Music Teacher Feature: Brett Smith

Teacher Feature: Brett Smith
brett smith teacher photo
Brett Smith is an elementary music teacher at O.H. Anderson Elementary School in Mahtomedi, Minn.
MPR photo/Luke Taylor

Classical MPR's Teacher Feature highlights the lives and work of music teachers throughout Minnesota.

Brett Smith
Elementary Music Teacher
O. H. Anderson Elementary School
Mahtomedi, Minn.

Brett Smith is also an education specialist for Classical MPR, advising on the school curriculum requirements for the educational materials produced by MPR for free distribution to schools throughout Minnesota and beyond.

Who or what inspired you to become a music teacher?

My inspiration for teaching music came from many people — my middle-school band director Kay Hawley, high school choir director Pat Peterson, Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS) director Bill Jones, college professor Rich Orpen, and my mom.

Strong memories include being in a high school schedule that made it possible for the average student with musical interest to join band, choir, jazz band, madrigal singers and the musical. Being in a school like Golden Valley High School, where I was not forced to specialize in the arts at an early age, gave me a much more well-rounded education full of opportunity, and I believe a more well-rounded perspective now as a music teacher. Because of that opportunity, I am comfortable teaching vocal and instrumental music.

My parents provided a home life that was full of artistic opportunity and experience. I have vivid, idyllic memories of our family around the piano singing carols with Mom playing the piano. I also have strong memories of Mom singing to us on long train trips back and forth to visit grandparents in Indiana.

Where did you go to college?

I received my B.A. from Gustavus Adolphus College and master's degree from the University of Minnesota.

What grade levels do you teach?

I teach music to grades 3 to 5. I see close to 700 students divided into 24 classes for 50 minutes each week.

Do you direct any ensembles?

There are two choirs, one for 4th grade and one for 5th grade, that meet during the lunch recess time, once a week, for 45 minutes. I also have a world music ensemble once a week before school; the kids play a variety of musical instruments in this ensemble, including drums, xylophones and tone bells.

In what ways do you try to encourage your students to appreciate and participate in music?

I believe that all kids can sing and experience the joy of making music. All kids work through the music standards of creating and performing music in 3rd grade on the Orff instruments, in 4th grade on the recorder, and in 5th grade on the guitar. In each of these instrumental settings, students work on their music reading skills, improvisation, and compositional skills.

Elementary music is about providing first experiences making music; hearing the music through history and hearing music of the world for the first time. It feels like each day has the potential of lighting little fires of interest for kids.

Elementary kids are free of inhibition. In general, they are so welcoming and open to exploring music through their voices, through dance or by playing instruments.

Where do you see music education fitting into the broader educational spectrum? How does it help or enhance other curricular areas?

Though it does not show up on our statewide standardized test, music — and more broadly, the arts — is the area of the school curriculum that works to give kids the skills to be creative and to express their feelings in a healthy way. Whether it is the drum, drama or dance, this creative education gives kids tools to express themselves for the rest of their lives. Beyond the arts, developing creative skills translates beautifully in the greater working world of research and development, engineering and workgroup dynamics.

The ties to other curricular areas are significant. Developing singing skills in the early grades improves students' reading. "M & M" — music and math — go hand and hand, and support each other in comprehension. As a student learns about fractions, the study of time signatures and notes in a measure helps the student understand these concepts in each subject.

The principles of sound include many of the same concepts that are part of the 3rd-grade science standards. Many of the new social-studies standards can be satisfied in the music classroom as we learn about the histories and the lives surrounding composers and music of the world.

What's one of the most memorable moments you've had while teaching music?

For many students, the arts is the one area of the school day where they feel successful, feel at home, or feel their voices can be heard. I, like many music teachers, hear from parents regularly who say the music program is the safety net that gets their child through the school day, the class that lets their child's gifts and talents shine.

Many students with special needs have done well in our choir. I remember in particular a Down Syndrome student who had a difficult time with verbal language and putting sentences together, but was able to sing the words with our choir songs. His singing improved his speaking skills and brought his parents to tears for what he had accomplished.

Another special-needs student struggled in every academic setting and had low self-esteem for the differences he saw in his skill level compared to those of his peers. He was chosen to sing a solo in the grade-level program — in which he was a rock star in the eyes of his peers, the audience and his parents. His singing taught him great lessons about working with others in an ensemble, and gave him a great source of pride for the voice he discovered in the music room.

What would you say is your primary instrument? Do you participate in music outside of teaching?

I was a middle school and high school band director for 15 years and was able to play many of the woodwind and brass instruments on a daily basis in lessons. At school, I spend most of my time teaching with the guitar. My primary instrument in college was percussion, and I currently perform on the drum-set with the Century College Jazz Band and the CC Septet. I also sing professionally with an a cappella quartet that got its start on the Minnesota Zephyr train, and now does Christmas caroling in Stillwater in December and sings at other functions throughout the year. I also play drums and sing with a show group called A Touch of Class.

If you were to help program a day of music at Classical MPR, what would be a piece of music you'd play in the morning? What piece of music would you play in the evening? What is it about these pieces that make them a couple of your favorites?l

For morning, Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2. It's a favorite because I played it with GTCYS at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

In the evening, Claude Debussy's Suite Bergamasque. It's calming and a piece that my mother often played at the piano.

Nominate a music teacher for Classical MPR's Music Teacher Feature

As part of Classical MPR's educational programming, we are highlighting the lives and work of music teachers throughout Minnesota.

Is there a music teacher in your community that the Classical MPR audience should know about? Submit this form to tell Classical MPR about him or her:

You must be age 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media Group. Any personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared. See American Public Media Group Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

Love the music?

Donate by phone

Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.

Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.

YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.

More Ways to Give

Your Donation