“Reaching and Teaching all Instrumental Music Students” – Kevin Mixon
(Published in Partnership with MENC)
This book addresses the needs of “less than ideal” teaching and learning situations in real classrooms. Mixon addresses the variety of learners, lack of equipment, and a host of other topics that other textbooks may overlook.
The book begins with the four components of recruiting: skills assessment, instrument demonstration, information letter, and tone production assessment. These methods all serve to make the students and parents aware of the individual musical needs of the students. Mixon gives tips on making recruiting accessible to students, like using previous students to demonstrate instruments and using musical instrument games to quickly assess their levels of ability.
There are specific relevant sections that go beyond pedagogy though, such as what to in economically disadvantaged schools where the school owns all the instruments and it is not safe for the students to take them home to practice. The author stresses the importance of relationship building with the students in order to recruit them to the program and maintain their interest.
There are sections about teacher demeanor, avoiding boredom for the players, parents, and performance. Here Mixon writes about the culture of music in your school and how we as educators need to show our enthusiasm about our subject matter to be an agent of change. He gives many tips on how to deal with colleagues and parents and how to perform successfully through public venues.
One important issue he addresses is the consideration of students living in poverty and diverse cultures. Revolving enrollment and cultural learning styles are key factors when teaching in a less than ideal situation as well as using cultural relevancy to foster meaning in music making. He suggests phasing in new students and even simplifying the parts to ensure they can participate as soon as possible.
Mixon dedicates a whole chapter to parents and the interpersonal skills required when interacting with them. He stresses the importance to maintaining a positive relationship with parents where students and their needs are the main focus. He even includes part of a research script where students talk about their teacher calling home and how it improved their marks. The author broadens the scope of parental influence to administrators and community awareness to include all people who have an influence on the students’ experience in musical education.
There is a brief section on pedagogy used to maximize rehearsal time and minimize disruption, such as lesson planning and the rehearsal space itself. Mixon uses a system of coloured cards to monitor individual behaviour and a cup of marbles to maintain group behaviour and remind the educator when to call home for certain students.
The chapter about teaching for different learning styles encourages the music educator to move away from traditional lecture-style teaching to incorporate all types of learners, such as audio and visual, in the lessons. Mixon gives strategies for specific concepts, such as tuning, and ways we can correct or teach them for different learning styles.
The chapter on exceptional learners contains a condensed version of the pervious chapters but through a lens that focuses on these specific students. He encourages educators to consider what would benefit the students most when it comes to instrument selection and modifications of the curriculum, such as colour coding notation or using visual aids.
Mixon gives step-by-step instructions on how to introduce musical notation to students depending on their instrument. He advocates singing in solfege syllables and “air playing” to get students used to breathing in time with the beat. Similar to these instructions, he also offers a guide to teaching improvisation and composition beginning with rhythms and progressing to melodies.
I enjoyed reading Mixon’s book and found most of it relevant to my own teaching position. I particularly liked his chapters on recruiting and maintaining interest in band, as I am currently in the first year of a band program at my school. I think his disclaimer in the introduction about how these ideas are for “less than ideal” teaching situations and not “urban” school is extremely poignant, as all of these concepts can be applied to teaching in any music classroom. Every school has its share of exceptional learners and economically disadvantaged students and every music teacher should consider these factors when beginning or building on an existing music program.
There were a few issues I noticed as perhaps underdeveloped or requiring further explanation. One is the letter home to parents. Mixon offers a template letter to send home that I find rather difficult to read, as a majority of my students’ parents/guardians are English Language Learners themselves and struggle with reading for meaning.
He also says that he gives out his home number to parents in case they can’t reach him at school or do not have email access. Even though he states that you have to determine your own comfort level with this, I can’t advocate this practice for anyone. Aside from the possible issues with students and/or parents abusing the connection, I think it is important for teachers to maintain a certain level of separation between school and home. I think that if you blur the lines between these two spheres of influence it could lead to a higher burn-out rate of teachers. I think there needs to be “down-time” where teachers do not think about school and can take care of their own mental health.
Another method in the book that I questioned was his approach to classroom management. He uses these systems of cards and marbles in a jar and when you “lose your marbles” out of the jar for misbehaviour he calls home. I haven’t tried this strategy in my classroom, but I think the more mature students would be offended that I was using a more junior strategy to cope with classroom behavious and the more immature students will find it funny that I am trying to manipulate their behaviour with marbles. Then again, it does serve as a nice visual for behaviour students who have a difficult time determining what is appropriate in a school setting. When you have a class with several behaviour individual education plans or safety plans I think you need to tailor your strategies more to their needs and try as many different ones as you can until you find something that works.
Although I have questioned a few of Mixon’s strategies, I think it is fair to point out that they have worked for him for the last few decades and could possibly work for other teachers too. Perhaps one year I will have a class that will respond positively to these ideas and the strategies presented in this book will become more relevant. I think what is important here is that he is creating and re-inventing positive ideas that he has used in the classroom and he is sharing them with the music educator community. I believe it is important to work together to ensure our students have an authentic musical experience in the classroom and the only way we can attempt that is by collectively sharing our thoughts and strategies as Mixon does in this book.