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  • Writer's pictureBrent Conway

A Social Emotional Mindset in the Pentucket Music Program

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

Inherent Beginnings

Music education intrinsically encompasses the uppermost levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the 4 C’s of 20th Century Learning to foster higher order thinking skills in its students. In no other academic subject are these crucial opportunities as prevalent or ubiquitous. Nor does any other subject offer as clear and innate a path to social and emotional wellness for its students. These are all concepts inherent to music education, arts education really. So it was no surprise that when the pandemic hit and the social emotional wellbeing of our students became paramount, we were ready and well-equipped to serve them. True Social Emotional Learning - SEL, is a mindset that requires teaching with purpose and intention. It demands consistency and ubiquity throughout our curricula to truly impact our students in a lasting and meaningful way. More than ever before, our students need the outlets and the tools to care for the wellbeing of themselves, their families, and their communities. Working with our students for up to 9 years in a row, starting in 4th grade, puts us in the unique position to influence not only their musical aptitude, but also their personal growth as human beings. We are among the most consistent and omnipresent voices in their journey to adulthood. And if we’re not teaching our students how to be better human beings along the way, then we have failed them as educators and missed what I like to call an obligatory opportunity. SEL is the gateway.

As a district, much of our focus related to SEL has been anchored in the CASEL framework and examining our practices, direct instruction and embedded learning with the 5 Core Components outlined in CASEL. From a music and performing arts standpoint, we find deep connections for students with all five components, with opportunities for us to provide direct instruction along with intrinsic and authentic learning for students to make connections with. Through music, Self Management develops, Self Awareness evolves, Relationship Skills take on new meaning and drive a sense of belonging, Social Awareness is elevated and Responsible Decision making is guided by adults.

We want our students to better recognize and appreciate what music can do for themselves and for others. We want them to see firsthand how it can make a positive difference in the life of a loved one or even a complete stranger. They can not only learn how to play their instrument well, but to use music as an instrument of good, of change, and of healing. We teach music as something you give to others, and to yourself. Empathy plays a crucial role.

On Left - HS Choir Performance in the new PRMHS Auditorium from the Winter Concert in December 2022

On Right - The Cafe Jazz performance in the PRMHS Dining Commons in early December

The Empathy Project

The students in our district are lucky, though they don’t always realize it. Most are from households where the basics for life are not often in question but a few have experienced the socio-economic hardships that plague far too many in our country. In this bucolic setting where wants are often mistaken for needs, perspective can be in short supply. As we checked in on the wellbeing of our students in those first few weeks of the pandemic, we heard predictably self-centered concerns: I can’t see my friends. I don’t like remote learning. I’m anxious about the virus. I’m bored. I don’t like the work we’re doing. I love not being in school! These comments birthed the Empathy Project.

Empathy is such an invaluable skill, yet one that is waning in the age of narcissistic social media flurries and overscheduled living that leave many of us without time or energy to think beyond our own immediate personal needs. Taking the time to think of others serves not only those receiving the thought and energy, but the individual giving them as well. The recent Psychology Today article from Dr. Jennifer Guttman, provides us with some insights on how being human is to embrace emotions and not to turn away from them, even if they are those that make us squirm with discomfort. Mindfully turning one’s attention to others helps to “get you out of your own head,” thus relieving anxiety, rumination, and isolation. Empathy is inertia’s natural antidote, and creates an equation that benefits all involved. It was also a coincidental focal point of my own personal mindfulness study at that time. And I truly believe that a little personal growth in parallel with student growth is not only beautiful, but makes teaching and learning more engaging. Social-emotional teaching, if you will.

In a nutshell, students were asked to identify a loved one who may have been feeling a heightened sense of isolation or anxiety as a result of the pandemic. Students then chose a way to connect with that person musically in a meaningful way. Regardless of how our students chose to connect, they were required to include an interactive component such as a conversation, or even a recorded message to accompany their music.

The results from the Empathy Project were astonishing. Excerpts from our students’ reflections on their experience show they personally felt the power of music to heal and connect in profound ways:

Music calms my father down and brings him back to earth a little bit, and I think sometimes he forgets that. Music has always been a huge part of our relationship and we always sit down and play songs we like for each other. The quarantine and the virus have made him very nervous and on-edge, but I think playing music and talking about our favorite songs at the moment helped him realize that we are safe and happy even during this stressful time.” (12th grade student)

“I learned that by even just doing something so small like letting people know that you are thinking about them can really lift their mood and allow them to feel connected to your life. It also shows them that you care and understand how they feel and what they’re going through.” (9th grade student)

On Left - Pentucket High School Concert Band in the Winter Concert

On Right - Pentucket Middle School Percussion Ensemble in the Winter Concert

“A small action can spread and make many people happy, even in desperate times.” (9th grade student)

“My mother has gone through a lot in her life...and says that this song gives her a sense of hope. This type of music calms her and makes her feel content and relaxed. It also reminds her of someone she and I loved dearly. Overall, I just love to have these nice, calm, warm felt nights where it is just me, my mom, and my dog together being a happy family.” (10th grade student)

“I feel more connected to my grandparents now, and they both said they loved hearing me play!” (11th grade student)

“I don't have it as hard as many others” (11th grade student)

“I learned how to connect with my brother. It can get weird with a 10 year gap between us.” (12th grade student)

In The Ensemble Room

But what does SEL look like in the context of a traditional ensemble curriculum? A shift from product to process is paramount, and instilling the power of music in all its myriad forms is essential. Further, all of our SEL activities involve significant student choice. Choice is a hallmark of effective learning as discussed in Mike Anderson’s book Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, and Scott Edgar’s book Music Education and Social Emotional Learning.

We were introduced to Mike Anderson and this book as part of a District PD Event in 2019 and then with follow up Book Studies

The connection between student choice and strong social emotional learning as promoted by the Center for Responsive Schools is in large part what triggered my interest. For us it manifests in small ways, like our Experiential Song Diary, in which students express their emotions of the moment through their daily playlists, or in more intensive ways like designing and completing their own solo repertoire project. This is where we really see students take command over their learning. Choice empowers our students, motivates them, and draws out more personal meaning than we could have predicted. As the CASEL frameworks predict, we see consistently meaningful, insightful decisions, and clear, high-impact outcomes as a result. And all of this is possible while not only preserving the core arts standards, but often drawing from all four in a single stroke.

Our What and Why? activity asks students to listen to an album of their choice all the way through in a single sitting. We often assign this activity just ahead of final exam week, and students are encouraged to use the experience to gather their focus, rest their minds, or otherwise escape from emotional burdens that might negatively impact their testing potential. We discuss how music has the power to transport us to a more mindful state of being with myriad benefits. Their observations are totally on point and introspective...

Dillon says “I found myself using music to cope with the stress. I am feeling more mentally awake and more motivated to do stuff if I use music to uncloud my actions.” Sounds like all the benefits of a morning coffee without the cream and sugar!

Julia says “Music has been bringing people together. All over social media and other platforms, people have been using music to cheer up and inspire others.” Great awareness of the moment we were living through at the time, and still are for that matter!

Middle School Band rehearsal in the ensemble room

A different Julia says “Whenever I’m feeling really stressed, I take a quick break and listen to an album then get back to work with the same motivation as when work started.” A great tool for all of us to reboot.

Emily says “I've found that if I'm in a bad mood or feeling unmotivated, listening to music can help.” Music as a mood enhancer.

Eli says “I listen to music whenever I am depressed. Music uplifts me and brings me joy.”

High School Orchestra Rehearsal in one of the ensemble rooms

Post-Pandemic Tack

Over the 18 months of remote and hybrid learning my department produced 3 virtual student recitals in which students were allowed to choose their own music (approved by their director) and contribute a video performance. The creativity and investment in this process was astonishing. Aside from traditional solo performances and collaborations on chamber works, students overdubbed themselves playing duets, trios, and quartets. They created their own backing tracks to play along with. They wrote original works integrating their talents in other art forms. They explored other musical genres that held greater personal meaning. And with each recital, students reached further to explore the unique opportunities this format granted them. The creative exploration, integration of technology, and pride-filled final products in this project were remarkable. As were the SEL components intrinsic to the process. We were so impressed with the results that we permanently adopted this format to conclude our two month chamber & solo repertoire unit each winter. Here are some of our favorite examples:

Julia & Troy - Sicilienne by Gabriel Fauré. Now this is obviously a very serious interpretation of the freedom the virtual format granted them, but the collaboration component was so musically valuable for them. And it allowed two of my strongest musicians to challenge themselves in new ways.

Brandon - Arranged Can’t Help Falling In Love as recorded by Elvis Presley. Here is a student who clearly had a strong grasp of the technology, and arranged a tune for himself to explore the possibilities it allowed him.

Spencer - Wrote an original piece that allowed him to incorporate his love and talent for theater and humor. It’s absolutely ridiculous in the best possible way, and just perfectly Spencer. It’s called The Apple Seed Sorcerer.

Lily - Lily and her siblings do a lot with puppets, and they collaborated on this brilliantly hilarious parody of Hamilton’s My Shot called My Guac.

Now, had we insisted Lily contribute a piece on her primary instrument, horn, it would have been great. She’s a solid player and very musical. But it wouldn’t have brought the house down as this video did. Encouraging her to be her full true self in this project was such a confidence booster for her, and validated that her super niche interest in puppetry was just as valuable as any other more broadly recognized artistic format.

Another carry over from the pandemic is the honors presentation. Usually our honors band students are required to take part in a few additional performances each year to earn their credit, but with those opportunities evaporated, they instead presented to the class on a musical topic of their choice. The expectation was to teach us something in the process of sharing their musical passions. It was an opportunity for students to be themselves and to share a bit of what makes them unique. Students saw unfamiliar sides of their peers and we had great fun in the process. One student shared his original work for organ and explained how that instrument works. We had an accordion demonstration (which was oddly satisfying), a demo on reharmonizing tunes and the emotional consequences, and a debunking of the Mozart Effect. We also had a flute player who presented on Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, and then performed a transcribed solo for the class. Our honors students do two such presentations each year, in addition to some additional performance requirements. Again, we are addressing multiple SEL components in this process.

A Paradigm Shift

A powerful moment for us last year was Veterans Day. Other than a football game or two, our local community Veterans Day ceremony was our first live performance in almost two years. That made for an important opportunity to tackle some big questions and address a few SEL components at once.

What is our role in this performance?

What is our goal?

Why are we taking the time to prepare this music and perform at this event?

What if this isn’t our favorite music to play?

What if we don’t want to give up our day off to perform?

Now, if we’re honest, students of this current generation (and probably 1 or 2 before them even) have little connection to the military melodies and patriotic tunes that we typically feature on such a performance. Many students hear this music as tired or old-fashioned, and tend to play it from that perspective. But of course that’s a selfish perspective, and one that lacks empathy. This performance wasn’t for us or about us. It was to honor the veterans and community members who had gathered, and the veterans we had lost. People for whom this music carried tremendous value and significance. People for whom this music touched emotions and memories that we can’t even begin to fathom. This was to be our gift to them. Our support for them. Our honoring of them and the sacrifices they made. Whether or not we as a band enjoyed playing this music, or whether it held any particular meaning for us was irrelevant. Our job as musicians in that moment was to perform with the glory, pride, and reverence those veterans felt for that music. It was to make an empathetic connection with those veterans and share the moment together as a community. That is the power of music, and the power of empathy.

The Elementary Band Rehearsal - from 3 different schools - preparing for the 2022 Winter Concert

The band instantly sounded better, and we went on to have a powerful performance that sincerely impressed the long-time organizer of the event. He even wrote us a note to express how it had been the most moving performance he could remember, and how appreciative those in attendance were for our contribution. We like to remind our students of the difference between playing music and making music. And this connection with our listeners - and our fellow musicians - is part of that distinction.

We have made a paradigm shift to establish SEL as a permanent and consistent thread in our curricula, rather than an intermittent one. It is a mindset, not a series of lesson plans. It is the cornerstone of a more holistic approach to music education that embraces the ‘what over the how,’ with a solid grasp on the why. Remember that music is not just something we play; it’s a powerful tool to improve the wellbeing of both the individual and their community. We work to instill this in our students, and inspire them to continue giving, throughout their lives in whatever direction they take.

LINK to “The Empathy Project: Accentuating the Inherent SEL Component of Music Education” by David Schumacher in School Band & Orchestra Magazine

LINK to “The Empathy Project” NAfME webinar presented by David Schumacher

LINK to “Teaching SEL Through Music” podcast featuring David Schumacher

Written by:

David Schumacher

Gr. 7-12 Fine and Performing Arts Department Chair

Gr. 3-12 Band Instructor

Brent Conway

Assistant Superintendent

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