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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: why I listen to the radio every day

As a music teacher, people often want to know what kind of music I listen to for fun. In the past my answer was always, "nothing. I enjoy listening to silence when I'm not at work", and it was the honest truth. When you spend all day talking about music, listening to music, performing music, and basically embodying music for hundreds of children, and you are going home to listen to children's songs, sing lullabies, and chant nursery rhymes, sometimes all you want is a little palate-cleansing silence! I'm also a quiet introvert by nature, so my drives to and from work and daycare used to be completely silent. But in the last couple of years I have started listening to pop radio in the car at least once a day, and I now consider it an important part of my job. Here's why.

Connecting with students is such an important part of my job as a teacher, especially in the high-poverty area where I teach (but really, anywhere). The students learn so much more in my classroom when they feel that they have a real relationship with me, they respect me, and they feel included in the classroom community. One of the things I found when I came into my job 2 years ago was a huge chasm between what the students saw as "music class" and "music in their world", especially with my older students in 5th and 6th grade. No matter how much I tried to tell them that I was interested in the music they listened to, it didn't even register in their minds that I knew what kind of music they were hearing on their headphones every day. I had more than one conversation that went exactly like this:

me: What is your favorite thing about music?
student: I don't like music.
me: That's not true. I see you come into school with headphones on every day. What do you listen to?
student: That's not music. It's... like... rap and stuff.

It wasn't until I randomly quoted some lyrics from an R&B song in a conversation in class that students started to understand that I really did "live in their world" enough to relate to them and value their experiences with music. Students now eagerly recommend songs and artists to me all the time, and they always follow up to find out if I liked it. The two most surprising things? The students are always very aware when a song is inappropriate. They will either tell me the specific language that is in the song so I can avoid it, point me to a "clean version", or find another song by the same artist to have me listen to. And they don't mind my honesty. If I don't like a song, I tell them so and give them a reason. They still love that I listened and it actually makes them more eager to find a song that I will like!

I'm not advocating an entire departure from classical music, substituting Beyonce for Beethoven and rhymes for sonatas. But when you are versed in the music, it's amazing how often current music can pop up in lessons. My favorite tactic is to include a current song as one of several examples when we are listening for a specific musical feature (such as major/minor, syncopation, or arrangements/ variations). It is just so much fun to see their faces light up when we go from a classical symphony to a Barbershop quartet to rap! And I can practically see the light bulbs turning on. Because they know the music already, it is easier for them to focus on the particular feature we are discussing. 

I communicate to students that "their music" is my music too in subtler ways as well, like the first time I quoted the lyrics from a song. It's like having an inside joke with them whenever you can make a quick reference to a song or artist casually in conversation. This past year, I more than once belted out, "why you gotta be so ruuuuude?" to a rowdy class (if you don't know that quote, there's a good place to start!). I'm pretty sure that went over a lot better than a traditional reprimand. It got their attention without starting a conflict. 

It's easy for me to get jealous of other music teachers or feel guilty when I hear about all of the workshops and training other teachers are attending over the summer. With a very tight budget and an even tighter schedule, workshops are generally just not in the cards for me right now. But listening to the radio? I consider that free professional development that I can do every day! Don't get me wrong- I still need some quiet time in the car most days. But after a few minutes I turn on the radio and crank up the tunes- I enjoy it because I can picture the students smiling and dancing along!

Do you listen to music for pleasure? How similar is your musical experience outside of school to your students'? Do you think it's important to be familiar with the music the students enjoy outside of school? Leave a comment!


  1. I do the same thing! It's so important to find ways to connect with students like this.

    1. That's awesome! Connecting with students makes such a huge difference for us as teachers and for the students! Thanks for stopping by :)

  2. This is great, Elizabeth. I agree that you communicate through their world. My students keep me on my toes with current music/dances. Oftentimes I'll break out in "their" dance or song in the middle of class. They'll respond with laughter and surprise that I am familiar with what they know. The secret really lies within my own household. My pre-teen and teens make sure that I'm exposed to music that's important to their ages. I guess it keeps me young and hip :)

    1. Teenagers definitely help! I remember as the oldest child the day when my parents let me start watching a sort of MTV-type show with the popular music from the time when I was in middle school in Japan. The whole family would watch it with me and I would explain the different artists and songs to them. It was actually really fun to feel like "the cool one"! You are probably much more hip than I am- the only input I get from my children right now is The Wheels on the Bus and Raffi songs ;)


  3. This is really a wonderful post.