Huntley teacher has 'American Idol' contest each year
Mary Bell teaches third- to fifth-grade general music at Leggee Elementary School, Huntley. She has been at the school since it opened 16 years ago.
Q. Elementary students aren't likely to become virtuosos before they leave fifth grade. What's your goal for, say, a kindergartner over the course of a school year and how do you build on that throughout elementary school?
A. You're right. We don't expect our students to become virtuosos when they leave elementary school. Rather, we want them to gain a great appreciation for music and obtain the basic knowledge and skills that are necessary if they were to continue with music in the future (i.e. band/orchestra/choir).
Music is an art form that engages creative thinking and provokes emotional responses. Students at Leggee have many opportunities to create and express themselves in the music classroom. How they show this creativity can look different at every grade level.
For instance, our kindergarten students may add movement or simple sound patterns to a story, whereas some of our older elementary students create music by playing rhythmic patterns using ordinary household objects in our Stomp unit.
When looking at the content area of melody, for instance, our kindergartners learn to identify high and low pitches, and when they reach first and second grade, they are able to notate these pitches on a 2-line and then a 3-line staff.
When students reach third grade, they are able to master reading notes on the lines and spaces of a 5-line staff, which then naturally prepares them for playing an instrument, such as the recorder. We then build on those note reading skills, along with recorder skills, in grades four and five.
It's the same idea with rhythm. Our kindergarten students begin by patting a simple beat to a song and learn about sound and silence (rests) in music. As the years progress, the students are able to perform more complicated rhythms and are capable of performing two- and even three-part harmonies.
Q. Kids are natural noisemakers. How do you harness that inclination and shape it into vocal or instrumental talent?
A. I have a saying posted in my classroom. "Music, not noise! Instruments, not toys!" I remind my students that they carry a powerful instrument with them everywhere they go -- their voice. Just like cars need a tune up on occasion, so do our voices.
To motivate students at the end of the school year, I like to have a friendly "American Idol" competition. The students love having the opportunity to choose a song to sing in front of their peers, either by themselves or as a group. I feel it is important for students to move out of their comfort zones every once in a while.
We work very hard throughout the year to create a safe environment where students feel comfortable expressing themselves. Sometimes even I am surprised by seeing the students who I thought were shy, really come to life when participating in this activity. It's so rewarding to see the enthusiasm the students have for this project and to see them grow musically.
Q. What music -- a composer, an artist, a song, etc. -- is essential for students to know and appreciate? Why?
A. It's important for children to learn about music history and how music has progressed throughout the centuries. I have a "Composer Corner" in my music room, where I feature various composers from the four basic eras of music: baroque, classical, romantic, and modern.
When possible, I like to have my music students learn the era of music that coincides with the era they are studying in social studies. If they are studying the Renaissance, Baroque music would be appropriate. When fifth-grade students learn about the Revolutionary War era, I then pull out the Classical music. I have found enormous value in simply listening to a piece of music and then talking about the musical elements of that piece.
Just like we read a classic novel and analyze the elements of that work, we must do the same thing with great pieces of music.
Q. What song's your favorite guilty pleasure?
A. Though I like to listen to all kinds of music, I secretly enjoy singing the classic Disney songs with my 7-year-old daughter while cleaning the house.