Making the most of music class guests

March 10, 2016
Students at RLS
Students at R.L. Stevenson Elementary in Fridley, Minn. take in a visit from Class Notes Artists, Lux String Quartet (Nate Ryan | MPR)

These late winter weeks can get long in an elementary school, as routines start to feel more tedious and spring break feels far away. It’s the perfect time to add some excitement to music class by inviting a special musical guest to meet students! My elementary classes will be visited by a freelance composer next week, just as the students are finishing their composition projects. It doesn’t have to take much extra time or effort to find an expert in the field to invite, prepare students to get the most out of the experience, and reflect and connect to learning afterward.

How to Find a Guest

The first step is, of course, to find someone willing to visit your school. There are musicians and ensembles who book professional workshops at schools, but it’s also possible to find experts in the field who are willing to come for a more informal visit.

If you’re looking to book a musician or ensemble, there are many different avenues to funding. If the school itself is not able to pay for a visit, look for grants or work with a local public library to find funds. A few years ago, our public library brought the Grammy-winning children’s folk group, the Okee Dokee Brothers, to our school through the Minnesota Legacy Funds. And some professional presenters don’t charge schools at all, such as Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s Class Notes Artists.

Finding someone in the area to come for a more informal visit can be just as good, or even better, than booking a professional show. The intimacy of a musician coming to talk to or play for students in an small, casual setting can create more personalized connection and communication. There are a variety of ways to find someone to visit:

• Keep in touch with old music friends. Many of the people I’ve had visit my classes are musician friends from high school or college, or former music teachers. I met the composer who will be coming to my classes next week in college.

• Be active in the local music scene. There are many reasons that music teachers should be active in a local music scene, and one is for the networking opportunities that could benefit teaching. Even in the rural areas where I’ve taught, there are regional orchestras and bands where I’ve connected with many skilled and knowledgeable musicians.

• Invite individual members of a visiting group to your classroom. The Minnesota Orchestra once visited our community to play a concert. One of the orchestra members came to my elementary music classes to do an impromptu and inspiring presentation. And all I had to do was ask!

• Use your online social network. Even if you don’t personally know experts in the field that your students are learning about, it’s possible that one of your Facebook friends or Twitter followers might.

In-Person or Virtual Visits

The most engaging way to connect is through live, face-to-face interaction. However, this might not always be possible, especially when teaching in a rural area. By using technology, “virtual visits” can broaden the musical worlds of students, wherever they are.

• Video Chat: The next best thing to having a guest visit your classroom in person might be a video chat. Easy, free applications like Skype or Google Hangout can allow your students to interact with an expert in real time.

• Recorded Video: When you want students in several classes to meet an expert, recording a video that can be played over and over can work well for teaching and demands less of the guest’s time. Recorded videos to be especially useful when communicating with musicians in different parts of the world where the time difference can be an issue. I also prefer recorded videos when they contain specific instructional content that we might want to repeat, such as pronunciation of non-English lyrics.

• Email: Although kids always enjoy the novelty of hearing someone other than their regular teacher talk, email can also be a way for students and experts to connect through personalized communication. It could be as simple as emailing student questions to an expert and reading the reply to the class. This uses minimal class time while still building a connection with an expert.

Preparing for a Visit

• Connect to what students are learning. My students have been working on composition projects over the last couple of weeks, so the timing of our guest is intentional. Meeting a composer after they have had some experience doing what he does professionally provides a musical connection before they even meet him.

• Introduce the guest before he or she arrives. To make the most of a visitor, students should be prepared. This week, my students have been learning about our composer guest and discovering what they have in common with him. They were excited to hear that he had attended a college in the area, a place that many of them had visited. One student’s grandma lives in his hometown. Another told me that his mom has one of the games that he has composed music for on her iPhone. Hooking students with a personal connection will make them more engaged when the visitor is in the room.

• Generate questions. Emphasize the purpose of the visit to avoid personal questions lacking in education substance, like “What’s your favorite football team?” or “Do you like chicken?” (actual student questions). With a little guidance, even primary students can come up with very thoughtful questions related to the purpose of the visit.

• Publicize your guest. Consider informing teachers and staff at your school, and even your community, of your visitor. I’ve known teachers to give up their prep time to sit in on music class when we’ve had a guest they were interested in meeting. And next week’s composer visit will likely be covered by our local newspaper.

After the Visit

• Connect to what students are learning (again!). After we’ve talked with our composer guest, I plan to spend some time talking with students about what they learned and how they can apply that learning as they finish their own composition projects. Make sure they understand how their own music-making connects to that of the person they just met.

• Thank the guest. Never pass up an opportunity to teach social skills to young students! After a visit, make sure that students understand how special it is that they were able to meet an expert. I like to have my students write thank you cards for their visitors, not only to be polite, but also as a way for them to reflect on what they learned and connected to.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.