Lilt and learning: playing music and teaching have a lot in common

Things can be wonderful.

Frequently, I am critical of the misdirection of our policy makers and the undermining effects of their narrative and policies on public confidence in public education, teachers and the education of the whole child. The blame, test and punish approach to “school reform” just doesn’t jibe with the magic that occurs daily when we pull together as a community and when teams of educators collaborate from a place of trust to help children grow.

This month I want to focus on wonderful.

I witnessed it Friday morning, June 20, during the ninth rehearsal that week of the Reaching Heights Summer Music Camp Orchestra. The 88 elementary- and middle-school musicians had struggled all week to master a difficult piece of music—Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” When Desmond composed the piece in the 1960s, it was revolutionary. The complex rhythms and five-beat measure made it both interesting and difficult. Our young musicians kept at it.

“Yeah—now it’s starting to lilt,” exclaimed the demanding and now thrilled conductor, Dan Heim. The ultimate compliment.

Music is not just playing an instrument or playing the right notes. Heim had pushed the musicians all week to include emotion. Playing music is communication; it should be played from the heart; it must be played with command—and with passion.

Just two days before, it had seemed that lilt was not within reach. Then it happened.

I love music camp because it is such a powerful learning experience. I’ve been the director for all ten of its summer seasons and I’ve witnessed, year after year, how it moves children forward—much further than they can imagine. It helps them discover their own capacity to learn and the significance of commitment and effort. Camp is rigorous, fun and highly supported. After playing music from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.—with only a few breaks for lunch and recreation—most campers go home and practice more.

The camp day provides multiple opportunities for instrumentalists to explore music making, encouraged with modeling by high school coaches and expert instruction from music professionals. A musical community emerges, along with demonstrable changes in each camper’s control of his or her instrument. They learn to play in ensembles, understand more about how music is constructed, and grow as performers. In the end, everyone can hear the effect of the process.

They experience lilt!

The magic is there for the adults, too. For viola teacher James Rhodes, coming to camp every year refills his “bucket of creativity.” We have staff who started as fresh high school grads, like bass player Abie Klein-Stefanchik, who never misses camp, and Cleveland Orchestra musician Richard Waugh, who wouldn’t be kept away by a “herd of wild horses.”

It is completely rewarding for me. It is the most direct way I pursue my commitment to equity. Camp levels the playing field of opportunity for our children and opens doors to confidence and competence.

The camp works because of the music educators—led by Dan Heim, Tamar Gray and Betsy Neylon—who understand how children learn and have the unfettered space to go about practicing their craft. I pull together the details associated with administrating a grand gathering of 88 campers, 25 high school coaches, and 16 professional musicians/educators. But they create the learning experiences.

Their work produces lilt during every minute of every year of music camp. These master teachers have not only perfected the skills of working with children, motivating engagement, and keeping focus, but they also do it with passion. Little victories occur every day, as well as during the magical moment of truth—the summer finale—the concert. The campers perform. The audience is blown away. Emotion fills the auditorium.

This magic is not unique to our camp. Teachers create it every day in our classrooms. Teaching is a lot like playing music. You must master the instrument, master the notes, and put it all together with passion and command.  

Camp helps me focus on the beauty of learning. It is refreshing to witness how the staff and the camp promote self-discovery and growth.

We are fortunate that so many of the teachers in our public schools have the combination of skills and enthusiasm–just like effective musicians—to create lilt in our classrooms.

Another school year is about to begin. Remember to celebrate the orchestra of educators who create experiences that support learning—those wonderful moments of human affirmation.



Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 7, Issue 8, Posted 11:25 AM, 07.31.2014