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Music Educator Describes Teaching Underprivileged Kids

<ofessor Brenda Brenner is a music educator at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. She works with underprivileged youth in an outreach program she founded and now supervises at Fairview Elementary in Bloomington, where underachieving elementary students take violin lessons three times a week throughout the school year.

A former faculty member at Carleton, Brenner directed her talk, “Finding Our Shared Humanity: Cross-Cultural Connections in Music” to students and former colleagues about the power of artistic expression.

She highlighted the student demographics of her urban neighborhood school program, where many of the clientele are non-Caucasian, come from abusive households, and live in government housing or in protective shelter. Many students had hearing impairments. She contrasted this reality with the Indiana University graduate student violinists who help her, who attend a world-renowned music school and have never experienced poverty before. Brenner emphasized how these differences play a vital role in developing effective classroom learning environments.

Her presentation examined the concept of ‘culturally-relevant teachers’ that had two relevant models: conductor and coach. Brenner explained how these two models accentuated both highly valuable musical as well as leadership qualities. Under these models, teachers “see themselves as artists” and greatly value performance and pedagogical knowledge.

Brenner emphasized how her outreach program strongly encouraged two-way teaching, where instructors gave students opportunities to teach and contribute. She cited examples of teachers playing incorrect passages in class to invite critique, as well as encouraging the more rambunctious children to lead exercises and set an example for their peers. “Students learned to channel their negative energy into leading activities, instead of derailing the lesson,” Brenner remarked.

This encouragement of increased student participation “prepares students for learning global and cultural identities.” Brenner illustrated how practicing violin could introduce other knowledge to the kids, such as encouraging students to develop mnemonics for the letter-tunings of each instrument string – “Sometimes I have them come up with country names, like ‘Greece’ for the G-string and so-on.”

She also highlighted the creative endeavors of her graduate students, who helped a great deal in preparing lesson plans. Brenner evoked the challenge of teaching students good posture when playing the violin, asking kids to “use invisible bow glue” in order to memorize the position.

She mentioned the “Golden Bow,” a spray-painted violin bow that any student who mastered good posture could take a photograph with. “Soon after that, everyone worked hard, because they all wanted to have their picture taken with it.”

Brenner did describe the substantial resistance she went through from parents, many of whom were doubtful or suspicious about the arts program and its effect on their children. “It was four years until I received my first email from a parent,” she remarked. “Before then they never contacted me on their own, as if afraid I was doing something bad with their kids.”

In the convocation luncheon after her presentation, Brenner also described parental reluctance with the violin as the instrument of choice, noting how parents – many of whom were not that much older than an undergraduate – viewed the violin “as an instrument that only girls played,” which understandably perplexed many of her male graduate student assistants.

Brenner concluded by elaborating on the “extra musical impact” that training in the arts would yield, especially for “younger and more impressionable children.” She emphasized that her program allowed kids to see their own capacity to do more – that is, “reach other communities via shared musical experience.” Brenner finished by encouraging the Carleton community to “take its special gifts” and share them with others through shared artistic experience.

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