I believe that music can transform a child’s life.
I currently teach music at a public high school in New York City. I like to say you can best imagine what my classroom looks like if you think of taking a subway car and dumping it out on its end. My students enter my class with very different life experiences, some live in the worst neighborhoods and some in the best, but most of them share one thing in common: they have never been given an opportunity to study music. They also share in common the fact that they have rarely, if ever, been asked to explore or dream, to use their imaginations to create something that is uniquely their own.
I teach my students to play instruments, learn strategies to develop creativity, compose, and arrange their own music. I have never taught students to play instruments under the pretext of training them to become great orchestral or performing musicians. I have done it because I adore watching students fall in love with music and succeed when they never thought it possible. I love the “ah-hah” and the “I get it, Ms. Barnett” moments. I love watching children find joy in their ability to make music.
After each performance, I ask my students to reflect on the experience. One of the most touching essays I ever received came from Nicholas. Nicholas was certainly not hesitant to express his disappointment about being thrown into my beginning orchestra class. He was very non-cooperative and refused to participate. When I questioned his behavior, he told me that he thought orchestra would “ruin” his reputation with his friends. By the end of his senior year, he had participated in almost every musical ensemble offered at the school.
He volunteered to write and present a speech to recruit incoming freshman several weeks before he graduated. In his speech he said that “To be honest, the musical program did ruin my reputation. But at the same time, it gave me a better one. A stronger one. And a more fulfilled one. If I didn’t join one of these musical programs, I would have ruined myself. I wouldn’t be able to smile and say I did all I could. It is now that I realize that I can smile and say to myself, I haven’t sold myself short.” As I read Nicholas’ speech to my beginning students before their first performance of the year, I look around and hope that they, too, will have the chance to experience the powerful transformation that music can initiate. At that moment, I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I will get to watch this change take place.
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