Awake and Singing: At Teachers College Community School, making music engages students and helps them find their voice
On an icy afternoon last February, fifth-graders at Teachers College Community School (TCCS) were using technology to compose songs. Armed with MacBook Air laptops and digital keyboards, they had laid down beats and grooves and were poised to add melody and harmony.
TCCS has infused music into every grade level and is showing how making music creatively, with an inner ear to their own feelings or ideas, gives children a sense of empowerment in music, school and life. Read more about this unique program
“I’m trying to combine an old-school sound with a classic hip-hop beat,” said Savannah Williams, who was using GarageBand software to layer sound onto her song. “I want a strong beat. I want my song to sound like a wave of music.”
Another student, N’deye M’baye, added, “You can’t just have math and English and classes all day, that’s too much school. Music is more of a flow.”
Yan Carlos Colon, a Teachers College doctoral student in Music & Music Education who designed and was leading the course, was doing more cheerleading than instructing.
“They’ve grown up with this technology,” he said, “and I can tell you, they’re a lot better with it than I am.”
As public schools across the nation cut back or eliminate arts programs in many areas to focus on tested subjects, TCCS – a pre-K—8 public school in West Harlem created by Teachers College and New York City’s Department of Education – is showing how making music creatively, with an inner ear to their own feelings or ideas, gives children a sense of empowerment in music school and life.
“We offer the best thinking of TC faculty members on every front, from classroom teaching practices to development of a climate for social-emotional learning, to using resources from the city and beyond to enhance instruction in science, the arts and other fields,” says TC’s Nancy Streim, Associate Vice President for School and Community Partnerships,
Thanks in great part to Streim and former music teacher Audrey Cox, TC’s liaison to TCCS, music is central to TCCS’s approach and a core part of how students are educated, from the day they enter as preschoolers to their final “moving up” ceremony.
“The science on early childhood development shows that early music instruction facilitates children’s social, emotional and cognitive growth.”
— Lori Custodero, Associate Professor of Music & Music Education
Instruction begins in pre-kindergarten, with singing and movement classes, and has just been extended to the new sixth grade. (Founded in 2011, TCCS is adding middle school grades over the next three years.) In second grade, students learn about rhythm, melody and simple musical notation; in third grade they study violin; in fourth, they sing in choir; and in fifth, they compose. The school also hosts the award-winning TCCS Orchestra, composed of fourth- and fifth-graders who opt in after their third-grade violin experience.
The program is the brainchild of Lori Custodero, Associate Professor of Music & Music Education at TC, who co-created Lincoln Center’s early-childhood jazz education program (WeBop) and the Very Young People’s concerts at the New York Philharmonic. Key funders include TC Board Vice Chair Leslie Nelson and her brothers Douglas and Andrew Morse, whose initial gift honored their parents, Enid and Lester Morse. The elder Morses are longstanding supporters of music and education at TC and strong backers of TCCS in particular. (Enid Morse, known as “Dinny,” is a TC Trustee Emerita and former Board Co-Chair.)
Initial and follow-up gifts from the Morse siblings have enabled TC students to teach at TCCS, provided instruments and equipment, and supported the orchestra and a violin program. Gifts from Dinny and Lester Morse have funded guest teaching artists at the school.
A music teaching fellowship funded by Evalyn Edwards Milman (M.A. ’64) is enabling TC students to export aspects of the TCCS music program to other northern Manhattan public schools in the TC-supported REACH coalition.
TCCS has produced a Broadway star – sixth-grader Devin Graves, who has toured as Simba in a professional production of “The Lion King.” But far more than producing stars, the music program’s goal is to help children learn and develop.
“We offer the best thinking of TC faculty members on every front, from classroom teaching practices to development of a climate for social-emotional learning, to using resources from the city and beyond to enhance instruction in science, the arts and other fields.”
— Nancy Streim, Associate Vice President, School & Community Partnerships
“The science on early childhood development shows that early music instruction facilitates children’s social, emotional and cognitive growth,” says Custodero. The TCCS approach “incorporates a pedagogy of responsiveness while delivering diverse curricular content,” she says, while the school offers “rich musical environments defined by human relationships, informed by cultural sensitivity and respectful of the child’s contribution and interpretation of the musical experience.” The goals are to develop skills which will foster a lifelong joy in music and music making. Through the individual and collective expression and communication of artistry, students can also experience collaboration, citizenship and an appreciation for social justice.
“Instead of passively receiving knowledge from us, they make discoveries that we help facilitate,” says Jeff Dupont, an assistant teacher at TCCS and a master’s student at Teachers College. “Any class in any subject can be like this, but in music we are uniquely positioned to do this in ways that other teachers, weighed down with standardized tests, have difficulty doing.”
For now, the Teachers College music program is a rare bright spot amid the nation’s scattershot approach to arts education. Yet no one should underestimate what can happen when teachers who are passionate about art connect with children who are open to their enthusiasm.
“For me, teaching at TCCS is more than a job; it’s a mission, a quest for social justice,” says Yan Carlos Colon, the music composition teacher. “These children and this school are greater than me. I hope I’m having an impact on the kids’ lives and love of music.”
From her office, Michelle Verdiner, the TCCS principal, hears the students playing their instruments all day long.
“I can’t believe how much they have improved,” she says. “Music is now engrained in the school and it enhances the children’s’ lives and opens their minds.” – Robert Florida
Read about TCCS music in the classrooms:
Published Wednesday, Sep 6, 2017