Learning to play a round in school


The cooing they do when they’re babies is really where they should sing,” St. Anthony Park Elementary music teacher Brad Ollmann explained to parents at an open house for one of his kindergarten classes last fall. “Then they learn to talk, and they forget how to sing up there. So we have to get them back to it.”

By sixth grade, said Chelsea Heights music teacher Wendy Flinner, her students will be singing in harmony, reading the treble clef and playing at least the recorder and perhaps other instruments as well. “My goal is to give them the fundamentals so that when they get to the band teacher, they can just move on,” Flinner said.

And she has an even broader goal: “that children grow to love all types of music, more than what they listen to at home.” She hopes they’ll love it enough to keep singing and playing. “You can sing along with the radio or you can sing in a choir,” she said.

As parents select schools and schools prepare budgets, music and the other arts can sometimes get lost in debates over test scores and reorganizations. But music teachers and school district officials say they remain securely committed to the arts as an integral part of every child’s education.

“We know from being with children when they’re exposed to the arts that they have a different way of being and doing,” said Jan Spencer de Gutiérrez, St. Paul Public Schools supervisor for visual and performing arts. “The arts open avenues for other learning to take place.”

At Falcon Heights Elementary, in the Roseville school district, music teacher Linnea Marrin sees students in grades 1-6 weekly, with grades 5 and 6 combined. The kindergartens, which are half-day, don’t have class with her but do attend some of the older students’ performances. “By doing this, they will be more comfortable with me in the first grade,” Marrin said.

Both St. Anthony Park and Chelsea Heights, in the St. Paul district, have kept full-time music teachers on board despite years of enrollment pressures that have caused cuts in other areas.

Both schools lost half their instrumental music funding this year, leading Chelsea Heights to drop its strings program. A parent does an “orchestra jam” as an after-school program.

St. Anthony Park parents raised money to keep the strings program intact, but instrumental programming was reduced by several hours a week.

Principal Ann Johnson said district and school budgets provide $102,400 for the school’s vocal and instrumental teachers, and St. Anthony Park parents helped raise that total to $111,000 this year. The school, the parent association and community donors provide funds for supplies.

Spencer de Gutiérrez said the St. Paul district bought new curriculum materials – Silver Burdett’s Music and You – in 2005 for all the elementary schools that had full-time music staff. She said it was chosen for its emphasis on world music. It includes recordings and iPods for each site, as well as books at all levels.

She said curriculum is generally updated about every 10 years. “The new national push is to look at online curriculum,” she said. Site licenses may replace books and CDs, which could cut costs, she added.

Spencer de Gutiérrez said many instruments in the schools are supplied by donors. The district’s central purchasing department also takes teacher requests and looks for deals.

Asked why schools should keep music in the curriculum when budgets are tight, Flinner and Spencer de Gutiérrez both cited state and national standards that recognize it as a priority.

Spencer de Gutiérrez said Minnesota is the only state with an arts agency for the schools, the Perpich Center, which provides teacher workshops and spearheads efforts to improve curriculum.

Flinner, who graduated from Bemidji State and has worked as a church organist and choir director since her teens, taught first in rural Minnesota and has been at Chelsea Heights for 14 years. “I love the fact that every culture I’m teaching about is represented here,” she said of the school.

Flinner outlined her K-6 curriculum in terms of what children can be expected to do as they grow.

“Kindergarten is all about moving and singing,” she said, “and self-control.” She wants the children to hear lots of songs and become comfortable with singing. “Not every child comes ready to sing,” she said.

By second grade they know many melodies and are starting to read music in the treble clef.

In third grade, Flinner introduces recorders. They start with “Hot Cross Buns,” and by the end of third grade, many of them can play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

In fourth grade she introduces harmony. By this time, most students are able to read a line of music.

“Music is a foreign language, and once your brain is wired for foreign languages, it’s easier to learn others,” Flinner said.

All three music teachers lead school-wide programs in which the children get a chance to perform. “As a performer myself,” Falcon Heights’ Linnea Marrin said, “I feel that the education gained during the preparation and presentation is a life lesson that will go on giving no matter what a child grows up to be.”

One day during January, St. Anthony Park’s Ollmann had fifth-graders working on echoing pitches and then figuring out how to play the same series on recorders. Working in groups, they played the melody in rounds, first in two parts, then in four.

“Who has it nailed?” Ollmann asked at one point. A dozen hands went up. “Watch one of those kids if you don’t have it yet.”

Ollmann said that although he does test students, it’s important to him that they all feel successful. He balances the need for success with attention to getting the details right.

In the January fifth-grade class, a student who’d been repeatedly reprimanded for out-of-line behavior became the “rest police” when it became apparent that he’d correctly entered musical rests on written work where few other students had managed it. He was instructed to circle among the other students and, “in a feel-good way,” remind them to include rest marks.

Ollmann often has a student teacher, and several fifth-graders were sent to the other portable classroom for a few minutes with the student teacher to work on their recorder fingerings.

Principal Ann Johnson praised Ollmann’s work with student teachers. “He is really good at it and is in high demand with the colleges,” she said. “He and the student teacher come to school an hour early most days to plan, reflect and discuss the theory behind their lessons.”

Jan Spencer de Gutiérrez said that in debates over how to meet standards in math and reading, we shouldn’t let the arts get shoved aside. The arts are included in federal No Child Left Behind standards, she said. “It’s required by law.”

She noted that in many societies, the arts are central to education. She said painters were revered in Renaissance Europe, and perhaps we’re now recovering that attitude.

Wendy Flinner said she likes to quote child psychologist Howard Gardner when people ask why music education matters. “The arts are what make us human,” she said.

She said she attends concerts at Como Park High School so she can hear her former students perform. “They’re enjoying music,” she said. “They’re taking it with them.”