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Music in the Classroom
How the pandemic forced one positive change in my teaching practice.
For me, the central idea was about music as a place you go to.
Music is extremely important to me. Listening to music, creating music, performing music, and thinking about music, have been some of the few constants in my life. And yet, during a sixteen-year career as an English teacher, I used music in the classroom fairly sparingly. I assumed it would be interfere with learning, especially for students with attention problems. When students asked if they could listen to their own music, I assumed (perhaps wrongly) that they would be overly distracted by their phones and other electronic devices and (probably correctly) that they would miss important instructions if they had headphones on or earbuds in.
It’s possible that, knowing the power music had over me, I had an almost superstitious fear of unleashing that into an environment where, for most of my career, I believed on some level I was supposed to always be in control.
That need for control was always a source of internal conflict: at the beginning of my second year as a teacher, a well-meaning experienced teacher told me I had to control my class, pushing back when I said that people can’t really be totally controlled. That attitude, he kept saying, would make it impossible to “manage” my classroom.
It would take years for me to start to believe that not only is it impossible to fully “manage” children, but that no adult has total control over themselves, either, and that this obviously includes teachers. As with so much in life (maybe everything in life), the real game is often about learning how to accept and adapt to circumstances and people, to let yourself be changed in healthy ways rather than trying to beat back the tide or bend others to your own will. For me, the less I tried to control students and the more I tried to find ways to access parts of my own personality that helped to create a relatively calm and consistent environment, the easier it seemed to be for students to find their own balance, to regulate their own actions and emotions. And the more I accepted how little influence I had over these things, the more the influence I did have could be channeled in more useful directions.
And whether I was ready for it or not, the classroom as we knew it suddenly didn’t exist anymore at the end of the 2019-20 school year, and one of the good things about that— in the midst of so many terrible and frightening things— was that it made me rethink the relationship between music and my classroom.
During South Carolina’s few months of online teaching at the end of the 2019-20 and the beginning of the 2020-21 school years (with some districts returning more or less totally to in-person instruction as early as the first day of school, just months into the pandemic), there wasn’t a lot of student-teacher interaction going on in my high school classes. We sat in Google Meets (which at the time were like Zoom meetings, but with almost none of the functionality). We tried various workarounds for the lack of breakout rooms available through Meet at the time. (How do you avoid lecture-heavy classes, which aren’t considered best educational practice, in a format that focuses attention on only one person at a time?) We tried to have discussions, but most of my students, to me, seemed to be ceiling fans and Rhianna or Chucky avatars.
So teachers adjusted. It was hard, and we didn’t get paid any more for doing it (in South Carolina we were actually rewarded with a pay freeze), but we adjusted. We built bitmoji classrooms. We replaced books and other tangibles with online resources. (My wife spent her weeks as an art teacher figuring out how to help some students make their own art supplies out of items they might find in the yard or in the kitchen, for example.)
And, at least in my classes, we listened to a lot of music.
At first, I used music as a sort of warmup during the awkward beginning of class, when students who were suddenly navigating a version of school life without bells (and frequently without reliable Wi-Fi) trickled unevenly into the virtual classroom. I started to add music to set the mood during in-class reading and writing assignments (the only kind most students would reliably complete). And then I started to add music during our work time.
It made our time more enjoyable— at least, as far as I could tell. I still didn’t hear a lot from students. I still saw a lot of ceiling fans. But at least we weren’t silently staring at a writing prompt or a reading assignment for large chunks of our class. And hopefully it helped some students to feel that we were still involved in a common, ambient experience, even if we were physically separate.
When we returned to in-person learning, I tried to keep many of the new routines from our virtual classes, particularly since most of my students and their families elected to stay remote for most of the 2020-21 school year, even when we reopened full time. (And, again, teachers adjusted. We taught two sets of students simultaneously: one group at home, or wherever their computers were, and one in the physical classroom. In my case, I taught for about a month in a building that was under construction, moving to different rooms every few days, working— literally— on the other side of a wall from a jackhammer which was demolishing a neighboring classroom to build a shared worked space which in the end no one ever really used very much.)
And so the music stayed.
As we were discussing upcoming standardized state exams in an English class, one of my students shared how much easier she would find the test if she could listen to music during the administration. It occurred to me, not for the first time, how artificial we have made schooling in the name of standardization, quantification, quantization, and other Taylorist factory concepts.
What has that gained us? Low test scores and disengaged kids.
My student might have been onto something. Neuroscientist Dr. Srini Pillay suggests that listening to familiar music can lower the stress hormone cortisol, making it easier to focus. And while some studies have zeroed in on the value of classical music for learning and focus, Pillay suggests that for background music, mood is more important than genre. Similarly, results of a 2020 study suggested that while self-selected background music increased focus during relatively simple tasks, the tempo and genre of the music weren’t correlated with the amount of focus (although previous studies had suggested otherwise).
Maybe this is also why I seemed to find most success when I had students fill out periodic surveys to select which music we would use during class, with the only requirements being that the music had to be available on YouTube (because every other streaming music service was blocked by the district), and had to contain no words (in order to avoid potentially offensive or distracting lyrics). By communally selecting our music, we were able to generally create lists of fairly familiar, appropriate music that was geared enough to individual tastes it at least didn’t become distracting.
One of my favorite experiences during my last semester as a teacher was making a shared YouTube playlist with my English students as we read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s long-banned Russian sci-fi classic WE. Students added songs they liked, songs they thought represented a character or a theme from the text, and music with science fiction or dystopian themes. One student added the North Korean national anthem. Another added a classical tribute to Russian national music. Others added currently popular instrumental versions of futuristic R&B tracks. I added a few songs with direct connections to the text, like a piece from the composer Alexander Scriabin, who is mentioned by name in one chapter. We ended up listening to the playlist a lot over the last month or so of school, and I think it worked because all of the music became familiar, much of it had been chosen by students, and we updated it occasionally with music we encountered during our study of the novel— like the soundtrack to the German dystopian silent film classic Metropolis— to keep it from getting too stale.
Of course, there may be another reason for my reluctance to use music in this way: for most of my life, I think I’ve resisted the notion of using music at all. Music is sacred enough that it feels like it should exist for itself. Much of the music we used in class could be called ambient, either coming directly from or able to fit well beside music from the extremely influential “lofi hip hop beats to relax/study to” playlist, and some of what students or the algorithms suggested for our playlists was marketed specifically as work music or productivity music.
Reading a review for the musician Huerco S., recently, I came upon this quote he gave Bandcamp (via Pitchfork):
There was an article in the Guardian talking about the ambient resurgence and it was like ‘Huerco S, ambient for the flat white generation’… It really made me step back and… I don’t know, ambient music has just become like ‘beats to chill and study to.’ It’s like productivity music, capitalist music. It’s non-intrusive, it doesn’t get in your way, like you can still work your job. It kinda makes me cringe a bit. And maybe I feel responsible for that…”
At the same time, music can be non-intrusive. It can make boring tasks less boring (and, although I tried not to assign boring tasks in my classroom, each student’s mileage obviously varied). And it can make work more meaningful than pure drudgery, in the Sisyphean sense.
It’s interesting what part of ambient they took as being the center of it. For me, the central idea was about music as a place you go to. Not a narrative, not a sequence that has some sort of teleological direction to it—verse, chorus, this, that, and the other. It’s really based on abstract expressionism: Instead of the picture being a structured perspective, where your eye is expected to go in certain directions, it’s a field, and you wander sonically over the field. And it’s a field that is deliberately devoid of personalities, because if there’s a personality there, that’s who you’ll follow. So there’s not somebody in that field leading you around; you find your own way.
In that way, especially when we were trying to create a non-physical space to meet for our classes, one that was not based on stretches of silence, or on the drone of an overlong lecture, hopefully we were trying to use music in this way, to see music as a place you go to.
So in that spirit, below are some playlists I’ve been using lately to help me work, help me relax, and help me sleep. These playlists are almost completely instrumental (almost no words, and generally arranged by tempo, mood, and energy level). I’d also love to hear anything and everything about how readers use music in their classrooms and/ or in their work.
Playlists for Work (during the day)
Playlists to Relax (at night)
Here’s my version of a teacher supply list:
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