Today was my first day as a Teaching Artist at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School at 59th and Baltimore, just a few trolley stops away from my own neighborhood. Devised by the Collaborative Learning Department of The Philadelphia Orchestra as part of their new HEAR portfolio, this program aims to provide 5th grade and Kindergarten students with weekly violin lessons. I was hired earlier this month after an interview and a teaching audition, but I’m still learning about the goals of the program.
My first day was spent mostly observing the lead teacher, Peter Oswald, work his way through new skills and week-old procedures with the 5th graders who came to the music room at “Baby West,” as the elementary school is called by other faculty in the building. Earlier in the week, students had experienced their first lesson with their classroom set of violins: learning to open the cases, attach the sponge, sit in rest position, and identify different parts of the instrument. Much to my relief, the bows had all been removed from the cases, so the focus was solely on pizzicato. Students came in to the class and went to their assigned seats where they found clipboards with their “Do-Now” assignment, a questionnaire about the School Concert they had attended at the Kimmel Center on Tuesday. Feedback from the School Concert included enjoyment of singing and dancing along, watching the host dance onstage, and listening to the toreador sing.
Moving on to the more musical portion of the lesson, Peter prompted students to recite rhymes and other classroom unity chants. For the strings of the violin, they chanted Every Ant Digs in the Ground. For cello, Ants Dig in the Ground for China. A student leader was selected to read the “Daily 5,” after which the class repeated each phrase: We take pride in how we play. / We are responsible for our instruments. / We are going to make mistakes. / We can accomplish anything we set our minds to. / Check yourself. Using pages from New Directions for Strings, Peter walked the 5th graders through open string pizzicato on quarter note rhythms. Students played together as a group, but also individually, and during that individual time I walked around to adjust position/posture and answer questions.
Their chairs were aligned in pairs and in two rows facing a keyboard and a cinderblock wall where Peter could project images from his computer. During a brief break, he played a YouTube video from Black Violin for the class and asked them to look at how the two musicians were holding the violin. Intonation aside, I thought this was a really appropriate video to get the kids excited for playing violin but without praising the poor positions of other YouTube violin sensations. Peter used this to transition to playing fingers on the violin. It was at this point that I jumped in to talk about straight (left) wrists, curved fingers, and the goal of holding the violin with the chin/jaw rather than the left hand. Students added 1st and 2nd fingers on the D String and attempted to pluck in both 4/4 and 3/4 time.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect on this first day, and I didn’t realize that it would not be the first day that these students had their instruments. Because I think that the very first actions with an instrument can dictate how successful a student will be in the future, I was a little disappointed to see that the kids had already begun to develop some bad habits such as plucking without their right thumb anchored to the fingerboard and playing while seated in general. I had to remind myself often that my role is supportive and may become equal to that of the other teacher, but I wouldn’t be a lead teacher. I think that the sound-before-sight approach is one of the most important parts of the Suzuki method, and so teaching fingerings on out of tune violins doesn’t make sense to me. However, once a pattern has been established, it’s hard to change it.
What impressed me was the wide vocabulary of hand gestures and lingo being used by both the teacher and students. There were hand gestures for praise, for understanding (or no questions), for bathroom excuses, and for showing leadership. Students would stomp together or “give shine” when someone did something well, and they would receive additions or deductions from their “paycheck” based on their behavior in class.
In the future, afternoons will be spent teaching Kindergarten lessons in a pre-Twinkle style. I brought my box violins and dowel bows in anticipation for these lessons, but only got to use them on one trial group towards the end of the day. The rest of the afternoon was spent planning for future weeks and deciding how best to select Kindergarten students for participation in the violin program. Ideally, there will be about 30-40 5th graders and 20-30 Kindergarten students learning violin at KIPP West each week.