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New Year’s Resolutions for the music classroom

It’s a bright new year and time to shed off the old, but that doesn’t mean we can’t partake in some favored traditions – especially making New Year’s resolutions. If you’re a teacher or professor, the New Year usually means a new semester, and the opportunity to start fresh by teaching a new class, or bring rejuvenation to your students post-holiday.

In this spirit, we asked some Oxford University Press music education authors for their thoughts on this time of year, their advice or inspiration for other educators, and their own goals for 2016. Here’s to a bright new year and a productive spring semester!

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“A new year. A new semester. A time when teachers throughout the world are designing new lessons and experiences for their music classrooms. A music educator’s role is to provide highly engaged, relevant, and innovative learning opportunities and to instill and inspire in each student a lifetime pursuit of learning and of music. Students can reach educational goals when provided opportunities to be productive and successful learners. Enthusiasm for all music genres, enjoying collaborations, celebrating successes – these are things that inspire students to continue learning beyond the confines of the classroom.”

–Shelly Cooper, Professor, Music Education at the Fred Fox School of Music, University of Arizona and author of Becoming a Music Teacher: From Student to Practitioner

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“If you are anything like my students, you have a great love for music, whether it’s creating it, performing it, or perhaps a little of both. In addition you most likely became a music teacher because you wish to share your passion for music with others, just as one of your music teachers lit that spark for you. As we begin a new year, my advice would be to never lose sight of why you began your musical journey in the first place or the emotional hold that music has over you. Smile more, move more, make more music, and talk less about music. Be open to a diversity of modes of musicianship and try to help all your students tap into their innate musicality.”

–Gena R. Greher, Ed. D. Professor, Coordinator of Music Education, 2014-15 Nancy Donahue Endowed Professor of the Arts, Education Supervisor, UMass Lowell String Project, and co-author of Computational Thinking in Sound: Teaching the Art and Science of Music and Technology

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“Happy New Year! This time of year, I am often asked how to address issues between music educators and special education faculty and staff. Unfortunately, this question is sometimes posed as a thinly disguised statement of blame regarding a co-worker. The shiny new school year has sometimes worn off and differences in teaching style, professional behaviors, and personal issues sometimes bubble up once winter sets in. In these instances, I stand ready to immediately start speaking before another teacher chimes in with an approving and complimentary statement. During this quick moment, I restate the question and flip it to convey my baseline stance that every one of us is doing our very best each day. I know this is true for me and assume it is true for everyone else.

“In fact, I state that I go to work every day with an external presence that conveys my belief that everyone in my educational environment is as committed to the group goals as I am. I continue to project that authentic and optimistic truth until I am thoroughly proven wrong or until those around me rise to my enthusiastic commitment to teaching and learning. Through this work hard and be nice strategy, my students have achieved greater successes and my medication for hypertension has been avoided. However, I have also sometimes been proven wrong and have then extricated myself from teaching situations that were personally and professionally toxic. Our mental and physical well-being is necessary to be able to change the lives of our students.

“The reward is still in the eyes of our students. This is why we teach.”

–Alice Hammel, instructor at James Madison and Virginia Commonwealth Universities, and co-author of Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach and Teaching Music to Students with Autism, and co-editor of Winding It Back: Teaching to Individual Differences in Music Classroom and Ensemble Settings

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“I’m both a practicing musician and an educator. I’ve long found that by working on my own skills as a cellist, singer, pianist, improviser, and composer, my pedagogical skills benefit automatically. Let me tell you three things I’ll do as a musician in the weeks and months to come. I hope these ideas will be useful to you, too, and above all to your pupils!

  1. Deepen my friendship with the metronome. I use an old analog Dr. Beat, with settings for beats, time signatures, subdivisions, and triplets. It’s a real help to listen to the metronome and organize my musical impulses and physical gestures according to the information the metronome offers me. Getting the hang of hemiolas, three-against-four, five-per-beat, accented off-beats, and all the others puts me on the path to rhythmic, technical, and musical freedom.
  2. Deepen my friendship with slow practice. I don’t mean slow and plodding, but slow and smart, slow and alert, slow and beautiful. The fastest way to master a difficult passage is to practice as slow as necessary, as many times as necessary. And besides being productive, slow practice is incredibly pleasant.
  3. Deepen my friendship with the stage. Recently I decided to practice in front of people, so to speak. I invited a handful of friends to come and watch me practice. In their presence I tried a number of new pieces, as well as a number of different interpretations of the same piece. Here and there I repeated a phrase or part of a phrase if I thought it merited a little editing or a little affirming; here and there I played a piece or a long section of a piece in a somewhat slower, more careful version; and here and there I took a piece and turned into a repeating loop, playing it three or four times in a row. I asked my friends for their feedback as regards the pieces, my interpretations, my stage management, and so on. We all had a wonderful time. It was so good that I’ve decided to make a habit of it.”

–Pedro de Alcantara, musician, writer, and author of Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique

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“No doubt you’ve heard the old saying, ‘If you aim at nothing you’re sure to hit it.’ The New Year is a great time to reflect professionally and think about what you’d like to accomplish in the short and long term. Periodically setting and revisiting professional goals (such as building a course website, committing to sending a personal note to the parent of each student during the semester, or applying for a graduate program) is an action itself that will make you more productive.

“Ask yourself: ‘Where do I want to be professionally one, three, and 10 years from now?’ List tangible action points for each of your goals and start chipping away at your list. I set and keep track of goals (in a variety of categories) using a Google Doc, but there are many other ways (paper and pen, mobile apps, etc.) to do the same. Keep your list short; too many goals can be daunting.

“Maybe you’ve set some worthy goals, but the busyness of the daily grind diverted you. Living day-to-day but not looking at the ‘bigger picture’ is easy to do, but the New Year provides an opportunity to reset! I look at it this way: Even if you do get a little distracted and fall short of a goal, at least you’ve made some progress. When I began my doctorate at Temple University in Philadelphia, for example, I expected it would take five or six years. For a variety of reasons it ended up taking eight, but I’m still glad I set out on what ended up being a rewarding journey.

“Try setting some short and longer term goals this year. I know when you look back next year you’ll realize that setting goals made a difference!”

–Scott Watson, music teacher at Parkland School District, Allentown, PA, adjunct instructor for University of the Arts and Cairn University and Central Connecticut State University, and author of Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity

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“As music educators, there is always more that we can do for our students and profession–form a new music group, create more community and outreach opportunities, provide additional one-on-one assistance to our students, join another important committee. However, in the grand scheme of things, music educators tend to act and give at their own detriment, risking burnout and, ultimately, a different career path. Therefore, it is important to treat each new semester as an opportunity to take stock in how our personal energies are invested and to refresh intentions of self-care, not only for our own well-being, but also for our music students. In my music education courses, my students speak of plans to care for themselves after they graduate: ‘When I am done with school and only teaching, I will be better about taking care of myself.’ We talk about how life becomes more rich and more complicated with each passing year, especially for music educators, and that if they do not start to take care of themselves now–to carve out a small piece of time for just themselves–then they probably never will, and fantastic music teachers will become victim to exhaustion and weariness. Therefore, to help them in their efforts, there is an unrequired requirement in my classes that everyone spend three consecutive hours each week doing something completely unrelated to school or work. They can sleep, cook, exercise, binge-watch a television show, hang with friends or family, read for fun … whatever they want, guilt-free. Each week, my students report back to the class and share what they did for themselves; each week, they are more excited to share and increasingly speak about how special that time was for them. As a new semester is now upon us, I am preparing my own agenda of ‘me’ activities to weave into the coming weeks to help keep me grounded, mentally healthy, and aware of myself in the midst of the craziness. As a result, I know that my thinking, teaching, and research will be deeper and stronger, which not only benefits me, but my students as well.”

–Bridget Sweet, Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author Growing Musicians: Teaching Music in Middle School and Beyond

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Image Credit: “Fall Middle School Orchestra Concert 2013” by Meredith Bell. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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