Rethinking Middle School General Music
October 8, 2015 | by Christopher J. Russell
There are many master teachers who make middle school general music a wonderful class where students learn about music and achieve national and state standards.
For others, however, the mention of middle school general music produces a shudder.
In some schools, general music is where students who want nothing to do with band, orchestra, and choir are placed. “Placed” might be a politically correct term—“dumped” may be more accurate. In such classes, behavior issues are rampant, and administrators experience a heavy disciplinary load from those classes.
Seven years ago, my district added a high school and moved from the junior high to the middle school model. General music was eliminated, and every student was expected to enroll in band, orchestra, or choir (with exceptions made only for programs such as AVID and remedial math and English courses). Although I do believe that music is for every child and that every child is for music, I do not believe that band, choir, and orchestra are the solution for every child. As a result—my own philosophy is at odds with that of our middle school model.
The problem is clear—any student who doesn’t play an instrument, doesn’t want to practice at home, or doesn’t want to pay instrumental fees (rental, books, reeds, oil, etc.) signs up for choir. This means that our choir ends up with two kinds of students—those that want to be there, and those who were placed there against their will.
We follow a PBIS-like strategy in our school, trying to encourage students to be above-the-line. Even so, some students deliberately choose to be below-the-line. I do not have any issue teaching these students (and usually have good relationships with them), but I don’t think choir is the right place for them. Some teachers simply want to get rid of those kids—I just want to teach them in a different setting.
Thankfully, my administration was willing to let me hand-pick a group of 8th grade students – who have negatively impacted choir rehearsals in the past – and to put them into a non-singing class. My school is a 1:1 iPad school, and in an attempt to best serve these students, I created an iPad Music Class where we can meet state standards through music technology, rather than singing or playing a traditional instrument. I would note that this class is not open to everyone at the school, as we don’t want to impact enrollment in our band, choir, or orchestra programs.
The “iPad Music Class” is based on the concept of using GarageBand on the iPad to teach about music technology. I am developing the course as I go along, but I am relying on Barbara Freedman’s book, “Teaching Music Through Composition: A Curriculum Using Technology” and Mark Czech’s Music Technology course at Hopkins High School (Minnesota). As both Ms. Freedman’s and Mr. Czech’s work is at the high school level, I have had to adapt the material both to work on GarageBand for iOS as well as to work with middle school students. My goal is to make something that works, that kids like, and is sustainable over time.
This is the beginning of the process, but so far, the students I chose for the course are happy to be there, and the students remaining in the choir are pleased not to have the disruptions of the past. There has not been a single complaint from students in the iPad course or from those in choir. Two weeks in, the course is a win-win, and when my principal recently stopped in, she was amazed to see kids working on projects, even though we are in the early days of the class. Barbara Freedman suggests offering a lot of discovery (or “play”) time in the process, and so I have done so; it is amazing how much energy students will put into creating music with GarageBand.
As we go I am creating a book for students (there is a lot of terminology in music technology!), and we are using Schoology to list student assignments—all which are to be done (and graded) in class. The goal isn’t to make homework for students, but to help them to enjoy learning about music.
GarageBand is free, and every skill learned in GarageBand for iOS can be transferred to any other DAW. Furthermore, GarageBand for iOS offers touch-based instruments plus the ability to connect instruments via USB or Bluetooth MIDI. We also have a few JamStiks in our program (a MIDI guitar with “how to learn guitar” apps) and there is a plethora of piano-learning apps on the market. As a result, students should also be able to learn some guitar and/or basic piano skills throughout the year.
I am interested in bringing another non-singing course to our 7th grade students next year. As a middle school, we see students in grades 6-8. I feel strongly that there is nothing wrong with asking students to try a year of choir in 6th grade. By the end of 6th grade, we clearly know who is enjoying the choir experience and who might need another option.
My thought is to move those students into a 7th grade ukulele class (I still have to figure out how to get ukuleles and how to play one myself), and then into the 8th grade music technology course. The key for us, however, is to avoid making the non-singing courses an option for students but instead to leave those courses for hand-picked students. The end result is a win for everyone involved.
Christopher J. Russell, Ph.D, is a middle school choir teacher at Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park, Minnesota, which is part of the South Washington County School District. He speaks across the country on the topic of technology in music education, is the author of a blog called techinmusiced.com, and has two books on the subject available on the iBookstore.
Photo by December Orphen