January 30th, 2014
altspaceeditor

The T Word | Jay Albert

This is the final post in our January series inspired by an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors around how perceptions of who can and can’t make art affect their teaching practice. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

………………………………………..

Sharing a table with several parents at a school event, conversation came around to my being a music teacher. In the course of the conversation comments came out of a type I have come to accept as inevitable when discussing my field with those outside it. If I had to categorize it I suppose it would be something like this “Talent: those who have it and those who don’t.” It tends to crop up in relation to some child or another, my having it as a professional in the field, or poignantly, the adult’s perspective that they themselves do not possess this “talent” which is required to make music.

It boggles my mind how universal this perspective is. I have heard the same tone, the same assumptions from individuals for many years. As to the source of such perspectives I can only speculate although I have learned of an alarming number of instances where an educator has informed some child that they “cannot sing.” It seems apparent to me that many individuals have years of practice envisioning themselves as “non-musicians.”

As I think back to this particular evening it occurs to me that this issue around talent plays heavily into any teaching of adult music students who, even though they come to learn music skills and expression, often harbor deep reservations about their own ability. Over time I have developed some sequences of activities to address this issue which are introduced with dogged positivity. My position is that people need a “safe space” in which to create, they need to feel that it’s okay to make their sounds, like singing in the shower. Here’s a brief tale of one adult student who was able to make it.

Read More

September 24th, 2013
altspaceeditor

What I Learned in Summer Camp | Jay Albert

"You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail." — Charlie Parker

Last winter a conversation with some friends gave me an idea to create a summer music camp. We discussed some local camps and other activities and before you know it I was going “yeah, I’ll just create one myself.” A ton of planning and work later and June found me running a camp for elementary students, based on the science of sound and music. I drew up a weeks’ worth of lesson plans (three hours a day for five days) using scientific inquiry into the physics of sound, building on each topic until it translated into how sound becomes music and how we manipulate our materials to construct and perform music. It was awesome.

The camp was held in a friend’s art studio, in an antique one-room schoolhouse on a now-busy street with a good back yard, and lots of art supplies and resident drums to liven it up.

The group was small enough that I was able to run the whole thing myself, snacks, teaching, recreation and all. Among the things I learned at this camp were several lessons in how to make a place and time where learning can occur organically. We began each day with some movement, trading improvised musical ideas and generally getting ears, bodies and brains going. Next I would introduce or expand on a previous topic and we experimented as a group, exploring acoustics and recording findings in our science notebooks. The last section of the day was manipulating the elements of sound and music we’d learned as individuals or groups, yielding new compositions. Breaks came at various places, often these included a snack or I’d give them a game based on listening or group communication.

The kids had a great time, they were eager to go each day. But I think I may have taken away more lessons myself. Here are a few.

Structure is good, letting your structure slide when appropriate is better.

I had everything planned out. I saw the kids make the connections I had intended and many I hadn’t planned. On the first day I was helping with them make “oboes” out of straws and thinking ahead to the next activity and it occurred to me to just let them derail my plan and continue with what they were doing. We had learned how reeds vibrate to make sound in woodwind instruments, at this point we were figuring out how to make our own and how the resonant body (the tube/straw) affected the sound. We also worked on the technique of blowing through the instrument; I gave little instruction on this but it ended up being the part they experimented with the most. They had so much fun! If I had “kept to my plan” I would have ushered them along to the next thing. However I use the quotations above intentionally; my plan after all was to get them interested and playing with our topic; creating a wind instrument and discovering its sounds. Score.

Cookies help.

Another moment etched in my memory is sitting on our front step munching on Oreos and Nilla Wafers with some students. That’s it, just hanging. We chatted about cookies, other kids, traffic, birds, noises, and whatever. Down time is beyond price; my musical analogy would be the value of rests: if music never has a silence it becomes manic and this is not always desirable. Down time helps in the digestion of ideas (and cookies!); if we must use a more technical term it would be assimilation.

Additionally, this kind of activity just allowed us to become friends. There were also several times when I just let the kids hang together, staying out of the way discreetly, and they did what kids do. They shared media, fashion, dance moves, emails, idle chat; again, basically becoming friends. In adult-speak they were team building in the most organic way possible.

However much I holler about giving kids space to do their own thing, I can always use reminding.

I suppose the lesson I’m attempting to share here is that like all good teaching artists I plan the bejeezers out of my programs…this is completely essential, yes…however, during implementation the art of teaching requires the same kind of adaptation, letting go, trust in process, self and others as our arts disciplines themselves. Kids are the best reminders; they are brilliant and beautiful, and my job is merely to give them a path and let them dance down it.

At one point during the week I realized I was making these kinds of adaptations and several hundred pounds came off my shoulders. I really started to feel like like I was a kid at camp. I remember one moment standing at the back door looking across the room at three girls sitting together busily sharing their many thoughts and planning out what they would do tomorrow, and I thought yeah, this is how it ought to be.

imageJay Albert is a musician and educator. His professional vision is to share music and help people achieve more of a connection to it, whether helping students learn to play or “teaching” an audience by means of a performance. He founded his company Songdog Music to further that vision. Jay holds degrees in guitar, music theory and composition from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music and Kent State University. He has taught at both of his alma maters and elsewhere, from PreK to graduate level, and has presented at and supervised arts education departments for several organizations. Contact Jay  www.songdogmusic.com

Also by Jay Albert in ALT/space:
From Eye to Ear
Errors, Trials and Process
Birth of a Song
Finding the In Door to Music

September 10th, 2013
altspaceeditor

Fun with Little People | Allison Upshaw

Call (me): Hello Mr. Radio
Response (students): Hello Mr. Radio
Call: Hello Little Cheerios
Response: Hello Little Cheerios
Call: Hello Sis. Oriole
Response: Hello Sis. Oriole
Call: Need I tell you
Response: Need I tell you
Call: That everything here is just fine
Response: That everything here is just fine
Call: In my mind
Response: In my mind. 

-Mornin’ recorded by Al Jarreau 

Every Tuesday morning, I walked into the kindergarten and first grade rooms at Vaughn Road Elementary School in Montgomery, AL and waited. As soon as they saw me, they began to put their work under their desks, waving, whispering, wiggling, bouncing and smiling. I’d put my index finger to my lips and wait a little longer then we’d begin to sing the chorus printed at the beginning of this article. We’d rock and clap and, sometimes, we’d do little hand motions for parts of the song.

On my first visit, I shared a version of Hansel and Gretel that had singing and movement in it. They learned that this special kind of singing story was called opera and that I am an opera singer. We spent the entire first day learning that being a good opera singer means that I have to be a good singer and a good actress. We warmed up our voices, which is something that all good opera singers have to do before they sing. We learned that good actors have to listen carefully and follow instructions.

The next week, I told them that I wanted to see how much they remembered about the Hansel and Gretel story. I told it again, deliberately leaving out important details and allowing them to fill in the gaps. They told me their favorite parts of the story and we even took time to act out some of those scenes. This established a pattern that we would use throughout the school year.

One week we’d share a story and the next week we’d see how many details they could remember about it. For the majority of the residency, I chose stories that were based on various music styles: opera, jazz, folk. In The Jazz Fly, we learned to speak in the jazz language of scat. In Mama Don’t Allow, we created a line dance for the alligator’s to do at the Alligator Ball. We sometimes drew their favorite parts of the story. We sometimes created word walls of new words and they even wrote their own stories as spin-offs from the originals. We processed the information differently each time but we were always learning. We were learning how to retell stories  without leaving out important details which is part of the Common Core State Standards for K-1. We were also learning how to echo short rhythmic and melodic phrases as well as creating expressive movement to music which are part of the Alabama Music Standards for K-1.

Learning was, of course, the main idea of this residency which was the brain child of the Alabama Institute for Education in the Arts. It was created to provide arts based learning for kindergarten and 1st graders but student learning was not the only focus. It was also an ongoing professional development for the teachers. The short range goal for the professional development portion was to model arts integration in such a way that the teachers could immediately use some of the techniques. The long range goal was that it be a replicable model for both students and teachers. This year we will continue with kindergarten and 1st grade as well as adding 2nd and 3rd grades. The dance TA and I are meeting next week to design at least one lesson plan that combines music, theatre, and dance. I’ll keep you posted!

image

Allison Upshaw is also known as “MzOpera”, and for the last 13 years she’s worked as a Performing Arts Integration Consultant/ Teaching Artist in AL, AR, GA, TN and SC. Her background includes two degrees in Voice Performance from Oberlin Conservatory and Louisiana State University, a union card from the Actor’s Equity Association, years of studying African influenced dance, and a stint as a college instructor of voice and acting. Allison provides residencies, workshops and professional development in arts integration. In 2012, she had the privilege of being selected to present at the 1st International Teaching Artist Conference in Oslo, Norway.

Also by Allison Upshaw in ALT/space:
Finding Common Ground: The Perfect Fit
Finding Common Ground 

June 12th, 2013
altspaceeditor

From Eye to Ear | Jay Albert

I’ve written before about students composing music utilizing their manual skills and their ears to make compositional choices. There is another approach to composition that seems almost the polar opposite and I’ve found the results equally invigorating. Given a sheet of paper and told to write a song, kids’ thinking becomes very pattern oriented. There is perhaps an irony here in that by composing music in this way they think mathematically and visually rather than aurally: initiating patterns of pitches organized along the fretboard of the guitar, writing them in numeric sequences and altering them imaginatively. This kind of patterned thinking grows valuable reasoning skills and allows access to some techniques of music composition wholly absent from standard elementary music education.

This approach of written composition, in this case tablature, allows my young students to play with pattern in whatever way they wish and in this way they are not limited by technical ability. The Tab approach is fundamentally different from composing by ear and it yields fascinating results.  Let’s take a look at Lotte’s composition:

The assignment here was simply to “write a song.” We had been learning the major scale and melodies which use it, and we had begun learning Tab and notation. For first composition assignments I generally keep the parameters to a minimum; kids can write what they will. Lotte simply played with the pattern of odd and even numbers of frets which may have been suggested to her by noticing the pattern of fret marker dots on her ukulele or, she may have had some other inspiration. What she composed is what we usually refer to as a whole tone scale. This structure is common in contemporary classical and jazz compositions, entirely absent from children’s music.

In writing Tab one merely marks the location of pitches on the instrument; rhythm is left out of the notation. I use it as a means to teach the location of pitches on the fret board, for which it is a perfect tool. Also, removing the element of rhythm from the notation cuts the complexity of the task in half, further enabling the composition process. It is exactly this limiting of parameters that I value in this exercise. Composition is normally not taught until a musician is quite accomplished, sometimes high school, more often not until college levels of proficiency. This method allows even beginners an opportunity to try their hand at creating their own musical ideas and developing them into complete statements.

Jane offers a more involved example:

Again the composer begins with an ordering of odd-numbered frets, but then she takes off on a completely new pattern: alternating between the 3rd string and 1st string on the same fret. This she does at 12, 9, 7, and 5. A short 3rd string melody follows and then more 12th fret alternating between strings. This musician tends to let her imagination wander where it will and her composition reflects that. The song goes on for five full lines of Tablature notation; the whole time she plays with the patterns she stated at the beginning.

In composing a visual/manual pattern, students think in a totally different way than they do when thinking aurally. In doing so they receive an added gift in the form of a surprise: they have no idea what it will sound like until they play it! It is my hunch that the above method will help to unite the sounds and symbols of music together into a fuller understanding of the whole. I haven’t got this built into an entire systematic approach yet but what I envision is combining two sides of music creation: first, making choices based on what one knows and can hear or play; and second making choices based on one’s understanding of the intellectual structures of music. 

imageJay Albert is a musician and educator. His professional vision is to share music and help people achieve more of a connection to it, whether helping students learn to play or “teaching” an audience by means of a performance. He founded his company Songdog Music to further that vision. Jay holds degrees in guitar, music theory and composition from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music and Kent State University. He has taught at both of his alma maters and elsewhere, from PreK to graduate level, and has presented at and supervised arts education departments for several organizations. Contact Jay  www.songdogmusic.com

Also by Jay Albert in ALT/space:
Errors, Trials and Process
Birth of a Song
Finding the In Door to Music

May 15th, 2013
altspaceeditor

Finding Common Ground: The Perfect Fit | Allison Upshaw

Approximately 2:30 am Monday, Driving from Atlanta to Louisville

Approximately 8:40 am, Arrive at Kentucky Juvenile Facility and begin unloading car

1st Young Man: Morning Ms. Allison!

Me: Morning Guys!

2nd Young Man: Can we help you with the equipment?

Me: Sure sweetie. I’ll bring the things in from the car and I’ll need you to take them on into the classroom. Y’all know how to set everything up, just be careful.

Group of Young Men: Ok! Yes, M’am!

(Another young man joins the group)

3rd Young Man: MS. ALLISON!!!

Me: Huh?

3rd young man: Where did you get that fit? It’s tight!  If I give you some money would you get me some? Man, that is the bomb!

Me: Hang on guys, let’s talk after I finish getting everything out of the car.

(I leave the building heading back to my car. Immediately, I grab my phone and call my stepson who is home sick.)

Me: Sweetie, what’s a “fit”? One of the boys just said he loved my “fit” but I have no idea what he’s talking about.

Stepson: Outfit.

Me: Ohhhhh. Okay, thanks sweetie.

(I re-enter the building.)

Me: So you like my fit guys? I got it from the flea market.

Young Men: Continue to talk to me about my fit as we set up the recording equipment.

For years, I was anemic. If it was anything less than 75 degrees outside I was freezing and I wore sweat suits all the time. My husband, at the time, finally got fed up with the Walmart sweats that I wore and took me to the local flea market. He insisted that if I was determined to wear them the least I could do was be fashionable. We bought thick sweat suits with hoods and some had stripes down the sides. I bought sneakers and some of them even matched the sweat suits. Finally I was warm! But, it never occurred to me to think of my clothes as a way to reach my young juvenile delinquents.

When the young men saw me in these sweat suits, it was as if I’d won the “cool points” lottery. They loved making music and recording CDs with me but seeing me in these hooded sweat suits somehow changed their perception of how they could interact with me. They began to share things about their “outside” lives in ways that they never did before. They always wanted to stay and play on the equipment but now they also wanted to stay and talk to me. It was an eye opening experience for me to say the least.

After that experience I began to pay more attention to the outer me that my students meet. Many times, I’d dress to be taken seriously as a professional for the principal and teacher but realized that that could be a barrier in getting younger people to trust me enough to make art with me. Again, I began looking for common ground and this is where I’ve found it for me. It’s all in the fit.

When I’m working in a middle school or high school, I make sure that the first day I share my love of shoes. Whether it’s my zebra striped boots or my pink plaid peep toes, the teenage girls LOVE them. They talk to me because they want to know where I shop. They stop me in hallways to chat about shoes and ask when I’m coming to their class. They want to know what I do and it allows me to begin a dialogue. I can tell the difference in their initial perceptions of me because sometimes my arthritis flares up and I can’t wear my high heels and then it seems that I have to work harder for their acceptance because they perceive me as old and out of touch.

Sometimes, my clothes actually become part of my lesson plan. Just recently, while teaching an 8th grade unit on the ancient civilizations of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai, I wore a caftan with an Adinkra symbol of Sankofa printed front and back. It’s the image of a bird flying backward with an egg in its mouth. It means “to go back and get it”, the “it” being wisdom. The students and I were able to talk about the Ghanaian traditions of using fabric and symbols to communicate and we did an art project that allowed them to create their own Adinkra inspired fabrics. As we worked, we began to speculate about enslaved Africans continuing the traditions here in the US during slavery and what meaning that could possibly have held.

Those young men crossed my mind again as I chose to wear all African clothing while teaching 3rd and 4th graders in a remote area of Alabama. The children asked me if I was from Africa, why did I wear those clothes, what was that in my hair (beads), etc. In Alabama, I didn’t choose to use my clothing in a direct lesson this time, but I wanted to subtly expose them to the idea that people who dress or look differently that you are not the enemy. They can love you and be nice, they just look different. If not for that long ago experience in a Kentucky juvenile facility, I would never have thought to use my clothing choices as a way of finding common ground in the classroom. Now, in addition to my planning time, I always spend time looking for the perfect fit.

image

Allison Upshaw is also known as “MzOpera”, and for the last 13 years she’s worked as a Performing Arts Integration Consultant/ Teaching Artist in AL, AR, GA, TN and SC. Her background includes two degrees in Voice Performance from Oberlin Conservatory and Louisiana State University, a union card from the Actor’s Equity Association, years of studying African influenced dance, and a stint as a college instructor of voice and acting. Allison provides residencies, workshops and professional development in arts integration. In 2012, she had the privilege of being selected to present at the 1st International Teaching Artist Conference in Oslo, Norway.

Also by Allison Upshaw in ALT/space:
Finding Common Ground 

In this space, Teaching Artist correspondents from around the U.S. and the world bring you stories of their work at the crossroads of art and learning. ALT/space is a project of the Teaching Artist Journal, a peer reviewed print and online quarterly that serves as a voice, forum and resource for teaching artists and all those working at the intersection of art and learning. Individual online subscriptions of the TAJ print journal gives you access to a very useful, easy to access, 55-issue archive--the only such archive of its kind.