Together in song

Music is more than notes and lyrics. For many students, it’s a way to learn about culture and community

By Katie Ingram
Photos by Randal Tomada

For some music teachers in the Halifax Regional School Board, innovating their teaching techniques involves looking at and incorporating elements from different parts of the world.

“We’re trying to reach different senses and learning styles with music because everyone experiences music differently,” says Karen Newhook-MacDonald, music teacher at Harry R. Hamilton Elementary School in Middle Sackville.

Newhook-MacDonald tends to use the Kodály method, named for Hungarian composer, Zoltán Kodály, which incorporates a lot of folk songs, singing, and other traditions from other cultures.

“We never just sing a song for the sake of singing a song,” she says. “I expose them to a lot of different people from around the world, the way they live, where their countries are located, and how they express themselves through music.”

Newhook-MacDonald also brings in games and other activities for a more well-rounded experience, when her students are learning about other groups of people.

“Instead of saying ‘Here’s a quarter note, let’s clap it,’ we’re singing it, we’re moving to it, we’re reading it, we’re writing it,” she says. “We’re playing a game with it and we’re listening to music that incorporates concepts of the curriculum.”

Kelly Slade, of Southdale North Woodside School and Mount Edward Elementary in Dartmouth also uses pieces of other cultures when teaching students. Instead of using folk songs, Slade brings drums into her classroom. 

“Drums are one of those things that are core to any culture,” she says. “We can take a drum and drum in [for example] the style of the Mi’kmaq or Acadians or in an African style.”

Students like Jackson Thomas at Southdale North Woodside learn about culture and music in Ms. Slade’s class.

Not all cultural representations are from neighbouring countries or communities; other teachers use a style of music that’s a bit closer to home. A few years ago, Carol Coutts of Basinview Drive Community School in Bedford started bringing Atlantic Canadian musicians, like David Myles, Amelia Curren, and Keith Mullins, into her classroom.

“The best thing about it is that it makes our students feel connected to the music they are learning about,” says Coutts. “It makes them understand music is not just something they hear on the radio or in a video. It’s something they can become involved in and they understand the meaning behind it.”

This connection extended even further when the school needed to raise money for new playground equipment. Some of the musicians and Coutts’ students collaborated on a CD, Basinview Rocks, as a fundraising project. The album was nominated for an ECMA and the students preformed it at the awards show. Last year, Coutts’ students and the local musicians came together again when Basinview held a concert in support of the IWK.

“It’s just mind blowing the far-reaching effects of this kind of education, not just to me or my students, but to the artists as well,” she says. “Local music and Canadian music is our folklore and by exposing our students to it, we’re forwarding that folklore into the next generation.”

For these teachers, their lessons are about far more than just exposing kids to different cultures and musical styles.

“It’s a very vocal-based program in elementary school,” says Newhook-MacDonald. “But we’re also trying to work on their imagination, creativity, confidence, language development, motor skills, reasoning, and problem-solving areas through music.”

Music teacher Ms. Slade and her student, Rachel Kibble find their rhythm on the drums.

One way that Slade finds some teachers are doing this is through technology and the iPad app Garage Band. Students don’t have to start from the beginning by learning music theory and how to read notes when using the app. Instead they simply have to click a few buttons to create a song. 

“It’s something that allows them to be creative and build music that sounds pleasing to the ear without having to know all of the technical stuff that tends to bog children down,” Slade says. “Education is a place where children can learn and build things and worry about the technicality later; they can name what they’ve done, once they’ve created it.”

In turn, Coutts finds that some of her students like coming to her class because it’s more of a relaxed learning environment.

“For some of them it’s that half hour in the day when they can put their mind to rest and think about something completely different than what they are learning in the other classrooms,” she says. “They can reset and regroup and get ready for more learning.”

After all, music is more than just a skill. It’s about making everyone feel welcome and included. Without music many students would lose that community aspect the class provides.

“I’ve been in the position where jobs have been cut and music programs have been lost,” says Slade. “When you lose a music program in a school, you lose part of the community and you lose the heart of what it is to be a student; these are the things that bring us together.”