Hitting the right note: Music focus may inspire tomorrow's musicians (and teach them math as well)

January 12, 2013 6:05:15 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Steady rain on a gray Wednesday didn't dampen spirits inside a music room at Joe Cook Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School in Columbus. Fifth-graders concentrated, drawing bows across strings as they performed a scale on violins for their music teacher, Tina Morgan. As the last notes faded, the children's faces were wreathed in smiles. 


Classroom violin instruction may be an unusual sight in Mississippi's public schools, but it is all part of Joe Cook's fine arts focus designed to boost academic achievement and enrich the lives of students by building their skills and knowledge in all arts disciplines. 


"There is a significant amount of research that shows an integration of music, movement, visual and performing arts (in teaching) increases students' academic success," said Joe Cook Principal Dr. Tim Wilcox. 


That overall concept is at the heart of the K-5 school's designation as a fine arts magnet school. The key word is integration. Music and other art disciplines are not simply taught by specialists in designated classes. They are intertwined in teaching core subjects as well. 


The Initiative 


Joe Cook is a participating school in the Mississippi Arts Commission's Whole Schools Initiative (WSI). The WSI is Mississippi's first comprehensive statewide arts education program that applies the learning power of the arts across the entire school curriculum -- infusing them into the teaching of subjects such as math and English. The Initiative also calls for the sequential, comprehensive instruction of the arts throughout the academic year. 


The WSI was first piloted in six Mississippi elementary schools. Evaluation results showed increased standardized test scores, increased community involvement and support, increased parental involvement (which tripled at one school), decreased absenteeism and improved teacher morale.  


It offers annual professional development for teachers to help them meet the Mississippi Department of Education benchmarks for visual and performing arts. It also provides comprehensive project evaluation through a national assessment team.  


"It's embraced here, we welcome it," said Joe Cook classroom teacher Terry Richardson. She's taught subjects from math and science to language and social studies. "It does take planning and it takes everyone working together, but we see the successes. Last year, my MCT2 (end-of-year test) scores improved and I have to thank the fine arts teachers. The lessons they helped me with I know helped some of the children understand some concepts." 




Teaming up 


On specified days at Joe Cook, fine arts teachers come into the classroom and team-teach with the core subject instructor.  


In Richardson's experience, music, for example, has helped fourth-graders learn prepositions and verbs through songs. Students have made up their own blues songs with certain language elements. 


"We rap multiplication; it's one of the easiest ways to teach it. The children really catch on," she said. "I just think the arts come naturally to them and they love it -- and you can even see at this young age the children who are going toward music, or drama or art." 




Beethoven and bean bags 


Tina Morgan oversees the music curriculum at Joe Cook. This is her fourth year there, and her 24th year in the school district.  


While most Columbus public school elementary students enjoy a weekly music class, the arts focus at Joe Cook expands the exposure to music through the violin program, a planned keyboard program and work with other instruments, such as xylophones.  


"Raise your hand when you think you recognize this famous song," she instructed students in a music class Wednesday. Her goal was to introduce them to composer Leroy Anderson (1908-1975). As his "Sleigh Ride" played, one hand after another went up.  


Morgan went on to explain the components of the song, the introduction, the coda. The children played a bean bag game, showing they understood the varying rhythms of the familiar tune. Throughout the year, they've explored other composers, practiced reading music notes and learned to listen to music to determine its mood.  


"We've had some who, just from the little taste of violin they get here, have enrolled in the Suzuki strings program," said Morgan, who is a member of the Columbus Choral Society and plays organ at Mt. Zion Cumberland Presbyterian Church. 


Their understanding of the world of music is increasing, whether they're aware of it or not. When asked to name something they've learned that made an impression, one young man answered that Beethoven is his favorite composer because he was deaf and couldn't hear the music he was writing. 


Others said they listen to music differently on the radio when riding home from school. They enjoy telling their parents about song elements they recognize. Others want to try to write their own song. 


Fifth-grader Lily Dunn smiled, "I have a special notebook I keep that nobody sees, just about music." 




Outside perspective 


The WSI encourages schools to bring in visiting artists. Columbus native Big Joe Shelton, listed on the Mississippi Arts Commission's Artist Roster, has taken his blues message to several schools. The singer, songwriter and harmonica player gives kids a glimpse into how the blues were born and influenced other genres. 


"I try to tell them it's OK to be creative and express yourself, whether it's in music or any other kind of arts," said Shelton, who vividly recalls how his own life changed in college through an art history course and a teacher who became a mentor.  


"I went in a football player and left with the heart and soul of an artist," the musician shared.  


He also relates music to other subjects. 


"There's math in music theory. Writing a song is like English literature. Making a record is like painting a picture," he said, encouraging children to be well-rounded, to realize they can blend the nuts and bolts with creativity.  


"I just hope to tap into that creative spirit that's in all of us. They're ready to be tapped, and you never know when you might reach out and get to one or two in a way that may change a life." 






The fine arts focus may provide a connection to learning for some students who don't respond to traditional academic tracks, noted Principal Wilcox.  


Learning a multiplication table through song, painting a picture to illustrate a division problem, or performing movement to demonstrate a science concept just may fire the spark when nothing else will. 


For Wilcox, who was once an elementary music teacher himself, the potential is very real. 


"I cannot tell you how many times I've had previous students come to me and say they may not remember anything else, but they remember these music experiences." 


Morgan feels it opens minds as well. 


"Not all music is the same. Not all art is the same. Not everybody is the same," she said. "I think it makes them learn to appreciate the differences in people, in anything. Because of their exposure to so many types of music and all types of art, maybe it makes them appreciate the differences in people a little more."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.