|Bob Schleeter has been the director of music at Marin Academy in San Rafael, California since 1990. He is also active as a guitarist, songwriter, and music director in the Bay Area|
After graduating from Berklee in the spring of 1989, I left for a new and very unplanned life in Northern California. I had no idea that, along with some amazing partners, I would create a model of music education for the next millennium at Marin Academy in San Rafael. I never set out to teach high-school music, and in many ways I still think of myself as a musician first and a teacher second. But after 20 years in the job, I have encountered a series of lessons learned about music and life that I'd like to share. Let me begin by providing a little context.
At Marin Academy, first and foremost we operate a music performance program. Virtually all our work is hands-on and experiential. Our concerts are a big deal in the school community and a driving force in everything we do. I differentiate between the work I require of students during the learning process and the pieces we perform that become part of how we present ourselves to the community.
Give Students What They Want
We all need to get satisfaction and excitement from music. Music theory interests more those who can already play, but newer students will eventually come asking for it as well. When a freshman sax player gushes, "Hey, Bob, I found a new song. It's, like, 17 minutes long, and it's really cool. It's called 'Chameleon' or something like that." I've learned that if a student loves a piece of music, he'll work on it - maybe a lot. In "Chameleon" there are opportunities to teach about the Dorian mode, 16th-note grooves, using space, and Herbie Hancock's reharmonization in the tune's middle section.
Variation on the Golden Rule
I strongly believe that you should teach as you wish you had been taught. When I was in high school, we thrived outside the music room. The adults weren't really tuned into our world. We had private lessons, but no one with experience to help us find cohesiveness or to coach us. Honest, informed feedback, words of encouragement, a place to play, and someone to tell us to check out Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thornton would have been welcome suggestions.
The Lineage of the Greats
I ask students about their favorite artists. Beyoncé Knowles may be the answer. OK, and who influenced her? Anita Baker. And who influenced Baker? Nancy Wilson. I tell students, "Nancy Wilson just turned 73 and happens to be playing in San Francisco this week. I suggest you go see her." Who was Wilson's main influence? Billie Holiday. What do we know about her? Lots of roads lead back to Holiday, Bessie Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, et al. The continuum is endlessly fascinating and makes for rewarding study.
Rhythm is the common link; it is the heartbeat and the most fun, playful, and tribal aspect of music. My students do ensemble drumming, rhythm section work, vocal layers and chanting, vocalized drum rhythms, traditional patterns, made-up pattern, loops of all kinds, jamming on a groove, and more. I also find alternatives, because some kids are turned off by the volume and repetition of a drum circle, while others have to be forced to leave and head to their next class.
Moving Beyond the Mainstream
Sixteen years ago, we added a world-music class, which most of our students take. We cycle through West African drumming, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, flamenco, French and Spanish acoustic music, reggae, ska, mento, Celtic music, and more. Our Japanese teacher holds a taiko drumming class that's on fire. Our school is lucky to have plenty of coaches who are active professionals, but you don't need a big budget to offer beneficial coaching. We've connected with many nonprofessional musicians in the Bay Area who work at a high level in many musical forms.
The kind of music we love is played in group settings. Ensemble playing teaches many life skills. Most of our students ultimately choose careers outside music, but they continue to work with others. Every time they play, they practice concepts of give and take, compromise, inclusion, reliability, and listening whenever they crank up their amps. We are in the leadership development business, where, as one of our students innocently observed, "Love works so much better than hate."
Our older students provide a constant source of inspiration to younger ones, and older students set increasingly higher standards for their mentees. I begin each school year by asking students, "What do you remember about the school's stars from previous years? Why did they make an impression on you?" Then I ask whether these students are ready to become the stars that younger students will eventually talk about.
I advocate that music educators find ways to support songwriters and composers. Sometimes that means you have to make students play things they don't want to play. I also recommend that educators connect with nonmusical students, parents, and school administrators and also make meaningful contributions to holiday assemblies and other community gatherings.
While all the ideas listed above are important, the most important lesson I've learned is that when students take full ownership of their music experience, magic happens. (And I'm in this profession for the magic.) A student in one of our advanced ensembles wrote, "The best thing about this music program is that we're forced to go away and work it out for ourselves."
Our structure is simple: the adults work the most with those who are least experienced. My definition of an advanced ensemble is one that doesn't need me anymore. The foundation has been built. We are teachers and directors for some, but as a former colleague pointed out, we're merely consultants offering a critique to the most musically mature.
Many of these approaches I owe directly to Berklee. Others were developed on a parallel but independent track. For example, both programs have come to place a high value on global music. I mentioned my amazing partners who helped to develop our educational model, but we couldn't have done it without the input and passion of dozens of students. There's something gratifying about arriving late to a freshman-and-sophomore chorus rehearsal and finding the group practicing a song on their own. And why not? After all, they picked the song, and it's their concert.