Dublin School Residency – Day 17: Breakthroughs in Teaching

So, Jess and I were looking at each other on Tuesday morning (ok, hypothetical looks on my end, you got me) and asking ourselves, “We’ve got this class that feels like it has two very divergent groups in terms of who the kids are and what they need, and there happen to be two of us, and, just maybe, it would make sense to split the class into two smaller groups, her taking one group for twenty minutes and me the other and then swapping kids half way through.

We found that it worked so well on Tuesday that we elected to keep it up most of the week, excepting only Wednesday, which was devoted to the “create” phase of the musicianship process. The confidence of the students felt so much better right away; those who need the very basics in terms of rhythm, notation, and orientation to the piano keyboard can get it, and those who need more challenges (improvising melodies while reading rhythms, hand over hand drills, stacking drills, and the like) can get those two. Now, as it happens, there will be another month of class after I leave, during which there won’t be two of us available to work with these kids, so we will have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but hopefully by then we’ll have established enough common ground that the group will work more fluidly as a mixed-level class. The trick will be to keep the two groups tracking together in terms of what concepts are being covered, allowing the variation to be in degree of depth, not in material presented. Jess and I can spend my last week work shopping different ways of teaching a mixed level class – having one group at the piano and another at the board, keeping a stash of challenge drills on standby, that sort of thing.

So, if Tuesday’s new confidence provided the groundwork, Wednesday’s class with E block was the real breakthrough. It was one of those longer classes , Wednesday being a half day when only three blocks meet. I’m staying with the plan of focusing on creative application during these longer classes. We did this the first week with C block and it went ok, but this week was when the fireworks were happening.

I was asking myself throughout the morning if I should make a fairly detailed lesson plan, or simply start with a “mood piece” improvisation with perfect fourths, and see where things went. Well, to be candid, I had every intention of working up a more detailed plan, but the first block of the morning was one of those when the recital hall piano is available for me to practice, and I’ was having so much fun playing music for next Friday’s show (a pentatonic blues in F with some wicked double time, a more laid back bossanova of Chip’s, and our jam-band rendition of Norwegian Wood) that I just didn’t get to it. Luckily, there are times to map out every step, and times to simply shape an intention and follow it where it leads; this turned out to be one of the latter.

I don’t know if it was not having the challenge of getting guitarists to think intervalically instead of in terms of the chords that are so familiar, or the timbral allure of having two flutes in the ensemble, with two voices and three at the keyboard, or if it was simply a matter of safety in numbers, but this group really took off with the creative play this week. We did start with a mood, “tired” being the uncontested nomination, shifting from there to a few other affects: happy, frightened, happy changing into frightened, that sort of thing. This last was rather harder, as no one in the group seemed really sure of where we were in the transition from one mood to another. So, we explored the idea of story, wondering what kinds of stories might shift from happy to frightened. From there it was off to the races; students taking turns narrating a story while the rest of the class improvised in symphony (still using only perfect fourths, of course). The final result was really quite striking. I kid you not, there were some tears in the room by the end.

As the Arts Building is currently under re-construction, we’ve been having classes in the recital hall. Toward the end of that block, I heard some footsteps in the back of the room, and thought to myself “Hey, I bet we’re being observed.” It turns out that Brad (Dublin’s headmaster), Sarah (academic dean), Peter (chair of the board of trustees), and Jan and Earl (co-chairs of the arts department) had all been drawn in by the sounds that had been drifting into the lobby and were listening in the back of the hall; they picked a good moment to drop in. Brad was glowing about it when I had the chance to check in with him next morning, saying “This is what I’ve been hoping to bring to this campus”, and “thank you”.

The rest of the week has been lower key for me. There have been various bugs going around, and I seem to have caught one of them. It’s been a weekend of sporadic sleep, some restless hours with a favorite book, multiple hot showers, excessive hand-washing, and of course, practicing for Friday’s show.

The band shows up in the next couple of days: Weldon (trombone) and Chip (guitar). Our concert this Friday is feeling like the golden section of the residency for me. I’m thinking of doing a few open rehearsals in the evenings and some workshops on Friday with both of my classes. E block has requested that we do some mood pieces with the band. For fun, we decided not to tip the guys off that this is coming. (Got that, Weldon, Chip? You don’t know that we’ll be improvising different affects with intervals.) Preparing the music for this show, some originals and a couple of standards, has been crazy fun. There’s been lots of musical flow going around and I’m really excited to get to pour some of this back into playing with the trio.