Meet SmartMusic Teacher John Kuehn

John Kuehn and his wife enjoying a lakeside Pennsylvanian sunset

This week we feature John Kuehn, the grand prize winner in the “Share Your SmartMusic Story” contest.

John attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he received both his B.M. and M.M. degrees. John received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has taught in the public schools and at the collegiate level for 42 years. This is John’s 28th year teaching at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Indiana, Pa.).

You must really enjoy teaching at the collegiate level.
I do, I like it just as much now as I did the first year. I still look forward to going to work every day. It’s not really music that is the main attraction for me in teaching; it’s the interaction with the students. In my opinion, education isn’t just a job, it’s a calling—a ministry really.

Is empathy one of the qualities that teachers need today?
Oh yes, compassion, understanding, and patience are all needed. I was talking with a few band directors recently about the basic attributes that are absolutely necessary to be a good instrumental music teacher. We decided there were three things that a teacher needed to have. First, you need good aural skills. You can’t fix a problem if you can’t hear a problem, and musicians detect their problems in ensembles and lessons with their ears. Next, secondary instrument skills are absolutely necessary because you can’t teach an instrument to someone if you can’t play it yourself. The third attribute is you have to be a nice person.

How has music influenced or shaped your life?
Music and music education has literally been my life. There were amateur and professional musicians all throughout my family. I began playing the clarinet in sixth grade because my brother had played clarinet and my parents didn’t have to buy a new instrument. I’ve carried the music tradition into my family as well: my wife and all of my children are musicians.

Did you always want to be a music teacher?
I actually entered college as a Civil Engineer major. During my freshman year I took a piano course for fun, and the professor told me I should be a music major, so I changed my major! I didn’t analyze it or debate over it or discuss it with anybody, I just walked out of this piano class and went over to the registrar and changed my major. Of course, it changes the whole direction of your life and all the people you would meet and all the places you would go and all the things you would do.

What types of music do you like best?
Mostly classical, but I also like gospel and Christmas music. And I’ve always like jazz. There was a lot of real serious playing going on from 1958 to 1962.

How did you hear about SmartMusic and when did you start using it?
I first saw it enthusiastically demonstrated by one of our local elementary band directors. I have been using it for two years.

How were you able to integrate SmartMusic with your music program?
I use SmartMusic in two ways: first, in my Instrumental Methods Class as a tool to motivate my students to develop secondary wind instrument competencies, and second, in my clarinet studio for practice of the repertoire with the accompaniments.

What has been the response by your students to SmartMusic?
My methods students really like it because it is fun and challenging, and because they can do it out of class on their own time. They each have a subscription on their dorm or apartment computers. Students can develop secondary instrument skills they will definitely need in their future jobs. They are also learning how the program works so they can use it with their students when they get teaching jobs. My clarinet majors, who use SmartMusic on one of the computers in the music department, really like the fact that the accompaniment tempos can be altered without changing pitch.

What do you like best about SmartMusic?
I like the fact that I can promote honest and observable skill development outside of the formal class time.

What advice would you give to teachers who are just getting started with SmartMusic?
I wouldn’t know what to say because it’s all self-explanatory. You just follow the instructions. My only advice would be, “Do it! Take advantage of this incredible resource because it’s easy to use.”

What are some ways you use Gradebook?
I require 10 songs to be submitted by every student on their weakest secondary instrument for a possible 10 points each. If SmartMusic awards 5 points, then I award 5 points. I record the scores and reassign the 10 songs. The students may submit them on another secondary instrument and continue doing this with as many instruments as they are willing to practice. If they score the full 100 points they also get a white belt for that instrument.  Students accumulate points to earn music belts: 150 points equals a yellow belt, 200 points equals a green belt, 250 points equals a brown belt, and 300 points equals a black belt. If a student gets a black belt he is done with that instrument and must go for higher belts on other instruments.

Where did you get that idea to use the belts?
I’ve always been a really big believer in extrinsic motivation, giving tangible awards for achievement, whether it’s stickers, pizza parties, “sections of the week” or doughnuts. I’ve found that rewards for accomplishments works just as well at the collegiate level as it does at the elementary level.

What was your reaction when you learned that you had won the contest?
The call came right in the middle of a clarinet lesson and I was very excited. I used the prize money as a starter fund for my India sabbatical project. I was also very happy for the many students who devoted themselves to helping me win. Of course, the pay-off for them was the promised blue Mohawk haircut, but it was fun, and I lived through it.

What is your India project about?
I have been to southern India (state of Kerala) six times in the last several years and taught at a Bible conference there. I met the principal of a school in Kollam, Kerala, and she invited me to start an instrumental music program in her school. None of the equipment and teaching materials can be procured in India, so all horns, stands, sound equipment, music stands, repair supplies, music, and method books must be purchased in the U.S. and shipped to India in advance. My sabbatical is set for the fall of 2012 and I must raise $100,000 for the entire project. With the prize money from SmartMusic I now am looking to raise another $98,000.

I’d like to thank John again for sharing his time and thoughts with us and I’d like to wish him good fortune on his sabbatical project.

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