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‘We’re making music!’ Enhancing L.A. students through the arts

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Courtesy ETM-LA

Education Through Music-Los Angeles (ETM-LA) is a nonprofit that partners with inner-city schools, both public and private, including Catholic. Their mission is to provide and promote music in disadvantaged schools as part of the core curriculum for every child in order to enhance students’ academic achievements, and their creative and overall development.

Recently I sat down with ETM-LA teacher Anna Wray and asked her to talk about her experience.

Anna grew up in Westchester, New York, and started taking piano lessons at six. “I was fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who taught me music theory. That set me up for a lifelong love of, and fascination for, music.”

She went on to get a B.A. at Mills in music performance and, in 2015, a master’s in percussion performance at CalArts. 

The overarching goal of ETM-LA is also to teach music theory. “It’s so exciting when the kids can start to see that the chord progressions in Bach, for example, are the same as in a lot of pop music.”

Last year was Anna’s first year with ETM-LA and as a teacher. Her students ranged from grades 3 through 6. The learning curve was steep.

Orff and Kodaly are two of the four major pedagogies for teaching music to children. Anna uses elements of both. The Orff approach uses movement, drama and speech to teach children music through elements that are similar to play. Kodaly developed a way of educating young children through the singing of native mother-tongue folk songs.

For the first part of the year, the kids learn concepts — staccato and legato, major and minor — through movement and singing.

“For staccato, which means ‘short,’ I’ll play something on the piano, then ask them to imagine, say rain pitter-pattering in the woods. I’ll ask them what that might look like as movement. Then I’ll ask them to imagine how the wind moves: ‘Smooth or short? Smooth! Now make sound effects to the wind’ — breeze sounds, perhaps movement with curved arms moving. Then we sing — maybe ‘Bluebird Bluebird’ to imitate a bird flying smoothly, expressing legato, and do body percussion to Mozart’s ‘Turkish March’ to express staccato.”  

There are different levels of understanding. “‘Steady beat’ is a standard kindergarten level concept, for example. Music has a pulse. Steady beat is what brings us to dance and music. By third-grade level they’ll understand that forte piano means loud. They’ll get those words. By fifth grade, they’ll see, ‘Oh, we can sing this piece in three-part harmony.’”

The second half of the year they’ll learn an instrument, again with music theory in mind. “We might teach the ukulele or the recorder. Both instruments are affordable in basic form so each kid can have one at least to use in class and sometimes to take home.”

ETM-LA students take part in both the winter and spring concerts held by each school.

Another teacher from the school would sit in on Anna’s classes, as she’s not yet certified. “Those teachers exemplified the best of our educational system and the best of humanity. We’d have conversations about individual students, what he or she needed and responded to. They have a heavy load and still they were there supporting the students in the most loving, encouraging way. Setting up competitions, caring, paying attention. Preparing them for life.”

One highlight of Anna’s year was a weekly after-school drumming program at a school in South L.A., with both boys and girls who were 10 to 11 years old. “I fell in love with those students, Even the ones who sometimes talked back and acted out would be lined up outside in the hall, shuffling, eager for class to start having fun and sharing experiences. By the end of the year, they’d blossomed to the point where the teachers asked us to perform for their graduation.”

The steady beat is important. You can’t slow down, you can’t speed up. You need to be on it.

“I gave the job of holding the steady beat, with a cowbell, to a kid I’ll call Louis. His classroom teacher would tell me that he slept all through class. We didn’t know whether it was his diet or problems at home or what. But whenever he’d see me, he’d say, ‘Do we have drumming class today?’ He’d be really excited. Louis took his job of keeping the steady beat with the cowbell very seriously.”

The moment when those drumming students were advanced enough to be able to come in and lead themselves was magic. “Oh Miss Wray,” they said, “this sounds good! We’re all playing together. We’re making music!”

As for how the kids felt toward Anna — and toward music — their farewell notes say it all.

“I really liked when we singed the songs.”

“The really game that I liked is when we use to hide the bell. Remember when we played it and you hide it in Louis swetter.”

“I smile when you smile.”

“I will miss you no mater what even when I die.”

“Thank you for all your hope.”

Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.

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