Cutting Through the Noise: Listening, a Tool for Self-Advocacy in Elementary Music Classrooms
Life as a perfectionist can be tough. Life as a perfectionist teacher can be overwhelming. When you add in the fact that a huge portion of my job is teaching instrumental music to fourth and fifth graders, you can start to understand why “perfection” is not always a practical goal. As a performing musician, I want to hold my students to the highest possible standards when it comes to playing. But sometimes, I have students who like to remind me that this cannot, and should not, be the primary goal for all classes. Some classes like to remind me a little more forcefully.
I had a group of fifth-grade trumpet and trombone players in one of my classes this year that enjoyed being around each other. This was an incredibly energetic group of students, and the way they acted around each other reflected that! They would come into the classroom running around, playing catch with random objects, and playfully arguing with each other. This cohort of students was used to playing competitively, and those habits followed them into music class.
Many times, this competitive nature would result in students shouting out when somebody made a mistake while playing something, and that in turn led to defensiveness and arguing. When the students weren’t arguing, they were up and running around the room again. I ended up spending so much time trying to keep them focused that the class fell further and further behind. Both the students and I would leave class frustrated, and many of them were losing interest in playing their instruments. Something needed to change; this was a cycle that I was determined to break.
I decided to start by using a strategy that I had successfully implemented in a number of other classes – having students choose music that they wanted to play and using this as a way to engage them and involve them in the music-making process (in fifth-grade brass class, this usually means a lot of Star Wars). But after just a couple of classes, I realized that even this was a few steps ahead of where this group needed to be. Each time I would try something new or try to give students a little more responsibility in the classroom, most of the class would fall into their old habits of calling each other out and distracting each other. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I voiced my concerns about this to Sarah, our Lead by Learning facilitator, and she suggested that what the students were struggling with wasn’t necessarily in the music at all but in how they interacted with each other. They needed to learn how to listen without judgment, with or without their instruments.
We started by doing a few series of “musical background” activities, where I asked the students about what kind of music they enjoyed, what they wanted to be able to play, and why they chose to play their instrument in the first place. The most important aspect of these Q&A times was that students were told only to listen to what people were saying, as opposed to commenting and reacting to everything they heard. By the end of the activities, the students were able to find a lot more similarities in their peers’ answers because they had the time and the space to listen. This was the first real step forward in our listening journey.
Coming back from winter break, we started working on objective listening – hearing music and simply saying what happened or what we observed. The process was fairly simple. I recorded the students at the end of each class playing something we had worked on that day, and we listened to that recording as soon as they came in the next day. Our listening logs had the following goals:
- Write 2-3 observations of anything you hear (talking, mistakes, parts played correctly, etc.)
- Figure out specifically where a mistake was made or why something sounded good, as opposed to just saying it sounded “good” or “bad”
- Avoid calling specific students out by name
Students started out repeating the example observations that I gave, but after a couple of weeks, there was a noticeable change.
The listening logs started to get more and more specific, and students would reference moments in the music that we had worked on in class that day. They also began to take their playing more seriously! As we prepared to record, their behavior continued to improve to the point where students were reminding each other to take the recordings more seriously. We eventually got to the point where student observations helped the class figure out what spots in the music we needed to work on that day. Finally, here was the engagement I had been searching for all along.
I was so thrilled to be seeing such tremendous progress with these students’ listening skills that I started to integrate partner work with group playing. I asked students to help each other work through new pieces of music and give each other comments based on their listening. Unfortunately, the students were struggling so much with reading the music or figuring out how the notes and rhythms fit together that I had to scrap the activity. I felt defeated – they had been so much more enthusiastic and were latching onto key parts of the music in our listening logs, but I didn’t see those skills carrying over. Taking a step back, however, I was able to see the real transformation.
Students no longer gave up when they didn’t know something about the music. They were able to ask me specific questions and identify what part of the piece (rhythm, notes, etc.) they were struggling with. They were encouraging each other as opposed to arguing. Beyond this, the students were asking me to switch to pieces they enjoyed playing. These weren’t the performance goals I had set for this class at the beginning of the year, but the newfound self-advocacy and collaborative skills that these students were using showed a huge shift in how they learned music.
At the beginning of the year, most of the students in this class couldn’t wait to be done with music. Now, 11 out of 13 are continuing, and they were actively encouraging their peers to continue playing music in sixth grade as well. By focusing on objective listening, this group of students learned how to advocate for their own needs in the classroom both with me and with their peers. More importantly, they started to genuinely enjoy playing music.
I spent a large part of this year frustrated because I wasn’t finding any of the answers I needed. By the end, I realized that this wasn’t because the students weren’t doing well, but because I wasn’t asking the right questions! I had only been concerned about what the students were playing, as opposed to how they were learning. All of the trial-and-error led me to create a goal and a set of activities that fit what this group of students needed, and at the end of the day that is more important than an arbitrary performance goal that I set in August.
By meeting students where they are, you can move forward together. My goal for my teaching going forward is to continue to get to know my students, what they need, and what they want out of playing an instrument. This group showed me that changing my goals isn’t a sign of failure as a teacher, but just a needed adaptation to help my students feel more successful.
Jonah Andreatta began teaching in 2019 in Indiana before moving to Berkeley in 2022. He currently teaches 4th and 5th-grade instrumental music and middle school concert and jazz band as a part of Berkeley Unified School District. He is also the director of the NAYSO Concert Band, a youth wind ensemble based in the East Bay. A graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music with degrees in bassoon and music education, Jonah is passionate about ensuring diverse perspectives are represented and shared in the classroom. He is particularly interested in making band more equitable by elevating student voices, emphasizing student choice and leadership, and seeking out music from diverse composers, cultures, and communities. When he’s not teaching or playing, Jonah enjoys hiking, cooking, reading, and exploring new places throughout the Bay Area.