If I had to list my top five days of my entire teaching career, this past Monday would be on that list!
To give you some context for this wonderful day, I have not posted a whole lot recently in this series because, frankly, I have been struggling to keep up my morale. My schools (I am a high school and middle school band director) have oscillated between all-virtual and hybrid model. I have yet to see all my 5th graders in the same day due to absences or shifting to all-virtual. My Zoom meeting participation and the amount of assignments being submitted have both experienced a persistent decline for weeks on end. A large percentage of kids are failing their classes.
But… not everything is bad!
As many of you who follow this blog know, I have been working on building a recording studio, lab stations, and a Contemporary Music class for my high school. These exist to facilitate students who don’t necessarily fit into the “large ensemble” paradigm (band, orchestra, choir) that we’ve seen in public school music education for over 60 years. For various reasons, my philosophy of music education has evolved over time to favor individual music-making more and more over emphasizing artistic excellence in the performing of large ensemble repertoire.
To be clear, this is certainly not an attack on the large ensemble focus of the American music education by any means, especially for large schools. I am who I am today because of my experiences in high school band. Being able to sit in a recording studio creating your own beats is not the same as the magic of playing something like “Resting In the Peace of His Hands” by John Wesley Gibson with 40 of your closest friends.
Trust me, I get it.
But my point here (and you’ll see why in a minute), is that kids who don’t have that large ensemble experience in their life, for whatever reason, are left out our music programs in our schools… and they needn’t be. Now that my school has a music technology capability, it can serve as both as an entry point for those kids who never bought into the large ensemble paradigm and offer a chance to grow on a parallel path with and participate fully in the school’s music program.
Case in point: I’ve got this kid.
We’ll call this kid Mick.
‘Cause he’s got the moves.
…you know… like Jagger?… no? It’s okay… 2011 was a long time ago…
Anyway, Mick has led a rough life. He’s had a lot of things go wrong and has very little faith in society’s systems (school particularly). He’s been in and out of juvie over the years, but he’s an incredibly intelligent and talented young man.
I’ve seen him around ever since he was in middle school. He was often in trouble and was considered one of the “harder” kids. He and I never really crossed paths, as he never did band, orchestra, or choir. Yet, this year he found himself in my new Contemporary Music class. The guidance counselor just kind of tossed him in there.
I’m so thankful she did!
In my online Schoology classes, I try to keep my assignment load light and simple. Students are to submit (1) a weekly goal and (2) evidence on how they achieved their goal. I then evaluate how well they achieved their goal and provide feedback/suggestions on what to focus on the next week. For the motivated kids who participate fully, it’s been great! However, not so much for those kids who are not motivated or disciplined.
All during the virtual start to our year, Mick only turned in goals that dealt with his other classes (ie, “I will complete all my math homework this week.”). I sent him multiple messages explaining the goals had to reflect progress on a music project; there were plenty of options provided. Alas, he never responded or changed anything.
Then, about three weeks ago, I suddenly got a flurry of messages from him. We went back and forth; I’m paraphrasing the conversation.
Mick: Hey, what can I do to bring my grade up? I have court tomorrow and I need to do something.
Me: Hi Mick! All of your goals and progress submissions have to be related to music somehow. Otherwise I can’t count them, although I’m proud of you for getting your work done in your other classes.
Mick: Yeah. Can I send you one of my raps?
Me: Sure, of course!
Mick: I attached two. Can you grade these real quick and put them in the grade book tonight?
Me: Yeah, man. I’ll do it now.
I pulled up the first video.
Mick is sitting in what looks like his bedroom. He has on a bandana, t-shirt, jewelry, and holding up a phone. In the video, he touches the screen on his phone and a hip hop beat starts to play. Mick’s head starts bobbing up and down, interjecting “yeah”s and “uh”s during the introduction. When the beat finally dropped…
Guys, it was incredible.
Aside from the cussing and the questionable subject matter, this kid starts rapping an impressive, rhythmically complex stream of ideas. His rhymes aren’t flashy (no 32nd note runs or anything, either), but they’re extremely well done. He goes on non-stop for about 1’30”, the verses rolling one after another, then stops and says, “That’s all I got.” The video ends.
Sitting there, dumbfounded, I pull up the next video.
Mick is sitting in a dark room; the only light is coming off his Chromebook (which he’s using to video) and his phone. He looks tired and sad.
He says, “Aight, I’m still working on this one.” And he begins.
Once again, the intro starts. There’s less preparatory vocalization, as he seems to be gathering himself. Then, when the bass drops, Mick starts rapping about how he’s let down his mother over the years and how sorry he is and how everyone is so lazy and whiny these days and yet how hypocritical he is for even bringing it up. He abruptly stops after about 1 minute, sniffs, and turns the video off.
I can’t recall any other time I teared up during a hip hop song.
Recovering, I go into my grade book and enter two 10/10s for two of his missing assignments. Then I email him his current grade along with some positive feedback.
Mick: Cool. Can I give you another one to bring the grade up higher?
Me: YES! Keep them coming!
He sent me another one that night. It brought up his grade sufficiently enough for him, and that was that.
Mick didn’t respond to me after that last email exchange that night or the next morning.
Two days later Mick suddenly disappeared from my roster!
I quickly went and talked to one of his other teachers. I found out that his court date had happened as planned and that he was in juvenile detention for an indeterminate amount of time. She wasn’t sure when or if he’d be back to school. I told her about his incredible talent and we talked about strategies to give him an outlet if he did come back.
Then, toward the end of last week, I got an email saying Mick was coming back. He appeared on my roster again last Friday; then, he emailed me.
Mick: Sorry I was out. I’ll be at school next week. Here’s another song. Can you add it to my grades?
I open the video. He is in his room again, lights dim, lit from the side with a weak reddish-yellow light. The video quality is grainy. Mick says, “I thought I’d do a little freestyle.” He laughed and started the track.
This time the rap wasn’t as strong at the beginning, and it was the first time that I had the impression that I could actually help this young musician develop his timing skills. As he went on, his head bobbing up and down, he locked into the beat and by the time he finished, he’d delivered about a minute of excellent improvised flow. Impressive.
And he was coming to school!
The big day arrived. Monday.
As my 4th block started, Mick actually beat me into the band room. I had gone to run an errand, and when I came back he was already there. After I got him situated at his workstation (with an iMac, an audio to digital interface, a mic, etc.) and reacquainted ourselves, I asked him what his plans were for his life.
“I want to go into the music business with my music.”
As it turns out, Mick has 50-something songs semi-finished, with about 10 that he thinks are really good. I asked him if he plans on publishing his work online.
“Oh, yeah, I use TikTok. I got, like, 58,000 followers.”
He pulls out his phone to show me.
Sure enough, almost 60,000 followers.
What the heck?!?
Me: “So, walk me through your process. How do you make your rap music?”
Mick explained the process that he and his partner who provides more melodic material to his raps (they’ve been creating music together for years!). They scour Youtube for “free” beats that they like and rap over them. I asked if he could show me one of the tracks he uses. He pulled on up, and sure enough, those beats aren’t “free.” When it comes to obtaining permission to use in a commercial way, he would have to pay to use those tracks. We had a nice, short conversation about copyright law and why they’re important for artists.
Me: “What if I told you, though, that you can make your own beats, right here, right now? You can tailor them to exactly what you want and then you don’t have to pay anyone to use them!”
Mick: “I don’t know. I just want to do my thing. But I’ll try.”
I pull up Garageband on the iMac. The first thing I show him is automated Drummer tracks. He selected hip hop and created a new MIDI region. I showed him how to change the settings, so he clicked a couple things, put on the headphones, and clicked play.
For the next 80 minutes (minus the fire drill… every day we have a fire drill! ugh), Mick created a hip hop track. Every 2 to 3 minutes, while the other student in the room was working, Mick’d suddenly shout out “WHOA!” or “OOOHH!”, crack up laughing out of nowhere while shaking his head, bounce up and down in his chair, and ask how to do such and such in the DAW. Every 5 to 7 minutes I’d interrupt him and show him some other feature of Garageband, how to input MIDI with either a controller or the on-screen keyboard, copy and paste MIDI regions, etc. Everything was new to him, and it was a joy to watch.
As the class wound down, I signed out equipment for him to create his own home studio and how to set everything set up. He called his mom. He called his partner. He took screenshots of what he was working on in Garageband and recording videos on his phone talking about all the amazing things he’d done that day.
The bell rang and Mick asked if he could go to the bathroom while we waited for his mom to come pick him up with the equipment. I started talking to my student teacher about how amazing this experience had been for me. We were still talking when Mick came back.
He said, “Dude, can I take this class next year too? This is a dream come true.”
Mick’s mom, while picking him up outside the band room with his home studio equipment, told me thank you for this, he loves this stuff and he’s never been so excited.
As they drove away with the home studio equipment, I couldn’t help but stand there by the open band room door, eyes closed, for a moment. My face tilted up toward the clear deep blue sky, feeling the warm sun on my face and the crisp autumn breeze blowing across my skin, and I thanked God that I had been able to help that kid find his thing.
It was a perfect ending to a glorious school day.
I hope by now it’s obvious why this was one of my best days as a teacher.
It was one of those moments where everything you work for for years and years is finally actualized. I had the idea for this recording studio way back in 2017, wrote and received a grant, and had spent hundreds of hours teaching myself new skills and new teaching methods.
2017 was also the first year I had really come out of my big burn-out phase, so a lot of my emotional and mental energy had been invested into this project almost as a way to save my career. I love teaching, and I love helping kids. I didn’t want to burn out. So I guess I reached outside the box, grasping for anything that could help me help those kids who needed music the most… those kids who never joined an ensemble class and had no clue what they were missing.
To see Mick light up like a Christmas tree and suddenly discover the power of creation in such a dramatic way was euphoric. In a way, Monday was the culmination of my entire career and a lynchpin in my burgeoning music education philosophy. Kids like Mick are exactly whom I had in mind when I started all of this.
Regardless of where we go from here, I am thankful that music education worked for this one kid. How many more can we reach?
Thanks for listening. 🙂