous) Brazilian airplane seat-mate informed me has stunning beaches. We are already planning how our room will become the ‘party room,’ primarily due to our abundance of cliff bars and trail mix – and other things that vegan and gluten-free Americans can actually eat.

Of second importance – Caipirinhas. These are like Mint Juleps, but far better. They are the national Brazilian drink, and include something similar to rum, limes, sugar, and will absolutely be our saving grace. After registering at the conference, we decided to head to a local restaurant that is near to the opening ceremonies. It looked enticing because I thought the name of the place was ‘Brahms.’ Turns out it was a sign that said ‘Brahma’ which is their local beer. Even better. After circumstantially running into our dear Brazilian friends, Andre and Murilo (whom we initially met in LA), we enjoyed a few of these drinks and French fries! Go ‘Murica.

After an evening of the ISME opening ceremony and some eye-opening Brazilian presentations, we capped the night with learning (read: attempting to learn) how to Samba dance! We collectively had four left feet, but after a few drinks, some unbelievable live music, along with additional help from a Brazilian ballet teacher who speak English and saw us suffering, we had a pretty decent evening/morning.

Although most of the city stays awake far later, it is 2am and time for bed. Tomorrow brings the promise of friends and inspiration!

Porto Alegre, Brazil 2014

Boa noite!
Emily & Chrissie

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Children Always Remember

A sweet, short story from teaching today:

I happen to find all of my kindergarten and first grade students absolutely adorable. However, one class in particular just seems to be filled with old, kind souls, existing in the bodies of these beautiful little 6 and 7-year-olds. At this age, I begin all of my music classes by singing the “Hello Song” (given to me by a wonderful LA Phil colleague) during which the students sing a few rounds of “Hello everybody, how do you do?” followed by “Hola todos, como estan?” At this point, all of the students who wish to share, keep their hands up and let me know, in English or Spanish, how they’re doing today.

Almost all children in general are excited at the prospect of sharing, however some students cannot contain their energy as easily (!!!), and they quickly yell out over other students, or they share something that has nothing to do with how they were feeling in that particular moment. In this class, I had several of those students, so by the time I got to the last several students, my patience was not nearly as high as it was at the beginning. It just so happened that one of the sweetest boys was one of my last students to share. This child in particular, Abraham, never acts out, but today wanted to talk about food instead of how he was doing. When I responded, instead of having patience, I was dismissive (shame on me) and quickly asked him to tell me how he was feeling. He, without stalling, said “Oh! Okay – I’m feeling great!” I felt bad, but then realized that he didn’t linger on my frustration.

As the class was nearing an end I kept seeing his little hand popping up while we were singing something else, so I made a note to check in on him at the end of class. Right before our “Good-bye Song” I asked him “Abraham, what’s going on?” And he said “Well, Ms. Emily, I just really wanted to apologize for talking about food during the ‘Hello Song.’ I don’t know why I was talking about it, and I wanted to tell you that I am really sorry!” It absolutely melted my heart, and even more so because he said the whole thing with a wonderful smile on his face.

When dealing with so many students on a daily basis, it is easy to be dismissive of something that a child does (or you do!) because we never know how those children are spoken to at home. I reassured him time again and again that it was completely fine, and that he should not worry, but I learned that I must remember that every student has a different story, and…that children always remember.

It’s amazing what we can learn from children. I was just lucky that I got to learn this lesson with a student who had such a forgiving, patient soul. Thank you, Abraham :)


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My Own Lesson in Bilingual Education

In many school districts, especially in Greater Los Angeles, the discussion of bilingual education is a common, and in my opinion, extremely important one. I have taught at schools that have an incredible array of programs – from completely neglecting students’ home languages, to having a wonderful “half-and-half” program, and others that fully allow their students to integrate from their language to English when they are ready. I will not get into my personal philosophy now, however I have to preface this post by saying that I believe young children should learn in whichever ways they need in order to gain self-confidence and success. Once they feel that element of achievement and feel safe, they will learn what is necessary at an unprecedented pace, whether that is math, music, or an entirely different language.

One of my elementary schools has a phenomenal sequential language program in which all students in Kindergarten through grade 2 speak Spanish, grades 3 and 4 are part of transitional language classes, and then by approximately grade 5 (and so on), students speak and learn solely in English. Of course, we all know that the earlier a child learns a language, the better the success rate, however the fact of the matter is that these students do not have that option. With a this program, though, students are given the tools to be confident in achieving at a high level both linguistically and academically.

Moving along, I insert myself in this picture by being the music teacher for this school’s third grade classes. We have an curriculum and a great set of resources, so I felt good and was ready to go. Things had been going well, until last week when I experienced a slight set-back, that most teachers can empathize with – I had an influx of new students halfway through the year. The problem that it posed for me however, was that these new students just moved to Los Angeles and only spoke Spanish. This group of students had not been on the school track that would have brought their English to a proficient level, they were only on ground level. For a while, I continued to teach as I had been teaching, since the technique of full-inclusion is also useful, but I quickly realized that it only lead to the classroom teacher translating everything to the new students, or the students around them continuously talking in order to explain the concepts to the students in Spanish.

In that moment, I realized my mistake: I was expecting these students not only to learn everything that I was teaching in English (a language completely foreign to them in that moment), but I was also asking them to use this language to understand a completely new other language: music. So why not get rid of the handicap (English) and just teach them music? In this moment, I was fortunate to have several advantages – I can speak conversational Spanish, all of the old and new students could speak Spanish, and I could use the new language of music to level the playing field for all students.

As soon as I took this leap, my teaching changed drastically. I found that by teaching in what is a foreign language for me, the new students were able to learn with more comfort, and it forced me to reflect on the best way to communicate with them. I quickly found myself doing the following:

-       Talking less and slowing down my pace

-       Using more visual aids and cues

-       Integrating more terms and concepts related directly to the music

-       Giving examples both visually and aurally

-       Asking questions more frequently

-       Requiring the students to reflect and discuss with one another

In the end, despite my excitement of these new self-found tools, what I realized most importantly is that these are skills I should be using all of the time, whether teaching a bi-lingual class or not. When I reflected on this lesson, it was a turning point for me. And sure, the lesson went well because we were speaking in Spanish, it went well because the children love the manipulatives of a music lesson, but most importantly, it went well because I slowed down…and became a more thoughtful, concise, and conscious teacher. This experience forced me to think outside of the box, which in turn, took me right back to the basic teaching skills that I ‘learned’ from day one; I finally had an experience that forced me to use those tools. The new students felt fantastic, and their eyes sparkled with the fact that they were happy and successful in a new setting. Music became a constant and a saving grace for them, instead of one of the many concerns they were already facing.

What have you learned from bilingual teaching and learning? What tools do you use? Share your stories.

Happy Teaching!



The Power of Silence

As educators, we often take on the roles of parents, social workers, principals, baby-sitters (…the list goes on and on), and at times feel that we are everything except teachers. There is a beauty in that aspect as well, but it is important to find the healthy balance between classroom management and teaching content.

Recently, a dear colleague and mentee of mine approached me about a rather difficult group she was going to be teaching in the upcoming week, and wanted advice on how to focus her class and demand their attention effectively, so that she could spend more of her valuable class time teaching the content. And I gave her the response I would give any beginning teacher, or any teacher struggling with classroom management – use silence.

Oftentimes, when we are struggling with the behavior of certain students in group settings, it is because we have allowed them to learn that it is okay if they speak over the teacher and/or the other students. Whenever speaking with a new class of students, a new group of adults, or entering a new rehearsal, I immediately establish silence. I command their attention by setting the precedence that I will not speak over them and that I will always wait for them to finish their conversations before speaking. Every student, regardless of age, will see how far they can push a teacher or director, however, by introducing silence and a long wait-time, you will instantly – without raising your voice, or becoming frustrated – have the attention of the group.

Try practicing it next time you are in front of a group of students, peers, or learners. The younger the group, the more frequently I recommend waiting. With my kindergarten classes, I often employ silence every 30 seconds, even if it is only for 2 seconds. In those moments of silence, they know that I am holding them to high expectations to follow instructions, so that we can accomplish what we need to. Older groups need it less frequently, although even adults will need that first “wait-time” experience in order to take note of the tone and environment of the class.

Moving forward from this point is the fun part. After establishing that relationship with the students, you get to relax a little and have fun, because you always know that you have the tool of silence waiting in case you need it. The students will respect you more, and you won’t wear yourself out becoming frustrated trying to yell over, talk over, and teach over distractions. Be careful though, because it will be easy to slip into a comfort zone and assume you have the students’ attention. Stand at the front of the group, get their attention…and then…wait…

How has this worked for you? Share your stories.

Learn more about non-verbal classroom cues here:

Happy Teaching!





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