Education Opinion

Guitar Hero? No. Musician.

By Nancy Flanagan — January 09, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Meet Jon Schwartz and his creative work using the blues to teach just about everything. Jon, his ideas and his students are what “school” can and should be. I love the stories he shares he about using music in deep and rich learning.

Last year I surprised my first grade students by bringing an electric guitar to class. They had no idea that their teacher used to be a professional gigging musician, and I figured jamming for them would elicit a yearning for live music and hands-on learning about instruments. Before I struck the first chord, an eager student shouted out the first request: “What’s your highest score in Guitar Hero?”

When the overwhelming majority of kids linked my guitar to that popular video game, I began to realize what a superficial introduction to music my students, and the majority of our kids, are receiving. Video game toys are more prevalent than actual instruments, and a steady diet of machine-made pop delivered by performers chosen for their image rather than their musical abilities has dulled the musical palettes of our children. Kids today view music as a product to be consumed. It never seems to cross their mind that they might actually create some music themselves. The pop stars they see on TV use instruments as fashion accessories, so how can we expect our students to imagine themselves as functioning musicians?

I immediately began bringing more music into my classroom: playing songs with structure and improvisation, teaching them the meanings and historical significance of the lyrics and the progression of music over the years, playing them audio and video recordings of master blues, jazz, and bluegrass musicians from Charlie Parker to Doc Watson, and eventually, involving them in music performance.

As an elementary school teacher by day and blues musician by night, I was thrilled to bring my two passions together. Eventually my students and I formed “The Kids Like Blues Band.” Our work has allowed them to appreciate the participatory, living craft that is music. In a sense, they’ve gone from being passive consumers to active, excited musicians.

Our class blues band provides my students with a multimodal approach to learning. The songs deliver academic material to auditory and kinesthetic learners that they can readily process. “Deep Elem Blues”, for example, can be used as a springboard for standards-based lessons in phonics, diction, literal vs. figurative language, and discussions on genre and author’s purpose. Because music, especially the blues, teaches about history and culture, I am able to pull songs from time periods being studied and expose my students to authentic material that explains US History on a deeper level than textbooks or lectures can provide.

The Kids Like Blues Band is now in its second year. Providing my students with a musical background has also given them the opportunity to perform and practice an array of skills in front of an audience, feel a sense of accomplishment, and increase their self-esteem. Working on our 12 song repertoire has allowed them to feel and see something they created, and it inspires them for future successes.

We also use our blues band to explore technology on high levels with blogs, Photoshop, audio recordings in Garage Band, and video editing in iMovie. Over one-half of my 30 second grade students have their own blogs, and they use these to report and reflect on their performances. They also scan their original band-related artwork onto computers, modify the image files in Photoshop, and upload them to their blogs. Our classroom also doubles as a recording studio and sound stage. We’ve even produced multi-track audio recordings, CD’s, and filmed and edited several high quality music videos together.

Perhaps the most moving experience for me as an educator was witnessing how music has brought my students together; not just as a band, but also as a community. Last year we had a student from Japan join us. Her family had fled the aftermath of the tsunami. The English alphabet was completely foreign to her, and she was unable to understand or communicate with anyone on campus. When we formed The Kids Like Blues Band, she memorized all the songs, helped choreograph original stage moves, and became one of our most animated and enthusiastic singers! The music completely transformed her.

Being part of the band provided this student a way to interact with her peers, and learning the songs inspired her to understand and communicate in English. In fact, most of my students are English Language Learners, and many have shown unusually rapid growth in Language Arts. Being immersed in the English language through music enables them to practice decoding, pacing, intonation, and phrasing through repetition and predictable high-interest text.

Incorporating the musical arts into my classroom has enabled my students to become well rounded and they have learned important skills such as working with others in sync, counting the beat, concentration, coordination, auditory skills, engagement, teamwork, and risk-taking. These kids are learning what music is. They now know that it’s real, participatory, and requires a development of rhythm, pitch, phrasing, practice, collaboration and teamwork. Whether they go on to become famous composers, instrumentalists or singers, or simply grow up with an appreciation and joy for the musical arts, they are excited about learning. Each day they inspire those around them to make music part of their lives.

Jon Schwartz has been teaching grades 1-6 in California public schools for 15 years. His work integrating music, technology, and the visual and performing arts has been featured by the US Dept. of Education and KPBS .Find more at The Kids Like Blues Bandwebsite.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.